When Anna asks me, “How are you?” it is neither a pleasantry nor a rhetorical question. She wants an answer, and if I lie and tell her I am fine when I am not, she smirks and looks down at the ground between us with her doubtful eyes. She might not know what’s wrong, but she knows something is, and later, when we are alone, she will sit quietly and wait for me to tell her. Anna and I have been distant lapsing best friends since we were in college together in the mid 90s. Now 1,000 miles live between us, and we see each other only once or twice a year. I am riddled with guilt about how bad I am at keeping in touch between visits. When we are together, she gives me a hug with an extra squeeze at the end that tells me she forgives me and we are right back where we left off when last we were together.
If anything ever happens to my wife, Sheri, I am certain Anna and I will marry and provide each other companionship as we grow old. There has never been anything sexual between us. Anna is beautiful, it is just not like that. In fact, Anna is such a special person that I am confident that if I were to die, Sheri and Anna would get married and have 142 cats and be as happy as two heterosexual married women have ever been.
Anna’s son, Jack, calls me Uncle Matt and I love him very much. He was born a couple of years before my first child when Anna was finishing law school. When Jack was an infant, Sheri and I and several other friends each took a turn living with Anna for a week to help her with her new baby as she went to class, studied and went to work. Anna’s joy and love for Jack masked any anger or sadness she felt about Jack’s father leaving during her pregnancy. She handled it like she does everything – she took motherhood very, very seriously and focused her life around raising the best child she could. Her success is evident in Jack’s academic performance, his participation both on the high school football team and in the marching band that plays at the football games (who does both of those?) and – most importantly – in the way he loves and cares for his mother. There are only two people I envy for their parenting skills. I wish I was as patient as my kids’ Uncle Adam, and I wish I was as determined to do everything right as a parent as Anna.
Anna’s personality is a perfect reflection of her parents. Mary always had a smile and a genuine interest in the lives of the people with whom she was interacting. From the first time I met her, Mary made me feel not just welcomed, but like I was a part of the family. John is a lawyer like his daughter, and they share the same serious determination. He always gives me the sense that he is in deep contemplation and the conversation or activity at hand is not the only thing he is managing.
Mary died of cancer a few years ago. I distinctly remember having a pit-in-the-stomach concern for John when his wife died. I could hear in Anna’s voice that she was managing just like I knew she would. Jack was very close to his grandmother, but he was young and I had no doubt that the love he received from Anna would soften the blow. But John…he always seemed to have a little tinge of sadness to him, and even though I do not know him very well, I remember getting off the phone with Anna and worrying about and praying for John. Losing your mother or grandmother is sad but likely inevitable. Losing your life partner strikes me as tragic and empty. That must explain why I worried about John, but it definitely felt like something more.
Anna was one of the first people I told about my alcoholism. She had been with me many times when I drank heavily, but those were always fun occasions when I was a happy drunk. Still, she was not surprised when I confided in her about my addiction and the steps I was taking to deal with it. She listened as the shame poured out of me – listened as if my words were the only sounds and my pain was the only issue she would ever have to consider and understand. She asked questions – intelligent questions – about my disease and the steps I was taking to get better.
I said over and over while we talked, “I don’t know if you know this about alcoholism…” I had researched and learned so much about how alcohol manipulates the brain of an addict, and I assumed this would all be new to Anna. She reached over and took my hand and our eyes met. “Matt, my mother died of alcoholism. Her liver was too sick to handle chemotherapy. Her drinking destroyed her chance to receive the treatment that would have saved her life.”
I was stunned. I honestly could not remember ever noticing Mary drinking. The scotch did most of the damage when Anna was a child. The white wine in later years was less obvious but simultaneously ever-present, ever-damaging. Suddenly John’s veil of sadness and Anna’s determination to succeed as a parent above all else both had an explanation.
The jolt left me almost speechless. I could muster only, “How did I never know this? How did no one see?”
Anna’s eyes dropped. “My mom was an alcoholic. How do you talk about that? No one ever talks about alcoholism.”
There are over 15 million of us in this country alone. Maybe it’s time we find the words.