That kind of reflection is, after all, an intention of a family reunion; to assemble the various family stems into a mismatched bouquet, which although unruly in places still maintains some uniformity. Because within families, there are themes – threads that are woven into the tapestry that is their life, expressing the tenor of their mutually shared story.
The thread woven by my grandparents is one made of the rigid fibers of faith in God and the conviction of devotion. It’s dyed with the rich hues imbued by a life pockmarked by the experiences of surviving, among other things, a Great Depression and a World War.
In my grandfather’s case, that thread is comprised of the filaments generated by staring down death in the form of a Japanese fighter pilot flying low over the ocean. Of being on a Navy ship whose stern was blown off by a torpedo. Of burying dozens of shipmates on an island in the South Pacific, after which they spent weeks repairing their ship with sawn timbers collected from the jungle. Then, of returning home to meet and six weeks later marry the love of his life: a 19-year-old redhead descended from Polish great-grandparents, who followed a Catholic priest to the United States to settle a southeastern pocket of Texas.
The connection of shared blood and collective history assures that a common thread persists among families, even though the pattern shifts from one generation to the next, articulating the nature of the new lives represented in the familial design. A family reunion offers an opportunity to become reacquainted with our similarities – the striking resemblance between Grandpa in that picture taken on the front stoop after the war and Cousin Jonathon today; and the way Emmeline’s hair curls just like her uncles’ did, when they were babies.
But it’s also a time to work on the fraying edges, and attempt to re-stitch the places where the pattern seems to have gone awry.
My father has been an alcoholic for at least as long as I’ve been alive. It’s just one of those aberrant parts of the pattern, one that in recent years has been harder and harder to ignore, and yet too prickly to touch. For years the disease has been so disruptive to the overall design that it seemed all there was to do was just let it weave its own course, telling ourselves it wouldn’t end abruptly in tragedy, but secretly fearing that it would. Quietly resigning ourselves to the fact that it might.
“We’ve been praying about this a long time,” my grandparents said to me, after my father was picked up for a DUI on the first evening of last weekend’s family reunion. It was the first time they had openly admitted to me, their first grandchild, that yes, they know that my father has a drinking problem. It was a conversation my stepmother and I have had, almost without interruption, since he wound up in the hospital last winter due, in alcoholism’s roundabout way, to the toll of 30-plus years of heavy drinking. We would talk about how he’s becoming more and more dysfunctional. How the business is barely surviving. How they’re barely surviving.
But, again, this part of the pattern was too prickly to touch. I’m his daughter, not his parent. I have my own family to worry about, now.
But last weekend, I couldn’t ignore the unruly threads winding their way down this destructive path any longer. Neither could my grandparents, or my stepmother, or my father’s brothers and sisters. There it was, laid out for us all in all its messy unpleasantness, as we met over coffee Sunday morning: Jerry’s in jail.
It fell to me to tell him that we would only bail him out if he would agree to go straight to a rehabilitation facility. Which would mean sitting in jail for an extra two days, at least, enabling him to get through some of the detox process while we worked on the details of where he would go, and how we would get him there.
Intentionally leaving someone in jail, specifically a parent, feels tremendously awkward. Telling them you’re doing so feels downright awful.
Yet these are the kinds of things that this disease forces families to do, just as it forced my father to hide his plastic bottles of vodka in the garage for the last three decades.
On Tuesday morning, my stepmother, Craig and I and a few of my aunts and uncles waited uneasily on the grass outside the Montrose County Jail. “What will you say to him?” Craig had asked me on the way. I honestly didn’t know. I suppose our actions had said a lot – that we were concerned enough about his problem that we felt jail was a better place for him than at a weekend gathering with his family. And that as many as 90 days in a residential rehabilitation center was his option, his only option at this point, as far as we were concerned.
When he limped out of the heavy grey door, stooped and red-eyed, I still didn’t know what to say. He carried a toothbrush and a credit card-sized bar of soap in a plastic bag. My father, leaving jail and in the process the life he has known for decades, with nothing but some toiletries clutched in a disposable bag. That seemed infinitely sad to me. There was nothing I could say that would make that panorama brighter. So I gave him a hug, and said nothing.
Driving back home from the Montrose County Jail, my heart strapped delicately into its cage of ribs, I felt something I haven’t felt in a long time when thinking of my father: Hope. Though feeble and wary, it crawled like a timid mouse out of the cage I’ve been building for it, for as long as I have held the knowledge that this disease and my father are one and the same.
He stood a chance. He stands a chance. That thread, filaments woven through the experiences of faith and survival, will weave its way back into my father’s life, into our lives, while disrupting that destructive alcohol-driven pattern in the process. Leaving my daughters a legacy of a grandfather who is something other than a drunk.
That is, at least, the hope. We are blessed to have that hope. It is, as my grandmother said, an answer to prayer.