Ruth Z. Deming
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, United States
The following is a work of fiction.
Photography by Lindsey G
“Mom, Laura’s invited me to sleep over? Can I go?"
“Sure, Lisa. Just make sure you’ve done your homework.”
“I finished it.”
Laura Kennedy was my best friend since childhood. We lived next door to one another in the wealthy community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Today, she is known as “the woman who convinced Congress to give nearly a billion dollars to help people with substance abuse issues, but neither one of us knew then what would become of us later in life.
I ran into my bedroom, with its wallpaper and book shelves teeming with my chapter books, and brought out the penmanship workbook.
“Why, that’s very nice,” said Mom. “Your handwriting is certainly improving.”
Miss Reid had given me a C-minus on my report card.
At six o’clock that night, Daddy walked me over to the Kennedys’ house. Mrs. Kennedy, her hair up in rollers, let me in, and took my overnight bag.
Mom didn’t allow me to drink “pop” as we called it back in Cleveland, so this was one reason I loved visiting.
Laura ran out of her bedroom, already dressed in a pink nightgown. She sort of jumped for joy and I smiled brightly.
“Look what I brought,” I said, offering her a slice of Juicy Fruit gum.
We went into the family room. Her dad was smoking a pipe, which smelled delicious to me. If he were my dad, I would have asked him for a puff, but of course I couldn’t do that.
We sat on a large blue couch with holes for drinks at each end. Mrs. Kennedy brought each of us a cold Coca-Cola and popped it into the slots. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and immediately took a sip. It was cold and delicious and burned all the way into my tummy.
Laura was also downing her Coke like she was a camel in the dessert. She gave a huge belch which made me shake with laughter.
“Laura!” both her parents said in unison.
I knew her parents so well that I actually loved them.
One day I heard the wailing of a siren, a not uncommon event. It came closer and closer to our house on Westchester Road and stopped right in front of Laura’s house.
I ran out on the porch and saw someone being carried from the house in a stretcher.
Who could it have been?
It’s was Laura’s father. He was dead.
Within two years, Mrs. Kennedy remarried and the family moved away to another suburb of Cleveland. I was distraught. Laura was excited, as she faced the prospect of a brand new life.
Our bond had been broken. Every now and then, we spoke over the phone, but she was no longer my best friend.
Then, one day, the Caller ID read “Laura Kennedy” and I answered only to find out she had been rushed to the hospital, dead drunk. My beloved friend had become an alcoholic.
“Lisa,” she said in tears. “You’re the only one I can talk to. I was driving to the Heights Art Theater and apparently I had too much to drink, and I hit another car. No one’s injured.”
“My God!” I said. “Where are you now?”
Her voice lowered.
“I’m in the city jail. My mom and stepfather won’t post bond.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said.
I had moved from Westchester Road and now lived with my new family in Beechwood.
My husband was working from home that day. “Don,” I said to the most handsome man in the world, even if he was bald and was wearing his blue bathrobe as he worked at his computer.
“Remember my old friend, Laura Kennedy?”
He looked up over his work.
“She’s in the city jail. Can you watch the kids while I go visit her.”
He nodded and I went over and gave him a kiss on the top of his head.
“Apparently,” I mumbled, “she’s an incorrigible drunk.”
Even though I had my degree in jurisprudence and Laura had become a psychiatrist, I had never been to a jail.
I felt self-conscious driving my white Acura with vanity plates “MSMom” into the bad neighborhood of inner city Cleveland. Trash rolled lazily across the streets and I swerved several times to avoid huge cups of soda or plastic bags in the middle of the road.
Hoping my car wouldn’t be vandalized, I parked as near to the jail as I could, and clunked change into the meter.
I was searched before they let me in to see my friend and was required to leave my tan Armani hand bag in a locker.
An unhappy-looking woman led me into the visitor’s room. Done in a puke-colored green, it was enough to make you drink to cheer yourself up.
At her direction, I sat in a straight-backed chair, across from which was a sheet of Plexiglass. A telephone rested on the counter on both sides.
How I dreaded seeing Laura. She was led in, wearing an orange jumpsuit. She gave me a weak smile as she sat across from me. Like in the movies, I put my hand on the glass and she did the same.
We stared at one another.
“Laura, you can’t live with a drinking problem.”
“When you get out, you must join a 12-Step program.”
“I know that. And I will.”
“Yes!” she said with a smile.
Soon afterward, I attended one of the “open” meetings with her.
“My name is Laura Kennedy and I am an alcoholic.” Everyone clapped. Laura stood in front of the microphone at a Presbyterian church, her long red hair falling on her shoulders, her smile as wide as the sky.
“I have been clean and sober,” she continued, “for four months now.”
“I cherish this token more than I do diamonds,” she said, holding aloft a bronze token with a guardian angel on it.
“I first began to drink – and I am so ashamed of this – when a man broke up with me.” She sighed.
“We’ve been there,” cried the audience. “We’ve been there.”
I had seen Laura struggle through her recovery. I visited her at her condo where I held her head over the toilet when she vomited from withdrawal, worried as she paced the floors, and consoled her when she cried over the man who left her – “the only man I ever loved.” After ten days she was clean.
Today, she is the head of “Laura’s Recovery Center,” which was financed by her parents, friends from the program, and me.
Here, alcoholics are greeted with warm hugs. They feel loved and cared for. Plush furniture adorns the waiting room and all the bedrooms. The program consists of group therapy, meditation, prayer, yoga, a review of the incomparable 12 Steps, and personal mentoring by a sponsor.
Laura is always there at morning meetings. “You will one day know that, like me, getting sober is the best thing that ever happened to you. It is not easy. But we will be with you every step of the way. Our staff has all gone through the process, which is difficult. We do use medication, should you want it. And banish the thought from your mind that it’s a crutch. What do you think alcohol is?”
At five o’clock one afternoon, we all sat in “the salon” at Laura’s rehab. Colorful prints of Matisse, Monet, and Picasso lined the walls. A huge television set was tacked on the wall. The room was buzzing.
“Man, she’ll do great,” said Buddy, two weeks into recovery.
“I’m anxious for her,” said Elaine.
“Don’t be silly,” said Billie Lee.
“Shhhhh!” someone said.
And there she was. Our Laura Kennedy sitting at a table before Congress, a glass of water before her. In her red suit, her auburn hair swinging at her shoulders, she held out her AA medallion with the embossed angel.
She began her exhortation, looking around at the members of Congress. She was as natural as if she were one of them. And, we, back at the rehab, were riveted by her performance. Her concluding words were, “We are a fellowship of humanity. As Bill and Bob, the AA founders, said, ‘We speak your language.’ Anyone in the world can become an alcoholic. Many of you here before me have fought the battle of addiction and won.
“ That’s why I have come here all the way from Chagrin Falls, Ohio – and yes, there is a beautiful falls I invite you to come out and see – to give us the money we so richly deserve.
“Alcoholism is an illness, not a weakness. A disease entity like diabetes.”
“I splurged,” said Laura, when she returned to us in a limo from the airport.
“You know what I feel like doing?” she asked.
We looked with awe and wonder at our triumphant psychiatrist.
“Let’s drive over to the Falls and have some Isaly’s ice cream. It’s so much better than booze.”
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, suburban Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo and Mused Bella Donna. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group – for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.