May 8, 1978. About 3PM or so.
It was Sunday, and being my own contractor, sub-contractor and taskmaster, I gave myself the day off. Just hung around, relaxing the best I could, and feeling drained. I was down to three cold ones but not quite ready to head into town to re-load the chambers.
The morning was spent taking an hour to actually put on some clothes, pour myself some breakfast and listen to the Baroque Festival they had on KVOD till mid-afternoon.
By then, I was fully dressed, thinking about heading into town, thinking about heading to San Jose.
Thinking a lot about Emmie, about the Pooh bear I would bring her, about how much bigger she would be, about how happy she would be to see me….
And it stopped dead in its tracks right there.
Would she even know me? Would she even recognize a familiar face, much less know that face for who he was?
The tears were approaching, and I knew it was not the type of subject I wanted to approach quite yet. I would have to think about it enough shortly, have to prepare myself for both everything and nothing my mind’s eye could conjure.
Only one way to handle it:
grabbed the last of the cold ones and walked up the hill behind the house. It was maybe three-hundred feet worth of steps, about seventy-five feet further into the hills, about fifty feet more in altitude. Pushing past eighty-five-hundred feet.
It was the only sizable clearing till you got to the ridge of the first hill behind us. It was where I had my tree, the one that I would sit against and look out over the canyon. I made my way to My Tree, hoping in ways I could feel Emmie’s tender presence, still in the air from her first visit up there. Her first day home.
And with each step I took up the slope, the tears came closer and faster.
They met me at the clearing.
Sitting against My Tree, I became more nervous, almost anticipatory. It was as if that morning I had lived through when they left had become more real to me than it had been during the previous three long weeks. The longest weekend of my life.
But it wasn’t that, not that I knew what it was. All the feelings, even those in the shadows, had joined me in the clearing, sitting up against My Tree.
Like they had been waiting there, knowing I was on my way.
If I had to pick a place to meet up with them, I couldn’t have picked a better one.
Like sitting there almost alone in the front pew at church.
My Tree had become “Me and Emmie’s Tree”.
It had been there waiting for us since before even I was born.
Settling down a bit, feeling the peace around me, comfortable and secure within the embrace of the canyon, itself embraced by God’s most inspiring tabernacle, I took a long look around.
I knew I needed help.
I lowered my head to my knees to try to clear my head as I popped the top on the cold one, preparing to have it out with myself.
I lifted up my eyes to the hills… “from whence cometh my help”, as they say.
I took a long, deep look down the canyon, for the first time with the clarity to almost pick out each and every tree along the road down to Phillipsburg.
I looked at the can in my hand, then looked up toward the heavens through the full, billowing clouds over head. Passed over the Sh’ma, passed by the 23rd Psalm, went straight to the heart:
“I can’t do this shit any more.”
“Just gonna finish this one and that’s it.”
Still no answer, but I’ll tell you what:
it was the best damned beer I ever tasted.
And it was the last.
I finally felt the answer I was listening for…
… while in Milpitas, California, my mother-in-law and some of her Charismatic Catholic friends were praying for me to find that answer.
I slept so well that night, early into the next morning.
None of the customary headache or gag reflexes. Less gunk and eye snots to gently brush aside, and while I hate to admit it, I need to acknowledge the first change of underpants or socks since the morning they left.
Tried brushing my hair, but it wasn’t worth the effort. Shit, hadn’t done that since I put on the clean shorts.
Spent the morning spackling, the afternoon waiting for it to dry enough to spread out a primer coat, and the evening watching whatever was on TV.
Liz and I had been speaking a couple of times a week, with me calling to see how they both were, with her answering only cordially and conversationally the first few times, but then it warmed up. We didn’t directly discuss anything of the utmost importance, probably both sensing that would need to be done face to face. And the starting date for that had been set.
That evening, I had a bit more to add to the expectedly bland “what’d you do today” stretch of the conversation. I found some solace in the fact that she was keeping up an interest in work I was completing in the house: if she didn’t figure she was coming back, why would she care, right?
Well, Lizzie was never one for small talk, and that might have been the only multi-sentence subject matter she could make it through.
She asked how I was doing, and I heard the concern that told me she genuinelycared.
“Well, I quit drinking.”
Her response was one part unfounded hope, three parts empirical skepticism and a splash of ice.
My response was suitably sheepish and barely audible.
“Sorry, couldn’t here you. When?”
Her only response might have been a sigh. I wasn’t sure if I had heard anything.
There was an awkward silence lasting far shorter than it seemed, with me not believing what I actually did say, Liz likely not believing I said what I actually did.
“Sorry, couldn’t hear you. Em’s fussing a little bit. What you’d you say?”
“Yesterday. Yeah. Ummm… yeah. Yesterday.”
And over the phone, I could swear I could hear a safety pin drop.
“Yeah, at about, uh, about 3:15. Yeah. 3:15.”
Both of us found that a tough thought to expand upon.
“You think it will work this time? Harris, you’ve promised before.”
And with more conviction than I previously realized I had in me, I told her:
And my voice started getting very shaky.
“It worked this time.”
I wanted to keep talking but was getting more shaky.
Liz and I spoke a few minutes longer. I couldn’t entirely read what Liz was saying. There was nothing serious we spoke about, so there was not a lot to deeply reflect on, but there was no space between the lines, no face to go with the voice.
I felt what I couldn’t know for sure.
And we hung up.
Maybe I was just kidding myself, maybe Liz really wasn’t able to be as hopeful as I needed her to be. I was wishing she had picked up on the faith and the belief and the confidence and the hope and the confidence I had in my voice when I actually had the nerve to say “Yesterday” as if it were actually a genuine date in the past.
Maybe Someone Else let her know it was for real but I got off the phone with her feeling it when she told me she loved me. Until then, I could only hear it.
Even after a few short years together, every couple should have started to know the difference between the sound and the feel of each others words.
Tears starting to flow.
Only that time it was from faith, from belief, from deep regret… and from viable, palpable hope.
I knew I had quit.
It had been over twenty-seven hours since I quit.
And I got to thinking:
had I tried the day earlier, I might not have had the strength;
had I waited a day later, I might have been too far gone and just floated on over to something else.
Maybe sober, but accosting tourists in the Stapleton Airport concourse, handing them dinky, pre-school-quality daisies made of thin wire and cheap-ass imitation silk telling them how “I used to be fucked up on alcohol but now I’m fucked up on the Bhagavad Danidavido”.
After all the times I had spent on my knees, on my back, flat on my face, hunched over a toilet bowl, waking up in a wet bed –
He would know when it was time.
God would know when I was ready.
I’ll tell you what: a guy goes through eight years of doing that kind of shit, comes right out of it without even having to shake off any of the expected concurrent signs of any wear and tear, then he didn’t do it by himself.
You want to say I was cured? Cool. Like the word “healed”? I have no problem with that.
“Saved”? I’ve certainly heard less appropriate explanations.
God would step in. That was always His part of the deal.
I was just going to have to be ready for it. My part of the deal.
Nothing in the MOU said I couldn’t have some help. Close by I had Bryan, John and Mary over at The Tabor who would have my back, but they were hidden somewhere inside a bunch of folks who would just as soon see me pissing my pants in front of the DQ on a Sunday morning right after the Methodists got cut loose.
Mama Wags and George and Tom were around from my earlier year in Denver: Wags had been up in the general vicinity of my high country hood, George was in between Morrison and Evergreen, and ol’ Spook had followed me and Bryan out there from Mt. Prospect, IL. Settled down in Morrison.
There was Glenn. Doc Prentice. My Jungian Yoda.
And there would be Liz.
Liz would have the memories, the feelings and fears, the trepidation and doubt that go along with them.
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