People of various religious affiliations choose to offer sacrifices, such as ‘giving-up’ a favorite food or activity, as a form of penance during the Lenten Season in preparation for Easter.
‘Giving up’ something isn’t as easy as it sounds. Ask someone battling an addiction, or someone who has a family member seeking sobriety.
Addiction is an unreasonable disease that often comes like a thief in the night, stealing the person’s dignity and sense of worth, as the family bears untold suffering –mourning the loss of their love one’s former self.
I grew up with an alcohol addicted uncle. He was my mom’s brother, and he lived with us throughout my formative years.
According to stories Mom shared with me when I became a young adult, my uncle had been an innocent farm boy – one who had never been outside Clinton County. That is, not until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941 during World War II.
Our family photo albums are filled with pictures of my uncle in his Army uniform, and during leave, in his baseball catcher’s gear. My mom said he had started drinking during the war and, unfortunately, continued the habit when he returned home.
Alcohol was not his master. At least not yet. For several years he held a responsible job with the State of Ohio. He was a very dependable, hard working and capable employee. In fact, there were times when we didn’t see him for several days at a time. Unfortunately, in later years it was also true that we wouldn’t see him for days at a time, but for a completely different reason. My uncle began to drink to excess and it threatened his livelihood.
There was neither a more lovable, kind, nor considerate man on earth than my uncle, when he was sober. My uncle and I were close. In fact, I am his namesake.
In contrast, there was not a more disappointing man on earth, at least to me, when my uncle was drinking. He would start out at a local bar, and migrate to the bars of larger cities. He began to disappear on a Thursday, and our family would not see him again until the following Monday afternoon.
I loved him, and as a young boy, I often prayed for him. When he was home with us, I used to stay close by his side, hoping against hope he would not start drinking again. I often asked him to go with me to watch my baseball games; as well as, drive me around to deliver newspapers. I knew if he was with me, he wouldn’t be drinking. But my efforts were all in vain. He would return to work, and then not come home.
It was inevitable. Finally, a State supervisor called and informed my Mom, that he had no choice but to terminate my uncle’s employment.
A few years later, during the Lenten Season, my uncle asked me to guess what he was ‘giving up’ for Lent.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “Maybe Pepsi or Coke?”
“No, I am giving up alcohol,” my uncle said, as he threw three beer cans into the trash.
“Oh, do you think you can do it?” I asked in disbelief.
“I’m going to try,” he replied with an unanticipated grin.
Elation swarmed my heart and mind, but I was unsure my uncle could keep his promise and remain sober for more than a few days. Would he ever drink again? Would it be next week, next month, or maybe never? That was my hope, because never is a long, long time in the mind of a boy.
A few days turned into a week. A few more weeks passed. Soon, forty days had passed. It was Easter Sunday. I turned to see my uncle, dressed in a suit, pull out of our driveway and head to Sunday Mass.
I don’t know if there was more to the story than what he told us, but I know my uncle stayed sober for the remainder of his life. I remember watching him leave our home, to live in a Veteran’s Hospital to continue his sobriety.
A few years passed and my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, he died that same year.
I don’t drink alcohol today, in large part, because of what I saw it do to my uncle. But I do emulate him in other ways. I share his fervor for Lent. I saw what that day on his knees did for him, many years ago.
There are no easy answers to addiction of any kind, but St. Matthew said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
On his deathbed, I asked my uncle how he was able to overcome his addiction. He simply responded, “I believed it all, didn’t you?”
I could only nod as he softly slipped away.