Mark Heuslein was 29 and sleeping on a friend’s couch. He had no place to live because he didn’t have job. He didn’t have a job because he couldn’t keep a car. By that point, the police had seized at least five cars, the exact number lost in the haze of booze and drugs. Heuslein had racked up $22,000 in fines from 18 failure-to-appear warrants, many tied to driving with a suspended license. He couldn’t clear the warrants to get his license back because he didn’t have a job.
“I was living with the assumption that what I was doing was cool and fun and exciting,” Heuslein said. “Living for the moment kind of thing, rather than the future.”
But the future blazed into the present when he caught wind that his estranged and expectant girlfriend—snared by her own addictions—was giving birth in a local hospital and about to sign the infant over to adoptive parents without his knowledge.
But he had been moving toward another goal. In anticipation of his child’s arrival, Heuslein spent the previous few months getting fatherhood training from the couple who had opened up their home to him. Taking his own baby steps, the out-of-work party expert began making plans on how recapture a young life once full of promise.
Heuslein and the couple raced to the hospital where he “raised a ruckus,” prompting security to drag him out twice. At the urging of his friends he refused to give up, finally accessing the hospital through a side entrance. He passed a man and a woman just outside of his ex’s room, not knowing they were to be the baby’s adoptive parents. He entered the room planted himself in a chair.
“I just can’t imagine my kid going to somebody else,” he said. “It just wasn’t feasible. Even though I didn’t have an answer, that was not possible for me.”
Although he was too late to see his son’s birth, he refused to leave. Security was summoned a third time.
“OK, here we go again,” Heuslein said he was thinking. “Now, I’m not letting go of that chair. They carried the chair out with me in it. Now we are going out the front door with me in that chair and I’m making up even more new cuss words.
“I went home, grabbed the Jack Daniels—which was breakfast sometimes, if not lunch and dinner—off of the refrigerator and then my friend’s wife said, ‘You can’t do that, you’re a dad now.’ I said, ‘Nah, I ain’t no dad.’”
The phone rang.
His ex was on the other end.
“The adoptive parents didn’t want a psycho dad after them,” she told him. “Come get your baby.”
• • •
As a teen Heuslein had it all figured out. He planned to be an architect and had designed a nuclear reactor, building a model out of balsa wood, while still in high school. He graduated a year early with a 3.8 GPA and by 21 he was studying architectural design in college while working full time as a draftsman. He already had his own secretary.
“I was smart, I had goals,” Heuslein said. “I had life pretty much figured out when I was young until I actually, really, did get out on my own and then hung around with the wrong guys. I was trying to do things on my own I guess.”
Like many addictions, Heuslein said his mess was percolating long before he realized he was cooked.
“It was just doing a little bit at a time, hanging around guys saying, ‘Here, wanna try this?’ Trying it and liking it and then staying with it and then having the type of personality that says I need to be the best I can at it,” Heuslein, now a painting contractor, said. “So now I want to learn how to sell it. Then I want to learn how to acquire a lot of quantities and to sell a lot of it to make money.”
Eventually he was waking up in the wee hours of the morning to smoke half a joint before going back to bed. He would get up for work at 6 o’clock and smoke the other half before he left.
“I had a high expectation in life until I started using dope and that changed everything,” he said.
He switched to beers at lunchtime and added hard alcohol chasers to the beer menu at night.
“A lot of times (I was) not working because it’s hard to hold a job with that type of lifestyle,” he said.
At one point he began hanging with a club that was manufacturing high quantities of methamphetamine. While not a member, Heuslein said he willingly participated on the fringes, and yet club leaders gave him a pass after their hangout was raided by police.
“They let me out. They let me out,” Heuslein said, his deep breath resonating the awe, even now, of grace he received from weathered street criminals. “They said that I didn’t have anything to do with it. They let me go and I got out of it and I stayed out of it. The Lord had his hand in the whole thing all the way through, as much as I dragged Him through that mess.”
• • •
Even as Heuslein learned how to change a diaper and acclimate his body to the energy–depleting demands of middle-of-the-night feedings, he began riding a bike to odd painting jobs trying to supplement the government aid he received for Aaron while he inched toward stability. He hired a lawyer who worked to consolidate his legal mess.
The judge was firm, warning the defendant that he faced more than four years on the suspended license charges alone, which represented just half of this outstanding warrants.
“He said, ‘I make you a promise, if you promise to raise that baby right and never come back in my court again, I will erase everything except for the first one. You do time for the first one. Does that sound like a deal?”
Heuslein accepted the sentencing deal and on the night of his son’s first birthday reported to work furlough. He was released early after serving 52 days. He arranged to work off his mandated 490 hours of community service at Lakeside Wesleyan Church, where a friend attended.
“I asked the pastor if I could work it off there,” he said. “He raises his hands and says, ‘Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!’ I said, ‘If you do that again I’m out of here. We’re not going to have any of that. I don’t want to have anything to do with God or the Lord, or anything. I just want to come and work.’”
During those days Heuslein said he was still using alcohol, though the frequency ebbed as he slowly sloughed off the habits and people that muted his heart and potential.
As he continued to whittle down his court-mandated hours, the pastor worked to build a relationship with the single father.
“One day he said to me ‘The Lord wants you on his team’ and the light bulb went off,” he said. “It made sense this time.”
From the start, Heuslein jumped into his faith with the same committed desperation he showed in taking on fatherhood.
“He restored me,” the El Cajon resident said. “I was on the fast track. Just like doing that (drug) stuff, I wanted to be the best. When I started going to church I started sitting in the front. I wanted to be splashed by the Holy Spirit. I couldn’t get enough. I started applying what the pastor was saying and, slowly but surely, I started getting new grooves in the record player. There were some old ruts I fell into, but it takes time.
“When I was desperate for help and crying out to Him, something clicked and He took it away,” he said. “So little by little as I gave up those things and gave them to Him, He took them and then removed them from me and they are still gone as far as the east is from the west.”
After being mentored by a man strong in the faith, Heuslein developed new friendships with people who shared his evolving values. He now leads two Bible study groups at Shadow Mountain Community Church; one has been going for five years, the other for eight.
“I believe it is a testimony to the power of God to change a person,” said Marcial Felan, a longtime friend of Heuslein’s and the former family ministries pastor at Shadow Mountain. “God has transformed Mark’s life from where he was to where he is now and who he was to who he is now as a child of God and his consistency as a single father and a servant in our church and to the men of our church.”
• • •
Twenty-one years after Heuslein was hauled out of the hospital in a chair he refused to surrender, and a trail of profanity spewing from his lips, the boy he made the scene over is chasing his own dreams. A sophomore at Cuyamaca College, Aaron is studying the humanities and plans to take his talent for basketball to a league in Europe. Ultimately, he hopes to work with the children, modeling for them the things he learned from his dad.
“My dad has always been there for me, been to every game and done all he could to be there and love me through everything,” he said. “I haven’t needed a mom. Praise God for my dad.”
Although he admits missing the comfort and love that comes from a mom, he said his father more than compensated by demonstrating leadership, perseverance and composure.
“Through him I have learned that every little thing matters and that it is a 24/7 job. No days off.
He is also grateful for the foundation of faith he learned from his father.
“God has proven himself to my dad and me every single day,” he said.
His son’s grounding, Heuslein said, reinforces his own belief that every struggle and sacrifice—including an intentional decision not to marry so that his attention remained focused on solely on Aaron—was made smoother through faith in Jesus and living in a supportive community.
“I knew that I couldn’t raise that baby by myself, on my own,” he said. “When you really give your life to Him and you turn yourself over like a child—melted like butter in a microwave is how I explain it—then God can work in your life. So, for me, when I put Christ first, now I have Him helping me make my decisions.
“He is my wife and He is my son’s mother and He is happy to fill that position, even though it’s a dysfunctional family in the world’s eyes.”
• • •
As Heuslein faces an empty nest, he’s finally able to give his company, Hi-Tech Painting, more attention. Launched in 1999, he has eight employees and has landed major clients, including SeaWorld.
“I have not taken this company 100 percent serious because I put Aaron before my work,” the father said. “So my main focus was on raising him and being there for his games and being there for his school, being there for his homework and being there for him growing up, especially without a mom, trying to raise him correctly.”
And despite the company’s small size, Heuslein said he’s been invited to bid jobs along with some of the major players in the industry.
“That’s just huge and there is no other explanation other than when you put Christ first and let Him organize this,” he said.
“I don’t care about the money and the riches and all that. I care about my relationship with Him and what He wants me to do, because in the long run when I get to point B from point A and look back, I say, ‘WOW! Before I was facing these mountainous deserts or the waves are overwhelming, but if I look behind me it’s just a nice, smooth trail that He’s cut through.’”
— by Lori Arnold