This is part 2 of a series, with part 1 being here, published immediately before this post:
That post was about him. This one is about my own usage of the dynamic of alcohol.
As I said in that last post, dad is totally my hero for how he went from being the active alcoholic to getting really close to Jesus with daily Mass and spiritual direction from priests. He became sober in the early-mid 1970s, successfully going cold-turkey on a certain Ash Wednesday, and sticking with it. That really impressed me. Great example.
Do I drink? Not much. Nothing against it. Catholics know how to party, as we know from the Wedding of Cana. But to say that any drinking on my part is a rare event doesn’t quite tell the story.
In younger days, when offered a slice of salty pizza, I might be given a beer. Whatever.
More recently, I’m sure I’ve had a craft beer here or there. We didn’t have those when I was a kid. Back when I was in Europe I do remember having a panaché or two. Some will say that doesn’t count. Even more recently, I remember having a sip of apple cider. But hard liquor? I would try a Bailey’s Irish Cream on a spectacular occasion, every other ten or twenty years. The rector of the seminary at which I was a new faculty member ordered a Manhattan for me at a meal for all the new priest-professors at Ruth’s Chris. I didn’t know what a a Manhattan was. Now I know it’s not for me.
Here’s the deal: as I grow older, I find out that my larynx swells up because of the trauma of a drink with too high of a percentage of alcohol. I have a super rare hereditary disease and I gotta be careful. My mom, from whom I got this hereditary malady, suffocated to death with her throat swelling up (not because of alcohol), as do about 1/3 of those affected. Not pleasant. I’ve been at that point of my esophagus just barely not being entirely tightly swelled shut more than a couple of dozen times throughout my life. I’m just waiting my turn for the 100% event at anytime. So, it’s just not worth having a hard drink. That’s all been good for my spiritual life, but – Hey! – there are other ways, like a Rosary.
Besides, now, for some six years, I carry G-19 Gen-4. That doesn’t mix with any drinking, ever. Period.
Whatever about having a panaché or a craft beer or even the rare Bailey’s in days of yore, my attitude toward alcohol my entire life was simply benign neglect. You like it? Go for it! I enjoy having a sharp intellect as much as that’s even possible through my fog.
Reflecting on this now, I cannot for the life of me even once think of any occasion ever when dad offered any alcohol of any kind to me, ever. He totally respected me on this point. That respect of his for me was very formative. He wanted better for me. I took that in stride. Thanks, dad.
I’ve lost good friends in just saying “no” to their offer of hard liquor. But it’s not a friend of any kind who, even in knowing my medical condition, still doesn’t care one bit about that. I know how to be polite, but then entrench. When I was a kid there was never a problem with any forcing dramatics. The first time I had to learn how to say “no” to alcohol was when I was a new deacon just assigned to a parish Stateside for a month or so during the Summer break in between school years over in Rome. Learning how to say “no” was an event, that is to say, it happened all in the space of a couple of days which brought all the premises of a lifetime together, so to speak, in the argument that would play out to a conclusion of how to deal with… trouble. Just say “no.”
It was a huge rectory with three priests assigned there. The pastor was an alcoholic in total denial. The parochial vicar befriended me but stayed out of the way of the other two priests, one of them being “in residence.” This would be a perfect experience for me for me to be trained up in saying “no” to alcohol just to test the psychological dynamics. Was I welcome as a human being bringing with me an entire life history, or, as a deacon wanting to be a priest, did I have to conform to some behavioral standard just to impress the powers that be so as to get a good word put in for me to the bishop? In other words, would I have to drink hard liquor just to fit in, or else?
For the first week at this new assignment I stayed in my room in the evening, reading, studying, praying, whatever, anything but making myself available in the “common room” of the rectory, trying to avoid the drama of the alcoholism. But then it struck me that this was no way to live.
I made my way to the “common room” one evening with something to read, a large tome of moral theology, something about Humanae vitae by Italian author Father Ermenigildo Lio, something that would take me days to plow through. The “common room” was very spacious, with all sorts of couches and chairs and coffee tables, a large television, always stocked with chips and drinks and a beer-keg fridge with a tap through the door. The door of the “common room” was always open. I sat down, turned on the reading lamp next to me, and opened my book.
In no time at all, so predictable, the pastor appeared, taken aback at my presence, but he said hello, and then went to get a beer stein and fill it up at the tap of the keg fridge, but only, say 1/3 full. He would then waddle back to his room. Five minutes later, a repeat. This went on for hours. Finally, I had him spooked. He spoke up:
- So, you’re just reading, right?
- So, what’r you reading?
- Oh just something by Ermenigildo Lio. Good stuff. On Human vitae.
- So, is your room O.K.?
- Perfect. I just thought this would be a change of scenery. This is a nice chair.
- We can get a chair like it for your room.
- This is O.K.
- So, just so you know, I only fill up the stein just a bit. I’m cutting back. Doctor’s orders.
- [[… back to reading … head down … I wasn’t thrown out … yet … but it wouldn’t be long now …]]
I’m so bad and evil. But I got the message across. He knew better than to get plastered every night like this. He was upset with me for calling him out just by reading quietly in chair in a “common room.”
The next day I was told by the in-residence priest to make sure to show up for the evening meal. It was a setup, of course. The in-residence priest brought some very expensive hard liquor and made up some special occasion which didn’t sound special at all. The parochial vicar didn’t show up, smart as he was. No food was on the table yet, but the bottle was de-foiled and un-corked, and I was given one of the special glasses he also brought. I politely refused, setting the glass upside down on the table, now guessing the connection with the night before. I wasn’t going to be manipulated. He insisted. I even more politely refused, ever so soft-spoken, going out of my way to be very nice indeed. He insisted again, picking up the glass and filling it up, shoving it in my hands. I put it back on the table. We played this game a few more times as the pastor watched intently. It was all quite aggressive by this point as the in-residence guy told me that he was involved with seminarian formation and then instructed me:
- “If you’re going to be ordained a priest you’re going to have to learn to drink sociably.”
- “This is an issue we’re going to have to raise with the bishop.”
- “Fine with me.”
And in anger, he stomped out, not staying for the meal. The pastor said nothing, but that evening repeated his beer stein waddlings.
If they were going to deny me ordination to the priesthood over politely refusing a drink (they weren’t interested in reasons), that means I was already dead. I was transferred to another parish, just like that.
Look, I’m no paragon of virtue. I’m not putting these guys down to say I’m great. No. It’s just that I did learn something from my dad and I thank him for that and I want more people to gain from the lessons he taught me. It’s about Jesus. He’s the One. He’s the only One. He knew that. Jesus’ Little Flock can know Jesus. He’s our pastor. It’d be great if priests would get to know Jesus like this as well. We’re nothing without Jesus.
3 responses to “Son of my military-alcoholic dad: striving to follow his good example”
I’ve learned to say “Cheers” with a glass of water in my hand.
Thank you Lord for Mr. & Mrs. Byers who raised a son according to Thy word.
My brother got extremely mad at me because i would not let him have a beer at my childrens’ (plural) graduation party at which we were serving no alcohol to adults as an example for the kids that you could have a party without it and have a good time.