We all make choices every day. Some good. Some bad. Some easy. Some hard.
And some downright sad.
A friend of mine called a few months back, a guy I hadn’t heard from in a few years. We’d worked together as flight attendants during the free-wheeling 1970s, a crazy time of youthful ambivalence to the harm we were doing to ourselves in embracing a lifestyle of drinking and drugs and casting our fate to the pot-clouded winds.
Whenever we’d talk to each other, the many stories of those days were retold and embellished in the way the years have of filling in blanks with recollections that are better than the reality.
I moved on from those days long ago not so much by choice but evolution. I married, had kids. I put away childish things almost instinctively.
My friend did not. He’s been an alcoholic for many years, losing jobs and a wife, enduring hard times with his kids. He lost friends, including me. I’d see his name on caller ID and not answer. He didn’t usually leave messages, but sometimes did, groggy recollections of our past, no matter the time of day, full of sad laughter.
When he called this time, I answered. He was drunk, and sounded about 100 years old. He is 64. A scant three years older than me.
He’s had seizures, he said, using a walker now, sometimes a wheelchair. He is homebound, unable to drive. His son lives with and cares for him. He lives off Social Security. All of it, he admitted, from drinking. Which he has no plans to give up, despite committing slow suicide one gulp at a time.
What could I say that he hadn’t heard before? We’ve never been gentle with each other, busting each other’s chops mercilessly, always in fun the way guys do. I wasn’t gentle this time.
You’re going to die, you goddam idiot, I told him.
I know, he sighed.
He’s smarter than his disease, I tried. I leaned on his long-dormant guilt button, saying he has kids, grandkids, who would like him around and sober for a long time.
I told him nothing any alcoholic hasn’t heard a million times. He has treatment options. He has a way out if he wants. He does not.
“It’s my choice,” he said.
Could any of us make sensible choices for those we care about, how easy it would be. But choosing for yourself is the hardest thing to do, even choosing to abandon a lethal lifestyle.
There’s a saying I heard long ago that doing the right thing is easy. Knowing what the right thing is the hard part.
He knows what the right thing is. He won’t choose it. I can’t fathom that he won’t, preferring to stare into the bottom of the glass he’s draining, looking for hope he knows will never be there.
It’s easy for me to say I would not make the choice he’s made because I haven’t been there. I don’t inhabit his skin, the sad space he’s lived in for decades. It’s home to him, a perversely comfortable one he’s chosen over all and everyone else.
And he’ll die there. I don’t doubt that. Neither does he. No amount of cajoling, good natured or tough loving, will change his mind. It’s up to him, as it is with all addicts. And it tears my heart to watch him die.
If it were cancer eating him alive, his calls would be easier, and I’d take them every time. We’d talk, we’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d remember.
But when he calls, and I choose to answer, I can only can only listen and offer advice he won’t take and be pissed off and sad and supportive and harsh and confused and helpless and hate what he’s done to himself as I love the memory of him as a friend.
I doubt I will take any more of his calls.
We all make choices. His life is being lost by the one he’s made. And my sanity is being saved by mine.