He was to meet his friend for a birthday drink at McCarthy’s downtown. Another friend joined in. The three drank and drank, and then drank some more, until they decided it was time to stop. Well, at least, to stop long enough to wander down Higuera Street to McClintock’s and drink some more.
He had a terrible headache by then, but his friends neither noticed, nor cared. They were too busy hitting on the young waitress and inhaling more bourbon. He had been a heavy drinker for almost twenty years, but tonight something felt different. He didn’t want to be in the bar. He didn’t want another drink. He wanted to be home with his new wife. That’s where he belonged.
So he wished his friend a final Happy Birthday and stumbled out of the bar, trying to figure out in this post-midnight haze the best way to get over to Hill Street. He ended up walking across Highway 101, dodging traffic, proud of himself for being so daring. He had done far crazier things before, always emboldened by alcohol.
The next morning, he woke up, predictably with a massive hangover, and a bad taste in his mouth. An epiphany occurred. He decided then and there that enough was enough. Too many wasted nights. Too many damaged relationships. No more. He would get his drinking under control.
That was July 21, 1990. The last time I was totally, completely, absolutely smashed out of my mind.
Fast forward to July 21, 2007.
I am on a plane, flying to Oklahoma to attend a memorial service for my cousin Ken. He died alone last week, estranged from his three adult daughters, his brother, and every friend he had. Internal bleeding was listed as the cause, bleeding caused by severe alcohol abuse.
It runs in the family. My grandfather supposedly lived in the corner bar at night. My dad only stopped drinking in 1986 after quintuple bypass surgery. Another uncle also lost the battle of the bottle at a relatively early age. But nobody warned me about our history of abuse—it wasn’t appropriate to discuss such private issues in our house. I learned about alcohol the hard way.
I lived in Tulsa the year before I moved to California in 1987 and I got to spend lots of quality time with Ken, his wife Chris, and their three daughters. The evening routine never varied. Ken came home from work. Chris made dinner. Then they plopped down in their comfortable chairs, watched TV, smoked cigarettes. And drank. And drank some more.
California called and I moved away. Five years later, Chris died in a freak accident, just days after Ken took early retirement. His father had died when Ken was only eight. Now this. All the pain resurfaced. Ken never recovered.
It’s as if my cousin decided to crawl into a bottle and not come out.
His drinking grew worse and worse. Ken became abusive, saying nasty, cruel things to his daughters, only to later sober up and having to apologize. They tried intervention repeatedly, but Ken remained in denial. He passed out one night and started a house fire, destroying treasured family possessions, almost dying in the process.
His daughters stayed away. His older brother gave up. Then Ken started calling me, leaving long, rambling messages on our home answering machine, wanting to come out and visit. I never returned his calls. I wanted nothing to do with a drunk.
When I received the e-mail from his oldest daughter, asking me to call, I sensed instantly what had happened. This was always a question of When, not If. My initial reaction was one of relief. The pain had finally ended for Ken. His personal nightmare was over.
But I am flying to Tulsa fueled by equal doses of sadness and guilt.
Sadness for the drunk Ken became.
Sadness over his refusal to get professional help.
Sadness for the wounds he caused among his own flesh and blood.
Sadness that he never had the epiphany about drinking that I did back in 1990.
The guilt stems from those unanswered phone calls and doors I deliberately shut because I did not have the strength to open them. But guilt should never be confused with regret. I did the right thing.
I stopped drinking. Why couldn’t Ken? The question will haunt all of us who show up Sunday for the memorial service.
Good night, sweet cousin. Your long day is finally over.
Time to sleep. Per chance to dream.
SLO City News (July 2007)