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A Sign in the Sky

He wanted to be a good, sober father, but that dream seemed out of reach.

A cloud in the shape of an angel in a blue sky.

My wife’s eyes were hard as stone. “Tom, you’re drunk.”

I threw up my hands. “Honey, I swear. I’m not.” Terri shook her head in disgust. “I can smell it. I can see it in your face. You were drinking again!”

Her eyes turned pleading. “Tom, when are you going to stop? Really stop. For good.” I leaned against the kitchen counter, where dinner was getting cold. Words died on my lips. I’d been promising Terri I’d quit for as long as we’d known each other. Terri hung her head and left the room.

Well, I thought, might as well have another beer. I started drinking in high school. Partying with my older brothers and their friends. Dad worked overseas and Mom worked the late shift as a nurse. Nightly bouts of drinking gradually became needing a few beers to get going in the morning.

By the time I was in college, I was downing 30 beers a day. And that is not counting what I drank when I really partied. Terri and I met in college. She was pretty and smart and we thought alike about so many things—politics, humor, religion. Well, Terri took her faith seriously, whereas I kept God just far enough away to give me room to drink.

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I sort of kept Terri at arm’s length too, so I could hide the true extent of my drinking. But I assured her that as soon as I graduated, I’d stop partying and settle down. She believed me, even after I got a DUI.

What she didn’t know was that every morning I woke up with a craving for alcohol so powerful, it was all I could think about until I popped that first beer. Somehow I stayed totally sober for our wedding. That was a wonderful day, full of joy. I’d gotten a job helping to manage a hog farm in Missouri. The plan was for me to move up there and scout out a place for us to live. Then we’d start our household together.

Meantime, I had several months to drink as much as I wanted. My work kept me outside most of the day, supervising operations. Plenty of opportunities to sneak a drink.

I tried to cut back when Terri and I set up house. Tried not to drink around her, or drank earlier in the day so I’d be more or less sober when I got home. Then, one night, I got absolutely plastered at a work party. Falling-down drunk. Terri was horrified. My boss was horrified.

“Guess it must be this cold medicine I’ve been taking!” I slurred. Everyone just stared. Back home, Terri dragged me into bed and told me my boss had said to her that if I didn’t go into rehab, he’d fire me.

I did 28 days. It was torture. I came out craving alcohol more than when I’d gone in. I didn’t drink for about a year after that but I wasn’t truly sober. I thought about alcohol all the time. Yearned for it.

At last, on a day off, I gave in. I kept myself from bingeing, and I managed to lay off for periods of time, so I could convince myself I wasn’t a true alcoholic. I still had a job. I wasn’t shirking my responsibilities. Terri hadn’t left me. She’d just left the kitchen, another dinner gone to waste. I’d lay off the beer for a few days, maybe a week. Just till Terri calmed down.

During one such hiatus, Terri announced she was pregnant. I resisted celebrating with a beer. I’m not going to be a drunk dad, I told myself. Miraculously, I stayed sober through the pregnancy.

It was a straightforward delivery, though nine weeks premature. I was overjoyed to see my baby boy in his first wailing moments of life. We named him Thomas Alexander—Alex, for short. I listened to his cry—good and strong to my ears—and stared into his tiny face, trying to envision myself as a sober, responsible father. Even then, the idea seemed more wish than reality.

Actual reality intruded the very next moment. I turned to see how Terri was doing and noticed one of the doctors inserting a breathing tube into Alex’s throat. The next moment our son was whisked away. “The doctor suspects he has a hernia in his diaphragm,” a nurse explained. “He may need surgery.”

No sobering-up experience had ever come remotely close to the punch I felt in my gut. I gripped Terri’s hand. All my attention focused on Alex. For the first time in decades, not a single part of my mind thought about alcohol. I heard myself praying—actually praying, not mouthing words I didn’t really mean.

The doctors recommended that Alex be immediately transported to a larger hospital—a good three hours away in Jackson, Mississippi. A friend’s parents put us up at their house for what would probably be a weeks-long stay.

On his sixth day of life, Alex underwent surgery. The operation seemed to go fine. But a few days later, Alex’s heart rate spiked to more than twice the normal level for an infant. NICU visiting hours ended and Alex’s life was in the balance. Terri and I walked out to the hospital parking lot. Was Alex’s condition a consequence of God punishing me for drinking? For all my years of lies and broken promises?

I raised my face to the sky. Don’t take it out on Alex! He’s just an innocent boy! I glanced over my shoulder. As if to confirm my fear, a massive black storm cloud loomed directly over the hospital. A thunderhead like nothing I’d ever seen. I cowered.

Until I noticed something else. Right in the middle of the cloud there was another, smaller white cloud. Staring at that white cloud, I felt a strange but undeniable calmness come over me. It’s the calm in the storm, I thought. Maybe God wasn’t punishing me after all. I pointed out the cloud to Terri—she was too emotional to care, really—but I took a picture before we headed home.

The next day, Alex’s heart rate came down. I thought of my photograph. I printed it out and stuck it up on the refrigerator door in Jackson. It comforted me somehow.

One evening we were standing in our host’s kitchen when another friend glanced at the cloud. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “What a beautiful picture of an angel.” I looked closer. “Don’t you see?” she said, outlining with her finger. “That white cloud is shaped like a baby, and the black cloud is shaped like an angel cradling the baby in her arms.”

Now I saw the image clearly. The calm that had come over me in the parking lot washed over me once again—coupled with a determination that I would not let Alex, Terri or God down. I’d stop drinking. I would become that father I’d envisioned. After 37 days in the hospital, our baby was able to go home.

I wish I could say I didn’t touch a drop after that, but still I backslid. One day, Terri found a can of beer behind the seat of my truck and told me flatly that if she ever suspected me of drinking again, she’d take Alex and leave for good.

We were in our kitchen. Where Terri had spent so many anxious hours, wondering whether I’d come home drunk. The determination I saw in her face frightened me. Then my eyes fell on the refrigerator behind her, where I’d put the cloud angel. Wasn’t it time I found the calm in the storm of my life?

The very next day, I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I was committed. Finally. I stopped hanging out with friends who drank. I worked the AA program and learned to live one day at a time. It wasn’t easy, but now I’m 20 years sober. And Alex, who nearly didn’t make it to his first birthday, started college at Mississippi State this fall. Terri and I are thankful our marriage survived those early rocky years.

I still have the cloud photo. I consider it a picture of my Higher Power in action. The one up there in the heavens holding Alex and Terri and me in safe, strong hands. The calm in the middle of our storms. The one who will never let us go.

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