It’s been a difficult week. The Best Beloved and I just got back Montreal where we’d gone for my father-in-law’s funeral. Morris passed away on January 12th (which is, oddly, also the day on which my adoptive father passed away, back in 1993). My father-in-law, Morris, was a great guy. He owned a department store in Saint Georges de Beauce near Quebec City, a store that was the heart of the region. He had friends right out of Damon Runyon with names like Joey Onions, Jimmy-the-Book, Big Phil,and Jack-the-Hook, among others. He liked to hang out at the track. Loved the ponies and, when he went to Florida every winter, loved the greyhounds, too. Sitting in Ben’s Smoked Meat on Boulevard de Maisonneuve in Montreal at 1:00 a.m., with Morris sipping his 20th cup of coffee that day was like was like walking into a Mordecai Richler novel. He knew all the insomniacs and gypsy hacks, as Tom Waits might say. He knew the waiters. He knew the salesmen. When he and my adopted father first met, they got into a conversation about Rockhead’s Paradise, arguably the best jazz night club Montreal ever saw. His funeral was packed with people, who all remembered him as a guy who might not have talked much, but who made everyone feel comfortable. He helped before you had to ask him, and made everyone feel like an equal – from the street cleaner to the business executive. That’s a rare talent.
His partner, Louisette, told me she came out of the bedroom a few months ago and found Morris crying. When she asked him what was wrong he said, “Nothing, nothing,” and disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. When he came out he simply said, “I’ve had a nice life.” And that was that. He may have been a man of few words, but he chose the right ones.
On the day we were leaving a friend of mine, who I’ll call Joe, came to see me at the hotel where we were staying. I’ve known Joe for probably ten years, and I love him to bits. He’s kind and thoughtful and smart and funny and creative as hell. And he, like me, is a recovering alcoholic/addict. We both got clean and sober about fifteen years ago. Joe’s been through a rough time the past few years with professional issues and loneliness (which I can’t figure out since he’s all the things I said above, plus gorgeous). And although things look like they may be turning around, it’s still not easy. He looks great though, and I said so.
Ah, he said. Well, I’ve lost some weight.
How’d you do it? I said (since I’ve packed on a few pounds myself).
I started smoking again, he said.
Oh, no! That’s not a good idea.
No. And I’ve started drinking again, too.
He looked as though he was afraid I might send him to detention. But the truth was I wasn’t completely stunned. I saw Joe about a year ago, and he’d been complaining about not liking those meetings in church basements we go to. They brought him down, he said. I said, You don’t have to like them; if you want to stay sober you just have to go. He didn’t have a sponsor any more, either, and wasn’t helping other people stay sober.
So, I guess he didn’t want to stay sober. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? He hurt and he didn’t want to hurt anymore and although he said his spiritual life was fine, that he still had a relationship with whatever he understood to be “God,” he didn’t seem to have much serenity. Somehow he thought taking a drink would stop the hurt.
But as I see it, now he only has something else to worry about. Will he be able to control his drinking? Because he is ‘managing’ it, as he puts it. (Frankly My Best Beloved, who doesn’t have this whole addiction thing, has never ‘managed’ a drink in his life. Doesn’t even think about it. That’s how non-alcoholics think, which I grant you, from the perspective of a real drunk like me, is BIZARRE.) Now that he’s started drinking, and admits to having had a joint, is he going to find himself back doing other ‘dry goods’ as well? If he’s got money problems, where’s the money for booze going to come from?
He says he’s not drinking every day, but there’s booze in the house, and he admits to drinking at least every couple of days.
“I know how this sounds, but it’s not a problem,” he says.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s the one in a thousand who can drink safely again. I sure hope so. But the fact that he’s willing to experiment with something that once tried to kill him doesn’t seem sane to me. Sure, maybe after all these years of sobriety I could start drinking like normal people again, but if I can’t, I’ll die a wretched death, or end up in jail, or a mental institution. That kind of Russian roulette doesn’t interest me.
But watching a friend walk straight into a railroad tunnel, toward that nice bright light, is a horrible feeling. I feel helpless and frightened and terribly sad. So, having developed some healthy habits over the past 15 years, as soon as I got back home I went to one of those church basement meetings. In the meeting they talked about the difference between what we want and what we need. One man talked about his mum, and how she had endured three terrible bouts with breast cancer. The last one finally killed her. She hung in there until Christmas day, which was her favorite time of year, and died, at peace, looking up at the Christmas tree. Like my father-in-law she never complained. A few weeks before she passed, her son asked her how she was able to bear the pain and the grief – wasn’t she angry, wasn’t she resentful? A woman filled with faith, she smiled, patted his hand, and said, “I’m fine. This is where God has me right now.”
That got me. My father-in-law wasn’t religious, but he had that same sort of acceptance, that same sort of gratitude for his life and the circumstances of his present moment, whatever they might be. Acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t feel grief, or anger or regret, or even agony. It does mean we just feel it, knowing it to be part of the experience of life. Part of the human experience, equalizing, inescapable, mysterious.
The next time I am crippled by pain, either physical or emotional, rather than reaching for a drink or a drug to numb the pain, I hope I will remember the words of my father-in-law, and that man’s mother: “This is where God has me right now. I’ve had a nice life.” Acceptance and gratitude – the best medicine.