Dennis

This is an extremely painful story for me, but I learned a valuable lesson from it.

Dennis was my father-in-law for twenty years. He died a few months ago. The official cause of death was respiratory failure, but what killed him was 40 years of untreated alcoholism and good intentions. Some of those good intentions were mine, because I failed him as much as anyone.

We didn't get to spend a lot of time with him because he lived about an hour and a half from us, but we never worried much because my husband is from a large family and many of the kids were close to him. Besides, Dennis was a high functioning drunk. He wasn't a guy that had problems, he was the guy that fixed things for everyone else.

But in early June we got a weird phone call from one of the siblings. We were told to go pick up Dennis' dog because he couldn't take care of her anymore. Dennis never called to ask us to take the dog, in fact the last time we talked to him he had informed us that he wasn't coming to our daughter's graduation because he didn't feel like it. We were concerned and drove up to see what was going on.

We got the shock of a lifetime when we walked in the door. In six months Dennis had become emaciated to the point that he couldn't walk down the stairs and was effectively trapped in his own house. I looked in the fridge to see if I could make him some lunch and discovered that he literally had no food in the house. Plenty of booze, no food.

His arms were covered with huge black sores from falling down and he told us that he was having trouble since he fell on the stairs and hurt his neck. He neglected to tell us that he fell down the stairs multiple times because he was staying drunk 24 hours a day, but we managed to figure that out on our own.

We were honestly shocked and didn't know what to do, so we did the only thing we could think of and went to do some grocery shopping. I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting up fruit and packaging food so that he could access it easily while my husband tried to figure out what the hell had gone so wrong. We talked to one of the sisters and she assured us that she was signing him up for Meals on Wheels and would make sure he was eating from now on.

This was a train wreck that we did not sign up for, and to be honest we had no idea what to do. We talked about making him go to treatment, but there is no way to force someone into rehab against their will. Finally we decided that we needed to fix the crisis, then cope with the disease. So we started talking to the siblings about who he was going to go live with for a while.

The answer was us. Nobody else had room for him, or had younger kids, or couldn't commit to being home. It wasn't exactly what I had planned for after the kid graduated high school and we both work, but okay, we figured we could work it out somehow. We went up and talked him into coming home with us.

We hurt him that day. He finally had to admit that he needed help. I would've given anything to prevent the desperation I saw in his eyes when he finally started to talk to us. He was depressed, he was lonely, and he couldn't control his drinking anymore. He was spiralling downward and scared that he was going to die alone and forgotten.

It didn't take long before he was cruising around our house with a walker, then a cane. Then he was using the cane to push the dog out of the way but not much else. I had an agreement with him, if he was willing to eat it, I was willing to make it or buy it, at any hour of the day or night. It was the summer of cookies and blueberry pancakes around our house. I bought him whiskey when he asked me to, I was frightened that he would leave if I refused. We told ourselves that he was gaining on it, and we could talk to him about rehab when he was a little stronger.

Then it started to get weird again. Relatives were saying that he didn't need to be at our house, he was just feeling sorry for himself and was causing trouble to get attention. We figured that if he was willing to lose so much weight that he looked like an anorexic teen to get attention, he might actually need some attention. Eventually they told him that they wanted to have a get-together at his house, so he went home. The day he left he was so excited, and he was going to stay at home for a few days and then come back.

I don't know what happened exactly, but from what we can gather everyone decided to have the gathering somewhere else and nobody told him. He called around to see when people were coming up, but all he got was voicemail. He never came back on the day he had planned, and we got really concerned because we hadn't heard from anyone either.

Eventually he came back, but he was a different Dennis. He had gotten down to one large bottle of whiskey a week, now he drank a bottle in less than 3 days. He was so drunk one night that he was waving his cane around telling me to pour him a drink into it. Then he got up one morning and left without saying a word. We kept trying, but he wasn't interested anymore.

On October 1st one of the siblings called and said that Dennis was breathing funny when she went up to get him to sign some paperwork. Concern started to become alarm when we realized that he was too incoherent to talk to my husband on the phone. We had his sister call an ambulance and we headed up. Once again, he had plenty of booze in the house, but no food.

It turned out that he was breathing funny because he had over two quarts of fluid in his lungs. Nobody is quite certain how long he had pneumonia, but he spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from it. Then he decided that it was time to leave. The hospital (wisely) told him that he could leave but they weren't letting him go home. Once again everybody else couldn't take him in, so we said we would. I didn't know it until later, but he told the hospital care coordinator that he wanted to come to our house because we could fix him. I still cry when I think of that because we failed him more than anyone else.

His brother brought him home to our house. He said that he sat slumped over in the car seat until they got to the driveway, then practically ran inside the house and found his favorite chair waiting for him. When I walked in from work a little later, I almost turned around and walked out. I had no idea how we were supposed to take care of him in that condition. He was on oxygen 24/7. He couldn't even walk the 20 feet to the bathroom, so I went and bought a portable toilet. While I was out shopping for one I cried because I was so scared.

Two days later we were doing okay, and he was getting excited because a few of his other kids were supposed to come down for a visit. I helped him with a sponge bath and botched trimming his moustache. We laughed because it was all starting to be okay. He was prohibited from drinking alcohol so we wouldn't buy him any, but that Saturday he was finally coming to terms with his changed circumstances.

Sunday came and nobody visited. It didn't seem to faze him. He was going to get better.

Monday morning we got ready for a follow-up visit with his regular doctor. He was joking around with his son, nagging him to finish getting the crops in while we were gone. On the way up I caught movement in my peripheral vision and asked him if he was okay. He was turning his hand back and forth by the car window and said that the sun felt good on his skin. We talked about getting back to living and I suggested that maybe when he was feeling a little stronger he could go to "geezer dinner" at the senior center with my dad once in a while, just to get out of the house.

Halfway through the appointment he said he had to use the bathroom. The one in the room wasn't wheelchair accessible so I took him down the hall. He used the bathroom and I went in to help him, but when he started to stand up he died. I managed to get him back down on the toilet (I didn't know he was dead, I thought he had passed out) and yelled for help. Then I realized that he wasn't breathing. I couldn't get get anyone without dropping him on the floor so I screamed louder. It seemed like forever, but help arrived in less than a minute.

One of his daughters had been waiting in the waiting room because she had a check for him to sign and she called another sister who came to the office. I called my husband so he could start driving up. They put the automatic CPR thing on him and started loading him into the ambulance. Nobody else would ride with, so I went with him to the hospital. It took an hour for my husband to get there and give permission to stop CPR because none of the others wanted to make that call.

I was angry that night, and not garden variety angry, I was pissed. Why didn't anyone notice when they were visiting that he was losing so much weight? Why did they go to the liquor store for him several times a week but refuse to buy groceries? Why did they guilt him into going home by promising to take care of him and then refuse to do it? Why did I have to be the one to help him with bathroom? Why did I have to go with him in the ambulance?

Then I realized that I should be asking myself some why questions because I was just as responsible as they were. Why did I wait to talk to him about his alcoholism until it was too late? Why didn't I offer him the help he really needed, help with finding ways to manage his disease so that he could get on with his life? Why did I think that enabling and making excuses for him was giving him support? Why didn't I have the balls to tell him that he was hurting himself with negative thoughts and behavior? Why didn't I tell him wtih love and perfect honesty that he needed to think carefully because sometimes you can't go back once you choose a path and start down it?

God knows I had empathy for his plight, I've been caught up in self-destructive behaviors before, even though I've never been a drinker. I knew he was hurting and I did nothing for years because I was scared that I might offend him or that he might not like me anymore. I watched him start to spiral out of control when his wife died, and the "help" I offered was a pat on the arm and worthless words of consolation. I watched him struggle when he was forced into early retirement and said nothing. I knew he was deeply depressed and drinking heavily after his mother passed away, and I could have told him that his mother would have been appalled by it, but instead I offered sympathy because it was easier.

Knowing Dennis was a stubborn old cuss and deep into his addiction, I'm not hopeful that it would have changed anything. But I could have tried.