Living with my father: ‘It is hard to love an addict’

Emilie Pine writes about her father’s alcoholism and his 2013 health crisis, in an extract from her book Notes to Self

Emilie Pine and her father Richard. Photograph: Ninian Falkiner

Emilie Pine and her father Richard. Photograph: Ninian Falkiner


Corfu General Hospital is bewildering. The foyer is crowded with patients smoking, and there is no sign of an information or registration desk. I text him to ask where he is but get no response. Somehow, like bloodhounds, we track him to the fifth floor. He lies weakly in the bed.

It is evening now and he says he hasn’t seen a nurse or doctor since midday. He says he needs a bedpan. My sister and I have been travelling for over 24 hours, and neither of us has slept. “Call the nurse,” I tell him. He says he did, but nothing happened. “Well, do it again.”

He holds the call bell in his hand and presses, repeatedly. After a while a harassed-looking nurse appears, shouting at him, at us. I feel guilty for not speaking Greek. With useless gestures, I point to the man in the bed, I try to signal that he needs a bedpan, to be washed, and the sheets changed. None of this makes any impression. The nurse says something else, throws up her hands and leaves. He looks at us in desperation.

I ask my sister to stay with him and I go out into the corridor. I can see only other patients, and their families. I go to the nurses’ station but there is no one there. As I walk away, at a loss for what to do, a woman speaks to me. When I don’t respond, she asks me in English if I am alright and I latch on, asking her if she knows where the nurses are. “There are no nurses,” she tells me. An older man leans over. “Without your family here, you die.”

“You’re alive anyway,” I say. He nods

This will become a mantra to us over the weeks that we spend in Greece, trying to nurse our father back to life. Very quickly we learn just how understaffed the hospital is. There are no doctors after 2pm, and after 5pm there is only one nurse per ward.

On this corridor, I count six rooms, each with up to six patients. The nurse is barely able to cover the basic medical needs of all these people, and she does not have time to deal with incontinence. We also learn that this floor – officially for patients requiring “internal medicine” – is dubbed “the dying ward”.

The English-speaking local tells me that I must take care of my father. She explains gently where to buy incontinence pads and wipes and paper towels. I barely take this in, but go back into the private room my father’s crisis status has secured him, and explain to my sister the state of play. She looks at me in disbelief. She is standing at the head of Dad’s bed, and fixing his pillows.

I realise that I have barely spoken to him, though I have travelled across Europe to be here. “You’re alive anyway,” I say. He nods. He looks very small in the bed, small and lost. I decide that this can’t be the way it is. I go back into the corridor and ask the sympathetic woman if she will help me to find a doctor. She nods.

After a search, we find the blood donation clinic with its attending medic. I take his hand and ask him to see my father. I tell him that I don’t understand anything. I tell him that we just need someone to explain it all, though what I really want is someone to tell me what to do. Extremely reluctantly he says something to the woman at the desk, and leaves the clinic. We take the lift back up to the fifth floor, retracing my route past the doleful visitors and into the room.

“He’s a doctor,” I say, with more hope than certainty. He takes Dad’s chart, looks it over, nodding, then says, “your father has lost a lot of blood. He will need transfusions. You must give blood”. It seems easier to agree, though I had hoped for a more thorough examination.

In the weeks that follow, this will be the pattern that our time takes: hours of waiting, followed by a struggle to attract official attention, only to be told something that we already know. After years of teaching Beckett plays, I am finally living in one.

Surgical gloves

Having delivered his pronouncement, the doctor nods again and leaves. In his wake, I look to my father for guidance, but he only looks back at me for a reassurance I cannot give. I try to smile. We’ve now been here for more than an hour and though I know he is relieved to see us, and my sister has stroked his hand and made him feel much less alone, he is still lying in dirty sheets. Since no one else is going to help us, I ask my sister to come with me. “We’ll be back soon.”

Downstairs we find the hospital shop, which sells a useful combination of hot snacks and drinks, and the products necessary for looking after a patient. We buy wipes and pads and, as an afterthought, my sister buys a box of surgical gloves. These, it turns out, will prove invaluable.

When we explain to Dad what we are going to do, he is distressed and embarrassed. But the smell in the room is now awful, and it drives us to be as efficient and business-like as we can. We clean him. Once the dirty sheets are bundled up, I take them to what looks like a utility room and guiltily leave them there.

In an abandoned-seeming ward, I take clean sheets from one bed, and blankets from another, figuring that if you don’t take, you don’t get. When I come back into the room, my sister has managed to make Dad laugh. As we tuck the new sheets around him, it becomes clear how much our sense of humanity depends on these basic things. Nothing has really changed, and I am no clearer on Dad’s medical status, but it feels as if we have achieved something huge.

She is wearing an apron that would look suitable on a butcher in an abattoir

It gets late. We agree that I will stay in the hospital overnight, and my sister will go to a hotel in town. I want to go with her, but from now on we will take it in turns to stay with Dad. She makes it out of the ward just in time – they lock the doors at 11pm. It is accepted that family members will stay, but the door prevents coming and going. After hugging her goodbye, I turn back to the room. I don’t envy my sister her solitary journey to find a place to stay, but neither have I any idea how to navigate the night ahead in the hospital.

Dad has slipped into unconsciousness. I listen to his breathing, hold my hand on his chest to feel his heart, which beats steadily, though it feels very faint. The bag of blood hanging by his head is now almost empty. I eye it warily, thinking that I don’t have the energy to figure out what to do once it is gone. I dial the number for his insurance company but only get an automated message. When I realise that I have left my charger in my sister’s bag, I give up the idea of phoning anyone else.

I turn off the lights and look out the window at the hills north of the hospital, and listen as the late night quiet spreads through the ward. It gets so cold that I heap blankets on Dad. I sit in my coat and wait. After a while, the door opens and the harassed nurse re-enters. I watch silently as she takes down the empty blood bag, replaces it with a fresh one and squeezes to check that it is going in. She is wearing an apron that would look suitable on a butcher in an abattoir. It is only after she leaves that I realise she did not wear surgical gloves or wash her hands.

Later in the night, a different nurse appears and I manage to smile and proffer the box of gloves. She cautiously takes a pair and puts them in her pocket. “No, no,” I say, smiling ingratiatingly. I mime for her to put them on but she only waggles her fingers to show she is already wearing gloves. Her pair, though, has blood and stains on them, and I mime for her to remove them and use the fresh ones.

All this miming must seem ridiculous, but like the madwoman she presumably takes me for, I keep going until she sighs and changes the gloves. The old ones go in her pocket. This only becomes comprehensible several days later when another visitor explains that the hospital provides no disposable products at all – no cotton wool, no paper, no plastic. The nurses have to buy their own, out of wages that are already insufficient. The glove pantomime becomes a regular occurrence and every time I give a nurse a fresh pair I feel like crying.

But that first night, as I half dozed, half listened anxiously for my father to take his next breath, I was too stunned to cry. I had expected the call for years, and had imagined the scenarios, so that when it came I was able to react, to make the necessary decisions. It was only in the quiet and the dark of the hospital room that I understood the call was only the beginning.

The message

I hear the beep, too early on a Sunday morning to be a casual message. The text reads: “Am bledng. Dont fon”. I phone him. He sounds awful. He sounds like what he is: a man who is bleeding to death. He chokes and coughs, only barely able to speak, as the blood vomits out of him. I tell him to hang on. I ring his friend P, who lives on the other side of the island, and she rings the ambulance. But the driver refuses to go out on the call. He is spending Sunday with his family. He seems to think that it will be a wasted journey, that my dad will be dead already, and so he can wait until Monday.

It feels like bashing yourself against a wall, not just your head, but your whole self

P berates and cajoles. It takes a long time for her and her husband to persuade the driver that despite it being a Sunday, and despite it being an hour’s drive, he has to go. P doesn’t tell me any of this until later. For now, she only makes me promise to ensure that Dad’s front door is open. If the door is locked, they will leave again.

I phone Dad back. He is, luckily, still conscious, and he crawls to the door, and turns the key in the lock. When the ambulance gets to his village, his neighbours direct them to his house. The emergency crew pick him up from the floor where he lies, now unconscious, and take him to the hospital.

In winter there are no direct flights from Ireland to Greece. Hours after the call, my sister and I fly from Dublin to Heathrow for our first stopover. Men in scarves crowd the plane, and I realise there must be some important football match on. At the new terminal four we eat in an Italian restaurant. Though it is grotesque to care about food while your father lies dying, I order truffle pasta and it is delicious.

Over dinner I tell my sister that I don’t know what we will find when we get to Greece. I tell her that I am tired. I tell her about one evening several years earlier when I asked Dad to stop drinking. About how he poured himself another glass of wine as I was speaking. About how I was crying and he was telling me to stop being so stupid. I tell her that I threatened him, that I told him I would stop loving him. I tell her, though I am barely able to admit it to myself, that at one point that night I looked at him and thought, “‘Just die now”.

As we eat and talk we keep checking our phones, a reflex that is both hopeful and fearful. We haven’t heard from him since he was taken to hospital and we both know that he may be dead. My phone beeps, and I grab for it, but it’s just an automatic update. My sister looks at me. She knows I could never stop loving him.

Loving an addict

It is hard to love an addict. Not only practically difficult, in the picking up after them and the handling of those aspects of life they’re not able for themselves, but metaphysically hard. It feels like bashing yourself against a wall, not just your head, but your whole self. It makes your heart hard.

Caught between endless ultimatums (stop drinking) and radical acceptance (I love you no matter what) the person who loves the addict exhausts and renews their love on a daily basis. I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father. It took years of refusing him empathy before I realised that the only person I was hurting was myself.

And now, as he lies in this hospital bed, wasted and yellow with sickness, a sickness which he has deliberately and consistently sought out, as his heart and blood and kidney functions are minutely monitored by these machines, I look at him and wonder: how I can love him, how I can save him, when I can’t even reach him?

Emilie Pine is associate professor of modern drama at University College Dublin, and Notes to Self is published by Tramp Press this month. Richard Pine writes for The Irish Times. He lives in Greece

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