Last Friday I learned that my old friend Gary had died a few years ago. Prematurely gone. What’s shocking is that he died so young. But what’s more shocking is that I knew he was gone for many years. Not ‘knew’ in the facts sense, but intuitively, as I had sensed many years ago that his time had run out. It’s a terrible feeling to know that about someone who is still walking around. Someone that you love. Alcohol ultimately killed Gary, or should I say he let it kill him.
Gary was the bright light of a certain crowd I hung out with in my late teens and early twenties. Charismatic and witty, Gary was as talented as he was secretive and, ultimately, self destructive. Everyone wanted to spend time with Gary. He was fun, unpredictable and unconventional – and also contradictory.
Our group started to come of age before people really understood that alcohol and drugs could kill you, or worse. So in the spirit of the times we partied down every weekend, danced, laughed and loved. Our hub of activity revolved around the campus newspaper and radio station, with many of us going on to careers in communications, writing and broadcasting. Gary was a good writer and dabbled as a musician, but his real talent was as an impromptu stand up comedian. Gary had the ability to walk the thin line between sarcasm and the hilarious. No one had a better appreciation of the absurd or madcap than Gary. Many people thought he would go on to find a platform for that talent and become a performer. He never made it. Alcohol and shyness got in the way. Gary was profoundly uncomfortable with emotion. This discomfort may have contributed to his love affair with the bottle.
When I first met Gary he didn’t even really drink. But somewhat mysteriously he soon morphed into the kind of drunk that everyone fears – the person whose goal is complete oblivion. At one point he was up to a 40 ouncer of vodka per day. I don’t know how he managed to hold down work. Gary would arrive unexpectedly at my house with his premixed vodka and orange, careen and collapse. How I dreaded these visits. I made the mistake of believing I could argue or cajole Gary into stopping his downward spiral. Well before I ever heard the words “co-dependent”, or “intervention”, all I knew was that I was steeped in terror for my friend. He appeared to have embraced the dark side and was waiting for the devil to take him. I remember he called me from the hospital once saying he had fallen off a bus while drunk and had woken to a priest saying his last rites. Gary thought this was hilarious. He was 25.
Gary’s drinking came between us, but I never stopped loving him or gave up hope that he could sort himself out and become the person he was meant to be – brilliant in every way. We eventually drifted apart for several years. I just did not know how to reach him and couldn’t bear to witness his self annihilation. He appeared to slow down on the alcohol, and I would see him from time to time, but I could never really connect with him. He just could not handle me pressuring him for an explanation of his behavior, or my anxiety fuelled ‘need’ to have honest conversations with him about his well being. In hindsight, he probably found me too pushy.
A few years ago Gary called me from Toronto on Christmas Day. I was thrilled to hear from him. He told me that he had tried to stop drinking cold turkey, had a seizure and drove his car into a pole, injuring himself in the process. “Yes” he said, when I quietly asked if he had sustained a head injury. My heart ached for Gary, he sounded like such a broken man. I don’t know if it was the accident or the alcohol, or just the sheer disappointment of his whole experience, but he seemed an outline of his former self. But he tried to be upbeat, reassuring me that he had stopped drinking and was getting psychological help. He promised to stay in touch. I remained hopeful for Gary and the possibility that our friendship could be revived.
A couple of months went by and I did not hear anything more from Gary. I didn’t have his phone number, so I emailed him. My email bounced back, saying his account had been closed. My heart sank. I didn’t want to fear the worse, but did nonetheless. He just felt gone.
Years drifted by, and I thought off and on about Gary. Thought of contacting his family to see if I could locate him, but held back for fear he had died. Just by chance I was contacted recently by another old friend who answered my unspoken question that yes, Gary had died. I knew this to be the case, but just needed confirmation. Whether Gary’s premature death was the direct or indirect outcome of years of alcohol abuse I will never know. What I do know is that I feel anger and sadness towards my beloved friend for laying waste to his life. I try and remember everything he was that was spectacular, unique and vital. But the sad reality of his downfall tarnishes my memory.
Rest now my dear friend. Know you will always be loved and missed. And that I have learned your lesson only too well
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