Meeting after meeting, mile after mile.
I sit in room after room, hear story after story, drink coffee, cup after cup. The clock ticks an hour out up on the cinder block wall tonight, florescent lights hum high on the warehouse ceiling. The choked voice of a woman echos around off the cement floor in the big room between the numerous chairs, each one different. She had three kids before she got sober and treated them poorly. Her oldest daughter will be in prison for a long time. A man walks around with two coffee pots, one with an orange spout and one with a brown spout, filling mugs as diverse as the chairs, carefully chosen off the hooks on the back wall. A small, soft spoken, gay man with four days sober shares that he has a thirteen year old daughter. The man with the good job who raised the girl with her mother has just left them. He wants to stay sober and be a father to his daughter. Cheaply framed catch phrases in old English script hang from the otherwise bare walls; Keep it simple, One day at a time, Live and let live. These are the same sentiments I see in rooms big and small all across the country. I have seen these particular ones move from building to building around town. This is my home group.
A meeting can be like stepping out of time for an hour, leaving behind all the usual pleasantries, etiquette, and conversation taboos of the outside world. The hard lines of class, culture, race, age, sexuality – all are blurred and removed at the door, casually as a coat, and set temporarily aside. Meetings can be a subdued, almost meditative experience, with their simple format and traditions. Someone’s partner threw them out. Someone got fired from their job. Someone has been sober for thirty consecutive days for the first time since their first drink. Someone is facing surgery and fears abusing the pain meds they will need to take. Someone got a new set of teeth, his smile is the most brilliant expression of gratitude I have ever seen. Someone is off probation for the first time in fifteen years. Someone got in a car accident that killed the other person seven years ago today. Breath after breath, day after day.
Some meetings can be as boisterous as a barroom, but brimming with the closeness of those who have escaped a shared hell, weathered a misery and a hopelessness that eclipsed all light, and managed an impossible redemption. Many of their comrades have not yet returned, some never will. The war is never over, not until the gene can be traced and altered and the brain reprogrammed. That is far off science still. Laughter and wild joy in a life almost lost, companionship and spiritual rootedness, vigilance and acceptance are our arsenal against the crossed wires that produce such an overpowering feedback loop that can rage so violently out of control. The hour can be ruckus and fidgety, punctuated with jokes and chuckles and spilling styrofoam cups, then poignant with nodding heads in heavy understanding, and then back again to the humorous hollering with abandon. Moment after moment.
Last Friday my father stood in a room in a church with vaulted ceilings, people sat at white plastic folding tables with their own personal saccharine cubes of birthday cake, listening to him speak. His best friend gave him a ten year chip. This is a man who had no friends and suffered a speech impediment due to a condition of his vocal chords. At 68, his hair now as white as I remember my grandmother’s had been, he is reborn, and spoke to the group with ease and charisma, a smile and a lightness in his eyes. His youthful and buoyant energy in the telling of his truth lifted everyone in sympathetic joy. I barely knew him until ten years ago. The oldest son of a depression-era Irish dust bowl child and a potato farmer’s daughter, he grew up in a very different Los Angeles. He became the man of the house at a tender seventeen when his epic father fell to the living room floor. He took his father’s briefcase and took up the family trade, sang his heart out, and drank his way through life. I would say that I am happy to have my father back, but this is a father I never had until now, and that is not what I am actually the most moved by. The peace he has found, the joy in each day, each book, each season, the vividness of his love for his family and his friends; these are the things that make me happy to be alive. Seeing one’s parent happy and content is perhaps one of the greatest gifts, and one I wasn’t expecting from him. Whenever I see him pruning the roses in the front yard like his father taught him, whenever he bustles around the kitchen preparing his famous recipes for his family, whenever he is moved to sit down at the piano on a quiet day and play the most elegant blues lilt of “Let us break bread together on our knees” or “Amazing Grace,” whenever I see him asleep with the cat and a book on his chest; these are the moments that move me the most. The happiness of one is a blessing to all. My epic dad, the low flying pelican over the waves of the Pacific ocean.
In my days, I see the universe in the weathered face and blue eyes of an old veteran, in the trembling hands of a pretty young woman who is staring down at them, her hair hiding her face. I hear the human song in the story of a blue collar butch woman’s days of playing basketball before she lost her scholarship to a blown out knee, of a construction worker who finally one day got up off the bar stool and got his contractor’s license and was kept awake at night by thoughts of the daughter he never knew. My story is just one heard in these rooms, I am just one of the sufferers holding hands in the circle. Prayer after prayer. We are a small fraction of the countless who are afflicted, most of us do not recover. There is still great misunderstanding of the nature of this condition and resources are scarce. But the doors of these rooms have been kept open by those who came before seeking asylum, keeping the beacon lit for the tired and the desperate, often the only option before the last resort. Try after try, fate after fate.