It was our nephew and godson's first communion on Sunday (and his birthday two days ago - HBD, Ben! Don't read any of this until you're at least ... 75!)
Anyway, the communion was at a lovely old cathedral in my husband's hometown. It's one of the oldest churches in the country and you can see the regal spires and bell tower for miles. Ben's entire second grade class was there to celebrate first communion. All the boys wore suits or ties or sweater vests and the girls wore their white dresses and veils.
Needless to say, there's quite a lot of prep work that goes into enticing 8 year olds to eat anyone's flesh, even if it is the Son of God's - so we had a lot of time to wait, the whole family lined up on our own pew. As I sat there, I couldn't help but remember the last time I was in that church.
It's not hard to remember the exact date because it was right after another one burned into everyone's mind. Because the last time I was in that church was September 12, 2001 ... the day after 9/11.
My husband's best friend's father had died a few days before and, as it happens, the funeral had already been planned before the world fell apart. I remember how quiet the roads were as we drove. And of course there wasn't a single plane in the sky. The world is eerily quiet without planes ... I don't think we realize that.
Anyway, 9/11 devastated me - as it did everyone. We all became unofficial New Yorkers that day. As for real New Yorkers, well, they became heroes and saints. But what made sitting in that church even worse than it should have been was this:
My husband's best friend's father, Carm, was a recovering alcoholic.
He had been in A.A. for many years, had volunteered for the church, and had built up quite a community of friends ... none of whom drank anymore. So that church was full of sober A.A. members and (hopefully) sober bishops, priests and various men in robes all of whom had shown up to pay their respects to such an active member of the church.
There were more speeches than usual that day ... so many of them hinting at the temptations and evils of the world and the struggle for redemption in light of our sins. Nobody mentioned the word "alcohol" outright, but the subtext was obvious.
Which was really hard on me ... because at that particular time in my life, my drinking problem was probably at its worst. I was still almost two years away from reading Caroline Knapp's book "Drinking: A Love Story" and discovering the causes of my own depression and helplessness. Certainly that far away from my first long "cleanse" which started the summer of 2003.
So rather than feeling soothed by the speeches the old men made, I was tortured. Especially because I was hungover and dying for a drink. Even more importantly because I had a bottle of Evian in my purse and it was filled with wine. I never went anywhere without at least a small bottle of wine on me. I absolutely 'NEEDED' to drink all the time. If I didn't have even a little alcohol in my system I was irretrievably depressed. So I learned quickly that the easiest way to deal with it was simply this: drink all the time.
After the service we drove in a long procession to the graveyard. If you remember September that horrible year, the weather was unusually nice. So warm and sunny that hornets and bees and wasps and whatnot had stumbled out of wherever those little bastards go, to come join us and pay respects at Carm's funeral. They were everywhere.
Problem number fourteen-thousand of the day was this: I'm allergic to bees. At least that's what my mom always told me. I'd never been stung by one because I was so paranoid I'd race indoors every time one flew near.
But that day ... I got stung.
A bee or hornet or whatever flew inside my blazer, inside the sleeve, and then munched right into the inner part of my upper arm. That skin that's still as soft and delicate as it was when you were a child.
The pain was excruciating. I clung to my husband's sleeve. "I'm getting stung," I told him, wavering on my feet. But I didn't cry out. I didn't say anything. After all, the priest was committing Carm to his eternal rest! I reluctantly gave in to my fate. If I was going to die of anaphylactic shock, the graveyard was the most convenient place to do it.
Of course, I didn't die. I had an anti-histamine when we got back to the car ... and the rest of my Evian when we got back to the church for coffee and cookies. I drank it all in the women's washroom in the basement. I thought of the nuns, Sunday school girls, maybe even A.A. members on a break, who had used that old bathroom.
And there I was, sucking back white wine. I was so ashamed. So helpless. But it didn't stop me, of course. I didn't know how to stop. Not yet, anyway. I just closed up my empty bottle and went back to the cookies and hoped that it wouldn't be too long before my next drink.
Anyway, I sat in that church as my darling nephew stood at the front wearing a tie and silver cross. My baby niece burbled like an angel on her mother's knee not far from me. I looked up at the stained glass windows. At the soaring cathedral ceiling. At the ornate carvings on the marble columns that have held the place up for more than a century. I was amazed by the beauty of it. The peace. The strength.
I will admit, my life is not perfect today. I still have problems. Things still go wrong. But I will tell you one thing ... I will swear to it ... I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am in a much better place than I was when I sat on that pew for the funeral of an A.A. member the day after 9/11. I don't have the same fear, guilt or shame that I did. In fact, I have none of that anymore (or at least ... hardly any ;)
And the great part of it is this, when we left the church and went back to my inlaws' house to celebrate, there was much wine flowing for me.
Oh, and some Smirnoff Ice, too.