The County came for Janie on her second birthday. Her party started well but ended badly. Someone called the police and Protective Services arrived, packed a bag for the child, and took her away. Her mom and dad were too drunk by then to know or care what was happening. They woke up later to find themselves alone in the house.
The notice left by the County lay on a pile of unopened presents. John and Susan read it, and Susan began screaming, in spite of her headache and nausea. John sat on the sofa and watched her as she ran around the house and out the front door onto their dead lawn, and then through the gate into the street. She ran up and down the block shrieking, while the neighbors watched from their windows. The drink still talking. She dropped to the pavement in the middle of the road and lay on her back, weeping.
John found the County’s phone number on the notice but was still on hold when Susan cycled back inside. A shouting match broke out between the two of them, stopped, started, and stopped with John still holding the phone to his ear. Susan ran out of the house again, ran back in. John never got through to anyone on the phone. Neither he nor Susan could think straight.
They agreed to have one small drink apiece to help settle them down. They needed to focus. Presently they were both drunk again and John joined Susan in alternating sobs and fury. John knew that Susan loved Janie. He supposed that he loved Janie too, but the strength of his sorrow and remorse surprised him, even if most of it was supplied by the alcohol.
They slept and when they awoke, they were too sick to drink or argue, save for a nip each and some mild sniping. They showered, made coffee, and drove down to County Health and Welfare. An AFDC intake worker passed them along to a social worker, who listened to them until Susan began to get strident. The woman left them in an interview room and came back fifteen minutes later with a hearing date. She advised them to engage legal representation. They were escorted out of the building after Susan started the screaming again. This time, it wasn’t the drink’s fault.
The legal department in John’s company recommended a lawyer. The lawyer shocked them with his rates, considering that he was situated near the bottom of his profession’s food chain. He called them later, after looking into the matter, and told them to stay clean and sober for the thirty days before their hearing and he’d get their child back. He guaranteed this.
Susan and John swore an oath to each other. No drinking. Not one drink for a month, for either of them. Their family depended upon it. Their child depended upon it. Tears followed.
A tough first week crawled by. The couple woke up each morning facing a day with nothing in it to look forward to. They chose separate AA groups and each attended two meetings a day. Neither liked their sponsor. Both lost weight, developed the shakes, alternated between depression and anger, and skipped some work. Their managers and John’s union rep were glad to see the two finally in a program.
The couple tried prayer. That seemed to help. They attended church on Sunday for the first time in years. They signed up at a gym. Began to feel better, physically.
John came home one night and found Susan sitting on the couch with an open bottle and a glass in front of her. The glass had not been used. The bottle was full. John sat down next to her. Susan put the lid back on the bottle. There followed a long, agonizing fight between them that featured blame. They went to bed mad.
The second week was better. At times, the two of them felt almost giddy. They talked about their health. They talked about the future. They talked about Janie and how it wasn’t too late to erase any bad memories that she might have had, any insecurities caused by their behavior. They congratulated themselves.
The weather warmed a little. Both sponsors, knowing how important the couple’s sobriety was, stopped by often. John and Susan assured each other, and the sponsors, and their coworkers, over and over again, that this was real, this was for life, not just for a month. At the same time, each had the thought, without sharing it, that moderate drinking, a drink every once in a while, once the baby was back , would be OK.
John’s brother stopped by the house for the first time since Christmas and Susan’s parents called her several times from Minnesota, all of them offering encouragement.
In week three, John and Susan both felt as if they had come to their senses. Routine took over. The two of them sometimes went for hours without thinking about taking a drink. They liked their sponsors. They made plans. They researched preschools. They made an album of baby pictures. They gave the house a thorough cleaning, in case a social worker dropped by unannounced.
In week four, they both experienced surges of sudden excitement and anxiety. John was invited out for a drink after work by a friend who knew better but wasn’t thinking. John told himself that he’d just have a coke, that maintaining work relationships was important. He found himself inside the bar before he knew it, realizing that a coke would not be enough. He managed to turn himself around and walk out on trembling legs, sweating through his shirt. On the way home, he pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store nearest his house. He sat in the car with the motor running and pounded the steering wheel. Three days left before the hearing. He could hold on. He had to. He pulled out of the lot.
When he got home, he found Susan sitting in the dark. He checked her breath with a quick kiss. She had not been drinking. They sat side by side, and then argued. Bitterly. After the anger died down, they went into the bedroom and made love for the first time in months, and for the first time sober in a year.
On the day of the hearing, they took care dressing. At the County building, in the hearing room, their lawyer sat waiting for them. No sign of Janie. John and Susan craned around, asked their lawyer, demanded. No child. The County presented reports from a pediatrician and a psychiatrist. The child Janie, in their opinion, had been damaged by her two years spent with an alcoholic mother and father. A month of parental sobriety proved nothing. The child remained at risk.
The judge suggested to the couple’s lawyer that he have both John and Susan evaluated by a competent therapist. He scheduled another hearing. Everyone stood up. Members of another broken family filed into the room. Out in the echoing hall, their lawyer again promised John and Susan that he would get their child back, if they kept clean and sober. His heels tapped on the wood as he walked away.
The couple drove home, to change for work. They argued on the way, but without energy. Familiar accusations, recriminations, soon fading into silence. Both of them had an AA meeting that evening. They agreed to meet afterwards at a local cafe for a late dinner. And then home for a little TV before bed.