The nature of the response to the first post under this title was such that I think there is real value in it. Examples drawn from life apparently say more and go further than any form of prescription or wit on the part of yours truly. If we all think about it, I’m sure we can come up with many examples of the tragically flawed in our lives, and upon reflecting on those flaws we perhaps better understand ourselves as we are, or as we would like to be.
Between the ages of about 5 and 13 my neighbour was a man I shall call Thomas. He lived with his wife and his Old English sheep dog, apparently in quiet suburban boredom, just like everyone else. He washed his car; he went to work; he mowed his lawn; he entertained – or endured – his wife’s parents, and her brother, every weekend; he walked the dog; he grew a beard; he washed his car… Once he had a knee operation to fix a cartilage problem. For six weeks in a cast he struggled with bucket and sponge, lawn mower and hound. But then all went back to normal.
After a few years a baby was born, just as you’d expect. His wife’s parents, and her brother, now visited more often, and he struggled to establish any paternal or familial status for himself. Things deteriorated. His wife suffered from post-natal depression, which neither of them understood, and about which neither of them knew how to ask for help. Thomas began to doubt his own worth: what was the meaning of this life, with its dark loveless procession of in-laws, works and days? He started to drink. My brother saw him at lunchtime one day, parked in his car in a layby drinking Tennant’s Super. The pain was to be numbed, one way or another. I watched with childlike fascination as this well-meaning but ultimately lost man fell apart. He came home from work one day and hid a plastic bag full of beer cans within our compost heap. His escape from the problem had now become the problem, the identification of which covered over the real issues – depression, family, fatherhood, boredom. Alcoholism tends to be treated as an evil in its own right, but often, as in this case, it is merely a symptom. To treat it without treating the underlying cause is futile.
Another evening: this time he arrived home already three sheets to the wind, and found himself locked out. He banged on front door and back, urinated against the side of the house, and then banged on the doors some more. Eventually she let him in, but it was now clear that his alcoholism had made her afraid – afraid of the animal in the man, the brute that all of us carry and suppress. No longer coherent, and no longer strong enough to be human, with all the sensibilities and sensitivities that guide our relations, he succumbed through alcohol to the bare beast.
A few days later an ambulance arrived in the morning and took him away in a wheelchair. He was ashen, resigned, a wreck. He died of septicaemia within a day or two. He was 34. His wife, when asked how she was, said it was ‘a relief’. Her son was raised by her and her brother, who moved in and took over the washing of the car and the mowing of the lawn. Thomas’ life insurance paid off the mortgage.
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