Shards of his personality

One thing he always had was a good mind. Through the drinking and the dope smoking, the coke snorting and the general bullshit, he always had a brain. Even when it looked like his heart had gone AWOL, he always had a wit quick enough to work things out. And to make people laugh. It was his weapon and his defense against the rest of the world. Not so much the people, but the world. It’s mysteries. It’s confusion.

He started drinking as a teenager at one of the many schools he attended. Possibly the one he was asked to leave. Or maybe the one where they all took so much LSD and uppers that he now has a certificate of sanity from the local hospital. I will have to ask him if he ever seems in the right frame of mind to answer. What with the gin and the painkillers and the general deterioration, it is hard to reach him these days.

The last visit he made, he drank so much that even he was disgusted by it. My raised eyebrows at half a bottle of desert wine at eleven in the morning probably helped with that. His first comment was a defensive, “There’s nothing else, is there?” until he realized he was talking to his daughter and not his wife. (He often gets us confused these days.) After that he decided to take himself off to the patio and attempt some drying out.

One of the things he likes about coming to our house is being looked after. I cook at regular times for the rest of the family. He’s eager to sit down and join in, grasps his knife and fork like a little boy, almost as if he wants to fit a life of comfort into that small slice of time. When he is sober enough to notice, he enjoys things being neat and clean. He watches me loading the dishwasher, sorting out the laundry, and I am not sure if he is a tourist in normality or taking down notes to bring home.

His wife says she likes him coming because she knows he is being looked after, even if my methods are different from hers. After his fall, she is so terrified he is going to injure himself, she makes him sit down for pretty much every minute he is not on the toilet or in bed. It must be exhausting. She won’t let him do anything for himself, drip feeds him alcohol until he goes to sleep. Her style of care is best summed up as gin-soaked cotton wool.

Drying out is dangerous for him now. It gives him sweats, bad nausea and shakes. He tries to mitigate this with a bottle of wine over the course of the day, but the amount is difficult for him to gauge and it usually goes wrong. He masks the external signs under the guise of illness. It’s his lungs playing up again, the change in weather. It’s the shoulder. It’s the, it’s the, it’s the… Only once in recent years have I ever heard him admit it was withdrawal symptoms. That was the time he was sick for three days solid. He came to stay afterwards. He did the kids’ homework with them, went for walks. I enjoyed his company. This time he never made it that far.

In the daytime, he went out for a walk while the booze from the day before lasted. Then he hid himself away from the children on the patio, reading a paper to give him an excuse not to engage. His wine sat next to him like a comfort blanket but I don’t think he drank that much. This was evidenced by what happened in the early evening, when he started to feel very unwell.

He rang his wife, told her his lungs were hurting. She encouraged him to stay one more night “not that I don’t want you to come home or anything,” which made me worry a little. I think he must have worried too because he started giving reasons why he had to leave. Reasons that were not true. When he put down the phone, he started to feel more miserable. There was physical evidence to back it up, which he told me all about.

His lungs were hurting because of the fresh air. The pain was so bad he thought he was going to vomit, he said. Could I fetch a bucket to his bedroom please? I did, then I checked in on him throughout the evening and into the night. Through the shakes under the thin blanket dragged in from the living room, through the vacant stare in the darkness. I watched him, but I wasn’t interested in his commentary. His calls for hot, sweet tea were an echo of childhood illnesses, but this was something else, the thickening of the glass wall between him, me and my children.

There was a time when he was able to watch us behind the glass, “making memories” as his wife put it, usually over a pub lunch, occasionally drinking beers by the pool, being present while they played. Now he is so far spun out that the pieces of his brain that made a narrative are fading. He can’t hold a conversation any more; he mumbles. The kids might sit in the same room and watch TV with him. Or they might get bored and go play somewhere else. Or he might decide to dry out and cut himself off completely, ironically because he senses we are all ignoring him when he’s drunk.

This visit when I observed all this I came up with an explanation. I saw a small boy who was neglected in his early years. The third child of a woman addicted to valium, just eighteen months older than his baby brother, he must have been left in a corner quite a lot of the time. He didn’t get a chance to form bonds like most of the rest of us. When he is drinking and muttering and we are all ignoring him, maybe it makes him feel at home because it’s lonely, like the way he grew up.

When he was younger and a high functioning alcoholic who designed computer systems for a living, his sober hours were the day to this night. Everyone listened to his ideas at work; everyone hung on his every word. He earned a lot of money and he felt good about himself. If he couldn’t do his own washing, he would pay someone to do it for him. Then he would go for drinks with the guys from work and buy rounds and be the center of attention until he was too drunk to do anything else.

Now he is older, he shuffles around unkempt and talks to hardly anyone. His mind is now shards of a forgotten personality. His pride is gone, his intellect, his interest and connection with the outside world. That glass wall is thickening and it is comforting, like a cocoon. His body is failing him. He hasn’t got the strength to make too many changes. Better just settle into atrophy.

I checked in on him about midnight before I went to bed. I was polite, got him a glass of water, touched his shoulder. I might even have given him a kiss on the head. I checked in on the fridge and saw an unopened bottle of wine and one three quarters full. I told myself this was not spying, but it was. The lack of drinking explained the illness, if I needed any confirmation.

I was conflicted about this. Half of me was hopeful, irrational, waiting for him to come back. I thought, “One night and maybe he can come for a walk with us tomorrow. Maybe he can even read with the kids.” There was also a voice inside my head that told me detox was dangerous. I wondered whether one glass of wine all day after so long drinking heavily was wise.

In the morning, I checked in on him again. He had normalized enough to get himself under the duvet. He was sleeping at last. I was relieved. Immediately after, I checked the fridge in the same way that a jealous wife might check her husband’s phone. It was with a similar sense of shame: I know I shouldn’t stoop to this, but…

The bottle was empty.

When he woke up, he went home.

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