Firstly, let me humbly confess I’m an Adult Child of Alcoholics, and probably an early-mid stage alcoholic myself, although I’ve been stringing that along for a number of years by periodic (sometimes years) of abstinence and controlled drinking and substitute drugs (mostly legal). I still like getting drunk periodically. It feels good. It’s one of the only ways that I can relax, which I understand intellectually is rather pathetic. I don’t drive and I try not to be stupid or let my kid see me. It makes me able to talk to my husband about things I don’t let myself otherwise address. (My poor dear husband. Why he puts up with me...is another story) Sometimes I use it just to flat out plain escape the unbearably beautiful and horrible experience of life.
But I want to talk today about some of the lovely, talented, unfortunate alcoholics I’ve known, and why I loved them so darn much.
First, my mother. I never really understood or accepted how much of an alcohol abuser she was until long after she had left the poison behind for Al Alon and religion. But I remember those nights when I was a teen and she spilled her heart and deepest secrets to me, and how I loved being her confidant, and how I hung on every dramatic word: her past loves, her disappointments, her regrets. And I hung on her unabashed love for me: how I was beautiful and smart and talented, and could do anything with my life that I wanted to. She was so empathetic to my problems, my boy problems and self-esteem about my physical appearance and trying to pick between writing and acting. It was always between writing and acting. I loved hearing the really old stories about hard working grandma and grandpa and romantic and adventurous great grandma and great grandpa and the mean aunts and uncles who tore the family apart. It would mainly end up badly: her crying and barely being able to make it up to her bedroom, and me staying awake and writing for hours and then being late for school which didn’t help my grades any. But damn, I loved my mother, and even when she got sober, we could still talk for hours and hours about the things that mattered most, at least, to us.
Second, my father. It was hard to tell when my father was drunk, he was so quiet and such a god damn professor, and would pause for thirty seconds between anything he said anyway, that the only time I really understood that he too had a drinking problem was when I found him in his study passed out with the scotch glass still in his hand and a fifth stashed in the filing cabinet. He was rarely angry, and even when he was, it seemed completely rational. But there was that time that they tipped the canoe and lost their glasses and everything, and when I had to pick him up from a DUI. He thought Playboy magazine and clubs were cool, and his dissertation was on Don Quixote: maybe that should have been warning signals. When I took care of him when he was faltering from dementia (which they diagnosed not as Alzheimer’s, but cirrhosis of the liver), he was so proud of the collection of airplane liquor bottles that he had collected, of all kinds, from his world travels, that he never drank. It was somehow his assurance that he was never really an alcoholic. And honestly, I don’t think he did drink much the last 10 years of his life. And I think both my parents drank mainly because of their inability to cope with troubles in their marriage, because they had no social networks and that academia had made them believe that they were supposed to fix everything for themselves.
Third, is the other Helvetica, the big red headed Helvetica, who was my friend and arch nemesis in college. She was by far more talented, more beautiful, and in much, much deeper pain than I was. She had many sisters, and they were all talented, and I think she probably had been sexually abused at some point in her life. She’s the one who really taught me how to drink: stay drunk for a weekend, beer and tequila in the morning, don’t stop, don’t say no, just keep going. She could stay up all night and talk visions like my mother did. She loved my writing, too. Said it was important. Which made me love her more. She had a singing voice like a coal miner’s lover, and she loved men, and they loved her. She encouraged me to go after the men I wanted, and I did, and we reveled in sharing the details of it; until, of course, she took the one I really liked the most. But near the end of school, she started to crash, and there was nothing we could do about it. It broke my heart to see it, to be so helpless to do anything to stop her downfall. Sickness. Confusion. Isolation. Of all my college friends, she is the one we can’t find, no one knows what really happened: The rumor is she apparently married a nice guy from her high school and is still in her home town. I hope, I dream, I pray that is true.
Fourth was my friend in graduate school, Hobbes, also a nemesis, and also a dear friend. He understood my existential loneliness in a way that few others have. He was a more talented writer than me, more popular, and a terrific musician to boot. Could play the piano and sing like Harry Connick, Jr. He had clever things to say about everything, and he always smelled of fresh tobacco, as he insisted on rolling his own cigarettes. I was married by then, and my husband and I had given up cigarettes, but I loved the way Hobbes smelled. My husband liked Hobbes, too. Even, I might say, in a guy way, loved him, and suffered with me as his fate became clear. Hobbes found a girlfriend early on, and she and he came to our house for Thanksgiving, the beginning of a long line of very decadent holidays. Daytimes, I listened to her travails as it became clearer and clearer that Hobbes was not just a heavy drinker at parties, but someone who started in the mornings, for whom drinking was more important than another person, than love itself. It became harder to be friends, although their circle of friends, by the artificiality of graduate school, actually got wider. Of course, it all came to an end with graduation.
The last time I saw Hobbes, we all went drinking, my husband included, to our local dive pool place. Hobbes and I kinda knew it was the last time we would see each other, he was moving on to greener pastures. He respected me in an odd kind of way: he said that people always knew when my pieces were over, that I knew how to end things, and that would probably make me a successful writer. He kissed me goodbye, almost soberly, on the lips, in just a fine line of going too far: I appreciated it, his smoky smell, the thought that he might end up famous, after all. It was like kissing Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, and having them think you were at least as nominally important as Dorothy Parker.
I found out a few years later that he had been drunk on a motorcycle and crashed into a tree. He was living with traumatic head injury. He still had his music, and was playing in public, but couldn’t write anymore. I talked to him on the phone once, and he seemed to happy to hear from me. Now I feel guilty that I did not keep up with him better.
It was the hope, don’t you know? The hope that my mother and father were king and queen, that the other Helvetica was a movie star, and that Hobbes was America’s next major writer, that kept those drunken, lovely moments thriving. Those alcohol-soaked fantasy worlds, perhaps just barely within the grasp of reality, for some fortunate souls, by some odd twist of fate...who do make it, beyond, some boundary of the pathetic...to the epic. Most are not so fortunate.
There are so many more people in the world, than there even was in the 1950’s. I was talking with a friend today who is a big environmentalist about global warming and our children’s future and such. And this just slipped out:
“A lot of people are going to have to die.”
And she said, “Well, you don’t want the people you love to die.”
“Of course not. But most of the people I love already died.”
And what I was really thinking is, it doesn’t matter if there is a major catastrophe and the world ends, it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, I still love them. I hope they all die well. And I mean that about the alive people, too. And the people who’ve let me down. And the people I've let down. And those I’ve lost to alcohol. And those who I am losing to alcohol right now. I love them, all. God damn it.
Parker died of a heart attack at the age of 73 in 1967. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation. Following King's death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her executrix, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including her attorney Paul O'Dwyer's filing cabinet, for approximately 17 years. -- Wikipedia