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When Death Approaches

My Friend Gary, A Homeless Alcoholic

Every day they come by the many thousands. No town, city, or ER is without their regulars. They are the ones who live somewhere, bathe seldom, but drink always. In the ER, we get to know their names. Most have been through every imaginable detox program to no avail. A new doctor or nurse might offer rehabilitation, but the rest of us know. We'll see them again tomorrow or perhaps the day after. Some become legends and are passed from shift to shift, sleeping on a stretcher until dawn breaks and they can toddle off on their own.

Two weeks ago I received an urgent message from the family that lived next door to me during my childhood years. They needed my help. They had been a second family for me. We shared summer trips to their camp in Maine, endless hours of basketball games in the driveway, and winter ping-pong tournaments in the basement. My old buddy, Gary, was in trouble.

Gary is two weeks older than me. We had been best buddies in every way. For years we were at each other's sides, exploring and adventuring as far as our childhood lives would allow. I still remember our secret whistle and codes no one else knows. His sad rowboat was affectionately called “the sinker.” We enjoyed endless days of Wiffle ball, winning pretend championship basketball games with one second left, and lying in the grass or a tent dreaming of what we would do next. We even dated the same girl.

But what happened to Gary? Soon after I got the message, I made my way to the ICU of a nearby hospital. Gary had run out of alcohol and then had a seizure. This wasn't the first time. His family met me in the waiting room and told me to brace myself. Gary and I hadn't seen one another for more than 20 years.

He looked scraggly, but his smile was the same. He was connected to all those tubes and lines that I am so used to, but I now felt their presence much more acutely. It was Gary, but he was broken. At one time we intensely competed with one another in sports, but now his hands shook and he could not stand without my help.

We reminisced during those next few hours, but I also had a plan. Perhaps I could get into his mind and we could understand one another. He openly let me in and told me of his world. He awakens every morning after sleeping underneath an abandoned tractor trailer. He positions his head between the two rear tires and he sleeps on several layers of foam. When the wind sweeps through the nearby lot, the tires block the cold. An old cat keeps him company.

I told him I wanted to take him canoeing and hiking. He looked out the window at the snow and said that “if it were nice out” he would. I replied, “But we can't--you can hardly walk.” He seemed to spill a tear, but then went on to tell me about his job. He proudly described his daily routine of collecting bottles and cans from the road and various trash cans. I asked him if he would rather live in an apartment and have a different job. He said, “Of course,” and he described how he'd like to get back into printing sometime soon. Then the bigger question was framed and reframed kindly over the next few hours: “How can we help you stop drinking?”

Astoundingly, Gary has no insight that he is an alcoholic. He hasn't been sober in more than 20 years and has gone from an athletic and handsome young man to shaking in an ICU. He isn't depressed, he isn't psychotic, but he has some extraordinary and destructive connection with alcohol. When I told him that if he didn't stop drinking he would die soon, he didn't believe me.

I have since learned that people in his little circle like Gary. Of course, he has always been likeable. He was my best friend. But I simply do not understand. Gary has a loving family that has stuck by him and tried everything possible through these past two decades. He wears a wool cap from his mother and his sisters bring him whatever he will accept.

I want to grab Gary, shake sense into him, and go shoot some baskets again. I can only think that Gary is sick and does not know it. He has a disease that is rampant in our world, but it remains poorly understood. Alcoholism destroys families, individuals, and it sure is doing a number on my old buddy Gary.

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