Chapter 13: Disappointing diagnosis?

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About two weeks after following up with Mike Burke with the proper Wilson ancestor information, and approval from Sacred Heart Hospital’s general counsel, I received this email message:

Well, there it was: An official hospital record indicating Emmett was an alcoholic. But was that enough?

In research, one has to triangulate the data — I had Jim Milligan’s genealogy, which stated Emmett became an alcoholic. That’s two sources. I wanted to dig around some more, to reinforce what I had already.

Lo and behold, thanks to the miracle of the Worldcat database, I  located a second Wilson family genealogy, written by Arabella (Belle) Fannin Wilson, wife of Emmett’s oldest brother Augustus Maxwell Wilson.

Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. The original document is in the archival holdings at the Miami-Dade Library.

 

Belle also mentioned Emmett’s alcoholism, but it doesn’t sound certain:

Excerpt from Belle Fannin Wilson’s genealogy. It’s another mention of alcoholism, but Belle doesn’t seem to be absolutely certain of Emmett as an alcoholic.

 

But I remembered that I also had the funeral report from the Rev. Dr. Melville Johnson, which reported Emmett died of the “D.T.s”

“Cause of death: D.T.” Delirium tremens?

At this point, I wondered how in the world the Episcopal church pastor would write “D.T.s” if:

a) he hadn’t observed Emmett in distress before his death himself, while visiting parishoners in the hospital,

or

b) he wasn’t told of this by the nursing/medical staff for his official record? 

In other words, I doubted Dr. Johnson would have made this up. Still, I reached out to the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast for any information on Dr. Johnson (the kind of guy he was), and inquired if there was a copy of Emmett’s eulogy on record.

 

Dr. Johnson didn’t leave a copy of the eulogy at Christ Church, so I was hoping perhaps one was sent to the diocese office, since Emmett was a congressman.

A staff member of the Historiographer Team got back with me about two weeks later, and said that unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on record for Emmett’s eulogy — but with regard to Dr. Johnson’s character, he was known to be a rock-solid, compassionate, reliable shepherd of his flock. It would be very unlikely, in other words, that he would have written anything about his congregation in official records if it were not so.

The family may not have wanted it known on record that Emmett died of alcoholism, i.e., they may have been able to keep that part out of the newspapers, but Dr. Johnson didn’t budge on the facts. Apparently, neither did Dr. Bruce.

Considering the news article announcing Emmett’s death “after a short illness” on the front page of The Pensacola Journal for May 29, 1918 didn’t appear exactly true, I considered that some may want to present a sanitized version of Emmett’s demise. Again, the Episcopal Diocese staff said there would do that; nor would there be any reason to think Dr. Johnson was casting aspersions on Emmett’s character — he was simply reporting what he was told, period, and he’d have no reason to change an official record just to save another person’s reputation. 

I felt confident that I could consider the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s report to be that of an objective third party.

I also figured that if Emmett’s physician in Pensacola, Dr. E.F. Bruce (who’d also signed his death certificate) wrote an alcoholism diagnosis, the disease is not something that suddenly appears, nor is it ‘short term’ in any capacity. Emmett’s obituary had said he died after a ‘short illness.’ Emmett’s alcoholism — which, according to Dr. Bruce, was the reason he was in the hospital — led to his death.

Uremia. Kidney failure. From Emmett Wilson’s death certificate.

But the death certificate had reported “Uremia” as the cause of Emmett’s death –so I contacted Donna the Nephrologist and showed her what I’d found.

Donna said that a physician is always required to list the physical problem on the medical report as the primary issue, even though it may have been brought on by alcoholism. Alcoholism, then as now, was considered a psychological disorder, and even if it was the primary cause of Emmett’s demise, it can’t be listed as a cause of death, even nowadays. (Original source of quote here.)

“But you can be sure those closest to him knew the real scoop,” she added. “…For instance, if you are in complete kidney failure (which is what Emmett’s official diagnosis was in 1914), and experiencing neurological problems, and are comatose (which he was at this point, on and off)…”

But you can be sure, she said, that if he was in the throes of the D.T.s at the end, cirrhosis was present.

I asked her what it was probably like for Emmett at the very end. Back in the day, there wasn’t much more a medical staff could do besides restrain patients, help them through the end. It wasn’t that being strapped down was mistreatment; it was for their own safety. She said that if Emmett was in end-stage kidney failure AND was presenting with cirrhosis, it was the end, and the staff knew it.

“According to Donna, sometimes patients in end-stage (like Emmett) are or were given booze at the hospital at the end. It was considered merciful. The purpose is to stave off the DTs. It is horrible to go through; horrible to witness, she added.

“Donna said that when alcoholics (such as Emmett) have gone three days without booze in the system (which is what happened at Pensacola Hospital), the body’s chemistry tries to correct itself, to switch back to normal. If it has been many years since an alcoholic has had a normal body chemistry, and so the patient’s extremely compromised system cannot handle it. Generally, the patient goes into a coma as a result.

“Emmett’s body could not handle it; so he likely went into a coma.

“And, she added, that’s how Emmett likely died. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

Reposted from an earlier writeup on this blog.

OK. Well, I can say with certainty Emmett was an alcoholic. That was what got him in the end.

Was I ‘disappointed’ with the diagnosis, though?

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question — I didn’t really know Emmett all that well yet, and I still wasn’t sure why the hell he asked me to write his story. I kept coming back to this question: What was the purpose of this project? It was too intriguing for me to set aside.

Mike Burke’s comment in the email made me realize that even today, in our enlightened, scientifically advanced society, alcoholism is stigmatized — maybe less so than it was in Emmett’s day — but you can be sure folks still look upon those of us in recovery as “less than” in some ways. (Personally, THAT doesn’t bother me so much; what other people think of me is none of my business.)

It is still hard, even in the enlightened, scientifically advanced society today to get help with one’s addiction. Recovery is never successful unless the addicted person is absolutely ready to do the work; no one else can do it for them. Emmett had very few resources available to him in the 1910s; even if he wished to take advantage of them, he and his family/friends would have had to keep it absolutely quiet, which might have been near impossible as he was a public figure from 1910 on. So, there was a personal AND public struggle going on. Sobriety statistics are rather low for alcoholics in recovery.

Regardless, new pieces of information were starting to trickle in, and Emmett’s story was just beginning.

Next: Surprise, surprise.

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Chapter 12: Clues in the genealogy

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I dug into the Milligan family genealogy right away. With note-taking, it took two days. It’s basically written as a conversation from the author, John Evans Wilson, to his children and descendants.

The introduction to the genealogy, by John Evans Wilson.

 

This is further down in the introduction; John Evans Wilson gives the reader perspective on family anecdotes and sources of information.

 

Emmett’s family story is on the second to last page. Here’s what John Evans Wilson said about him:

 

 

There’s the notation about Emmett’s drinking, and a clue about what might have brought on the uremia. But what’s interesting is the part about the ‘rich northern lumber man.’

I wondered  if that could have something to do with Jim mentioning Emmett might have been gay? I wasn’t interested in pursuing that angle of the research, because honestly, his sexuality didn’t matter to me. Besides, I doubt I’d be able to prove that. Emmett might not have been gay; however, something about that relationship and Emmett’s drinking seemed to be connected — another mystery to study in this ever-growing biography.

There was something else about the genealogy that struck me — namely the earlier Wilson ancestor’s family names  — namely Graves — which I’d seen before, but was trying to place where. It bothered me enough that I made a note on a yellow Post-it, and stuck it on the frame of my computer monitor to check later.

I couldn’t go any further on the Emmett health diagnosis without a medical record of some sort. Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital on May 29, 1918.

The original Pensacola Hospital.

The original hospital, located at 1010 N 12th Avenue in Pensacola had long ago closed (although it is now a historic building with other businesses in it) and the medical facility moved to Sacred Heart Hospital; I crossed my fingers hoping historic records had not been lost over the decades.

Thanks to a recommendation from the excellent Jacki Wilson (no relation to Emmett’s family), archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society, I reached out to the public information offices at Sacred Heart.

After several days, a very nice gentleman named Mike Burke got back to me by phone.

“The good news is that we do have a record on Emmett Wilson’s admission and stay in Pensacola Hospital in our archives.”

Omg, omg, omg — I don’t know if Mike could tell I was freaking out in a good way 800 miles away through a telephone connection —

“I had to check with our general counsel on whether or not we can release this information to you, even thought it is almost 100 years old. Regardless, we’ll need an OK from a family member to see the record.”

I told him the closest relative I’ve contacted was a great-nephew, since Emmett died unmarried, and had not descendants that I knew of — plus everyone closer related was deceased by now — he agreed that an OK from Jim Milligan plus contact info would suffice.

As soon as I was off the phone with Mike, I got in touch with Jim, who said it was fine that I could see the record. I emailed Jim’s information with the verbal approval back to Mike, crossed my fingers that the Sacred Heart Hospital general counsel would approve my seeing Emmett’s hospital record, and waited.

Next: Emmett’s Hospital Record

Chapter 11: First Contact

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I remember Saturday, June 8, 2013, as one of those glorious late Spring days in Maryland — the sky was clear blue without a cloud in sight, the temperature around 72, the trees were (finally!) all full with fresh green leaves. The plants I’d set out a few weeks earlier after a long hiatus inside were full and lush on the patio. My kids were on a scouting trip in St. Mary’s County with my husband — so I was in my home office, grading final exams so as to meet the 72 hour grade posting deadline at the University of Maryland.

My cell phone rang — an unrecognizable number on caller i.d. — I was deep into work and loathe to interrupt progress, but something told me to answer it anyway.

“Is this Judy Smith? I’m Jim Milligan in Florida. You wrote to me on Ancestry about my uncle, Emmett Wilson.”

Uncle. Emmett Wilson.

I remember my adrenaline shot up — Omg. Omg. Omg.

I shoved the gradebook out of the way, pulled the research notebook in front of me and started scribbling madly, to capture everything Emmett’s blood relative was saying.

First contact with an actual Wilson family member.

This was gold! This was better than gold!!!!

Jim said he was interested in my research, and was glad to help out in any way.

“I have a document to send you by email — a family genealogy. It’s rather large, though. It will take a little while to upload. ”

I told Jim that was fine — to go ahead — and while I was waiting for the file to appear on my end, he filled me in on Wilson family facts:

Emmett’s siblings, Walker Wilson and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

  • Jim is the grandson of Walker Wilson, Emmett’s youngest brother. Jim never knew Emmett personally.
  • Jim was not certain how Walker died exactly; family members would not talk about it, which always led him to believe something curious or unusual about Walker’s death.
  • Drinking was reported to be a real problem in Emmett and Walker’s generation of the Wilson family.

And then, Jim said,

Emmett  “was an alcoholic, you know. He drank himself to death.”

I felt an internal jolt — I stopped writing.

“I didn’t know,” I said. “The death certificate I received says kidney disease was the cause of death, but I’ve also learned that the symptoms of kidney disease looked an awful lot like end-stage alcoholism in those days.”

As Jim talked about the genealogy, something came over me — clarity, actually — as if a piece of this strange puzzle materialized before me.

I told Jim that if Emmett was an alcoholic, that shed a new light on the information from the Christ Church burial record. But still, what we have at present is anecdotal, and Emmett was an alcoholic, we needed a medical record.

Jim was positive the story was that Emmett drank. “And he might have been gay,” he added.

I doubted seriously I’d ever find a confirmation about Emmett and homosexuality — not that it mattered — but Jim’s comment gave me the idea that perhaps if Emmett was, indeed, alcoholic, there was an underlying ‘thing’ he was trying to escape, since drinking to excess is a means of escape….

As he and I continued to talk, Jim’s file appeared in my email. I asked if I could follow up with other questions later after reading the genealogy, and that I would send him clips he might want to add to his own research. He said that was fine, contact him anytime.

I settled down with the document; it took three days to read the entire thing.

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Next: The family genealogy reveals tantalizing clues

 

 

Chapter 10: Emmett’s Funeral Record

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Emmett’s funeral was, apparently, a big deal for Pensacola, particularly since folks were ‘surprised’ and ‘shocked’ that he was in failing health. But I wonder about that — I mean, his family and friends were able to put together a large funeral at a big church within 36 hours of Emmett’s death.

Or maybe it wasn’t as big as the local newspapers reported. “A large number of friends” doesn’t equate to hundreds of attendees. Maybe the reporter was being kind. I mean, I have perhaps a dozen people in my life I consider true friends, and to me, that’s a large number. You know what I mean?

The Pensacola Journal, May 31, 1918.

Emmett was a member of Christ (Episcopal) Church in Pensacola — a gorgeous building, well preserved, with a professional, helpful staff. The church has a good database of parishoner’s records — membership, contributions, reception of sacraments — but no “attendance” records. It is hard to tell how devout an attendee Emmett was, but there are records showing he signed the occasional petition, wrote the occasional check; therefore, he was considered a member of the parish.

I contacted Kelly Heindl, the Christ Church parish secretary, and inquired about Emmett’s burial record. A few days, this arrived:

 

Wonderful — the actual two page burial record for Emmett with new information.

Page two includes cause of death….

And I did a double-take when I saw what was listed:

“Cause of death: D.T.” Delirium tremens?

But the death certificate said the cause of death was uremia.

At one point, I remember reading about where end-stage uremia patients often had similar behavior and symptoms of those in end-stage alcoholism — but they are two different illnesses.

And how did the Reverend Melville Johnson get the information that Emmett supposedly died of the D.T.s, when the death certificate said otherwise?

I would have to find an actual medical record that may not exist almost 100 years later.

It wouldn’t be easy, but the effort would pay off.

 

Chapter 9 (continued): What I learn about uremia

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Before I move on to Emmett’s funeral record, I thought I’d share what exactly I learned about the listed cause of Emmett’s death. I don’t want to leave the impression I just ‘Googled’ uremia and took the first hit and ran with it — no.

I didn’t become an expert on the illness, but I spent a least a week digging into the topic, particularly how it was treated in the early 1900s, interviewed kidney specialists, visited the library at the National Institutes of Health (which is only a bike ride away from my office — and ANYONE can go there to do research, by the way!) to check sources, and so forth — if Emmett died of this disease, what did that mean, exactly? What was it like in 1918?

Uremia (chronic kidney failure). At the time Emmett died, it was five years before there was any dialysis done on human beings — and the first actual example of dialysis on humans took place in Germany, by the way, in the mid-1920s. Interestingly, doctors were monitoring blood pressure in patients, but not was linking kidney failure to the more common underlying causes that we know today (diabetes or hypertension), either of which Emmett could have had at the time.

And again, Emmett could have had an accident that caused physical damage to a kidney — he played sports, and you know there was very little protective equipment provided back then (such as we have today). So, there’s that.

I went back to Donna the Nephrologist to ask about what might have been happening with Emmett if there was chronic kidney failure.

Donna said the symptoms would have crept up on Emmett gradually.  “So, what likely happened was he started feeling generally unwell. Uremia manifests itself quietly, much like colon cancer, where the individual goes for years without any symptoms. The first major symptom is massive headache that lasts for days and/or weeks, unrelentingly.”

The other symptoms of uremia are vomiting, loss of appetite/energy, sleeplessness/restless leg syndrome (“his legs might have twitched, while he was awake or asleep,”) a terrible itching, and a metallic taste in the mouth, then paranoia and psychosis, all of which can coalesce fairly rapidly, she said.

“The thing is, when these symptoms happen at this level, the disease is in the fourth stage (the fifth stage is considered terminal).”

I showed Donna this article, (which I shared in yesterday’s post):

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

The article from 1914 showing he had uremic poisoning and it was so critical his family had to come up from Pensacola for him.

“Right after this, I know that Emmett left Washington for about 10-12 weeks, and was given a general excuse from his duties in Congress. Honestly, I don’t think he was ever the same after that,” I told Donna.

She agreed. “The prognosis for uremia was not good. Kidneys had a way of ‘adjusting’ to the damage done, but ultimately, uremia can kill.”

“So, he died of the same disease in 1918. We can see that the same symptoms probably came back and when they did, doctors advised him that that generally indicated the end was near, right?” I asked.

“Right,” Donna said.

The answer, then, lies in what caused the uremia in the first place, I said. “Let’s say the original cause was an injury, which led to the initial kidney failure….”

“…he could have had another accident, which again impacted the kidney,” Donna replied. “So, you’ll need to find out what that initial cause was, if perhaps it was something he could have avoided, you see.”

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Another mystery to track down! Emmett’s story is definitely intriguing.

More to come.

 

Chapter 9: Emmett’s Death Certificate

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By the end of July, 2013, Emmett’s research was in its third month, and I was reaping the rewards of having mass contacted Wilson family descendants, as well as Emmett’s neighbors, friends, political allies and foes. I reached out to descendants of his congressional office staff, to hospitals where he was admitted, to his colleges, to his church.  I reached out to descendants of the women he DATED. I reached out to his office secretary’s descendants.  

By the end of July, I’d contacted and heard from a grand total: 227 people. I know the figure because I started an acknowledgements page the day I began Emmett’s research — if I made a contact and that person got back to me, I added the name. I figure thanking the folks individually and publicly in this book is the minimum for the great kindness of the people who were glad to help me, and who I no longer consider strangers. (More names have been added as the research continues.)  Astoundingly, almost everyone I contacted responded, and quickly to my original query.  Most of them were apologetic, saying they knew nothing about Emmett, but those who did generously shared what they knew. Or, if they didn’t know, they would refer me to another source (which often paid off).

At this point, I had four new pieces of Emmett’s story in my hands — each a bit of a puzzle in themselves. To keep these posts at a reasonable length, I’m going to focus on one at a time. The first official document I received in this project was Emmett’s official death certificate.

Cause of death: Uremia. The certificate is signed by Emmett’s father.

“In Florida, a death certificate is considered public information once an individual has been dead for 100 years. In other words, you can get it free of charge after that date. Otherwise, there’s a fee,” xxx said, when I called the Florida State Board of Health in May, 2013.

I dutifully filled out the form available on the website, I sent payment, and waited. One week and $20 later, Emmett’s death certificate arrived in the mail.

The main item I honed in on right away when I tore open the envelope and scanned the certificate was cause of death:

Uremia. Kidney failure.

Uremia, or kidney failure. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this, because I’d read that in December, 1914, while Emmett was a Congressman, he was taken to Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., the cause being uraemic poisoning.

Emmett almost died in December, 1914.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, December 21, 1914, page 1, in ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Apparently, this incident was serious enough that his family was called in all the way from Jackson County, Florida — NOT something you’d do unless the individual was in mortal danger. And there’s more to this, too:

Rheumatism? And a nervous breakdown? That’s not the same as uremic poisoning. Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

So, two different angles on the same story — I try not to read too much into this at the moment, because the death certificate is only one record, and it doesn’t take into account other potential medical problems. But as per usual, I dive right into reading all about uremia, how it comes about, and so forth. I figured I might as well know what this was, and why his family was called to D.C. Was it really that bad?

Meanwhile, I consulted with a colleague and friend at my university — Donna the Nephrologist at the University of Maryland Medical School. I told her what I was researching, and showed her the death certificate.

Donna said kidney failure at the turn of the last century was pretty much a death sentence for some: There weren’t transplants; medications used back then that may have been used to treat other ailments (for example, lithium) caused more damage to kidneys in the process, and so forth.

With regard to Emmett’s information in the death certificate,  there wasn’t all that much she could tell me about Emmett’s diagnosis, except this:

“…if Emmett had kidney failure, and indeed died of it, it would NOT be a short illness, as reported in the paper, unless he’d had an accident or trauma directly to the kidney, or something similar. If that didn’t happen and it was kidney failure over time, it was a terrible way to go, and it definitely would have been noticed.”

For example, Donna told me that in end-stage kidney failure one would immediately notice a person’s smell of urine or ammonia, because the body can’t excrete it normally. “So, the body excretes the waste product through the skin. You would see crystals on the scalp. But then, it is also evident in the person’s behavior. Because the body can’t get rid of the ammonia in the system, it poisons the the brain so that the patient has hallucinations, for instance.”

Additionally, she said, if a patient is in kidney failure, there’s almost always other organ failure going on at the same time.

“It seemed an unusual determination if the press was calling Emmett’s death a ‘short illness’ and his friends were supposedly surprised he was ill. I mean, if you could SEE how he wasn’t acting right. Or, worse, smell him coming five minutes before he got somewhere,” I said.

Donna nodded. “There’s no way someone wouldn’t have known he was sick like that. There’s a lot more to this, I think.”

Indeed.

Meanwhile, I reached out to the family of Dr. E.F. Bruce, Emmett’s physician who signed the death certificate, and contacted the Pensacola Historical Society, to find out about the Pou Funeral Home.

Also — Emmett died at Pensacola Hospital — I know the original hospital is now on the National Historic Register; the records had to go somewhere.

I flexed my fingers and began typing new inquiry letters. I was sure there had to be more information about Emmett’s medical condition, considering how serious it appeared.

Writing Break: Norma

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Early in sobriety I attended AA meetings daily, as prescribed by my temporary sponsor. I was told to listen closely to others with many years of sobriety, especially the women, because eventually I would hear my own story coming out of other women’s shares. It’s important, because we learn that recovering alcoholics are not terminally unique; that there is a way forward out of the madness. If other AAs with similar stories to mine could get sober, I could too, if I followed the program one day at a time.

One of the women in my program was Norma. She was brusque, large, outspoken, tough, and sober 15 years when I met her almost 12 years ago. When Norma shared, she told it like it was. She was plainspoken and not above saying something or someone’s point was bullshit when it needed to be said (because ‘rationalizing’ one’s reactions or activities can be a gateway for AAs to drink again).

I was intimidated by her; I’d never been around anyone who was so brutally honest about drinking, but truthfully, I was intimidated by everyone in the rooms at that point, because my emotions and thinking were raw and jagged with fear, anxiety, and unsteadiness — I had had to replace the tranquilizing booze with things like yoga, exercise, meditation. Early sobriety can be a weird transitional time.

In the early days, I stayed quiet in the meetings, because my temporary sponsor told me to shut up, listen, and learn — after all, my ‘best thinking’ landed me in the rooms of AA. So I mostly observed Norma. I listened to her shares and learned from her experiences. She was also an expert knitter and I was intrigued that she could knit at AA meetings. But her knitting wasn’t a distraction — Norma’s needles would move so fast they seemed to blur and she would not even look at her work during the meetings, she was that engaged in the discussions.

Because Norma was consistently at these meetings I thought of her as kind-of a role model, especially with knitting, because I had picked up the hobby after many years, and was also bringing work into the meetings. Knitting soothes me, slows my thinking down, becomes meditative after a while, and I found it helped me focus more on the discussions in the meetings. But my knitting was slow and simple with subtle colored yarn, retiring; Norma’s knitting was complicated and textured, done quickly and with bold, vibrant yarn of different textiles.

Norma lived the example of a woman in sobriety with qualities I wanted — she’d learn to live many years without ‘needing’ a drink, she was fearlessly honest about her struggles living life on life’s terms, and she could knit a beautiful sweater in about three days. I needed a permanent sponsor; I thought she was the one I could learn the most from in the program.

So one day, I brought her a gift of unusual yarn I’d found at a local knitting store that I frequented. I gave it to her, and she appreciated it. She thanked me, and said she was looking forward to using it.  I said that I admired her work and her time in the program, and that I’d like to talk to her about it. But she thanked me again, and then the meeting started — and that was all we said to each other that day. I thought I’d ask her about sponsoring me another time.

The following week, I was walking to the Sunday women’s meeting, and saw her walking up the sidewalk. She said hello to me, and said she was looking forward to using the yarn I gave her.

I asked her what she planned to knit with it, and she stopped where she was, turned to me, and said with exasperation, “you know, you’re just so irritating. Go on ahead. I really don’t want to be around you.”

Norma’s response shocked and surprised me — I honestly did not know where it came from. I felt my face flush, and my stomach turn over — but instead of getting angry, or upset, or reacting in like manner, something made me say, “I understand. I’ll see you later,” and I walked on ahead to the meeting room.

But when I got inside, I went into the women’s rest room, and sobbed. I took a bunch of deep breaths, calmed myself, and went into the meeting — Norma was already seated in the front of the room — I sat in the back, and made myself stay there the entire time. I don’t know how or why I said what I did to Norma, because I really didn’t understand what had happened.

The old me probably would have had a drink over something like that; instead, I waited after the meeting for my temporary sponsor, who was also in the room. I told her what happened — she gave me some good advice quoting the poet Miller Williams — and she said she’d love to be my permanent sponsor.

Even though the event with Norma was almost 12 years ago, remembering that event still troubles me.

From that moment on, Norma was rude to me; I didn’t speak to her that much afterwards, and I avoided meetings I knew she frequented.

The thing is, I never knew what it was that got under Norma’s skin. Last year, I tried to call her. I wanted to talk to her about it, because I wanted to learn what it was I did that was irritating — I wanted to correct whatever it was, if I could.

But I was too late. When I tried to call her, her number had been disconnected. I later discovered she’d died nine months earlier in her sleep.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk to her. Hearing hard truths is something I’ve had to get comfortable with over the past 12 years of working the AA program. I want to hear the truth — even if it is difficult — because I don’t want to be the person I used to be before sobriety.

Even so, Norma lived a life of transparency, accountability, and honesty. That’s what keeps me sober today, every day, and for that, I am grateful to have had her in my life. Maybe that’s the lesson I was supposed to have from Norma.

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Oh — the quote my sponsor gave me from the poet Miller Williams is as follows (and I keep it close to my heart always):

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.

“You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”