Friday, December 1, 2023

Remembering Michael F.

     I'm on vacation this week. Which means of course that I'm working — another Rotary magazine article to finish, my fourth over the past year. But I can't let my EGD responsibility slide, so I'm looking over pieces that I wrote but decided for some reason not to post. This was written four years ago — I know why I held it back; because I didn't want to poke a stick into a wound that was still fresh. But four years is a while, and I think I can post this now with a minimum risk of upsetting anybody. With time comes perspective, ideally, and an ability to see the saddest situations in a positive light.



     "To have a problem in common is much like love and that kind of love was often the bread that we broke among us. And some of us survived and some of us didn’t, and it was sometimes a matter of what’s called luck." 
                                                           —Tennessee Williams, Memoirs

      Only one friend came over the house that first horrible week, after I was allowed to come home. Then again, Michael didn't have very far to come: out his front door, turn left, walk a few steps, up five stairs, knock on my door. Bearing two cans of raspberry soda water and a bag of potato chips.
     We sat on the porch and talked. Which is what you most want to do when you first go into recovery: talk and talk and talk, trying to sort out how the greatest thing in your life has suddenly become the worst. How it somehow snuck up on your from behind and bit you, hard, in the ass. How to pry its jaws off you.
    It was October, 2005, so I don't remember anything we said. But I do remember, when we were done, we stood up and Michael hugged me. He was much taller than me, a good four inches, and I had a face full of plaid flannel.  Geez, I thought, not only do I have to give up booze, but now I gotta hug guys too?
      Afterward, we would go to meetings for more talk. Sometimes walking to the church around the corner. Sometimes he would pick me up in a big old car, some 1970s Cadillac he inherited. It was like an inverted echo of high school, but instead of one of my buddies who had a car coming to get me so we could hang out and delight in the combination of beer and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, we were two newly sober adults on our way to AA meetings in the Northwest suburbs.
     Meetings, meetings, meetings. How I hated them. Michael liked them. He believed. He had a sponsor, and diligently climbed the 12 Steps, and was an avatar of How It Works.
     Only it didn't work. Not for him. Not long term. For some unfathomable reason, sobriety didn't stick with Michael, while it worked for me. Who knows why? Maybe it was simply professional pride: I had a recovery memoir coming out and didn't want to make it into a lie. "I don't want to fuck up my memoir," was how I put it, along with not wanting to be another Kitty Dukakis (an editor at Simon & Schuster, in rejecting my book, said I hadn't been sober long enough to write a memoir, saying that they'd published Kitty Dukakis's recovery memory, and she rewarded them by drinking nail polish remover on her book tour). 
     Maybe it was luck, some combination of neurons and random chance. Or some other aspect of my circumstance.
     Maybe it was mere necessity. Michael came from money. That could be what did him in. Because I had no choice but to pull myself together and get back to work, while he could retreat from life and climb into the bottle and the bills would still get paid.
    When the news came that Michael was in the hospital, I only thought of the good stuff. He was our neighbor for, geez, 17 years. We'd sit on the porch and talk and smoke cigars, hour after hour. Of course he had his quirks. 
    "You know, I sometimes sneak into your yard at night and shoot your rabbits," he once said.
    I chewed on that, weighing my reply.
    "Just don't shoot the boys," I finally muttered.
    He had taste, humor, integrity. Qualities that fluttered back to mind when I heard about the failing liver and kidneys.
      "Maybe this will be a wake up call," I said to my wife, half-heartedly.
      "The divorce was the wake-up call," my wife replied, grimly.
      A wake up call that he let ring and ring. Michael died a few days later. A few days after his twin boys had left for college.
     So what do you say? The important thing is, to me, to remember that he was like before: a good man, considerate, methodical, a runner, who took care of himself and adored his children. He was the sort of neighbor who would hurry over to your house during a flood and help pump out your basement. Who helped you clean your dryer vents. His bad end didn't come because he was a bad person, but because he was a person, period, a person who fell in a hole and couldn't get out. The thing about alcoholism is, it's a disease that looks like a decision. To the uninitiated it can seem that Michael pondered his options — hmm, should I stay with my beautiful wife and three great kids and see them off to college? Or should I go drink myself to death at my mother's house? — and made the wrong choice. 
     But that isn't a choice at all, not one that any rational man makes. Addiction is another word for diseased thinking. When I heard the bad news, I thought really of all the happy times, and what a good, decent man he was, and not what happened later, toward the end. I hope his wife and kids do the same. I hope the kids realize that how well they turned out is a reflection of the man he was, at heart, before the disease took him. And if his memory has to be a scar as well as a comfort, well, then it should be a scar worn with pride. Because he certainly fought the thing, hard, for years, before it overwhelmed him. I was there, I saw him fight. He fought hard but he lost, that's all. Sometimes people lose. A difficult truth, but one worth remembering.

27 comments:

  1. You lost a great friend and supporter. I like the picture you chose. Sunset is my favorite time of day. Big hugs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "A disease that looks like a decision." This. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brilliant, thank you

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is a wonderful piece. Tears already this morning.We all know those who struggle; a reminder to me that these are good people struggling. I wish his children could see this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 🚢🏽‍♀️Trans John/Karen 3/22December 1, 2023 at 8:42 AM

      My father managed to drink himself to death by the time he was 50. 45 years and counting later, I’m still trying to come to grasp with memories of growing up in a household that was virtually a prisoner to alcohol.
      Rule 1: Much like Fight Club, the first rule of alcoholism is : you don’t talk about alcoholism. At least not back then. Nick and Nora Charles starting off their days with breakfast cocktails? Dean Martin hosting a popular variety show with an omnipresent rock glass of bourbon (apple juice, actually, the booze was part of an image that didn’t exist in his real life)? Hilarious stuff.
      My uncle and his wife sharing a bottle of cheap whiskey before he went to work? My own father’s disappearance nightly to our neighborhood version of Moe’s Tavern? My sister meeting her future husband at Hines V.A. Hospital as both our fathers were in the final stages of the effects of cirrhosis? (We have lots of stories to pass on at family gatherings to the grandchildren he never met). Did I mention the fact that I had started to stagger out to my car at 4a.m. and passing out before (thankfully) I could put the key in the ignition? I was 21 at the time. At 22, disgusted with myself, I broke free somehow. My father’s approach, much like Michael’s, was to escalate his consumption. 3 years later, he was gone.
      Every Ash Wednesday, he would begin 40 days of sobriety. Miserable sobriety. Easter Monday, and it was like it had never happened. He didn’t even bother to stop at home after work. Some days, he’d go to lunch and never get back to work. And outside of the household -usually inside, as well -, it was never acknowledged.

      At one point during the 1970’s, Art Carney publicly confessed that he was an alcoholic. Then Dick Van Dyke. Betty Ford, wife of a U.S. President, confessed she had to go into rehab. Respectable, upstanding people. Just like Michael. Just like my father. It finally started getting through to the general public that this wasn’t a ‘loser’s’ deficiency of character, but an actual disease, not limited to those guys lying on Skid Row sidewalks, bottle in a paper bag either lifted to their mouths or nestled in their laps. They’re probably good people as well, who just couldn’t win the struggle.
      This was a hard read, but I suspect it was even harder for you to write it at that point in time.



      Delete
    2. Wow. Just wow. Those tales of woe just boggle the mind. My father and his buddies got totally shit-faced at 19 and crashed a wedding on New Year's Eve, 1939,. He puked his guts out in front of total strangers. Hey, who let these drunken Jewboys in here?

      That sobered him up for life. I don't know what he did during his Army days. in the Philippines, but he and his father and brothers didn't imbibe. They'd have shots of schnapps at Thanksgiving, but nothing more, as far as I can recall. Supposedly, Jews don't drink. The ones I grew up around rarely did. Not even beer.

      But that didn't mean there wasn't a liquor cabinet in our house, for entertainment purposes or for visiting goyim. Like father, like son. The apple didn't fall far from the tree. At 14 (not 19), I guzzled a half-pint of his whiskey, no chaser, and on an empty stomach. Somehow, I made it three miles across town to the public library, where I proceeded to hurl all over the reference section, in front of a lot of other kids, before being dragged out by the cops.

      They baby-sat me for a few hours, until my father showed up. Time spent babbling to a juvie officer, instead of sleeping it off in a cell (I was a little young for that treatment, I assume). The cop told my old man that he should be more of a pal to his son. What a laugh. His idea of palship was shooting baskets at the playground in a pouring rain the next day, despite my hangover. With a basketball borrowed from the kid next door. Then he just stopped talking to me for the next three weeks. Some pal.

      My whole high school (3,000 kids) knew about me by the following Monday. Took a while for this drunken freshman to live it down. I was razzed a good deal, and nicknamed The Boozehound. But that cured me. To this day, sixty-plus years later, I can't even stand the smell of whiskey. I won't touch it. Oh, I drank my share of the world's liquor while young, but not to excess, and episodes like my library escapade were non-existent.

      At twenty, I smoked my first joint. Liked that a lot better. Became quite a weedhead, for quite a few years. A lot of things go better with dope. The older I got, the less I tippled and toked. I don't get high or drink alcohol anymore. I'm old (76) and boring and vanilla. My only vice is food. Which can also do you in, if you aren't careful.

      Earlier, I stated that Jews don't drink. But plenty of them do. I've spoken before about my right-wing, Army lifer cousin. All that's bad enough, but he even now, in his 70s, he still pounds beers and starts ranting his fascistic rants...and I've decided that the best thing is just to not see (Nazi?) him anymore. It's like disowning a kid brother. I've heard the same song and dance too many times, and have seen what the booze is doing to him, and I want no part of it. He almost killed somebody...and himself...with his truck last spring. Next time, and there will be a next time, he may not be so lucky.

      I could have very easily traveled down the same plastered pathway, at 45, had I not quickly remarried after my divorce. My late mother used to say that my present wife saved me from either living in a cardboard box... or lying quietly in a pine one. And she was right on the money. Mumsy always knew best.

      Delete
    3. As the mother of Michael's kids, I can assure you that my kids have seen this article, and love Neil for his beautiful remembrance of their father, as do I. I've also shared it with anyone who is willing to put up with me pushing it on them! I miss Michael so much, think of him every (GD) day, multiple times. My kids and I are so grateful to you, Neil, for helping us to remember him. Michael used to end his letters and emails with,

      Peace

      Delete
  5. It's a horrible disease, took my mother, then almost beat me. The fight continues. There was a time when it was fun, until it wasn't. An accident almost killed me, but I decided to try it once more. Then my daughter was born and I had the awakening. Thirty days inpatient, then home and miserable. White knuckling they call it, just holding on for most of a year. Then a high school buddy, sober himself for a few years came to my rescue. Meetings and more meetings. Listening and talking. Mostly listening. But man, does talking help. So now 40 years later, two more daughters, grandchildren, a career completed and retirement. And my wife, who stayed when others would have left. To her, thank you isn't enough. But I say it anyway and often. I'm sorry for your neighbor, but people just don't know how hard it can be. God bless him and all who read this. Happy holidays to everyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. While the story was sad, it was your comment that brought me to tears. Happy Holidays to you, too.

      Delete
  6. This is lovely and heartfelt, Neil. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Today’s EGD arrived right on time - it’s been 5 years since my brother succumbed to "A disease that looks like a decision." And like your friend Michael he was a good person. It made me happy to think of the good times and the goodness that was my brother. Thank you NS.

    ReplyDelete
  8. That's a great quote. It sure seems like luck. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wonderful tribute. Many of us have dealt with recidivism. I am happy to be where I am now, taking it day by day. I have read your book, you were right to write it. Your columns and writings make me feel better because I agree with them and don't feel alone in my perspective.
    After all this time you continue to be my favorite columnist

    ReplyDelete
  10. So heartfelt, caring, and gentle in reminding all of us who have people we care about in our lives who are held hostage by the disease to remain hopeful that one day they will be able to seek treatment. In the meantime the impact of their behavior is so challenging re not going down the path of judging them as being morally defective and narcissistic.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for sharing. Once again your clear writing and ability to turn a phrase has distilled this to essence: a disease that looks like a decision. This really hit home.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Your phrasing has perfectly deconstructed the reality of this disease. This message needs to be out there far beyond EGD. How best to make that happen...?

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am an adult child if an alcoholic. My childhood was a nightmare even though my Dad was a wonderful father and those are the memories I revisit. We didn’t think of it as a disease in the 50s. I am very careful with alcohol and have never had a problem but living with a violent alcoholic growing up has damaged my life in so many ways.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Excellent, Neil. An example of some very fine writing.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I live with a wonderful person who cannot stay sober. Over the last 17 years their longest period of abstinence was nearly 2 years and recently - up until july- had again made a year.
    Maybe a third of the time overall they somehow managed not to drink.

    That other 10 years or so have been a living hell it seems they try to drink every drop they missed out on when they start again.

    Our kids are grown now and I'm looking for a place to move. I just can't take it anymore.

    I was a serious addict of many substances until my early 30s. Been sober now nearly 30 years. It's tough to watch someone slowly killing themselves.

    I woke up to this post and couldn't gather myself for hours. Literally shaking.

    I've learned I can only take care of myself.

    I'm terrified of what will become of them.

    But I just can't take it anymore

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sorry that this post caused you upset, but it seems like you're seeing the situation clearly. You have to take care of yourself — that's the first thing they teach family in Al-Anon. You have to save your own life — you can't make the other person do anything. Maybe your moving will be the spur he — or she — finally needs. Probably not. But you have to remember that the path you're on, to break out of habits and destructive relationships, requires courage. It's the path of the hero. There are people who will help you — feel free to email me at any time at nsteinberg@suntimes.com. Good luck.

      Delete
  16. "A disease that looks like a decision"

    A childhood friend, one of the best friends I'll ever have, was the star quarterback, class president, dated the prettiest girl. One of our kinships in high school was that we were both straight arrows, and didn't drink or smoke pot when everyone else was. In college he tried pot, convinced me to try it, and we began to have an occasional drink. After college he and the prettiest girl got married, had two beautiful kids, started a successful business. For me pot and the occasional drink was a brief phase, but for him it became a lifestyle, then a pathology. Eventually he chose booze and drugs over his beautiful family - but then he wasn't really choosing was he? I would cross paths with him when I visited home and marvel at his decay. The fellow considered most likely to succeed lived alone above a diner where he worked as a short order cook, ending every evening plastered at a nearby bar. Eventually he fell in his apartment, cut his head, and bled to death. Looking at this once vibrant guy shriveled in his casket was one of the saddest sights I've ever seen. What might have been.

    Fifteen years later I've had another lifetime of wonderful experiences while his children and grandchildren have grown to adulthood without his presence. Life is not fair.

    Alcoholism is a brutal, brutal disease.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Dear Neil,
    By posting this beautiful article again (yes, it was posted 4 years ago) it allows me to finally thank you for the treasured memories you wrote about. I have no idea why I delayed the thank you Neil, something you well deserved. We had 3 or 4 splendid visits from you and yours while we were in Westport, Mass. I could easily see how much your boys adored you and listened to every word you uttered. Thank you for sharing your lovely family with us. Those were great memories.
    Your kind words describing Michael brought enormous pleasure to me. He was all those great words implied, and more. He was a wonderful son, brother and father who deserved a longer life to help others, as he always did. However, it was not to be so I and the rest of our family are thankful for his nearly 60 years of living.
    Thank you and ever grateful for the treasured memento you shared,

    Marcia Colby Frame
    Michael’s mother

    ReplyDelete

This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.