James Might Have Killed His Dad

James was one of the first people I met when we moved from the frozen tundra of south-central Minnesota to the ruralist of rural Missouri in 2009. We signed up my older son, Joey, for Little League right away in an effort to spur the formation of friendships and to scratch his itch for the game. James was his coach and a solid introduction to our new hometown.

I don’t think James would have objected to being called a redneck. In fact, he probably wore the label as a badge of honor. James was a Missourah boy through and through. He sported a huge belly I assumed was created by beer, was missing more than a few teeth and talked with a twang that reminds you that, yes, Missouri might have stayed neutral in terms of succession in the Civil War, but we were greater friends of the South than we were, say, those who hail from Boston or Providence.

He wasn’t much of a baseball coach. Of course, our boys weren’t much of a baseball team. After all, they were, like, 7. No one is signing a Major League contract from that area unless Mike Trout decides he wants to retire and raise his boys as far away from the hustle and bustle of California as he can get. Then we maybe have a shot.

Today, I heard the news that James has been arrested in the death of his father. According to media reports, officers found the older man dead on the floor in the apartment he shared with James and then found James in his bedroom covered in blood. Police reported that James admitted to killing his dad but that he now says he doesn’t remember what happened.

What I know of James is that he was a nice guy who battled substance abuse. He would be the good-old-boy who coached Joey’s baseball team and who loved the two kids who once played at our house. And then he would just sort of disappear for awhile, only to turn up in one of the local churches clean and hanging on. His Facebook page makes numerous references to Celebrate Recovery, the church-sponsored addiction support group.

When I saw James’ mugshot today, I saw someone not James. He’s lost a ton of weight, and I imagine that’s not because of anything positive.

I’m sad. And I’m confused. I understand the weight of what James allegedly did. A man is dead, and as far as I know, he did nothing to deserve it. So why do I feel like I need to reach out to James and say that I’m thinking about him, that he’s not alone, no matter what he might have done?

I was raised in a very black-and-white environment. There was good and there was bad. I grew up to believe that the only people who found themselves locked in a jail cell were people who fell into the latter category. And I was raised to revere the Nancy Reagan Just-Say-No bullshit that took the extreme complexities of addiction and reduced it to a catchy slogan.

As I’ve aged, I’ve grown to realize how wrong that worldview is. I have encountered — I have, myself been — many shades of gray. And I’ve learned that good people sometimes do things for which they suffer lifelong consequences. Again, I count myself as part of that group.

So maybe as I wrestle with this question of why I feel sad and confused, it’s really not so complicated. James can be the happy-go-lucky redneck with the huge belly and bigger belly laugh who coached my son in baseball and be the guy who allegedly killed his own father. Those who look at someone who battles drug addiction and can’t imagine a scenario in which they, themselves, are on the end of the pipe or the needle or the straw don’t truly understand how fragile the “good” in their life really is.

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