This week, my mother celebrated her 52nd anniversary of staying clean and sober. This brings to mind my memory of the night her decision to do so was made. My parents both struggled with alcoholism and went to their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on January 28, 1961. They remained sober since that fateful night; my father unto his death – April 6, 2004, and my mother still. I share this memory here now, with you.
We had moved from the ghetto to the comparative peace of the countryside just four months before this life changing decision to walk in sobriety was made. The move was done in the hopes of motivating better habits and behavior. It did not. As any who have struggled against this disease know, geographical changes do not ‘cure’ the problems caused by alcoholism. “Wherever you go, there you are.” ** Though we now lived in the calmer, quieter environs of ‘suburbia’, the battle zone in our home that I had always feared the most in my young life, escalated. The disease of alcoholism continued to progress and had reached a critical point in our lives despite the change of environment.
I don’t know what precipitated such a turning point in our lives on this memorable night. Things seemed much the same as usual to me. Mom was screaming and crying. Dad was yelling and slamming around. Then there was an ominous silence. Mom left the room. Dad sat down in his chair in the living room and lifted his bottle, glaring at the wall. I was almost 7 yrs. old at this time and very small physically for my age. I kept huddled on the floor near the wall away from his darkness, and stayed as quiet as I could be (I was very good at that). I was afraid to run past him to get to the refuge of my bedroom, or worse, run into her on my way there! I don’t remember who of my four siblings may have been there in the room at the time. I was focused on my parents. My memory of what happened next between them keeps this pivotal moment sharp and defined even now, 52 years later.
Mother had her winter coat on and was carrying a small suitcase when she came back out from her bedroom. This frightened me! Dad had always been the one to leave. She had always stayed and held us close after any of their fights. She was leaving! Would she come back? I scooted quietly forward to see her better, while still staying out of his sight, I hoped.
She stopped at the back door, visible from the living room, and kept the suitcase clutched in one hand while the other held the doorknob. She turned to look at him long and hard before finally speaking.
“I am done. We are done unless you decide right now that there will be no more drinking. It’s me or the bottle, Howard. We can get help. We can change this. But you have to want to. Decide this, now!”
I saw her hands shaking and tears filled her eyes. She held her chin up in spite of this and gritted her teeth as she waited for his answer. I looked over at my father. Dad seemed to be as confused and concerned about her being the one at the door this time as I was. His mouth was open in surprise and he slowly set the bottle down. Then I saw his chin come up and I held my breath, afraid of the blow coming. Time seemed to slow and nearly freeze. I felt a greater tension in those few minutes than I ever had before. I felt so helpless and frightened! I thought that my heart would break through my chest, it was pounding so hard! Mom stood her ground.
“You wouldn’t leave the kids,” he growled and then tipped his head to the side with a sly smile. He raised one dark eyebrow and I began to shake, knowing that this was a dangerous sign.
“Please momma, please don’t do this. Don’t leave us!”
I don’t know if that was me saying that or one of the other kids speaking what I was crying out in my mind. I know the words were spoken out loud though because mom’s face seemed to soften and she slowly set the suitcase down, though her hand still remained on the doorknob.
“I am not leaving them, Howard,” she spoke softly but her next words were very clear, “I am leaving you.”
Dad was stunned! Mother had never done this, had never made such a threat, and she certainly seemed well prepared to do just what she said.
His mouth dropped open again and his eyes filled with tears. This really frightened me for I had never seen him cry! To my great surprise, I scooted over beside his feet and hugged his leg, trying to comfort him and at the same time, keep myself small and hopefully safe.
“You need to decide right now, Howard. If not, I’m going next door to use their phone to call the police to come and get you out of here. If I have to do that, I will never want see your face again!”
“Please momma, please don’t send our daddy away!”
I know that was me because it startled me that I was defending him. He had always scared me and I often prayed for him to leave! He usually did just that. Here I was now, begging for him to stay. Instead of lashing out as I feared he would, he reached down and gently touched the top of my head. I flinched but then he patted my back to comfort me, or maybe to comfort himself.
“That’s up to your father,” she answered as she looked at me then turned a stern eye back on him. “Well?”
The following silence seemed thick and heavy as they stared at each other. I felt a shudder go through my father as I yet held his leg. Then he sighed, long and deep before finally speaking.
“I want to stay. What do I need to do, Nancy?”
Time began again and my memory gently fogs out the rest of that fateful night. I do know that they then went to their first A. A. meeting and began a new journey, one of sobriety and love, together. Yes, there were yet many battles in the hard years of recovery ahead of them but the greatest of these were the ones that they fought, and won, within themselves.
I am very thankful for the decision they made that night and I’m extremely proud of them both for changing their lives, and ours. I miss you, Dad! Congratulations, Mom! I love you both!
“Choose to live this day One Day at a Time with Courage, Faith, and Hope each day; and all of your tomorrows will be better.” ~ Virginia Lee
* The picture is of my Mother’s new A. A. medallion, which was awarded to her for her efforts in continuing sobriety and in helping others to find the same. The statement written on this medallion is, “To Thine Own Self Be True.” The formula one needs to work to maintain sobriety is written here too – Unity + Service + Recovery combined with the initials, H. O. W., which warn one to remain Honest, Open minded, and Willing. The LII stands for her 52 years of successfully practicing this formula and the A. A. principles in all of her affairs.
** “Wherever you go, there you are.” ~ Jon Kabot-Zinn quote