Six years ago today, a friend of mine passed. Charles F. Brennan, III—my friend Charlie (November 2, 1960–April 7, 2014)—was my recovery sponsor for a time.
On this date, some of us remember him—not for his departure, but for his presence. What follows are my handful of memories from the brief three or so years that I knew him at the end of his all-too-brief fifty-three years. The departure was difficult enough, but a community grew closer for a moment and thus a beauty came out of it. That was my first experience of beauty within grief, and it was a testament to the lives Charlie had touched and influenced.
At the top is a copy of The Serenity Prayer in Irish, which we found in his apartment:
An Phaidir Suaimhneas
deonaigh dom an suaimhneas
chun glacadh le rudaí
nach féidir liom a athrú,
misneach chun rudaí a athrú nuair is féidir,
chun an difríocht a aithint.
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.”
* * * *
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 itself, about life without drinking one day at a time, about life. Period: About life. “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, this twinned notion of empathy and help can seem like a novel idea because many of us are self-centered to the point of pathology. Abstinence from alcohol does not import a sense of empathy into a person in recovery, but empathy can transform abstinence into sobriety. This is not true for everyone, as there are many paths to sobriety but each one seems to include empathy and help, and it has been true for me and it appeared to be true for Charlie.
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 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 a newcomer help the newcomer 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. That life is not all unicorns spitting Skittles but that even the downturns and the boring parts are worth riding out sober and probably require our sobriety. 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 Charlie, who helped to teach me the lessons in the paragraph above.
Even now, in Quarantine Land, meetings are held, by phone-in and by video conference. Charlie was a techno-phobe, so I wonder what he would make of this moment.
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 refuses to 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 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 (including his last meeting, just before he died), he wore too much patchouli. His library was that of a college junior who chooses to read the books from the literature electives that he takes at the expense of 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.) Soon before he died, 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 felt that 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 react to most anything life offers, good or bad, neither or both, with a drink. There are twelve 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: four and eight. Step Four tells us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
I could not write my fourth step. Loopholes in the logic of the step appeared in my mind: am I fearless? Heck, am I moral? If I were to tell you that I made half-hearted attempts in the composition of my fourth step, I would be exaggerating by half a heart.
You see, I wanted to write it. To “write” it. The inventory, the story of my moral degeneration before and throughout my alcoholic life, was to be an article worthy of publication, a narrative, the definitive fourth step that would cover my history and be so complete that it would serve as everyone else’s, too. 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. Perhaps I would record a video. 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 next to each other after a meeting, so he was what I would call 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 he expected a horse to appear under him, and square his shoulders to yours. This was one of his eagle-eye moments. Many more with him followed for me. 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 in 2013, 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 a plan to do this, taught me about tears. He made me cry twice.
The first time came around Christmas 2012. He fired himself as my sponsor because he had “gone back out.” After eighteen years of sobriety, he drank again. Even the way in which he fired 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 like he was about to mount a horse—so I knew this was important—and told me what he had done and that he could no longer be my sponsor as a result.
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 an alcoholic who had numbed himself from feelings of pain (and thus, joy) for years, this was real pain. Real life.
We parted and out of habit I started to say goodbye with a, “See you tomorrow at the …” an almost named a meeting. His eyes flared in response, and he mumbled, “I don’t know about that.”
He later complimented all his now-former sponsees for our speed at getting new sponsors: abandonment will concentrate the mind.
Charlie came back. He celebrated a year sober before he died.
April 7, 2014, was the second cry. On March 31, Charlie suffered a series of strokes, five, an MRI later showed, and he 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. He had baked bread. 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 that week; the second time on the day before they took him off life support. I went with a friend who was his sponsor, a tougher-than-tough former New York firefighter (one of the first female members of the NYFD). (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.) My friend 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. She told him that rest was coming for him and he had taken very good care of us.
His soon-to-be widow entered the room and told us that the decision had been made.
So many members of our shared community traveled to the hospital that week we had an ongoing unofficial meeting in the waiting area any hour of the day. Charlie was on machines and monitors and tubes; even in a coma, each day there seemed to be less of him present. A nurse came into the waiting room at one point and told us, “We do not know who you people are, but each time a couple of you visit with him, his breathing settles down for a moment.”
It is six years later, and there is no price you could name that I would not find a way to pay to hear that man call me “brudder” one more time. Just once.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 6 asks us to reflect on the word, “Hands.” Helping hands, in today’s memory.
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