Tequila and Amazing Grace

Although this story begins with a margarita and includes a scene in which I’m shaking uncontrollably on the floor of my parents’ powder room, it’s not actually about drinking too much. It’s important you know that right up front.

It’s Emily’s 21st birthday, and she’s planned—for months—to begin her celebration with my mom and dad at their favorite Mexican restaurant. My mom doesn’t drink much, but when she does, she gets pink-cheeked, and her nose goes numb, and everything makes her giggle. This is “Happy Fun-Time Grandma,” and Emily’s looking forward to sharing her birthday with this unbearably cute version of her grandmother. Jack and I invite ourselves to the festivities. During dinner, I drink a small margarita and a bit of a second one. Everything’s fun and fabulous.

Until it’s not.

Which is when my mouth goes completely, inexplicably dry—so dry I can’t manage to swallow the chip I’ve been chewing. The world slides to the left and I shake my head to avoid blacking out. “Scooch over, Dad. I need to use the ladies’ room.” I stand up, calm and cool, and head for the bathroom. It’s occupied. I take deep breaths. I consider using the men’s room. I lean forward in the hall, nauseated. I shake my head again. “Stay upright, Kelley.” The door opens. Somehow, I smile and thank the person holding the door open for me. Then I frantically lock myself in, spit the chip into the garbage, and sit down.

The feeling passes.

But I’m hot. Crazy hot. I tell my family I’m going to stand outside for a second. I come back to the table. “I think that margarita triggered a hot flash,” I announce. We laugh.

Everything’s fun and fabulous again—but only for a few minutes. I go back outside and walk around the parking lot and take deep breaths and in short order, despite my, “Naw, I’m feeling much better,” it’s decided we should head back to my parents’ house for awhile before we make the hour-long drive back home.

We pull into the driveway. I get out of the car, walk through my parents’ garage past their kitchen island and straight into their powder room. I close the door and collapse on the floor. And that’s where I stay for two hours. I sob. I breathe hard and fast through my mouth. I’m desperate to be sick and have it over with. I’m soaked with sweat. I’m all chattering teeth and shaking limbs.

I hug my parents’ toilet and make a deal with God. Except this isn’t a stand-up comic’s routine, and I’m certain something has gone terribly, awfully wrong. I’ll admit I tend to be hyperbolic for effect, but this is not one of those times. Twice, I ponder dialing 911.

Please understand I’m not drunk. (Jack confirms after the fact that I didn’t appear even slightly intoxicated.) I’m not slurring my words. I’m perfectly aware of everything that’s happening. I’m lucid enough to be considerate of my family: although I can’t respond to their text messages, I occasionally flush the toilet so they know I’m alive.

Every few minutes, I think I’m better. I lay on my side next to the toilet, silently singing “Blessed Assurance” and “It Is Well” and “Amazing Grace.” That helps. I doze off for a moment. And then I snap awake as my body begins to quake again.

I text my mom for a blanket and she shoves it through a tiny crack in the door.

I sing. I shake. I sleep.

I sing. I shake.

I sing.

Finally, I’m sick.

Ten minutes later, miraculously, I’m able to stand, and I make my way upstairs to my parents’ guest bedroom. The poison is gone. I recognize with incomparable relief that I’m not going to die after all.

I thank God.

And that’s why this story isn’t about drinking too much.

I’m struggling with faith these days. Some mornings, I wake with a renewed confidence that someone has my back, cares about my individual life, has a purpose for me. Most of the time, though, I’m not sure what I believe, if anything. I’m cynical. I’m jaded. I can’t discern the purpose of the thing we call “church.” God feels distant and impersonal. The people who profess his name seem angry and arrogant.

This dark night of the soul is crushing me.

And yet, when I thought I was going to die—and I really, truly thought I might die—my first instinct was to sing the hymns of my childhood, and I felt comforted. No, it wasn’t just that the singing helped me focus on something other than my cramping belly (although that was surely part of it).

It was if those lyrics summoned the very presence of God. And God showed up.

I know that sounds bonkers. I’m actually okay with that.

The deal I made with God: I’m not going to give up. I’m going to continue wrestling in the dark. I don’t even know what that means, to be honest with you. But I’ve tried to believe there’s nothing beyond this place. I’ve tried to believe we’re all just a jumbled mess of coincidence and science. I can’t get there.

God just keeps showing up.