Good News

by Susan Palwick

I didn’t go to church when I was a kid. My father, a furiously lapsed Catholic, wanted nothing to do with faith. My mother, who’d been raised as a lukewarm Presbyterian, simply had no interest in the subject, and was baffled by how anyone could believe in things — like resurrection — that she considered both impossible and irrelevant.

I was, however, exposed to spirituality when I began attending Alcohol Anonymous (AA) meetings with my mother. Mom had stopped drinking when I was three, after years of alcoholism and many failed attempts at sobriety. Before she finally “got the program,” everyone in the family expected her drinking to kill her. The story of her recovery is itself a moving example of resurrection, although I wouldn’t know to call it that for some time. She gave me permission years ago to tell her story.

My father divorced her just as she finally attained sobriety,but as a struggling single parent, Mom stayed sober. Later, she stopped smoking when my sister and I nagged her about lung cancer (she told us that nicotine had been harder to quit than alcohol), and worked full-time while going to school at night to get a master’s degree in education.

Despite her successes, she was deeply ashamed of her history with alcohol, wracked with guilt over how her drinking had, or could have, hurt me and my sister. When I was nine, she finally sat me down and told me that she was an alcoholic. She stayed sober, she said, by going to AA meetings. Other alcoholics helped her, and she helped them.

“Oh,” I said. “Those are those people you talk to on the phone all the time, right?”

Mom said later she nearly fainted with relief. She’d been terrified that I would reject her or be disgusted with her. “Would you like to come to a meeting with me?” she asked.

She took me to an “open” AA meeting where friends and family were welcome. She thought I’d be bored by the alcoholics who got up and told their recovery stories, but she wanted me to see that they weren’t monsters, and wanted me to meet the people she spent time with every week.

To her bemusement, I loved AA. The warmth and fellowship spilled out the doors of the church basement and pulled me in, and the speakers enthralled me. So many stories! Sad stories, funny stories, suspenseful stories: and all of them were true, and all of them had happy endings! These stories were better than TV, better even than the books I devoured. When other AA members brought their children, the kids fidgeted and escaped into the parking lot to play. When speakers were boring — delivering the “drunkologues” Mom loathed — I sensed the adults shifting restlessly on the hard metal folding chairs. But I was spellbound, always, my gaze so focused on the speaker’s face that everything else in the room blurred into grainy pixels.

I went to meetings with Mom for years, and although she was uncomfortable with the spirituality of the 12 Steps — she’d been immensely relieved when a sponsor told her, “Your higher power can be the tree outside your window, if that’s what works for you” — I inhaled it like air. Our AA friends were both humble and incredibly generous, and I knew intuitively that the 12 Steps had helped them become that way. They loved Mom, and me. They were family.

My mother was more than a little alarmed when, at eleven or twelve, I said, “I really want to be an alcoholic when I grow up, so I can join AA too, but I know you wouldn’t like that.”

I didn’t become an alcoholic — I don’t drink at all, since alcoholism is genetic — but eventually, I found the same feeling of love, acceptance and compassion AA had given me when I was a child. I found it when I was 38 years old, in the place my parents had always shunned: church. I listen now to the Gospel as avidly as I ever listened to recovering alcoholics, and for the same reason: for the assurance of happy endings, of Good News, of resurrection.

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