Caught Off Guard In the Sunny Suburbs

An occasional column about conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily life. The Monitor invites readers to comment, suggest their own solutions, and to submit their own accounts of moral dilemmas.

WHEN she shows up to pick up my son she is drunk. Not out-of-control drunk, but bleary-eyed happy. This is the woman who helps out at school, who always has a smile for everyone, especially her own three kids; the woman who until this moment seemed like the perfect example of normal. Only now she's in my driveway, drunk with a car full of children.

She is taking my son back to her house, a seven-block drive. It's a sunny afternoon in the suburbs and I'm completely caught off guard. Small town, small children, short blocks, mental blocks. My son is already in her mini-van, with his seat belt on. I stand frozen in polite conversation, not knowing what to do. Later I will figure out the obvious. I should have said, "Have you been drinking? Why don't I drive?"

But right now I don't want to believe what I see, because it is so contrary to what I think of her. I also don't want to upset her, make things worse. Besides, I want to get all the children out of her car, not just my son. How do I do that? I don't know how.

My daughter is inside my house, playing with a friend.

They shouldn't be left alone this long, with me outside, saying goodbye to my son. He's saying, "Bye, Mom"; he's smiling.

This is wrong, I'm thinking, but I say nothing, except, "See you later." I stand waving in the driveway as she drives slowly away.

Then I'm running the nightly news footage in my head - the story of the crash, the unnecessary tragedy. The newswoman's accusing account of my undefendable behavior - "After all, she was drunk, what was your excuse?"

I call her number. No answer, of course. She's only been gone 90 seconds. I tell my daughter her playdate is over. I get her and her friend in my car so fast they seem surprised.

"Are you in a hurry mommy?" my daughter asks me.

"Not really," I say, thinking "yes, really," but trying not to show my rising panic. I drive to the woman's house. Still no one there. I take my daughter's friend back to his house. Then I drive as carefully and quickly as I can the three blocks back to the house where my son is supposed to be playing, praying she got there without incident or accident. Her minivan is parked, undented, in her driveway. My daughter runs inside the house to play with the dog. It's still a sunny day in the suburbs.

"Can you stay?" she asks, happy to see me, oblivious, still drunk.

"Yes," I say, "I can stay."

That the unthinkable didn't happen isn't good enough. Because it could have, and only because I didn't have the courage and common sense to say, "Give me the keys, you're drunk."

The good news is one month after this happened, she put herself in a program to get help and has been sober ever since. Nevertheless, she'll never have my kids in her car again. And if she asks me why, I'll tell her. Because she's my friend. Because, like it or not, I am my brother's keeper.

But the gift of hindsight is a great energizing tool. So I offer this story as a warning, a wake-up call. Some of the nicest people in the sunny suburbs are alcoholics. It's a sobering thought. Act on it.

The author, a New England writer, asked not to be named because of the privacy issues involved in discussing an alcoholic in her community.

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