Thinking of you today, Charles F. Brennan, III, my friend Charlie (November 2, 1960–April 7, 2014). His funeral mass card carried a quote from Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
I wrote what follows the day he died:
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Alcoholics Anonymous, the famous “Big Book” of A.A., does not use the word “sponsor” in its 164 pages, but it certainly describes a society in which one member helps another learn … about the fellowship, about life without drinking one day at a time, about life. Period. “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. … Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can,” Bill Wilson writes at the start of Chapter 7, “Working with Others.”
The great insight is that when we help others, we help ourselves; when we see ourselves in others’ plights, we see ourselves and thus our own plights become ever more reasonable to negotiate. For many alcoholics, it is the first practical application of “walking the walk” and not just talking to make noise. I taught college for five years, yet it is in A.A. that I finally have started to show rather than tell people how to do things (in the past, I told you how to do something, then sighed loudly in frustration, and finally finished whatever the task was all by myself).
And so from the earliest days of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, members with at least a little bit more sober time than the newcomers help the newcomers start to understand that there is a life to be lived without hiding in a bottle, that there is a life to be lived without hiding, that there is a life. And that life is not all unicorns spitting Skittles but that even the downturns and the boring parts are worth riding out—and probably require our remaining—sober. We teach each other that continued sobriety makes it all possible.
My name is Mark, and I am an alcoholic. My last drink was consumed on July 15, 2010. This is not my story, as today is not the day for that, but the fact that I am an alcoholic who quite happily attends A.A. meetings every day—that’s “happily,” not “contentedly,” since there are days that I go to meetings kicking and screaming inside my head—and the fact that today is one of the down days, well, that is the story. For if I was not a recovering alcoholic who attends fellowship meetings every day, I would not have met my close friend, Charlie Brennan, who died on Monday morning, April 7. He was in his early 50s, which is sad beyond reason.
Charlie was my sponsor for a time and my friend before and after. He looked tough—a flat nose that looked like it had taken a punch or two or caught a barstool, a thick neck, the knitted brow of the near-sighted man who won’t wear glasses, a haircut that was shorter than a crewcut, and thick arms, freaking thick arms—and he sounded gruff, with a bark of a laugh, a classic Noo Yawk accent that didn’t sound as much like an accent as the sounds that a face like his would produce. “Didja call ya mudder?” he asked me at least once. Even his single-syllable laugh-bark had that accent.
But he was more the recovering alcoholic Irish poet than he would have you think of him on first impression. His apartment was not so much book-lined as book-furnished, he baked bread that he served at meetings he chaired, he wore too much patchouli. His library was that of a college junior who keeps reading books from the literature electives that he takes at the expense of pursuing his own major. He was a classic, a tough guy with a romantic heart, loyal, physically strong, always in motion—every woman in our fellowship professed a crush on him.
The word most often used about him by friends is “throwback.” He wore a fedora and a scarf, together, and not at all ironically. (I live in a college town and am accustomed to ironic hipster hat-wearing.) A couple weeks ago, he came to a meeting in a suit and tie after a job interview and I noted his matching pocket square. He squinted at me and flatly stated with a question, “What else would I have there? It’s a pocket.”
Perhaps the most important way in which he was a throwback was in how every person who encountered him feels he gave them special treatment, offered acts of politeness beyond simple politeness, showed something from a forgotten, more solicitous, code of honor. One friend said that he told her that he knew he was going to have a laugh whenever he saw her; he told me he was glad when he saw me because he knew was going to learn something. (It is not possible I taught him anything.)
The work in A.A. is a process of learning day by day how to not drink day by day, in real-time, and also at the same time to learn why I as an alcoholic want to react to most anything life offers, good or bad, neither or both, by taking a drink. There are 12 steps, and many members of A.A. who want to stay, who do not want to re-enter the drinking life again, find themselves stuck on the writing steps: 4 and 8. Step 4 tells us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I could not write my fourth step. If I were to say I made half-hearted attempts at writing it, I would be exaggerating by an entire half a heart.
Oh, I wanted to write it. To “write” it. The inventory, the story of my moral degeneration before and throughout my drinking life, was going to be an article worthy of publication, a narrative. Not much came of that. Then I re-thought everything and dreamed the idea that I could simplify things by jazzing up the document: I would produce a PowerPoint slide show. Finally, in my familiar, well-rehearsed process of giving up on myself, I thought I would just be that happily non-drinking member of A.A. who never did his fourth step but did lots of service and helped others and lived sober. The end.
I expressed my frustration at myself to Charlie. (He was not yet my sponsor; we just happened to be standing next to each other after a meeting, so he was a “victim of proximity.”) I told him I was stuck on my fourth step. “You’re a writer, eh?” he asked. “I know what the problem is. You ain’t used to writing something without someone holding out a twenty for you to finish.” (“For ya.”) At that moment, I knew I was going to ask him to sponsor me some day.
When Charlie told you something important, he did not look at you; he would say something out into the space in front of him, turn his head a quarter-turn, eagle-eye you, and then say the important part. When he told you something really important, he would face you, spread his legs like a horse had suddenly appeared under him, and square his shoulders to yours. This was an eagle-eye moment. Many more followed. I still have the instructions he wrote out for me for my step work. I wrote my fourth step and continued on.
He accompanied me to my eye surgery last year and when we grabbed lunch on the return trip home, I listened while the waitress flirted with him far more vigorously than he flirted with her.
So as my sponsor, he started to move me through the steps, but Charlie Brennan also, without meaning to, taught me about tears. He made me cry twice. Around Christmas 2012, he fired himself as my sponsor because he had “gone back out.” After 18 years of sobriety, he drank again. Even his manner of firing himself made me want him to remain my sponsor, as he did it with honor. He asked to meet me in person and, in person, squared himself full-face in front of me and told me what he had done and that he could no longer be my sponsor. He asked—asked!—if he could yet give me one piece of advice: “Dig really deep. Don’t stop before you get it all out. Get it all out.” I cried that night out of a feeling of abandonment, of being cut-off, I guess. For a recovering alcoholic who had numbed himself from feelings of pain (and thus, joy) for years, this was real pain. Real life. He later complimented all his now-former sponsees for our speed at getting new sponsors: sudden abandonment will concentrate the mind.
Charlie came back. He celebrated a year sober before he died.
Today is the second cry. Last Monday morning, March 31, 2014, Charlie Brennan suffered a series of strokes, five, an MRI later showed, and never regained consciousness. He had been at an A.A. meeting that night, Sunday, and there was no evidence of anything amiss. Everyone who was there said he was himself. But at some time during the night he had the strokes and was later found unconscious, probably after several hours had passed, far too long for any stroke victim to be alone, much less someone who has had a catastrophic one. After a week, he was taken off life support and died on April 7.
I visited him in the hospital twice; the second time on the day before they took him off life support. I went with our friend C—-, the tougher-than-tough former New York firefighter (one of the first female members of the NYFD) who was his sponsor. (When he realized he needed the toughest sponsor he could find to kick his ass, he turned to her, because she is the toughest human being any of us know.) C—- placed her hand on his and I placed mine on both of theirs and we recited the Lord’s Prayer and told him he could go. That rest was coming for him and he had taken very good care of us.
But there is no price you could name that I wouldn’t pay to hear that man call me “brudder” one more time. Just once.
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The photo above, of the “Serenity Prayer in Irish” is from inside Charlie’s apartment.
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