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Karen Fitzgerald

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My Hero in the 47 Percent

Posted: 09/26/2012 6:07 pm

He was eight-years-old, and the oldest of five little children when his father died of cancer. It was the Depression. With no other means of support, his mother baked bread and sold it to her neighbors in Buffalo, and this little redhead delivered it in his little red wagon.

With her small insurance settlement, she bought an old home in the country, to better raise her children. Shortly after, a fire burned much of the upstairs but they stayed. In the midst of this, his little sister died from deformative cancer of the eye.

They grieved but kept going. And the boy kept working alongside his mother. With all of them laboring on the farms and any job, they survived, and with the humor their mom had infused.

At seventeen, during WWII, he joined the Navy, and was stationed off the Bikini Islands to witness the experiments of the atom bomb detonations. Back on shore, at a dance in San Francisco, he met a girl, Lilli, and five months later they married and moved to very simple naval housing, because he was sending large amounts of his paycheck back to his mother and family.

He brought Lilli to Buffalo. They began a life. They had three children. In 1955 they bought a house, and my happy-go-lucky, workaholic, salesman dad, George, started to live the American dream. His career grew, as he wined and dined his customers.

He entered a small business partnership, to make his fortune. Instead the business failed, the banks came chasing with subpoenas and summonses, then put our house on the auction block, and the drinking became full blown alcoholism.

My mom didn't understand it but I did, via Ann Landers, and at 14 wrote to the National Council on Alcoholism. It became my mission. Meanwhile he kept trying to work, but people hesitate to buy a car from a drunk. Go figure.

At the lowest point, he took a job sweeping floors at a steel mill, until his back gave out and he was unemployed. My mom worked two minimum wage jobs. Having grown up in an orphanage after her mother's suicide, she lacked a full education. I helped, so did my brother, but always on the precipice of poverty.

But five years later, my chance finally came. My mom kicked out my derelict father. He had never been mean, but he was going down and taking us with him. I got him to rehab that day and forty years later, he's still sober! YES!

Dad took to AA like a duck in water. He attended daily meetings. He went to hospitals and prisons as service. He spoke at meetings, telling his story to help others, and with his kind, happy way, people listened. He sponsored so many. He sat with the beginners because he knew their difficulties.

Employment came, first at a gas station, then selling again. After many years, he and my mom started another business. They bought a nice house in the suburbs and for 11 years were living a good life. Then it collapsed. A huge recession hit, the bills piled up, they had to sell the house and move to a simple apartment.

In 1996, their oldest child, their son, a successful corporate guy, committed suicide. Dad was grief-stricken, blaming his bad fathering, but with my mom, he kept going, serving other people.

When her autoimmune disease struck, he cared for her too, saying it was an honor after all she had done for him. He did that for 13 years, and also kept laboring. They had no savings and he was worried about his Lilli.

In 2003, after 56 years of marriage, he lost her. He was seventy-six years old. Shortly thereafter, the work stopped. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's. My sister and her husband lovingly took him in for almost five years, and while he could still drive, he went to his meetings, helping other alcoholics heal.

His granddaughter witnessed the meaning of that. One day my dad had hobbled to their driveway, awaiting a delivery. Instead, the local garbage truck screeched to a halt, the driver leapt out, ran to my father and said, "George, I've been looking for you for years." Then he went down on one knee and said, "I heard you speak at an AA meeting when I first got sober. You were so kind and gave me such hope. I never forgot it. And I stayed sober. It's been 18 years." Then he kissed Dad's hand. After he drove away, my father hobbled back to the house and chuckled to his astonished granddaughter, "I felt like the Pope."

Then a few years ago, a recovered young man was dying, and the AAers asked his last wishes. He replied, "Visit George." At the funeral, they thanked my father from the pulpit, and as the large assemblage exited the church, they located my father in the back, leaning on his walker, and one by one took his hand and did the papal thing again. Again, it made him chuckle.

When his falling became worse, beyond what my family could handle, he entered assisted living. All his social security and a government stipend for WWII Vets have gone toward that. He is poverty stricken. He has nothing. Now his disability is taking him to a nursing home. And yet, his attitude is amazing. He thanks all his caregivers. And his AA friends now come to him. They bring coffee and donuts and newly recovering ones to meet an "old timer," a man who's made it, who's been a success at sobriety. They have impromptu meetings in the little conference room at the home, and the caregivers tell us that nobody has more visitors than George.

So, is he the 47 percent? Yes. Is he a victim? No. Is he a success? Absolutely. And more than that, in my eyes, he's a hero.

 

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