First Person: The Parting Glass

I’d never tried whisky till my brother-in-law died. Sharing a bottle with others who loved Don helped us through the hard days and kept the memories flowing.

By: Lisa Colburn

Photograph by Bill Brady/Getty Images.

I’ve never been much of a drinker—except for my college days in Canada, where Moody Blue, Lonesome Charlie, and Boone’s Farm were the wines of choice—so I managed to make it into my forties without tasting single-malt whisky.

My husband’s Scottish cousin Judie introduced me to whisky—they don’t call it Scotch in Scotland—two years ago when she visited us in Oakton. The occasion was a sad one: My husband’s brother Don had died after being rushed to the hospital with chest pain. Don had lived with us for his last four years and had inspired my husband and two daughters and me with his resilient attitude toward his 30-year journey with multiple sclerosis.

When I first saw the bottle of Laphroaig that Judie brought, I wasn’t interested. I’d always imagined whisky to be the drink of lonely businessmen in hotel bars, not one with any relevance to me. But others in the family wanted to toast Don with it: He’d always humorously attributed his shark-like exploits in discount online shopping to his “Scottish blood.”

So I accepted a small glass of the Laphroaig and took a sniff. The fumes, reminiscent of diesel fuel, assaulted my nose. The first sip wasn’t much better. Laphroaig is supposed to be “peaty,” and I found the flavor sharp and unpleasant.

Then I experienced the afterburn. Ah. Suddenly a pleasant warmth radiated from my core to my limbs. As it did, I felt the tide of anger, sadness, and shock begin to ebb.

Don had died on Wednesday morning, and from that evening on our home was occupied by a revolving assembly of the grieving—members of Don’s MS support group, nieces and nephews from far-flung colleges, old family friends.

Amid the bustle, there was one constant—well, one constant with different labels. As we did the painful work of making cremation arrangements, setting up a fund with the MS Society, and planning the memorial service for that Sunday, there was the whisky: Macallan, Bowmore, Dalwhinnie. The Laphroaig was long gone.

When we had done all the tasks we could manage at one sitting, we would pass the bottle and reminisce about Don. How he’d refurbished computers and given them away to people who needed them. How he’d loved to show off his iBOT wheelchair. How no one who knew him had thought of him as handicapped. How he’d delight-ed in “sniping” on eBay—placing a bid at the very last minute. How he’d taped a white and nerdy sign to his wheelchair when we went to a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert at the Warner Theatre.

After a moving and utterly fitting memorial, which included Weird Al’s songs “White & Nerdy” and “eBay,” I came home and flopped onto the sofa, kicked off my shoes, and let our ancient Westie climb into my lap. “Kayt!” I called to our eldest daughter. “Where’s my whisky?”

This falls into the realm of things you never think you’ll say to your kids, but as I sipped the glass of Dalwhinnie, I felt the first hint of a peace that would grow in the coming days and months, knowing this was what Don would have wanted: to go quickly instead of letting the MS take him by degrees.

We still don’t drink much in our family—an occasional glass of wine with dinner is about it—but sometimes when the extended family gets together, we’ll bring out the whisky, pass the glasses, and laugh as we remember Don. I’m sure he’d love it—especially if we got a good deal on the bottle.

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.