Colleen had the deepest green eyes of anyone I?ve ever known ? the kind of deep, emerald green that comes from an Irish heritage.
?So pleased to know you,? she said when we first met. ?My name?s Colleen.? The name floated off her tongue in a pure Irish brogue.
Although we saw each other almost weekly, it would be more than a year before I learned her last name. First names only at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
She finally revealed it at a coffee shop after one of our meetings. It was very Irish last name.
The name fit those deep green eyes, the flaming red hair, the sharp wit and the quick temper that lay just below the surface. When she drank, the temper erupted all too easily, costing her a good job, her marriage and the right to see her daughter without supervision.
But Colleen had been sober for more than five years. Along with anger management therapy to control her Irish temper, she felt confident the court would let her start spending weekends with her daughter, weekends without a court-appointed guardian along.
Her road back to sobriety wasn?t easy. She drank for more than 20 years, trying to wash away unhappiness with shots of whisky but the booze didn?t ease the pain so she took out her anger on her husband who finally got fed up and left with their only child. His stories about drunken fights led the judge to grant custody of the daughter to the father and limit Colleen?s visits to one afternoon a month with a court-supervisor present.
The divorce and a boss who told her to ?get out of here and get help? became the rock bottom that drove Colleen to AA. She looked like hell at that first meeting six-and-half years ago: Bloodshot eyes, matted hair and the shakes that comes from not drinking but wanting one desperately.
It took three weeks before she got up the nerve to stand up before the group that meets every Wednesday in the community room of a church in Arlington.
?My name is Colleen,? she said nervously, ?and I?m an alcoholic.?
Those seven words are the first important step for anyone trying to confront the Beast called alcoholism. Too many of us have battled that Beast for too many years. Too many lose that battle. Colleen, however, wasn?t going to lose.
She slipped at first, as most of us do, but kept coming back. She never tried to lie about going back to the bottle and couldn?t seem to get past that first 30 days until five years ago when she stood up in front of all of us, smiled, and said: ?My name is Colleen and I?m an alcoholic. I?ve been sober for 31 days.?
After the meeting, she joined several of us who usually met at the Common Grounds Coffee House in Arlington, not far from our meetings. We raised our coffee cups in a toast and said ?way to go girl.?
Those 31 days became 365 days, then 730, then 1461 (with an extra day for Leap Year) and then 1826 ? five years.
We toasted her with our coffee cups again after she received her 5-year chip at the meeting. We all pitched in for a cake that said ?Ohmigod! 5 Years.?
But Colleen had more important things to celebrate. Her ex-husband had agreed to support her court motion to allow weekend visits with her daughter without supervision. Both sides said it would be a pro-forma hearing with a quick approval from the judge. The hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning and we all expected to celebrate her good news at the coffee shop after our meeting that night.
At the meeting, I looked, but couldn?t find Colleen. Then my sponsor came over and handed me a note.
?Read this,? he said. ?You should be the one to tell the group.?
I read the note, walked to the front of the room and turned to face my brothers and sisters of AA.
?Most of us know and love Colleen,? I said, fighting to hold back the tears. ?We all know her struggle to find peace and be with her child. But Colleen won?t be here with us tonight and she won?t be with her daughter. Last weekend, Colleen was killed while riding in a car broadsided by a pickup truck that ran a stoplight. The driver of the truck had a blood alcohol content of .17.?
Silence first as most in the room stared at their coffee cups. Then, from the back of the room, a voice started singing Amazing Grace.
One by one, we all joined in.
This is also running as my current column in Capitol Hill Blue. It is a story I felt needed to be told.