An Autopsy of Addiction - Fallout From The Fatal Flaw

By Shannon Fisher 06/15/17

Selecting a partner with the flaw of addiction did not work out very well in the end. But I loved him; it’s as simple as that.  

Dale, Lindsey, Jessica and Neal

My mother pressed her hand against the small of my back as we approached the entrance to the chapel. She knew what was coming and braced herself to soften the fall. I looked up at the altar and leaned toward the room, but my feet wouldn’t move. Directly in front of me was a closed pewter casket containing the body of my late fiancé. My knees buckled, and I fell across the threshold onto the floor. 

Flooded with grief, I had been disoriented and dazed since his body had been found. I somehow managed to stay (mostly) upright, but the well from which I drew strength was nearly dry.

There were three people in that chapel who needed me, though, so I gathered the strength to grab a pew and pull myself up into their line of sight. As soon as the kids saw me, they rushed in my direction. I still couldn’t move. I tried to speak once they were within earshot, but when I opened my mouth all that emanated was a guttural wail in a voice I didn’t recognize as my own. I let go of the pew and wrapped my arms around the kids, and my mother’s hand once again gently landed against the small of my back. That hand kept me standing at least a dozen times that week. 

These were Dale’s children from his first marriage. The two oldest, Jessica and Neal, were in their early teens when I first met them, and the youngest, Lindsey, was nine. Twelve years had passed since that first introduction, and these “kids” were now in their twenties – and grieving the loss of a father they thought would have decades of life remaining.

Jessica coped with the loss by occupying her mind with productive tasks, taking charge of as many funeral details as she could. Lindsey, the spitting image of Dale, sought escape with drugs and alcohol. Neal had a surprising sense of peace about his dad’s death. He took comfort in knowing Dale had left this world doing what he loved most – kayaking on the river, tipsy from vodka, as lightening from a thunderous sky frolicked around him. 

Dale loved to be on the water in a storm. The powerful forces of nature made him feel alive; they are also what killed him. Dale was an alcoholic. He was a gainfully employed, highly functioning, deeply caring, intelligent alcoholic – but an alcoholic, nonetheless. I always had a penchant for choosing lovers with a fatal flaw, perhaps subconsciously to provide myself an escape hatch – a reason to eject at any moment before they could abandon me. Death being the ultimate abandonment, selecting a partner with the flaw of addiction did not work out very well in the end. But I loved him; it’s as simple as that.  

Lindsey and Dale spent that final afternoon together, drinking cocktails, just before he left to go kayaking in the late afternoon. An unexpected summer storm developed while he was on the water, and Dale never came home. His body washed ashore two days later. I wondered how intoxicated he had been and whether alcohol had dampened his reflexes or given him a false sense of invincibility. Lindsey didn’t know how much Dale had to drink that day, and – even if we had known that – we would still never be able to determine what role alcohol played in his death, if any.

In fact, we’ll never know most of the details of what happened to him that afternoon. The coroner said the cause of death was accidental drowning with no signs of physical trauma or foul play. And those are the only answers we will ever have. 

The police came to the house the day Dale’s body washed ashore. They strongly suggested, for our own peace of mind, that we identify the body through a photograph of his torso. When we asked why, they said his entire body was badly bloated with small chunks of flesh missing because fish had been feeding on his face and extremities before the corpse washed onto the rocks of the river bank. None of us wanted to have that image etched into our minds, so we took their advice and viewed only the torso. 

The photograph showed an easily-identifiable abdominal scar, as well as the medallion of a five-dollar hippie necklace I’d bought for him during a beach vacation with the kids a decade earlier. There was no denying it; the body was Dale’s. We positively identified him, and they began the investigation.

It took about a week to get the coroner’s report, and the city would not release the body until the report had been finalized. The report was inexplicably delayed, and the mortician had to rush Dale’s body from the city morgue to a funeral home three hours away in Dale’s hometown, where he was to be buried in the (empty) family cemetery plot after the funeral. The body bag arrived just in time to be placed into the closed casket before we assembled to greet friends and family who were coming to offer their condolences.

Due to a miscommunication (none of us could think straight), I ended up sitting on the opposite side of the aisle as the kids during the funeral, which made for a rather dramatic ending to the service. Everyone in the chapel stood up, the pall bearers rolled the casket to the hearse, and the kids ran across the aisle to me. The four of us huddled tightly, clinging to one another and sobbing, probably for a solid two minutes. The funeral attendees remained standing to pay their respects, but we were oblivious to anything happening around us. I was later told people had been looking at one another uncomfortably, wondering whether they should recess or remain in the pews until we left the chapel. They stayed.

Eventually, we broke the cluster and headed toward the parking lot for the ride to the cemetery. The kids went out the side door to find Dale’s parents, and I led the recessional all the way down the center aisle toward the entrance to the chapel. I could feel all eyes on every step I took, as guests filed into the aisle behind me row-by-row. For the first time in a week, my thoughts were focused – and tears of regret slowly rolled down my face. 

Dale and I fell madly in love just a few weeks into our relationship. This ultimately led to selling our respective homes, getting engaged, buying a house, and living together. For a while. We broke up a few times along the way. Alcohol was Dale’s one true love, but I came in a close second most of the time. That was enough to keep me from using the escape hatch.

For 12 years, my best- and worst-case scenarios had been interchangeable. I could marry Dale and permanently commit to an alcoholic, or I could hit the eject button and put the relationship behind me once and for all. I always believed one of those outcomes would ultimately be realized, though neither scenario felt quite right. But I would never have imagined that this would be my walk down the aisle in a chapel with Dale – nor that it would be the manner in which I would say my final goodbye. I climbed into the car and silently waited for the cavalcade to the gravesite.

After the initial grief subsided, and we returned to daily life, the kids and I created an unconventional new normal. There I was, still in my thirties, with three might-as-well-be stepchildren – aged 21, 24, and 26. We had always cared for one another, but the experience of losing Dale the way we did solidified our bond. That was 10 years ago, and the bond still remains.

We have made a concerted effort to honor Dale by upholding the traditions he started like “art night,” during which everyone convenes to draw, paint, and sculpt. Artistic talent doesn’t matter on art night; its sole purpose is bonding through creativity. Those nights are even more fun now that Jessica’s husband and children, all added to the clan after Dale’s passing, are there. Neal became certified as an English as a Second Language teacher, traveled to put that training to use, and then came home to finish his degree in international relations. Lindsey’s substance abuse escalated after her father’s death. She now lives out of state with a new boyfriend and continues to struggle for sobriety, but she is finding her way in her own time. Addiction flows in her blood, just as it did in her father, whose fatal flaw ultimately took his life. 

The bond I have with Dale’s children was born of tragedy and cemented by commitment – the commitment I was never quite able to make to their father.

Shannon Fisher is the host of Our Lives with Shannon Fisher on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. She is a popular opinion writer and has been featured by PBS, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The Huffington Post, The Progress-Index, the Daily Kos, Blue Virginia, and the Chronicle of Social Change. Follow her on Twitter at @MsShannonFisher.

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Shannon Fisher is the host of Our Lives with Shannon Fisher on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. She is a popular opinion writer and has been featured by PBS, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The Huffington Post, The Progress-Index, the Daily Kos, Blue Virginia, and the Chronicle of Social Change. Find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.