He’d also shed 25 pounds: mostly water weight, he would later tell us. The last thirty days of sobriety had wrung his liver out, and so it was no longer overcompensating for its daily marathon of vodka intake by producing excess fluids.
Outwardly, he looked like a wholly different person. The man who hobbled through the heavy metal door of the Montrose County Jail more than a month ago, red-eyed and ruddy-cheeked and resigned to the fact that his family was bailing him out only under the condition that he’d go straight to rehab, had at some point over the last four weeks been replaced by this softer version of my father. A version I must have forgotten about. Or, maybe, a version I had never known.
He still walked with a lurch, though. As I’d noticed over the last week spent on the premises at my father’s rehab center, many of the other patients still walked with an interrupted gait. Like they were still stumbling drunk, but doing their best to hide it. Nothing to worry much about, we’d learned – it was just a side effect of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, the symptoms of which can last for months into an alcoholic’s recovery. Although, the professionals admitted, it will be nearly impossible for us not to worry about it.
“You’ll be triggered by something your family member used to do when they were drinking,” one of the therapists who spoke to us during Family Week had warned, “and that’s completely normal. Just be prepared for that flood of feelings to come back to you.”
As I was beginning to completely comprehend, my father wasn’t the only one who had set out on a path to recovery.
“I brought something for you.” He hadn’t yet reached the circle of chairs set out in the shade of a venerable oak tree, where my stepmother, half-sister, and I sat. “Can you guess what it is?” he said, a sagging plastic bag clutched in his age-spotted fist. He eased himself into the one empty seat in our circle.
It’s hard to relax around a person with whom you’ve gotten accustomed to being uncomfortable around. That was evident in the way my sister greeted him with that high-pitched tone usually reserved for talking to children, and in the way my stepmother bubbled effusively about how much weight he’d lost. And in the way I sat on the edge of the dark metal chair, gripping the hem of my shorts and smiling like I was squinting into the sun.
“Um, ha,” I responded to his question. “I don’t know what you could be bringing us.”
He’d somehow gotten a haircut while sequestered within the high wooden walls of the rehab’s campus. Maybe they also had a gift shop? Where my dad would have bought us what? Matching t-shirts, splashed with some slogan like I Survived Family Week 2011: CeDAR Center for Dependency and Rehabilitation?
Pretty unlikely, I mused. Although it did feel like I’d just completed some test of emotional endurance, worthy of a bumper sticker at the very least. I had survived this week spent sitting in a room of circled chairs, surrounded by strangers who knew things about my past that I hadn’t told my friends. I had survived this week spent listening to strangers describe their darkest fears and closest-held insecurities. A week in which I came to comprehend the pervasiveness of this disease called addiction; a cancer that has spread like a virus attacking the hearts of so many families. A week in which I came to comprehend the way its gnarled fingers lovingly crawled up the necks of our loved ones, only to strangle them – and us – ever-so-slowly.
But also a week to be grateful for the blessings of today: the day that my dad is sober.
Out of the plastic bag, he gingerly plucked a smaller nylon bag – the stuff sack for a raincoat. His stout fingers worked to pinch the toggle, loosening the drawstring top. He balanced the bulging sack in the palm of his outstretched hand, pushing it toward the center of our circle.
“There’s a tree over there, near the men’s dorm,” he said, nodding at us to reach our hands into the bag.
We hesitated. It’s hard to have faith in a person you’ve become accustomed not to trust. “They’ve been washed,” he assured us.
Out of the paper towel-lined sack I plucked a purple-red plum. So did my sister and, finally, my stepmom.
“Eeew, it’s sour,” my sister made a face.
“Mine’s good,” I said. I wiped the juice running down my chin.
My stepmother rolled hers between her fingers, examining its blemishes. Then took a bite.
“It is good,” she nodded.
We ate plums in silence. What would happen when he was released in a week, what his plans were for staying in recovery, how life would be different when he left the bubble-wrapped confines of this place, if things even would be different – all the worries we had about the future and resentments we carried about the past waited, impatiently, for us to finish our plums.
My dad will be released from rehab today. I know he plans to attend AA and see a therapist. I know he plans to stay sober. I don’t know how life will be now that he’s outside that tall wooden fence. But I do know that life, for all of us, will be different – if for no other reason than we spent a few moments eating plums together, and it felt like we were a family. Bruised and blemished, a little sour at the outset, but overall pretty good.