By Doris A.
Raymond Carver published short stories and poetry in the 1970s and 80s. He is well-known for his minimalist writing style and is considered one of the most influential American writers of the latter half of the 20th century. I was introduced to him in my mid-twenties by my first husband. Nick was both a bookworm and a pot head; reading books together was the best part of our two-year marriage. In our pantheon of favorite authors Carver held a place. I often refer to this short-lived ‘practice marriage’ as ‘The Raymond Carver years.’
Carver was an alcoholic in the style of Bill Wilson and his Big Book cronies; he was a late-stage drunk whose alcoholism was on the verge of killing him in mid-life. He finally got sober at age forty, and within a year he met the final love of his life, poet Tess Gallagher. He stayed sober ten years, but then died of lung cancer at age 50. He wrote this poem about those last ten years.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
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.”
I was about forty years old when I read this poem for the first time. Carver had been dead for a decade and I had been trying to stay sober for a decade. I was heartbroken to learn that he finally sobers up at forty but then dies of cancer at fifty. That story sucks. Yet here he is, talking about those last ten years as gravy. Besides feeling sad, I was envious. To be honest, I resented Raymond Carver for having figured out how to stay sober that long, while I could only string together one or two years at a time. For me, being sober never felt like gravy. And if he had stayed sober because ‘god’ had helped him, I really didn’t want to know.
Resenting a man who was able to be sober the last ten years of his life, a life that ends at fifty, shows how hopeless I must have felt inside.
The poem ‘Late Fragment’ was written about the same time as Gravy. I think it’s beautiful. Both poems are inscribed on Carver’s gravestone in Port Angeles, Washington.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
It’s almost twenty years since I read those poems for the first time. I do not yet have ten years of continuous sobriety, but that milestone now looks in reach. While I would never use the term “happy, joyous and free” to describe my sober life, I do finally “get” why Carver thinks of it as gravy.
I hit a very frightful bottom seven years ago when a week-long binge landed me in the hospital. It was my ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. Building a sober life after that wasn’t gravy; it was overcooked pea soup those first few years. Yet over time, I grew into myself. I became a grown-up. I figured out how to be content, and how to get my needs met. I eventually put together a new life for myself, one that feels satisfying and authentic.
If I look back at who I was ten years ago, and who I am now, I see a psychic change in myself that is described in the Big Book. There is a contentment I feel inside of me, as well as an excitement for life. I still have days of being irritable and discontent, many days in fact. And there are days I feel a very deep sadness over the years I lost to alcoholism. Some days I am anxious and depressed. But so many days are now gravy.
Raymond Carver had that psychic change, one that allowed him to appreciate the last ten years of his life, and to face the end of life knowing he was beloved; that he felt himself beloved on the earth. And as Tess Gallagher artfully stated, “Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live.”
Read Tess Gallagher’s Essay about Carver, Instead of Dying.
About the Author
Doris lives in Champaign-Urbana, a lovely university town set amongst the cornfields of central Illinois. For the past year and a half, she has served as Chief Editor of AA Beyond Belief. Her day job is managing a lending library at the county jail through Urbana-Champaign Books To Prisoners. Her home group is Many Paths—a thriving secular AA group that will be three years old in February. It recently added a second meeting that reads from the book Living Sober.