My best friend died of alcoholic liver failure in early 2019. His body and mind had been shutting down for at least five years before then, since he had lost hearing in one ear and a couple days without a drink in late 2014 sent him into seizures, choking on his own vomit. I had only realized he was seriously fucked up a few months before then; his face had become swollen like his cheeks were full of marbles while the rest of his body remained thin, and he had a strange acrid reek, not like booze but like a chemical cabinet full of vinegar.
He almost died again in 2017- his kidneys failed and he spent a week in the ICU. I came to visit him in the hospital then- the first time we’d seen each other face to face in a few years, and his eyes were chartreuse with jaundice, and he immediately requested cut pineapple from the Whole Foods down the street. We watched hospital TV and he recounted some lurid hallucinations from when he was in the ICU- running through a forest, women chasing him and beating him with sticks. He was vaguely aware of an alternative reality where he had pulled out his IV and tried to run out of the ICU before collapsing.
That was the last time we saw each other, but we talked a lot, the most since we’d met in college. I’d call him most weekdays around lunchtime and I’d walk around the parking lots near my office and he’d try to hold a conversation together, probably sitting on his bed or his couch, first in his girlfriend’s apartment and then back in his mom’s house, in various states of lucidity or incoherence. People in a deteriorating addiction, I discovered, are in a strange state of circular time, where nothing ever happens, a version of “Groundhog Day” where instead of Bill Murray’s character mastering ice sculpture and classical piano, he just becomes worse at everything, bit by bit by bit. My friend had met the requirements to be “all but dissertation” just before really falling apart and at various times I’d try to talk him through a plan for finishing it, downloading the data he’d collected when he’d been more capable and trying with him to understand his own paper he’d written as prospectus just a few years before. It was just beyond him- maybe even if sober he would never have been able to make the peace with himself and the mediocrity that always comes with age, and just turn in the disappointing dissertation that was the only one he was capable of, but he definitely wasn’t capable of it in the haze of a half-functioning liver and a lot of drink.
How much drink was always a question, of course. The other thing you came to learn about someone dying of addiction is that they always lie; even as their own intelligence fails, the addiction’s ability to outwit them persists, to convince them of anything but its own designs on them. The first time he ended up in the hospital, he’d told the doctor “a few drinks a day” the first day, and then a few seizures later “ten drinks a day,” and maybe the latter number was true as far as it went- it probably was the number he remembered having, at any rate, and whether there were other drinks he didn’t remember or something else- antidepressants and adderall most likely- that made those ten drinks take him down extra fast, I never really knew. For a few months after the 2017 ICU visit, he needed to take a daily breathalyzer administered by his girlfriend in order to stay on the liver transplant list, and this motivated him enough that the old sober person returned, the old manic energy if not the full humor and intelligence, and he fixed up and sold the house he’d bought in his mid-20s with another girlfriend’s money, made plans and bought a house in his home town with his new girlfriend, exited Groundhog Day and re-entered normal time. But then the doctors told him his liver had recovered enough that he wouldn’t be on the transplant list, and he evaded the breathalyzer until his girlfriend kicked him out, and he moved back in with his mom for his final spiral, which took about two years. It takes a long while to kill somebody still somewhat young, but as Alice says in Wonderland, if you drink much from a bottle marked poison, it’s sure to disagree with you sooner or later.
The last girlfriend returned to organize the memorial, in competitive but sincere mourning with his mom; the actual disease and cause of death was a forbidden topic at the memorial, which spun instead around his numerous but unrealized talents, around hundreds of photos of his travels, by himself or with one girlfriend or another or with me, around his high school hijinks and his half-done academic work. The memorial was on a spectacular hot early spring Miami day, and we walked around a botanic garden to spread in secret some of his ashes behind his favorite trees. The alcoholic while living is a slow-rolling disaster for the people in their life, particularly in his case the women, but once gone it came to seem that he had done little lasting harm to anyone but himself and his mom, who would call sobbing and desperate for a few months, although she never knew me at all and hadn’t remembered at the memorial that we had met once before.
Our dreams are also disjoint in time, of course- we meet the dead in them not usually in happy reunion but, like dreams in which we are sent back to high school and must make up some long-forgotten course we have been absent from for a thousand years, the dead often pass judgement on us for continuing down the course of time that they have left. This last year, we all of course entered a kind of Groundhog Day, the repetition of days at home and with a smaller or empty set of people either giving us a chance to learn ice sculpture and French poetry or to diminish- to allow loneliness and addiction to eat us bite by bite by bite. The task will come of helping each other to re-enter time, now or in a few months, when life begins to move again faster, to gather up those we can who have been left to the side, and move on down the road.