Just about this time last year, I went to pick up Rob at his sober living house in Torrance. This was our usual routine: I’d play tennis early Saturday mornings, run home to shower and change, and then hop on the 405 to scoop him up and drive over to Din Tai Fung for soup dumplings.
I always got there early, a neurotic trait that I passed along to both kids, and posted up in front of the house, texting that I was outside and then waiting for him to come bounding out the front door wearing some crazy-ass T-shirt (he had more than one with the word “Columbine” on it). Today he was wearing the blue Psycho Bunny shirt I had bought him a few months ago.
“Yo, what’s going on?” I asked—what I always asked—and put out my fist for a pound.
“Nothing,” Rob said—what he always said—and bumped my fist with his.
I proceeded to pepper him with questions about work (he had just started on the graveyard shift at the seedy casino), really just to fill the silence between us and also to see what type of a mood he was in. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, you never knew with Rob.
“Dad, I need to make one quick stop before we go to eat,” he said. “It’s on the way.”
“That’s cool. Just direct me.”
After a few minutes of navigation and idle chitchat, he told me to pull up across the street from a church.
“I’ll wait here,” I said, having no idea what this was about.
“Nah, come in with me,” he insisted.
So I locked the car and, as we were walking to the back of the church, I realized where we were and what we were doing there.
“Oh man! We’re going to a meeting,” I said, unable to disguise my excitement.
“Yes we are.”
“And it’s been six months,” I said.
“Yes it has.”
“And you’re getting a six-month chip.”
“Yes I am.”
And that’s when the tears first filled my eyes.
Rob introduced me to a few people who were standing around with us. Everybody was smoking cigarettes except me. One of the things I remember most vividly about that day was how comfortable he seemed there, like he was with his people. The first time we had gone to a meeting together in Santa Monica, on the first day he came to live with Maura and me, Rob and I both felt like strangers in a strange land. But he was now a regular at this party and I was his plus-one.
At noon on the dot, the back door opened and we walked into what may at one time have been a classroom. A number of tables and chairs were arranged in a large semi-circle. Rob nodded to a few guys and then we went over to grab a cup of coffee.
“Mmm…cake!” I said, noticing a pink cake box sitting on the table.
“That’s for later,” he said, and turned around to talk with some dude who was missing a few teeth.
I took my coffee, sat down at a table and started to check everybody out. A cute teenage girl was distributing some AA literature while other folks stared at their phones. Everyone looked more or less normal and the whole thing felt unexpectedly ordinary.
I noticed Rob talking and laughing with some people in the back of the room, and I’m not sure why (I know I say that a lot in these stories) but I found that particularly surprising. I had always assumed that he didn’t really give a shit about AA, that he was just complying because it was part of the sober house deal. I was pretty sure that he had ditched most of the meetings when he lived with us in Venice, the same way I ditched Hebrew school for several months before I was Bar Mitzvahed. Today, however, Rob was the one becoming a man.
He sat down next to me and explained that we didn’t have to hang for the whole thing, as this wasn’t his regular homegroup. We were really just there for the chip ceremony.
“See that old lady?” he asked, pointing to a woman in oversized glasses and a red windbreaker. “She’s getting a chip for 20 years sober today. That’s why there was a cake back there.”
“Wow! I hope I’m still around to see you get a 20-year chip,” I said.
After a few more minutes of us bullshitting, the meeting finally began, and it turned out that the teenage girl was the chairperson running the show that day. She started off with some welcoming words and jumped right to the Serenity Prayer. I also remember everyone reading one line from the sheet of paper she had handed out earlier, but I have no recollection of what that was. Then we all took turns introducing ourselves.
“When they get to you, just say that your name is Larry. That’s all you need to say,” Rob whispered to me.
And when it got around to me, that’s exactly what I said. I was the only person there whose introduction didn’t end with “…and I’m an alcoholic.”
But when Rob said those words, it hit me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It just sounded so natural, so matter of fact. Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic. To me it sounded like acceptance, like he was finally owning it and doing something about it. So of course, tears again filled my eyes, but these were tears of hope.
Then the cute chairperson asked if anyone was celebrating an anniversary, and that’s when my heart started to beat out of my chest.
“Is there anybody celebrating one day of sobriety today?” she asked, but there were no takers.
“Is there anyone celebrating 30 days of sobriety today?” she asked, and a young Mexican man stood up, walked to the front and accepted a chip while everyone applauded. There were also no takers for 60- or 90-day chips, but I knew what was coming next.
“Is there anybody celebrating six months of sobriety today?” she asked. And that’s when Rob stood up and I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was smiling—he had the most beautiful smile—and I could see that he was trying to contain it, trying to look cool, but it just beamed right out of him like when the sun (son) breaks through the clouds. He just looked so proud and of course, I was crying, just the way I’m crying as I write these words now.
The cute chairperson gave him the chip, and everyone applauded while I continued to cry. Rob sat back down, handed me the chip and said the words that made this one of the best moments of my life: “Happy Father’s Day!”