What We Leave Behind

Christopher J. Stephens

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher J. Stephens

Three days after my father’s funeral, we delivered a flower bouquet 
to his Thursday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. My two older 
sisters, brother, and I stood in the back of a crowded church basement 
June 26, 1997.  

Photo of a statue and roses (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

We listened as our father was eulogized. This felt more hallowed than a church. There would be no tearful,
gin-soaked reminiscence about close calls and blackouts in cheap motels on Route One. The attendees that
night knew we were there. We were the quiet ones, nervous, out of our element. We were the children of an
alcoholic who had died six days ago.

I never understood until that night why my father connected so closely to this organization for the final twenty-one years of his life. He was an engineer, a mechanic, a father of six who did his best to raise a family through tough times and always come through things with his head held high. He saw his children through marriages, death, drug abuse, detachment, disenfranchisement, and reconciliation through grandchildren. My parents stayed tight through forty-one years of a roller coaster marriage that produced more drama than anybody would care to admit. In spite of everything, especially themselves, they persevered and were better people for having known each other.

We cannot fully know our parents until later, and only through the clear eyes of others. I would not have wanted to know my father as a drunk, in the late sixties and early seventies. But it is more than just alcohol that can make people drunk, and my father was no different. He could be sullen, withdrawn, spend hours working under his car or painting the house, anything to get away from himself and what he may have done to his life. My father was the only one of his five brothers who stayed away long enough from his mid-west home to build a life of integrity from the cold childhood he’d been given. No matter what he did, in his quiet and humble way, he seemed to be still haunted by what could have been. In an alcoholic family, what went on at night was never discussed in the light of the next day.

The drunk that people say my father could be at times before he quit is only understandable by relating it to my own alcohol abuse. Surrendering to a disease, to the weakness of an inherited condition and the mystery of a “higher power,” was foreign to me. That my father did it in 1976 is still a clear memory to me. My parents were separated, working things out, and in family photographs my father had the sideburns, flared bellbottoms, wide collars and sunken, blackened eyes. None of us smiled in those pictures, especially him, and it made me wonder about A.A. Why did it take him from us?

My father was a creature of habits. He dispensed with most of the physically bad ones before his death, particularly cigarettes and alcohol. He replaced them with sweets and too much red meat. He became a resurrected Catholic, finding comfort in the traditions of Mass and The Knights Of Columbus. Late Sunday mornings, after Mass, he’d have bacon sandwiches, bacon on the side, swimming in mayonnaise. He was quiet and reflective, always more willing to embrace his secrets than share them. I wondered why he wasn’t expressive, how he could go through life without writing or giving me regular bits of wisdom. Sure, he liked Louis Armstrong and Willie Nelson and “Showboat,” but where did I fit into that? What could I teach him about what I liked? To the end, like a sullen child never willing to appreciate what he had, I wanted my father to feed me.

But I got my nutrients in different ways. Where my father was a mechanic, a man of numbers and science who could build a barn for a horse and pony, erect a swing set or dollhouse, and never have to ask for directions, I was the writer and the English teacher who collected books, wrote incessantly, never got involved with sports. I was the Liberal, and he was the voice of Pro-Life. We knew the contents of each other, and never had fights, but I know that many factors that make up who I am today are because he objected.

At that Thursday night meeting, somebody said our father was a great guy to get drunk with “but it was a lot more fun to get sober with him.” Others also spoke of what he had done for them during their first, tenuous days in the program. In his last twenty years, my father helped scores of troubled people get better. He helped them clean up their lives and find a positive purpose, like some sort of mid-wife intent on shepherding trembling people through the dark nights of their souls, where a thirty day chip means everything in the world as they clutch it in their trembling palms. That night, I learned that my father was a better teacher than I’ll ever be and he never had to tell anybody to let it be understood.

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