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A complicated love story

After the death of her alcoholic ex-husband, Alanna Mitchell confronts a terrible question: could she have done more to save him?

By Alanna Mitchell

It was the morning of my daughter’s August 2014 wedding, and our tiny wedding party was gathered outside city hall in Toronto waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. I glanced up and saw a lone figure picking his way carefully across Nathan Phillips Square. He was a few dozen metres away when he raised his right hand in greeting. I realized in shock that it was my former husband, Brian Michel. I had lived with him for 20 years and now, on the day our first-born was to be married, I hadn’t recognized him.

His belly was catastrophically distended. His limbs, emaciated. His brilliant blue eyes stared at me from the wizened face of a man who could have been mistaken for 80, but I knew he was in his mid-50s, not quite three years older than me.

Reflexively, I strode over, trying to hold back tears, and took him gently, briefly, by the arm. It was the first physical contact we’d had in nearly 14 years. We chatted about trivial things as we walked toward the rest of the group: When had he come into town from his place in the Ottawa Valley? How was his mom?

Then our daughter, Calista, arrived, resplendent in her crisp taupe cotton dress and strappy red high heels. Brian sat near the front in the wedding chamber, grinning uncontrollably from ear to ear. I sat in the last row beside my new husband, the man I had married nine years earlier, sobbing, in a vortex of emotions.

One year and 13 days later, Brian was dead. A subversive vein in his esophagus — ballooning dangerously as his scarred liver strained against advancing cirrhosis — had ruptured. He bled out in his car, parked next to his house, the engine running and air conditioning on to combat the ferocious August heat.

He had been dead for hours by the time Calista, unable to reach him by phone from her home in Montreal, frantically sent the police. He was 56.

I was inconsolable. One question tortured me. Had I ever loved him? I couldn’t say. I had lost most of the details of our years together — the good and the bad — blown away as if they were wisps in the Prairie wind.

All I could remember was that for the first decade after we parted, I had woken up every single morning suffused with gratitude that we were no longer together.

I was barely 17 when we met, just out of high school and making plans to go to art college.

I was a 1970s Regina version of a hippie: waist-length hair artlessly braided each night to give me a frizzy Janis Joplin look the next morning, long batik skirts, a mad passion for spinning wool and silk, dyeing it with plants I picked from the fields and brewed up, and weaving it into lumpy textiles on homemade looms.

I had earlier, secretly, been smitten with Brian’s roommate, Grant, a photographer who was my boss in the film archives at the Regina Public Library. Grant was a testament to casual sex, feckless dope-smoking and raunchy guitar licks — the ultimate bad boy and the coolest of a cool group of Prairie rebels and unionists who scorned the rules and dabbled in art on the side. He was dangerous, older, forbidden and therefore tantalizing.

But then he introduced me to Brian, and I went into a cheesy swoon. During my lunch hours, I used to wander past the photography store where Brian worked, hoping to run into him. I ferreted out every detail I could get from Grant. Single, farm boy, photographer, big plans to go off to Toronto to school and then into a dizzying international career as a commercial photographer. Best of all, not quite 20, a far more parentally palatable age than Grant’s mid-30s.

Finally, I asked him out. To my astonishment and relief, he agreed. He picked me up in his big blue Dodge Coronet, wearing gaudy polyester pants and the stacked-heel lace-up shoes he’d worn to his Grade 12 graduation years before. We travelled around the city for a Greek souvlaki here, a Polish pastry over there. At one point, he stopped at the house he shared with Grant and discreetly ditched the polyester and heels, exchanging them for jeans and runners. In our 20 years together, I rarely saw him in anything else.

And he was gorgeous. Fine blond hair that curled slightly around his face. Twinkly blue eyes. Long, elegant muscled legs. Broad shoulders. Narrow hips. His friends called him “Buns.”

We were inseparable after that, until the summer ended and he headed for Toronto — such a bold move for a kid from the Prairies — to start his degree in photo arts at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, as it was called then. But we promised we would wait for each other. He said I tasted of raspberries.

Brian wasn’t sure he would come to the wedding feast after Calista’s ceremony.

It was at my house, and he’d long had an aversion to being anywhere near me, much less sharing a meal. It was mutual. We had never spoken about Calista’s marriage, her husband, her new life, the master’s degree she was starting that fall, her dreams. I had no idea whether he even knew what our son, Nicholas, was studying at university. There were no occasional check-ins between us on the phone, not even when Calista had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years earlier.

I didn’t know how he spent his time or whether he worked. The kids said they didn’t know either, except that he seemed to watch a lot of movies. He didn’t want me to know about his life. A couple of days before the wedding, he told the kids that he had “liver disease” — cirrhosis of the liver — and told them not to tell me. I never spoke with him about his illness.

In the end, he came to her wedding feast. He was chatty and bright-eyed, excellent company. The perennial sour set to his mouth was gone. His face was relaxed and open. For the first time in a couple of decades, I recognized him again. He told the kids he had quit drinking months before, the day of his diagnosis. He said it was the easiest thing he had ever done.

I was pregnant with Nicholas before I realized that alcohol was a big problem.

We were pinching pennies and had started making our own wine. I had visions of laying in a small store of it to age genteelly. One day, through the fog of pregnancy, I realized that he had begun siphoning it off before it was ready to be bottled, drinking the equivalent of three bottles a night. Every night.

By the time Nicholas was a year old and we were on the point of moving from Toronto to Calgary for my job as a national correspondent with the Globe and Mail, I confronted him. He was baffled. He’d had no idea that I felt this way. No problem. He could quit any time he wanted. Not to worry.

One late fall weekend in Calgary, a few years after we moved there, I insisted on getting good winter boots for the kids. He was incandescent with rage. How would he have enough money for his wine and single-malt scotch? I said, let’s budget. Let’s go to the wine store and get a selection of lovely wines for the month, and when they’re gone, that will be that. He powered through the stash in days, morose and defiant. As soon as it was finished, he bought even more. And then more again.

A few years later, I called a help line from my office in Calgary and the voice of a rather elderly woman answered. My husband is an alcoholic, I said, the first time I had uttered the words.

She laughed. So is mine, she said. Here’s a tip, dearie: just make sure to do something very small for yourself every day. It makes things easier.

He called me from rehab, south of Calgary. He’d been there for about a week and had a long way to go. When should I drive down for the family portion of the session? I asked.

Don’t bother, he said. As soon as I get you out of my life, I won’t need to drink anymore.

I took off my wedding ring. Within weeks, we had all moved back to Toronto — Brian and I to separate households.

The day after Calista’s wedding, Brian drove to Regina to see his mother and got stuck there, too sick to come home.

He spent a lot of the next 11 months in the hospital, getting his big belly drained of fluid, fighting infection, having other esophageal balloons surgically tied off.

By April, the doctors said there was nothing much they could do for him and transferred him into palliative care. He wanted to go home. So he called the kids and asked them to get his place in the Ottawa Valley ready for his return.

They went up the first time in great trepidation, insisting on doing it without their stepdad or me. They hadn’t been there in years. The pipes had burst over the winter, so there was no running water, no toilet. It was filthy. Mouse infested. They took a mound of empty bourbon bottles back to the liquor store.

They cleaned it up as best they could and tried to convince him to go into care in Toronto where they could visit him. They pleaded. His place was isolated. He had no help. He would be in danger. No use. He was determined. He was convinced he was going to live for years and, still stuck in Regina, set about ordering big-ticket items for his Ottawa Valley home: a brown leather couch, a flat-screen TV, a riding lawnmower and the best chainsaw money could buy.

At the end of June, he got a ride to Toronto and from there, the kids drove him home. He slept the whole five-hour journey north. But when they pulled into his yard, he awoke and smiled his beautiful smile. He sat on the front porch for hours that evening, peaceful, just gazing around in wonder, hanging out at last with his children. In love, I think.

He’d been dead for just over a month when I went to his place in the Ottawa Valley for the first time — and the last — trying to help the kids and my husband clear up his estate.

It was like walking into a time capsule. There, carefully mounted on the wall, the wooden Indonesian angel we had bought together and had loved. A cookbook in the cupboard above his stove, written in my hand. In his bedroom, the brass bed frame I had once daringly bought at a garage sale with our weekly grocery money. The antique cherry-wood dresser we had cherished. The paperback copy of The Joy of Sex that I had bought him the last, desperate Christmas we were together, on top of the dresser.

There was a jolt in each room, each cupboard and drawer, where so many unremembered remnants of our life held pride of place. In my own home, I had ritually excised nearly every single possession I had shared with him. I had remarried, created a new household, embraced a new family of stepsons and in-laws, travelled the world twice over, laid down a life’s worth of new memories, written four books and a play, won awards, been happy, made up for lost time, left him behind. The guilt was unremitting.

During those same years, it seemed as if he had been in suspended animation, his fierce dreams in abeyance. I found years’ worth of his tax forms with the income line pencilled in at zero. He had renovated the upstairs into a darkroom for his photographs but hadn’t used it in seven years. Bottles of toxic developing chemicals had broken, their contents dried into thick dust on the floor. He had ripped up the tiles on the main floor and meticulously crafted wide-plank hardwood strips in his woodworking shop to replace them, but had never gotten around to laying them down.

But in the kitchen, brand-new Mason jars filled with the freshest, best quality spices and a freezer full of meat, as if, in his last six weeks, he had suddenly sprung back to life.

Today, as I finish writing this piece, the kids and my husband are at Brian’s place, disposing of his stuff at an auction.

He’s been dead for 10 weeks. All of his possessions — many of them the ancient trappings of our life together — are being spread around to new families. Creating new memories, I guess. He never used the chainsaw, too weak to bring it to life.

I have his diaries, mainly written during his stays in rehab or during our agonizing divorce. They tell me that at times, at least, he surfaced. At times, he wanted to live. They also tell me, as my new husband has so often, that of the billions of people on the planet, I was the last who could have helped Brian. Right now, shakily rereading his words, I believe that.

The kids have kept his photographs, those rare glimpses into his soul, and little else. But I think that, unlike me, they have not lost Brian. They have the grace he found at the end of his life, the clear-eyed love he was finally able to show them, the joy he took in finding his way home at last.

Alanna Mitchell is a journalist and author in Toronto.

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