Facing eight years in jail , a dad with two fatally ill kids chooses sobriety
By the time I was 18, I was a daily drinker. I graduated from a vocational high school and got a job working in a steel mill. I met a girl at church who later became my wife. We bought a house, got a new car and were expecting our first child. Somehow, I felt I had put one over on life.
Dwight Jr. was born on June 1, 1975. Three-and-a-half years later, Christopher was born, and a year and a half after that, Nicholas.
When Dwight Jr. was three, we started to notice that he didn’t get around as well as some of the other kids his age. The doctor started doing some tests and called us in to tell us that Dwight was diagnosed with duchenne muscular dystrophy, a deterioration of the muscles. He said that Dwight would eventually stop walking and would probably be dead before the age of 16. He said it was a genetic disease and that we needed to do a blood test on his younger brother to see if he had it. Turns out, Christopher had it, too.
Up to this point I only had one coping skill: alcohol. No one could tell me why this was happening. Little did I know that, like my sons, I had a progressive disease.
Work was slow, and I got laid off, so we moved the family to Florida. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was only trying to run away from my problems. I rationalized and minimized my part in everything that happened, including my drinking.
In Florida, I started working in the restaurant business, and Debbie stayed home to take care of the kids. My drinking escalated. I worked late nights and went out after work to unwind. Dwight and Christopher were both in wheelchairs, needing lots of attention; Nicholas, who was born without the disease, got none; and Debbie was left to take care of it all. All I did was work and drink.
I was having problems holding onto a job and decided that I needed to get out of the restaurant business. I took a job driving a non-emergency medical van, transporting people who were in wheelchairs or stretchers to and from nursing homes or hospitals. It didn’t pay well but I was working the day shift, which meant I was more available to help around the house.
We watched as Dwight and Christopher broke bones and had painful surgeries. Paramedics worked on them when they stopped breathing. They eventually became ventilator-dependent. There was more than one time that we left the hospital and were told to take them home so that they could die in peace.
One day I went to work early in the morning. Driving in a blackout, I picked up a man from a nursing home and was taking him to a hospital when I lost control of the van and crashed into a building. I wasn’t hurt, but my passenger died at the scene.
I was charged with DUI manslaughter, with an 11-month wait before my court date. I continued to drink. It was suggested that I attend daily AA meetings to make it look good for the judge. I went to two meetings in 11 months–both times drunk. I was sentenced to eight years in prison. As I was taken away, all I heard was my family crying.
I sat in the county jail feeling sorry for myself. How was I going to endure prison? Then it dawned on me that the next day was Christopher’s birthday. What about him?
I was told that if I went to the AA meetings they had in the prison, they would take four days a month off my eight-year sentence. I was there every Tuesday night at 7 P.M., but would not take direction.
One day, I was walking laps around the rec yard with a guy from the AA group. He told me how he had had three years of sobriety before ending up in prison. I asked, “If this AA stuff really works, then why are you in here?”
We walked in silence for a long time until he stopped and looked at me with a tear in his eye. “I didn’t do it,” he said, “honestly.” I remember the chills that went down my spine. That night another guy from the group came and asked me if I’d ever done the Third Step prayer. I had no idea what he was talking about. He grabbed my hand and knelt by my bunk, where we read the prayer together, in front of 100 other inmates. Without really knowing it, my life was changed forever.
I started to take responsibility and looked at all the damage I had done. The emotional, mental and physical harm I had done to my kids was unbearable. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see them alive again. That was not who I wanted to be.
I was starting to clean house–and it felt good. I was starting to trust in God and the Twelve Steps of AA.
One year and two months after going to prison, I found myself standing on the outside of the barbed wire fence, waiting for my son and wife to pick me up. The state’s governor had changed my sentence to time served followed by seven years of house arrest. I cried for the first time in a long time when my family showed up.
I found an outside AA group and sponsor immediately, continued with my Steps and learned about myself. I made amends to my family by giving them the time, care and concern that they needed and deserved.
On September 11, 2001, Christopher turned twenty-three years old. Ten days later, he passed away from his battle with muscular dystrophy. AA gave me six years to be with him to make things right–precious years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
My youngest son, Nicholas, is 28 and is a surgical technician. In February, he celebrated six years of sobriety in AA. My oldest son, Dwight Jr., 33, still can’t move a muscle and is attached to a ventilator. His attitude is, “There are people in this world who are worse off than me.” He is my hero.
My wife, Debbie, has stuck with me through all the hurt. In February, we celebrated 34 years of marriage.
Anything is possible with God and sobriety. I need to remain honest, open-minded and willing. Today, I don’t always know what the next right thing to do is, so I constantly ask myself, “What’s the loving thing to do?” When I do that, things usually work out just right.