Monday, May 8, 2017

Room With A View

 “It’s the alcohol! I know that this is the constant binging,” a wife cried to her husband of over 40 years in the hospital bed beside my father, who was recovering from surgery.

This is not what I expected to witness whilst at the hospital taking care of Dad over the weekend, but it is what I got. It shook me.
The sun sets over Lake Champlain | view from the room

It was the morning after Dad’s surgery and he was recovering fine (still is, but this is not that story). His neighbor in room ‘622 with a view’ the previous evening had been a surly fellow who had a stroke, but couldn’t wait to get outside for a smoke.  Meanwhile, his family of ashtray hearts bantered around the bedside, complaining how far they had to walk to find a place to light up. “Just go daown to the gararge and smoke in the truck—it’s closa,” one family member suggested. Again, this is not that story.

When I arrived the next morning, I noticed the new neighbor. Dad told me he had arrived late the night before. I’d later learn from the fact there is no privacy maintained by a sheet with hooks in the ceiling that this neighbor was a 70-year-old retiree. He was a former doctor at this very hospital, and a good one based on his address in Shelburne on the lake. He and his wife would spend the next couple hours arguing about many things, she pleading, he dismissive of her and her pleas.

He apparently had suffered a seizure of some kind, though you wouldn’t know it from his demeanor—he looked and seemed just fine to me. He had also been on the tail-end of a 4 day booze binge, which was par for the course for this avid golfer since retiring. What was supposed to be a time of great joy in his life, was “the worst thing that ever happened to him,” according to his loving wife. She told doctors and nurses, and anyone else that would listen, that he had been anxious, depressed, lonely, and even suicidal since retiring. He was unable to find ways to calm his mind and to keep it from slipping away from him. I learned he loves to run, has a drink “or two” before bed, and again when he wakes up.

When the doctors finally came in to discuss their findings, things took an even darker turn. I wanted so badly to give them the privacy they deserved, but this hanging sheet told all and no effort was made to hold back. “Early onset Alzheimer’s” was the cause. More episodes were to be expected, more tests would be needed. But, alcohol wasn’t the problem here. It was a problem, but not the one the doctors were inclined to speak of.

The wife pleaded with anyone who would listen.  “He was binging. This has to be because of all the drinking. You have got to tell him to stop drinking, he won’t listen to me,” she said sobbing, pushing through tears. She was shocked to learn her husband wasn’t just an alcoholic—now he was an alcoholic who was losing his memory.

The doctors calmed her as best they could, but she left the room crying while they continued to speak to her husband.

“She thinks it’s the booze,” he said. “She wanted it to be the booze.”
The doctor suggested that the drink certainly wasn’t going to help and offered to refer him to a psychiatrist, but mostly focused on the need for him to go to memory center for more testing. The test results did not weigh heavily on the man and he was mostly concerned about his lost sweatshirt from the ambulance ride.  He mentioned how his father was a shell of himself at death and how he didn’t want to be the same. He talked over and over about his own chart. He read his MRI and saw his brain had shrunk since his previous test and he knew everything was totally out of his control. He seemed resigned to his fate.

Later, his wife returned still crying, still pleading with everyone. She had hoped the hospital could at least solve one very big problem, when life just piled on another. Eventually they left, discharged back to their life of privacy, one with walls thicker than a nicely hung sheet dividing a small room in two.

Dad did not say much and just watched his TV, hoping to get out soon himself. But I could not stop considering that man’s life as one direction my future could have gone. It was surreal.  I felt like Ebeneezer Scrooge being flown around by the Ghost of Christmas Future, looking down on what could have been my fate. To think about how booze can cause that kind of strain, to make a married couple of 40 years seem like they hardly know each other. Their goals, polar opposites. She clearly loved him, he didn’t seem to even care about himself, much less her. It was awful to watch, to hear. So much denial, so fucking sad.

He said things like, “Well, no need to stop now,” and “What the hell is the point, I’m just going to die anyway,” and “My wife thinks I’m an alcoholic…maybe I am, but who cares…I knew this had nothing to do with booze.”

I’m so thankful to be where I am today, 846 days free of the crutch of alcohol. I know the numbness this man was searching for. This was a hell of a reminder I didn’t expect this weekend. It certainly got me thinking and there was so much to learn from their situation. Life is easy to take for granted.

My Dad is doing well. His story also involves retirement, but that isn’t the most important part for now. Perhaps I’ll write about that soon as well.




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