Generation: because the act of writing about my alcoholism turns out to be the act of writing about my father’s alcoholism, and recovery from my addiction is actually a recovery from his.
They say that. That alcoholism is a family disease. Give or take genetic tendencies, we are who we are because we are what our parents gave us. It is common to hear a drunk, or maybe even a normal person, say they swore to never be like their father while shaking their head and looking off into the distance. That gaze, that middle distance, turns out to be important.
It turns out to be the thing we have to look at. The middle distance made up of memory, emotion, faded photographs and recollections of kitchen tables, bedroom smells, old cars that no longer exist.
There is a split of discontinuity: the medical fact that alcoholism is a family disease is not the same thing as realizing, one morning, that your alcoholism was fully formed when you were six.
This is not to say we should live in the past, nor to argue for determinism. It’s just to say that any real attention to the present proves to have the past fully in it.
I’ve always known that my dad was an alcoholic, and that alcoholism is a family disease. But I had to learn the lesson myself.
A week ago, there was a single day that went through a strange retrospective of the seasons before resolving itself to a thundery dawn. Like the scenes of life flashing before a dying person’s eyes. First, there was a kind of balmy, yellowy stillness. The cattails nodded, and the telephone wires swayed, and a clutch of finches danced in the brush without any of it seeming to interrupt that larger feeling of stillness and immobility. Pewter gray clouds banked in the south, and eventually, a thin wind came from that way, too.
The afternoon happened, and the bank of purply grey clouds pulled closer, filling the sky like a pouring stain. The wind upped. All the trees and all the trees branches began to wave a little hysterically. There was a howling, moany quality that came and went. Then, rain began.
The rain quickly changed to thin flakes of snow, then needled points of sleet. Enough white came down that the distance disappeared for an hour or two. The spring things, a turned over garden, a running gutter of meltwater, the pockmarked ice on the pond and a tricycle, were covered in ashy snow. The wind lifted it and threw it about in a parody of a blizzard.
But the clouds bunched together, like muscle, and went from looking sheen and slack to something powerful and prescient. Inside, lightening flickered. The wind, still south, was warm and then seemed warmer, and the snow turned wetter, then wet, and then was gone. When dawn finally broke, the purple cloud rumbled and then cracked. The early light widened everything open again, and the earth seemed thirsty, and the first spring rain began in earnest.
It’s always this way. That there should be a struggle, the tumult before the calm, that life should be freshly captured by each new generation and not simply handed down like the baby’s old clothes.
My father told me about alcoholism. I knew. And fifty million generations of humanity have known the experience of god, grief, resentment and joy. But if being human is the experience of god, we have to experience it ourselves. We have to learn the hard way.