No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
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.”—Raymond Carver, “Gravy”
“Gravy” was not published until after Raymond Carver’s death in August 1988. It appeared in The New Yorker that month and it is on his tombstone in Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, Washington, along with one other poem that is given the title, “Late Fragment.” Either Carver himself or his wife Tess Gallagher—who was also his literary executor—treated his tombstone as a final publication, which, at its plainest, a tombstone indeed is.
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.—Raymond Carver, “Late Fragment”
Carver stopped drinking on June 2, 1977, just after his 39th birthday. Told that he most likely would not live past the age of 40 if he continued to drink as he was drinking, he became one of the few lucky alcoholics to outlive his disease, and he died sober. “Eleven years/ago he was told he had six months to live/ at the rate he was going.”
* * * *
I do not recall July 14, 2010, five years ago today. Further, I left no social media footprint that day, so I do not even have any words or sentences or “Mark is feeling :-)” emoji on Facebook that might trigger a memory. (I looked this morning to see if I had written anything that day with one eye shut and a grimace of anticipation on my face in the worry-hope that I would find something I had written that day to someone about nothing. Nope. I do not enjoy looking at anything I typed before five years ago tomorrow.) I do not recall anything from that day because there was nothing to notice about my life that day. There is nothing to remember.
I did not know that it was the day before it was going to end.
If I had known, I might not be typing this right now. I might have made decisions about issues that I had no business considering in my condition at that time.
What little I remember about July 2010 remains in mostly soundless fragments of snapshots. Based on what I know about the subsequent 72 hours or so, I know that on July 13 I used what money that remained in my wallet to buy what was going to be my last bottles. I had so much difficulty walking the four or five blocks to that store and back that an unknown woman in an SUV saw how slowly I was manufacturing my baby steps along the sidewalk that she stopped to give me a ride home. This Good Samaritan did not know what I had in my backpack (the last two handles of a clear liquid that makes everything it touches unclear) or which store I had just left. She just was concerned that she was going to drive past someone about to collapse in heatstroke. I wasn’t.
“You’re awful young to be walking that slow.”
“I hurt my back a few years ago,” I chipperly fibbed as I hoisted myself up and into her SUV, a lie I had been telling people for a few years to cover my fear that something was going wrong. (I have spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, something I was born with and was going to affect me whether or not I drank. This was not learned until 2012. I walk, slowly, with a walking stick now.) Two blocks later, she dropped me off at my house.
The final paycheck from the most recent employer was due at the end of the week, July 16. I now had enough until then. But the check did not arrive until July 17, and the absence of my favorite clear liquid from when it ran out on July 15 (the date of my last drink) until July 17, a forced, sudden 30 hours of sobriety, almost killed me. I awoke in hospital on July 17 after a seizure brought on by withdrawal.
“[H]e was told he had six months to live/ at the rate he was going.” When one drinks heavily for a time—and the fact is that no one knows how long that time might be or how much one ought to drink in that time—one ought not quit abruptly without help. Go to a doctor. Go to the ER. It almost took my life. In my case, it was a bottle a day for four years. I am here, however, so it was the best thing that could have happened.
* * * *
Alcoholism is a disease, a psychological and physical one, in which craving for alcohol supplants all emotions, and that emotion of craving directs all actions. All addictions seem to share this simple, self-centered rule and to draw vitality from this circular emotional logic. The solution is simple but difficult: for me it involved getting involved with life, doing for others, doing things with others, and to finally notice that I am not the center of the universe and that you all are not my creations or figments of my imagination. The trick was getting me to want that, to notice that I did not know this or had forgotten all this.
About eleven years ago, maybe twelve, I tried to contact my future self, the 2015 edition of me who has several years of sobriety. I called the A.A. hotline and some nice person listened to me for a bit and then he told me he would get me in the morning and bring me to a meeting. Of course I did not go. In recovery, Step One is to admit “we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I knew my life was becoming a wreck already, even with a good job at that time, but … I knew nothing else. Ten years ago I was on Step Zero—I knew that my life was wrong, somehow—but I did not come into recovery until 2010; I do not wish those subsequent several years on anyone, even people I detest. Heh. That is a thought that would never have crossed my mind or entered my heart once upon a time, that I would not wish ill on people I dislike.
When my phone rings now, it is often someone else in recovery.
* * * *
The day before it all ended was spent in a cloud of unknowing, and not the good one. I do not know what June 1, 1977, was like for Raymond Carver, but July 14, 2010, was as sad and scary a spot—unemployed, unemployable in my condition and secretly knowing this deep down, not welcome in many houses anymore, so incapable of looking at myself in a mirror that I covered them—as any I have seen in movies. So sad and scary that the words in Carver’s plainspoken poem, written while he was dying of cancer, well, they read like a how-to manual. I understand him putting them on his tombstone.
Five years sober tomorrow and every minute—yes, every minute—is gravy. “[H]e changed his ways/somehow.” That word “somehow” is the linchpin to Carver’s poem. This is why it starts its line. Five years of somehow has been given to me so far, which I do not profess to understand. I do not need to.
For anyone who has read this far, thank you for your indulgence. I’ll be having some cake tomorrow.
* * * *
Some of this appeared in a piece, “Near-Life Experiences,” from May.
* * * *
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