Substantial Friends

The following is an excerpt from my unpublished second novel, The Governor Who Arose From Crude. With many characters from my other novels, this is a fictional “biography” of Polly Parker, who will become the third-only female Governor of Texas in the 1990’s. Thanks to Ann Richards and Ma Ferguson for blazing this trail.

“Melancholy, indeed, should be diverted
by every means but drinking.”
Samuel Johnson

Substantial Friends

I always hate flying. Even before 9/11, my insides quivered every time my professional life demanded I take another flight. But I have a little helper I take along, a dependable friend to give me courage. I laugh at myself and say “Jack Daniels is my flight attendant.” Once or twice I’ve worried that in a true emergency, I might be too impaired to safely exit the aircraft…but I quickly shrug it off, because, it is the only time I ever have more than a second drink of alcohol. Certainly I’ve never given the dangers of addiction a passing thought. Not until one flight which I shared with a woman named Polly Parker, a gubernatorial candidate from my home state. During the long, late flight from Houston to Los Angeles, she chose to bear her soul before me.

I soon discovered Polly Parker was a recovered alcoholic and drug addict. Not long ago this kind of admission might have spelled electoral death, at the least a newsworthy scandal. But these days she was just one more political traveler with some extra heavy baggage. After a quick round of pleasantries she shared with me that she is the widowed mother of four. She tells me both she and her husband were high school addicts, and fell in love when they met in a community drug program. Sobriety suited them. They married and had their children before they were twenty five years old. Her husband David even became a drug counselor for the recovery program.

I sat there nervously on the airplane, seeking an occasional sip of comfort from my friend Jack, disguised and poured cleverly into an iced tea bottle. (And may I say this has become significantly more tricky since the disallowance of liquids on airplanes.) As I did so this woman was about to reveal a story so poignant, so full of anguish, that I would never look at my purse-sized bottle of courage in quite the same way again. As I listened glassy-eyed from slight intoxication, Polly Parker spoke glassy-eyed from painful remembrance.

It seemed like we had everything, David and me. In spite of our rocky, law-breaking backgrounds, we were just like any other young family. We ate together, we played together, we prayed to our Higher Power together. Looking back, good Lord, I was so naive. I foolishly assumed that since David was sober when I met him, sober he would always stay. Missed that one. No doubt about it.

Until our lives began to fall apart, I never really understood the true power of addiction. I mean, when I gave up drugs and alcohol, it wasn’t really much of a struggle. I only got high because I was bored and it made me feel so good about doing nothing. I remember thinking, ‘Since David and the Program are my life now, the pot’s got to go.’ I didn’t fully understand the power that addiction had on David. I never understood a very painful fact: that every day of his life was a struggle to resist getting high. I just didn’t get it.

Of course, now I see the agony he was in. He could never sleep. He spent nearly every night of our marriage sitting up in the living room, watching late movies, smoking cigarettes, staring into space. He always seemed so tense, never unpleasant, just…tense. It was handy though when the babies came. He never minded staying up with them. He’d smile sweetly and say ‘Hey, I’m up anyway.’ I don’t know when he slept. He must have sometime.

The change came quickly, though at the time I didn’t notice it. I was really overwhelmed with the kids and a job, obviously preoccupied.

It started when he began to join me in bed at night. He’d grab whatever crying baby was up and climb into bed with me (and whatever baby I was cuddling). I loved the change. Sometimes I’d go get the rest of the kids and put us all in bed because it just felt so amazingly good to have us all lying there together. David would sleep long and sound. All was right with the world. I never even wondered how he was suddenly so able to sleep.

I guess my first clue came one morning when I couldn’t wake him up. He had a statewide staff meeting and had to drive to Austin and arrive by one o’clock. I had to really push and pull on him, finally I yelled real loud in his ear. This woke up three babies, and by now I was getting pretty angry. I had to get myself ready for work and I needed those kids asleep while I did it. He finally got up, groggy and a tiny bit belligerent. I stormed off to the shower and left him with the screaming, hungry children.

It wasn’t more than a month later that things began to turn toward utter chaos. Now I may have been naive when it came to symptoms of renewed addiction, but his colleagues on the program staff were not. One day he came home early from work, ranting and raving, clearly high or drunk or both, and as he went off I knew our lives as we knew them were over.

David was always fond of swearing, but he let loose with a stream of profanities like I‘d never heard him use before. He stormed into the house, and started breaking everything he could get in his hands. ‘How dare those self-righteous people tell me to go seek help!’ Crash went my ceramic ivy plant. ‘Who do they think they are? I’m the counselor, not the other way around. I’ve been sober for nine years!’ He slammed a chair into the wall. Tears and sweat streamed down his face. ‘Nine years! And those jerks, some of them with only three years clean, tell me to leave the staff and seek a rehab treatment. ‘It’s OK, man, they said. We love ya, man. We just want you to go get some help.’ Come on, Polly, who do they think they’re kidding? Why are they coming at me this way?’

I stood there, too stunned to move. It was all so much to take in at once. Clearly, he was using again. He’d been removed from the program staff, and everyone knew all this except me. Good Lord. This was a lot to absorb. But you know how horrid scenes unfold. You have to deal with the most horrific scene at hand, and currently it was the contents of our house being destroyed, by his hands that were now bleeding. We both exploded into hysteria.

I started screaming. “David! Stop this! Stop this now! You break one more thing and I’ll knock you out! I swear I will!” Thank God, he backed off. Of course, what came next was worse. Instead of my furnishings getting broken, now it was my heart.
He started crying, and I don’t mean a manly sort of crying. I mean he started bawling and wailing like a baby. Maybe it was the drugs he was on, whatever, he fell down into heap of tears and snot as he collapsed on the living room rug. If things weren’t ghastly enough, now the kids started to stream in.

“What’s wrong with Daddy?” asked Melody, at seven, our eldest girl. “Why is Daddy crying?”

What came next was the worst of all. I guess it was because he was horrified by flipping out in front of us, but what he did was monstrous. Instead of just calming down, or at the least just leaving, he jumped towards Melody. He grabbed her and began to shake her, and it was at this time that I did knock him out. I grabbed an old half-gallon wine bottle, chock full of pennies, and let him have it. I didn’t even think. I just knew I could not let him hurt Melody or the rest of us.

I swear to God, in spite of all my experience with addiction, I never knew what drugs and alcohol could do to an otherwise sane individual.

Well, Lord Almighty. May I say that I didn’t, either. Geesh.

Now I don’t mean to be insensitive. But this whole addiction scenario was alien to me. I’ve never been out of control where alcohol or drugs were concerned. Even growing up, the worse experience I witnessed at the hands of alcohol was when my dad and his brother Simon drank too much whiskey. They fell asleep on the front porch. Loud snores. That was it. I think maybe Uncle Simon peed himself once or twice. But that was the extent of the damage.

I was uncomfortable and frightened to have her go on. Yet I was drawn to her story in some inexplicable way. I was captivated and terrified at the same time.

I guess the biggest tragedy, looking back, is that we might have won this whole horrid battle, if David had just stayed at it. After that dreadful night (I’m ashamed to admit he needed sixteen stitches) David agreed to go for a thirty day program at a local hospital. I thanked God for David’s willingness to cooperate, and I prayed hard for the healing of my family. Believe me, with five small children, a divorce was something I did not want. Who knew divorce would never even present itself as an option? The real tragedy was just beginning.

David went through the treatment, stayed clean, but after six months, somehow just didn’t get his spirit back. He was grumpy and solemn. Dry drunk some call it. His face was solid pain. We all tried to reach him, but we just couldn’t get through to him. The children were always trying to cheer him up, especially Melody. As the first-born, she assumed her role of protector without question. She worried over him, and tried to never let her dad be left alone. It made me sick watching her fret over him. But I couldn’t stop her. Melody was terrified he would begin the drugs again. Eventually she took to hiding in his car whenever he left the house. I suppose she figured to intervene if he went to buy alcohol or score some dope.

One night, as he sat there in the living room, sleepless and sad, he got his car keys and went for the door. Melody, ever watchful, followed her dad and while he opened the garage door she sneaked into the backseat of his car.

Of course, David had gone to do himself in. That was evident by the speed of the car at the time of the crash, and confirmed by his suicide note. I will not ever know if he at any point discovered Melody was in the car with him.

My sweet little Melody was killed, and in what was really a bigger tragedy, David, God help him, was not.

After the accident his grief knew no bounds. Naturally, the first thing he did was buy a gallon-size jug of gin and scored as many downers as he could. You know, I honestly thought burying my seven-year-old daughter was the worse thing that could happen to me, but again, I underestimated that powerful demon of addiction.

The violent streak I’d seen in David before his treatment was amplified after Melody’s death. He seemed ready to snap at any moment. Sometimes I was afraid he wanted to kill us all. Yet just when I’d be at the end, ready to take the kids and leave, he’d come to me, crying, wretched…God, he was so consumed with guilt and shame. Well, you know, I loved him deeply. He was my husband. He was my best friend. How could I turn my back on him at his worst?

Every day held the potential for a violent surprise. I used to pick the kids up from daycare on my way home from work, but now I always went home alone first. I could not chance what the children might find. Life was so miserable. I began to wish he had been killed with Melody. And then my own guilt at these thoughts began to consume me.
But one day what I’d long expected came to pass. I knocked loudly at our door to alert him to my arrival. Only no sound came from within the house.

I walked with trembling legs into our bedroom.

And there he was.

My sweetheart lay peacefully in our bed, surrounded by pictures of me and the kids, and for a change there was a smile on his face. In his still hands he held a picture of our precious daughter. A note beside him said simply “I’ve gone to go apologize to Melody.”

That was it. I could no longer nod in sedated neutrality. Silent tears spilled from my eyes as I apologized to Polly for indulging in my own sorrow. She touched my hand and smiled with a calm strength I cannot even fathom. She finally concluded her sad, woeful tale.

I hope I never know for certain if I am a true addict or not. But I’ll tell you this: I plan to stay sober every day of my life. I don’t ever want to know if the same hideous creature that resided within my precious David, might also reside in me. Drugs and booze be damned. I’ll just have my coffee, thank you, and an aspirin when my fever goes above a hundred.

And she did, too. Throughout all the stress and trauma of the upcoming campaign, to her credit Polly Parker never touched a drop of anything. Just like the sober Ann Richards before her.

Well, I’m glad she is comfortable with sobriety. All this wretchedness was too much for me. As soon as Polly went to the lavatory, I dove straight into my purse for a big draw from my best friend. I was out cold by the time we landed. My last conscious thought was to thank God that addiction held no power over me.

Excerpt from The Governor Who Arose From Crude, copyright 1996, all rights reserved.


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