by Ann Hood
The first time I drank single malt whiskey, I was soaking wet and shivering on the isle of Skye. My then husband and I had been touring Scotland for a few weeks. We’d gone on a midnight Ghost Tour in Edinburgh, looked for the Loch Ness monster, and hiked the highest peak in the Highlands. But somehow we had not even tasted one wee dram of single malt.
Years earlier, I’d had a sip of a boyfriend’s Johnnie Walker and decided that would be my last drink of scotch. Turpentine came to mind when it burned its way down my throat. But for the past three days, Bob and I had been walking around Skye in a steady drizzle. The space heater in our B and B didn’t dry our clothes or warm our bones. By the afternoon that we walked into the local pub, it seemed that I might never be warm again. The bartender asked what we wanted. “Anything to take the chill away,” I said. He placed before me a glass of amber liquid. It smelled like smoke and curled its way around my tongue, instantly warming me.
That whiskey was Talisker, and although I became a fan, the price tag kept me from buying it very often back in the States. A dozen years later, I had a different husband, two children, and a better bank account. A bottle of Talisker or Laphroaig was almost always on my shelf.
In April, 2002, my five year old daughter Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. One day she was twirling in her ballet class and the next day she lay dying in the ICU at our children’s hospital. In the days after she died, friends brought us food: lasagnas and stews, cookies and fruit, loaves of fresh bread. They brought bottles of wine too, the big ones. Sitting around our kitchen table, stunned, those bottles emptied every evening.
Sleep was impossible for me in those first weeks. The wine I drank each night managed to make me drowsy, but also had me waking up at three in the morning. The world always looks bleaker at 3 a.m., but when you are grieving, that bleakness takes on even deeper dimensions. I prowled the rooms of our house, as if I might find Grace there somewhere. The emptiness that greeted me in each room sent me into fresh waves of misery. Grief begs for anesthesia of some kind, anything to dull the pain and quiet the screams that threaten to emerge at any moment. Despite my desperate need to be numb, I realized that gulping too many glasses of Australian shiraz was actually making things worse.
The first night I stayed away from the wine, I didn’t sleep at all. Instead, I lay in bed, awake and alert, haunted by the time in the ICU and by images of my little girl dead. The wine had at least given me a few hours respite. The next night I took a few Benadryl. That knocked me out, but made it hard for me to wake up, and kept me fuzzy headed and cotton mouthed the entire next day.
When everyone gathered again at our kitchen table that night, I remembered our bottle of single malt and poured myself a good-sized amount. The thing about good whiskey is that it wants to be sipped, not gulped. My husband had some too, and soon all of us gathered there were sipping whiskey instead of wine. That night, I slept uninterrupted. Not the deep sleep that comes when your children are safe and alive in their beds; that particular sleep will perhaps always elude me now. But for many hours I slept fitfully, and woke to another day without Grace, clear headed and broken hearted.
I cannot say how long this ritual continued. Sometimes it seems that bottle of single malt was passed around our table for many long nights. Like other aspects of grief, one day I looked up and I was once again enjoying a glass of wine with my dinner. The single malt took up its residence on our shelf again, opened on chilly winter nights or special occasions.
My father kept a bottle of Jack Daniels in the liquor cabinet, beside dusty bottles of Drambuie and Crème de Menthe. That bottle came down on the Christmas night his brother died, on the cold January day when my grandmother died, and during the grief filled summer of 1982 when my brother Skip died. The sight of that square bottle with the black label used to make me tremble. It meant something terrible and irrevocable had happened. It meant my father, the person I relied on for strength and support, needed some himself. And now I have my own bottle, saved for those times when the force of grief returns. Grief, it chills me to the bone.
Ann Hood is the author of 8 novels, including the bestsellers The Knitting Circle and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine; two memoirs and a collection of short stories. Her most recent memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, was a NY Times Editor’s Choice and one of the top 10 non-fiction books of 2009 by Entertainment Weekly. Her new novel, The Red Thread, was just published on May 1st.