Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (2 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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With me in surgery for at least seven hours and convinced that the hospital would do everything they could, my family and friends went home for the night for some rest while my subconscious fought for my life amid the knives and tubes and blood.

Spoiler alert: I
did
make it through the night. But I wasn't out of the woods yet. My family and friends were told that the only thing that could keep me alive short-term was an ECMO machine (ECMO stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation). The ECMO move is often called a Hail Mary—for a start, four patients that week at UCLA had been put on ECMO, and they all died.

Making things even tougher, Saint John's didn't have an ECMO machine. Cedars-Sinai was called—they took one look at my chart and apparently said, “Matthew Perry is not dying in our hospital.”

Thanks, guys.

UCLA wasn't willing to take me, either—for the same reason? Who can say?—but at least they were willing to send an ECMO machine and a team. I was hooked up to it for several hours, and it seemed to work! I was then transferred to UCLA itself, in an ambulance filled with doctors and nurses. (There was no way I'd survive a fifteen-minute car ride, especially the way Erin drives.)

At UCLA I was taken to the heart and lung ICU unit; it would become my home for the next six weeks. I was still in a coma, but honestly, I probably loved it. I was lying down, all snuggled up, and they were pumping drugs into me—what's better than that?

I'm told that during my coma I was never left alone, not once—there was always a member of my family or a friend in the room with me. They held candlelight vigils; did prayer circles. Love was all around me.

Eventually, my eyes magically opened.

[Back to the memoir.]

The first thing I saw was my mother.

“What's going on?” I managed to croak. “Where the hell am I?”

The last thing I remembered was being in a car with Erin.

“Your colon exploded,” Mom said.

With that information, I did what any comic actor might do: I rolled my eyes and went back to sleep.

I have been told that when someone is
really
sick a kind of disconnect happens—a “God only gives you what you can handle” kind of thing kicks in. As for me, well, in the weeks after I came out of my coma, I refused to let anyone tell me exactly what had happened. I was too afraid that it was my fault; that I had done this to myself. So instead of talking about it, I did the one thing I felt I
could
do—during the days in the hospital I threw myself into family, spending hours with my beautiful sisters, Emily, Maria, and Madeline, who were funny and caring and
there
. At night it was Erin; I was never alone once again.

Eventually, one day Maria—the hub of the Perry family (my mom is the hub of the Morrison side)—decided it was time for me to be told what had happened. There I was, attached to fifty wires like a robot, bedridden, as Maria filled me in. My very fears had been true: I had done this; this was my fault.

I cried—oh
boy
did I cry. Maria did her best to be wonderfully consoling, but there was no consoling this. I had all but killed myself. I had never been a partier—taking all of those drugs (and it was a
lot
of drugs) was just a futile attempt to feel better. Trust me to take trying to feel better to death's door. And yet here I was, still alive.
Why
? Why had I been spared?

Things got worse before they got better, though.

Every morning, it seemed, some doctor would come into my room and give me more bad news. If something could go wrong, it did. I already had a colostomy bag—at least I'd been told it was reversible, thank God—but now, apparently, there was a fistula, a hole in one of my intestines. Problem was, they couldn't find it. To help, I was given
another
bag that oozed out gross green stuff, but that new bag meant
that I was not allowed to eat or drink anything until they found it. They searched daily for that fistula while I got thirstier and thirstier. I was literally begging for a Diet Coke and having dreams of being chased by a gigantic can of Diet Sprite. After a full month—a month!—they finally found the fistula in some tube behind my colon. I thought,
Hey fellas, if you are looking for a hole in my intestine, why not start looking behind the thing that FUCKING EXPLODED.
Now that they'd found the hole, they could start to fix it, and I could learn to walk again.

I knew I was on my way back when I realized that I was attracted to the therapist they assigned to me. True, I had a giant scar on my stomach, but I was never a guy who took his shirt off much anyway. I'm no Matthew McConaughey, and when I take a shower, I just make sure to keep my eyes closed.

As I've said, for the entire stay in those hospitals, I was never left alone—not once. So, there
is
light in the darkness. It's there—you just have to look hard enough for it.

After five very long months, I was released. I was told that within the year, everything inside me would heal enough so that I could have a second surgery to reverse the colostomy bag. But for now, we packed my overnight bags—five months of overnights—and we made the voyage home.

Also, I'm Batman.

1
The View

Nobody ever thinks that something really bad is going to happen to them. Until it does. And nobody comes back from a perforated bowel, aspiration pneumonia, and an ECMO machine. Until somebody did.

Me.

I'm writing this in a rented house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (My real house is down the street being renovated—they say it will take six months, so I figure about a year.) A pair of red-tailed hawks is circling below me in the canyon that brings the Palisades down to the water. It's a gorgeous spring day in Los Angeles. This morning I've been busy hanging art on my walls (or rather, having them hung—I'm not so handy). I've really gotten into art in the last few years, and if you look close enough, you'll find the odd Banksy or two. I'm also working on the second draft of a screenplay. There's fresh Diet Coke in my glass, and a full pack of Marlboros in my pocket. Sometimes, these things are enough.

Sometimes.

I keep coming back to this singular, inescapable fact: I am
alive.
Given the odds, those three words are more miraculous than you might imagine; to me, they have an odd, shiny quality, like rocks brought back from a distant planet. No one can quite believe it. It is very odd
to live in a world where if you died, it would shock people but surprise no one.

What those three words—
I am alive
—fill me with, above all else, is a sense of profound gratitude. When you've been as close to the celestial as I have, you don't really have a choice about gratitude: it sits on your living room table like a coffee-table book—you barely notice it, but it's there. Yet stalking that gratitude, buried deep somewhere in the faint-anise-distant-licorice of the Diet Coke, and filling my lungs like every drag of every cigarette, there's a nagging agony.

I can't help but ask myself the overwhelming question: Why? Why am I alive? I have a hint to the answer, but it is not fully formed yet. It's in the vicinity of helping people, I know that, but I don't know how. The best thing about me, bar none, is that if a fellow alcoholic comes up to me and asks me if I can help them stop drinking, I can say yes, and actually follow up and do it. I can help a desperate man get sober. The answer to “Why am I alive?” I believe lives somewhere in there. After all, it's the only thing I've found that truly feels good. It is undeniable that there is God there.

But, you see, I can't say yes to that question “Why?” when I feel like I'm not enough. You can't give away something you do not have. And most of the time I have these nagging thoughts:
I'm not enough, I don't matter, I am too needy.
These thoughts make me uncomfortable. I need love, but I don't trust it. If I drop my game, my Chandler, and show you who I really am, you might notice me, but worse, you might notice me and leave me. And I can't have that. I won't survive that. Not anymore. It will turn me into a speck of dust and annihilate me.

So, I will leave you first. I will fabricate in my mind that something went wrong with
you,
and I'll believe it. And I'll leave.
But something can't go wrong with all of them, Matso.
What's the common denominator here?

And now these scars on my stomach. These broken love affairs.
Leaving Rachel. (No not that one. The real Rachel. The ex-girlfriend of my dreams, Rachel.) They haunt me as I lie awake at 4:00
A.M.,
in my house with a view in the Pacific Palisades. I'm fifty-two. It's not that cute anymore.

Every house I have ever lived in has had a view. That's the most important thing to me.

When I was five years old, I was sent on a plane from Montreal, Canada, where I lived with my mom, to Los Angeles, California, where I would visit my dad. I was what is called “an unaccompanied minor” (at one point that was the title of this book). It was typical to send kids on planes back then—flying children alone at that age was just something people did. It wasn't right, but they did it. For maybe a millisecond I thought it would be an exciting adventure, and then I realized I was too young to be alone and this was all completely terrifying (and bullshit). One of you guys come pick me up! I was five. Is everybody crazy?

The hundreds of thousands of dollars that particular choice cost me in therapy? May I get that back, please?

You do get all sorts of perks when you're an unaccompanied minor on a plane, including a little sign around your neck that reads
UNACCOMPANIED MINOR
, plus early boarding, kids-only lounges, snacks up the ying-yang, someone to escort you to the plane … maybe it
should
have been amazing (later, as a famous person, I got all these perks and more at airports, but every time it reminded me of that first flight, so I hated them). The flight attendants were supposed to look after me, but they were busy serving champagne in coach (that's what they did in the anything-goes 1970s). The two-drink maximum had recently been done away with, so that flight felt like six hours in Sodom and Gomorrah. The stench of alcohol was everywhere; the guy next to me must have had ten old-fashioneds. (I stopped counting after a couple of
hours.) I couldn't imagine why any adult would want to drink the same drink over and over again … Ah, innocence.

I pushed the little service button when I dared, which wasn't very often. The flight attendants—in their 1970s hot boots and short-shorts—would come by, ruffle my hair, move on.

I was fucking terrified. I tried to read my
Highlights
magazine, but every time the plane hit a bump in the air, I knew I was about to die. I had no one to tell me it was OK, no one to look at for reassurance. My feet didn't even reach the floor. I was too scared to recline the seat and take a nap, so I just stayed awake, waiting for the next bump, wondering over and over what it would be like to fall thirty-five thousand feet.

I didn't fall, at least not literally. Eventually, the plane began its descent into the beautiful California evening. I could see the lights twinkling, streets splayed out like a great sparkling magic carpet, wide swathes of dark I now know were the hills, the city pulsing up toward me as I plastered my little face against the plane window, and I so vividly remember thinking that those lights, and all that beauty, meant I was about to have a parent.

Not having a parent on that flight is one of the many things that led to a lifelong feeling of abandonment.… If I'd been enough, they wouldn't have left me unaccompanied, right? Isn't that how all this was supposed to work? The other kids had parents with them. I had a sign and a magazine.

So that's why when I buy a new house—and there have been many (never underestimate a geographic)—it has to have a view. I want the sense that I can look down on safety, on someplace where someone is thinking of me, at a place where love is. Down there, somewhere in that valley, or in that vast ocean out there beyond the Pacific Coast Highway, on the gleaming primaries of the red-tail's wings, that's where parenting is. That's where love is. That's where home is. I can feel safe now.

Why was that little kid on a plane on his own? Maybe fly to Canada
and fucking pick him up?
That's a question I often wonder about but would never dare to ask.

I'm not the biggest fan of confrontation. I ask a lot of questions. Just not out loud.

For a long time, I tried to find just about anything and anybody to blame for the mess I kept finding myself in.

I've spent a lot of my life in hospitals. Being in hospitals makes even the best of us self-pitying, and I've made a solid effort at self-pity. Each time I lie there, I find myself thinking back through the life I've lived, turning each moment of it this way and that, like a confusing find in an archaeological dig, trying to find some reason why I had spent so much of my life in discomfort and emotional pain. I always understood where the real pain was coming from. (I always knew why I was in
physical
pain at that moment—the answer was,
well, you can't drink that much, asshole
.)

For a start, I wanted to blame my loving, well-intentioned parents … loving, well-intentioned, and mesmerizingly attractive, to boot.

Let's go back to Friday, January 28, 1966—the scene is Waterloo Lutheran University in Ontario.

We're at the fifth annual Miss Canadian University Snow Queen competition (“judged on the basis of intelligence, participation in student activities, and personality as well as beauty”). Those Canadians spared no expense to herald a new Miss CUSQ; there was to be a “torchlight parade with floats, bands, and the contestants,” plus “an outdoor cookout and a hockey game.”

The list of candidates for the honor includes one Suzanne Langford—she is listed eleventh and is representing the University of Toronto. Against her have been arrayed beauties with wonderful names like Ruth
Shaver from British Columbia; Martha Quail from Ottawa; and even Helen “Chickie” Fuhrer from McGill, who had presumably added the “Chickie” to mitigate the fact that her surname was a tad unfortunate just two decades after the end of World War II.

But these young women were no match for the beautiful Miss Langford. That freezing January evening the previous year's winner helped crown the fifth Miss Canadian University Snow Queen, and with that honor came a sash and responsibility: it would now be Miss Langford's job to hand over the crown the following year.

The 1967 pageant was similarly exciting. This year there was to be a concert given by the Serendipity Singers, a Mamas & the Papas–kind of combo that just so happened to have a lead singer called John Bennett Perry. The Serendipity Singers were an anomaly even in the folk-heavy 1960s—their biggest (and only) hit, “Don't Let the Rain Come Down,” was a rehash of a British nursery rhyme—even so, it reached number 2 on the adult contemporary list and number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1964. But that achievement is somewhat put in perspective because the Beatles famously had the
entire top five
—“Can't Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Please, Please Me.” No matter to John Perry—he was on the road, a working musician, getting to sing for his supper, and what could be better than having a gig at the Miss Canadian University Snow Queen gala in Ontario? There he was, happily singing, “Now this crooked little man and his crooked cat and mouse They all live together in a crooked little house,” and flirting across the microphone with last year's Miss Canadian University Snow Queen, Suzanne Langford. At the time, they were two of the most gorgeous people on the face of the planet—you should see pictures of them from their wedding—you just want to punch them in their perfectly chiseled faces. They didn't stand a chance.
When two people look that good, they just kind of morph into each other.

The flirting turned to dancing once John had finished his gig, and that might have been it, but for the massive, kismetic snowstorm that stalked the evening and made it impossible for the Serendipity Singers to get out of town. So, that's the meet-cute: a folk singer and a beauty queen fall in love in a snowbound Canadian town in 1967 … best-looking man on the planet meets best-looking woman on the planet. Everyone there might as well have gone home.

John Perry stayed the night, and Suzanne Langford was quite happy about that, and about a year or two later, after the montage scene, she found herself in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where John is from, and cells inside her were dividing and conquering. Maybe something in those simple divisions went awry, who can say—all I know is, addiction is an illness, and like my parents when they met, I didn't stand a fucking chance.

I was born on August 19, 1969, a Tuesday, the son of John Bennett Perry, late of the Serendipity Singers, and Suzanne Marie Langford, former Miss Canadian University Snow Queen. There was a huge storm the night I arrived (of course there was); everyone was playing Monopoly waiting for me to show up (of course they were). I hit the planet about a month after the Moon landing, and one day after Woodstock ended—so, somewhere between the cosmic perfection of the heavenly orbs, and all that shit down at Yasgur's Farm, I became life, interrupting someone's chance to build hotels on Boardwalk.

I came out screaming, and I didn't stop screaming. For weeks. I was a colicky kid—my stomach was a problem from the very start. My parents were being driven crazy by the amount I was crying. Crazy? Concerned, so they hauled me off to a doctor. This is 1969, a prehistoric time compared to now. That said, I don't know how advanced civilization has to be to understand that giving
phenobarbital
to a baby
who just entered his second month of breathing God's air is, at best, an
interesting
approach to pediatric medicine. But it wasn't that rare in the 1960s to slip the parents of a colicky child a major barbiturate. Some older doctors swore by it—and by it, I mean, “prescribing a major barbiturate for a child that's barely born who won't stop crying.”

I want to be very clear on this point. I do NOT blame my parents for this. Your child is crying all the time, clearly something is wrong, the doctor prescribes a drug, he's not the only doctor who thinks it's a good idea, you give the drug to the child, the child stops crying. It was a different time.

There I was, on the knee of my stressed mother, screaming over her twenty-one-year-old shoulder as some dinosaur in a white coat, barely looking up from his wide oak desk, tutted under his bad breath at “parents these days,” and wrote a script for a major addictive barbiturate.

I was noisy and needy, and it was answered with a pill. (Hmm, that sounds like my fucking twenties.)

I'm told I took phenobarbital during the second month of my life, between the ages of thirty and sixty days. This is an important time in a baby's development, especially when it comes to sleeping. (Fifty years later I still don't sleep well.) Once the barbiturate was on board, I would just conk out. Apparently, I'd be crying, and the drug would hit, and I'd be knocked out, and this would cause my father to erupt in laughter. He wasn't being cruel; stoned babies are funny. There are baby pictures of me where you can tell I'm just completely fucking zonked, nodding like an addict at the age of seven weeks. Which is oddly appropriate for a kid born the day after Woodstock ended, I guess.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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