My buddy Armand had just left. After an hour and a half discussing our lives and the trials and tribulations of attempting to live sanely and serenely on the long, winding road of recovery. I had given him a warm hug and watched him go. I needed to give the girls some dessert before I could brush teeth and read stories and bring myself to the holy land of “me time.” Lorri had gone off to her exercise class and would not return home for some time. I placed the sugary treats on the table in front of them when Sydney asked, “Daddy, are you sad that Mr. Armand left?” I was surprised at the question. “No honey. I’m not feeling sad. I very much enjoy Mr. Armand’s company, but it was time for him to go home and for me to spend some time with you girls. Why do you ask, sweetie? Does daddy look sad to you?” “No, I guess not,” she answered and shoved a piece of cream filled sponge cake into her face. I didn’t think much of it. I turned to load the dishwasher just as she posited the follow-up question. “Daddy, are you going to call your sponsor now?”
Three days previous, I was sitting in an A.A. meeting. I was taking in the speakers words when, seemingly out of nowhere, found myself overcome with what, all of a sudden, seemed a rather time-sensitive thought. Having spent their entire lives regularly hearing the words, “See you later girls, Daddy is off to his meeting” and now being 8 and 5, respectively, I had become startlingly aware that it was perfectly possible that, any day now, without warning, one or both of them might very well find themselves charged to ask what it is I do at these meetings. Accordingly, I became quite discomforted at the prospect of finding myself facing down such a question without a basic strategy set in place as a product of a mutual understanding between my wife and I. When I returned home from the meeting, I sat down with Lorri, shared my concerns, and asked her opinion on how such a query ought be handled.
“Tell them,” she said quite plainly and confidently.
“Just like that? Tell them that their dad is an alcoholic?”
She replied, “If they are mature enough to ask, then they are mature enough to know. You disagree?” “No. No, I don’t,” I answered, “I think that’s a really sound concept. I just… I guess I always thought that sharing this fact with my children would be no big deal, and now… faced with the possible reality of actually doing it… I’m… I guess I’m… scared.” “What are you scared of?” Lorri wondered. “That’s a good question. Honestly, I’m not really sure. Maybe of them thinking less of me? Or somehow making them scared or worried?” “Hmm… okay,” she responded, “Yes, I get that. Well, do what makes you comfortable. If they indeed ask, and you feel like you want to wait to tell them, I suppose you can just say that it’s a grown-up thing and that you will tell them when you think they are ready.” This all seemed like a solid working game plan, providing me both a basic structure to operate from and some wiggle room in terms of attending to my feelings in the moment. Feeling back on terra firma, I went on about my day.
God’s got a quirky sense of humor.
“Why do you ask if I am going to call my sponsor, Syd?” “Well,” she answered, “Don’t you call your sponsor when you’re… like… feeling sad or, um, scared or something?” I was overwhelmed at this insight. Quite frankly, I was completely unaware that Sydney even realized I had a sponsor. The fact that she had managed to somehow grasp the core nature of the relationship, had me reeling. “You know, honey, that’s exactly right. I do call my sponsor when I’m having a hard time. I think it’s amazing that you noticed that. Like i said, though, I’m not presently struggling with anything so, while I imagine that I will talk with him sometime soon, I wasn’t planning to call him right now. Does that make sense?” “Yes, Daddy, that makes sense. So, um, why do you have a sponsor anyway?”
And there it was. I really couldn’t have asked for a clearer sign, right? I mean, seventy-two hours after devising a plan for exactly this situation, the situation organically materializes with no prompting whatsoever. Moments like this, I often find myself struck with the vision of God calling all his buddies over and saying, “Hey guys, see the Jewish dude down there in the mid-west? Check this out. I’m about to blow his mind.”
I sat down at the table where both girls were enjoying their chocolaty snacks with a tall glass of milk.
Me: Okay, Syd, I’ll explain to you why Daddy has a sponsor. Ryan, would you like to know as well?
Me: Do either one of you know what alcohol is?
Sydney: Alcohol is beer.
Me: Very good, honey. Beer is a kind of alcohol. Wine is also a kind of alcohol.
Ryan: Mommy drinks wine!
Me: That’s right. Very good, Rye Rye. Mommy does drink wine. There’s also another kind of alcohol called liquor of which there are many, many different types and flavors. Do you feel like you understand what alcohol does to a person? Do you know what makes it different from, like, juice or soda?
Sydney: Alcohol makes you drunk.
Me: Yes. Correct. If you drink too much alcohol, you get drunk. Do you know drunk is?
Sydney: Drunk is sort of… when you get, like, dizzy?
Me: Very true, baby. When you get drunk you can get very light-headed and dizzy. Also, you can get sick or sometimes even pass out.
Ryan: Does mommy get drunk when she drinks wine?
Me: That’s a terrific question. No, honey, mommy does not get drunk when she drinks wine. Mommy usually has just one glass of wine, which makes her feels relaxed, and she does not continue to drink any more.
Sydney: So why do other people get drunk?
Me: Another good question, Syd. The truth is that people choose to get drunk for a wide variety of reasons.
Ryan: Is drunk bad?
Me: No, Ryan, drunk is not necessarily bad. But only if someone does it once in a while. It’s sort of like the deserts you girls are enjoying. A little bit of sugar now and then is fine. But if you ate it all the time, it would be bad for your health and you could get sick and your teeth could rot. And that would be bad. Have either of you ever heard the word alcoholic?
Both girls shook their heads.
Me: Well, an alcoholic is someone who gets drunk a lot, too much, sometimes every day. An alcoholic is someone who drinks alcohol to the point where it affects their health and their safety and makes the people who love them feel very worried and frightened.
They listened intently, taking in what I was telling them. I could feel myself choking on the next set of words primed to exit my mouth.
Me: And your daddy is an alcoholic.
Sydney and Ryan sat, mildly stunned, trying to resolve this new piece of information in their little minds.
Sydney: But Daddy, you don’t drink alcohol.
Me: Wow, Syd, I honestly didn’t even realize that you were aware of that. You’re right. Daddy doesn’t drink alcohol. In fact, Daddy has not drank alcohol in nearly fourteen years.
Sydney: But Daddy, how can you be an alcoholic if you don’t ever drink alcohol?
Me: Well, honey, long before the two of you were born, daddy used to drink a lot of alcohol. Daddy used to get drunk far too often. It was making me very sick and I was spending all my money on it and Mommy and many others were very worried about me and as much as I desperately wanted to stop, I just couldn’t. And when someone is doing something that is bad for them and can’t stop doing it, that is called addiction. And alcoholism is a kind of addiction. Does that make sense?
They both nodded.
Sydney: So Daddy, if you couldn’t stop, how did you stop?
Me: Well, Syd, this brings us back to your original question. There is an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous. And Alcoholics Anonymous holds meetings in many places all throughout the country, including right here in Wheaton. Alcoholics come together at these meetings and help and support each other in learning how to stop drinking alcohol. And once they’ve stopped, they continue to go to these meetings to talk about their feelings and their difficulties so that they can learn to deal with hard stuff without turning to alcohol. So when you hear Daddy say that he’s going to a meeting, that means that I am going to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Both girls (nodding their heads in acknowledgement): Ah-hah.
Me: And most people in Alcoholics Anonymous have what is called a sponsor who, like you said, Syd, is the main person they call when they feel like they need some help. My sponsor is a man named Tom. He lives in New York and I speak to him almost every day. He helps me very much.
Me: You know who else is an alcoholic?
Both girls shook their heads.
Me: Poppy (my father).
Sydney and Ryan: Really?!
Me: That’s right. Poppy went to Alcoholics Anonymous long before Daddy. In fact, Poppy has not drank alcohol in over twenty years.
Then Sydney asked a question that, even now, I can barely believe her mind conceived of.
Sydney: So Daddy… did you become an alcoholic because Poppy was an alcoholic? And does that mean that we will be alcoholics?
Me: Sydney, I cannot tell you how phenomenal a question that is and how grateful I am that you asked it. No, honey, I am not an alcoholic because Poppy is an alcoholic. I am an alcoholic because I made the choice to drink alcohol and then I made the choice to drink so much of it that it eventually became a big problem. With that said, the fact that you have a Poppy and a Daddy who are alcoholics means that, if you were to experiment with alcohol, you would have a better chance of becoming an alcoholic than a girl who doesn’t have parents or grandparents who are alcoholics. That make sense?
Sydney: I think so. So you are never going to drink again, right?
Now, this felt like something of a conundrum. As I drank in the question and thought about my response, I was stuck somewhere between fear of worrying my children and fear of lying to my children. In the end, I decided that the latter would be far more damaging to the relationship.
Me: Honestly, Syd, I am not sure. I can say that I really don’t think so. If I continue to go to my meetings, and call my sponsor, and do all the things I need to do, there is really no reason that I will ever drink alcohol again.
Sydney: But what if you do?
Me: If I do, you can be sure that Daddy will have all the love and support he needs to deal with that and you need not worry, okay?
Me: Do you have any other questions?
Sydney: One more. Are me and Ryan never allowed to drink?
Me: Well, the legal drinking age in Illinois is 21 years of age, so until then, no, you are not allowed to drink. After you turn 21, Mommy and I are never going to tell you that you cannot drink. But as you grow older, we will have some discussions about the dangers of alcohol and the ways in which you need to be very cautious. But right now, we don’t need to worry about that. Any other questions? Everybody okay?
They both nodded, shrugged their shoulders and bounced over to the couch to watch The Fairly OddParents.
I sat there at the table for a while awash in too many feelings to accurately identify a single one. Mostly, I was utterly flabbergasted at the capacities of my daughters. I am often told that I am a good daddy. And I believe that I am. And, most certainly, from the nurture side of the equation, my fathering has something to do with how remarkable they are. And yet, watching them lovingly, non-judgmentally take in the information and curiously ask astute questions and fearlessly participate in the conversation… that’s not me…
These aren’t my kids. They are God’s kids. And in God’s grace, I have been afforded the once in a lifetime opportunity to watch over and tend to two of his most impressive creations. For this, my gratitude is endless.
The next day, I kissed both girls on the foreheads and said, “See you, lovelies. Daddy is off to his meeting.”
In unison, they both began to sing, “We know where you’re going! We know where you’re going!”
I turned and smiled.
“Yes you do, don’t you?”