67: Much More than Hope

67: Much More than Hope

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Much More than Hope

Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.

~Elie Wiesel

I’d driven the route to the old church the night before to be sure I wouldn’t lose my way. On the actual meeting day, I had invented a migraine and left work a half hour earlier than necessary.

It seemed foolish to care so much about punctuality—surely being late wouldn’t exclude me from the meeting, I told myself—but we are what we are, and I was determined to be on time. I pulled into the church parking lot with thirty-five minutes to spare, more than enough time to change my mind, but not quite enough to chicken out.

It was early October, cool to the point of chilly, well dark by 6:30. The church, sitting high on a hill overlooking the grimy city, was buffeted by wind. It whistled around me, crooning it almost seemed, reminding me of the loons that used to call to each other eerily after sundown when I was a child spending summers on my grandmother’s farm. A school-sized milk carton skittered roughly across the pavement, a newspaper page flew directly in front of the windshield. It all felt foreboding and I badly wanted to turn the ignition key and head my old Volvo wagon back to the empty apartment on Dead Horse Hill. I told myself it wasn’t a good night to be out—I was hungry and headachy, had forgotten my gloves and was wearing only a light jacket. So I gave the key a hard twist and the engine roared to life. Home and safety were twenty minutes away.

But the door to the church was only a few steps away across the parking lot. I was almost there. “God, give me strength,” I said out loud. I turned off the engine and headed into the wind.

The meeting room, as plain vanilla as the church was gingerbread, was tucked away at the end of a long, fluorescent lit, maze-like collection of corridors in the church basement. Hand-lettered signs and arrows were tacked at each intersection and turn of the carefully neutral, non-threatening walls. The threadbare carpet was beige. The ceiling, which needed painting, was beige. Beige bulletin boards hung on beige walls and there were no windows, making the atmosphere even less inviting. Nevertheless, I followed the signs and arrows. And then without warning, I was at the last set of beige double doors.

“Al Anon” the hand-printed sign read. And underneath, “AA” with a smudgy arrow pointing back the way I’d come.

I hated new things, unfamiliar places, first times. I hated doing things I’d never done before or feared I couldn’t do well. I had no gift for small talk with friends, let alone strangers. I’d forgotten what a genuine smile even felt like. I was afraid of crowds. All things considered, it was some mild form of insanity to think that some old, sorry, clichéd self-help group would be of any use to me. I had my pride, my privacy, three cats who depended on me, and a husband locked up in a sterile and unfriendly alcoholism treatment center. I wasn’t about to admit or advertise my troubles to a bunch of losers or religious do-gooders. I was thinking I’d go home to the little apartment on Dead Horse Hill, forget all this nonsense and crawl into bed when the door suddenly swung inward and open.

“Welcome to Al Anon,” a pretty, young, well-dressed blonde carrying a tray full of coffee mugs said to me. “I’m Alma. You can sit anywhere.”

And for no good or comprehensible reason, standing there in that lonely, windowless hall with its harsh lights, the smell of coffee, and this sweet-faced stranger, I began to cry.

“Please,” she said gently. “You’ve come this far. It’s only a few more steps.” She balanced the tray with one hand—it trembled slightly and on sheer reflex I reached out a hand to help her steady it—she took a step back and leaned toward me with a confidential smile. “Besides,” she stage whispered, “we have cookies.”

“Oh, well,” I somehow managed a shaky smile. “If there are cookies . . .”

The room was as beige as the hall, with a wide circle of what my grandmother would have called card-table chairs lining the walls. A table just inside the double doors offered an array of books, pamphlets, T-shirts. Another was neatly laid out with Styrofoam cups, paper napkins, plastic spoons and a chirping coffee pot. The promised cookies were there too — chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin. Hung above the tables were brightly colored, if tattered, posters held in place with tape, the Serenity Prayer crookedly centered between the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. Above them, a sheet of poster board proudly proclaimed the name of the group, its meeting times, and in heavy black script an invitation to “take what you like and leave the rest.”

“Your first time?” a voice at my elbow asked quietly.

A woman about my age, holding a chocolate chip cookie in one hand and a small blue book in the other, smiled at me. She had kind eyes.

“I’m Denise,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know the first time is the hardest. You’re welcome to sit next to me.”

I hesitated, not at all sure I could handle this much kindness. She smiled again, nodded to the round clock on the wall.

“I’m sitting right under the clock,” she told me, then added, “It gets better, hon, it really does.”

I don’t remember most of what was said or who said it. I do remember that there were very few empty chairs, that there were mostly women, that there were horror stories I’d never imagined a person could live with, and that somewhere along the way, the knots in my belly untangled and I began to chip away at the walls I’d built around myself.

Hope is a funny thing, sometimes elusive and hard to hold onto, sometimes hiding in plain sight, just around the next corner. I’d gone to the meeting hoping to learn how to make my husband stop drinking. Instead I learned about detachment, patience, boundaries, self-esteem and faith.

Hope blindsided me with a lot more than I even knew I needed.

~Barbara Beaird

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