I knew a woman who loved to laugh. She was as cool as they come. Her hair was always done just right, her nails gleamed, her accessories perfect. She was there every week, with her purse propped in her lap, smiling and winking at those who sat in the circle around her. Quick with a joke or a hug, she always knew just what someone needed.
When I dragged myself to my first meeting, I noticed her right away. I had been drinking, and I felt like the loneliest person in the world. I watched her from across the room, heard her booming laugh, and wondered what it would be like to be so secure in myself, so happy.
She shared her story with humor and grace, and, as always, with a message. In my early days of sobriety I went to a weekly beginner meeting, sat silently in the back, wringing my hands and full of despair. One night, as the meeting broke, she put her hand on my arm and said, with a twinkle in her eyes, "it's okay to laugh, you know. It's part of getting better."
One night I finally worked up the courage to speak. I was angry, hopeless. I had just spent five days in the hospital, rushed there by ambulance after my blood pressure spiked dangerously due to alcohol withdrawal. After leaving the hospital, I went straight to the beginner meeting.
"I'm so scared," I said. "I nearly died. I don't know that I'll ever get sober."
I saw her raise her eyebrow at me from across the room, and then put up her hand to speak. I sank lower in my chair. She told a story from her own past, about how scary things got for her. Then she looked me right in the eye and said, "what you have been given, honey, is a second chance. It's a gift. It's okay to be scared, just don't give up." After the meeting, as I was trying to duck out the door without speaking to anyone, she stopped me and gave me a hug. "It's going to be okay," she said. Looking at her smiling face, I had my first glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, it would be okay.
Over the past couple of years I watched her help countless people with her ribald humor, irreverence, dedication and her own special kind of grace. She giggled nearly constantly, and swore like a trucker. She showed me that being sober didn't mean I'd never laugh again. She marched to her own drummer, and invited all of us along for the ride.
She passed away on New Year's Eve. It is hard to picture the world without her robust presence, her huge smile, and her unwavering dedication to recovery.
And she is right - I have been given a second chance, and it is a gift. She was a gift, too. She shared her story, she shared herself, and helped so many people get sober, stay sober, and laugh a lot along the way. I'm sure there are some angels in heaven blushing from her jokes, but I bet they are laughing, too.
This is how recovery works. She came into my life, a complete stranger, in my most desperate hour. She shared her experience, strength and hope, and passed along what she had learned from the people who came before her. It is Grace in motion, and it is amazing.
I will miss her; I will miss her a lot. But her words of wisdom and strength (and more than a few of her jokes) will continue through me and countless others.
Her gift lives on.
Rest in Peace, Millie. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all your love and laughter.