In Ordinary Time

There is a cost to alcoholism that is unnoticed by anyone except the person paying its price. Even those with whom we surround ourselves closely are unaware of what we let go when loss is the only way forward.

When Swenny was released from his job two years ago, it cost him a position he enjoyed and colleagues he loved. In the after-hours meeting in which he was terminated, he looked around the table and stated that he had finally hit bottom. His rebound was so immediate, though, he barely touched the ground. Within days he started a new job, satisfied ever since to have restored his balance.

For me, though, the loss has lingered. His job was as a custodian at a church that was long part of my family. The sanctuary he cleaned was the one in which my parents took their vows before my dad held open the large arched door for my mom as they stepped into their life as husband and wife. The carpet he vacuumed covered the room where our son sat with his great grandmother while visitors paid their respects before her funeral. He kept clean the spaces where our children learned the prayers they no longer say.

Where we once attended church regularly, after Swenny’s termination, it became increasingly difficult to return. Weeks turned into months and then into seasons before we eventually stopped prioritizing going at all. The last time we attended church as a family was Christmas Eve.

And I miss it. Which is how I found myself, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, sitting in a church not of my faith, trying to reconcile the price I paid when Swenny let down the one that felt like home.

The irony of my position in a pew surrounded by strangers was not lost on me. As people came in, I watched closely the rituals that were unusual to me, and justified my being there by reaching deep for my Catholic heritage. I wondered why churches willingly welcome 12-step meetings in their basements, but when an addict approaches street level, their struggle becomes grounds for termination or, according to the homily to which I listened, a justification for the null and void of a marriage. I thought about my kids who have lost faith in the community of church and the beauty of fellowship. And I cried.

In a service embellished by its surroundings, I wondered about the standings of those in the line that inched past me toward communion while I stayed put. I wondered if somewhere in that line there was a place for me. Before I could answer, I slid out a side door and returned home to Swenny questioning my need to go out on a rainy Sunday night.

I crossed over puddles to worship. In the company of strangers, at a church in the neighborhood that was home more than four decades ago. Where the service is beautiful in part because it is unfamiliar despite words spoken in a voice I recognize. Where reverence is abundant.

I needed to go out on a rainy Sunday night to begin replenishing the account I nearly closed when I followed him out the door of the church that once felt like home.

Lost

On a trip to Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, I picked up my rental car and, on the way to my downtown hotel, passed a sign welcoming me to Washington. When my boss called to ask, “How is Portland?” I told him that I couldn’t be sure, but Vancouver was lovely.

The absence in me of a sense of direction is well-documented by passengers who have endured my wrong turns. When I should go left, I’m drawn right. And when I should go one way, my instincts pull me in another. Intent on not making a wrong turn, I follow GPS closely. So closely that I’ve been known to drive onto running trails marked as roads only to find myself a turn away from driving into a lake.

I manage my life as the spouse of an alcoholic in much the same way. On this journey, though, I have set my GPS to the expectations of others. Decisions on what to do have been considered first in light of their effect on others. On second, third and fourth parties whose stake in our future is so small it’s immeasurable. Yet somehow important enough to be allowed to throw me off course. Or at least set me back.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, shortly after that trip to Oregon, that I decided to establish my route based on what it was I wanted most. Sobriety for my husband, a family that stands tallest when protecting its commitment to one another, and for each of us to live in agreement about what matters most – our collective and individual wellbeing. Had I stayed on track, the turns taken would have been tight and close to home. But instead, I took wide tangents to meet the expectations of a party known best as everyone else.

This summer, while trying to navigate the middle ground in which I still find us, my son cautioned me to not weigh too heavily the expectations of others. He told me to consider what it is I want most, and then establish my route accordingly.

Even after his encouragement, though, I spent the final days of summer letting the expectations of others lead me down forks in the road. As I stalled finding my way back, it was Swenny who reminded me of the importance of staying the course. On a quiet night after our son returned to school, our conversation turned to my running. As a former state record holder in the mile, he’s interested in, and possibly confused by, my pace. While he doesn’t know how I’ve lost my way in navigating the life we share with alcoholism, he knows more than anyone that my running lacks the direction it once had. Suffering from my inability to stay the course.

After comparing his peak pace with mine, he challenged me to run one mile in a time I never thought possible. Before letting him establish expectations for me based on what he thought I could do, we negotiated a split somewhere between his fastest mile and my slowest.

With that in mind, early one morning, I visited our local track. And even though it was empty, I took my place in lane three, keeping open lanes one and two in deference to the runner I will never be. Reading my watch by what Swenny thought possible, I made mistakes early in the four laps I took by chasing a pace that I have never before seen. Six thirty six. Ultimately, though, I ended disappointed with a split almost double that of his fastest time.

Despite falling short in Swenny’s challenge, I walked away from the track with lessons about alcholism that won’t come from too carefully dissecting the data on my Garmin. Yet helpful in reading the road ahead when starting from a place I’ve never before been. A place where things seem outwardly fine despite indications they are not. Where the bumps are well hidden and the curves blind. And where the best way is my own.