Drink. Drank. Drunk.--
Came. Came To. Came To Believe.

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2020 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Photo of a burned out apartment window.

As I’ve told in other stories, I got drunk for the first time when I was 13 years old. My father, a Communist Party organizer, had been arrested in June, 1951, along with 16 New York comrades two weeks earlier for violation of the Smith Act. It was a fearful time for kids, especially us Red Diaper Babies; it was the McCarthy Era, the Cold War. It was ducking under desks at school in drills in case a Russian A-Bomb dropped on us; it was the Rosenbergs facing the electric chasir for spying for the Soviets. I escaped by reading historical novels and science-fiction – the past and the future, because the present was too scary to deal with. Until I got drunk and knew there was a better way.

In my early teens I drank from my parents’ small whiskey stash, and then beer sitting on the stoops in summer. I swore that beer was the only thing that quenched my thirst during the hot and humid days and nights. Mom and Dad didn’t drink much, although Dad, in his seaman days after he ran away from home to escape his father’s beatings, said he wanted to drink himself to death then. On a voyage to the Soviet Union Russians at a seaman’s club asked his opinions about things, and he got a first-ever blast of self-esteem. It was like a religious conversion: the Catholic altar boy became a dedicated Communist, and quit drinking. For Mom, I think the drinking came much later, along with other addictions.

When I was 14 one New Year’s Eve my father asked me if the party I was going to, up in Yonkers, would have any drinking. I lied and said, “I don’t think so.” He handed me a pint of whiskey and said, “You’re only young once – have fun!”

He and Mom got into an argument over it as I was trying to sneak out our East 12th Street apartment door. I almost made it when Mom grabbed me by the overcoat and took the bottle from my pocket, declaring, “No son of mine is going to take whiskey from this house!” Then she handed me two dollar bills and said, “Buy your own!” I did, at a liquor store on 14th Street where age was never an issue.

I don’t remember anything about that party except that there was a bus strike at midnight and the subway was a long, snowy walk away. Perhaps the alcohol fueled me and kept me warm. And I drank regularly. I remember trying a sweet wine which I didn’t like, so I stuck with beer and whiskey, and sometimes rum or tequila. I hated scotch. I drank at home when my parents were out at defense meetings. I drank on the summer stoops with friends and neighbors. I drank at parties, and alone. I drank on snake-hunting excursions to South Jersey. And I usually drank to get drunk. I vomited a lot at first, but that slowed down as drinking time went on.

When I was almost 16 I came down with Infectious Mononucleosis, the “kissing disease;” a secondary liver infection put me in the hospital for nearly two weeks. When I was released the doctors said, “No drinking for a year,” and I honored that. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital again! I celebrated the end of that year of abstinence, now living in Washington Heights, with a monumental puke out the window, moan in the streets, fall down whiskey binge. It didn’t faze my girlfriend, Elaine, whom I would later marry; her father was a drinker too.

When Dad finished his two-year prison term and I married Elaine, my folks moved to San Francisco, the FBI killing his employment chances in New York and the Communist Party leadership unwilling to help him because of political differences. Elaine and I borrowed her father’s car and drove cross-country in 1958 to visit them, falling in love with Los Angeles. Pastel-colored houses, flowers, hummingbirds – heady stuff for two New York street kids.

We lived in the East Bronx, in a fifth-floor walk-up overlooking the Crotona Park swimming pool. I had worked as a rat cage cleaner at a medical center and then as an apprentice painter after being left back and quitting high school. Fed up with painting and the corrupt local union, and with too much exposure to benzene, I got a job as a keeper at the Bronx Zoo Reptile House. Elaine was going to Brooklyn College, with night classes several evenings a week.

I had to leave the zoo after a year-and-a-half when tests showed me highly allergic to the horse serum anti-venom was then made from. Safety was sloppy in the Reptile House and venomous snakes often on the loose; bites were inevitable. The “cure” would kill me quicker than the bite! I went to work for my father-in-law and his partner at their little direct mail letter shop.

We wanted to move. Those nights she came from school Elaine was harassed not by neighborhood toughs – we were neighbors after all – but by new young cops sent in to keep the streets peaceable. We found that we couldn’t afford higher rent, and comparable was hard to find, so instead I used my acquired painting skills to fix up our apartment. I installed new florescent light fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, and laid down a coat of paint in the bath.

I was preparing to paint the kitchen and had paper drop-cloths. There’s an alcoholic trait called Self-Will Run Riot, aka My Way or the Highway! I carefully hooded the paper drop-cloths over the gas stove to avoid the pilot light, but as I was going up the ladder my knee bumped a knob and I turned a burner on. The fire consumed the kitchen, and adjacent foyer, and smoked up the living room and bedroom furniture. The firemen had to lug their hose up five flights of stairs. We never heard from the landlord, but knew we had to move. Elaine quit school and quickly got an office job, and we moved our smoky belongings to an apartment in Astoria, Queens, our rent nearly doubled.

After a couple of months we were discouraged and decided to move to Los Angeles, to those pastel-colored houses and flowers and hummingbirds. The plan was to go to San Francisco and stay with my folks for a few months, getting jobs and earning enough to move and set up in LA. Mom, Dad and my sister Karen lived in Eureka Valley, generally a warm spot on foggy days. With the help of former comrades Dad was working in a warehouse under contract to Warehouse Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a union founded by Communists, among others. He was out of CP life and just enjoying being a worker among workers, a return to his pre-party roots.

We were there about three months when the House Un-American Activities Committee came to town to expose local Reds. Several hundred students from UC-Berkeley protested on Friday, May 13, 1960, over being kept from the hearing room and were dispersed by the San Francisco police using high-pressure fire hoses and beatings. Seeing that on TV news some 5,000 people turned up at City Hall on Saturday. I was among them, with an ex-seaman friend of Dad’s, Tom Masin, and when police were beating beatnik Jerry Kamstra on the City Hall steps for taking pictures of the protesters, Tom and I surged and shouted. A top cop said, “Get those two, they’re trouble,” and we were got – my first arrest. (For more, see Busted at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl8.html)

That made me a San Franciscan – although our first California apartment was in Berkeley for a year – and it didn’t take long to develop the San Franciscan’s contempt for Los Angeles, or to realize that Berkeley was a world unto itself.

I wrote a Talking Black Friday Blues which was picked up by local folksingers and made me part of the in-crowd, invited to parties as well as being elected Vice-Chair of the newly-formed anti-HUAC student group. It was at a Berkeley party that I discovered red wine. Gallon jugs of Red Mountain Burgundy, to be exact. I could drink this stuff like soda pop! And I did.

When we staggered home around 3 a.m. I exploded from both ends, but I had found the true love of my life – red wine. We drove to wineries to taste; this was before wine tasting became a big tour bus destination. I liked Louis Martini the best because they let me work through their list and if I lasted, brought out the really good stuff that wasn’t on the market yet. Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite, then Pinot Noir, then whatever was available, soon graduating to 1.5 and 3 liter jugs of basic red. I steamed labels off bottles and mounted them on a board to hang in our living room. I also drank beer and whiskey, along with tequila and rum, but red wine was my drink of choice. When we threw a party I switched to 151 proof rum because I had to sip that. I was a gulper, not a sipper, and if I drank anything else I often was passed out before the party was over.

I was a blackout drinker from the beginning, although my blackouts were so complete I retained no memory of either what transpired or of memory loss. Others, however, did. One time several of us teenage 12th Streeters visited a candy store at 11th Street and Second Avenue. We struck up conversation with the locals who hung out there. I bummed a cigarette from one, Chick, and he mashed it into my mouth. Chick claimed I had roughed him up for no reason a month or so before. I could have passed a lie detector test that I had never seen him before in my life. Much to Chick’s disappointment, I declined to fight him.

Another time Elaine and I went to a little party at her co-worker’s apartment in Walnut Creek. She and I were good friends with Margaret and her husband Tom. Margaret’s older brother and father were also there, and we men went out for more ice after a lot of drinking. The next thing I knew I was trying to throw the brother off their outdoor second floor landing. Having no idea what I was doing or why, I backed away and when he came at me I ran down the block. Elaine joined me and I drove home. I drove drunk often, and never got stopped.

In later years I heard about blackouts, but didn’t fully understand what they meant until a situation developed in the union of which I was President, Warehouse Union Local 6, ILWU. Membership had dropped due to plant closures during the Reagan years and we had to lay off a business agent in the West Bay Division. Since we were all elected by the membership, Secretary-Treasurer Leon Harris and I decided it would have to be the one elected with the lowest vote in the Division. That was Don, a heavy drinker.

We won approval of our method by the General Executive Board and after that meeting met with Don to explain how it would work. Our union contracts forced employers to keep us on the seniority list while holding union office, so Don had a job to return to at a coffee plant. He listened and understood, and we asked him to finish out the week by cleaning up his route and briefing the remaining BAs. I was totally surprised when Don showed up at the office on Monday morning with no memory of the GEB meeting or his layoff. So that’s what a blackout was!

I do have one brown-out, a vague memory of a fight and slamming a car door on someone’s head. When, in recovery, I began making my amends to those I had harmed, I realized that there were some I could not make amends to – I didn’t even know who they were or what I had possibly done. My sponsor advised me that I could only do what I could do.

I was always a functional alcoholic, able to do my job and generally do it well, whether as an employee or union rep. I could wait until work was done, then hurry home and down a couple of large glasses of red wine before settling down with my family for dinner, continuing to drink throughout the evening. In March of 1967 a union colleague, Bruce Benner, invited me to join him on a gold-hunting trip to Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. That sparked an annual solo backpack where I fasted and detoxed as I explored Utah’s deserts, Nevada’s ghost towns, the Sierra Nevada and Kalmiopsis Wildernesses, with many return trips to the Superstitions. (For more on this, read Gold Fever: Looking for the Lost Dutchman at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl13.html.)

On the night of May 31, 1967 LeRoy King, International Representative for the ILWU, visited our apartment in St. Francis Square, affordable and integrated co-ops sponsored by the union. Would I go to work for the union the next morning? A small ILWU office workers local’s Business Agent had died a month earlier, and six contracts were expiring at midnight. Thus began a 21-year career as a union rep.

I learned quickly, did a credible job, and eight months later was tapped to replace the deceased Washington, DC, Legislative Representative, moving my family across the country. Bloody Mary and Welsh Rarebit lunches became staples. After three years I realized that I either became like all the other lobbyists in the nation’s capitol, or I got out. Local 6 offered me a combination Business Agent/Organizer post in Salinas, California, and I grabbed it, moving my wife and two children across the country again.

After stabilizing the union at the two major plants, McCormick-Schilling and Nestlé Chocolate, my time was split between Salinas and the Bay Area, and we moved from rural Prunedale in the hills north of town to San Francisco. I went to Salinas on Thursday mornings, stayed overnight, and returned late on Friday. Those Thursday nights were pretty much drunken revelries in the company of local rank and file activists.

While organizing a group of young production line workers in San Francisco, it turned out that one person was already in the union, John, the shipping clerk. John thought it unusual the others weren’t covered by the Master Contract and said he told the BA about it; that the BA talked to the owner and came back to tell John it was okay. That was not the kind of union I represented, so I resigned from staff, went back to work at Woolworth’s Distribution Center where I held my seniority, ran against that Business Agent – himself a serious drinker --in the election a few months later, and won.

Now it turned out I was expected to drink, even paid to drink, taking shop stewards or negotiating committees out for lunch during grievance meetings or contract talks, and buying us both booze with the expense reimbursed. I also drank on my own and turned in receipts for meetings that never took place. No one ever noticed that the Styrofoam cup I carried around with me in the union office held red wine instead of coffee. After four two-year terms as BA I was elected President of the 5,000-member local when Keith Eickman, a non-drinker and my union mentor, retired.

During this time my son and daughter entered their teens. Like me and my father, and he and his father, Erik and I clashed regularly. One of the many gifts of sobriety is the relationship he and I now have; I have learned much about unconditional love and forgiveness from him. My daughter, Deirdre, however, remains estranged. I have a strong relationship with my sister Karen, who moved to The Netherlands many years ago; sobriety has repaired many things in my life.

The East Bay, a growing division of the local with a large Mexican American membership at odds with the black-white coalition that dominated the local for years, along with a number of left-wing opposition groups, often voted against the officers, and my opponent in the election carried the division while I won the others. I went to my first East Bay membership meeting as President drunk, managed to get through it, and realized I had better get control of my drinking. I could not give the opposition a club to beat me with!

I moderated my drinking during the day, sometimes not very well, and when I got home in the evening quickly downed two large glasses of red wine so I could sip continuously throughout the rest of the evening. It was always a toss-up whether I went to sleep or passed out.

I knew I had a drinking problem. There were a thousand mornings when I woke up with a hangover and told myself I was not going to drink that day…and then drank. That confirmed my innermost secret, that I was a fraud, weak, unable to not drink for just one day. The low self-esteem that most alcoholics carry was confirmed in spades.

But the day came when I did stop, and stayed stopped for four and a half years. I knew about recovery meetings, but those were for poor folks who didn’t have my will power! My disease went crazy. It was all I could do to just not drink and everything else suffered. I was a jogger in those days, usually about three miles, but would run 10-12 miles on Saturday mornings to shut me down physically for the weekend. It was the only way I could get through, and my family learned to do without me whether I was home or not. My opponents in the union smelled blood and made ready to defeat me in the Fall election.

I saw my career collapsing, my marriage collapsing, and I was helpless to do anything about it. All my energy went into just not picking up the drink. But when things hit the fan on July 4, 1988, I ran away to a Pacific Grove motel, passed a liquor store on the way, and said to myself, Yes! It was a crawl on the floor, puke in the toilet, pass out drunk, night. On July 5 I woke up with my last hangover -- it lasted for months – and a day or so later found my way to a recovery meeting. I remember nothing about that meeting except that it was a safe place for me; I was among others who understood, and didn’t judge.

I heard people say, Go to a meeting every day and don’t drink in-between and you’ll stay sober, and I could do that. After several months I began to see that there were people in those rooms who had a life and were happy, and those were the same people who talked about working the Steps, about getting a sponsor, about a spiritual awakening. I had problems with the Steps – too much God talk; it took me awhile to realize that atheism took as much faith as religion. And a sponsor? I hadn’t spent 50 years pushing people away to suddenly get close to someone!

It took me a long stubborn while to realize that, as I heard someone profoundly say at a meeting, There is a higher power and You’re. Not. It. While I never embraced religion, I realized that in my teenage escapes from the city out to nature, I felt the peace that was missing at home, a sense of something larger than myself. It slowly dawned on me that a higher power was as I defined it, one that worked for me and had nothing to do with anyone else’s, as long as I’m. Not. It.

I returned to work in a Local 6 factory, a liquor bottling plant – my higher power was testing me – and kept going to meetings and not drinking. When it was announced that the plant was going to close, I decided it was time to try something new. I obtained my high school GED, began attending San Francisco State University classes, and lined up some full-semester jobs teaching Labor Studies in the Bay Area. I had done guest teaching as a union rep, and done okay.

Eventually I decided I’d better work the Steps, and tracked down a Twelve Step Workbook. It was okay as far as it went, but when I got to Step Five – Admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs – I had a problem. Eight months sober, I developed an elaborate plan in my head to do a sort-of Fifth Step with Elaine, in hopes of saving our broken marriage. But there were a few things I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell her, and at a meeting I actually asked someone, Ven R, for advice.

By the end of that conversation I’d asked him to be my sponsor and he agreed. I said, Great, I’m ready for Step Five. Ven said, come on over Saturday and let’s talk about…Step One. That began an extraordinary journey. I embraced Step Four – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves – because I began to see that I wasn’t a freak of nature, or dropped from outer space; that underneath my tough exterior was deep fear. And that there was a long history of alcoholism on both sides of my family.

I developed a new class for Laney College in Oakland and it was accepted, which, with City College and SF State, would keep me economically afloat. Two weeks before the semester began I received an urgent call from Laney: the half-time head of the Labor Studies program had a big personal emergency and they did not have anyone to teach anything. Was I available? I sure was, and after some time as a temporary department chair, I made tenure—half-time, but still teaching at the other two schools.

At Step Five I chiseled, just a bit. I couldn’t tell Ven, or anyone, one shameful thing — and it wasn’t even about me, except in my head! And so my second year of sobriety was the most insane of my life. I was holding on to a collapsed marriage, out of that low self-esteem fear that if I didn’t hold on to what I had I wouldn’t have anything. I had a nervous tic in one eye, chronic neck and back pain, and dreams that I was in a plane that was crashing. As I heard in meetings, Everything I ever let go of has claw marks!

I took a bold step and talked to someone about it after a meeting, telling him, I’m afraid I’m heading for a relapse. He said, You’ve already had the relapse, you just haven’t picked up the drink yet. Got my attention.

People talk about the Steps being “ego deflation at depth.” When I filled Ven in on what I had left out of my Fifth Step he looked at me and said, You know, I don’t remember your Fifth Step. That, I submit, is ego deflation at depth!

I signed up for a twelve-day San Francisco State plant biology course in the Sierras and reworked a step a day in my tent, mailing them off to Ven. When the class was over I went up into the White Mountains, above the bristlecone pines (which are a good symbol for alcoholics – battered, stormed on, lightning-struck yet surviving). I fasted for two days at 14,000 feet, burying things I had brought with me that represented the past I was letting go of, including my wedding ring.

I cried my eyes out in the morning sun and, for the first time in my life, felt connected to the human race. Al became Albert, a more-or-less whole person. It was the spiritual awakening the Steps are designed to bring a recovering alcoholic.

I spent that night in a Bishop motel and went to my first and only demolition derby. I even felt as one with the drunks cheering on the car crashes!

Back in San Francisco I told Elaine I had to move out. We hugged for a moment, and suddenly I felt the relief flood her body. As a student at San Francisco State University, I applied to live in a singles room in their high-rise dorm and moved in right after Labor Day, 1989. I was, of course, the oldest person in the dorms and other students looked at me curiously, but said nothing. I worked on a BA in Labor Studies, which I was already teaching there, and earned that in two years by virtue of a lot of writing in lieu of taking classes and the community college classes I had taken over the years.

When I first began attending recovery meetings I heard people say, Alcoholism is a fatal disease. I thought that was a lot of rhetoric; I personally had never felt my drinking was life-threatening. But the longer I was sober the more I saw the truth of it. Many cases didn’t go down on the death certificates as alcoholism, but as suicide, car accident, heart failure, liver and pancreatic cancer, or, like my pal in the ‘60s Dave Castro, being shot down in a drug deal. I remember asking my Uncle Bob if his father, my grandfather who beat my father badly, had a drinking problem. Bob thought a moment and said, No, he was a moderate drinker. A sister of his snorted and said, Yeah? That’s why he died of liver cancer after cirrhosis of the liver!

And some didn’t die, but got warehoused with alcoholic dementia, unable to recognize even their families. And, oh yeah, there was that solo backpacking detox in the Superstitions where, the only person in the Wilderness and far from any recognized trail, I fell and broke my wrist. Could have been my ankle, and I’d still be there! Did I mention going snorkeling where the sea mammals hung out…along with the great white sharks. It was amazing that I was still alive!

I began dating, making a list of (mostly) sober women I was attracted to. Mary E, a long-time sober woman at a meeting I regularly went to, was known as Snapshot Mary because of her interest in photography. I invited her to an exhibit at a local gallery. She accepted, we began dating regularly, and got married in our Mission District flat in 1991, with former Episcopal priest and my new sponsor Bruce K officiating. Ven and I had a disagreement over making financial amends which I thought imperative to the Ninth Step process. Meanwhile I earned a BA in Labor Studies and went on to earn a BA in Interdisciplinary Creative Arts while teaching evenings.

One of the first financial amends I made was to the American Museum of Natural History book store, where I had stolen a book or two. I sent a check and received a nice note back wishing me well. I sent a larger check to Woolworth’s to make up for the childrens clothing I had taken home stuffed under my shirt. A week or so later I received mail from them and opening it saw my check. I thought, They’re sending it back? No, I had not signed it!

I had stolen a lot of paperback books from the toy store on 11th Street and Second Avenue as a teenager, and that store was long gone. I remembered a part-time library struggling to exist in the small town of Placencia, in Belize. I put together a box of good books of all kinds and sent it as a donation. With money from Elaine which she had borrowed to pay off my share of our house, I made restitution to Local 6 for all the unjustified free drinks I had enjoyed at their expense. They chose to accept the check and not prosecute me, and I was grateful. The Ninth Step says, Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others. “Them or others” does not include me, and I was willing to accept the consequences of admitting my transgressions.

I had been writing stories and poems since I was 13, but emerged from the Interdisciplinary Creative Arts program doing performance poetry. Who knew? Sobriety had opened me up to all kinds of possibilities, and I took a class in tap dancing, learned to play the alto saxophone, discovering that when it came to improvising I only had one riff in my head. Charlie Parker’s reputation was safe! I embarked on a quest for a Masters Degree in History, and took cello lessons for a year, my big achievement being picking out Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Once the Masters was in hand and my thesis, a scholarly researched biography of my father, accepted for publication, I began taking all the Archaeology courses I could, with no degree in mind. I also took a six-month sabbatical to write a history of the Oakland-East Bay labor movement which had given me so much and whose story was often overshadowed by San Francisco’s. It was a way of giving back for the support they had given Labor Studies, and me, over the years.

Mary and I did a lot of travelling: with summers off, no kids to suppport, two incomes and both of us sober, we visited her sister in the northeast, relatives in New York City, my sister at her Holland home, driving with her and her husband Aat through Germany to Prague; we went camping in Australia and the Amazon jungle, cruised the Galapagos Islands, snorkeled in Belize, explored ruins in the Yucatan, and went to local recovery meetings along the way. In Placencia, Belize, one meeting was listed and we went, but the space was dark. Then a local man showed up; he was the only one in the small town in recovery and had listed the meeting in hopes that someone would show up now and then, as we had. It only takes two to have a successful recovery meeting!

Ten years sober on the Galapagos cruise I was reminded that it is alcoholism, and not alcoholwasm. The last night on the water the captain met with the 20 passengers and piña coladas were served. Four of us didn’t want alcohol and were assured the drinks we received were free of it. I took a first gulp – I rarely sipped anything cold – and the rum immediately filled my head. I was scared, angry, and a little voice in the back of my head said, Go For It. I didn’t, and kept my July 5, 1988, sobriety date. It was a reminder that the disease of alcoholism is incurable, and requires constant work to hold at bay.

After ten years I became dissatisfied with the marriage; it was no longer working for me, and I had to leave Mary with some sadness, but knowing that, for me, it was the right thing, that I had choices.

My union mentor Keith Eickman invited to stay at his home atop Noe Valley rent-free; he lived alone since cancer took his teacher and poet wife, Nina. I was in my tenth year of tenured teaching and decided I would retire and move to the Arizona desert, Tucson, in June 2001, when my retiree medical coverage would be nailed down.

In December, 2000, I drove to Tucson to scout out neighborhoods and recovery meetings. Those meetings allowed me to transition seamlessly, having a ready-made circle of friends. I did cut my trip a day short to revisit the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix due to a severe case of Gold Fever. (For that story, see Gold Fever: Looking for the Lost Dutchman at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl13.html.)

In Tucson I settled into a regular meeting schedule and began dating, going out not very seriously with five women at one point. I signed up for Forest Service archaeology projects and that’s where I met Kaitlin. We were both married to other people and just became good friends. The first project we worked on together, along with her husband and my grandson Danny, was in the Eastern Sierras, at a campground the Forest Service wanted to convert to an upgraded fee stop. There were bedrock mortars – grinding holes -- by the creek, so we knew there had been some ancient activity here.

While nobody on the project was finding much of interest, Kaitlin, Dean, Danny and I were having fun while doing good archaeology, singing, laughing, joking and just having a good time while the chipmunk we had made homeless chittered angrily at us. Some, encouraged by a woman we dubbed Mother Superior, thought we were much too frivolous and when we finished our first unproductive unit, we were moved far from the rest of the group, over a ledge closer to the creek – and smack in the middle of a 4,000-year-old habitation site. We uncovered artifacts the Forest Service Archaeologist had never seen before!

I would stop to visit Kait and Dean in their Julian, California, home while en route somewhere else. I was still doing annual treks, although no longer as detoxes. Once settled in Tucson, I emailed and said I’d like to come for a visit, just for them, and not on my way somewhere else. They responded positively and I went in September 2002. No Kaitlin. The official story was that she, a hospice nurse, was off with patients. Dean and I did some stuff, and I returned to Tucson.

I emailed both of them saying, Now it’s your turn to come and visit. I never heard from Dean, but Kaitlin responded and we set a November date. That’s when I found out that she had moved out and bought a manufactured home out of Julian, down the Banner Grade. We went to the Wednesday night Exodus poetry open mic where I performed the Christine Tamblyn Memorial Lecture. Christine was my guide and inspiration in my Creative Arts study, and had shown us a video of herself which I modeled the fake Memorial Lecture on.

My theme was, Poetry strips things down to the naked truth, and I stripped – as Christine had done – as I lectured. Quite an introduction to the woman I would fall in love with! Afterwards, on the way to the car, without thinking I reached out and took her hand, and that’s the moment friendship began to blossom into something more. I remain grateful to Christine Tamblyn, who died far too young – 47 -- of breast cancer. Gratitude is another gift of sobriety.

Kaitlin moved to Tucson in early 2003 and we set up housekeeping in a rental in Barrio Blue Moon. With her talent for transforming living spaces into works of art, after a year the landlord decided the place looked so good she should raise the rent while building a studio on the 3/4 acre property. We scraped together what we could and bought a manufactured home on 1-1/4 acres in Picture Rocks, a rural “outlaw” community with few amenities over the Tucson Mountains northwest of the city. Kait had an occasional beer or mixed drink, but never tempted me, and I knew serenity. She named our place Wild Heart Ranch, and made it an oasis for all kinds of critters, a source of joy to me. All my life I had gone TO nature; now I got to live IN nature!  (For more on Wild Heart’s critters, read True Tales From the Wild Heart Critterarium at http://www.storyhouse.org/albertl4.html.)

When Tucson enacted a Domestic Partners law in we registered in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in 2004, and were married in September, 2006 by a Pima County judge. The judge told us, The three most important words in a marriage are not I Love You; they are, Yes, My Dear. Kaitlin, whose father had drinking issues, was another wonderful gift of sobriety. Those gifts kept on coming! I continued going to recovery meetings weekly at the Picture Rocks Community Center, and sponsored a few people.

Alcoholic self-centeredness had been replaced by a willingness to be of service, and I spent several years as the volunteer Chief Operating Officer of the little Rancho del Conejo Community Water Co-op which had been the heart of Picture Rocks when it was founded by Mayme Smith in the 70s. I did poetry presentations at the local elementary schools, getting students to write a line on a subject I gave them, and then combining those lines into a group poem and printing it, along with the students’ names, for them to keep.

I was active in the local community group, Citizens for Picture Rocks, and Kaitlin served for a time as the group’s president, initiating roadway cleanups, a youth contest for tee shirt designs, and other welcome innovations. We became archaeology site stewards, members of a state program to monitor and preserve ancient sites. Kaitlin opened a studio in town and began giving classes, not so much in art as in bringing out creativity. The women who attended regularly became her tribe.

What does all that have to do with sobriety? It reflects the results of recovery, the gifts, the ability to love and be loved, living one day at a time and finding the joy in that day…because it’s there. Recovery has given me choices, and the willingness to do things I might not have before, less self-centered. Performance poetry, which evolved into rapping, archaeology, music, writing – I wrote community news for Picture Rocks for a dozen years – without the Look At Me shouts of my low self-esteem drinking years. And those gifts have literally saved my life.

Mostly the compulsion to drink has been lifted, but then someone invented chocolate red wine. I read about it and told Kait, On my death bed I want a taste. One year there was a big display of chocolate red wine for Valentine’s Day at a local market. I thought about it, Well, I could buy a bottle now and stash it for when I die… I didn’t, but again realized that alcoholics in recovery are never immune to the disease. There’s a line in a reading common to many recovery meetings: Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! The word patient should be added.

In June, 2017, while driving to town I sneezed and broke two ribs. It was diagnosed as Multiple Myeloma, an incurable blood plasma cancer that sucks the calcium out of my bones. Another rib cracked not long after. I did a year of “chemo lite” and that kept things under control, although I did have to wean myself off the Tramadol I was taking for bone pain. Side effects included neuropathy – and my feet remain numb, along with a less common auditory neuropathy that muffles my hearing. My bowels alternated between constipation and diarrhea daily. I had little energy and was breathless after the slightest exertion.

After a year the cancer figured out a way around the treatment and my lambda light chain marker numbers began rising. I went to infusion therapies; the first gave me blood pressure spikes that, at one point, caused me to pass out and convulse. The next two worked at first, but then the cancer ate them for lunch. I was put on a “last-ditch’ regimen that made me sicker week by week. In mid-October, 2019, I made the decision to stop treatment.

I performed a rap for the occasion for the infusion room staff, expressing my profound gratitude for all their work, a thank you they rarely got from many self-absorbed cancer patients. I should note that, under our broken health care system, the clinic and drug companies took in over a half-million dollars from Medicare and my teachers’ medical insurance. I was lucky to have good union-negotiated insurance protected by a strong retiree organization; the only thing I paid was a dollar per prescription.

The oncologists were okay with discontinuing treatment, as was Kaitlin, who said soon that the old me was coming back. The side effects lingered, but some faded over time. At five months post-treatment my feet, ankles and legs have stopped swelling up. No more compression socks! My bowels are back to normal. The neuropathy remains, and is not going to go away. Physically, with or without cancer, I am still 82 years old and cannot do very much. I avoid pain pills, and use topical diclofenac on my arthritis hot spots. I have my sense of humor and willingness to engage with the world back.

And I don’t have to drink! Recovery has taught me to live one day at a time, and to find the joy in that day; how to love and be loved. I am writing this in Julian, California, where Kaitlin has set up a wonderful home for us. Kait has roots and friends here, and it will be a good place for her when I’m gone. The doctor said I have months, not years, but all I really have is today. As I’ve heard at meetings, Yesterday is a cancelled check, tomorrow is an I O U, and today is the only cash we have to spend.

A potential side benefit of living in California now is that the state enacted an End-Of-Life-Choices law several years ago. Should the myeloma become painful beyond my ability to cope without drugs, that will be worth considering, a choice I may or may not make when the time comes.

As in Picture Rocks, there is a small recovery group in Julian, and I attend the Friday Nite Survivors open meetings weekly, making new friends and sharing my experience, strength and hope, especially with newcomers struggling to see a way out of their compulsion. With the Corona Virus stay-at-home orders I still have access to online meetings should the urge come upon me. So far, so good.

And so this is how I will end my days, however many they will be: loving Kaitlin and loving my family, and my sister and her family; reading, writing, walking our old dog Gus, listening to music I love, cooking, going to recovery meetings, enjoying the mountains and countryside, and not drinking no matter what.

As Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote shortly before cancer took him: “My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

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