The fight to stay sober after the person you love most dies

By TonyCastleberry 03/07/19
Grandma and me.jpg

Her absence is felt every waking moment but I miss grandma the most around 9 p.m.

Every night for the past 11 years, that’s when I would call her to talk about her day, my day and anything else that came to mind. Even when I was drinking, and sometimes when I was thoroughly under the influence, I still called. In 11 years, I might have missed 10 nights, and when that happened, I’d call her first thing the next day to apologize and catch up on the previous day’s events.

Grandma died Feb. 12 so I can’t make those calls anymore, and of the many things I miss — her honesty, her wisdom, her toughness, her sense of humor and her unconditional love to name a few — our phone conversations are at, or certainly near, the top of the list.

Maybe that’s because after answering the phone, she almost always seemed genuinely happy to hear my voice, following my excited, “Hey grandma!” with an equally exuberant, “Hey Tony!”

Maybe it’s because I could sense the comfort our talks brought grandma after my grandpa died in 2008. I hope grandma knew I too felt comforted during those nightly chats.

Maybe it’s because no matter what was happening in our lives, and despite all the uncertainty that comes with human existence, we could count on those phone calls.

For those reasons and numerous others, grandma was the center of my universe, so it’s no surprise that since she’s been gone, I often feel like a rudderless ship. The craft is sound, and it isn’t in immediate danger of capsizing but all it’s really doing is floating aimlessly on a lonely, uneven sea, desperately wishing its guiding light would reappear.

The urge to drink again hit me hard in the days after grandma died but I successfully fought the cravings, and Feb. 28 marked my 1,000th day without alcohol. Part of the reason I didn’t give in was because grandma had seen me at my worst, paid lawyers and took care of court fees after both my DUIs and forgave me for making hundreds of other drunken mistakes. Thirty years of my bad behavior must have caused grandma pain and embarrassment but I never felt like she was ashamed of me even though I presented her with plenty of opportunities to be.

That’s why the last two-plus years are so dear to me. Without the excessive, daily drinking that ruled most of my life for three decades, I was finally present, clear in my thoughts and actions, and the time I spent with grandma when I was sober felt so much more rewarding because of it.

Although her physical health declined the last few years, grandma’s mind stayed sharp until the end, and I wouldn’t trade my weekend trips home to stay with her for anything. Taking her to lunch and dinner, running errands with her or just sitting in her living room watching TV and talking are memories I hold dear but inescapable sadness hits me when I realize that’s all they are — memories — and that she isn’t here to help create new ones.

Luckily, I can take solace in the fact that I was there for grandma most of the last 15 years, and through those daily phone calls and biweekly visits, pretty much all of the last 11.

While I haven’t had a drink in almost three years, getting drunk seems like a surefire way to numb the pain of grandma’s death. I have no doubt that alcohol’s memory-erasing qualities would come in handy right now but I also know that going from a recovering alcoholic to a practicing one would be disrespectful to grandma, who told me several times how proud she was that I quit drinking.

Making a phone call to grandma may not be possible but making the right call for myself is, and honoring her by staying sober might be the best call of all.

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonycastleberry


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