I Never Knew He Drank

If it had happened on white carpet, it would have been far more difficult to clean. The dark red carpet made it ideal for hiding the blood.

He was a friend of mine who had fallen late one night while walking through his bedroom. His feet dragged over the carpet as he made his way to the bathroom. The heavy friction caused his knees to buckle, and down he went, lacerating his arm and back along the edges of a countertop and wooden chair as he fell.

It’s what happens when you’re 80 and you’ve had one too many highballs.

*           *           *

It was 12:30AM when I received the call from a fireman. He told me he was at the house of a friend of mine named Walter, who had asked I be notified of his accident.  He said that paramedics were tending to him.

“Is he okay?” I asked. “What happened?”

“He took a little spill in his bedroom. Caught his foot on the carpet. Said he had to crawl across the room to call 911. There’s a fair amount of blood, so they’re assessing whether or not to take him to the ER. Can I call you back when they make a decision? Shouldn’t be too long.”

“Yes, please do.”

I was pretty much the only person to call. There was no one left in his ancestry. He was the lone survivor. He had a few friends, but none he felt comfortable asking to make a late-night trip to the ER.

Walter did, however, have a habit of sorts attributed to his recurrence of making 911 calls. This was one of several that he’d made in the past few months for falling as well. I’m sure the first responders were quite familiar with his address, and, for that matter, him. While he thrived on medical attention, there seemed to be more to it than that. Being that he lived alone, I often wondered if his emergency calls were also intended to mitigate loneliness.

He was a daily walking billboard of bandages and gauze wraps that partially circled his arms and legs like a shabbily wrapped mummy.  He was covered with an array of bruises, cuts, and indentations. They were conversation pieces, and he was always up for sharing their origins.  His favorite was the brown recluse spider bite that left a divot in his calf, as if he had endured a small spill of hot battery acid. The spider’s venom is notorious for causing severe necrosis.

The fireman called me back and said that the paramedics were going to take Walter to the hospital. Their decision was based on a high pulse rate which they felt needed the attention of a cardiologist. “Nothing to be alarmed by,” he said. “Just a precautionary measure.”  Walter, I’m sure, wasn’t about to pass up an ambulance ride. No matter the cost, it would enhance any story that might come from his fall.

I called the ER about an hour later, and was able to speak with a nurse assigned to Walter. She told me he was doing fine, and that he was going to be admitted to the hospital since a cardiologist wouldn’t be available until the morning. She said I was welcome to come visit him in the ER, but to understand that his condition was not critical.

I told her thank you, and that I’d stop by the hospital in the morning.

*        *        *

Have you ever walked into a situation where you felt like you knew what was going on, then found out that you knew nothing of what was going on?  Perhaps you had a friend named Walter who was 80 years old. Perhaps you knew that his mother had suffered from dementia in the last two years of her life, and that there was no escaping its crippling grasp.  And perhaps, judging by occasional episodes of disorientation, you figured he was entering an initial phase of the disease.

Or perhaps you were just flat out wrong.

“Hello, are you Ros?” Asked a nurse, working on a computer outside Walter’s room.

“Yes,” I said. I had just arrived at the hospital the following morning.

“Walter said you might be coming. Said he talked to you from the ER last night.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Well, you know…bruised, sore, and hungover.”

I looked at her with inquisitive eyes. “Hungover?”

“Oh, yeah. It was all over his breath when he arrived. Slurred speech, disoriented, and couldn’t stop talking about some kind of spider bite.”

I chuckled. “A brown recluse, I’m sure.”

The nurse nodded and smiled as she gave a thumbs up. “He’s quite the story teller.”

“Oh, trust me,” I said. “I’ve heard them all. I know the guy inside and out.”

Or did I? Hungover? Walter? How could I have missed this?  I’d known the guy for decades, and not once did I ever suspect that he drank in excess. Not that it mattered, but, still, how had I been so clueless to never notice? His slurred speech in the evenings, paired with disoriented thoughts. I had reduced this to dementia? Who had I been kidding this entire time? Only myself.

The nurse led me into the room. “Walter, you’ve got a visitor. I think you might know this guy.”  She checked his IV bag, made note of some readings on a small monitor, then turned to leave.  “I’ll let you two be. Just holler if you need anything. I’m just outside your room.”

He was sitting on the edge of his bed with his head down.  His hospital gown hung crooked on his shoulders and was split open in the back, exposing bandages covering cuts from his fall. There was an air of exhaustion about him.

“I’m a mess,” he said.

I made my way to the side of his bed and sat next to him. “Anything I can do for you?”

“Yeah. Get a cardiologist in here so they can see that nothing’s wrong, and then discharge me.”

He looked like he hadn’t slept all night. His eyes were puffy, and his hair ruffled.  I suggested he get back into bed and try to get some sleep.

“Sleep?” he said. “With this headache? Not happenin’.”

“Then at least try to give your eyes a rest.”

He agreed to try.  I closed the window blinds to cut out the morning light, which was nothing more than a rainy gray that had pushed its way into the room.  The overcast skies had added nothing but gloom to Walter’s despondent mood.

A cafeteria worker brought by a breakfast tray, which Walter shook his head to.

I took a seat in a bedside chair, and quietly looked at him.  For over thirty years I had known Walter, and had never seen him intoxicated. He’d have an occasional beer or glass of wine at dinner when he invited me over, but I never had suspected an overindulgence.

*        *        *

And this is where my story takes a turn. This is where I come forward to profess that it’s no wonder I never connected his slurred speech or disorientation to alcohol. After all, I don’t drink.

I found myself unable to offer anything more than superficial questions: “Can I turn your light off?” or “Do you want me to get some magazines from the lobby?”  Thoughtful, but mundane. I wanted to pry into the history of his drinking. I wanted to tell him it sucks having a bad headache the morning after. I wanted to tell him to watch his limit.

There was so much I wanted to say, but so very little that I could. I had no voice of experience. I had no testimonies of intoxication. I was simply not privy to any hard nights that I could share.  But I was concerned for my friend. His trip to the hospital was completely preventable. In my mind, all he had to do was abstain. Yes, in my mind—a mind that couldn’t relate.  I was, without question, out of the loop.

Laying there in bed with his eyes shut, Walter broke the room’s silence and said, “You never knew, did you?”

“I never knew what?”

“Don’t kid yourself. You know what I’m talking about.”

I paused, then said, “Yes, I know exactly.”

He opened his eyes and gazed at the ceiling.  “If there’s one thing I truly love, it would have to be clarity. Because even in the worst of times, you’re aware of what’s happening. Nothing is traveling through your bloodstream delivering conflicting messages of lies and confusion. It may not be a happy situation, but you can at least make rational decisions, or clearly admit to mistakes. My blood is soiled in the red carpet in my bedroom. I get to go home and get on my hands and knees and scrub it clean. And the entire time I won’t be able to escape the grim reminder that I chose to be this creature of habit. No one but me is responsible.” Walter then lowered his eyes to me and said smiling, “Now, how’s that for a good morning devotional?”

I smiled back, happy to see the Walter I knew. “Well,” I said, “at least you’ll be scrubbing with clarity.”

And there he laid, smiling a little wider, and said, “Open up those window blinds please. I want to watch the rain.”


Copyright Ros Hill 2018