Once, many years ago when I was young with a face kissed by dewiness and innocence, I knew a kind-hearted, gentle giant of a man who was loved by all.
His soft blue eyes twinkled with joy and even when his hair and beard had turned silver, he was handsome. He was courteous, opened doors for women, bought candy bars for children and was always the first there when help was needed.
Except when he was drunk.
Then he turned mean. His light blue eyes darkened, his jaw set hard and, if he thought another man had dishonored him in word or gesture, he would start digging in the front pocket of well-worn jeans and drunkenly tried to pull it out, saying — right mean-like — “Let me get my knife out and I’ll cut you!”
His reputation for this type of tomfoolery was so well-known that sober men would quickly surround him, pull his arms behind him and try to talk him down from murder. It’d take five or six to hold him because he was big, he was agile and the drink triggered a lack of reasoning that landed him behind bars a’plenty.
A young lawyer in town discovered quickly that he could make a decent living by just seeing after him and the other members of his mountain family. Because when one fought, they all fought.
He wasn’t an alcoholic. Or addict. Or alcohol dependent. Not in those days. No one knew those words. We only knew he was a saint when sober and a devil when he had imbibed too much.
He was mostly a sopping drunk though often he turned into a sobbing drunk. There was a point, that lasted an hour or so, that came between “just got drunk” and “completely drunk” when he cried, hugged everyone he knew and, with an almost garbled slur, told everyone — even a waitress he’d never seen before — how much he loved ‘em.
The only thing worse than a crying drunk is a mean drunk so everyone knew that a few more beers or Jack Daniels and he’d be a raging bull. Once he held a gun to the head of a woman who had left him for a sober man. Another time he fist-fought a man so hard that the loser — the other guy — wound up in the hospital for several days.
And, always — ALWAYS — when he sobered up, he was heartbroken at what he had done, at who had hurt and he would cry — not from Jack Daniels but from a truly sweet heart — and try to make things right as best he could.
His daughter and I were pals, teenagers who watched football games together, had pizza with friends and talked for hours on the phone. She was beautiful, funny and kind. And, she carried a deep hurt that I couldn’t recognize because I came from a home where alcohol was forbidden and referred to as “the devil’s brew.”
One Friday afternoon, shortly after we got our driving licenses, we were happily headed to the mall. She stopped at a red light in front of a liquor store. She looked out my window. I glanced her way to see as deep sadness slip over her pretty face.
“What?” I asked.
She pointed to the liquor store. “There’s Daddy, getting his weekend supply.” I turned — I’ll never forget this — to see him emerging from the store, pushing a hand cart loaded to the top with seven or eight cases of beer.
“That’ll all be gone by Sunday morning.” Her eyes glistened.
He died at 51, his liver completely destroyed. Three months before he died, he said to me in a moment of sobriety, “I’ve never had a sip of liquor or beer I liked. I hate the taste.”
I was stunned. “Then why do you drink?”
His eyes teared regrettfully. “I just can’t help myself.”
I wish I could have helped him.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]