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Mourning a lost friend

I’ve spent a good part of the day thinking about a lost friend.

There are those friendships that fade away to be rekindled later. Some just sort of peter out over time. I think about the friends I lost long ago due my own bad behavior, particularly when I was drinking so heavily. But that kind of loss has only occurred in my sober life a couple of times. I feel the sadness of their loss whenever life slows down for a moment.

I used to ride the bus to UMKC when I was first in college. One day, in late fall my initial semester at the University, I was waiting for my bus on a concrete bench at a stop. I had nothing in particular on my mind when I looked over and saw a friendly face at the bus stop on the opposite side of the street. I had seen him walking the campus before. I was yet unspoiled and full of dreams. I waved at the student and smiled. He waved back.

The following semester, we had a creative-writing class together. I struck up an acquaintance with him and learned his name.

Steve had a shaggy-dog sort of face and a flop of light brown hair. He was narrow in the shoulders but substantial in the legs, as I found out he walked everywhere he didn’t take the bus. His personality leaned toward the contemplative and his sense of humor was dark and infectious.

Soon, we were inseparable. He was amenable to a drink and we found some common ground there. Through the years of my drinking, we spent a good deal of time together, though he didn’t drink nearly as much as I did.

Then, one night, I talked him into driving to a meeting off-campus of a class on wine history. These tastings, as we called them, were instructive and fun, and being a heavy drinker, a good opportunity to drench myself in good vintages. Steve wasn’t enrolled in the class, but students could bring friends.

It turns out both of us had our fill that night. I don’t remember much, but I do recall looking down from my apartment at the blue-and-red flashing lights. I knew something awful had occurred, but it wasn’t until a few days later that Steve had turned on a red light into the path of another car. The driver of the other car went to the hospital and he received a citation for driving under the influence.

His mother, a strong woman who worked at an area hospital, refused to let me talk to Steve when I called his house. For a couple of years, I would see him on-campus or nearby and he always had the look of wanting to talk to me but also the pain of a fateful event that shaped his life.

Later, when he was out on his own, we struck up our friendship again. He even came to be my roommate for a time. By then, both of us had lost control of our drinking and we spent many nights drinking to incapacitation together.

When I moved to Germany the second time, he took charge of my car and drove it until I returned, a failure in my effort to go to wine school due to excessive drinking and lack of funds. We shared the car for a long time after, but it was toward the end of my drinking days when I was losing contact with everyone and losing friends as quickly as I could make them.

Steve, again, was lost to me. I sobered up and he kept drinking. It got so bad that his brother came to me and asked if I could help. I had been sober about seven years and remember across the table from a man in the throes of acute alcoholism himself.

“The first thing you might want to think about is your own drinking problem,” I said, looking into his rheumy, bloodshot eyes. “You are little help to your brother if you are drunk too.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that for a while.”

“Why don’t you come to a meeting with me tonight before you start drinking again, just to see what it’s about?”

He did go to a meeting with me and sobered up after a few months. He later came to me and asked if I wouldn’t go see Steve.

I took a friend of mine, another sober alcoholic, to see Steve one night. He was in a bad way. He had been drinking so much so regularly that the lack of nutrients in his body produce spontaneous bruising and neuropathy in his legs. He could hardly get up from his couch to make it to the bathroom. We convinced him that he should go to treatment and we would get him there the next day.

He was hardly ambulatory when we showed up to the treatment center in Atchison, Kansas. We left him after admission. He was in such bad shape that the treatment center sent him to the Atchison hospital, who found him in a condition they couldn’t handle. They transported him to University of Kansas Medical Center in an ambulance, where he was in the ICU for ten days. Only after a hospital stay of more than two weeks would the treatment center accept him.

I visited him in Atchison every week for the month he was in there. Every time I saw him, he was better and a youthful blush peculiar to him began to return.

After treatment, he decided to go at it on his own. He seemed to get what came to me with difficulty. I needed AA to help me become a more mature person. But he grew without any help of the program and stayed sober despite the various traps life lays for the chemically addicted.

But there was one thing that he couldn’t get over, the relationship he had with a woman he once loved and probably still did. He wound up renting the bottom floor of the house she kept with her husband and daughter.

The relationship was a sick one. I used to drop by from time to time, mostly uninvited, when I had a moment. We spent a lot of time together and had the type of friendship that seemed to transcend time. We had, after all, been through a lot together.

But I’ve learned that a friend will tell another when he or she thinks that friend is in trouble.

One night I was at his house and for the umpteenth time heard his former beau call him from above. She was leaving for a night out and wanted Steve to watch the kid. She then griped at him about something and huffed around because Steve had not yet fixed a faucet upstairs. He responded like a hen-pecked spouse.

“You know, Steve,” I said, “I can’t keep lid on this anymore. This thing you have going on with Cary is sick. When I come over, I can’t tell who’s married to whom. You are at her beck and call. You do whatever she says when she says. She’s taking advantage of you.”

“Get out,” he told me. “Get out and don’t ever come back. I don’t want to talk to you again.”

There was nothing I could do. I had seen this behavior myself. How many times had I said the same thing when someone told me I drank too much?

I have seen Steve out a couple of times at the store and at street festivals. He is cordial but distant. From what I understand, he still lives in Cary’s house. A mutual friend told me more than once he is a lonely man, trapped in a situation of his own making. He will not move out of Cary’s house. He is still very much in love with her. She still takes advantage of him.

I ache from the loss of Steve. I wish I could help him. But one thing I’ve learned from years of successes and failures in sober life is that no one accepts help if they don’t want it.

Maybe it wasn’t my place to tell Steve he was a sick man. Maybe I was sick for sticking around Steve in that untenable situation until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Maybe I was wrong.

But it doesn’t feel wrong. I still don’t regret that I told Steve he needed to get out from underneath his sick obsession with Cary. But the loss of Steve in my life has left a hole that, now ten years passed, has nothing to fill it.

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