I learned to make Old Fashions in 1965. I was nine. My father taught me by the book. A red hardbound cocktail cookbook, kept on the shelf behind the bar in our basement.
I still remember the recipe. My mother’s favorite. Equal shots of bourbon and water (Old Fitzgerald preferred.), sugar water boiled on the stove, bitters, and a slice of orange. In a Waterford glass.
I was quite the little bartender, and so were my siblings. Besides Old Fashions I could whip up a Tom Collins or a Gin & Tonic, on command, no problem. And when commanded, which was often, I would fetch my parents a beer from the fridge: Heineken for my mother, Lowenbrau for my father.
And in 1965 when I was nine the nightmares began. This one in particular:
My mom and I are alone driving down a highway in the sky. The sky is bright blue and the sun shines bright. We pass through fluffy marshmallow clouds. The highway is a thin ribbon with no beginning and no end. Just one lane. No shoulder. My mother is passed out drunk behind the wheel of our Plymouth station wagon. Somehow I slide into the driver’s seat and take her place. I clutch the wheel I can barely see over to steer. One tiny mistake left or right, and we crash into the abyss.
I wake up silently screaming.
My grandmother makes breakfast, my older sister packs our lunch, and my mom drives our carpool to school. A bit embarrassing to a nine year old, my mom often just threw her raincoat over her nightgown to get out the door and to get us to school on time.
Now my mom under the best of circumstances was not the best of drivers. Having learned to drive with a stick shift, she still drove the automatic with two feet. Clutching, breaking, we were never sure what she was doing.
She always drove under the speed limit, even on the interstate. She told us she only drove as fast as she felt safe. I remember slinking down in the back seat as cars whizzed by, drivers honking and flipping us the bird. I was both mortified and terrified that somebody would crash into us.
Miraculously no one ever did.
I was never aware that my mother was ever drunk when she was driving. But I can’t help but think that with all the medication she was on – prescribed and not prescribed – along with the Old Fashions, that indeed sometimes she was.
My mother loved us most dearly and never would have intentionally put us in harm’s way. But most sadly now I believe unintentionally likely she did.
Like my mother before me, I too am bipolar. And like my mother before me, I too am a terrible driver. I have no sense of direction and I am easily flustered behind the wheel. Even with Google Maps, I can get lost in my own backyard.
And while I do not share my mother’s addiction to alcohol, flights of mania have had me fly down the highway at rocket speeds. And in 2005 one very dark Sunday at the crack of dawn flying down I95, I fell asleep behind the wheel. My car crossed three lanes of traffic, crashed through the guardrail, rolled over twice, and landed on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.
My roof was caved in. My windshield shattered. My front end folded like an accordion.
I could have been killed. But more horrifically I could have gotten other people killed. Someone’s loved one. Someone’s mom. Someone’s child.
All because I thought it so important that I get to church in time to preach on Stewardship Sunday. Even though I knew that my new combo of meds made me exceedingly drowsy — I thought I could shake it off by rolling down my windows or turning up my radio. I thought of pulling over a few times, but my bad judgment prevailed.
The impact of the crash woke me up. When the police arrived, they had to force open the driver’s side window. The officer leaned in and said, “Lady, are you all right?” I responded, “I’m fine, officer, but I have to go church.”
Blasphemy. In the name of God, I risked everything. In the name of God, I jeopardized the lives of God’s children. Innocent lives. A mortal sin — if there ever was one.
I was charged with reckless driving. But because my impairment was medicinal and not alcoholic or narcotic, the charges were dropped. It did not hurt either that I wore a clerical collar to court. I never wear a clerical collar. Blasphemy compounded.
All the mitigating circumstances did not mitigate the fact that I was responsible: Responsible for taking care of my illness. Responsible for my medication. Responsible for choosing to get behind the wheel of my car.
And so was my mother.
And so is Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook — held responsible in the hit and run fatal accident in Maryland that cost a 43 year-old Baltimore bicyclist his life.
All the circumstances are not known, but what is known is that she was charged four years ago of drunken driving and drug possession. She pleaded guilty to the first and the second charge was dropped. Her record was expunged in exchange for future good behavior.
Truly tragic from every possible perspective.
All over Facebook folks have been chattering. A prevalent sentiment expressed by clergy and others is that the bishop is just as human and prone to human frailty and sin as anyone else.
This I tragically know is so. There for the grace of God go we all.
Alcohol use and abuse is pervasive in the life of the church – at receptions, conventions, meetings, and meals. And it is too often ignored or excused and at great cost.
Alcoholism –along with alcohol abuse – is an illness, an insidious illness. An illness the bishop may likely have confessed to and for which hopefully she sought treatment. But her failed recovery likely cost the cyclist his life and untold grief for all those he left behind.
Possibly she was rushing off to church like I was. Very possibly under the influence and very possibly with her judgment impaired, she chose to get behind the wheel of her car — just like I did.
And she is just as responsible. No mitigating circumstances can mitigate that.
I pray for the Bishop’s recovery. But I pray more for the life that cannot be recovered and for those who grieve an unspeakable loss.
There for the grace of God go we all.
Therefore I implore you, sisters and brothers, this New Year’s Eve, to not drink and drive. Do not let a friend drive drunk. Toast the New Year with sparkling cider. Be the designated driver. And this very night you might save a life.
And please, dear God, grant us the wisdom and the courage and the presence of mind needed to so make it so.