May 12, 2003

The goings and comings of an alcoholic

I lost count a year ago.

I'm not sure if this is the 16th or 17th time the ambulance has come for our next door neighbor. He chooses slow suicide: Vodka. Straight. Over time, he's winning, winning the right to not come back. He works so damn hard not to be here.

It's been two years at least since he started skating on the bottom, the ambulance would come, police, paramedics. A parade of emergency vehicles that over time would come to know our street well. I know the sound now as they round the corner one street over.

They arrive together, then one by one they leave; they try to talk him into going, until it's just him and the ambulance crew left. They talk with him while he has his last smoke. Then he climbs into the back of the ambulance. You'd never know his blood alcohol level was hanging at .3. No staggering. No missing a beat. Only an alcoholic can manage that.

It kept on this way month after month, each time we'd learn that his blood alcohol level was a little higher than the time before. Still, each time he you wouldn't know it by talking to him, looking at him. I remember the afternoon he came out his front door with a garment bag, swung it over his shoulder and hopped into the ambulance like he was catching a taxi ride to the airport.

My heart leaps and falls when they come to take him, me the first one to ever call 911 on his behalf after his frightened 12-year-old daughter clued me in, after a phone call in which he expressed to me his wishes to be left alone to die. I didn't let him. There have been times, in seeing the toll his living takes on his child, parents, ex-wives, that I think maybe I was wrong to call.

After a time of this going and coming, the neighborhood heaves a collective sigh when they come for him. We see him home from work. One day turns into two, then three. We see his parents stop by. We read their expressions. We see them leave without him. We ring the bell in our collective heads: ding ding, round 8.

Last month when the ambulance came for him was unlike any other time: they brought him out on a stretcher. I watched from the window as his head rolled to and fro with the bump bump bump down his front steps. I watched them lift him in. I thought to myself, I wonder if he's coming home this time.

He's tried. You know? It's not that he hasn't tried. He's even done the 90-day rehab stay. Medicines. Unsuccessful attempts at AA. A church group he really seems to connect with.

I ask myself what it is he can't forgive himself for or whom it is he can't forgive.

That, I believe, is at the core of all addiction.

I talked to him a few weeks back, after the stretcher incident. He told me he almost did it this last time, asked if I'd seen him on the stretcher. I said yes. He said that the doctors told his parents that he wasn't expected to live, and if he did, he would most certainly have serious brain damage.

"I was .52 -- you're supposed to be dead long before that," he told me. I knew; I'd done my research on the Internet back in the early days of his goings and comings. I knew that there was no possible way for him to be climbing into the ambulance undaunted at .4. I certainly knew that he shouldn't be standing at the fence after his round with .52.

I said, "Maybe you're just supposed to be here. You know? It's not like you haven't tried. I mean, maybe you're just not supposed to go."

He smiled. "I guess so. I already shouldn't be here."

So tonight was his second stretcher ride. I watched from the window again. I heard the fire truck before it arrived. Saw the lights flashing through Jenna's bedroom blinds.

The house is quiet now. His kitchen, which looks into our living room, has a single light lit, over the sink.

It is thunderstorm still, and I wonder if he's coming home this time.