Living Life, Chip by Chip

I always know where it is, unlike almost every other object I own. I rarely, if ever, however, go looking for it.

And yet occasionally, you find yourself doing something that you know will evoke a response that you hate because you need to have that response.

So, this morning, I opened the door to my night stand and extracted the battered shoe box. Beneath the “Thank You” notes from past students, the love letters my wife wrote me over time and surrounded by the pin-based honorifics I received or inherited throughout the years, I found it where I always found it.

My grandmother was an inexplicable part of my life. Before I could go to all-day school, I often spent time at her home. Occasionally, we would get an early morning phone call, which sent my mother into a spin: Grandma couldn’t watch me. She didn’t want me there. Mom would make six other calls and I’d land at another relative’s home. I never knew why.

Grandma during my earlier days could be happy or moody. She married her second husband, the irrepressible Uncle Harry, who spent much of his life on the open road as a truck-driving Teamster out of Detroit. They argued constantly, but there was always a love there. Mom loved to say they reminded her of the bickering couple from the comic strip “Pickles.” One of the few things they agreed on was a good pot of coffee at the kitchen table while they chain-smoked a seemingly unending supply of cigarettes.

As a trio, we took trips to Rice Lake for summer vacations. Because of them, I had a tree house (really a tree stand where I read book after book all summer) and a dog that lived at their house. I had a place to sleep when Mom and Dad had to work and I had a day off of school. I had the chance to learn how to make Bologna Loaf (a delicacy made with an assortment of onions, pickles and mayo mixed into bologna ground by hand).

Christmas morning, when I was 10 years old, we got a call from Uncle Harry. Grandma was sick so we couldn’t come over. I was irate, as I wanted to see my out-of-state cousins at her house and besides, she seemed OK the night before. Mom told me it was the way it was, her anger palpable. It would take me several more years to find out what happened that day.

Grandma had a bad night and spent most of it in the kitchen, drinking straight from a bottle of brandy. Uncle Harry got her to bed and up and told her it was time to get help. When a guy who drank the world’s shittiest beers at some of the best dive bars throughout Cudahy could see it, the issue was clear.

Grandma was an alcoholic.

The wide white ring box had paper sticking out of the edges of it, two photos of an ultrasound that told my wife and I our first child had died in utero. It was surrounded by two holy cards, one for Grandma, the other for my wife’s grandmother. In the ring slot was Uncle Harry’s wedding ring. When he died, Grandma gave me his most treasured items: His father’s watch, his grandfather’s pocket knife and his own wedding ring. In the top of the box was the item I sought: A bronze coin about the size of a dollar.

Grandma’s 14-year chip from AA.

The legend of these chips goes back into the 1940s, according to AA historians. They were totems to mark time and help recovering alcoholics hold their own against the pressures of the outside world. Days and months would be marked on chips of various colors. At a single year of sobriety, a bronze coin with a Roman numeral became the reminder of how far you had come.

When Grandma died, about a month after my wedding, Mom spent time going through her things and dealing with the sale of the house. Grandma had very little at the end of her life. Uncle Harry had died of cancer about a year earlier and she was holding onto her house with almost no money. Each year, we held a garage sale for her, where we sold more and more of her items. The cash helped keep food in the fridge and the lights on.

In her jewelry box were a few small items, mostly costume pieces and things she inherited. However, in that box was a line of coins, stacked like you would roll quarters. 14 in all.

I didn’t understand what it was or why they were there at the time, but when Mom asked me to take anything I wanted, I took the final coin. In retrospect, I wish I had taken them all, as they are now gone somewhere and I can never get them back.

Years later at a college media convention of all places, the folks from AA set up a vendor booth and I stopped by. I asked the nice woman about the coin I found and if it had any significance to her. She slipped her hand into her pocket and produced a coin with XXV on it.

“Did it look like this?”

I reflexively gasped.

She explained about the coin and the process and how these worked. I broke down in tears and this stranger consoled me, as I’m sure she had consoled so many others during her 25 years of sobriety.

She looked at me after I composed myself and said, “Your grandmother was an incredible woman.”

I later learned that Grandma had more years in than coin indicated, 28 by my estimation. When the cancer began to get her, she couldn’t make the meetings and she would rarely get visitors. More chips weren’t coming. Still, she kept to that promise, reciting the serenity prayer.

The items in that small white box were not put there by accident.

The two funeral cards held vigil. I asked those grandmothers to watch over the soul of our little lost one, the older brother or older sister who was supposed to be there for The Midget.

The ring was that piece of Uncle Harry that always captured his goodness for me. He was a tough, gruff, cantankerous bastard and my father used to tie himself in knots when he had to deal with Harry. Still, he loved me. I knew it every time I saw him. I knew it in every effort he made to connect with me in a way his “real” grandchildren refused to.

The coin? That was resolve.

Once I was old enough to understand, Grandma explained how every day was a challenge. She knew of people who went from 10 years to a single day of sobriety in a blink. A bad day, a spousal squabble, a moment of celebration turned wrong all could lead to the bottom of the ladder and the slow climb back. One chip at a time. Nothing was really a given to people afflicted with this disease.

If there ever was a certainty in her life, however, it was that cancer would take her. The sheer volume of cigarettes she and Uncle Harry consumed throughout their lives would inevitably lead to it.

She was hospitalized multiple times, the disease taking her ability to walk or control her own bowels. She had a colostomy, a walker and more. The reaper’s scythe took her one piece at a time, gathering her in with the emotionless rake of a boxman at a craps table.

The one thing she was bound and determined to do was live to see my wedding. It was at least three years between the time my loving wife and I knew we would wed, the engagement and the actual day. In that span, she went from bad to worse, her husband died and her house continued to atrophy. One Mother’s Day, shortly after Uncle Harry died, my parents decided to do a big get together for all the mothers. It was his mom, mom’s mom, my betrothed and her parents along with Mom and Dad at a big fancy restaurant. The love in that room was something I’ll never forget.

However, it was what Grandma told Mom later that still sticks with me.

My lovely wife ordered a martini, as was her custom. Grandma later told mom, it was the first time in forever she felt just a little jealous.

When she heard this, my wife was crushed and guilty, but Grandma told her she should never, ever feel that way. Grandma was strong enough and there was never a doubt that this would be a problem.

All those years in. One day at a time.

I never carried the coin with me. Other representations of Grandma are everywhere I look. The ashtray she made of a bear swiping at a salmon in a stream. The plastic canvas “Wisconsin Badgers” candy holder she made. The wooden monk that reads from a bible, which once sat on a stereo speaker or something in her living room.

Never the chip.

I couldn’t do it because it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my resolve that earned it. I would have just as soon worn a Bronze Star that I bought at an estate sale than carry that chip. So I put it away where it would do the most good and left it there. Maybe once per year, I find it for one reason or another.

In this case, it was to see if I could still feel.

Life has been horribly difficult this year, and I thank you all for indulging me as I told you that week after week on this site. I’m sure nothing says “Hey here comes the weekend” like Doc Downer’s missives about failure and work trauma.

The volume of bad things has always seemed to reach a critical mass for me, especially when it comes to the actions of a bad actor within our department. It has gotten progressively worse over the past four months, for reasons I cannot comprehend. Everything was fine for almost a year. I left him alone, he reciprocated.

Then, WHAM, the beatings began, gaining in speed and frequency. It got to a point where I realized entire weeks were lost, answering emails and filing reports in response to his accusations against me and my students.

Another thing that increased was medication. My doctor feared for my safety and sanity. I went from occasionally taking a pill to being on a regiment of four or five medicines per day, not counting the over the counter pills she recommended.

It was the only way to keep me from losing it, and that alone made me feel like a loser. Despite her assurances that NO ONE could put up with the sheer volume of crap being shoveled in my direction with out SOME help, I just felt weaker.

And then, suddenly, I didn’t feel anything.

My boss popped into my office day after day, noting another bizarre action or demanding request of me from that colleague. It was my boss who would now be animated or irate about this. Before, I would share his anger and bile. Now, I would listen, comply and complete the task. It seemed the angrier this colleague got and the more exasperated my boss got, the more I just flatlined.

The shrink started to worry about me for the first real time. “We don’t want you flattened out. You need some emotional range.” Yet, any alteration he made to the meds, he feared, would lead me to a spiral, so he told me to hang on and keep an eye on things.

This week, the man finally pushed past the edge. He told several students they couldn’t attend a field trip he had long known about because he “had to investigate” whether it was an excused absence or not. In our field, it’s mostly a courtesy when one professor gives another professor a note saying, “Kid isn’t going to be here, here’s why, do me a solid.” Not in this case. In addition, he was on them about something that happened in the paper. Wednesday night, I had four editors in a room, hurt beyond belief. One kid was sobbing. Another said she had made a counseling appointment. A third told me she was on medication. Even the one “non-target” of his insanity told me she constantly felt pressure and tension. She did her best to hide from him that she worked with me on the newspaper.

They told me all the things I had been telling the shrink for months: How empty is this guy’s life that he has to do this? Why can’t he just leave us alone? Can’t anyone do anything about this to make him stop? Please…

Normally, I would have felt the pain, too. I would have decided to go to a batting cage and beat baseballs until my hands went raw. I would have screamed and hollered and cursed. I wanted to do all of those things.

It just wouldn’t come.

I told the kids to write down all their concerns and email our chair. I told them I would talk to him in the morning and it would be OK.

That was a measured, solid and reasonable response and it scared the shit out of me.

How much medication should have to take to be able to go to work and tolerate someone? How much of who you are has to be medically beaten out of you so you don’t feel constant anger, fear, sadness, anxiety or anything else? How much of that is OK?

I don’t know, but there I was. I could no longer tolerate the insanity, so I became emotionless.

I let this happen to me.

I flattened out.

The moment the chip hit my hand, I knew two things: I could still feel and I still had something in the tank.

The tears came pouring out. Honest emotion, loss and grief all coalesced in salty drops that fell freely. It was all there. I was never more grateful to feel sadness.

The medicine had flattened me out and made me smooth, but I could still break through when it really had to happen. There was still something inside of me that told me I was going to be OK.

But that wasn’t the incredible thing. I had planned, or at least hoped, for that.

The chip reminded me of something else.

In the final months of her life, Grandma was going downhill painfully fast. She rarely got out of her chair-bed-thing in her living room. She was on stronger and stronger doses of painkillers.

At one point, she couldn’t swallow so the doctors put her on liquid morphine. Mom told me that she went to get the prescription filled and found out it was only available at five pharmacies in the state. When Mom found one, she had to show more ID than she did when she went overseas. It was apparently an incredibly powerful narcotic.

After my wedding, we had a gift opening at the house. Grandma was there and saw me open the wonderful blanket she knit for me. Afterward, my wife and I took her home. We each gave her a hug and as we left, I started to cry.

“I have the feeling,” I told my bride, “I have just seen my grandmother for the last time.”

I was right. She died a month later.

Clean and sober.

The thing that I never understood before was why. In her final days, the pain was incredible, even with access to pretty much everything in the Michael Jackson Pharmacy of Fame. She had nothing prove. She had nothing to give. The finality of a “drink before dying” is something even shitty Westerns saw as a noble offering to the departed.

And yet, there she was, refusing to be tempted and refusing to say, “Fuck it.”

Every day was a chance to fail. Each success was measured in minutes and hours of avoiding the demon.

She had one thing left that was hers and hers alone: Sobriety. She wasn’t going to give it up, no matter what.

As I look at each day I have spent, dealing with an increasing level of hostility and harassment, I don’t feel that I can persist. “Better” jobs come along with offers of more pay, shorter hours and the absence of Sling Blade McGee constantly riding my ass.

In an ironic twist, the best explanation I can give to how this person operates is to say this is like living with a true alcoholic: Some days are quiet, others are loud, others lead to beatings. Occasionally, there are those happy days, which leave everyone on edge, wondering when the other shoe will drop and we won’t see the backhand coming.

I often tell my students that the only two things that are truly mine are my scars and my resolve. Every beating I take increases both of them. Yet, each day, I wonder if this will be the beating that will finally finish me. The one that makes me say, “Fuck it. We’re moving to Boise.”

I kept that chip next to me when I wrote this and from time to time, I would hold it. The strength of that 14 years balanced against the frailty of each day that got her there.

Even as I carefully rewrap it with those photos and cards, close the box and place it back with the other items, I think about that incredible woman who just refused to give up.

And now I understand that to make it, I have to do it her way.

Day by day.

Chip by chip.


4 thoughts on “Living Life, Chip by Chip

  1. Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale died in 2005. He served on the Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Tonkin, and was shot down over Viet Nam in 1965. He was the highest-ranking naval officer to be held as a POW, and was Ross Perot’s VP candidate in 1992. Interesting guy. Afraid they’d videotape him and show the world a well-treated and valued prisoner, he beat himself with a stool. He cut himself with a razor; he did what had to be done. He limped for the rest of his life.

    In the camp, he invented new ways for his men to resist torture, sent coded messages to his wife, invented new ways to break through isolation and communicate with each other. New ways to stay alive. The men cleaning the courtyard, during a period of enforced silence, swept the ground in the syncopated rhythm he’d taught them, silently and defiantly spelling out to him inside the walls: “We love you. We love you. We love you.”


    We love you. We love you. We love you.


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