The day is etched forever in Phillip’s mind. The wound will never go away.
Phillip grew up in the projects near downtown Los Angeles. One day when Phillip returned home in the afternoon, the house was empty.
“Your family’s gone. They got evicted,” a neighbor said. “They’re not coming back.” He was abandoned — and he was only 8 years old.
“My mom left me,” Phillip, 53, recalls. “That hurt so much. I wanted to close my eyes and never wake up. I was so upset, but I didn’t know how to ask anyone for help. I never had a home after that.”
At first, Phillip slept in stairwells or outside a local school. His only warmth came from the sweater he wore. Sometimes authorities would take him to juvenile hall or place him in foster homes, but he never stayed long. He preferred the streets, sleeping in abandoned cars, in a laundromat, or in storage rooms . . .
But the lack of parental guidance took a toll.
“No one ever gave me direction,” he recalls. “So when the light turned red, I just kept going. When the iron was hot, I touched it. I played with fire and got burned. I didn’t know any better.” As he grew older, he took to living in alleys, on dead-end streets, under bridges, or in the doorway of the Los Angeles Times building. He remembers the security guard there who would wake him each morning with 40 cents to get a cup of coffee. “I loved that guy,” he says. “He treated me like a human being. He was my only friend.”
I love gardening. Every day after work, instead of grabbing a beer, I grab the hose and tend to all the plants in my garden, examining each one, admiring the veins and the complexity in each leaf — each one a gift from God. It’s so peaceful and serene. And it reminds me how far I’ve come in my life.
It was my grandmother who taught me how to garden when I was kid. She also raised me, taught me how to cook, and gave me my values and morals. She was the center of my world and I thought she’d live forever.
But one day in 2004, I got a call at work. When my aunt told me my grandmother had died, it’s like everything around me stopped. I didn’t know how to handle it. So I bottled up all my feelings inside — feelings of hurt, sadness, grief, and frustration. Then, as the days rolled by, all those feelings started growing into anger and rage.
I never talked to anyone about it. Instead, I turned to alcohol. I’d start drinking after work. One drink turned into two drinks, and two drinks turned into too many drinks. And the more I drank, the angrier I got. And violent. I started getting into fights and going to jail on battery charges. I also had two DUIs, in 2006 and 2010. But I couldn’t stop drinking.
One night, however, I found myself drunk, sitting at a train stop on the Green Line. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I screamed out loud that I needed help. And that’s when I went downtown and walked into Union Rescue Mission.
I immediately started anger management classes to get that under control. Then I took 8 months of classes to deal with my last DUI and get my driver’s license back. And I went back to school and studied microenterprise at Pepperdine University.
I also opened up for the first time about my grandmother. My chaplain helped me realize that she’s in a better place and that helped me let her go. I spent three years at Union Rescue Mission. In short, I grew up and today I’m moving forward with my life. I’m working for Toyota, I have a wife, and I’ve even opened my first bank account ever. I guess if I have a New Year’s wish, it’s to establish enough credit to buy a new car in 2015.
Looking back, I see now that Union Rescue Mission, like my grandmother, taught me how to garden — the garden of my own life.
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