Gambling on Hope
By Linda S. Clare
Thanksgiving had just finished pounding my emotions into a paste not unlike my mashed potatoes. I’d spent the morning tending to two of my small grandchildren while my only daughter packed up her things for a trial separation from her husband. One of the kids was running a fever. I took the poor sick boy back home with me, careful not to let on how deep the pit in my stomach had become. He watched a cartoon while I dove in to prepare the Titanic turkey meal of the year, all while trying hard not to break down and cry.
Somehow, I was driven to fix all the usual stuff: sweet potatoes topped with mini-marshmallows, the dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, dinner rolls and of course those mashies—although I decided at the last minute to skip the cream cheese and sour cream that my nieces and nephews call Magic Potatoes. The cousins weren’t coming, so why bother?
Unlike last year, I didn’t forget to buy black olives. What’s Thanksgiving without kids sticking them on their fingers? But I didn’t even use cloth napkins or a tablecloth. It was all I could do to clear off the Black Friday ads and set out the gravy boat. Go ahead and judge—I bought pies.
Instead of a feast for fourteen, I was cooking for four and a half. One son texted (texted!) to say he, his live-in girlfriend and my other grandson weren’t going to make it. Another son didn’t check in at all. My sister and all those cousins were traveling to other dinners in other towns. And my mom, who’d planned to be with us from Arizona this year, had broken her hip the week before and was in a rehab. All of us felt as if we’d hit a giant iceberg.
Like the Titanic, our family had crashed and sank, swallowing up any hopes I had for a happy Thanksgiving. I stirred the gravy with a forced smile and halved the brussels sprouts before tumbling them into a pan with melted butter. Moms of addicts know how to keep going even when we’re going down for the last time. Part of me was tempted, like those hurled overboard by the Titanic, to let go and sink to the depths. But I’d already messed up the sweet potato casserole, so I hung in there.
At my house, I’m the one who cheers everybody on when things are rough. Most days, I hand out hope with a cheerful smile and one of my mother’s clichés—It’s always darkest before the dawn. Yet this Thanksgiving, instead of strewing thankfulness and hope all over my home, the Chief Hope Dispenser now needed some hope herself. And it occurred to me that living with addiction and keeping hope alive is a lot like gambling.
I’ve never understood gambling. To acknowledge that you’ll probably lose your hard-earned cash and then still cast your lot has always felt like a bad bargain to me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dollar scratch-off or a millionaire’s wager at a Vegas blackjack table. Somehow, I don’t get the thrill of anticipation. I’m oblivious to the poker player’s rush, the heady what if of lotteries, the anxious wait at the slots as the fruit spins furiously. All I hear is the house always wins.
And yet like all of us, I gamble every day.
Not at the video poker lounge or casino, but in my life, every day, every minute, I’m gambling. Playing the odds is really an institutional form of hope.
Up to the moment I receive an editor’s rejection notice, there’s still hope for that acceptance. Before I step on the scale, I’m still hopeful that I’ve reached my ideal weight. At the store, I choose apples with the hope that they won’t be wormy or overripe. Then I gamble on a check-out lane and hope it’s the fastest choice—which hardly ever pays out. Most of the time, the house really does win.
And at this holiday time of year, we who love addicts run a gamut that pits terrible odds against a sliver of hope. It’s gambling in its rawest, most awful form, and yes, those hopes are up against crushing odds. Will my recovering adult addict make it through all the holiday drinking and merrymaking? How do you hope for a merry or even so-so holiday if you know your loved one will also be tempted to celebrate, triggering a binge or relapse? During those idealized and cruel ads and movies depicting happy families, will you take a chance and hope for a drama-less season with the addicts in your life? Are you feeling lucky? Or better yet, are you feeling hopeful?
But don’t place all your hopes in a leaky lifeboat. The Titanic’s designers were blind to the suffering of steerage passengers, and in their ignorance, didn’t provide life boats for all aboard. Those in charge held out promises that we now know were exaggerated, even manipulated—all to tout the mistaken belief that the ship was unsinkable. Many who gambled (hoped) based on those promises paid a terrible price in the icy waters of the Atlantic.
My three sons are all active in their addictions. In their own unique ways, they try to convince me to place in them all my hopes for a serene and thanks-filled holiday. They assure me they’ll show up sober to the Thanksgiving table. They promise there will be no drama, no shouting, stealing or sneaking. I want to believe. I’m hungry for hope.
But if you’ve lived with addiction, you know these promises often evaporate like mist on the water. The addicts you love force you to choose between hoping once again and cynically viewing the excuses and reversals this disease breeds.
Some parents of addicts conclude their adult kids are simply manipulating them, telling lies to get what they really want: another high. Parents like these can’t bear the moment when hope slams into that unseen berg. Again. So they take steps to protect themselves. I can’t judge those who detach, especially in cases where violence, abuse or mental illness is just too great a foe. Do what you must.
I look at my sons’ promises and see addicts who’d love to make them come true. Every moment of every day they are fighting to be rid of the scourge. Again and again I grab onto the hope that this time he’ll make it. This time my wager with hope will pay off.
For me, hope is the “evidence of things not seen” that comes from a force much larger than I am. God throws down with me in my hopes and prayers for my sons’ recoveries—and a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner. With addiction in your life, it’s not always easy to see God’s hand on hope and be thankful.
It’s hard to give thanks when your house has just burned down or your living room sofa sits in three inches of putrid floodwater. Some days, it’s so impossible to give God another chance, to gamble away your sanity in exchange for a vague hope and no earthly guarantee. Yet my God can make a damaged ship float, even if He has to carry it across the seas.
And gambling and hope are relative. Is the woman, treading water as the lifeboat comes by, losing her transatlantic cruise or is she lucky because there’s one spot left in the row boat? In the same way, I probably won’t ever buy a lottery ticket, but I’ll hold onto the hope of a meaningful Thanksgiving Day with my family. They may disappoint me, but my hopes will not reside in broken promises, but in who they are struggling to be. I make lousy potatoes, but as long as I’m tethered to that Master Shipbuilder, it’s a good bet that I can gamble on hope and win.
When my daughter finally arrived with the baby, we sat down to a little turkey breast, still-tough but buttery brussels sprouts and the library paste potatoes. Empty places at that table reminded me of what might have been. I wished I could rewind history and that this time addiction stayed away. For a long moment, only the sounds of forks clinking and chewing invaded the silence.
But then, my grandson waggled the olives on his fingers. His Papa stuck olives on his fingers too. Baby sister shoved a fistful of cranberry sauce into her mouth, and as if we’d spotted the rescue ship on the horizon, everyone laughed.
And I was truly thankful.