I got word on Sunday, December 14, 2003, that Annemarie Schnibbe had died. She was 50, three months younger than me. She had Hepatitis C, and was waiting for a liver transplant. There were about a million other people on the liver transplant list her mother, Anne, had told me two months before, but she was hopeful about the prospects for her daughter, whom she fondly called Amber. When I checked, it turned out that there were about 18,500 on the waiting list for liver transplants, but what difference does it make? For Annemarie, it might well have been a billion. (Click here for information about organ and tissue donation.)
The next day, a lengthy paid obituary ran in the Journal News, Westchester's daily newspaper. I was glad to see that it did not leave you guessing as to the cause of death (“after a long illness”; “suddenly”). The lead graph stated Annemarie “died from complications of liver disease.” But liver disease was just the manifestation of the disease that really killed her. She had been clean and sober for 15 years. As I had e-mailed a friend the day before, she was “another Hastings victim of drugs that most people will never know about.”
Annemarie had devoted her sober life to helping others. Her obituary in the Journal News read in part:
On Monday afternoon, Deirdre suggested that I send a notice about her death to the Hastings Parents Network, an online discussion group we moderated. I scratched my head at first because Annemarie was not a member of the list, had not lived in Hastings in many years (even though the wake and funeral Mass were to be held here), and did not have any children. Eventually, I decided to do so because her family was well known in the community, and because I felt that Annemarie wanted her story known, although I wasn't about to turn my notice into a temperance screed. I wrote:
The characterization seemed a little presumptuous to me when the e-mail boomeranged back to my In box. Why? Well, for one thing, I was speaking in code: “liver disease” and “seen it all” suggested a seamy side without talking about Annemarie's recovery. But most of all because during my entire life, I'd talked to her for only a few hours. Still, although other people may have richer remembrances of Annemarie (and recovering drunks and addicts leave a trail of memories, both good and bad), I felt I'd captured her goodness in those words.
I was introduced to Annemarie a few years before at a block party that her mom cosponsored when Hastings had a July Fourth fireworks display on the Hudson River off MacEachron Park, which is directly down a steep embankment and across the railroad tracks at the end of our block. Anne lives on Edmarth Place, a mirror image of our street one block to the north. It has a much better view of the river, however. Anne's house is at the very end of the street on the south side. Many windows face the river, several of which she and her late husband Bob, who owned a service station around the corner from us, installed after they bought the house more than fifty years ago. Looking out on the river one day, Ann told me that she never takes the view for granted. The way she said it sounded like she had seen a lot in her life but presumed nothing.
Edmarth Place was a wonderful place to watch pyrotechnics that July Fourth. Everyone from the surrounding neighborhood brought a potluck dish. Anne's oldest son, Bob Jr., who lived catty-corner across the street, fired up hot dogs and hamburgers on several grills. Kids ran around with abandon. It was a real picture of Americana at its Norman Rockwell best. I remember Anne introducing me to Annemarie as if we had met before. She said something like, “And of course you know Annemarie.” I didn't. In our brief exchange of words, I remember being taken by her husky voice and rich Yonkers-area accent. She seemed liked someone I'd grown up with, though, and hadn't seen in a long time.
A few years later, someone I was interviewing for The Elephant on Main Street told me that I must talk to Annemarie. I was interested knowing more about in the nearly two dozen Hastings kids from the Sixties and Seventies I'd learned about who had died from drugs or alcohol, including several heroin ODs.
“Annemarie's a drug counselor upstate now,” I was told. “And she hung out with all the people you want to know about.”
The list of people I wanted to interview had grown exponentially over time. Many were survivors - kids who used pretty heavily but had finally kicked. Also parents, siblings and friends of the nonsurvivors - suicides, ODs, victims of accidents, the ones whose stories never got told. Then there were the cops, social workers, educators, concerned citizens, healthcare workers and others who were somehow connected to the story. Because I had no deadline or strict methodology, I generally let serendipity dictate who I'd interview. Inevitably, I'd run into someone in a social situation who someone else said I should talk to and I'd make a date. And so it was with Annemarie. It turned out that she was not a drug counselor, per se, although she did a lot of work with AIDS victims, some of whom were addicts. And she lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, not upstate, but that's a quibble as far as parochial metro New Yorkers are concerned.
A few years ago, the Hastings Historical Society started collecting oral histories with the idea of creating an exhibit about the saloons of Hastings. Before the factories on the waterfront closed down more than thirty years ago, there had been, by varying accounts, fourteen or more active gin mills in the two square miles that contained Hasting's eight thousand residents. It sounded like a juicy project to me, so I interviewed a few people who had grown up in Hastings, piggybacking on discussions about the drug and alcohol scene in general for my own information. Anne Schnibbe was one of those I interviewed. I set the session up for Columbus Day 2003, which turned out to be a brilliant, sunny Monday.
It had been a harrowing weekend for us. After several testy phone calls from Pete, Carrick's boyfriend, and Carrick herself, Deirdre and I had picked up her up at their apartment in the East Village and driven her to Yonkers General hospital on Sunday afternoon. She had agreed to enter a detox on the telephone, but she changed her mind during the car ride uptown and refused to go through the doors of the emergency room when we arrived. We drove away. Here's what I wrote in my journal:
Carrick had slipped the lock on one of our back doors so she could enter and leave at will, like a thief in the night. Deirdre spent the morning trying to find a detox that would take her. I videotaped her in all of her frustration; in fact, the scenes we shot around that time became some of the most poignant footage in "Saving Carrick."
I arrived at Anne's house in the late morning. Annemarie and Teo, who had come down from Connecticut, were puttering in the garden when Anne and I sat down at her kitchen table and talked about the days when saloons were the social nexus, along with the church, for adults in the village. It wasn't all about drinking for some of the habitues, like Anne, although it would certainly be naive to suggest that it wasn't for many.
After we finish the formal interview, Anne spoke a little about Amber, and the period she grew up in, with which, of course, I was intimately familiar. The defining leitmotif of the late Sixties and early Seventies, I would argue, was experimentation with drugs of all varieties. Protests, free love, being green, hippies, yippies, Woodstock, be-ins, Volkswagen vans, power to the people, cross-country trips, communes, dropping out, turning on, music, art, and every other movement or artifact of the time was wrapped up in getting high in one form or another, at least for most of the people I knew.
Anne mentioned that when she was putting together a list of potential attendees for her fortieth Hastings High School reunion, she was pleasantly surprised to find that only a handful of classmates had passed away. Amber was surprised, too. She surmised that, due to drug abuse, the percentage of living classmates would be far less for her own class of 1971.
Anne told me about Amber's struggles and detoxes during those years. When her daughter was "under the influence," she said, she always tried to keep in mind that the person in front of her was "not Annemarie."
I knew that it had been the drugs talking when Carrick yelled at us to go fuck ourselves the day before, but it was helpful to hear Anne reaffirm what is hard to fathom when you're in the thick of battle. Dealing with an addict can be mentally eviscerating. Anne's husband Bob, who was a very gentle and reserved man, one day ripped a telephone out of the wall socket from frustration while talking with Amber, Anne said. Anne said that when Amber realized how mad she'd made her father, she sat down and said, "Mom, I know I have a problem." That is, of course, the classic first step to recovery.
Amber walked into the kitchen at that moment. We talked a little about gardening. She got a lot of trees from the National Arbor Day Foundation, she said. She told me about some flowering hawthornes she'd been raising for six years that were ready for transplanting, and offered me one for my backyard. I warned her that my thumb was not very green. She said that her success rate was less than fifty percent, too.
"No biggie. If they die, it's not meant to be," she said.
I first felt mildly jolted by the statement, even though Amber was talking about trees, not people. As I've replayed it in my mind over the years, however, I've always found its simplicity and detachment to be strangely soothing. Death matters, of course. It is a biggie — at least to us survivors. But to think of death as what happens when life is simply not meant to be is very Zen. Very Amber, I'd bet, in that she seemed to be able break things down to their essential truth. No bullshit. What can be more true than the fact that to the dead, death is the realization of what is meant to be.
Anne mention that I was writing a book on the impact of substances on families and communities. Amber was intrigued.
"We've got, what, three friends left?" she said, turning to Teo. "What didn't get 'em in overdoses got 'em in AIDS. One friend got hit by a subway he was so high."
I asked her about Jimmy Reilly, a cousin of hers who in my mind had become emblematic of kids whose unlimited promise had been destroyed by drugs. Jimmy, a gifted guitar player, died of a heroin and alcohol overdose in the late Sixties. He had been clean for a while, I'd been told, and was working as a groundskeeper and getting his life together when he decided he could use a little smack on weekends.
I'd corresponded with Alan Merrill, a musician and songwriter who played with Jimmy in a local band called The Kaleidoscope. It was later renamed Watertower West after a secluded spot in Hastings where kids went to smoke grass. Watertower West became the house band at the Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village for a time (as well as at several of Timothy Leary's parties). Merrill had fired Riley from The Kaleidoscope, but later set him up with a guitar student of his, Soupy Sales' son Tony, who was forming Tony Sales and the Tigers with his brother, Hunt. Evidently Jimmy didn't last long with the Sales' band either. Jon Pousette-Dart, who was the bassist for Tony and the Tigers for a couple of years emailed me that he thought that tales about Jimmy playing with the Tigers were a "fabrication." In any event, Jimmy was not a member of the Tigers when the band appeared in Tiger Beat magazine or on the "Hulaballoo" TV show in 1966. Riley was evidently leading the tenuous existence of an addict whose habit gets in the way of success.
"He was soooo talented," Amber said. "It was almost like a gift-from-God type of thing."
One Follows Another
She brought up Peter, a friend of Jimmy's who had committed suicide (as had Jimmy's father), and the impact that may have had on his psyche.
She mentioned another high school friend of hers, Jack, who also had died of a heroin overdose. He wasn't an addict she said, he just used sporatically. I told her that I'd heard that myself, but that it seemed like the cause of Jack's death was kept quiet. Perhaps even more so than today, we agreed, no one wanted to talk about a drug problem — particularly if it was heroin, she said.
"All you used to hear was 'ON THE NEEDLE, OH MY GOD.' You could eat as many pills as you wanted and be in and out of emergency rooms, but if you were ON THE NEEDLE...."
She remembered Eddie, who stopped using drugs but then drank himself to death, and his sister Barbara, a beautiful woman whose home was a hangout for users before she suffered a fatal OD.
"Barbara's apartment was always a trip," Amber recalled. One day, [Mike W.] ODed. They put him in the elevator, pressed the lobby button, and said 'good luck.' " She laughed heartily. " 'Good luck,' that's all, but he was okay."
Then there was Greg.
"He was what in New England what they call 'clutchheads,' 'greasers.' He was more like that. But then he started hanging out with us because he didn't like the greasers, he liked the heads. But he'd sniff glue and other stuff that we didn't do."
Greg eventually died of a heroin overdose, too.
She remembered Celeste Crenshaw, a Hastings resident who in 1966 was found dead from a heroin overdose in the trunk of a car that belong to an Annenberg heir. Dick Schaap wrote a book about the case, Turned On, that holds up surprisingly well forty years later. The Schnibbies were friendly with Celeste's grandparents, who were her guardians.
"That's somebody who's family didn't recognize — and the school didn't help — that she was clinically depressed," Amber said. "No doubt about it."
That opened a discussion of Timothy's Law, insurance parity legislation that has been consitently blocked in New York state by the Republican-controlled Senate leadership despite widespread support in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly. Timothy O'Clair was a 12-year-old boy suffering from mental illness whose parents were forced to place him into the state's foster care system because their insurance coverage was inadequate to pay for appropriate care for his Depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. He hung himself in his bedroom closet on a visit home a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday. Deirdre had recently testified on behalf of passage of the law in Albany.
We touched on how recovery, as with any disease, often takes repeated treatments. When Amber first went into rehab in the early Eighties, she said, no one knew how to address an addiction to "powdered drugs." She was loaded up with pills, booze and methadone.
"They had me so high because they didn't know. They gave me too much methadone, then they gave me valiums, they gave me something to sleep at night. So it doesn't go; you get addicted to something else. And when you're dually addicted, you may kick one thing and seem fine but a week later, goombatz okay, the pills or something kicks in and you're right back where you started from and you don't know why you used again."
She mentioned one drug rehab she was in where patients earned drinking privileges after a certain period of clean time "until they realized you might just as well smoke crack."
Anne and Amber started discussing the stigma that family members of alcoholics and addicts feel.
"This is the part that gets me mad," Amber said. "It has nothing to do with the person who is trying to get better. It has to do with the other people because they're embarrassed. They're embarrassed because someone may say, 'Well, you raised them.' It goes back genetically."
They agreed that a person didn't have to be a "falling-down drunk" to be an alcoholic, and that there's a widespread misperception that people who just drink beer aren't alcoholics.
"It's not what you drink, it's how you drink," Amber said. "There are weekend alcoholics who have two cans of beer but the guy will crush the can on his wife's head when he's done with it. Alcoholics are people who can't have a couple of drinks and put it down. When they drink, they drink to get blasted."
We discussed how difficult it was, sometimes, to stay away from having "just one" beer.
"[Amber] said when grandma, my mother, died, 'You think I didn't want to have a beer with the guys?' " Anne said. "And then when dad, Bob, died ..."
"You know, to get over the grief and this and that," Amber said. "Once you pick up, kiss it goodby because it's all over."
Amber stopped drinking in 1986, and doing drugs in 1988.
"I don't take an aspirin now. I get a headache, I lay on the couch with a rag over my face or, like the old Italians do, with a potato on my head. It has something to do with the postassium, or the folic acid."
Teo was ready to leave; they wanted to beat the holiday traffic back to Connecticut. I asked Amber if we could talk some more. Sure, she said, she came down every Saturday. As she walked to their car, Anne called out instructions to do this and that, and to rest, when she got home.
“She's got a lot of problems but I feel very confident that she will get on a list, and will have a successful operation," Anne told me after Amber left. "I hope to God. She's a good woman. A good young woman. A good woman. When Bob died she came down here and spent two and a half months with me. She is one of my ... she is my best friend. And I admire her attitude."
She described some of the complicating factors of her condition.
"I don't consider her living on borrowed time,” Ann said. “I am optimistic she will get a liver, she will survive the surgery and she will do well.” She punctuated this with a resolute declaration: “That's what I say,” and I was reminded of Rita, my next door neighbor, who felt a similar conviction that her husband John would recover from the cancer that had spread to his liver. She had recently told me that she believed that it was in remission, that John wanted to live, had put his life in the hands of the Lord, and would beat it. What could I do but agree, saying something about the awesome power of the will to live, which I believe to be true. But that will obviously only takes us so far.
It was a busy fall, and I had a hard time setting up a date to talk to Amber. Her mom said she was looking forward to telling her story, but she didn't come down a few Saturdays because she was feeling weak. Finally, we settled on talking during the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Anne called me an hour before we were scheduled to get together and apologized. Amber was too tired, and was resting. She died two weeks later, on Dec. 13, before a liver became available.
We were at a low point in our tempestuous relationship with Carrick. In November, she had run away from New Hope Manor, an affordable long-term rehab that we felt was her best shot at sobriety, and was back living with Pete on the Lower East Side. We knew he had been supplying her with drugs; we didn't know at the time that he was a small-time dealer supporting his habit by selling heroin.
Realizing that we were only enabling Carrick by giving her access to a bed, warm shower, full fridge and money or possessions she could hock, we had barred her from our house. My last conversation with her was taut with fear and rage. She was in a car with a fellow named Chris, with whom she had run way from a detox that New Hope that sent her to. As Chris' car idled at the end of our block, I ran outside to make one last plea.
Carrick rolled down the window. I started to address Chris. Carrick said: “I'm going to die, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“I just want you to know what you're getting into," I said to Chris. "She's going to wind up in jail, dead or in a rehab. I want it to be a rehab.”
“Great vote of confidence,” Carrick said, as the car pulled away.
I tried not to let those words — mine and hers — haunt me, but they were in the back of my head for months. I never knew when a call was going to come from some stranger to tell me that Carrick had been arrested, or injured, or found dead.
One morning in early December, the phone rang.
"Is this Mr. Forbes?" the voice said.
I didn't recognize it, and I was filled with trepidation. It must be like what the parents of soldiers in Iraq feel. This time it was a solicitor for the American Heart Association.
A day before I got word of Amber's death, I finished Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, a novel about an alcoholic who, despite the best efforts of his family and his own attempts to quit drinking over the years, dies. One phrase, in particular, rang out as pathetically true.
"Billy succumbed to an illness we couldn't cure in time. It wasn't a failure of our affections," the parish monsignor tells the family. "It was a triumph of the disease."
An hour after I got word of Amber's death, a friend emailed to ask if I'd be interested in playing racquetball, one of the activities that was keeping me sane. "Sure," I replied. "I'm kind of bummed out this morning and could use a few games. First, Deirdre left a cancelled check on my chair. Carrick had forged one of her checks for $30 just before we took her up to rehab the last time. Four others are missing."
Then I told him about Amber.
"Ann must be devastated," I wrote. "I only met her a couple of times, and I know I am," I concluded.
"Did I mention that on Friday I got a bill for $1,600 from the ER of a hospital in Port Jervis that decided that it could not treat Carrick? No details except that it had billed my insurance and this is what I owed. I can't imagine what the bill would have been if they did treat her. And because of the patients rights bill, I'll bet you that I can't get any information about what they did (i.e., what they are billing me for).
"It's madness, I'm telling you, madness!!!!"
Annemarie's coffin was rolled down the center aisle of St. Matthew's. Teo held Anne's left elbow; her daughter-in-law, Jean, Bob Jr.s wife, was on the right. Deirdre and I were seated in a row near the back of the church. I heard her sniffling. As the priests took the altar, she asked me if I had a tissue. I did not. She dabbed at her nose with her suede gloves. I thought she had a runny nose.
The Mass was concelebrated. The pastor of the parish, a man who speaks with a brogue, was in a minor role. I assumed that the priest who officiated had known Annemarie, and had been invited to say the Mass. His sermon was, for the most part, a generic reflection on us all being reminded of our own mortality, but he did sprinkle in references to Annemarie's work with the Red Cross. He also made an allusion to our having seen the backside of the tapestry that was Annemarie's life - loose threads and “patchwork quilts” - that on the other side formed a beautiful picture. I thought this probably resonated as true with the people who knew Amber well. But wouldn't it resonate for any one of us? Perhaps that's the point.
Then there were more prayers. Deirdre leaned over and asked me when communion was going to be.
“No one needs to see me like this,” she said, her voice cracking. “I think I'll slip away when everyone gets on the line.”
She had pulled her hat low on her forehead. I tilted my head and looked up and could see that tears were streaming down her face. She swiped her face with her gloves again. I gave her the keys to the house. (We never used to lock the door, but we started to after Carrick skipped out of her last rehab. We were her easiest mark.) Deirdre did leave during communion. She said later that the funeral was like a kick in the gut; she felt like she was glimpsing the future.
After the service, Bob, Jr., delivered a very moving elegy in the form of a “Dear Amber” letter. It was about a typical, loving American family coming of age in the Fifties and Sixties. He spoke of Amber being the first girl in the family after three boys, and how she really didn't have to walk around with a six-shooter and call herself “Walter” to fit in with her siblings.
He remembered the time she cut off a chunk of her flowing red hair, making a joke about he wished he had it for his own balding pate. No one laughed though; levity could not penetrate the thick somberness we all felt.
He talked about how much the family had hoped for a medical breakthrough, “or a miracle,” during those last five days in the hospital.
I was reminded once again how hard we keep hoping against hope with Carrick, who we had learned had contracted Hepatitis C.
Finally, Bob concluded by relating how he'd dug up a line on the Internet that had haunted him since he first heard it, in that same church, several years before. It was from a Viewpoint column that John Cardinal O'Connor had written from the hospital, where he was undergoing tests, for Catholic New York. Before he got to the line he'd looked up, however, Bob read liberally from the piece.
“One reflects on one's failures, one's imperfections, one's hope of what one might have done and perhaps failed to do or should not have done and perhaps did,” was one line that caught my attention. Then the Cardinal quickly reflected on evil, goodness, life, death and faith in a way that only a fervent believer, with a massive body of doctine to bolster him, can pull off. Then came the line that had stuck in Bob's head:
“But God writes straight with crooked lines and only he knows what the next moment will bring.”
I wasn't sure what to make of the first half of the sentence, although I got the general drift. When I got home and Googled “God writes straight with crooked lines,” the first hit was for a hand-cast bronze plaque inscribed with the phrase. It cost $239. Text accompanying a picture said that the phrase is “a paradoxical Portuguese proverb, first attributed to a Sixteenth Century Portuguese bishop, that has appeared over the centuries in the writings of many spiritual thinkers and writers. It serves as a reminder of the role of faith in our lives. Out of evil, good can come... “
The phrase was also the title of a sermon by a Methodist minister, Dr. Michael B. Brown, about the New Testament Book of Philippians, which he called “St. Paul's Love Letter.” Brown interpreted the line thusly: “God has an amazing capacity for taking bad circumstances and creating blessings - or for taking imperfect people and creating ministry.”
I don't know how religious Annemarie was, but she immediately struck me as having the divine fire of a zealot who had been stuck from her horse by a lightening bolt. It will always be one of the regrets of my life that I didn't get to talk to her for many more hours.
If you knew Amber, I'd love to hear from you. Let me know how she touched your life.