When You Can’t Even Get Drunk

You don’t think much about it until you’re getting into the truck to go home and realize you don’t have to ask, “Are you okay to drive?” And then you realize that you have never been to an event together where alcohol was served and he didn’t drink. For twenty-one years, you have expected to be the designated driver.


Of course now, you still can’t drink because you don’t want to make his sobriety more difficult – and because he has Alzheimer’s disease. Soon you will always have to drive. Even now, you sit tense, watching. Will he miss the fence, does he know he’s over the line, will he remember to shift? Booze works its way through the system and goes away. AD never does.

It’s hard enough to be a fledgling caregiver, and suddenly you find yourself the companion of a drinker on his third day of sobriety. Earlier that week at the neurologist’s office, he claimed he only had a taste, an inch or so of wine now and again. The doctor could tell he was shading the truth. “It had better not be a whole glass,” he said. “It’s really bad for the brain.” At home, Fred poured the last of a bottle of expensive Shiraz, raised his glass and said, “That’s it.”


For years, Fred’s primary care doctor, whom we’ll call Dr. H., had blamed Fred’s memory problems on his drinking. My dear husband did like his wine – as well as his gin, vodka and rum – but he only had one glass a day, and I had rarely seen him drunk. Neither of us believed he had pickled his brain with booze.

Fred wasn’t like my first husband, who could not attend a party without trying to drink the place dry. He embarrassed me in front of my friends and family, terrified me driving his Austin Healey on the freeway; he forced me to lie for him when he was too drunk to go to work. No, Fred was a civilized drinker. I’d know he was feeling the alcohol when he started hugging and kissing and telling me how much he loved me. I’d laugh and ask for the car keys, which he happily handed over.


Fred and wine had always gone together. On our first date, just before Christmas, he took me to the Mirassou Winery in the San Jose foothills where he picked up a case of wine he had purchased for gifts. It cost more than I spent on a month of groceries. A borderline diabetic with minimal tolerance for alcohol, I rarely drank. My family was practically teetotalers. A gift bottle of wine would gather dust for years. But Fred walked me through the heavy wooden door into that tasting room with its roaring fireplace and heavy perfume of fermented grapes like he was taking me home to meet the family.

As our relationship grew, wine was always a silent companion: wine at meals, wine to relax, champagne for special occasions. Fred helped run the annual Berryessa Art and Wine Festival in east San Jose. I toted custom wineglasses, helped set up tables, and worked in the Mirassou booth pouring wine. On trips to Napa and Sonoma, we toured wineries where guides showed us the tanks and barrels and salespeople poured tastes, which Fred savored while I hung back. Fred and I even joined a crew bottling wine, filling bottles with Chablis, slapping on labels and sending them on to be capped. The owner paid us for our labors with wine.

After he retired from the City of San Jose, Fred went to work at Mirassou. It was his dream job, pouring and teaching the customers about wine in the tasting room, leading them on tours through the winemaking facilities. We attended gourmet dinners with wines for each course, sat among the vines watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, and joined the other workers for “cab nights,” where everyone brought a different brand of cabernet and they drank them all. As the designated driver, I sipped water and watched the empty bottles fill the table. Fred never seemed drunk, just happy.


When we moved to Oregon, I packed at least fifty wine glasses, nesting them in empty wine crates. We must have had a dozen wine openers. Pull the silverware drawer open and gray rubber stoppers would bounce out. The first time we flew out of Portland after 9/11, Fred got caught with a corkscrew in his carry-on bag. He retained his connections with Mirassou, stopping there whenever we went home to visit and subscribing to their wine of the month club, adding new bottles to his growing collection, carefully matching the wines to meals and special occasions.

Eager to stay in the world of wine, Fred got a job at the Flying Dutchman Winery, running the tasting room on the Newport Bayfront. Down a set of wooden stairs, dark and cold – it was like working in a wine cellar. Fred cheerfully spent his days greeting tourists, pouring wine, and describing the qualities of each variety – the grapes, the legs, the nose, the hints of oak and cherry. Between pourings, he washed dishes and organized his bottles and glasses. Sometimes I’d bring my guitar and play background music, pleased to share my husband’s world of wine.


But things were changing. One Sunday in July, I had been playing classical guitar all afternoon. Tourists came in, tasting while Fred lined up the glasses in front of them, describing the pinot noir and pinot gris, merlot and cabernet. They sniffed, swirled, and sipped as I played.

It was perfect. Fred was enjoying his wine, and I was playing my music. I loved how the sound bounced off the brick walls lined with wine bottles. But now on the days he went to work, Fred seemed nervous. He stuffed his pockets with notes about things he didn’t want to forget and went in early to give himself more time to get organized before the first customers arrived.

I stayed with him until closing time and was about to go home to start making dinner when I noticed he was having trouble counting and organizing the money. He became confused and flustered, starting over several times. “I can’t do this,” he grumbled.

“Can I try?”

He shrugged.

It was easy for me, just a matter of counting the bills, coins, and credit card slips and writing the numbers down, but he couldn’t do it. He went off to wash the wine glasses while I finished his accounting. I was scared. This was a man who had supplemented his income by preparing tax returns for over 20 years.

It wasn’t long before his supervisor started taking away Fred’s responsibilities. After a while, she wouldn’t let him do anything without her supervision. That made him angry, but I understood. He couldn’t handle the job on his own anymore.

The next season, they didn’t ask him to come back.


At that point, his illness had not been diagnosed. Dr. H. was still going with the pickled brain diagnosis. I had always told myself Fred was not an alcoholic. But that winter, while I was out of town, he got arrested for drunk driving. Fred had been stopped on his way home from that same house where we had the sober party. Handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, put in a cell, the whole bit. He had to call his friend Reggie to drive him home from jail at 4 a.m., and he walked four miles the next day to reclaim our truck.

Damn it. Maybe Dr. H was right. He did drink too much.

But: His blood test showed a .04 alcohol level, well below the legal limit. It was dark and confusing out where Reggie lived, and Fred got lost. The lady cop saw him make an illegal U-turn. When she pulled him over, she smelled alcohol on his breath, and he flunked the roadside sobriety test.

The charges were dropped. It wasn’t booze; we both knew what it was. I ached, thinking about Fred’s shame and fear. If I had been there, I would have been driving and sober, as usual.


Now, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he was back at this house sipping a diet Pepsi. Word had gotten around that he had stopped drinking. People wondered if he was sick. One of his friends asked if he had a problem. I held my breath, waiting for my husband to answer.

“Yeah,” he said. Nothing more.

Did people think he was an alcoholic? Would it be better to be thought a drunk rather than demented? For years I had fought off the drink-pushers who couldn’t understand why I didn’t want a glass of wine, but this was new for Fred. He always brought wine to parties. He’d be in the middle of the crowd, opening, pouring, drinking, and comparing while I sipped my water.

This time, Fred wandered, alternately querulous, nostalgic, helpless, and sad. “What’s there to drink?” Watery iced tea and diet Pepsi did not fill his need.

He ate a great deal, going back for more, forgetting what he had already eaten. Usually increasingly social as the party goes on, he remained quiet. I was the chatty one, filling the silences like a mason stuffing mortar between the bricks. He followed me as I played my guitar, conversed, and guided him around the buffet table.

I suspected Fred wouldn’t want to attend parties anymore. No drinks meant no fun. We were planning a birthday party for him at our house the next month. He had already told people his wine collection would be for sale at $5 a bottle. It would be like selling his fingers and toes.

You would think with a lousy disease like Alzheimer’s to face, you could at least get plastered and forget about it for a while.


Author's Comment

When I wrote this piece, the pain of Fred’s Alzheimer’s was still fresh. Things would get considerably worse before he died. I would love to paint my late husband as perfect, but he was human like everyone else. Too often, people think someone with Alzheimer’s disease immediately forgets everything, but I wanted to show that there’s a long, painful period when both the person with the illness and his loved ones are very much aware of what’s happening and mourn every loss. Ironically, I have come to enjoy a glass of wine, especially the reds that Fred loved, but now my own doctor says I must not drink at all. Giving it up completely is more difficult than I expected it to be. We really do live in a culture where alcohol is part of every social occasion.






Sue Fagalde Lick spent many years as a journalist in California before moving to the Oregon coast, where she writes and works as a music minister. She earned her MFA at Antioch University/Los Angeles at age 51 and has published several books of prose, including Stories Grandma Never Told, Shoes Full of Sand, and Childless by Marriage. Her latest book is a novel titled Up Beaver Creek. “When You Can’t Even Get Drunk” is an excerpt from a memoir for which she is seeking a publisher.


  1. Thank you for writing about this difficult time in your life. Sharing life’s hardships through stories, connects us.
    Your empathy is visible. I wish you peace.

  2. This piece really touched me. I am a caregiver for my father who has Parkinson’s and dementia. When he was younger he loved wine. He and my mother (who has now passed) went on wine tours across Europe and hosted many wine tastings in their home. I have so many happy memories of laughing around the table at these tastings. It is devastating to watch your loved one decline with Alz or dementia. Thanks for sharing your story and I am sorry for your loss.

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