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Sep 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Zen and the Art of Not Drinking
By Spike Gillespie

Buddha, Santa Claus, and Elvis simultaneously appeared in my life recently. I was not partaking in any mind-altering substances. This really happened, one of those fleeting moments when, if you're incredibly lucky, you happen to be in the right place at the right time, eyes open, ready to receive.

Buddha got the ball rolling on May 26. That was Vesak Day, a celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. I spent this day meditating and co-mingling with Buddhists, Buddhist monks, and other curious folks like myself at a beautiful monastery in Augusta, Missouri, near St. Louis.

I found out about the celebration in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I happened to be reading that paper because Henry and I are on our annual road trip right now, which always entails a stop in St. Louis to visit Henry's paternal relatives, chief among them his dad, James, who moved back here after our breakup in '93.

Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away) These visits have not always been easy. In fact, most often, they've been incredibly hard. Like me, James started hitting the bottle as a young teen. For some reason, it got him worse than it got me. While I was able to quit after twenty years and a number of attempts, James kept at it even after he began succumbing to alcohol-related grand mal seizures.

As the years passed, and attempts at rehab failed, increasingly it seemed like each visit would be our last, that the next drive north would be for James's funeral.

I never lied to Henry about his father's addiction. And when, as a very little kid, he once asked if James was going to die from drinking, I told him, as gently as I could, that this was something we had to try to prepare for.

Some might counsel to keep a child away from a parent this sick or at least disguise the gravity of the situation. I never could. I have a relationship with The Truth that borders on obsessive.

Which is why I also never gave the kid Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or any of those other creatures. At least not in the traditional sense. I just couldn't bring myself to tell him they existed. I did explain the spirit of Christmas. And one or two years, when he asked if we could go ahead and have Santa — just pretend — I complied.

We did hit a rough patch once when Henry lost a tooth and wanted a dollar. I told him we'd already gone over the non-existence of the Tooth Fairy. He got visibly upset. I felt guilty, like why can't I be a normal parent for once and just give the kid a moment of magic. In the end, he got a buck and tiny note under the pillow, written in microscopic font: Dear Henry, Sometimes it pays to believe. The Tooth Fairy

I forgot all about that for years until an event the other day reminded me that sometimes it really does pay to believe.

We'd just left St. Louis, having said good-bye to James. As do all farewells, this one left a sadness. But one of a different sort. Because a year ago — who can say how or why — James finally found a rehab program that works for him. He is sober now, fully awake and aware for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. He calls Henry all the time. Child support comes like clockwork, extra when times are tight. Times we visit, I can leave the two of them alone together for long stretches, something entirely new for me.

There is still much to learn and understand, individually and together. But we are getting better at it. I recognize that I am forever trying to impose my patented False Sense of Control (tm) on James — micromanaging every minute he and Henry spend together. He understands this comes from years of me having to be totally in charge. I practice letting loose the reins a little more each time. He works on showing me this is now a perfectly safe thing to do.

It's a miracle, yes, and not a small one. So now our reluctance to leave James is about wanting to stay, not fearing it's the last time we'll see him alive.

Still, we had to go. Because Henry and I had been invited (as the press — Hen being my assistant), to the wedding of a couple marrying on The Legend, a famous roller coaster at HolidayWorld, this amazing family-owned theme park tucked down a country road in Indiana.

In Santa Claus, Indiana, to be precise.

Before the wedding, milling around with the rest of the press, who should approach us but Santa Claus himself, who handed me his card, explained the free-soft-drinks-all-the-time policy at the park, and discussed his sensitivity to the sun. (He was a redhead, you know, before he turned all snowy up top.)

The wedding party's car chugged up to the top of a mighty coaster hill, where it ground to a halt. There, after heralding them with a love song, an Elvis impersonator officiated, announcing over the P.A. the great reverent occasion that marriage is. Vows exchanged, the couple flew down the hill, then proceeded to Zoombabwe, the biggest enclosed waterslide in the country, where they "took the plunge" in their formal wear. (Elvis declined joining in, noting his white jumpsuit was not a rental.)

At some point I snapped a picture of Henry with Elvis and Santa together, a look of joyous disbelief (the good kind) in the child's eyes.

At three p.m., bending my own always-the-complete-truth rule, I lured him to the park's entrance under false pretense of needing to see the publicist. Approaching the gates, he did a double take.

"There's my dad," he said, rightfully confused, as we were 200 miles east of Missouri.

"I know," I said and hugged him.

It was our big plan, James and me. Together, as parents who have learned (and are still learning) a whole lot of parenting (and life) the hard way, we conspired to surprise our son, who has overlooked our errors and loved us both full-heartedly from the get-go. He had no clue, telling James goodbye, that they'd meet again the next day, for a chance to ride rides, hang out, act silly.

Be normal.

This was not making up for the past or planning for the future. It was a chance, as Buddha would say, to "just be." Our first time, in eleven years, the three of us together on the neutral territory of Santa Claus, Indiana, momentarily free from some of the harsher realities we've known.

At day's end, waiting for the hilarious high dive act to begin, I fished from my bag "A Little Book of Zen," which I'd brought along. During our week in St. Louis, my budding curiosity in Buddhism had been the funny source of gentle teasing from James, with him leaving me little notes filled with faux-Zen "wisdom."

Now I thumbed through the pages, found a real saying by Sri Aurobindo that suited our lives. "By your stumbling, the world is perfected."

We concurred that, if this were true, certainly the two of us had contributed greatly to the planet's perfection.


From the forthcoming book "Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away): Old Cars, Found Hope, and Other Cheap Tricks," available at www.spikeg.com or by e-mailing the author directly [spikespeaks@Austin.rr.com]. Spike Gillespie has written for magazines including Cosmopolitan, GQ, Self, Texas Monthly, Playboy, Elle, Mademoiselle...and TheCommonspace.org. Dubbed a cyber-celebrity by USA Today, she continues to publish frequently on-line. She lives in Austin, Texas. She will appear on "The Wire" on KDHX-88.1 FM on October 13 at 7:30 p.m.

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