My Immortal

Three years ago, Swenny introduced me to a colleague of his who was providing meals to homeless people out of the trunk of her car. Since those early days, she has emerged as an expert on homelessness. Local leaders take her calls, news outlets seek to join her on nighttime outreach, and philanthropists provide needed support.

Most importantly, though, the homeless friends she serves trust her. Three times each week, she and a childhood friend pack two small busses with hot meals, lunches for later, blankets, tents, clothes, shoes, and toiletries to deliver to homeless camps across our city. They are known as Street Angels, and consider themselves hope dealers.

At each stop, they announce themselves with a signature beep, and wait for the friends to emerge. From under bridges and river banks, or from right before our eyes, they appear. Longtime friends are greeted by name ~ Annie, Don, Jose’ ~ and new friends are introduced. Along the way, the Street Angels share with ride-along volunteers about the special circumstances surrounding a camp or a friend.

For almost two years, I have been volunteering. I’ve helped mostly in the winter, when cold air keeps interactions brief. Necessities are given, help is offered, and away we go. Difficult circumstances are made more so by the brutal conditions for which the upper midwest is known, and you can sense the heaviness that is carried both inside and outside the bus. When the weather is warm, though, people linger. Moods are light.

In January, during the coldest winter I can remember, I met Jimmy. On that night, we pulled up and he and a friend greeted us. They accepted meals and other items, but refused transport to a shelter. Despite conditions that were life threatening, they insisted on remaining outside.

The other night, I had a chance to see where they spent that night, and where Jimmy spends every night. In the thick of an urban park, at the end of a dirt trail of easy turns, is a clearing. Toward the back is a shelter made to withstand most elements. Clothes lines tied to flanking trees hang above. At the other end is a fire pit edged by purple phlox on one side and chairs on the other. There sat Jimmy.

With no fire to look at, his gaze focused on the phlox. Jimmy welcomed us without getting up, and asked for introductions. In answer to the question of how he was, he said fine. “Still an alcoholic.” Punctuated with the lift of a can of beer.

In the background, from a speaker set in the branches of a tree played My Immortal. He looked over his shoulder at me and smiled. And I smiled back, recognizing before me a man who had surrendered to his disease. We visited a while longer before the lyrics followed us out…down the path and over a plyboard bridge to a tree line camouflaging the home now safely out of sight.

I’m so tired of being here
Suppressed by all my childish fears
And if you have to leave
I wish that you would just leave
‘Cause your presence still lingers here
And it won’t leave me alone.

By the time we reached the railroad tracks, the music was too faint to hear. So we continued to the sound of our steps on the gravel.

I’ve thought of Jimmy every day since…letting his presence linger in me. His face. His smile. His peace.

The Extra Mile

There is comfort in routine. In following in one’s own footsteps along a familiar path. In knowing by heart the markers of your miles, and what’s beyond a curve that would be blind if not for the unnumbered times you’ve run it.

Five nights ago, I slept for the first time in my new home. Where all of my belongings now share space with the contingencies I wrote more than two months ago into my offer to purchase: corners free of hidden bottles, a loving separation, a family whose whole exceeds its parts, and a place where I can visit the best of what was.

Even though when I go there, I grieve. For the stability I couldn’t provide my family, for the companionship of Swenny. For the friends who didn’t stay the course, and for the runs where I’ll be now a guest on the path that was once home.

In the weeks leading to my move, a combination of bad weather and exhaustion kept me from taking final strides there before sending my starting line two miles east. To a neighborhood I once knew but never as a runner.

Knowing I needed to become acquainted, before changing my address, I ran to and through the zip code where my mail is now sorted. From my old front door, I traveled twenty-one descending blocks before making a right on my new street and then left to the park that will now house my runs. From a busy corner, I climbed a short and steep hill, and from its crest, looked down to a bandshell where neighbors gather for evening concerts. Behind it is a lagoon shaded by weeping willows and fishermen. Two bridges provide passage over it, and stacked kayaks edge its shore. It’s urban and dense, and I couldn’t stretch the paths to the distance I wanted.

So at 5.34 miles, I called time on my run. With a sightseeing pace of 10.11, I turned off my watch content to have connected a part of the route I know best with the one I will learn to love. As I find the extra miles that initially eluded me, I’ll master the scale of each hill and the degree of every turn. Eventually, I’ll know the mark of every mile and what they hold. And when time and circumstances allow, I’ll return to the paths that made me a runner, and use the extra miles to take me home.

“Whatever you may be missing right now – a person, a place, a feeling, maybe you are injured and missing running – whatever it is, have peace and take heart – remember that any goodbye makes room for a hello.” 
― Kristin Armstrong

First Position

There was a time not long ago when I believed that anything was possible. I thought I was invincible, with influence over every outcome. Then my husband failed a test of his sobriety, extinguishing our happily ever after.

Rather than take time to consider what might be next, I took a leap of faith from which I have yet to land. The strides preceding my jump included asking my husband to leave; purchasing a home complete with landlord responsibilities; and writing and rewriting my definition of tough love.

Ready to put behind me years of marriage to a man with alcoholism, I set the cadence of the steps I was making to ahead: Don’t look back. D o n ‘ t l o o k b a c k. D o n ‘ t l o o k b a c k.

But I have. And each time I do, I see Swenny. Standing ready to soften my landing, to choreograph the chaos I have caused, and to assure me that whatever will be will be okay.

Lacking his confidence, I want for the certainty with which I took those initial steps. Especially now that I am lost in the spin I set into motion two months ago. Dizzied by one misstep after another, I look to the husband from whom I am parting as the only spot on which I can rest my gaze long enough to ask, “What if?”

What if in my attempt at change I have confused carelessness with courage? Selfish with selfless? What if my need for closure is forcing a conclusion that I can’t bear? Or leaves us both more alone than not?

But what if I had allowed first position to continue being held by fear? Or replaced the steps I’m taking now with a sequence less challenging? Less difficult? Less breath taking? Had I retreated to the dance with which I am so familiar ~ so comfortable ~ I would never have known the strength of the partner I have in Swenny. And that would have been the biggest misstep of all.

Save the last dance. The very last dance. For me. ~ The Drifters

Lost Boy

In the past two weeks, I have moved swiftly to fill every empty threat I have made in response to Swenny’s alcoholism. I’ve stood firm in my request that he move out, I have not retreated from my plans to divorce, and I have forced separation with the purchase of a home. But the hardest thing I have done is to finally accept that nothing I do will change the course of his disease.

After his option to move to a sober house was eliminated, he was left with two other possibilities: twenty-eight days of inpatient rehab or stay with a friend in longterm recovery. He chose the latter, trading his best chance at sobriety for the opportunity to work toward recovery in the comfort of the routines of work and relative independence. He achieved fourteen days without alcohol before succumbing to a pre-mediated night of drinking one night last week after his host went to bed.

The following day, he stopped at my office to sign papers relating to our new reality. It was clear to me that he had been drinking. Standing in the vestibule of my lobby, crowded by the smell of alcohol, I asked him if he was okay. “Yes,” he answered.

Later that night, he shared with me in a phone call that he had relapsed. “Don’t give up on me,” he said. I never will, I told him. “I will never give up on you.”

And I won’t. Even though never is a very long time, believing in him is the only thing I can do.

“Just always be waiting for me.” ~ J.M. Barrie

Even if…

After touring the sober house we hoped Swenny would call home for the next six months or so, Swenny and I stood in the office with the house manager and the owner. It was a room that could have been a 1970s den, with dark furniture and wood paneled walls adorned with photos of John Wayne.

On a counter were registers where residents signed in each night, with a column for someone to confirm they had taken and passed a daily breathalyzer. Containers for drug test samples were at the far end, and breathalyzer tests were in the middle. Never fond of silence, I started a conversation by commenting that I’ve not been able to successfully administer a breathalyzer. So they showed me how. And the course of Swenny’s and my forever changed.

What Swenny initially fought seems now like a gift: months spent living away from home in a community of strangers joined by a common enemy. The sober house a stop on the way to someplace else.

For us, that stop lasted an hour, and our someplace else is still being determined. We are finding our way by exploring inpatient rehab, other sober houses, and separate accommodations for Swenny and for me. As I keep paperwork to begin divorce proceedings in my bag, he is carefully considering his next step, hoping I will change my mind.

Which I won’t. I remain firm in my decision, but a need to be kind to our twenty-seven years as husband and wife has me treading lightly. And thoughtfully. As much as I want to move forward quickly, I don’t want to hurry. Or discourage him and the progress he needs to make instead of answering the continued call of an addiction that has him believing the drink he’s holding is his last. But I also don’t want to mislead him, so remind him almost daily of my intention, and why.

“Even if,” he asks, “I do all of this?”

Yes. Even if.

Even if he agrees to in-patient rehab followed by months in a sober community, I will move to dissolve our marriage. Because any other decision enables his continued drinking, and removes years from a life still reaching for its potential. Any answer other than yes to the question even if discards the care and concern of our children as they come to terms as young adults with the seriousness of their father’s disease and the consequences we now face as a family.

When I begin to waiver, I return myself to a week ago last Wednesday. As Swenny failed the test I inadvertently wrote, John Wayne looked on from photos as the house manager shared the result with his colleague. Swenny knew what had just happened, but I waited for the proof. When they turned the breathalyzer toward me, I saw in the reading the answer to the question I have considered for too long.

“Is it over?” Yes.

Because any other answer takes away the chance that Swenny and I will grow old together. Unmarried ~ yes ~ but with love and affection…til death do us part.

All battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be some place else. ~ John Wayne

All Rise

“You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.” ~ Joan Didion

Two days ago, I sat at a dining room table in a beautiful but unfamiliar home. To my left was Swenny, and across from us were two men. One the house manager and the other the owner of a sober house we had just toured. It was big, well cared for, and the final stop on a road paved with ultimatums.

The view outside was of a park in a neighborhood not far from the sober house Swenny called home in the summer of 2015. The conversation was small as we talked about alcoholism, house rules, meetings and the formica table of the same vintage as my grandmother’s. I kept my focus on the table because nothing else that was said mattered.

Swenny failed a breathalyzer test, and wouldn’t be moving in.

As the men sought to alarm Swenny of what the future holds for him while wanting to assure him that he could still have one, I considered how we got here. To a place where his drinking had again escalated beyond what he can manage; to where his best judgment left him with a blood alcohol content high enough to betray him during an important meeting held almost a full day after his last drink; to where it is left to strangers to tell him the rest of his story based on the worst endings they have known.

While Swenny listened as if they were talking about someone other than him, I decided to pick this as the place from which I walk away. From where the latitude is lies and the longitude is denial. From where in sickness and in health feels like a sentence I have served for too long. From where alcohol presides.

I hope that Swenny, too, picks this as the place from where he walks away. And turns instead toward an ending unlike the one for which he is heading.

Finding Context

In describing a life lived in the company of alcoholism, and is the most important word I have written. It gives context to our story as a couple straddling an ampersand placed to distinguish our experiences, our perspectives, and our points of view. 

And is a hitch that joins our time and space and circumstances, and a hinge that accommodates the comings and goings of that which influences our existence on either side of a corrupted per se. A per se that is becoming increasingly unhinged – again – by alcoholism.

Over the past year, as Swenny has found justification for drinks with co-workers and in his belief about the benefits of beer over vodka, he has misplaced his point of view as a man with alcoholism. Or at least overlooked that for him, drinking is dangerous. Where for others, one beer leads to another and possibly to one or more too many, for him one beer leads to another round of reaching for a bottom from which to reset.

Ironically, a closet beneath our basement stairs was outfitted by the previous owners of our home as a wine cellar. For us, it is simply storage. It holds two bottles of wine received as gifts, holiday decorations, my wedding dress and wrapping paper. The other night, after Swenny emerged from the basement smelling like alcohol, I noticed that one of the bottles was missing. A search for it turned up nothing. But the next day, I found it replaced.

Not long ago, in a conversation about the fate he continues to tempt, Swenny asked me what difference it really makes…his drinking. What is the worst that could happen?

While considering this, I have noticed a softening of the shade of boldness that has colored his drinking of late. While I can’t be certain, I imagine it is because he is less able to satisfy his cravings despite the increasing frequency of his consumption. I imagine that replacing a bottle he polished with one yet unopened in order to keep his drinking unfound from me – a strategy he used more than two decades ago – is concerning to him. I imagine he senses that the answer to his question might rest with a straw that is near final.

What is the worst that could happen? In the context of right now…that Swenny could continue to drink, and that I could begin to care less. 

Inexactly

Alcoholism and recovery lack exactness. The symptoms of drinking that are crowding us again can be measured in frequency, depth and effect, but the reasons behind them remain undetermined. And as long as the why lacks definition, Swenny and I will exist in a state of inexactly.

Two weeks ago, in the transfer of a basket of laundry from my arms to his, I was struck by the smell of booze. Like earlier this month, Swenny confirmed with little hesitation that he had been drinking with co-workers. But this time, he closed his confession with a shrug.

Where once I could balance escalations in his drinking with some regard for my expectations of sobriety, Swenny’s newfound boldness to drink out loud has introduced an indifference that I can’t counter. So I enter into forgotten conversations as if we are having them for the first time, overlook the signs of drinking that follow him home, and walk away from moments that once positioned me for confrontation.

The recklessness with which he is managing the disease that has cost us so much is heavy. And while my response of lightness isn’t perfect, it is appropriate. For now. Because not every battle needs to be fought; and not every misstep needs to take you to your knees.

As Swenny takes chances with his drinking, I’m reconsidering the standards of progress I’ve used until now, electing to measure against a pattern of peace. His battle is not mine to fight. His indifference is not of my making.

So instead of anticipating the time when catching him translates into an ultimatum to which he might respond, I’ll prepare instead for the moment when catching him means breaking his fall. Cushioned by some indifference of my own.

The Gift

Last spring, a woman who grew up in the house we now call home stopped by with a gift. As she presented me with a drawing her mother had commissioned decades ago, she shared room-by-room memories from her childhood, leading to when her family’s time here came to a close with her father’s passing in a hospital bed by the window in our living room.

Her visit is never far from mind as the drawing sits in our buffet awaiting a frame. The house itself, while beautiful, is mostly unremarkable. Up close, though, it is stunning. We pull our doors shut with rose-tinted glass knobs, and tiles on an oddly off-center fireplace tell the story of a ship crossing. We let in fresh air by opening leaded glass french doors,  and two second story windows are centered by a tile and shelf arrangement to complement that which is found inside.

The most beautiful feature, though, is the front door. Located just north of front,  it is heavy and weathered, at once protective and welcoming. The entrance to the life we share.

When we moved here three years ago, I considered it a sacrifice. In response to the worsening of Swenny’s alcoholism, we downsized from a storybook tudor that we could no longer manage to an arts and crafts colonial with a single bathroom and pedestal sink that is sometimes shared by no fewer than three people. And while I still go out of my way to avoid passing our old house, I no longer believe that we left behind there our best days. Because I believe our best days have been spent here…where we learned to acknowledge the alcoholism with which we live. Some of what once scared me most came to be under this roof; and some of the most difficult conversations we have had have taken place here. Yet here we remain – together.

Earlier today, in the busyness of the season, I was reminded of the family who years ago  called this house home. Our Christmas tree sits in the window where the former residents said goodbye, just inside the door that fronts the life we continue to build.

While making final preparations for Christmas, my daughter said, “I do love this house.” I hope enough so that one day she’ll return to share her favorite memories with the family in whose hands we eventually place the key. And maybe even pass along to them the Christmas gift I had made this year for Swenny – an illustration by a local artist of…our front door. IMG_5924

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hear, hear.

No drink taken by an alcoholic is straight up. And no drink is taken alone. Because the lies told to smooth it going down leave an aftertaste for everyone that lingers long after help is refused and apologies accepted.

But the reasoning for the drink is even harder to take. A year without vodka straight from the bottle has left Swenny believing that he is winning against alcoholism. He can, after all, drink beer and stay standing. He can drink beer and feel good about how far he has come. He can drink beer and refuse the breathalyzer I ask him to take when he comes home smelling like a bar. He can drink beer and blame me for the meetings he doesn’t attend and refuse the help I think he needs. He can drink beer and lie to me that he’s had anything at all.

While Swenny manages his drinking with a buzz fed by malted barley and hops, I anticipate the point in time when he’ll no longer be able to correct his sways left or right without vodka to center him. I note the precariousness of the position he is balancing with a request that he hear me. But he won’t. Or can’t.

So I turn my talk inward, and nod in recognition to the familiar pattern of ifs and thens that I use to balance against the fulcrum of alcoholism. Still in anticipation, but of the moment when I will allow things to tip in my favor.