The above are three photos of my mother back in her nursing days. She plays a huge part in my “Sideways” sequel “Vertical.” The following article was written for a magazine, but it felt too personal to publish, so I turned down the offer. I decided to post it here for those who have read “Vertical.” It might give you an unique insight into my creative process. For those who haven’t read “Vertical,” I think the story will resonate on another, just as powerfully, emotional level of verisimilitude.
When Alcohol Trumps Death
My mother was an alcoholic. Take my word for it. I personally don’t like the term alcoholic. I find it judgmental and stigmatizing, but for want of a better term – heavy drinker? over-imbiber? – if the definition of an alcoholic is someone who can’t stop after she starts, if, as the head of the NIDA Nora Volkow defines it, her dopamine inhibitors are blown to smithereens, then my mother fit the definition of an alcoholic.
My mother – and father – were 5:00 p.m. alcoholics. They rarely, if ever, drank before five o’clock, and they always had a glass of cheap wine in their hand by 5:01 p.m.; never, God forbid, as late as 5:05. Later in their life, when they had semi-retired to a seaside bluff condominium north of San Diego, they drank every night. (When I was younger I don’t believe they did, but then there are things we don’t realize when we’re younger.) I was attending UCSD in La Jolla at the time. I lived in the neighboring hamlet of Del Mar, a mere two miles from my parents. Though I got along with them very well, I learned never to visit them before 5:00 p.m. Once I came over around lunch time because I was desperately in need of a loan to buy some books to feed my avaricious reading habit. My father, irascible – no doubt battling a crucifying hangover – practically bit my head off, shouting at me to go get a job. From that point on I always timed my visits for 5:15 p.m. By then it was guaranteed that they had just finished their first glass of wine, the dopamine surges had commenced, a warm, rosy glow had come over their faces, and they would loan me money with alacrity. I never stayed past 6:00 p.m. Never. By then they had started to grow slurry and maudlin, would start blubbering things that they could never utter when they were not drinking; e.g., we love you. It was particularly embarrassing to someone like me who is uncomfortable in the presence of blatant displays of sentimentality and filial affection.
In ’88 my father went under the knife for a triple bypass. During the five-plus hour operation he, we learned later, suffered a massive stroke. He was wheeled out of the OR with a new, powerfully-beating, heart, but, in exchange, was left brain dead. The family was informed that he would never return to consciousness. After a few days, they ordered him on full life support and transferred him out of ICU into a “step-down” unit where he slowly wasted away on a ventilator. My aggrieved mother visited him every day, often twice a day. She spent a lot of time with the man she had been married to for forty years. She whispered to him, believing his spirit could hear her. She squeezed his hand and asked for a response, which she never got. She grew depressed. I had since relocated to L.A. and gotten into the film business and was in the throes of post-production on my second indie feature when this happened. I visited when I could.
After several months of my father being artificially kept alive, being turned over on a regular basis so he wouldn’t become afflicted with bed sores, my mother and I finally broached the difficult subject of what our options were. The attending physician was the cardiologist who had performed the triple bypass. We met with him. I remember him telling us in no uncertain terms that he would not authorize a “pulling of the plug,” as it were. We then demanded a meeting with the V.A. Hospital medical board, a three-person representative group consisting of a physician and two social workers. My younger brother was away in another country and my older brother did not attend. I delivered an impassioned speech on why my father should be allowed to die with dignity, that his wishes were clearly expressed in a living will, which I waved in their faces. Reluctantly, they supplanted the attending physician with someone who was more compassionate, and then, shortly thereafter, they granted our wish and pulled my father’s feeding tube. It took another three weeks for him to die.
After my father’s death, my mother fell into an even deeper depression. She told me that she missed having her five o’clock wine and “shooting the breeze” with my father. What she wouldn’t admit was that she didn’t like to drink alone. But she did, probably heavier. What I didn’t realize then was that their drinking is probably what kept their relationship alive for 40 years, ensconcing them together in that warm cocoon that alcohol ephemerally provides. What I also didn’t realize then, because I was so wrapped up in my career, was that they were a pair of five o’clock alcoholics, and that alcoholism ruled sentinel over their lives.
For example, when I met a beautiful woman – whom I would eventually marry – they were interested to meet her, but when my future wife made plans for all of us to go out to dinner they declined, giving some reason about not wanting to spend the money. When my future wife said she would pay for dinner they fabricated another laughable excuse. The bottom line is that they didn’t want to wait until 7:00 p.m. to go out to dinner because they would have had to cold turkey that two hours. If they had started to drink at 5:00 p.m., knowing that they had dinner plans two hours later, they were now faced with the challenge of staying sober enough to get through dinner without embarrassing themselves. They were smart enough to realize that there was no way to pace themselves, and thus concocted what seemed to them a reasonable excuse. We never had that dinner. My future wife thought it was weird. At the time I never chalked it up to alcoholism. I just concluded that they were either socially awkward or didn’t approve of my future wife.
My wedding was held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and was a big deal because my fiancée’s father was a prominent man in that small city. My parents declined to come. My father complained of angina. My mother was worried he wouldn’t make the trip alive. The truth: there was no way they would have been able to structure their 5:00 p.m. drinking regimen – and, no doubt, their consequent sloppiness (which I never witnessed) – around a traditional wedding. How could they possibly make it through a rehearsal dinner that would begin at 7:30 p.m.? How in God’s name – I’m imagining I’m them now – could they hold off on drinking and feeding those desperate cravings for dopamine through a reception that would begin at 8:00 p.m. and go until 11:00 p.m. with nearly 300 guests in attendance? Unimaginable. Thus, the fatalistic medical excuses.
As I said, after my father died, my mother fell into a bottomless depression. She spent a lot of time alone. A year and a half after my dad died my younger brother returned from overseas and moved into an apartment in Solana Beach to be close to her – for reasons, it turned out, that had more to do with money than altruism. I was in London, hired by 20th Century Fox as one of the last writers on Alien III, David Fincher’s (The Social Network) first feature. My younger brother phoned me in London and said Mom wasn’t doing very well. Her ankles were badly swollen. Five years earlier she had had swollen ankles, indicative of clots. One of those clots dislodged and traveled to one of her lungs and she suffered a pulmonary embolism. Fortunately, my father was with her when she collapsed unconscious. Paramedics were summoned and performed all-out heroic measures, resuscitated her and got her to the hospital in time to save her. Now, her ankles were badly distended again. I exhorted my brother to take her to the doctor. My pusillanimous brother said she didn’t want to go. My mother, an RN by profession in her youth, never wanted to go to the doctor. She feared hospitalization. She hated hospitals. She always said to me: “That’s where you go to die.” I urged my brother to take her against her will if need be.
My younger brother finally managed to convince my mother to see her physician. Her blood pressure was an eye-popping 240/140 (if I recall). The swollen ankles and the past history of clotting, not to mention the pulmonary embolism that nearly killed her, were of intense concern to the doctor. She spent an hour and a half in his examining room. Her physician feared the imminency of a stroke. But my mother was adamant about not wanting to be hospitalized. The doctor apparently explained to her that a simple procedure would be performed whereby a small strainer would be surgically implanted into each of her two femoral arteries near the crotch area in an effort to block the clots if they were to become dislodged. They would put her on an IV of Heparin – a powerful blood-thinning medication – until they could dissolve the dangerous clots. Without hospitalization he was powerless to help her. All he could do was prescribe an oral blood thinner (Coumadin), but that would take much longer to dissolve the clots, and by then …
Armed with a raft of prescriptions and a nitroglycerin patch affixed over her rapidly-palpitating heart, the doctor reluctantly let my hospital-phobic mother return home. Thirty-six hours later I got a call in London on a cold gray December day from my younger brother. In a voiced hobbled by emotion, he said bluntly: “Mom’s had a stroke. She’s in ICU. We don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
Three months and a massive heart attack later she was released from the hospital with full left-side paralysis, a half-necrotic brain, and the mind of a child. Wheelchair-dependent now, she was moved back into her seaside condo. As soon as my mother returned home and was introduced to a new routine, complete with nurses and difficult transfers for toileting and all the rest that involves caring for a stroke victim, she demanded her wine. When I took over her care after two years, one of the first things I noticed was how difficult it was to turn her down after her agreed-upon two glasses of treacly Chardonnay that she was daily vouchsafed at exactly … 5:00 p.m. She always requested that she be wheeled out onto the patio where she and my father started their drinking and “shooting the breeze,” while overlooking the swimming pool and tennis courts. It was just like the old days, except I had assumed the place of my father and my mother was in a wheelchair, lost in an intracranial theater of memories and easily provoked emotions that often reduced her to uncontrolled blubbering. There was also one other difference: when it came to her wine, she now had to stop every night after her two allotted glasses. The wine was in the control of whomever was taking care of her. Several times, after much wheedling from her – a stroke victim now, she had no conscience about embarrassing herself in her quest for a third glass – I would grudgingly allow her a half glass more. Once, I gave her an entire third glass and was berated the following day by the night person who had struggled to put her to bed.
Over time I have come to realize that my mother’s debilitating stroke, the ten horrible years that she survived afterward, the divisiveness that it caused in my family, was possibly all a result of her refusing to be hospitalized. A few years ago it dawned on me as I was going through my own struggles with drinking that the reason she didn’t want to be hospitalized is because she would have had to detox, something she wasn’t psychologically, or physiologically, prepared to do. Forget the fact that had she allowed her physician to hospitalize her and she had been honest with the hospital doctors and told them she was an alcoholic – a word my mother never ever used, and never thought she was because, well, she didn’t drink until 5:00 p.m. – they would have not only implanted the strainers in her arteries to halt the clot that eventually rocketed near-fatalistically to her brain, resulting in total cellular necrosis of the left hemisphere, they would have also put her on medication – probably Librium back then – to help her detox. As it turned out she had to detox anyway, and no doubt the morphine she was given in ICU was her substitute dopamine disinhibitor.
In the decade that has passed since her glacially slow, horrible death in a nursing home, I have come to the ineluctable conclusion that my mother’s inability to admit that she was an alcoholic – whether she did anything about it or not – was the chief reason for her devastating stroke. When alcohol rules our lives, when the fear of that sense of dysphoria if we have to stop is so omnipresent, we will even go so far will, even on the precipice of medical calamity, and demand that we not be hospitalized for dangerous clots that could result in a pulmonary embolism, heart attack, or stroke, so that we can go home and, in my mother’s case, pour a glass of wine at 5:00 p.m. and feed the cravings that now have colonized our beings and turned us into a slave of the alcoholic’s regimen, no matter how high the eventual, consequential cost.
My mother might have had a stroke anyway if she had been able to be an abstemious drinker, but there is no question in my mind that her addiction to alcohol was the principle cause in her later life infirmity. I learned a lot from it at the time. I learned about a brother who exploited her condition to his advantage and, more or less, absconded with all of her savings and, with it, my modest trust fund. When I wrested control of her care from my larcenous brother, I learned about humility. I wrote a script about it titled The Road Back. It was optioned for 5 years, but never made. Then, when Sideways became a movie and I was Hollywood’s and the publishing industry’s flavor of the month (year?), I decided to novelize The Road Back. As with the script, once again, I found myself facing all those questions about my mother again. When The Road Back novel ultimately morphed into the Sideways sequel Vertical, and my mother became, once again, a real flesh-and-blood character, I had to face my relationship with her all over again.
In the end I found peace with my mother in the writing, albeit fictionalized, of her story. I’m sad to report that my mother never found peace until her death. Her inability to realize that drinking was destroying her, was the main cause of her depression – euphoria/dysphoria, euphoria/dysphoria, the alcoholic’s endless cycle. Had she quit she would have had to look herself in the mirror and face herself as who she was. She elected not to do that. Had she, a woman who swam and played tennis and didn’t smoke, might have lived well past the age of 69 when she had her massive stroke. Sure, she lived another 10 years after it, but the damage it caused to everyone around her was not a legacy I’m sure she would have wanted.
For nearly 8 years I cared, on and off, for a parent whose alcoholism made the second half of her life a living hell. Ten years after her crippling, devastating stroke, I held her hand near death and gave the doctor permission to end her life with a morphine drip. In the end, it’s sad for me to think that she found happiness, but I take comfort in the fact that, because of her suffering, I discovered selflessness.
Posted on Nov. 15, 2011 at 10:42 AM
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