Monday, July 16, 2007

When he goes, he's going like Elsie

Since last November, when he spent time in the hospital battling heart failure, I have worried about my friend John's health. We've been part of one another's lives for more than 25 years now. As Paul McCartney sang in "Two of Us," John and I "have memories longer than the road that stretches on ahead."

I say this because he knows he is not supposed to drink much, nor drink regularly, and yet he does. We spent Saturday together at Navy Pier. Now granted, our outing took more than 6 hours, and we were celebrating his birthday, but I was surprised to watch him consume a bloody mary and six beers. To my two.

Now it's not that I don't enjoy beer, nor that I don't like to drink, but over time I've learned that on hot sunny days it hits me harder. I knew I had to get myself home. Chicago is no more dangerous than any other big city -- probably less dangerous than many -- but regardless of where you live, it's simply unwise to navigate around on your own when you're obviously buzzed. It's like wearing a sign that proclaims you, "VULNERABLE!"

While we were sitting on a bench watching a bridal party board a boat for a Lake Michigan wedding reception, we talked about booze: his and booze: mine. It was a frank and very enlightening conversation, as many with John have been. We appear different initially (he's a tall, gay black dude) but if you take a closer look, we're very much alike. For example, we both live alone and fiercely guard our independence.

So why, asked I, does he still drink so much when he knows he's not supposed to? I explained that as I get older, I take better care of myself. I know I'm alone, I know I don't have progeny or a significant other who is honor bound to care for me, and it seems obvious that protecting my health is protecting my autonomy. How can he not feel the same way?

He understood exactly what I meant, but he looks at the same situation differently. He doesn't ignore his doctor's orders. He's diligent about his meds, he's learning to make exercise a part of his life, and he sleeps more than he did before. He never has been a smoker, thank God. Yet he still drinks.

He thinks his solitary status gives him license to do it. It's his body, after all. He has no children, no significant other depending on him. He's never had a pet, and you would not wish to be one of John's houseplants. So what the hell?

It is his life life, and I respect that. But just as I wouldn't buy him cigarettes if he smoked, I refused to pay for anymore drinks after the bloody mary and first beer (he was the birthday boy, after all). Being John, knowing me, he very graciously said he understood that it's because I consider him "dear."

And I do.

Ever since Saturday night, I've been thinking of the title song from "Cabaret" because it's so John:

"I used to have a girlfriend known as Elsie
With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea
She wasn't what you'd call a blushing flower
As a matter of fact she rented by the hour

The day she died the neighbors came to snicker
Well that's what comes from too much pills and liquor
But when I saw her laid out like a queen
She was the happiest corpse I'd ever seen

I think of Elsie to this very day
I remember how she'd turn to me and say
What good is sitting all alone in your room
Come hear the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret

And as for me, and as for me
I made my mind up back in Chelsea
When I go I am going like Elsie."


  1. What a great post! I agree. My husband has to take a lot of medication on a daily basis and has to take painkiller on top of that. We try to protect his liver as much as we can (mine too, I'm a chronic-pain-challenged person) but when he's in need, I can't imagine him trying to tough it out. I realize that it may shorten his lifespan overall, but what good would that do him to have more years in more distress? We're in the Elsie category, absolutely.

  2. well it was his birthday, which is like a special license for the day.

    But, I guess he figures he is doing everything else, one little thing wont hurt. Of course, thats not always right, but sometimes you cant change people

  3. My husband is only supposed to have the "occasional" beer and he DOES have people depending on him. But he has the same attitude. If his life is shortened, well at least he's happier (his mother is the same exact way and actually PUSHES alcohol on him, even though she knows he is not supposed to drink. Well, she isn't either but that doesn't stop her from drinking every single evening).

    I had to threaten to leave him to get him to stop. And he knows my threats aren't empty.

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  5. Thanks for weighing in, Julia and Sparks. I would never try to change my friend. We should accept those we love as they are, and not treat them like d-i-y projects. I was just fascinated that he and I approach the same situation so very differently. And who knows? I might get hit by a car on the way home tonight, leaving old John to outlive me by decades. In which case, he'll laugh his ass off when he thinks of how careful I've become.

    But Pam, your situation is different. As you say, your husband has people depending on him, so he's not as free to make these choices (or he shouldn't be).

  6. I agree gal - completely different situation.

    Your friend knows you love him, though ;-).