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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Roommate's Departure

My alcoholic roommate (introduced in the previous blog) checked out of the hospital the day before me on his own accord. His female companion had vanished for a few days, but now she was back.

The nurse, a charming Caribbean woman, said to him, "A new life for you now? No more drinking?"

He replied, "Well, I feel better. I need to get home."

The nurse said, "Your condition is very serious. No drinking!"

"I'll try. Completely stopping could be hard. But I'll try."

A doctor came in with a number of forms and pamphlets. The doctor, who had a thick Indian accent, said, "You have cirrhosis of the liver, and also hepatitis C. These treatment programs are extremely important if you are to survive. You can be in-patient. Very important. You will do it?"

"Uh . . ."

"We sign you up for in-patient now? Very easy. No cost."

"Out-patient. I'll call the number once I get out."

"Okay," they said, then stuffed the pamphlets in his bags. I had been witnessing a four-day intervention and stand-off up until now. The doctors had lost, and this was good-bye.

As for myself, I had been waiting for this moment. I knew I could make a difference in my roommate's life and my moment was growing near. I knew what my roommate looked like from the few times he passed by on the way to the bathroom—tough, tattoos, scars, beard, leather, long hair, mid-forties—but aside from incidental contact we knew nothing of one another.

His name was Larry. I knew that.

As he would pass my bed for the last time, I would say, "You going for good, Larry?"

He would be surprised at my interest, or that I had bothered to pick up on his name.

"Yes?" he would stop and say.

"Larry, I know this is none of my business, but these curtains are thin," I would continue. "I try to mind my own business, but I can hear things. You can tell me to shut up, but you've been a respectful roommate and I'd like to share one thing, take it or leave it. I don't care. But only if you don't mind me saying."


"Larry, no one can make you do anything. Only Larry can decide what Larry is going to do. I just wanted to stress that now you know the facts. You don't know me from anyone, but I swear to you these people aren't exaggerating. Even if you hate their guts and resent them coming at you from their high horses, acting all superior and telling you how you should live your life. They are being truthful about your future, even if you think they don't care."

At this point, I imagine him sizing me up.

I would continue, "If you want to live, you know what you have to do. There's no other way. Stop drinking. Don't do it for anyone but Larry. Just you and Larry, on your own. I imagine you have felt alone your whole life, deciding how you want to do things, making a protected space around you where no one else gets a say. But just make sure Larry gets what he wants out of life. Live, die. It's your choice, Larry."

But as this moment actually unfolded—and after the scores of times I had rehearsed it in my head—he rushed by me so quickly I didn't have a chance to open my mouth. Until now, he had always made a passing gesture to me, a kind of, "Hey, how's it going?" as he went by in various vulnerable states of undress on his way to and from the bathroom. But now he was fully clad in layers of leather, belts, a hat and dark sunglasses. He was a modern-day gladiator, stoic and unresponsive to any nuance from the outside world.

He didn't look once in my direction and shot right past me.

That was that.

The night before, things had come to a head between Larry and the staff. By then he was cleaned up, and the writing on the wall was for him to leave the hospital and check himself into an alcohol rehab program. He didn't want to go and the Indian doctor came in for yet another examination.

The doctor said, "You are stabilizing. Good. So, scale of one to ten, how is your pain?"


"Ten? On the first night, you were vomiting, writhing in pain, almost dead, and you said that was an eight or nine. Where does it hurt?"

"My stomach. My head. My back."

"You never mentioned your back before. Your back is a ten?"

"Yeah, back's been a problem for a while. I'm in extreme pain," Larry said as he stood and paced.

The doctor said, "Your case is confusing. Perhaps we need another procedure to drain more fluid, but your stomach is not distended anymore. Another procedure will be painful . . ."

"I'm in pain now! Look, dammit! I can be here for tonight, if it's just for tonight. Normally, to deal with pain I drink, drink, drink and drink, okay? But you don't want me to. So I'm not drinking, okay? I'm sober. But I need relief now, just for this one night." He added, "Please." After another pause he finished with, "I'll go tomorrow."

I heard a long silence on the other side of the curtain, then the doctor left.

After that, everything changed. Every two hours, nurses came in with a parade of pain medicines for Larry. He decided to take a long hot shower, his first in almost a week. He ordered coffee from the nurses, and they brought him fresh cups steaming with lots of cream and sugar. He left his dirty clothes in a pile and put on crisp hospital scrubs. He lay on the fresh bed linens, switched on the TV, watched cartoons, laughing, hands behind his head. He did this all night. He dozed off sometimes with the volume on high, not allowing me to sleep. But all night, like clockwork, the nurses kept bringing him coffees, pills, and syringes. There was an unspoken agreement amongst everyone, even me—it seemed—regarding what was really going on.

We were all here to give Larry what he thought he always wanted in life. This was Larry's chance to live it up like the other side. Finally. No haggling. No scraping together money to blow on booze. No begging for places to sleep. This was Larry's night. Despite my own splitting headaches, I put in earplugs, covered my face with a pillow, didn't call the nurses and slept for twenty minutes at a time. When I would be jolted awake by a laugh or an a bed alarm, I would gingerly turn over, reset the tubing from the needles of my spinal tap and cover my head again to try for a few more minutes of sleep.

On some level, this felt very wrong, but on some level it also felt very right.

By the time morning came, Larry was hallucinating about spiders under his skin, and he screamed every time the nurses woke to give him more drugs to alleviate his "pain." Larry decided he didn't need another procedure after all. He packed to go.

Larry's body was attached to an alarm that bleeped raucously anytime he left his bed during the night. This was frequent and erratic. I had slept very little because of this, and at one point—completely frazzled—I opened my laptop and began composing. I picked the most serene combination I could imagine, the same instruments from Debussy's famous Sonata (flute, viola, harp) but used the rhythms of Larry's annoying beeping alarm as a jumping off point for creative energy. For some reason, I instinctively titled my piece, "The Couch of Eros," after a fictitious work of literature referred to in a Tom Stoppard play I love.

For the rest of Larry's final day, he acted more and more odd, a bomb about to blow.

"These drugs don't work anymore!" he shouted. "They make my skin crawl."

"The nurse said, "Yes, after a while that happens with painkillers. But your pain is very intense so we must treat it."


He had been a respectful roommate until now, but the seams were coming apart. I must say it scared me. I was attached to my bed via spinal needles only a few feet away, protected by nothing more than a thin veil of fabric dangling from the ceiling. Being from the "good" side of the tracks all my life, I wondered if Larry might snap, reach through the curtains and take me hostage, but these are things only my imagination can conjure with no experience to back it up.

Larry's big night of excess was over. He knew it, we knew it, and now he had to pay the piper and get on with his half of the deal for the sake of the rest of us. I suppose like a Biker-Man-Madame-Bovary he wanted everything in life to be an explosion of wonder coming his way. When it didn't happen, he blamed everyone around him. He never learned that the greatest things in life—in fact, the only things of any value—are not the fancy things others appear to covet but rather the simple, meaningful experiences you create from your own heart you share with the people whose love you have earned. That's the best part of life, and it is as extraordinary as it is simple.

I feel genuine empathy for Larry, that he is probably half-way inside a bottle of Jack Daniel's by now, drowning out the shakes created by his painkiller and coffee binge. I feel a deep remorse for his likely circumstances as a child. He certainly never got to attend a private, uniformed grade school in Melbourne like me, have a pet cockatoo, have a set of concerned parents trying to show him how wonderful and varied the world is and how to reach his ultimate potential. But then again, I have known a lot of privileged kids who have "blown it" big time, wasting opportunities handed to them on silver platters. Likewise, I've known people like Larry who have, despite all odds, pulled success out of their hats, finding some seed inside themselves which would not let them fail. There is no certainty for success or failure in life.

But the Larry I got to know through the voice on the other side of the curtain lying to the doctors was not, I am certain, a man on the verge of changing. His patterns had been engrained long ago, and whether I had been able to stop him for a moment to say good-bye would not have make a whit of difference. This was, as best as I could deduce from the serious tones coming from the doctors, the real end of the line for Larry. He had one final chance to decide whether he wanted to be here among us. He made his own decision, the same one he made for himself at some juncture a long, long time ago.

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