Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I met him five months after he’d made this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through his stories and poems. One result of his decision to stay sober was that he became an internationally respected master of the short story, a writer who, at his death, was called by the London Times “America’s Chekhov.” For me, the best result of his choice was that we found each other, and could write and live together, challenging, inspiring, and supporting one another in this new life we created day by day.
Every artist and writer faces the challenge of how to honor his or her intensity while not being consumed by it. Ray was nearly consumed by his. The decision that changed his life happened on June 2, 1977, a date that, if it were up to me, would be declared a holiday to honor all those who make it out of alcoholism. When I go to his grave now (he died at the age of fifty of lung cancer caused by smoking), I find messages from those who, as he did, want to stay sober, and who lean on his humility and generosity of spirit. They leave him notes: “Ten years sober, Ray! Life is sweet, you bet! Thanks, man.”
Ray and I always celebrated the anniversary of his sobriety by doing something simple, like eating chocolate after a nice meal at which we’d toasted the occasion with sparkling apple juice. I’d give him a gift: one year a stuffed elephant to remind him of his story by that name; another, a briefcase in which to carry his newly drafted short stories.
I think, in the end, Ray managed to exchange a deadly intoxication that would have killed him for an intoxication with language and storytelling. Ray had been “in the drink,” as the Irish say, for twenty-five years by the time he finally quit for good. It took the wounded grace of moments added to moments for him to inch his way free and later, at age fifty, finally sit on the mountain of ten years of sobriety. He considered his decision to stop drinking the single most important event of his life. He wrote this poem shortly before his death on August 2, 1988.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
By the time Ray quit drinking, he had been on that long, sad road since his teenage years. On his first date, at age sixteen, he got so drunk he vomited all over his date’s dress. He was mortified the next day, though he didn’t remember much. The young woman, whom he had thought so fine, would have nothing more to do with him.
He would say later: “Nobody starts out to be a drunk. It’s the ‘creeping disease.’ ” The inclination to lose oneself in drink nuzzles up, first sweetly, then glassily, and pulls the drinker down. “Nazi whiskey!” Ray would call it. Then he’d laugh with a kind of self-abandon that belonged to that place from which he’d thankfully escaped.
Ray held out hope for all alcoholics, having come back from “down under the floorboards” himself. I, too, feel that even seemingly hopeless drinkers have a chance. I’ve chosen not to look the other way when someone is over the top with his or her drinking. Once, a friend failed to see me off to my plane after he’d spent a night secretly bingeing. By postcard he pleaded “sinus trouble.” I wrote him my own postcard: “Try stepping back off the bourbon, and your sinus trouble will improve.” He checked himself into a treatment facility that week and began his recovery. He later said that my postcard had put him on notice that he wasn’t fooling anybody.
I guess all the havoc I’ve seen alcohol cause has made me unwilling to play the denial game. When the spades fall, I call them what they are. It’s the kindest thing to do. I recommend this kind of boldness or effrontery — whatever you want to call it — because although it won’t always succeed, it might, and it is this chance that makes it worth the risk.
Ray considered himself living proof that even the worst cases could change course and reclaim their lives. “If I could kick it, anyone can,” he said.
Call it iron discipline. But for months
I never took my first drink
before eleven p.m. Not so bad,
considering. This was in the beginning
phase of things. I knew a man
whose drink of choice was Listerine.
He was coming down off Scotch.
He bought Listerine by the case,
and drank it by the case. The back seat
of his car was piled high with dead soldiers.
Those empty bottles of Listerine
gleaming in his scalding back seat!
The sight of it sent me home soul-searching.
I did that once or twice. Everybody does.
Go way down inside and look around.
I spent hours there, but
didn’t meet anyone, or see anything
of interest. I came back to the here and now,
and put on my slippers. Fixed
myself a nice glass of NyQuil.
Dragged a chair over to the window.
Where I watched a pale moon struggle to rise
over Cupertino, California.
I waited through hours of darkness with NyQuil.
And then, sweet Jesus! the first sliver
Ray never took credit for having licked booze. He called it “grace,” what had happened to him. Some force beyond his understanding had allowed him not to drink, once he sought desperately to stop.
It helped that he hadn’t been too dismissive, embittered, or proud to get help. He had allowed himself to take full advantage of Alcoholics Anonymous and also a place called Duffy’s in northern California, a drying-out facility near Jack London’s one-time home. Ray would speak about Duffy’s once in a while, remembering how there were people from all walks of life there: a reminder that writers didn’t have a monopoly on being drunks. At Duffy’s Ray learned the skills that would help him get off the booze again later, after a binge that began at a birthday reunion with old drinking buddies in San Francisco. The fact that he might backslide was never far from his mind.
My life’s on an even keel
these days. Though who’s to say
it’ll never waver again?
This morning I recalled
a girlfriend I had just after
my marriage broke up.
A sweet girl named Jean.
In the beginning, she had no idea
how bad things were. It took
a while. But she loved me
a bunch anyway, she said.
And I know that’s true.
She let me stay at her place
where I conducted
the shabby business of my life
over her phone. She bought
my booze, but told me
I wasn’t a drunk
like those others said.
Signed checks for me
and left them on her pillow
when she went off to work.
Gave me a Pendleton jacket
that Christmas, one I still wear.
For my part, I taught her to drink.
And how to fall asleep
with her clothes on.
How to wake up
weeping in the middle of the night.
When I left, she paid two months’
rent for me. And gave me
her black and white TV.
We talked on the phone once,
months later. She was drunk.
And, sure, I was drunk too.
The last thing she said to me was,
Will I ever see my TV again?
I looked around the room
as if the TV might suddenly
appear in its place
on the kitchen chair. Or else
come out of a cupboard
and declare itself. But that TV
had gone down the road
weeks before. The TV Jean gave me.
I didn’t tell her that.
I lied, of course. Soon, I said,
very soon now.
And put down the phone
after, or before, she hung up.
But those sleep-sounding words
of mine making me feel
I’d come to the end of a story.
And now, this one last falsehood
I could rest.
When I first met Ray in 1977 in Dallas, Texas, he was still shaky from a scant five months of sobriety. He was determined to stay sober at this Texas writing conference, where the two main pastimes were drinking and carousing. Somehow he managed it, but not without having to hide in the shower from a woman who’d taken a shine to him.
I’d see him at breakfast, since we were both early risers. He’d greet me with “How’s my little pal?” smiling down from his six-foot-two vantage on my five-foot-five, all sun and radiance. We ate eggs and bacon and toast with plenty of jelly. We grinned a lot, and every now and then he’d say, like a mantra to ward off evil: “Aren’t we having fun!”
We hadn’t the least idea then that we’d be spending the most important years of our lives together, years that would never have been possible if Ray hadn’t sobered up and stayed sober. At that point in my own life, I’d had enough of trying to haul alcoholic men out of the abyss. My father had been an alcoholic, as had my second husband, and also the lover I would return to, briefly, after having met Ray. That man drank beer while taking lithium and slept with a revolver under his pillow. He had considerable writing talent, but the drink ran him in circles, and I could see it would take him years to find his way out.
When Ray and I met a second time in Texas, he had been sober a year and a half, but nobody was giving him good odds of staying that way. I remember he said he’d never written anything while drinking. All his stories and poems had been written during dry spells.
I took a gamble that Ray might make it and actually stay sober, if he had someone who could hold the high ground with him. I knew I could do that, but I wanted no repeats of my previous misadventures. I gave Ray to understand that he’d have to maintain his lucky streak if he wanted to be with me. Here the word somehow has to come in, because somehow he gradually gathered himself into a place where he lived for the promise of the future, where each day without drinking had a glow and a fervor. Once we were living together and he was steady enough, he took heart from seeing me at my writing. After four years of not being able to write — ever since the publication of his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? — he began drafting the stories that would earn him a place not just in American literature, but in world literature, for his books have now been translated into more than twenty-eight languages.
In our ten “gravy” years together Ray would get up in the morning like a cat that thought it could leap as high as any bird flying. And he did leap. The leopard of his imagination pulled down the feathers and blooded flesh of stories fueled by his previous failures and delivered as the result of his recovery. Whereas earlier he’d simply chronicled the deterioration of mostly working-class lives, his new stories actually allowed for recovery and revelation.
I’ll never forget the day he told me that his Knopf editor wanted him to take the drinking out of all the stories in the book that would be titled What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. I paused a long while, pacing the rooms of our little cottage in Tucson, Arizona. Then I sat down in front of him and said, “You’ve got to get rid of that editor. He just doesn’t understand where you’ve come from or what you’re about.”
But this early phase of Ray’s sobriety demanded that he not take on battles that would exhaust him and possibly lead to uncontrollable consequences. Ray saw his choice as this: stay sober, or fight to get a new editor. Although the drinking stayed in his stories, there were many other important elements the editor cut.
Ultimately the trespassing editor and Ray parted company. A provision was made that this editor wasn’t to touch the next book, Cathedral, which would certify not only Ray’s literary reputation but his gift for writing about moments of transformative change. This book, in which the upturn in Ray’s life was clearly apparent, has continued to be his best-selling work.
Early on Ray had told me how, in his first days of trying to stay sober, he’d needed something to fill up all the time he’d previously spent drinking, so he’d played hours and hours of bingo. He’d also gone to AA meetings drunk, he said with an embarrassed giggle. But he would always sober up and try again. He had three major physical collapses before he finally quit. When he suffered a seizure in a doctor’s office, the doctor told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, he’d die. Thank God for that doctor. From that moment on, Ray was determined to get free of alcohol.
I admit I was partly bluffing in Texas when I led him to believe I would disappear from his life if he went back to drinking. Luckily I didn’t have to face that choice. I truly don’t know what I would have done, for I was deeply in love, as if my life until then had simply been a rehearsal for meeting him. There was a way in which all the failed alcoholics in my life were symbolically delivered by Ray’s success. He was drying out for all of them.
Ray and I got to be like two mountain climbers rigged to each other on a glacier face. There was a heady exhilaration in everything we did, because of how far we’d come to get there.
Ray felt an obligation to help others who were in trouble with alcohol. Wives of my colleagues at the University of Arizona used to ask me if Ray would talk to their husbands, whose drinking had gotten out of control. In Syracuse, where we both taught until 1983, I’d learn on occasion of students who were alcoholics or addicts, and Ray would take them aside and go to meetings with them. He’d share his own story, for he believed that stories can save us.
I remember the time my second husband, Michael, rang our house during a dark night of the soul, while trying to come off drink. I was away in Ireland, so Ray had to handle it. “Michael,” he said, “you know I’d fly to Boston tonight if I thought I was the only one on the planet who could help you, but you can get help there.” I believe Ray’s talking to Michael that night gave him a leg up. Ultimately he would go to AA twice a day and get sober.
Ray discovered so many ways to fill the time he’d formerly spent with his elbow on a bar, darkly commiserating with some fellow drinker. We would wake up at Sky House, my writing cabin on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the Canadian border, and I’d say, “Let’s have breakfast on the beach!” and Ray would say, “Great! Let’s do it, babe!” I’d cook us up something portable and fill the coffee thermos. Down we’d go to sit on a log and breakfast with the waves. Other times we’d take walks along the river and watch for birds. We’d feed chickadees and varied thrushes at the house. We’d go salmon fishing in the strait or fly to Alaska and fish off Prince of Wales Island in a sixteen-foot skiff. We’d also cozy up in bed and read poems aloud to each other just about every night, especially during rainstorms.
We traveled a lot: to Brazil, Argentina, England, France, and Ireland. In Belfast, a poet friend loaned us his apartment. Ray didn’t want to chance going to a pub, so my Irish musician friends came over to play for him. But when one of them got too far into the drink (they’d brought their own), Ray said, loud enough for all to hear, “Come on to bed, sweetheart,” and disappeared up the stairs like smoke. I quickly shuffled my baffled friends out the door, and they found themselves on the stoop, unceremoniously ejected.
Ray didn’t like to be around people when they’d had more than one drink. The ambience changed, and he felt the evening slipping away into that place he never wanted to go again. He wouldn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of his new life. This included his mother, his ex-wife, his son, and his daughter. He dealt with them at a remove, and that distance enabled him to protect himself from “old demon” territory.
MY DAUGHTER AND APPLE PIE
She serves me a piece of it a few minutes
out of the oven. A little steam rises
from the slits on top. Sugar and spice —
cinnamon — burned into the crust.
But she’s wearing these dark glasses
in the kitchen at ten o’clock
in the morning — everything nice —
as she watches me break off
a piece, bring it to my mouth,
and blow on it. My daughter’s kitchen,
in winter. I fork the pie in
and tell myself to stay out of it.
She says she loves him. No way
could it be worse.
He talked to his family members intermittently on the telephone and privately grieved at how their circumstances never seemed to live up to their ambitions. He genuinely wished things would go better for them, and when they didn’t, he still held out hope. But he wasn’t willing to let his family get him down with their compounded troubles. Ray managed carefully the once-a-year encounters, renting rooms at a hotel so he wouldn’t have to bear up under more direct circumstances.
When Ray was writing, calm was as necessary as oxygen to him. (Recall the title of his first book: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) Ray’s nerves seemed exposed without alcohol to deaden them. He sent me out once to shut up all the dogs in the neighborhood, for he was especially sensitive to persistent loud noises. Ray was a great avoider, and that was his characteristic mode when in turmoil. He’d get himself away from the trouble, and he was always looking ahead to see what might be coming. I think he developed a kind of talent for sidestepping difficulty because his life depended on it. He didn’t consider running away to be cowardly under such circumstances. He knew what triggered his “jitters,” his “God-help-me’s,” his cave-ins of the spirit. Climbing the mountain next to him, I came to know these hazards too. I tightened the rope between us. I sunk my piton into the ice. I let him know I was right there.
Companionship is probably a necessity for anyone coming out of alcoholism: to have those who give us strength close at hand. He called me “the rock,” and I know I tried to be. Ray’s poems and stories were admissions of that “other” life, the “bad Raymond” who’d lived at the mercy of alcohol. They paint a dire portrait of times he didn’t want to relive.
All that day we banged at geese
from a blind at the top
of the bluff. Busted one flock
after the other, until our gun barrels
grew hot to the touch. Geese
filled the cold, grey air. But we still
didn’t kill our limits.
The wind driving our shot
every whichway. Late afternoon,
and we had four. Two shy
of our limits. Thirst drove us
off the bluff and down a dirt road
alongside the river.
To an evil-looking farm
surrounded by dead fields of
barley. Where, almost evening,
a man with patches of skin
gone from his hands let us dip water
from a bucket on his porch.
Then asked if we wanted to see
something — a Canada goose he kept
alive in a barrel beside
the barn. The barrel covered over
with screen wire, rigged inside
like a little cell. He’d broken
the bird’s wing with a long shot,
he said, then chased it down
and stuffed it in the barrel.
He’d had a brainstorm!
He’d use that goose as a live decoy.
In time it turned out to be
the damnedest thing he’d ever seen.
It would bring other geese
right down on your head.
So close you could almost touch them
before you killed them.
This man, he never wanted for geese.
And for this his goose was given
all the corn and barley
it could eat, and a barrel
to live in, and shit in.
I took a good long look and,
unmoving, the goose looked back.
Only its eyes telling me
it was alive. Then we left,
my friend and I. Still
willing to kill anything
that moved, anything that rose
over our sights. I don’t
recall if we got anything else
that day. I doubt it.
It was almost dark anyhow.
No matter, now. But for years
and years afterwards, living
on a staple of bitterness, I
didn’t forget that goose.
I set it apart from all the others,
living and dead. Came to understand
one can get used to anything,
and become a stranger to nothing.
Saw that betrayal is just another word
for loss, for hunger.
© Brenda Flynn
If a recovering alcoholic is to survive, he or she must leave all elements of the drinking life far behind, for, like the goose in the barrel, they call out. At ten o’clock every night, without fail, Ray would unplug our telephone. He didn’t want any of his boozed-up former friends calling us, shattering our peace. He was securing the perimeter. In his book Carver Country he writes to a young writer who’s trying to make it out of his own drinking problem. Ray tells him that for years he didn’t do anything except try to stay sober. He made it his priority. He didn’t care if he never wrote another thing, if only he could stay sober and alive.
Even in his sobriety, there were skittery times. Shortly after Ray learned that his lung cancer had accelerated, I watched him set out to attend an AA meeting in a nearby town. A half-hour later the phone rang. It was Ray. He was in a bar. “I didn’t drink anything,” he said, “but I’ve ordered something. It’s still sitting on the bar.” I took a breath and, like a hypnotist, told him: “Just get to your car and drive straight home. I’ll be waiting in the driveway.” He drove home, stopped the car before he reached the house, and got out to hold me, like a man clutching a life raft.
During my time with Ray, I learned that there are all kinds of recoveries from alcohol. For some the desire to drink still hits them like a javelin, and it’s all they can do to keep from falling to their knees. But Ray finally got to the high ground, where the desire no longer plagued him. And I was privileged to be there with him.
What else is there to say, except I wish this escape for anyone who suffers from alcoholism or another addiction. I hope that it happens for them sooner rather than later — that they’ll choose the path of life, instead of death.
In Ray’s final poem, “Late Fragment,” we can experience the condition of his heart, his acceptance of himself as someone who has met his demons eye to eye and vanquished them — with the help of others, and by grace. He’s left his writing to show others the way. His poems and stories, in their fearless clarity, say just how it is to nearly die, then in a moment turn back toward life. Ray was fond of quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s mandate: “You must change your life.”
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Tess Gallagher is a writer and poet, and the widow of the author Raymond Carver. This essay is adapted from a talk she gave at a Welsh Academy conference on intoxication. The poems are reprinted from All of Us: The Collected Poems, by Raymond Carver. © 2000 by Tess Gallagher. They appear here by permission of Knopf Publishing Group and Tess Gallagher.
I recently lost my job and am going through a second bitter divorce. Money is virtually nonexistent. Yet I renewed my subscription this past month with no regrets. The Sun reminds me that to feel pain and empathy and joy and grief is to be alive.
I am also an alcoholic in the early stages of recovery, and tonight, as I curled up on the couch with the December Sun, a hot cup of tea, and my many problems, I cried and felt the release that I used to get only from a drink. I had just read “Instead of Dying,” by Tess Gallagher, about her husband Raymond Carver’s battle with alcoholism. I was profoundly grateful to be holding an empty tea mug, and not an empty bottle.