But for the Grace of God

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When I close my eyes, I see it: The ancient scrapbook covered in gray dust, high on a shelf in a Florida library, long forgotten. And on the phone, I hear the excited voice of my friend Jacki the Archivist:

“We aren’t sure how it got there, but it’s been undisturbed for decades. It was part of a collection of mementos belonging to a long-deceased Florida lawyer named Kehoe.”

It? I ask.

“Your cousin Emmett Wilson’s long-lost scrapbook.”

I’ve fantasized receiving this message from Jacki since I began this research in 2013. This scrapbook is the major piece in the puzzle to tell Emmett’s story that’s still missing.

Emmett willed the scrapbook to his namesake, Emmett Wilson Kehoe, the son of his best friend and law partner, Walter Kehoe.

Emmett Wilson Kehoe, son of Jennie and Walter Kehoe. 1930, University of Florida. Source: Ancestry.com

But young Kehoe was only 12 when Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

And the scrapbook disappeared shortly after Emmett’s funeral. And it’s still missing, unfortunately.

Always the realist, Jacki has warned me: “The odds of finding Emmett’s scrapbook intact today are minute.” But I’m optimistic, because I’ve uncovered a surprising amount of information on my obscure and troubled cousin — once considered the Golden Boy of Pensacola politics — who succumbed at 35 to combined addictions of ambition and alcohol.

Emmett’s story isn’t a happy one. I doubt my ancestors would appreciate me writing his biography, even 100 years after his death. But I am compelled, because Emmett’s story is also my story: My long-dead cousin and I are related not only by blood, but also chemistry.

Emmett drank to escape. I drank to escape.

Emmett had three interventions. I had three interventions.

Emmett didn’t want to face himself, character defects and all, to find out who he really was minus booze in his life. It has taken almost a decade of continuous sobriety to be willing to face myself after drinking for more than 30 years.

Emmett’s struggle with alcohol killed him.

My struggle with alcohol almost killed me.

After Emmett died, my ancestors literally closed the book on him: They dispersed his meager belongings; shelved his memory, hid his truth. Tried to forget.

For years, Emmett had put his family through an emotional and psychological wringer; his death was probably a relief to them all. This may explain the disappearance of Emmett’s scrapbook. And I don’t really blame them.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to forget my alcoholic history. Sometimes I believe that if I can hide that part of my life, pretend it didn’t exist, then I, too, can move on.

Or can I?

I understand why my ancestors chose to bury Emmett’s memories along with his body, but ignoring an unfortunate truth only excuses it temporarily; renders it dormant to rise again, when you least expect it — as it was with Emmett.

Writing Emmett’s story isn’t only about coming to terms with Emmett’s truth — but rather it is about coming to terms with my truth. Perhaps Emmett couldn’t save himself; but now, 100 years later, he life story can save me from myself.

====

Coffee with Emmett. May 20, 2014

It was a glorious Spring morning, May 20, 2014, the day I ‘met’ Emmett.

There was nothing to fear, but I was jumpy; my heart and thoughts racing as I walked through St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, anxiously scanning the headstones with a travel coffee cup, a cemetery map, and a dozen supermarket red roses in my hands. Few were about save for a middle-aged woman on a brisk morning stroll with her terrier, and a caretaker carefully moving a buzzing weed whacker along granite-lined family plots. He nodded good morning to me across the rows, as I picked my way along the bumpy, but well-manicured turf in search of Emmett. He politely silenced his weed whacker while I paid my respects.

Why was I nervous visiting a dead man? St. John’s wasn’t a frightening place during daylight hours; I felt perfectly secure. Absurdly, I wondered if, when I arrived at Emmett’s grave, the ground would move and he would reach up through ground and throttle me for unearthing his unfortunate life story —

— but before I could parse my feelings, I realized I was standing in the Wilson family plot — and there was Emmett beneath my feet.

The concrete slab over his grave was covered by several inches of sand — from occasional floods during hurricane season — irregular tufts of weedy grass, and sandspurs. Emmett’s granite headstone was in good condition: The engraving clear, the stone mostly unchanged in almost a century.

Then, it struck me: No one has visited Emmett in decades. Maybe almost a century.

I remember thinking: Booze took everything from you, Emmett.

And then: There but for the grace of God go I.

My anxiety was gone.

I laid the roses atop Emmett’s grave. I sat down next to him with my coffee.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” I started.

I left St. John’s feeling calm and resolute: I’d keep looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I’d tell his story. Not from a sense of obligation, but because even though we’ve never met, I understand him. And in understanding Emmett, I understand myself:

His story’s tragedy is my life preserver.

===

Jacki the Archivist and I are still looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I hope we find it, because Emmett’s story isn’t complete without his words. His truth.

There’s a saying in the AA rooms: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I’ve almost twelve years in recovery, and I’m still discovering the secrets that drove me to drink. The reality is that I live authentically when I can come to terms with all of myself, including those dark days of alcoholism. My truth.

That truth saved my life in 2007, when I took a deep breath and declared in an AA meeting that I was an alcoholic.

And so, with Emmett’s scrapbook, I would take a deep breath, and carefully open the cover —

And accept the truth, Emmett’s and mine.

For better or worse.

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