Goodbye, My Friend

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saying good bye to a friend that overdosed on drugs

I read every obituary I could find about the passing of my friend, Tom Hayden. Heaps of praise were lavished upon this true hero and warrior of my generation. I admired him for all his deeply felt beliefs and envied the courage he displayed in standing up for them. While his life was recounted in great detail, not a single mention was ever made of the program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

I recognized Hayden as soon as he entered the meeting room of my Saturday morning men’s group in Pacific Palisades. He looked fragile and unkempt, but it was him alright. Black hoodie pulled up over his head and pants hanging loosely from his boney frame, I watched as he found a seat on a worn-out couch along the windows in the rear of the room. The meeting was attended by a couple hundred men, so Tom wasn’t particularly noticeable. I doubt whether many of the mostly younger guys would have known who he was, but I certainly did.

That’s Tom Hayden, I said to myself, a little surprised to see him at an AA meeting. I had known a great deal about his political career ever since the Chicago Seven days, but had never heard anything about him being an alcoholic.

I spotted Tom each Saturday over the course of the next few weeks, even though he seemed to be doing his best to remain anonymous. One morning after a meeting where I was chosen to be the speaker, Tom came up to me and told me he liked my talk and asked if I’d be willing to sponsor him. I was surprised. I had assumed that since he had been coming to meetings for a while, he probably already had a sponsor. We had never spoken to one another previously, but I was pleased that he had chosen me to work with him.

We agreed to meet the following week, at which time he explained to me how alcohol had become increasingly problematic for him and that although he had stopped drinking a while ago, he was curious about this AA deal and wanted to give it a try. I told him that sponsorship initially entails taking a new man through the Twelve Steps of AA, a job I have done countless times in my 34 years of recovery. I told him I’d be happy to work with him, but first I wanted to hear his story. He confined his talk with me to his problems with drinking, which was fine with me, as I already knew a lot about his life and career.

Tom spoke without embellishment, assuring me he understood what alcohol had done to him. He said he was determined not to drink again, that he had a family that meant the world to him, and he intended to keep them close. I’d heard this pledge not to drink again from many men, some of whom actually kept it, but in Tom I sensed a deeply felt commitment to doing it the right way.

We agreed we’d meet on Saturday to begin working on the Steps. I asked him to read the Big Book, the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, before our first meeting. Tom readily agreed to do this. By the time we met the following Saturday, he had already read it and was full of observations and questions. I thought to myself, This is going to be some experience!

We spent that first Saturday just talking about the book. Having read it several times, I thought I knew a lot about the contents, but Tom brought new insight and questions I’d not heard or considered before. It felt in some ways that he was teaching me the Program.

Over the next several months, we met before the AA meeting each week to go through the Steps. On my way, I’d stop at a local grocery store and purchase a coffee for me and green tea for Tom, which he quite enjoyed. He had a funny habit of leaving the tea bag in the cup, which I thought made the tea bitter and acidic, but Tom said he liked it that way.

We’d work a Step each week, each reading alternate paragraphs, which required both of us to pay attention. I didn’t need to be concerned about Tom, though. He concentrated fiercely, underlining words and passages that interested him. Upon completion of the reading, I’d ask Tom to go home and write about the Step, including some specific questions I’d given him. The following week we’d review what he had written.

With all of the men I’d sponsored over the years, the writing was generally brief and somewhat superficial, but Tom was different. He took the writing assignments seriously, and dove deeply into each Step, finding greater understanding and appreciation the more he probed. The further we went with the Steps, the more into it he became.

When we got to the Fourth Step, a personal inventory, Tom attacked it as though it were a matter of life and death, working with dedication as if writing another book. In my experience, most men drag out the writing of this Step because it’s often a painful and difficult challenge, requiring a stark look at oneself. Not with Tom, though. It took him about two weeks to complete this assignment. He took the instructions “a fearless and thorough moral inventory” literally. He presented me with his life story, reviewing all of the numerous relationships in his life, the resentments he held, and the part he played in the problem.

The remaining Steps were done with equal dedication and alacrity. Upon completion of the Steps, I offered Tom the opportunity to work the Twelve Traditions of AA, which are included in the AA Step book, but are not considered mandatory. The Traditions are to the group what the Steps are to the individual, and Tom, being an organization leader, was quite curious as to how AA functioned.

On we went, tackling the Traditions one at a time, the same way we had worked the Steps. Tom was like a sponge, sopping up as much information about the workings of AA as he possibly could. I thought I knew a good deal about the history of AA, but Tom’s continual questioning caused me to delve deeper into our literature than I had ever previously done.

When we completed this task, Tom asked if we could go through the Twelve Concepts of World Service, which is how Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, explained the spiritual principles that undergird AA’s structure and how the parts work together. This was something I had never read before, but Tom’s curiosity made it impossible to refuse him. Unfortunately, we never got through this study, as he was taken ill shortly after we had begun.

The other thing I will always remember about Tom Hayden was his love of baseball and how we were able to share this love. Sure, we discussed politics and the upcoming election and how we both felt it essential to abandon Bernie and support Hillary as the only candidate we assumed would clobber Trump (wow, were we wrong about that!), but it was with baseball that we created our deepest bond.

Like Tom, I’ve been a lifelong Dodgers fan, so each Saturday morning after we completed our Step work, Tom and I would discuss the grand old game. Our conversations attacked it from every angle imaginable. Recent games, team roster, managerial decisions, trades we thought they should make, you name it. If it involved baseball, we talked about it. When Tom got really sick and was confined to his bed, I’d call him and replay the game I was watching on television to keep him current. I could picture him with his eyes closed, imagining the game.

I miss Tom and the relationship we created during the short two years I knew him. He was such a remarkable man. At the graveside memorial, I was moved when the pastor shared Tom’s last words to him: “Hillary must win!” I smiled and thought God took Tom when he did to spare him from what was about to happen.

God blessed all of us by Tom’s presence, and I’ll never forget the gift of his friendship.

Gary S. co-founded Gibson & Stromberg, a large and influential music public relations firm of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He also spent time in the film business where he produced the motion picture Car Wash (Universal Studios) and co-wrote and co-produced The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (Lorimar/United Artists). He has also co-written three books about recovery: The Harder They Fall (Hazelden) and Feeding the Fame (Hazelden) and a third book for McGraw-Hill Publishing, entitled Second Chances.

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