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Young Man Tries to Love His Alcoholic Uncle

In Wendell Berry's short story "Thicker Than Liquor," a young man named Wheeler tries to come to terms with his uncle's alcoholism. As a child Wheeler loved his Uncle Peach, but as Wheeler became an adolescent he began to see that Uncle Peach was drunk more often than not. Rather than being happy to be in relationship, Wheeler wanted nothing to do with him. At one point, Wheeler turns to his mother (Uncle Peach's sister) and protests, "To hell with him! Why don't you let him get on by himself the best way he can? What's he done for you?" His mom answers, "Because blood is thicker than water … [and] thicker than liquor too ..."

Wheeler goes off to the university, then to law school, and returns home to begin his life as an attorney and a new wife. One day a hotel clerk calls Wheeler, asking if someone can come and get Uncle Peach, who has gotten drunk, horribly messing up his room. Instinctively, Wheeler says he will come and help his uncle. And he goes off to love his mother's brother, more because she does than because he does.

He finds Uncle Peach disheveled, and the room torn apart. Cleaning him up, he gives him coffee and brings him home. But before the train ride is over, Uncle Peach vomits again. Wheeler does his best to clean them both up and bring them back to Uncle Peach's home, enduring more vomit along the way. Berry writes:

Finally, after this had happened perhaps a dozen times, Wheeler, who had remained angry, said, "I hope you puke your damned guts out."
And Uncle Peach, who lay, quaking and white, against the seatback, said, "Oh, Lord, honey, you can't mean that."
As if his anger had finally stripped all else away, suddenly Wheeler saw Uncle Peach as perhaps Dorie has always seen him—a poor, hurt, weak mortal, twice hurt because he knew himself to be hurt and weak and mortal. And then Wheeler knew what he did need from Uncle Peach. He needed him to be comforted. That was all. He put his arm around Uncle Peach, then, and patted him as if he were a child. "No," he said. "I don't mean it."

The story finishes with surprising grace. When they arrive home, Wheeler decides to stay with Uncle Peach, rather than go home to his new bride. And so, after putting the older man to bed, Wheeler climbs in too. As the hours pass, he feels the terrors of Uncle Peach's mostly sleepless night, but eventually, "Wheeler went to sleep, his hand remaining on Uncle Peach's shoulder where it had come to rest."

Possible Preaching Angles: God's Love; Christ' Love; God's grace; Love for others—Steven Garber offers the following meditation on this story: "[This story] offers a window into life for every man, for every woman. There is no one who does not have, literally or figuratively, an Uncle Peach to love—a person, a place, a community, a culture. In the innocence of youth, Uncle Peach was loveable, but the older Wheeler got, knowing more of the world and of his uncle, the more difficult it was to love him. That Wheeler's mother loved her brother instructed her son, and he was willing to step into her love, for love's sake. But it was not until he began to see Uncle Peach as "poor, hurt, mortal," that Wheeler was able to love and touch him. Uncle Peach did not deserve to be loved, and there was no indication that he was ever going to change. But in the midst of the mess, Wheeler chose to love his Uncle Peach.

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