By Gary Swoboda

     I got clean when Luke died.
    It seems a lifetime ago that I witnessed Luke propped up against the old, beige wall of the now-deserted-second-grade building at St. Peter's School in Southeast Portland, his artificial leg lying several feet away. I remember watching with empathy as he fought back the tears, a heart-wrenching picture of aloneness etched upon his eight-year-old face. None of the other kids at school had to put up with their limbs coming off during play at recess. In retrospect, I think about the terrible injustice Luke must have felt in that regard, yet in all the years I knew him, he never once voiced it. Never once.    
     Luke would have rolled his own cigarettes as he talked, one after the other, his ever-jaundiced eyes meeting with his tobacco far more often than with hers. His full and scraggly beard, no hint of color aside from gray, roughly framed a haggard face. Just a trace of his lips would have been revealed through the whiskers as he spoke. His lightly tinted John Lennon specs, which it seems he had worn since before Lennon had made them popular, would have only slightly obscured the sadness in his blue eyes, eyes that had once sparkled with humor and with life, and on occasion still visited there. . . . 
The terror of that night can't justly be put into words. The closest way I can come to describing it would be to have a person imagine being scared out of their wits by something -- suddenly startled by an unexpected noise in a dark forest, for example. Then take that initial instant of fear, that very first heart-grabbing, mind-bending, spine-tingling jolt of fear, intensify it a hundredfold and then freeze-frame that nanosecond of peak terrror. Then replay this feeling every second of every minute of every hour for the next six or seven hours. Then imagine that the imagined reason behind the fear was a completely convincing sense of going insane, or of actually being insane. A hideously nightmarish scenario -- not something I would wish upon my (or anyone else's) worst enemy.
The madness in my mind became so unsettling and so unbearable that I started to commit suicide at one point. I swallowed four anti-depressants and had twenty more in my hand cocked and ready to go. Most people would figure that fear was the reason I didn't go through with it. Crying myself to sleep at night but didn't have the guts to end my own pain. Not enough nerve to "pull the trigger." If they only knew how badly I wanted to. Most people can't understand getting to such a final point of despair. For anyone that hasn't been there it's perfectly understandable that they would have trouble comprehending it. I pray they never know that state of mind. But anyone who has knows. I would have given anything for the anguish to be over -- anything, even my own life. So what stopped me? Well, it sure as hell wasn't fear. Hell, I had so much fear in my own life, one more little blast of fear was nothing if it would end all the other turmoil. No. The reason I didn't go through with it had nothing to do with my "shuffling off this mortal coil" giving me pause. In truth, my supposed lack of guts was probably the single-most selfless moment of my young life. I stopped short of swallowing the rest of those pills because, for a brief instant, I felt the pain of those I was about to leave behind, and I couldn't do that to them. That's all. That's the sole, simple reason I'm here today. And I can live with that.