FAR AWAY, IN HOUSTON, Texas, the little body of my mother gave up its last breath. There had been a dental crisis. Her assisted living facility had advised a plan to place her in an ambulance and transport her to a clinic for a surgical extraction. My sister in Colorado, a dental health professional, reasoned that Mom would never need that tooth—or any tooth–ever again. Her advice was to kill the pain and extract the entire ruined body from the assisted living facility and take it home to finish dying in peace.
We siblings and our families gathered in Springfield, Illinois, where Mom and Dad were born, to bury them together on the anniversary of their wartime wedding. The night before, we had had drinks in my brother’s suite. He had brought my father’s ashes, which had been sitting in an urn on his mantel until the maid freaked out, and had then ridden in his SUV for the duration.
The far-flung children and grandchildren of Bob and Georgia Mitchell toasted the two of them, silent honorees in their gilded urns, sitting on the synthetic carpet next to a laminated coffee table. The sliding glass windows framed a view of the stolid state capitol building. We exchanged impressions of the flat and featureless drive from O’Hare, and the earnest pretensions of the town’s “best hotel.” Ben and his cousin reported that the local girls all had poufy bangs and children.
How would Mom and Dad have taken it if they’d heard us making such fun of their hometown and its honest inelegance? Mom would have giggled. She had once quipped that she’d rather her ashes rest in the shoe department of Lord & Taylor. Dad, whose ancestor Elijah Iles was a founder of Springfield, had chosen Oak Ridge cemetery, and was proud of having a plot “in the shadow of Lincoln’s tomb.”
Father Bob, one of Mom’s Catholic cousins, presided over the burial in a jersey jogging suit, sending them off with Christian prayers and family jokes, at which Ben gave me his resigned Semitic look.
We had snapshots in front of Lincoln’s bust and a pasta dinner with the Catholic cousins at a mafia hangout, and next morning went our separate ways.
The inheritance paid our expenses. The balance was divided by three and distributed. A long and winding road had ended. I toed the edge of a cliff.
Newly orphaned, suddenly flush and tentatively sober, I went New York to dog-sit for my friend Marge, who was taking an island vacation. Andrew went to visit family in Washington. Ben vanished into his hectic rehearsal and performance schedule. I was comfortable in Marge’s Madison Avenue apartment, a second home of mine for years, my base for radio and television production, and the shopping that accompanied well-paid jobs. And wild nights on my own, fueled by cocktails and coke.
There would be little shopping and no clubbing this time. My job was to walk the dog several times a day, picking up her poop in plastic baggies. I knew the routine well—past the doorman, turn left, go up Madison past the deli and the antiques shop, left again, through a brownstone canyon of world-class wealth, left, back down Fifth Avenue past the Metropolitan Museum, left through another brownstone canyon and then left and straight to the burgundy awning, stopping to toss the baggie in the corner trashcan. Mornings I was to take her to the doggy hill in Central Park to network with other dogs and their owners before they left for their offices. I had looked forward to some solitude in the familiar surroundings of the Upper East Side, the scenery of the most privileged eras of my life. Here I’d shopped for Christmas gifts at Tiffany’s, hired a limo for Dad on his birthday, entertained clients at the Four Seasons. Watched my own son perform on a Broadway stage.
So after the park one day, I decided to take myself out to lunch, like in the good old days. I dressed up in an outfit I’d just bought on sale at a boutique, and took a table for one on the terrace of a chic place in the upper seventies. I was warm in the sun, lulled by comfortable clinking and low voices, surrounded by perfectly cut hair and clothes in subtle shades that spoke of substance. I was enjoying the svelte East Side ambience, the straight-edged American briskness of it all.
The waiter brought me an oversized menu with a glossy black cover that reflected my image. He said they were pouring a nice Chardonnay today, did I want a glass, and I thought . . . yes, actually.
As a matter of fact I would like a glass of freakin’ Chardonnay.
Why not, for chrissakes?
It was a tall, copious glass and a lovely wine, crisp and buttery at the same time. I ordered another with my ravioli. I felt my confident old self returning. I joined in a conversation of a couple of women at the table next to me when they started talking about traveling in Europe. They were enthusiastic about my living in France. They wanted to hear more. I ordered more wine. I told charming stories, and they smiled and nodded. Then they had to get back to the office. I picked up the thread with a couple at another table who had been following our conversation. They didn’t seem to be as impressed as the ladies who’d left. The woman took issue with something I had said. The man looked at me with a sideways grin and narrowed eyes. I decided I didn’t like them. They were probably anti-French. I’d noticed all the post-9/11 American flags everywhere. These two were trying to goad me into saying something that would verify some theory they had between them. I could tell by the way they glanced at each other now and then. They probably saw me as some kind of bumpkin. Hey—I knew my way around New York and Paris. What the hell could they know that I didn’t? The smug bastards. I paid, got up and left.
The late sun played on the crystal decanters arranged on Marge’s antique sideboard, filled with Scotch and bourbon and rye and other liquors she never touched. I saw myself in the mirror over their sparkling reflections. I saw me take off the top of one of them and put it carefully aside. I watched me lift the decanter to my mouth and tilt it so the golden brown liquid poured in. I set it down and watched me scrunch up my face as it burned its way down my throat. I shuddered in pleasure and gave my reflection a conspiratorial grin. We were in this together. Nobody else would know.
But this stuff was harsh. Wait . . . I knew where the white stuff was . . . the gin and vodka that went down easier. Neater. These were stashed in the antique mailbox, lacquered a fun red, in the corner by the window overlooking Madison Avenue. You just pulled out the latch and opened the door and there they were—full bottles of good stuff, hardly touched. Plenty for me. And if the levels got too low, I’d just go to the liquor store and buy more.
Meanwhile, I would just take a little nap. Then I’d walk the doggie and pick up something for dinner.
The phone rings. It takes a message. Somebody bangs on the door. The doggie barks and settles back down next to me. This crazy city. Everything’s so goddamn important. Can’t you see we’re sleeping? Leave us alone. Right, doggie?
So many clothes. How am I going to fit them into my suitcase? It’s already dark. What time is it? I need to get a cab. Be at the airport by nine. Meet Andrew. Air France. Walk the doggie again before I leave. So tired. Where did I leave my passport? With the tickets? Where are they? Gotta check the flight number. Whose black skirt is this? Oh my god, I can’t do this. I’ve got to lie down for a minute.
That’s Andrew’s voice. And Marge. I hear Marge talking on the phone. He must have put me in bed. What’s he doing here? God I feel awful.
It is Andrew. It must be him. He’s asleep. I lift the covers and slide out of bed, silent. I grab a decanter and tiptoe into the kitchen, pour a glassful and raise it in one smooth motion.
“Uh-uh!” From behind me, Andrew grabs the glass from my hand and pours it out in the sink. “You’ll remember this as the last drink you ever took in your life.”
I sat in a chair in the living room waiting for Andrew, Ben and Marge to start the meeting. It was definitely a meeting. I knew it as soon as Marge answered the buzzer and Ben walked in. His usually rosy cheeks were white, and his jaw was clenched. I had done something bad, but I didn’t know what. I was waiting for them to tell me.
Marge had found me passed out when she got home. She intercepted Andrew at the airport in Washington. He came by bus in the middle of the night. It was Ben who’d called and banged on the door. It was about his dress rehearsal—the one that we’d all been waiting for. The one where he played the lead role. I had passed out. I missed it.
Each of them spoke briefly about how much they cared about me and wanted me to get well. I don’t remember the words, just that they released a great gush of emotion in me, and I wept and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” over and over.
Marge, who seemed to be leading the meeting, had consulted an alcoholic who’d been sober for years now. (I vaguely remembered hearing Marge’s end of the conversation in the next room ). She was pushing Alcoholics Anonymous.
I did not want to go to AA. I did not want to stand up in front of a bunch of crybabies, bums and losers and share personal things. I did not want some sponsor checking on me and poking around in my business. It was just not me.
Marge dialed a number and handed me the phone. “Go,” said the voice of someone we both knew. “Sit in front. You don’t have to say anything.” And just as I was forming thoughts that would get me around it, she said simply, “It’s your only chance.”
A chill went through me. She was talking about my life.
I found the church where the nearest meeting was held that afternoon. Just across the street, I stopped in my tracks. One of the bums I’d imagined was there on the steps. But when he unfolded a cardboard pallet I saw he wasn’t going to the meeting. I stepped around him and walked inside to find the room. Discreet signs led me to the basement, where a room was filling up with people—all kinds of people. People like me.
Doing just as I had been told, I went straight to an empty folding chair in the front row. A youngish man in khakis and a plaid shirt came to the podium and shuffled some papers, then casually stepped toward me and handed me one. I looked it over. My heart pounded so hard I heard it in my ears. This-is-me-this-is-me-this-is-me. The man at the podium said a few words and then gave me a nod. I felt eyes on me, heard breathing.
I looked at the paper. I was apparently supposed to read it out loud.
We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol . . . that our lives had become unmanageable . . .
I didn’t know I was supposed to pass it to the next reader.
. . . came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity . . .
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him . . .
I heard my voice become strong and clear.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves . . .
There were about 50 people packed together into this basement room. An awareness of them, that they knew and understood, came over me like a gentle warming. Like a baby taken into loving arms. I could let go and be cradled in their attention. For once, I didn’t have to be in charge.
I read all the way to the end, when tears had wet my face and run down my neck. Then I heard clapping. Everyone around me was clapping. A chair squeaked behind me, and I felt a stranger patting me on the back.
The first speaker at my very first AA meeting was a professional flamenco dancer.
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, popped into my mind. Here’s color. Here’s art.
She recounted how she had once broken a leg and still managed to get from her third-floor walkup to the corner liquor store and back on crutches, carrying two six-packs. It was a good story. It was humor mixed with pain. It was admirable determination, just pointed the wrong way. It was me.
A writer in a room full of stories: this, I could do.
I called Marge’s adviser to report on the meeting as she’d requested.
“Did you sit up front?” she asked.
“They made me read!”
“You said I wouldn’t have to say anything.”
“Yeah . . . we alcoholics are tricky.”
We certainly are.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell