Early December - Charlie
People think it's easy to do this Santa Claus crap at the department stores.
I'm here to tell you it's one hell of a lot of work. All day, every day for a few weeks in that damn Santa get up. How would you like to wear that sweat soaked outfit day after day until it gets so wet and smelly so that you couldn't stand it yourself?
And the kids? People have this strange idea that, especially at Christmas time, kids are charming little angels. They are not! Most of them are little devils that pull on my beard to see if it's real then put their gum in it when they find out it's not. Spiteful brats!
All day, every day... "Santa, I want a Playstation 3. Make sure it's a 3 'cause I already got a 2 and I don't want another one of those. Are you really that fat? Is that you that smells?"
Or, "Mr. Santa Claus? You have to give me two Barbie dolls this year 'cause last year I only got one and my friend Jamie got two. So, Mr. Santa Claus, you won't be fair if you don't give me two this year. Ewww! What's that smell?"
Hey, kid, you wear this get up, day after day. You will smell just like me.
And the lines ... I didn't realize there were so many kids in this
Worst of all were the parents.
"I'm watching you, mister. You put one hand on my little girl and I'll put you in jail. God, you smell awful! Do you live in a bar?"
Well, lady, you would smell too if you had to wear this damn suit and you, too, would smell like a brewery if you drank all day just to get through it!
So I had a pint before I could get going in the morning. So I hit the flask every time I took a bathroom break. So I had a whole hell of a lot more when I got back to the dirty flophouse every night. I'd learned early that, if you were blitzed enough, the every evening fight between the roaches and the rats was more entertaining than not. I'd learned to put my money on the roaches.
There were just so many of them ... they kept coming, and coming. I now know how the peasants felt when the Mongolian hordes were running rapaciously through the land. They ... just ... kept ... on ... coming.
Came the day I pretty much died. It started like any other day - lousy. The bedbugs were getting to me; I was dirty, drunk, sick. But if I didn't go play Santa Claus I couldn't buy more rye. Yeah, I had fallen so low that I was drinking Rye Whisky.
How's that old song go? Oh, yeah,
Rye whisky, rye whisky,
Rye whisky, I cry,
If you don't give me rye whisky,
I surely will die.
And today felt like the day I would surely die.
I did make it in, somehow. I noticed how much room I had on the crowded subway.
Hey, lady, there is a seat here.
I guess she wants to stand up – usually pregnant ladies like to sit.
I finally got to the department store – not too late. Yeah, I got my ass chewed, but since that happened every day I didn't sweat it.
I started working my way through the lines. Bathroom break; snort. More kids, snort. Damn, the flask is almost empty.
"Santa, I want a new computer, a wide screen TV, a new bicycle, some more games for my Xbox,..."
Sure, kid. Whatever you say.
"Santa Daddy, when are you coming home?"
What? Ohmigod ... it's Carla! My sweet little first grader – so pretty in her plaid skirt and white blouse. Small for her age, but so smart.
"Santa Claus! Daddy. I miss you, please come home."
Tears in her eyes. Tears in mine. I looked around for June but between my alcoholic daze and the wetness in my eyes I couldn't see her. I jumped up and ran for the bathroom. Sat in a stall to hide. Finished my flask. Carla. June. Cramps in my stomach ... when did I eat last? I tried to get up – the stall door fell open and I fell, twisted, turned, tried to stand – the sink rushing at me.
Quiet. A light? Blackness. Noise, bustle. Sirens? Whispers, hands grabbing me, the ... what? Nothing. Silence. Peace.
Dreams - Charlie
I drank. That's who I was, what I did. Oh, not all the time. I was good at faking it. Vodka when I had to.
June, that beautiful lass. Hair of gold, eyes the translucent blue glow of an alpine lake. Soft skin, oh, so soft. A quiet beauty, my quiet beauty. Cut down on the drinking, yeah, I lied to her by my falseness. Love so beautiful. I tried - oh God, I tried to stop drinking.
A disease, I heard on the TV one night. Naw, it's good ... it gave me peace and confidence. It was my friend ... how could it be bad? 'Sides, I never got violent like real drunks do. I just got sleepy, so sleepy. But warm, fuzzy.
Carla came along, singing a song, even in my dreams I still imagine things – but I can't piece it together.
Carla, my little beauty. My love. I lied to June – I hid things from her. But, Carla. No, I couldn't. I tried. I really tried. I cut back. Just drank beer. Yeah, sure! Carla my life.
Then that night. I was on a bender ... hadn't been home for two days. June came looking for me – found me – in back of Lenny's Tavern with the local bar slut. She saw my car. Wasn't sure. Opened the door. Started crying, crying, running, running away from me. Bar slut laughed and handed me the bottle. The next day I was in jail and June wouldn't come.
She didn't ever come anymore. My sister called a lawyer for me from her home in Washington and he got me out on a misdemeanor "drunk in public" – no more, my sister said – and I moved to the Roach Motel. Or was it the Rat Motel. Sure, the Roach and Rat Motel. One day a guy came by and gave me some papers. I tried to read them but they were all fuzzy and there were two of everything.
Then I ran out of money and one of the other Roach Motel residents, my friend and neighbor, told me about the Santa gig. He had an extra suit and beard so I did that and got booze and watched the rats and roaches fight and the kids asked for everything and gave nothing.
Now these machines whirring beeping shots bottles dripping I don't know what, and those white uniforms fussing and bitching. One was nice – Lee Anne. An image, chubby but not fat, nice ... smelled good why didn't I stink anymore?
"Come on, honey, say your prayers."
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take."
"And I pray for grandma and grandpa. I pray for Bert and Ernie that they stop fighting. And I pray for Santa Daddy. Please, God, bring my daddy home to me and mommy.
I tucked her in, trying not to let her see my tears. I gave her a big hug and went down to finish in the kitchen. Everything done I fixed a big mug of Eggnog. Ever since I had figured out that Charlie had a drinking problem I quit putting brandy in it. I didn't miss it at all. The warmth of the mug comforted me as I thought about what had happened at the mall that day.
I was frazzled, a bit, trying to buy stuff for Carla without her seeing it and getting stuff for Judy, my sister's kids. As a ruse to distract Carla from what I was buying I sent her out to get in line for Santa Claus.
I got what I wanted but there was a problem with the credit card machine. The clerk had to phone the charge in. I could see my baby through the store window and I wanted to be there when she saw Santa.
Running a little, I got there just as I heard her say, "Santa Daddy, when are you coming home?"
I looked closer. Oh, no. It was Charlie. I stood there stunned, as Carla continued, "Santa Claus! Daddy. I miss you, please come home."
With that, Santa Claus, Charlie, got up and started running.
Carla started crying, inconsolably, as she saw her daddy running away instead of coming home. All I could do was hold her and cry myself.
It had all gone bad so quickly. I loved Charlie more than anything. It wasn't until I was pregnant with Carla that he started coming home late – coming home smelling of cigarette smoke and bars. I tried to talk to him but he would just laugh and hold me, give me a big kiss. I don't think he even noticed when I started turning away from him.
I could see the beginning of the end when he lost his job as a software salesman for missing too many client appointments. He had been one of their top performers but when his sales plummeted they could only keep him for so much time.
I tried, I really tried. He would be doing okay then once every few months he would go off on what I call "Charlie's walkabout." I wouldn't see him for a couple of days then he would stumble home, smelly, dirty, drunk, sick with the alcohol. I'd nurse him back to health and he would cry and promise to stop drinking.
Yeah, he'd try for a while but it never lasted. I started finding his stashes and pouring them down the sink. He would get quite inventive ... hiding bottles in the pool house, in the tree house he built for Carla, in the trunk of his car. I even found a couple of bottles in the pockets of his golf bag – he hadn't been golfing for years.
I pleaded with him to get help. I cried; I cajoled – even threatened. He was never mean or anything. Sometimes I wished he were so I could just throw him out. This dragged on for a long time ... until that night about a year ago. He'd been gone for several days but by then I knew which bars he would haunt.
I didn't see him but remembered once when I was looking for him.
He was parked behind a bar, sleeping it off. So I started over and, at the second bar, I did find his car in the rear parking lot.
I assumed he was asleep so I pulled up and got out, leaving my headlights on. Yeah, he was there – with some tramp from the bar.
Well, that tore it for me. I'd put up with so much, too much really, but I couldn't do it anymore.
I told him the next time he was sober to move out. He didn't fight too much ... just stood there with a hangdog look on his face.
It was hard on me. Damn, I loved the guy. It was even harder on Carla. Even when he was drunk he was the sweetest guy and the best father. I might have held on with just the drinking but sleeping around wouldn't work for me. I wouldn't divorce him because of our religion but I sure didn't have to live with him.
After he moved out, he came around about once a week to see Carla. I'm sure he wanted to see me too but I made sure to stay in the back of the house while he was there. Oh, I'd say hello and goodbye – but it hurt so bad to even see him. After awhile it was about once a month and now it had been two months since he had visited.
The last time he came I'd talked to him.
"Charlie, get some help. Don't do it for us, do it for you. Please, baby?"
I was worried about Carla if Charlie came by really drunk, so I got an Order for Protection to keep him away. Not that I thought he would do anything intentionally but he could set the house on fire and never know the difference.
But it didn't work and now he was Santa Daddy and he looked in terrible shape. Then I got the phone call from the hospital.
Detox – Charlie
Things were hazy when I started coming around. A nurse came in – maybe a little pleasingly plump - with a nametag on that said Lee Anne. She looked familiar – her name sounded familiar. But with the cotton in my head I couldn't put it together.
She saw I was awake – sort of anyway – and asked, "Do you go by Charles or Charlie?"
Mumbling as best I could, I answered, "Charlie."
With a smile, she responded, "Okay, Charlie. I'll let the doctor give you the details but basically there are three steps: get you stabilized from the abuse you have heaped on your body," here she paused and smiled to take the sting out of her words, "work out a place for an extended stay rehabilitation and then put together an ongoing treatment program."
The way my body felt I couldn't argue with her about what I had been doing to my body for too many years.
We talked for a bit about what my treatment would involve from her perspective and she left me to nod off.
Later the doctor came in. He was about my age, maybe mid-thirties, with a no-nonsense style that I liked. He was straight forward and laid it all on the line.
"I'm Doctor Wilson. I'll tell you up front that I'm not noted for my bedside manner. The way I see it is that it's your body, your life and you can do with it what you want. If you are motivated, I can do a lot to help you. If you aren't, I would suggest you ask for another physician. So, what do you say, Mr. Fleming? By the way, you can call me Doc – even my wife does."
Thinking about how I was feeling and what my life had been like I knew I had no choice. I couldn't get the image of Carla out of my head as she asked for her, "Santa Daddy" to come home.
"Okay, Doc. I'll call you that if you call me Charlie. I'll try my best, that's all I can say. I just ask that you always tell me everything and be honest with me."
"Sure, I can do that Charlie. Let's get to it then. You came here with alcohol poisoning. If you had passed out at your apartment, you might have died. I'm not saying that just to impress on you the severity of your disease – that's a cold fact. Your breathing was down to around ten breaths per minute with several periods where you didn't breathe at all for at least ten seconds. Your skin was cold, clammy, pale, and bluish in color.
"The concentration of alcohol in your brain gets high enough to depress the brain functions responsible for consciousness and respiration. You were very close to slipping into a coma. You also have early stage cirrhosis of the liver.
"Charlie, the main thing to worry about now is the detox process. Alcohol has been in your system for so long that when we take it out, your body will react violently. This reaction can be fatal. Your body will convulse and become nauseous. This will be very uncomfortable. Because of the hazards involved, we will complete this detox process here at the hospital.
"Any questions so far?"
This all sounded pretty scary to me. "Doc, will this take care of my alcoholism?" There, I said it! I had avoided the term even in my thoughts because I knew I couldn't face up to it.
"No, Charlie. Our immediate concern was to stabilize your body – that seems to be coming along okay. Next will be the process of getting the alcohol out of your system. The three main concerns are your physical wellness, your emotional stability and your ongoing health. For the last we will have a nutritionist to work out a plan for a healthy diet.
"I'll be available for the medical stuff and we will have a counselor help you with the emotional baggage. Let me be clear, Charlie. This is only the first step. The next part will be rehabilitation. Once your body reaches a satisfactory level of health you must build it up again.
"I'm checking with your insurance company on a place in Belize. Normally they wouldn't pay for out-of-the-country treatment but I can show them that effective treatment can cost less. They aren't completely convinced but they have agreed to cover half of the non-travel costs. The guy that runs it was my roommate at medical college and he has agreed to take you for half price. So basically you would just have to pay the travel costs. I'll talk to you more about this later."
I assimilated that. "Doc, what about visitors?"
"Your wife is outside now. She can come in for a few minutes. Your daughter can come in this afternoon but after that I don't want her to see what you will be going through with detox. Your wife is welcome anytime if she wants and has the stomach for it. Do you want your wife to come in now?"
Detox – June
Sitting in the sad waiting room was a poignant experience. Carla was at my mom's and I was waiting to hear from the doctor. I'd talked to the nurse briefly and she said they were doing their best to keep Charlie from slipping into a coma.
My thoughts were a chaotic jumble. How did I feel about Charlie? I loved him. I hated him ... not so much him but what he had done to himself and to Carla and me. He was an alcoholic – there was no getting around that. Intellectually I knew alcoholism was a disease but emotionally it felt to me like we weren't important enough for him to stop drinking.
I hated what he had done with that woman. Did I want revenge on him? No, I really didn't see myself doing that. Sure, I have the same needs and urges of any healthy woman. Carla was too important to me – I had this scenario that would go through my head when some man would make a pass at me. It's like what my mom told me when I was a girl: "If you are going to do anything you aren't really sure of, stop and think if you would do it if Jesus were watching."
For me, it was how would I feel and would I do it if Carla were watching. And I really did still love Charlie. It would be hard to take him back – it would be hard to forgive him. But I couldn't even think about it as long as he had this sickness in him.
Finally the doctor came out and gave me a heads up on Charlie's condition. He emphasized what the withdrawal process would be like and asked me to schedule an appointment to talk about his rehab.
He gave me a hard look, "That is, Mrs. Fleming, if you want to be involved. I understand that you and Charlie are estranged?"
Wow! There it was, staring me right in my face. The doctor was looking at me like he knew I didn't have the guts to help Charlie. Dammit, I did! I would do this and bring our family back together. The thought scared me; really scared me but I knew I had to do it. It was the only hope for our family to be happy.
With determination I replied to the doctor, "I'll do what I need to. Can I see him now?"
Still looking somewhat doubtful – I guess he had seen enough to be a bit of a cynic – he led me in to see Charlie.
It pained me to see him. There was an ugly bruise on his forehead and he looked tired ... and ten years too old. I tried to be brave and hold my tears. I failed miserably. I leaned carefully into Charlie, avoiding the tubes and equipment clustered around.
I felt his arms go around my back and hold me, listlessly it seemed. I sat up and saw the pain and humiliation in his face.
"Charlie, we're going to beat this. I love you and Carla needs her father back. We will lick this together."
Something sad showed in his eyes ... I could see his thoughts were on the terrible impact his drinking had caused us. His hands were shaking and there was a tremble in his voice.
"Do you ... June, do you really still have some love left after all that I've done? Can we still be a family? God, I'm so sorry, so sorry. Help me, June, please help me!"
He started crying and I brushed the salty tears away with my lips.
"I'll help you, Charlie. I'll be there every step of the way. Where you walk, I will walk. Where you go, I will be alongside. Just get well, please. That's all I ask of you."
I held him, thinking turbulent thoughts. I wasn't nearly as strong as he thought I was. How could I help him? It was all I could do to take care of Carla and myself.
Later I brought our daughter in. It was sad to see the pain on her face as she looked at Charlie. She was sitting on the bed as close to him as she could get.
She was rubbing her hand on his cheek and asked, "Daddy, why aren't you Santa anymore? Are you okay? I love you, daddy. Are you going to come home now?"
Charlie just held her as close as he could and let her chatter on. That night Carla prayed for her Santa Daddy again.
The next few days were hell for Charlie as the withdrawal symptoms started showing up. At times he would be agitated and even confused. Several times he couldn't remember what had happened at the department store. He had little appetite and his skin was clammy and pale. I think the worst for him was the insomnia – the nights were long for him. He would awaken and try to put his life back together.
I took a leave from my job as a secretary at our local Parish – Father Bob said he could get some volunteers to help out and I could come in whenever I could to help them over the rough spots. More and more I would take Carla over to Mom's house and stay with Charlie in the dark hours. He would look nervous much of the time, particularly the first few days. Some nights he would be lucid and other nights he would have trouble thinking clearly.
I think all of this was almost as hard on me as it was on Charlie. After a couple of weeks, Charlie starting gradually improving. It wasn't a sudden thing at all, more like a gradual improvement with occasional relapses.
One night I'd dozed off in the chair and woke to find my husband looking at me.
"June, you look exhausted! I'm doing better – I think the worst is over. I know that neither of us could ever do that again."
He looked sad and continued, "I know you still love me. No one could do what you have done for me without a strong love to support it. I will get through this but I don't know what or who I will be. You've stood by me but I don't know if I will be someone you would want to live with."
I moved over to the bed and held him. "Charlie, let's just take this a little at a time and do the best we can. That's all either of us can do. I do love you honey but ... well this is changing me too. I guess I have the same questions as you do. Will you still want me when you are ... well, better?"
We held each other for a while, then Charlie asked me to start coming in days.
"Doc said you could start bringing in Carla to visit now. He thinks I can be released in another week or two. Did he talk to you about this place in Belize?"
"Yes, Honey. It sounds wonderful. I understand the treatment is for twenty-eight days and you can stay longer if you need to."
"Yeah, and I can have visitors. I don't know if we will be able to afford for you and Carla to come down. We will have to see."
I gave him a bigger hug and a sweet kiss and went on to Mom's place. I would take a nap over there and take Carla home in the morning.
Rehab – Charlie
The place for my rehab turned out to be lovely. It was outside of a small town in Belize called Corozal and was right on Chetumal Bay – just a few miles from Mexico. It was beautiful, modern and quite comfortable.
Their program was centered on a twelve step based treatment like Alcoholics Anonymous uses. As I learned on my first day,
We use a systemic approach to assess and define the clinical, physical, and nutritional goals for each resident. Individual treatment plans are developed to help each resident achieve mental, emotional, and physical harmony.
It sound a little dry but I came to realize there was a big focus on physical activities. They had riding horses, sailboats, a full gym, massages, just about everything I could want. The rooms were small but clean and cheerful. My window looked out onto the bay. I grew to really like early morning walks on the beach.
I was amazed at how weak I was. The first week I had trouble sleeping; I was just too tired. But as my body, along with my mind, was cleansed I started putting on weight and regaining some strength. I was still tired now ... but it was the tiredness of honest exercises and not that of exhaustion.