Friday, July 3, 2009
June 28, 2009
Jennifer Keen and Paul Sousa
By FRANCESCA SEGRÈ
PAUL SOUSA never imagined he would marry downriver from where he camped out many nights as a homeless child growing up with an alcoholic mother.
But on June 13 here at Discovery Park, about 50 guests, many covered in tattoos and at least one wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet, watched, riveted, as Mr. Sousa and Jennifer Keen exchanged wedding vows, the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers in the background.
Mr. Sousa, 41, had spent a fourth of his life in prisons, time he considered a respite from “the lash of addiction.” But Ms. Keen, 26, who had already had her share of relationships with criminals, said she “felt safer with him than anyone I’d ever been with.”
It was Mr. Sousa, who had misgivings when they met in February 2008 outside a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Sacramento. She was smoking a cigarette with friends on the sidewalk. He had just celebrated being out of prison and drug-free for one year.
“I thought this is one I need to stay away from,” he said of his instant chemistry with Ms. Keen, a blue-eyed blonde. “She literally had three days clean. She was lying about her boyfriend and all this stuff. All the red flags were there.” The last thing Mr. Sousa wanted was a distraction. He had relapsed dozens of times; one misstep could send him back to prison.
But the two kept noticing each other at meetings. And on a bright afternoon in April 2008 they found each other on the steps of the State Capitol during a rally for a state drug-treatment proposition.
“Our life tragedies got us to talk to each other,” said Ms. Keen, who grew up in Sacramento. She was brought up in a stable family with violin lessons and Girl Scout meetings. But she said she was also sexually abused by a relative. By 13 she was smoking marijuana and coming home from school drunk.
“As soon as I put a substance into my body — I instantly needed more,” she said.
By 16, she was hooked on methamphetamines, marijuana and alcohol. At 21 she found herself pregnant by a drug-addicted boyfriend. Her daughter, Alannah, was born healthy, but Ms. Keen could not kick her habits. Only after she was told she would lose custody of her little girl did she enter a treatment program.
“The way things were going, I thought I’d be burying my daughter, not marrying her,” Pam Keen, Ms. Keen’s mother, said at the reception at a nearby picnic area. “I didn’t think she’d ever clean up enough to think life was worth living.”
Mr. Sousa grew up homeless — bouncing around with his mother from shelters, to cars, to river camps. At 15, he was on his own and hooked on heroin. He was repeatedly locked up over the next 24 years, chiefly for drug-related offenses. He said he had tried to commit suicide more than once. In August 2006, he was dealing drugs out of a girlfriend’s apartment when the police arrived. He was given one last chance at rehabilitation. “I can’t do no more time,” he decided. “I can’t live like this any more.” He went into treatment.
He enrolled at American River College, a community college in Sacramento, and studied to be a drug counselor. He was awarded a Pell Grant and started both working and volunteering as a health educator, going to recovery houses and health fairs to teach about diseases transmitted sexually and by IV needles.
“He has such awesome morals and values,” Ms. Keen said. “Where did he learn that? Not from the state penitentiary, I’m sure. I know he’s had a long road, but he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
Mr. Sousa says she provides “something that I lost earlier in life: innocence,” adding, “She has a youthful joy about her that is so endearing and so attractive, so invigorating.”
Yet the couple couldn’t get too serious. Twelve-step programs always counsel participants to avoid big decisions in the first year of sobriety. Still, she stayed sober and “the red flags were turning into pink hearts,” he said, laughing. But one day, Alannah, now 5, told Mr. Sousa, “Paul, I want you to be my stepdad.”
He teased her: “What do I have to do? An application? Interview process?”
She looked at him and said confidently, “You have to marry my mom.”
On Feb. 13, Ms. Keen had been clean for a year, and Mr. Sousa took her to a steakhouse to celebrate. He was completing his first year at the community college, where she had also enrolled to study business and marketing.
After dinner, he led her across the street to where the pink lights of the Capitol were shining in the foggy night. Although he had already received the enthusiastic blessing of her parents, he was incredibly nervous. Finally, he dropped to one knee and proposed with her grandmother’s diamond ring. She screamed. Then she cried.
In April, they learned she was pregnant. “God is good,” Ms. Keen said. “Perfect timing.”
And as the Rev. Bill Williams, a North American Baptist Conference minister, concluded the nondenominational ceremony at Discovery Park, she exclaimed: “I do! I do! I really do!”
Mr. Sousa, who never thought he would live past 30, wrote a few days before the wedding that every day with Ms. Keen, “the aloneness I once knew so intimately dies a little more.”
It was the first wedding he had ever attended.