By Diana C. Derringer
“Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you” (Proverbs 2:11).
Head down, shoulders shaking, and tears flowing, this was not the Uncle Leonard we knew. Years of poor choices still showed in the crevices of his bony face. However, his wrinkles no longer widened with laughter that turned into a ragged cough. He wasn’t regaling us with another of his drunken escapades, like the middle-of-the-night trip from Indiana to Kentucky when he realized he was driving the wrong way. He wasn’t doubled over, slapping his legs, as he described heading north on I-65 while all the headlights shined south toward him.
Neither was he recalling childhood memories or catching up on extended family news with our mother. Gone was the confident man who discussed the economy, work details, or the latest ballgame with our father.
Learning the Hard Way
Never a mean alcoholic, Uncle Leonard emanated a love for life and others in spite of his addiction. We rarely knew when he was coming. He simply showed up at all hours to stay a day, a week, or several months when he sought sobriety. He knew drinking was prohibited at our house. However, he also knew he was welcome any time and in any condition for however long it took to regain a clearer mind and healthier body.
He had fallen off the wagon once again, but this time was different. As he sat across the kitchen table from my younger sister and me, his yellowed fingers danced as he raised them for another puff of courage.
Sweating sorrow, he begged, “Girls, please listen to your old uncle. I’ve made so many mistakes. I didn’t mean to end up like this.” His head bobbed to his chest and then up again. Following several blows into his handkerchief, plus a couple of swipes at his eyes, he continued. “I love you. You know that, don’t you?’
We nodded, and he kept talking. “Promise me you’ll never take that first drink. Please, look at me. Listen to me. You don’t want to live like this.” Spreading his arms wide, the leathered skin hung to bits of flesh on his skinny frame. His eyes reflected broken relationships and missed opportunities.
We did listen and never forgot the lessons from this gentle, hard-working man who loved us with his entire being but suffered the demons of a bottle tipped time after time.
Eventually, by remaining near our father and others in his small but close-knit support system, Uncle Leonard managed to listen to himself. He held on to sobriety, remarried, reignited his relationship with God, and bought a house not far from ours. He lived well and laughed often until the day of his early death, a consequence of one drink that led to many.
Learning a Better Way
In addition to learning from Uncle Leonard’s mistakes, we learned from our parents who supported, confronted, and guided Uncle Leonard to a better way of life. My sister and I took the way they lived for granted. Looking back, we see the impact they made and the example they set for us and anyone else who visited or lived with us.
Relatives, friends, and foster children found food, shelter, love, and spiritual guidance when they resided under our roof. Church attendance, family devotions before bedtime, and prayers before meals were the norm. Mom and Dad coupled unconditional love with firm standards for behavior.
Living What We Learned
Those childhood lessons from Uncle Leonard and our parents continue to guide us today. We thank them for their love and care.
Diana Derringer, author of Beyond Bethlehem and Calvary: 12 Dramas for Christmas, Easter, and More!, writes for several publications and enjoys serving as a friendship family to international university students. www.dianaderringer.com