Chapter 16: The end and the beginning

Standard

I have to forget the sanitized, clinical image in my mind about Emmett spending his last days in a hospital bed. You should, too.

His last days weren’t tragically romantic. It wasn’t pretty, despite the fact Emmett was tended to in Pensacola Hospital, by the Sisters of Charity, nun-nurses hovering nearby in their stiff white coronets and black habits; angelic figures giving consolation to patients writhing, dying, in their hellish final days.

Emmett probably thought he was already in Hell, though, that last week of his life.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway. Taken at historic Pensacola Hospital a few years ago.

=====

End-stage alcoholism is nothing like what is portrayed in movies.

Attend a meeting in a psych ward sometime; you’ll see what it is like to really wrestle a demon that has hold of you by chemistry, the pitiful shaking, screaming, vomiting all at once by friends, loved ones, or strangers.

It’s not something you can just ‘get over’ or let go of; the disease absolutely has you, until YOU let go, absolutely.

It is too much for those who don’t know the person behind the alcohol; it is too much for those who do.

My friend Donna the Nephrologist once told me that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the human body tries to correct itself internally right away, to expel the ‘poison’ from the system, but the patient has become so used to living with booze in the system, that the damaged body cannot handle the transition, and so the patient often endures terrible delirum tremens — the last stage of alcohol withdrawal, with a mortality rate up to 37 percent if untreated.

Note that modern treatment of delirium tremens has a lower mortality rate; this table assumes the patient has access to medical help. Still, even with medical help, a 5% mortality rate is reported from DTs. Source: http://www.grepmed.com

That’s a 2018 statistic, by the way.  Mortality from delirium tremens was probably higher in Emmett’s day.

===

I didn’t want to make Emmett’s biography about him as an alcoholic, but the disease was the launching point into his life story.

We know that alcoholism is a family disease   but it also affects those in the alcoholic’s immediate circle — friends, coworkers, neighbors, and so forth. We don’t really think about how others (not just immediate family) have to adjust their lives, work around, enable, or whatever to ‘deal’ with an alcoholic’s illness.

Emmett’s friends and colleagues likely did that with him too. In fact, I’m sure they did. And, I know they went to great lengths to keep it out of the public eye.

And, there is the issue of alcoholism heredity. Several peer reviewed articles indicate that genes are responsible for about 50 percent of alcoholism in a family (I have many other resources; here’s one; here’s another); but addiction is a complicated science. Not everyone inherits the predisposition (Emmett had nine siblings), and some members of a family can be more susceptible.

This would set the framework for Emmett’s research:

  1.  Where and when the drinking problem started with Emmett?
  2.  Was Emmett’s family also alcoholic?
  3.  What is Emmett’s family story anyway?

The best place to begin was with Emmett’s obituary.

Next: Dissecting the obit.

Advertisements

Chapter 15: Irony and Uselessness

Standard

You want to hear something funny? Or more honestly, ironic?

As I sat with my newfound information about Emmett Wilson, I was angry. Pissed, actually.

First, this guy. Emmett Wilson, who (from what I had read so far) was from a privileged family; a family who held respectable jobs in the community, a family who lost everything more than once, reinvented themselves, survived abject poverty, educated themselves, saved every penny — and gave those pennies willingly to Emmett so he could go to college not once but twice…

Second, a family with connections who went out of their way to bail him out of more than one or two bad career choices and help him obtain jobs of prominence, which Emmett did an honestly average job about…

Third, Emmett, a man with family and connections that gave him places to live, opportunities no average Joe or Josephine could have dreamed of back then, resulting in national prominence….

….only to throw it all away before his 36th birthday.

What an asshole.

He had everything and threw it away.

And who was this guy anyway? OK, yeah, so hooray, he’s my cousin. A distant cousin whom I’d not gone looking for; someone who just showed up in the middle of another project, who thumped me on the head in the middle of the night asking me to do him a favor.

Man, does this Emmett guy have some nerve, reaching out from beyond the grave for yet ANOTHER favor. I mean, what the hell? You have to be kidding, I remembered muttering to myself. And to him, if he was actually listening.

“Does this photo make me look like I have all the answers? Maybe I’m just uncomfortable in a stiff collar?”

I looked at his photo — the official one of Emmett posed with kind-of a frown/stern expression.

I said to him: “You have all the answers already. What more do you want? What do you want from me at this point?”

For two days, I was too pissed to work.

Instead, I went to see my sponsor, Courtney (who is also happens to be a genealogical researcher, by the way. Ironic?).

I recounted to her exactly what I found about Emmett, how I felt, what I was thinking, how used I felt by this Emmett Wilson, who seemed to use everyone and everything in his life, too, to get what he wanted, and then to just fucking die in the end, a useless, wasted life….

She listened quietly, patiently, as I ranted for probably about 20 minutes. Then she asked:

“Why are you so angry about Emmett? What’s he done to you, exactly?”

“Well, look,” I said, displaying the folders of information I’d collected. “This is just infuriating. This guy is a loser. He threw his life away; he didn’t care. How can you be given all sorts of opportunities to do well and just throw it away? It’s insane,” I shook my head at her.

“You sure are worked up over a guy who has been dead almost 100 years. I ask you again: What’s he done to YOU that makes you so angry?”

“I don’t get it,” I muttered defensively.

“Judy, don’t you see? None of this is about Emmett. This is all about you.”

I just shook my head, incredulous.

“Don’t dismiss the idea. Think about it,” she said. “You came from nothing; you had a family and friends who would and did give everything to help you, willingly. Or unwillingly,” she said with a chuckle. “But still, you had the resources. And what did YOU do with your resources during your early career? And when did you say you did most of your drinking?”

I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t actually because I felt my face burning.

“Did you appreciate them, your advantages?”

“I do now.” I said, sheepishly.

After a few quiet moments, she said: “They called you useless too. How did that make you feel, or do you remember?”

I did remember. I shifted uncomfortably; I started to assemble Emmett’s papers back into their folders.

“You’re angry because you are reliving your helplessness when you were literally, mentally drowning when you are reading all about Emmett and what he threw away in his life,” she said nodding at the papers in my hands.

My sponsor had my full attention.

“No. Just like Emmett, you didn’t appreciate what you had in those days because you couldn’t. You were out of your mind, insane if you will, putting the need for a drink first. Just like your cousin. And, this story you are writing. Think about this: Is Emmett’s drunkalogue the entire life story?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “His life was more than just being a drunk.”

Courtney smiled at me, kindly, and nodded.

“There is more to Emmett’s story than just ‘he drank, he died.’ I think you know this, too. How did he get there? What did he do about it? What lessons can we learn from his life that can help you today?

“And,” she continued, “would you still consider Emmett useless for having reached out to you, asking you to tell his story, if his story actually informed your own?”

Before I left, Courtney reminded me about being self-righteous in all of this: “We are lucky and blessed to have found AA, and that it works for us. But remember, there are plenty of people who can’t or won’t accept this program or any other program out there, for whatever reason. We’re powerless over other people, places, things…they have to do it for themselves.

“There’s another gift in the program that I think you need to work on,” she added, looking at me over the rim of her glasses.

“What?” I said, with surprise. “I appreciate all of the gifts of the program, truly…” I started. She shook her head.

“Really? What about humility?”

“What about it?” I asked.

“You’re also mad at Emmett because he couldn’t ‘get it’ and you did. A lot of people don’t, can’t or won’t get it. It’s a daily struggle, you know. And just because you could do it — and I know you work hard to stay there — not everyone can. Your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your own program,” she said, sitting back and looking at me pointedly.

I didn’t say anything because now I was mad at Courtney for calling me out — and correctly. We sat quietly for a few minutes; I couldn’t stay mad at her for very long because I always knew that she’d tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not, and Courtney is precious to me. Eventually, I looked at her in the eye and nodded.

“I have a lot of work to do, and not just with this story. And I am sorry for being so rude.”

Courtney nodded.

“It’s fine. But don’t be angry because Emmett couldn’t or wouldn’t get it while he was alive — his death and story serves a purpose for you, now, today. His story, and how you found it or he found you or whatever, is a wonderful gift and opportunity to learn and grow.

“So, I wouldn’t call him or his life useless. But your reaction is pretty ironic,” she said with a chuckle, as our session together ended, and she walked me to her apartment door.

“Keep coming back,” she said, as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek.

Next: Emmett’s story, from the very beginning.

Chapter 14: What is he to me?

Standard

That was the question I kept asking as I dug deeper into this stranger’s — Emmett’s — story. I couldn’t keep calling him a stranger, though.

For such an obscure guy who didn’t leave much of a mark while he lived, I was turning up dozens of tiny blurbs about his life almost daily from newspaper microfilm. I spent hours (courtesy of faculty privileges and InterLibrary Loan) at both the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library and The American University’s Bender Library, scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed pages from the past, newspapers searching for anything Emmett Wilson. The small pieces would have to come together to illustrate the coherent whole as best as possible, because I lacked true primary sources at this point. This was literally the needle-in-the-haystack approach, but it was the only approach available.

McKeldin LIbrary, in the heart of the University of Maryland campus, College Park.

 

Over time, the small, often one-line items about Emmett’s life grew together into an extensive 4.8 megabyte chart. Essentially, I’d created Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner in reverse, a calendar overview of his life which included an incredibly detailed map of what the man did on a regular basis, folks he hung out with, where he went for entertainment, venues he visited regularly. Ad infinitum, or as close as I could get to it.

A sample shot of Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner. Information based on newspaper reports, journal entries, family documents, and the like. Location of the original information is in the far right column.

Good research, right? Except that I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch with regard to Emmett. I’d have to be asked to leave the microfilm readers at closing. I’d look up at the library clock one moment, 9:25 a.m. and the second time I’d look it was 3:45 p.m.

Pity the librarians and archive workers; pity the research assistants at nearby tables: I’d chat Emmett up with anyone who asked me what I was working on at the university, whether they were interested or not.

And that was when I noticed I’d embraced a whole other -ism.

As an alcoholic in recovery, I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, but the desire to escape whatever it is I need to focus on at the moment, to procrastinate from living in the current world, is always there. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to escape or to feel better about; I was doing research, and damn good progress too, I thought.

But my husband, who never complains or comments on my work unless something seems truly over the top or awry, actually spoke up: “This is taking over your life. What is it about? What is this to you?” he said.

I didn’t know, I said.

“Then what’s the point of doing the research? What do you hope to get out of it? If you figure that out, then your path in pulling all this information together will be clear,” he said, gesturing at the piles of files stacked on my desk, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, transcribed notes.

I literally have hundreds of pages of notes about Emmett. While I transcribe everything to electronic files for safekeeping, I am most comfortable taking notes traditionally with paper and pen, complete with notes to self, on the text, on hot pink Post-Its, and note cards.

 

 

There was one other thing I hadn’t checked — I’d purposely put it off. It was time to find out for sure. So, I typed his name into my Geni.com account — Geni.com is a genealogical research tool.

Lo and behold:

And there it is: Emmett and I are related. Note the common ancestor, Graves. The Graves ancestor was mentioned in the Jim Milligan genealogy document mentioned in an earlier post. Source: Geni.com

 

Oh man.

Now I knew who Emmett was to me. For sure, I couldn’t say he was a stranger anymore.

But I wasn’t sure if I wanted more than that.

Next: Acceptance is the key.

Chapter 13: Disappointing diagnosis?

Standard

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.

Chapter 12: Clues in the genealogy

Standard

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 9: Emmett’s Death Certificate

Standard

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

Standard

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.

===

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.”