This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.
Dear Sandy H,
When I remember you, filaments of anger are still tangled in the jagged edges of my sadness.
The first call came on a Sunday morning in October. The conversation began with your typical Southern notes of greetings and inquiries. Your turn and you responded, “Oh, I’m fine,” adding after a pause, “I need a favor.”
“Sure, Sandy, whatever you need.”
We had that “It’s been years but it’s like we’ve never been apart” grace in our amity. Months or years might slip away, but we could pick it up. It had been nearly five years since our last visit. Fit to be tied that night: your father had died, you hated your mom, and the will had wrecked your life .
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“I need to borrow six dollars.”
“Yeah, I just need six dollars?”
The inception of our friendship was a Shakespeare lit class. You commuted to attend classes, so our friendship never extended into the evenings or weekends. I loved listening to stories about your derailed marriage. You were a non-traditional student before that was a thing and the first divorced friend I had. Even though our friendship didn’t go beyond swooning over our lit professor and sharing snorts over things people said in class, I valued the time together.
After graduation, I moved to your city for grad school. We kept up on the phone but our visits were only occasional. You continued to be that peculiar friend. You lived in elegant condos with fine furniture; my other friends and I holed up in noisy apartments or dilapidated houses. You cruised around in a sporty VW with leather seats. We sputtered to class in used cars with worn fabric seats and failing headliners.
“Well, sure. I’m happy to give you six dollars. Did they turn off your water? Your lights? You can come over if you like.”
“No, no. My car is out of gas, so if you could bring me six dollars, . . . I’ll pay you back.” This odd request was new to our relationship but it wasn’t surprising.
At the end of those two years of grad school in your city, I stopped by your condo to say good-bye before I left for a new phase of grad school in Austin. You were in a huff that day. You had always been angry with your mom, but today you were also bickering about your dad and your credit card. “They won’t let me use the damn card unless I pay $300 first!” you carped. Still creditcardless, owing a big chunk of money on a bigger chunk of debt sounded exotic to me. The icing on the cake: “And daddy wants me to pay my own car insurance now!”
Steven warned me, “This sounds very suspicious,” as I was leaving to take you six dollars. It’s okay, I explained, adding that you were a little eccentric, had probably maxed out all of your cards, had a fight with your mom, and just needed some gas or milk. What could it hurt? Six dollars?
I didn’t recognize you at first. Arms wrapped across your abdomen, as you wait for your dog to mark her territory in a patch of grass. Your hair was matted into a flat up-do, your face was swollen, your skin ruddy and blotched, and your linen clothes were torn and stained. Even from my car I knew that you were draped in a rancid cloud. You didn’t sound like this on the phone. You never sounded like this.
I did my best to collect myself as I parked the car. Handing you a $20 bill from an ATM because I didn’t have six dollars: “Keep it.”
Your eyes brightened. “Thank you so much. I’ll pay you back. I promise. How are you?”
“No worries. I’m fine.” My desire to leave was not as strong as my desire to understand. “Do you need anything else? A ride to the gas station?”
“I need a ride to Hi Nabor?”
“Sure,” I said, realizing it wasn’t for milk or eggs.
The books and movies I enjoy revisiting most are the ones with the big “Gotcha!” twist at the end. The ending you didn’t see coming. Even as I waited for you in the car, I started revisiting all of our visits. I had missed something. How could I have missed it?
You limped to the car holding Parish. “Do you mind?” Her matted and discolored coat camouflaged her breed. Shih Tzu? Poodle? “Of course,” I responded, regretting the absence of towels to drape across the seats. You jumped agilely into your diatribe. The details, impossibly tangled in my memory now, were basically the same as our last visit: “My life is crap since dad died, I hate mom, the will was unfair.” The only saving grace in your life was this stinking (but very sweet) dog.
No idea what to do, I offered food. “While you’re in the store, I’ll grab us some lunch, and we’ll catch up, OK?”
“Please don’t leave me,” you implored, doddering out of the car. I promised I’d be back. You watched as I drove across the parking lot to the drive-through. Your fear was real.
When I returned, you were waiting, paper bags clutched to your chest, oblivious to the looks of passersby, relieved when you finally saw me.
At your house, even an “excuse the mess” hostess plea wouldn’t have prepared me. Holding the boxes of food, I turned on my heels, looking for a free surface, a place to sit in the battleground of slain fine furniture: the carved wood accent chair snapped in half, the porcelain lamp in pieces, the once-plush leather sofa gutted, springs and stuffing protruding. The condo was bulging with the smell of urine, ammonia, excrement, and rotting food. Circling, circling.
You plopped into your spot on the dead couch and pointed at an injured but standing accent chair: “Sit there.” I handed you one of the boxes, then sat carefully on the edge of the chair. Your mood had brightened, and I knew why. You had tucked the brown bags behind the cracked desk by the door. The hundreds (yes hundreds) of cheap vodka bottles (every possible size) and diet Coke cans under and on top of the coffee table were my cue to the contents of the brown bags I had enabled.
I tried to follow the frayed threads of your stories. Your limp was from an accident that nearly killed you. “Damn doctors. They were mean to me and didn’t put the right kind of pin in my foot. Didn’t they know who my dad was!?” Your doctor dad. You needed your meds but your mom wouldn’t take you to the clinic. No, I shouldn’t take you to get gas, You hated those people at the Circle K. And could I believe that your family wanted to take away this condo your dad had left to you!? Times were bad. You even sought out free meals at churches when you had gas to get there.
I spied Parish pooping on a throw pillow close to the dining table and began to rise to take care of it.
“Oh, that’s OK. Don”t worry about it.” Could you be serious?
It had been fifteen years prior, yet it was typical of those initial years. “Isn’t it wonderful?” you had said, sweeping your arm to indicate the carpet. “I love to vacuum. It makes me feel like everything is in order. Everything will be all right.”
This was a new you, surrounded by piles of dog poo and urine stains. Parish even had poo on her bed pillows, next to piles of canned dog food that you had dumped on it.
I was feeling ill. I knew you wanted me to leave. Eyeballing your brown bags, you told me you needed a nap several times and became increasingly agitated when I didn’t take the hints. I needed to get a number, a name.
You sunk into the couch and into another tirade about your father. I could see the area of the couch responsible for your matted up-do. You beat the loose stuffing for each syllable of “I’m just so angry,” and I understood that, as frail as you seemed, you had broken your own furniture.
After acquiring a few numbers, I left you and drove home with my windows down, my tears a bitter cocktail of anger, sadness, and confusion. I was still sharing my bewilderment with Steven when you called an hour later. “I feel much better now. Thank you for coming by.”
I was prepared for your next I need a favor call. “Sandy, I won’t bring you money for alcohol. I’ll bring you food, take you to the clinic, or help with an errand, but that’s all.”
This wasn’t the first time you had heard this. Without reaction, you said you understood. I imagine, though, that you threw the phone and beat the I’m.so.angry out of the couch stuffing after we hung up.
We interacted more in the subsequent ten months than in the previous twenty years I had known you. Clinic visits, rehab lobbies, grocery runs, AA meetings, Tex-Mex lunches, resume help. I tried to sort the chronology of our twenty years of infrequent visits with that life you lived: your accident, the expensive rehab clinics, the DUIs, the move to Florida, the boyfriends. I was baffled by my ignorance of those fierce formations and events that had developed beneath the crystalline waters of our chats.
I finally met your mom. You had been forthcoming and accurate about her. She called when you had dislocated your shoulder. You couldn’t remember the tumble down the stairs of your condo. A hospital visit and arm brace later, you had no choice but to stay with your mom until you could use your arm. One night after I had brought groceries for you and your mom, you followed me to the door. “I’m going crazy,” you whispered wide-eyed. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”
When you were finally at your condo again, I started receiving phone calls from your mom. “Have you heard from Sandy?” I sometimes stopped by to check on you. Through a crack in the door, the response was always the same: “I’m okay. The damn phone broke again.” I doubt you remembered those drive-by visits.
The last call came on a September afternoon. I had never met your twin brother, and this was only the second time I spoke to him. He wasn’t crying at first. “Sandy is gone,” he explained. “I was calling to pick her up to watch a Saints game with us. When she didn’t answer, I figured she broke the phone again.”
Your brother was an alcoholic too. He was successfully recovering. I often wonder about his recovery versus your struggle. Maybe his wife and two children gave him more motivation to recover? You had Parish, but Parish didn’t even require a dish for her food. Many alcoholics have family responsibilities and still fail, but perhaps more often than not, family helps.
Your brother and your niece went to pick you up. Your door was unlocked. She found you on the floor in your kitchen, dog poo, rotting food, and an open fridge. Your brother started sobbing at this point in the story. I think he regretted sending his daughter in instead of going in himself. Your heart had given out, drowned in the violent waves of alcohol.
At your wake, a computer ran a series of photos of your fifty-five years, focusing mostly on the first thirty. Birthday parties with your twin brother, beach trips with friends, fancy dinners with your family. I wasn’t in any of the photos. I don’t think I have a single photo of the two of us. I wasn’t part of that life you had lived under the surface of the Sandy I knew. The photos of friends and family were sad reminders of the relationships that had crumbled under the burden of your disease. I realized as I left the wake that I was that acquaintance that teetered on the edge of friendship, I was the last number in your little black book. The last call for alcohol.
That little bit of anger still stuck in my craw is not about your dark secrets, not about the transparent manipulation of our last ten months, and certainly not about being last on your list. I’m angry that there’s nothing I could have done.
I thank you for the laughter of our first twenty years. I love you for the lessons of our last ten months. I hope you’re at peace.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
Thank you, Pennie, for sharing your experience with your friend, sad though it is. I have known several alcoholics, some coping and others denying. You expressed very well your frustration, hopelessness, and sadness, but, as you said, an alcoholic or addict of any sort must admit it to herself before she can help herself. You were a good friend.
Alcoholism is so horribly destructive. I’m sorry your friend didn’t find a way to overcome it. You were good to her.
Yes it is, Sharon. Fortunately, I know people who are successfully recovering. I know it’s possible. But you can’t get around one truth: recovery hinges on the complicity of the addict.
I have known several people throughout my life who were basically the same way. They ended up the same way. Dying to young with a whole lot waste. Lovely piece in spite the obvious pain that it has caused you.
Thanks, Rena. It’s a dreadful disease and hard to make peace with the fact that you can’t fix an addict. The addict must be willing and ready.