As another New Year approaches, I thought about a patient from last year on New Year’s Day, who had finally stopped drinking-many years too late-but still finding some resolution in his last few months of life.
Bondage in the dictionary is defined as the state of one who is bound as a slave or a serf. There are many different paths to bondage. This past week, I witnessed two very different scenes, both however coming from a history of similarities, of past and current bondage.
A man whose entire adult life has been ruled by alcohol now spends his final days alone, estranged from his remaining family members, in a 10 x 12 room. The floor is covered with decaying food, scattered papers and loosely gathered trash, strewn articles of dirty clothing; an array of pill bottles decorates his counter. He is still trying -with increasing
difficulty- to track the medication doses, to reduce the searing pain that continues to jolt him into the present.
He lies on his stained sheets, emaciated and looking as though he has lived these last months in a concentration camp; now too exhausted to get out of bed, his forehead gash sutured closed the evidence to his waning abilities. He tells me he had no idea he was ready to fall off the cliff. But here it is –the cliff– and he is surprised.
Yet he listens as I say I think he will not get better, and in fact this may be the beginning of his life coming to an end. I ask him if there is anything I can do for him right now. If this is the last week of his life, is there anyone he wants me to contact for him?
He pauses, telling me “Let me think a minute… Is Gina Lollobrigida still around?”
I laugh and let him know I am pretty sure it’s too late for Gina. He looks me straight in the eye and slowly says, “No one I need to talk to. But thanks for asking.”
I hurt inside as I leave him, even knowing I have made arrangements for his move to a care environment that will provide comfort in his last days, and ensure he gets his physical needs met. I cannot fix the broken parts of his life, the shards left from the thousands of bottles that he has emptied.
Another man, his usual engaging smile on his face, tells me that he is a different man now. “You wouldn’t have recognized me then, I was a pretty awful person”…. all the years of attending AA and working on the wounds of his life and he knows that when he goes, very soon, that his many friends will miss him. It is the one sad feeling he gets, when thinking of no longer being on this earth, “I’m fine with dying, I know my time is about up, I just can’t quite picture not seeing these friends anymore”.
He has lived alone, but not been alone, for many years now, as he has sponsored countless other men who have in turn been freed from the restraints of alcoholism. His apartment is filled with the classical music station softly playing in the background, as he and I sip tea together, and he shares about being “really free soon”.
There are many things that could be described in this life as enslavement. When I think of my two very different men, who will soon be completing their lives here, I contemplate the word freedom: the state of being free: absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action; liberation from slavery, or from the power of another; the state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous.
My New Year’s wish for them, and all those imprisoned, to be “Free, at last”.