I've never really cared for funerals. Especially Catholic funerals. I can't imagine my friend Al liking Catholic funerals either but unfortunately as life and luck would have it, this funeral was his.
I listened attentively at the funeral, all 90 minutes of it. I was in awe that a Catholic Priest could pretend to know someone and speak so glowingly about him. It wasn't a very personal pitch and it felt a little too generic and thus appropriately, albeit late in the service, this Father finally came clean and admitted that he had only been with this church a year and didn't know Al at all. I think the part that bothered me the most was how this Father kept saying Al led a "full" life.
I suppose you have to say things like that. Funerals they say, are for the living.
I'm not sure I could have rendered a service like that. And as I sat there and listened I couldn't help but think that Al would have agreed with me. I don't think Al would have liked it either. Al never stood tall with the bullshitters. That I think, would even include those wearing black robes.
The Al that I knew was about 6'2" tall and 350 pounds. I met him in 2001. He was kind of an inquisitive, cautious guy. He didn't really like new people but maybe that was just me. It took him a few months to warm up to folks. He was intelligent, loyal to a fault, and when he laughed- it was a belly laugh. A sort of gruff, nasal, chuckle. I can hear it as I write this. Al was a pretty fair pool player and so was I. We often played to a draw- and we played a lot of pool.
One night, Al got us tickets to the "fights" at a downtown bar. These were fights where two local yayhoos who didn't like each other- jumped into the ring together and tried to beat the shit out of each other. The referee was half drunk, so were the combatants. On this particular night, I bought one of the fighters 6 shots of Jagermeister while he waited for his fight to take place. He was drinking a fair amount of beer also. When he jumped into the ring against a much smaller opponent- I told Al I would bet him 50 bucks that the small guy would kick the big guy's ass. Al didn't even hesitate to take the bet- it looked like such a mismatch. The big guy didn't even last halfway through the first round. When the small guy won, Al wheeled around and said that our bet was "bullshit" and "how the fuck did you know that?" When I told Al about all the drinks I had bought the guy at the front of the bar, Al let out that chuckle first and then roared with laughter. He knew I wouldn't make him pay.
If Al was great at anything, it was drinking. We drank every night. Al loved "Firewater" back then, 100 proof cinnamon schnapps. He drank it like water. I spent a few years and God only knows how many nights and camping trips- drinking with Al. As much as Al loved his wife and kids, I could tell they were feeling estranged. I knew we both had a problem.
Both of us were becoming alcoholics if we weren't already. In 2004, I talked Al into trying a rehab and I very nearly drove him there. He did it on his own. I think he managed to stay sober for 15 months. A little over a year.
I continued to drink. In early 2006, I wasn't seeing Al as much as I used to. One night in a Nevada border town/casino, I saw that Al had started drinking again. A year later in October of 2007, it would be my turn for rehab.
I packed my Jeep up and called Al. I said I had one seat available in my Jeep and I was headed for New Orleans to get sober. I invited Al. Al told me couldn't afford to go. I told him he couldn't afford not to. He said that his income was the only income that his family had and that he just couldn't leave. I think now that I should have struck a deal with his boss to bring back a sober employee. That is the guilt that flows within me. It is bullshit of course. I've never saved anyone that wasn't intent on saving themselves first.
I only saw Al a few times after I got sober. He of course, was drinking heavier than ever. They tell us sober folks that we have to change playmates if we want to live. And so we do.
Alcoholism is a disease that tricks the alcoholic into thinking that there is no other way to live our lives. Alcohol lies to us. Alcohol for an alcoholic becomes our chief coping mechanism until one day when we reach that point when alcohol no longer works and our lives just begin to implode around us. We reach the "jumping off point" when we can no longer envision our lives with or without alcohol. Some call that our bottom. We either get sober and change our entire lives or we descend into madness, getting locked up in institutions like jails, prisons, and hospitals- or we eventually die. Many alcoholics are clinically depressed and struggle with other forms of mental illness as well. I can't help but wonder how many millions of people have suffered from depression, people who never really get properly diagnosed or treated, and then die alcoholic deaths.
You see, there is no doubt in my mind that Al loved his wife and kids. The problem with alcohol is that it fights it's way to the top of an alcoholic's priority list. Alcohol takes control. In the end, alcohol shoves family and friends out of the way. It isolates us from our families. We no longer participate in relationships. We don't help raise our kids, our relationships crumble, and all we care about is ourselves. Pretty soon, the people who would love us, get exhausted, fatigued, and they marginalize us in order to emotionally survive. Our family members are forced to retreat. They cannot participate in our lives and they cannot break the stranglehold that alcohol has on us. This can go on for years and decades. That is the nature of the disease. Only the survivors feel guilty. The survivors wish they could have stopped us or intervened. If only we would have tried this or tried that- they think. They feel cheated because we kicked them to the curb in favor of booze. We didn't have time after school to help you with homework, to go to the park, or to spend a little time with you. All we care about in the end is drinking. That is the nature of our disease.
You cannot stop an alcoholic from drinking. You do not have that power. You must get ok with that because we will leave you no alternative. Some of us go down with the ship.
I know all that.
Al lived for nearly 7 more years before a series of medical events claimed him early. Alcoholics die so many ways. Traffic accidents, shootings, falls, suicides, medical complications like diabetes, heart disease, burst blood vessels and intestinal bleeds, strokes, cancers of the throat, pancreas, liver. There are a multitude of medical problems that are aggravated and made worse by alcohol.
But we don't talk about that. Obituaries don't tell those nasty truths. As a culture, we agree to lie about all of that because the drinkers don't want to stop drinking. When diagnosing the potential alcoholics in ourselves, most everyone thinks they are immune.
I've been missing Al since 2004. I miss all the fun we used to have. I've missed teasing his wife and messing with his kids. But alcohol changed all of our relationships. Al's wife grew older, his kids grew up, and his alcoholism grew worse. So did mine. We all have choices to make and after I got sober - I had a few choices of my own to make. Unfortunately, hanging with my old friend Al wasn't going to be possible. I had to accept that and the possibility that Al would never stop drinking.
I will never understand how some of us find our way out and some of us do not.
I thought about all of that as I sat there in that pew. I thought about how much my life has changed. I got healthy. I run and lift weights, ride my scooter, play golf when I want to, go to the track when I want to and I never get sick like I did in my drinking days. I haven't had 10 shitty days in 7 years. Who can say that? I have everything I want. I covet no one. I still live with the guilt of a self centered life- which I can't go back and change. But I know where it went wrong. I don't have to repeat history. I have the best relationships that I've ever had and every once in awhile, I think about the people in my life before I think about myself. That's a fucking miracle. Drinking stole a big chunk of my life and sometimes I think- when something is stolen from you- you have to steal it back.
My life back in those drinking days was pretty empty. Doing nothing, getting drunk and passing out every evening. That was my life. That was Al's life also. Had Al been sober and attending my funeral, I wonder what he might have thought when some unknown Father proclaimed that Brian had lived a "full life"- cut short at age 52.
I know Al. I think he would have said, "bullshit." Goodbye my friend, I shall see you in a better place.