I collapse into the seat of my truck, trying not to vomit. One spell was enough. Only a few weeks before, while in Southwest Washington, D.C. I had tried very hard to ignore a Hispanic guy of indeterminate age who was vomiting helplessly into the street, propped up only by one hand on a parked car. Snot ran from his nose, mixing with the green bile he was spewing into the beautiful morning. Tears dripped off his chin as his eyes ran uncontrollably. At that point in my life I rarely ventured into the city, doing so only as a last resort to construction sites or when my girlfriend finally lost all patience with me and made me go. Like most people in deep avoidance, I did not frequent places whose occupants were a reminder of where I was headed.
Here I was now, in a college town that I had dearly loved, lying across the seats in the front of my Suburban, breathing from the bottom of my stomach in long, still breaths, praying that I wouldn’t begin to vomit again. My clothes still reeked of marijuana, lemon shots, peppermint schnapps and whiskey. I also had dim memories of eating Chinese Food somewhere after the bar had closed. Which added to the nausea building unsteadily in my tortured stomach. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I had lipstick on my face, bright red, and on my pants, bright blue. Who the hell was wearing blue lipstick?
As soon as I could, I tumbled into the cargo area of the Suburban. During my travels I had outfitted it with a twin mattress, tools, camp stove and my savior this morning, a small cooler that ran off the electrical system filled with water and Gatorade. I grabbed a blue Gatorade, fumbled through the green pack for ibuprofen, and chased both with an ice cold Heineken. My stomach clenched for a moment and I inhaled carefully until the danger passed. Besides missing the interview for a job I didn’t really care about, there seemed to be no ill effects from the night before. I laugh out loud, not caring much for how I sound, then collapse until the midday sun wakes me up.
It seems I am always waking up. Those moments right after wakening, as my befuddled brain makes sense of my surroundings (or not) are usually the only lucid thoughts that I have until the next time that I wake up. A glance around confirms what I last remember: I am in a hospital. The doctor-looking guy is sitting there once again, with only a different tie identifying that he’d ever left. I’m shaking very badly now, and my sheets are clean, recently changed, which could have multiple indications. Neither my wife nor my son are in sight.
The intern, as I would learn later, stood, brushed off his pants, tossed his McMuffin wrapper in the trash and sat on the foot of my bed. “Good morning, Mr. Matney. How do you feel?” I feel that, in the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively stupid question. “Do you know where you are?” “In the hospital,” I reply, as there really is no other answer. The fact that the toilet has a lid rules out worse places. He makes some notes in his notebook, similar to the one I carry while working in restaurants to help with remembering shit, like the special of the day, or one of the many stock recipes I carry around, mostly in my head. His pen scratches noisily, nearly enough to drive me crazy.
“Where is my wife?” He has turned his curious, unsettling gaze on me once more. I feel more like a lab rat or a medical curiosity than a patient. “How is my son?” My restraints are still in place, which is gnawing at me every single second that I am awake.
He assures me that they are well and safely at home. I relax a bit into the bed, relieved. I then turn to sorting out the sequence of events that brought me here.
I’d been drinking heavily since around mid-October, 2012. My wife had gotten pregnant with our first child around the first of March of the same year and I had made a half-assed attempt to sober up in September. I’d lost my scholarships, my status as a graduate student and dismissed from the teaching program in which I was enrolled shortly after my attempt to get clean. I lasted a few weeks a few weeks after that, then, tired of dodging the truth about why I was home and not in the school systems and why I wasn’t working on my thesis, I found it easier to pretend to go to work and instead join the early morning night shift crowd at a local bar that I liked very much at the time.
As to how, exactly, I ended up here, I realize I don’t have a clue. The intern watches my attempt to put together the recent past. Distinctly remember a very large, very sweaty guy in scrubs and a mask digging around in my ass with an air of vague interest and boredom. Checking for hemorrhoids, he had said. Most like causing them, I thought, expecting one of his cigar shaped finger to protrude out of my mouth, or maybe my nose as he rooted around like he’d lost something up there.
I explain to the intern that I had little idea of what had happened prior to my visit to my primary doctor. I remember going to breakfast, having a Bloody Mary, going to the ABC store, having a fight with my wife and throwing up blood in the bathroom. Beyond that, I reply, I don’t really know. “Do you know what day it is?” A valid question, no doubt. One I don’t really have an answer for. “March?” I guessed. Time to plant fruit trees and prepare the garden boxes for spring.
“What day is it in March? What year?” I frown at him. “I don’t know!?! It’s March! Where is my wife?” He sighs, and looks at his hands. “She dropped you off at your doctor’s office two days ago. Do you not remember any of this?” I stare at him blankly. Slow horror is creeping up on me in the darkness leaking into my peripheral vision. “Do you remember when your son was born? What day?”
My son was born on December 30, 2012 at 9:32 a.m. He was healthy, whole and my wife survived the ordeal with her usual toughness, ignoring or overlooking the fact that I had been drinking for about two months straight. By the time I left the safety of my office upstairs next to the nursery and drove my wife to the hospital in Roanoke, about an hour away, I was well into withdrawals and teetering on the edge of delirium tremens. My hands were shaking, my vision overcompensating and my basic motor skills were just about shot. I honestly wanted nothing more than to get my wife to the doctor and then find a bar. The further we went the less concerned I was about what order these things happened in.
It was late, and my wife was in labor. We did make it to the hospital. I concentrated on driving as though I was a steely-eyed participant in the Daytona 500 with the whole world watching, praying that I would pass a cop so I could ensure that the two people that I loved more than anything else in my life would make it safely to the hospital. The white lines became mental barriers as the wind howled and swirling snow slammed into the exterior of her car, muffled by layers of crash protection and sound proofing. Laura was in terrible pain and horrified that I would crash at the same time. My maximum speed appeared to be around 45 miles per hour, which I was convinced was nearly the same speed as an Enterprise Space Jump. The snow reminded me of the stars flying by in the movies.
We made it. Nolan was born without incident. I took the first few pictures of him and held Laura’s hand during delivery and managed to stay upright long enough for my sister and mother to visit, call her parents, who lived on the eastern shore, about six hours away, and converse with the nurses and doctors about Nolan’s health.
I reeked of rum and ketosis. My body was losing its ability to get through the sixteen hours or so that I had spent without alcohol. I was shaking and sweating horribly and wanted nothing more than a drink, an ambien, two ibuprofen and a place to sleep. Nolan solemnly looked around him in an attempt to see this noisy world he had been so rudely dumped into and napped between feedings. He mostly stared where the face of his mother was, into the voice and heartbeat that he had known for nearly nine months, a time of safety and care and bonding. His mom’s womb had nourished and held him and the bonds of love had developed deeply in that time period, as only they can between a mother and child that share the same space, blood, dreams and emotions from day one of his conception.
I recognized the moment for what it was, and was saddened to despair that I was too sick to enjoy these first few moments. I groggily got through it, with little sense of time or really even space. The nurses realized that there was something wrong with me, one of which sniffed my breath delicately and advised that I go to the emergency room. Despite my pleading they would not give me as much as an ibuprofen to ease my suffering, which seemed inconceivable beside the miracle happening in the next room.
Sleep would not come to me and when it did it was full of monsters and blood and my helpless newborn son screaming in pain. I lost my sense of time and space. I constantly fell from the couch on which I was attempting to rest. Laura had been awake for over 24 hours and begged me to go home and get some rest. She told me I was the one that looked awful. It was true. It was as if a ray of sunshine had rested on her and the baby and I were a lurching spawn of hell doomed to forever look upon total beauty and happiness from a safe distance, where they could not be harmed by my sickness.
As time started to slide back into place, Laura asked me once more to go home and clean and sleep before she and the baby joined me. Her only request was that I get something to eat and bring her something back. Weariness had settled into her and she needed me to leave. In my state, I was of no help. I stank of alcohol and sweat. My sheets were tangled and yellow and I felt terrible. I was shaking so badly that I could not trust myself to hold my own newborn son, terrified that I would drop this tiny living being that God had entrusted me with.
Stumbling my way along, I found my way out of the hospital somehow, to the car and drove home. The sun was just rising and it was cold and achingly beautiful. I was nearly beyond despair. I called my parents, pretended everything was ok, babbled nonsensically about Nolan and Laura, and then finally turned into the valley that led to our home.
Situated on a knoll overlooking the New River and surrounded with oak, hickory, beech and popular, it is a beautiful place. Smoke still rose from our chimney from the firewood that I had stuffed the wood stove with just before we left for the hospital. There was a heavy frost that turned the brown background of early winter into a wonderland of color and light. This was all lost on me as I hid behind my sunglasses and grimly drove the last one hundred feet or so in four wheel drive, sliding into Laura’s parking spot by rote and ritual rather than skill. I stepped out of the car, said hello to the cat, and vomited into the frost and snow. Over and over and over, until I was on my knees with snot running from my nose and bile running from my mouth. I crawled to the woodshed, where I struggled to stand, opened the door, and clumsily grabbed a handle of peppermint liquor out of the tool rack. My body clenched and shook as I poured my first drink since my son was born into my system. I shook violently for a few minutes, then crawled into the house, leaving tracks in the snow of a body drug rather than moving of its own volition.
Hours later, I awoke in the deepening cold on the floor of the kitchen near the door, which I had sense enough to close. The liquor bottle lay close by on its side, with only a trickle of liquid remaining in the bottom. I woozily got to my feet and managed to get the fire rekindled. I took off my urine and sweat stained clothes and crammed them into the washer on the “sanitize” option and staggered into the shower, getting a good look at myself in the mirror as I went. I was horribly fat. My eyes were but specks in my swollen, drunken face. My nose and cheeks were a terrible shade of yellow, along with the whites of my eyes. My swollen stomach reached far in front of me, protruding as if I were the one who had needed to give birth, not my wife. In self-defense against the stranger in the image, I rummaged through the space under the bathroom sink, retrieved a bottle of rum, and stepped into the shower.
The next few months are only bits and snatches of half-remembered facts and dreams. I remember having newborn pictures taken with our new son and my wife, his doting and protective mother. I dimly remember cooking, canning, keeping the wood stove going and holding my son when he cried at night and needed to be fed. I drank most of the time. I remember thinking, “Now I can drink all I want – my wife and family will be diverted by the baby.” My writing deteriorated into nothing but babble and nonsense. I posted nothing on my blog, nothing on my Facebook account, called very few people and had little to no human contact outside of my wife and son.
Now, faced with an intern in the hospital room who apparently had nothing better to do than to sit on the edge of my bed, stare at me in some combination of pity and loathing and ask questions for which I had no answer. “My son was born on December 30th, 2012.” “Were you drinking then?” I covered my face with my hands, and for the first time that I could really remember, began to sob.