Today I’m borrowing this title from my good friend Dani, who has written under it for four years (click here to read her in Freedom From Hell). Thanks, Dani.
My friend Jacques’s dad died four days ago in Tucson.
I’ve known Jacques for 25 years. When I met him in 1988, he had gotten sober two years before, at age 22, and was dating Ben, who was studying in the same writing program I was attending. Jacques and Ben are still both poets and English teachers. We were all born in the same year.
Ben’s mom has been living with terminal cancer for several years; by incredible coincidence, the day after Jacques’s dad died—just three days ago, in other words—Ben’s mom had a setback and began actively dying. These former lovers are losing their second parents within days of each other. I find the resonance strange and beautiful.
When it became clear to Jacques that his dad would not last very long, he told the hospice staff that his dad needed a Catholic priest. The hospice worker told Jacques she’d send a minister, a social worker, they had all kinds of resources.
“I need a CATHOLIC PRIEST,” he said. “My dad wants last rites in the Catholic tradition. Can we please get a Catholic priest?”
“I had no idea why I said that, my dad and I didn’t talk about what he wanted at the end,” Jacques tells me today on the phone. “But my dad was a strict Catholic, G, it was serious with him, it wasn’t mumbo-jumbo.”
Jacques, one of three brothers, was born at St. Francis Hospital (Rabbi Abe Twerski and the nuns later turned it into the city’s haven for drunks and junkies; my cousin Danny spent some time there, I believe—it was notorious in our family that you had hit shameful low-bottom if you were at St. Francis; meanwhile, I was born at Braddock General, which, for a number of years until it closed in 2009, served as a detox and rehab for the river valley’s addicts). Jacques lived around the corner on 44th Street till he was in second grade, when his dad started making enough money to move them out to the suburbs, where they had the split-level and the country-club membership.
On the drive back to his hotel four days ago, the hospice worker called his cell and said the priest had arrived and was ready to give his dad the sacrament, and that she’d put the phone on speaker so Jacques could hear his dad’s responses.
“And this is no shit, G, OK?” he said. “On the very last word—on the ‘Amen’—the hospice worker said, ‘Your dad just took his last breath.’ He died on the last word of the sacrament.”
We sit there in silence, absorbing this.
Jacques and I were raised strict Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s. Jacques was an altar boy (dunno what my thing is with altar boys, but I can just picture Jacques in red robe with white lace surplice, holding the censer and cracking jokes under his breath). Jacques and I know what sacrament means, even though we no longer receive them ourselves.
“You did that because you were sober,” I remark. “If you hadn’t been sober, do you think you’d have had the presence of mind to be so certain about what your dad wanted, and to act on that leading?”
“You know, I have goosebumps on the back of my neck when you say that,” he says. “Because I’ve been thinking about that. He didn’t tell me he wanted that—I just knew.”
“How old was your dad—86?” I ask. “That’s a hell of a long time to live, and you made sure your dad had what he needed at the end of that long haul in order to let go and be at peace. In doing that for him you showed him great compassion and kindness.”
“I’ve been realizing something about love,” he says. “It’s not a feeling. It’s a commitment, a desire for the other person’s wellbeing such that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself.” Not in a codependent way, he emphasizes; not in a way that fosters the other person’s weakness and insecurity and one’s own security and vanity, but in a way that fosters the other person’s growth and peace.
Jacques has racked up large bills flying from his home in northern Michigan to Tucson every month since August, when his dad fell and had to move into nursing care.
“Love is hard, G!” he says. “It’s so hard!”
We pause, considering this weighty truth.
“Well,” he says, and I can hear him stretching, “I’m standing here in the 75-degree sun and I’m gonna go take a swim now.”
“Fuck you, darlin,” I say fondly.
So this is part of the way I stay sober. People in The Program talk about “helping others,” reaching out to the newcomer, and I do that, but I also interact with several people in my life who are oldcomers, who count their sober-time in decades, and I stay active with principles I’ve learned from many years in Al-Anon. Long-time sobriety doesn’t guarantee any results—serenity, peace of mind, happiness, even a good night’s sleep. It starts out one day at a time, and it stays that way.
Meanwhile I tell Ben I’ll take some of his classes if he can’t get back from Dallas in time.