By Karen Fitzgerald
It was Christmas 1963, a gray Buffalo day. We had opened our presents in the morning, then went to mass with Mom. Dad was home, sleeping off his pre-Christmas merriment. When we returned, their fighting started.
We were all due for dinner in Jamestown, but first we had to stop in Hamburg, at Aunt Mary’s house, for some Christmas “refreshment.” I could feel Mom’s anxiety. As a sensitive 11-year-old, I had constant radar about Dad’s drinking and Mom’s moods.
The Christmas party was being hosted at the home of my dad’s brother. While the dinner was the traditional turkey, I couldn’t enjoy it because all the adults, except my mom, were getting drunk. Being a good little Catholic girl, though, I kept my mouth shut.
For dessert the kids had pie, but the adults received a flambé something with ice cream. The flambé caught my eye, not just for the fire, but because the first experiment with it didn’t work. Instead, the matches and ashes dropped into the soppy ice cream, drowning in the alcohol moat. My aunt lamented this initial disaster, saying, “What a waste.” My inebriated father laughed and said, “Not at all. I like ice cream, and we can’t let good liquor go to waste.”
He proceeded to slurp down every last bit of it, sans the matches. I watched my mom’s face. I could feel her humiliation and disgust. That was only the beginning. Over the next eight years, my dad, George, disintegrated from the happy-go-lucky Irish salesman he was, to an unemployable derelict.
In April 1972, Mom finally kicked him out. I took him to the Alcoholic Rehab Unit at Buffalo State Hospital, a 30-day inpatient program. He got sober and became an active and enthusiastic member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I got lots of Brownie points for my “intervention.”
Now, many years later, I was married and pregnant with our first child. We traveled 500 miles from Boston to be with my parents, my sister and her family and have the festive Christmas that my mother always planned. Dad announced that we would be having a guest at our repast. It was an AA guy he was sponsoring.
Pat had been living in the streets for years. Decades before, he lost his wife and daughters because of his disease. Six months earlier, at a homeless shelter, he asked my dad for help. Dad became his sponsor. Pat had been sober for six months, but he had nowhere to spend the holiday.
Suddenly, Dad’s sobriety miracle became annoying. AA was about being kind to everyone, but this was going too far. I voiced my opinion. My father reminded me of how much I had helped him, trying to appeal to my heroic nature.
“He is living alone in a room at the Y,” Dad said. “He’s a good man. He is coming.” Then he looked at me firmly and stated, “And you will be nice.”
Pat arrived. He was about 60 years old, thinning hair. We all put on our best manners and welcomed him. I knew I could not be rude to this man. We engaged him in conversation and shared our meal.
Many happy hours later, Dad drove him home. When he returned he said, “Pat told me to say thank you. He loved our family and was so grateful to be included. Now, was that so bad?”
I admitted I was glad he forced the issue.
Pat remained sober until he died, three years later, with my father as his sponsor. My dad stayed sober, a total of 44 years, until he passed away in 2016. He helped hundreds of alcoholics, even after he developed Parkinson’s. And Christmas? He had flipped it around, the spirit of it, and what it meant.
Karen Fitzgerald sits on the advisory board of the Caron Foundation, a rehabilitation facility for substance abuse.