We all make our deals with life, and choose where to draw the line. Some of us hide ourselves with makeup or muscles, containing our vulnerability in a shell of beauty and strength. Some of us dive into books, video games, writing, music. Sometimes we drink too much, smoke or take drugs, to hold at bay the emotions that threaten to reveal things we are not ready to let the world see.
My father was a drinker and a smoker, and ultimately that was the cause of his death. The realisation as a teenager was slow to come, that he was not well. It came one day while cleaning out the shed while he was away, and discovering hundreds of wine boxes, folded flat and stacked, crammed into empty boxes. There were ten in each box. There were 8 boxes. Each cask had held 4 litres of red wine. We had lived in that house about four months. That was 80 litres of cheap red wine a month. That revelation left me first scared, then angry and finally sad for the old man, because that was the moment he ceased to be a God and was revealed to be a mortal man. Who would keep me safe now?
His brother, my uncle, was a notorious drinker as well, I was later to find out. He took refuge in rum, and in his favourite bars they would alway stock several extra bottles of his preferred brand ‘Stroh‘ which came in an 80% proof version that held no illusions to be anything other than a way to forget, to deny. He would crawl into the bottle and be found unconscious the next morning; sometimes passed out in the driveway, occasionally lying in a field near a damaged tree, surrounded by the wreckage of his car in tiny pieces all around him. God favours small children and drunks apparently, although I feel that drunks are perpetual children.
And my friend, R, who I grew up with as a teenager in Austria. He ended up in the worst place at the worst time, during the Heroin epidemic that swept Europe in the ’90’s. I had seen the bizarre behaviour of the addicts, skinny people staggering sonambulistically into moving cars, people shooting up in a cathedral, a junkie who was being hosed off the railway tracks one morning when we looked out at the commotion at the train station over the road from our balcony. My friend needed somewhere to hide, and did so in a wave of opium, and went from a young spoilt teenager to criminal and inmate.
I didn’t see him until I returned to the village twenty years later, and met his partner who he had met while using. Met his little girl who had been born in love with needle before she had taken her first breath of air, and stood sullen and shadow eyed hanging on her mother’s bony arm. They spoke of rehab and methadone, and the support my father had given, knowing as he did of the terrible price you pay for hiding from the world.
Three years later when I came to farewell the Old Man and see him for the last time, I bumped into R, saw his twitchy gait and shaking hands, the swing of his tangled long dreadlocks. His smile of greeting faded when I told him that the Old Man was dying, that he needed to go see him soon, now if possible. He cried so hard there in the street that I was scared he might bleed from the grief. He cried in a way that I had not cried, still have not cried. I held him there in the street, and his tears wet my shoulder and his hands trembled and when he left I wondered whether he would go and say his goodbyes to the Old Man, or if he would go back to using again.
We all make those deals with life, set the boundaries for what we will tolerate and what we cannot. When we are beset, sometimes we can stand firm in our convictions, find strength we never knew that we had. And other times like children we will run and hide, out of sight of a big, scary world.