The force sustaining Vincent Walker's reformation looms over the rest of his life, but rises just above his knee.

When he looks at his 2-year-old daughter Tamara, Walker remembers his years of crime, drugs, alcohol, loneliness, violence and institutions -- things he is determined she must never know.

Before Tamara, Walker was a man of the streets, making his first trip to Lorton Reformatory in 1967.

To try to avoid his sixth trip there, he enrolled in a rehabilitation program at RAP Inc. in 1984. He said the program convinced him to quit his drug and alcohol abuse.

Along with a soft-spoken air and a jagged past, Walker carries the strain of an ex-addict trying to avoid chemicals.

Now training as an addiction counselor at RAP, a privately funded drug rehabilitation program, he has -- for the first time in his 40 years -- the responsibility of holding a job.

He had prepared for these pressures, but thought he would have a partner. At RAP he met April Blanton, who was succeeding after five failed attempts to beat her drug habit. She gave birth to Tamara, the first child for either parent, and they enrolled in a family program at the Parent Child Center, while Blanton began training as a nurse's assistant.

Then cancer struck. April Blanton died Dec. 20 at age 31.

"It was unfair -- she was ready to work, then she found out she had cancer," said Jacquelyn Henry, family services director at the center. "She said, 'I have kicked this habit, I'm going to school and I'm working for my daughter. And now I'm going to die.' "

Doctors prescribed Blanton a painkiller that Walker had used on the street. "She was hating it, the thought of getting addicted again," Walker said. "She wouldn't use it. She'd say no, and go to buy Advil."

As Blanton weakened, Walker said, "We sort of argued a lot. Then I began to understand it. I resented her dying. She's leaving me with a baby, and I didn't know a thing about children."

He is learning. He comes to the Parent Child Center regularly for counseling, attends discussions with other parents and visits children three times a week as a volunteer at the center. "I'm totally involved with the PCC," Walker said.

Joan Phillips, Blanton's mother, believes Walker's commitment to fatherhood will keep him honest and sober.

"He's a very responsible father. And he was very devoted to my daughter," said Phillips, adding that Tamara has flourished at the Parent Child Center, where she plays with other children, learns songs and games and has the care and instruction of the center's staff. "I am so glad she's in a program like that. I don't know what we would do without it."

But Walker faces a grim irony: Any misstep of his would put Tamara into city foster care, where he was sent as a 2-year-old after being deserted by his mother.

"I have a dread: What if she has to do it, too?" Walker said. "It was lonely. I was feeling 'Why would someone do this? Why would someone abandon you?' "

Walker works nights at RAP, which he calls "the glue that keeps me together."

RAP's therapy has made him very candid about his history and his hopes.

"If I don't talk about it, I'll go back to that same life style," Walker said. "I have to get all that anger out."

Henry sees him several times a week. "He's got a lot to work through," she said.

"Sobriety, a 2-year-old, the grief about April and having her personal affairs to put straight."

Though Walker believes he can hang on for his sake and his daughter's, he worries "whether or not I'm going to prepare her right, whether or not I can maintain my sobriety, whether I can raise her and keep her, and not get back in criminal activity or anything that would separate us."