At the meeting Sunday night, my friend H. stood up and announced that his longtime sponsor had died suddenly the previous day of a heart attack. He mentioned a name, which happened to be the name of a different guy, someone I’d known in graduate school. For a moment I thought maybe we were thinking of the same person, but the way he spoke about his sponsor was so contrary to my experience of the guy I knew 25 years ago that it was clear he was talking about someone else.
“When Frank moved away a few years ago,” H. said, “he chose my new sponsor for me, and I took his suggestion, because he knew me very well and because he helped me get sober.” His right hand covered his heart, then he blinked and swallowed hard. “He saved my life,” he said.
I questioned myself again. Was it the same guy? The Frank I’d known had been shy, retiring, unassertive, fearful of criticism. Different Frank, I thought.
I listened as many of the men in the room murmured their recognition and agreement about this guy who had saved H.’s life. If he had saved one life, certainly he had saved others. Maybe they were thinking of the guys who had saved their own lives.
The next day I found out, of course, that H’s Frank and the Frank I knew were the same guy. It has had me questioning my perceptions, my judgments of others and my own limitations.
I used to go to this Sunday-night meeting regularly when I was detoxing in 2008. At that time there were a couple guys I knew who also came every Sunday, an artist who practices yoga, and a teacher, both serious bikers. The artist would come in dressed in full-body zip-up bike armor; the teacher would arrive in leather jacket and black shit-kickers. Tough guys, I thought.
This summer I attended a memorial service at the university where I’m teaching right now. It’s the school where I earned my graduate degree, the school where my brother and sister earned their undergraduate degrees, and the school where my father earned his bachelor’s in engineering—the first person in our entire extended family ever to go to college. The memorial service was in honor of a guy named Buddy, who for more than 20 years taught fiction here. He also taught a journal writing course that, 25 years ago, Frank and I took together.
It occurs to me now: since H. has 25 years, I met Frank just as H. was getting sober. So even as we sat in Buddy’s writing class, unbeknownst to the other people in that room—or maybe just unbeknownst to me, who walked this earth so unconscious for so long—Frank was busy saving H.’s life.
This was before cell phones and texts and emails. Frank and H. would have communicated largely by phone, and of course by meeting face-to-face. “In the flesh,” as it were.
I’d had no clue back then that Frank was a recovering alcoholic, but I knew Buddy was. I can’t remember how I found out about Buddy’s alcoholism. It just seemed to be a known fact: “Buddy’s an alcoholic.” For all I know, Buddy himself may have told me, or he may even have mentioned it in class. Back then, I had no idea what alcoholism was, I had no idea that I’d been raised in an alcoholic family. I thought “getting sober” was about just not-drinking. I thought Buddy must have simply stopped, the way I had set my teeth and stopped drinking after crashing my car in 1988. You wreck your life—you set your teeth and stop drinking and put it all back together, was what I thought.
That wasn’t how it worked out for me, of course, because I wasn’t doing what Buddy and Frank and H. were doing. And also Bill and Monty, two other professors in that department. For decades Monty set up a noon Wednesday meeting there. At 11:30 Wednesdays he could always be seen wheeling the coffee urn from the office to the conference room.
And Bill—he wrote young-adult novels and books about how to teach freshman writing; he ran around the university with a greasy gray ponytail tied at the nape of his neck, nosing into the lives of junior faculty and grad students who had problems finishing their publications and earning tenure or doctorates. “Do you want to keep this job?” he’d ask them. “Do you want to finish your dissertation?” He invented a system of sponsoring these writers: he’d put them on a “contract”—they’d map out their work for the week on Sunday night, then call him every Friday to report whether they’d made their quotas. He’d prescribe prayer each day before and after working. I know several guys who wouldn’t have their tenured university positions today without Bill’s writing contract. Which of course Bill adapted from his experience with the 12 steps.
Some of these guys showed up at Buddy’s memorial service. Most of the people who approached the podium to speak were major writers. Several novelists, a few poets, a nonfiction writer. Then Buddy’s kids; his wife. It was an open mike. And suddenly there was the teacher, the guy from the Sunday-night meeting with the leather jacket and shit-kickers, except he was that day wearing his professorial wardrobe and he was standing at the podium talking about Buddy—how he’d come to grad school to learn to write with another guy (one of the major novelists in the audience), and how he’d run into Buddy, who had recognized he needed help. How Buddy had become his sponsor, how he had done what Buddy told him, how he’d gotten sober after years of trying to quit drinking on his own. Then the tough leather-clad shit-kicker began to cry. “Buddy didn’t just write great books—he also saved lives,” he told the auditorium.
My sponsor was sitting two rows behind me.
Freaks me out, man, the circles in which this life-saving flows.
There are so many more people who have helped save my life. People who have allowed me to connect with the power they’ve found to live sanely and contentedly. People who have told me at wise moments that I’m full of shit and/or that I need to learn to care for myself more gently. People who keep picking up the phone. People who love me.
Frank J., 1950-2012.
Buddy N., 1939-2012.
Bill C., 1932-2005.
Monty C., 1929-2009.