All Our Novembers

Growing up, my son felt his father’s and my marriage breaking. He noticed the nicks in my armor, and found my overreactions startling. Especially in contrast to Swenny’s collected exterior. My behavior confused him. Once he realized that my reactions were compensation for Swenny’s alcoholism, he made sense of it, releasing me from my role as villain to one of someone distressed. But determined to protect him and our family from the inside out.

Now a senior in college, he continues to process what it is to be the son of an alcoholic. He has established boundaries, and enforces them thoughtfully. When necessary, he is considerate with reminders that punishing me is never his intention, even though sometimes it is a consequence.

As the door swung open for him to go, my daughter came back through. Like her brother, she is processing what it means to be the child of an alcoholic. She, too, has boundaries, but like me, allows the edges to give way. Even after experiencing up close the chaos I have caused with my continual resetting of the boundaries I established, she gives: a testament to her generosity. To her grace. She makes time to share space with her father along the trails of an urban woodland near home where they exchange stories about the people of late who rest there while our dog determines the path they follow.

When she asks him to get help, he promises to. She believes he wants to, but has no expectation that he will. My son no longer asks.

Neither do I.

Monday is Swenny and my anniversary. For twenty-nine Novembers, I have considered us…the decisions we have made and those we have left unmade. I have considered the childhoods of our daughter and son, and the circumstances we allowed to frame them. Lately, I check my watch to see what time is left to tidy up before the troubling of their youth becomes the horizon that lines their future.

In tending the mess, I plan to leave in place what is best: parents in Swenny and me who love them. Who believe in them. And with acknowledgment of our own shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, are in awe of them. Most importantly, I will leave in place them. Their strength to remain firm. Their courage to remind us why when we lose track of how. Their willingness to accept, without condition, us.

Because that is what makes all our Novembers possible.

In the fall, we let you go your way. ~ Neil Young

In Pieces

Five years ago today, we moved into a new home. What it lacked in architecture, it made up for in promise. It was to be our new beginning.

That was two new beginnings ago. Nothing has changed, but everything is different. Alcoholism remains the condition by which every decision I make is hedged. But advanced liver disease has softened my response to the battle scars it has cut.

The deepest of which has been to our marriage. I am no longer just Swenny’s wife. I am his keeper. With responsibility to guard him from the consequences of his own decisions, and to keep him as whole as possible. In the meantime, I have fallen into a million pieces.

I am broken.

And brittle. Stiffened by the pose I have kept of caring more for him than for me. For what he needs more than for what I want.

How can I pick up the pieces of me without getting cut by the sharp edges of us that I need to traverse? Or is hurting necessary? Even preferable in order to temper the joy I would feel of a weight lifted with his distress in feeling it shift?

Mostly, though, is it possible for me to put myself back together in a way that doesn’t resemble who I am now? An estranged wife whose lack of courage has enabled the continued drinking of a man with whom she can no longer live? But loves. And cannot leave for fear of an accusation of abandonment?

Is it possible to repair what is broken and leave visible the flaws that have kept me with him? And him with me?

Will acknowledging the beauty of those flaws help make me whole? Can I separate mine from his without compromising the strength we need to face what lies ahead?

Am I strong enough to stand alone? Is he? Are we?

…I’ve been afraid of changing. Cause I’ve built my life around you. ~ Fleetwood Mac

Come Good Home

The only way is through. It was how I came to take possession of the keys to my fifth address in as many years, hard fought peace found at the hearth of a faux fireplace. But with a master suite too big for one, its dormer ironically facing the place exactly one block east where Swenny lives. Close enough to be caught in the same moon shadow yet still out of reach.

But an alley way erases almost any distance between us at all, making Swenny’s visits so frequent that our dog spends his days in anticipation. And leaving me lightened by the chores he so willingly takes on, seeing for himself what needs to be done. As if he lived here, too.

But he doesn’t. And when he stopped by last week with flowers and candy after I hurt myself on a run, the familiar scent of vodka reminded me why. He denied that he had been drinking, so I let it go. But that doesn’t mean I accepted it. Which is why, for as long as I am able, I will remain firm that a sober Swenny is welcome to live here. One with cirrhosis and ascites who continues to drink has at least one stop to make before calling our house home.

My hope is that that stop will be inpatient rehab. At this point, it is just a phone call away…ten numbers to tap on his screen to continue the conversation he left off on Wednesday – his second – with an admissions specialist named Linda. A conversation he chased with a swig of vodka to steady himself to take flowers to his wife.

I’m not able to make sense of that day, or of his procrastination to secure the help he needs. But without an endless supply of time, I am tempted to force the call. To stand ready with his bag packed, like an expectant parent anxious to get to the hospital. All the while considering his return home: to a house intended for two.

A house so sturdy that the strongest of winds leave it unrattled. A house uncluttered by the innuendo of addiction. Where the music we have listened to for years plays differently…with lyrics that once described the chaos of our recent past rewritten to sound our passage home.

Not all who wander are lost. ~ J.R. Tolkien

Continued…

Every story breaks. Some because of pauses intentionally placed by tellers wanting to start again. Others when a point has gone missing, lost amidst words that tumble upon it, burying it until their weight forces open a fissure through which it can be found. When those same words reassemble, they tell a different side of that story, the point becoming counter.

Lately here, the words I’ve left unwritten have instead been spoken. To Swenny, to our children, and to a receptionist at an inpatient treatment facility north of our home. They have been said while alcoholic liver disease advances and measured days look on; hidden bottles and ultimatums now just reminders of a time not that long ago when I believed that the conclusion to this story was ours to write.

Which it is not, and I likely knew that all along. Where it came apart, though, I’m not sure. Perhaps the seam holding our pages gave way as Swenny continued to go through the motions of recovery, and I set boundaries that were, at best, simulations. Bluffs to be called.

No more. This is no longer a story about drinking. It is about what is possible if he is able to stop. And the consequences if he cannot.

Two weeks ago, when his doctor provided him with a list of programs to aid in his recovery, I favored the in–patient rehab centers while he leaned toward a sober house. Like a couple that can’t agree on the setting for the thermostat, we are not finding compromise. So I am doing my best to let it go. The decision is not mine to make. It is his, and I will support him.

Last week, I concluded our fourth move in five years. While I hold alcoholism responsible for being unable to remain in place for any length of time, the continuous need to forward our mail has been because of me. So I weather the jokes, laughing at my own expense at the punch lines unknowing people tee up about my real estate problem. Embarrassed, even though each move allowed me to live with a new stage of alcoholism: fear, hope, despair and now, finally, acceptance.

There is peace in acceptance.

From here, I hope to reassemble the words that I pull from the rubble of our story to tell the best part yet. About the beauty of perseverance.

I’m falling. ~ Shallow

Mad Love

About a month ago, I asked Swenny to call his doctor. He didn’t look good: he was losing weight, he appeared exhausted, and the tone of his skin was concerning. Surprisingly, he called. That’s when I knew that he was worried, too.

Like for many right now, non-emergency procedures and tests have been postponed. Swenny hadn’t had an esophageal scope since January and his last ultrasound was last Fall. After calling his doctor, both tests were scheduled last month, a week between them. I told him that I was eager for the results so that I could return to being mad at him, rather than worried, hoping for positive news.

The first results were good: the esophageal scope showed no bleeding varices but white patches on his esophagus. They were brushed and determined to be benign.

The ultrasound, though, was less positive. Swenny shared the results with me in a text after I left his call unanswered because it came while I was in a meeting. The ultrasound showed no spots on his liver, but found ascites. With that, I stopped reading, knowing that the development of ascites marks a point in the progression of his disease from which he will not recover. If he continues to drink, he will likely shorten his prognosis from a couple of years to something less than.

And he continues to drink.

In response, I’m concluding my lesson in tough love. It didn’t work, and responsibility for its failure rests with me. In the past ten years, I have drawn more lines in the sand than I can count. As they were crossed, I stepped each one closer to the shoreline, with less and less time lapsing before the tide of life would erase them. Now we’re at the water’s edge, and there is no sand left upon which to draw.

So while the water laps at our feet, we will focus on the positive. His ascites are low-volume. His doctor wishes to discuss in-patient rehab. Our petition for divorce has been dismissed. And our family of four is circling.

…no one said enough is enough ~ Gloria, The Lumineers

Epilogue

Mostly, I am an optimist. I describe glasses as half-full, and I’m earnest in my collection of lucky coins, believing that a penny can turn a day around, and a nickel an entire workweek.

Sometimes, though, I’m a realist. Shortly after posting “The End” Swenny and my separation was denied. Our terms were deemed unreasonable, so the commissioner sent us away with homework due July 23rd. Shortly thereafter, my mom’s health took a sudden and unexpected turn. Consumed by responsibility for her and her affairs, and with no chance of meeting the established deadline, I put our separation away. For good. By default judgment of circumstances, we would remain married.

Sharing this news with my mom was a bright spot in an otherwise distressing time. When revisiting terrifying hallucinations caused by her newly diagnosed vascular dementia, she described a trip to court with Swenny and me for our divorce. A high school friend of mine was there. He is a local attorney, and she was thrilled that he didn’t charge her for services rendered. I took that opportunity to tell her that our proceedings had concluded. We would remain married.

Accepting her happiness as confirmation that I was doing right by everyone involved, I began looking at houses where we would live together. I was convinced that with Swenny’s help, and caregivers, we could spare my mom the heartache of skilled nursing during a global pandemic that limits our ability to be with her.

Believing that anything is possible, I found the perfect house. Listed on the National Historic Registry, its amenities included a first floor bedroom and bathroom with a walk-in shower. A basement suite complete with a working fireplace was the perfect apartment for a caregiver. It also included a cook’s kitchen, a beautiful yard and a three-season porch that I could turn into a writing space. A small parking slab was perfect for the German convertible I dream to buy.

Life changes, though, quickly extinguishing my dream. People with more resources than me made offers on the home, removing me from contention. So now, I am making arrangements for my mom to move to Assisted Living with memory care services. And Swenny and my separation has escalated to a divorce.

Tonight, after a long day spent orchestrating things on behalf of my Mom, my evening walk found me on his porch. I needed to talk, to tell him about the return of her hallucinations and how I hoped to make her new apartment feel like home. A few minutes into our conversation, his phone alerted him to a message. When he stood up to answer it in his room, it felt odd. So I followed him, finding him immersed in the closet.

Even though I stood inches behind him, he didn’t know I was there. He was busy rummaging, and when he stood up and turned, I was hit with the stench of booze. Swenny stumbled around me, and I dove to the spot from where he had emerged. In a ziploc bag filled with ice was an unopened can of high-octane beer. On the floor, was a half-empty one.

Stunned, I made my disappointment clear. Before I left, I made sure that he – and the neighbors – knew that I have had enough. I don’t need much, and I expect even less. But tonight, I wanted more.

And finally, I believe I deserve it. With my determination intact, I’m off to find it. With my glass half-full, here’s to me.

“And even when you know the way it’s gonna blow, it’s hard to get around the wind.” ~ Alex Turner

The End

My name is Cher and my husband is an alcoholic.

Four years ago, with those words, I started this blog. And with those words, I am putting it to rest.

What was meant to be chapters of a story with a happy ending became a series of interchangeable essays of relapse, action, hope, and disbelief. With each post, I held open the door for the next, expecting that my good manners and optimism would be rewarded with a change of course toward recovery.

Instead, we landed on a track with hurdles that we didn’t anticipate, the highest being our separation and his advanced liver disease. Others, like the daily consequences of continued drinking, we cleared regularly. Not out of ease but out of practice. Still others remain stacked in an unused lane, sized up with deference to their seriousness; their finality.

The biggest hurdle, now, though, is guilt. Mine for leaving and his for letting me.

The other night in a phone call, we talked about what’s next. Alcoholism won, I told him. Even with knowing that nine times out of ten it does, I held on believing that we would be the exception. Unable to make it come true, we concede.

My name is Cher and my husband is an alcoholic. This was our story.

Heaven, help me now. Heaven, show the way. ~ The Lumineers

Saudade

Only twice have Swenny and I allowed one day to become the next without talking: once when he was fishing in Canada with his Dad and brothers, and now. Otherwise, we have spoken every day, often many times, even when living apart. Last week, though, in another attempt at tough love, I told him not to call me until he has been sober for seven days.

One week ago, I stopped at the store where he works to buy lunch. As I came around the corner, he was sending a text to one of his vendors. My greeting interrupted what he was dictating, and having misplaced his patience, he was uncharacteristically short. His hand was shaking badly, and his eyes were glassy. Because it wasn’t the time or place for a public display of affection, I turned and walked away, saving it for the phone call that followed.

“Where did you go?” he asked. I wanted to respond in kind. Instead, I recapped the past fifteen months in less than as many minutes, asking him to get help. And asking again why he has not.

His answer was a shrug of unknowing that was so well pronounced it could be heard. While it sounded like defeat, it was spelled with the same letters used to form exhaustion. And resignation.

Whatever is keeping him from addressing his addiction remains unknown, likely even to him. What I want to know is how far will he decline before he reaches a place beneath which nothing else can burrow.

With just a few hours left before my established expectation of seven days becomes the anticipation of the week ahead, I still hope that he calls. I know he hasn’t been sober, but I want to tell him that love, even in the best of times, is tough. In the hardest of times, it is necessary. And in all times, it is here. Waiting for his call.

So tell me when you’re gonna let me in. I’m getting tired, and I need somewhere to begin. ~ Keane

Parting Ways

Tough love has an edge. It is unforgiving, sharp and intentional. In the background, though, its lines blur. That’s where I live.

In a place where the happenings of eight days threaten 10,295 of them. Where a marriage being separated with love raises flags because it doesn’t make sense. Where within hours of receiving a court date, we went to dinner. And where the irreconcilability of disease and choice leaves me wanting to take responsibility for the damage to our marriage caused by alcoholism.

In the past week and a day, Swenny and I have sat side-by-side across from strangers trying to explain the amicability of our separation. I took responsibility for our debts and he gave me everything. On the counsel of those with whom we sat, we sifted through our pile of stuff and agreed that none of it really mattered. We’d part it at death, and until then, we’d maintain joint ownership of everything.

Except the dissolution of our marriage. That…is mine. Along with the guilt crowding the place where I live. It leaves little room for anything else, so I rest in conflict between believing that our brokenness is his best chance at sobriety, and my best chance at happiness. I smooth the lines by telling myself that it’s his best chance for that, too. And maybe – just maybe – one day I will believe it.

And at once, I knew I was not magnificent. ~ Bon Iver

Dreamcoat

In a dream I had last night, our entire family was there. Alive and of late, they crossed a gathering space like liturgical dancers. Their every movement was the note of a song, a word in a verse. Sensing a message, I followed them, shadowing their bends. Their sways.

Then I saw Swenny. He was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, alone in a crowd of people who love him. I knelt before him, and without words, asked for his thoughts.

“I made a commitment,” he said. “But you should know…my next test will be very bad.”

I said nothing in answer, and settled in further. My elbow on his knee, we watched the people we love most move around us. And without us.

What does it mean? This dream I have been wearing all day, like a heavy coat too burdensome to warm? Is it a premonition? A nightmare? Or just an overnight manifestation of my growing concern for Swenny’s health and happiness?

I will never know. But as he sits on the verge of another set of tests, I ask again for you to please consider him in the week ahead. And again on the Monday that follows.

May I return to the beginning? The light is dimming. ~ Andrew Lloyd Webber