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Woman pouring vodka in teacup.


Two years ago my closest friend died. She was too young to leave this world - only 54. To the younger generation, that may seem ancient, but for the rest of us our 50s are the prime of our lives. It's when we should be reaping what we have for years carefully nurtured. Our efforts to raise children and climb the corporate ladder are nearing completion and the rest of our days are to be relished, at least until dementia sets in.

My friend's 50s, however, were infected with addiction, silence and, ultimately, death. For a long time I have blamed myself. I am only starting to reconcile her death and unburden the guilt.

My friend was the first person I met at my first job, fresh out of college in a new city when I was just 19. Although she was eight years older, she would become my dearest friend. An accountant by trade, she was scholarly, health conscious and a natural beauty - everything I wasn't. She rarely wore makeup and glowed with radiant skin and a contagious laugh. She was genuine, moral and respectable. A practical dresser, she wore wool sweaters and sturdy shoes rather than the latest trends.

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While I frequently lived on hot dogs and soda, she taught me how to make bran muffins and cook with rice, lentils and beans. We couldn't have been more opposite, yet it was the beginning of a long friendship.

Despite her wholesome lifestyle, she knew how to have fun. I was barely legal drinking age when I met her, and she had full knowledge of the martini-after-work etiquette. Many work days ended in a cocktail lounge laughing over drinks, as was the trend. On weekends frequent barbecues were a mainstay of our social life, and the customary drinks with dinner and after seemed innocuous.

Eventually, I moved to a different city and settled down in marriage, as did she. As our children grew, we exchanged letters and phone calls, visited and even shared family holidays together. She worked in an executive accounting position, attended church, involved herself in her children's lives and was a devoted wife and mother. Few people, including me, were aware of the double life she led; of her spiralling dependence on and prolonged addiction to alcohol.

What saddens me most about our nearly three-decade friendship is not what I do remember - it's what I failed to notice, or rather subconsciously didn't wish to see. As I left my early 20s, I traded cocktail lunches and after-work drinks for a husband and family. I assumed, erroneously, that this was true of everyone. Sadly, my friend continued to keep alcohol as a stronghold in her life, clutching her bottle of liquid support with an iron grip. For the 29 years of our friendship, she had been literally drinking herself to death.

How could I not have known? How could I have missed the signs? Now, as I think back to our visits, I remember the ubiquitous glass of "water" on the counter from which she frequently sipped, the pressing trips to the liquor store, the reluctance to go anywhere where alcohol would not be readily available. I remember the holiday we took with our families and my friend's urgent need to buy liquor, even though we had just arrived at our destination.

I didn't question when she revealed a half-empty bottle of vodka from between her clothes in the dresser. At the time it seemed peculiar, but I didn't pry. If only I had pried. If only I had confronted her. If only I had been more attentive and looked deeper. Perhaps then I could have made a difference, altered the route to the destructive path of addiction. It seemed strange at the time - so why didn't I ask? Was I so naive, so obtuse, so dense I didn't see the obvious drinking problem that stared me in the face?

Surrounding my friend's deathbed as she lay in a morphine-induced coma was a trough of overwhelming grief, blame, anger and guilt from family and friends. Her hands were trembling, her skin was bloated and yellow and her vital organs were shutting down.

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I am ashamed that as I held her hand, and for months after her death, I felt only anger and bitterness. Why had she done this to herself, her family and her children? She had espoused a healthy lifestyle that had been revealed at her deathbed to be an act, a lie. How could she drink so much alcohol to kill herself? Why had she not asked me for help - was I not a good enough friend? I would have done anything for her.

And then, as I ponder this, I concede that she did ask, but not directly. There were phone calls from her and, had I read between the lines, I would have heard her plea and seen through the thin veneer of confidence. I don't know if I chose not to perceive it or to question, or if I was so absorbed with my own life that it didn't occur to me to look beyond the fa├žade. In the end, I do not blame my friend for not being forthright. To freely admit her failings to those she loved was too much for her to endure.

Time, the inevitable healer, has given me occasion to reflect on and come to terms with her death. Gone is the anger; I am now sorrowful and I grieve for the wonderful soul that was lost. The rawness of her death has passed and the anger has turned to compassion. I am not so naive to think that I alone could have saved her from the clutches of alcohol. She had a disease for which she could not or was not willing to obtain treatment. I now, belatedly, mourn this wonderful friend, wife and mother, and I am thankful that she touched my life.

Maia Gibb lives in Saskatoon.

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