By: David Kayler
Whenever I think of Gary, there are several things that always come to mind: his mischievous grin, his easy laugh, his smiling eyes, and his amazingly thick, beautifully bristling mustache. I doubt I’ll ever forget that mustache and I know I’ll spend years missing that smile, but even more, I know that what I will always remember about Gary is his relentless optimism, his commitment to hope, and his firmly-anchored belief in the possibility of real, meaningful, lasting life-change.
Everyone who knew Gary over these last three years knew that he was a changed man. After 40 years of drinking – 40 years of living in a haze of what he liked to call “fermented thought” – he found himself “homeless but not hopeless” in Chapel Hill (again, his words). After arriving here, Gary made a serious commitment to sobriety and he stuck with it. He got involved with HOPE, CEF, and AA programs right after moving into the IFC shelter. At our weekly Talking Sidewalks meetings it was so encouraging to hear his updates and see him show off each of his new AA chips with pride: 30 days, 90 days, 1 year, 2 years… There was nothing he was more proud of than those mile-markers, nothing he was more serious about than the daily task of moving forward and never turning back.
But what was most remarkable about Gary was not just the fact that he overcame his addiction, but the way that, in the wake of that victory, his newfound hope and faith and joy spilled over to others. For me and many more, those Wednesday night meetings at the shelter were a weekly high point, a much-needed refresher, a refill on hope – and so much of that came from Gary. The story was the same for those who were involved with the Saturday morning Opportunity Classes, and for those who interacted with Gary around the office. The happiness and positivity he found with this new lease on life was infectious – it was something you don’t encounter that often, something simply inspiring to be around.
At his memorial service, we heard story after story of how even in his last few weeks – lying there in pain, consumed by cancer – Gary continued to be a source of light and hope and inspiration in the shelter. Friends, shelter staff, and fellow residents would come to see him, to offer some sort of comfort or encouragement, but always, we were the ones who walked away feeling encouraged. That was just the kind of guy Gary was. Facing a terminal diagnosis, he continued to pour out gratitude, to shine with hope, to offer love.
Gary was a writer and a poet. For him, part of continuing to pursue a changed life was sharing his story with others, sowing “Sober Seeds” in hopes that his own belief in the power to change might take root in someone else. Nowhere, I think, do we get such a powerful sense of Gary’s hopefulness, humility, voice, and humor than in this piece, the first one he shared with us, a piece we like to call “Dear Beer.”
Saying Goodbye to my Best Friend
By Mark Davidson (Gary’s Pen Name)
Around the surprisingly young age of fourteen, we were introduced and became inseparable for nearly forty years. Throughout puberty we trusted in each other, all the good and the bad times yet to come. When serious relationships came into the picture, you were right there for me. I trusted you’d get me through anything. When I got married and had children, I held on to our friendship, in spite of the distance you brought between me and my family. I promised my wife that things would change, but you were becoming the only family I had left. How in the hell could I desert you now? I needed you, so I held on to our relationship even more. Why, you were there for me when my father passed, throughout my divorce, and all the bad times I needed your support or comfort, you were there.
People thought I was insane, and I was, with this obsession that you became upon me. At times, I thought I could moderate the times we spent together, only to find your existence became more apparent. You put me through legal difficulties and I became imprisoned for the times and crimes you bestowed upon me. You’ve cost me my very existence of rational thought and the comprehension of dealing with life on life’s terms. I can’t go anywhere; there you are, squeezing my life out and fermenting my every thought. You used me up and spit me out like there’s no tomorrow.
But I got news for you, we’re through. I’ve got a new friend now, one that’s true. One that I thank each morning when I wake, and one that I praise for blessing me with the courage to rid myself from your sorry ass. So in closing, if our paths never cross, it’ll be too soon and Lord help you if you even try to pull me back into your grasp. With my new found friend, and the meetings I attend, you’ll surely not hold onto me in your clutches ever again. One day at a time, and the Lord’s help, I’m free and sober to live once again.
PS. Oh yeah, tell brother Whiskey the same!
Good-Bye, Need Not Reply.
Gary Harwell 1957-2013