Out of the Drink

For author Raymond Carver, sobriety was sweet-and meant for sharing

| Utne Reader May / June 2007


Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I met him five months after he'd made this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through his stories and poems. One result of his decision to stay sober was that he became an internationally respected master of the short story, a writer who, at his death, was called by the London Times 'America's Chekhov.' For me, the best result of his choice was that we found each other, and could write and live together, challenging, inspiring, and supporting one another in this new life we created day by day.

Every artist and writer faces the challenge of how to honor his or her intensity while not being consumed by it. Ray was nearly consumed by his. The decision that changed his life happened on June 2, 1977, a date that, if it were up to me, would be declared a holiday to honor all those who make it out of alcoholism. When I go to his grave now (he died at the age of 50 of lung cancer caused by smoking), I find messages from those who, as he did, want to stay sober, and who lean on his humility and generosity of spirit. They leave him notes: 'Ten years sober, Ray! Life is sweet, you bet! Thanks, man.'

Ray and I always celebrated the anniversary of his sobriety by doing something simple, like eating chocolate after a nice meal at which we'd toasted the occasion with sparkling apple juice. I'd give him a gift: one year a stuffed elephant to remind him of his story by that name; another, a briefcase in which to carry his newly drafted short stories.

I think, in the end, Ray managed to exchange a deadly intoxication that would have killed him for an intoxication with language and story-telling. Ray had been 'in the drink,' as the Irish say, for 25 years by the time he finally quit for good. It took the wounded grace of moments added to moments for him to inch his way free and later, at age 50, finally sit on the mountain of 10 years of sobriety. He considered his decision to stop drinking the single most important event of his life. He wrote this poem shortly before his death on August 2, 1988.



Gravy

No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. 'Don't weep for me,'
he said to his friends. 'I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don't forget it.'