After searching through the smoke-filled rooms with bright lights, convincing everyone it’s still daylight out there, I found her in the parking lot. My ears were ringing from the constant dinging inside the casino when I almost walked past the car. Her box -bleached hair, frazzled like her, clashed against the darkness of the night.
A bottle of vodka laid empty on the car floor as she sat curled into a ball, leaned against the passenger door asleep. She would have looked peaceful if not for the drool dripping out of her slightly separated lips. Or maybe she did look peaceful and my anger blocked me from seeing it. Just like how my anger has blocked me lately from enjoying the days she is sober.
I opened the car door too fast for her weight that was being supported by it. Her torso headed toward the ground but I was able to stop her with my own body. Part of me wished I would have let her drop and splat on the ground like a fly hitting a moving vehicle. The aroma of alcohol and cigarettes cut through her signature smell of Clinique Happy.
“Mom. Wake up.”
With her casino member card clutched tightly in her hand, she stepped out of the car. This wasn’t a first for her so she knew the routine. But it was a first for me. I’ve had many other encounters with my drunk mother but this was the first time I was tasked with finding her at the casino before she spent away her last dollar. Unfortunately for her, I was too late.
Once I had buckled her into the car seat, I unclenched my jaw, let my fingernails release out of my palms and started to cry.
“Quit being a baby,” she said. “You can be such a little bitch.”
I looked in the rear view mirror to try and make eye contact with her in the back seat but instead was alarmed by the fat in my cheeks. My reflection looked like a chipmunk storing food for later. I had started gaining weight over a year ago but I still didn’t believe I looked like the person I saw in the mirror. Once the shock of my reflection wore off I looked at my mother’s worn skin from years of abuse. Smoke, alcohol, at times hard drugs and sun. I’m sure the bulimia in her twenties didn’t help. She blames the wrinkles on genetics but I know the only thing genetic about them is addiction.
I dropped her off at her house but waited to hear the scene inside play out before heading back to my home. I sat on the cold concrete steps near an open window. It drove me crazy that they left windows open in late summer. The beach always smelled of dead animals and filled their home with scents of salt, humidity and decay.
“Where were you?” he asked her.
“I needed cigarettes,” she responded. “That took six hours?”
“You know where I was and don’t act like you’re perfect. You’re the reason I drink.”
I heard a door slam and just as I felt it was safe to go home, the screaming continued. I figured three or four more minutes of this and someone would call the cops.
“You have ruined every piece of furniture in this house. You get drunk and piss in your sleep all over this place. The couch, the beds, ruined,” she yelled at him.
As I stood up to leave he came bursting through the front door with a cigarette and lighter in his hand.
“Sorry,” he said but wouldn’t look at me. “Thanks for getting her. I didn’t think I should drive.”
To avoid eye contact he fumbled with the peeling leather on his Romeo’s. I mumbled yup and headed out.
The next morning I rolled over and realized my daughter was in the bed with me. I could smell pancakes and knew my husband was making us our favorite breakfast. This was becoming a tradition, my mother having an ‘episode’ and my husband trying to solve my problems with carbs. But the carbs weren’t going to help my problem of the scale tipping over that 200 mark the last time I weighed myself.
“Can I play with your phone?” My daughter asked. “Yes, but only if I get a big hug!”
She tried to wrap her slender arms around me but because of the weird angle I was laying in she ended up just crawling on top of me and pushed her warm cheek into mine. Her lightness felt like a thin sheet was laid over me rather than a human body. How did this skinny human come from me?
We headed down stairs, phone wrapped tightly in one of her hands and the other was closed tight cradled inside of mine.
“Well good morning to the world’s most beautiful little ladies,” my husband said.
I appreciated that he worked so hard to look good but lately his fit body, that I normally find irresistible, was making me realize just how fat I was getting. Just one pancake and then I will eat good for the rest of the day.
I decided to put my weight issue in my back pocket for the day and took a moment to realize how lucky I was to have him. I vowed to make the morning a good one with my two favorite people.
But as quick as it went away, sorrow sunk deep into my stomach as I thought of the adversity my mother has been through, most of which she has not come out of gently. Instead of walking around battles she went head first into each one that came her way, usually coming out of them with nothing but a heartbeat. There were the things she couldn’t control-the step-father who raped her, the mother that constantly berated her weight-telling her only skin girls win skating competitions, the husband who beat her into the ICU more than once. And then there were the poor choices she made-dropping out of school, marrying the husband who beat her, having me too young, cheating on every man she was with. She was the classmate who got you a good present but always dipped a finger in the frosting before “Happy Birthday” was sung.
I tried to justify her actions in my head. At least she has stopped the cocaine. I haven’t found the little plastic bags filled with snow next to the empty airplane shots in her purse in the last three months. It has been worse. Maybe I should be thankful for where she is now with her attempts at sobriety. But this was a ridiculous thought and I knew that. It was one thing to put myself through the ups and downs of her sobriety, or lack of. But it wasn’t fair to make my
daughter and husband go through this. I wondered if my husband had any fear of me turning out like her.
Three pancakes later, my daughter went to her room to play her Trolls game on my phone. I looked at my husband and once again the guilt pumped through me.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
“Not really. But would you mind if I went over to their house? I would like to catch them before they start drinking.”
“Not at all. Do you want us to come with you?”
I admired his ability to focus in a conversation. Meanwhile I was picking at my split-ends and thinking of how good the granite counter tops look that we had installed two weeks ago. Dealing with my mother for the last 34 years has made me the queen of distractions. Anything to avoid facing reality.
“No, I don’t want Claire to be there. I need to tell them it’s rehab or us.” “You’re giving them an ultimatum?”
I was surprised by the look on his face. I figured he would be happy at the prospect of cutting ties with my mother and her husband. He would never say it but I knew he hated them.
“Shouldn’t I? I can’t keep doing this,” I said.
“I know. But if you tell them they have to go to rehab or they won’t be welcome at our home anymore you have to stick to it. You can’t say it and then go back on your word because you miss your mom.”
“You don’t know how hard it is,” I said feeling defensive.
“You’re right. But you have done this before and you go right back to them a few days or weeks later. It’s not fair to our family to go back and forth.”
His words pissed me off but I knew he was right. How many times have I made similar threats and then caved in? I knew this was hard for him too.
I drove the four miles to my mother’s home and walked in the front door that can’t lock because of how many times my step father has kicked it in. The décor was beachy and was a testament to my parents struggle with money. Expensive custom-made couches from the home they lost in foreclosure sat in the living room while a used dining room table found at a yard sale took up the small space in the kitchen-the old table was too grand and large for the space.
The house was silent and it made me think they were still sleeping but then I heard noises coming from the back yard. I got a whiff of the litter box that needed cleaning but remembered the words thrown like daggers between my parents last night. I shook my head at the thought that it might not be from the cat. I walked through the sliding glass door and took in one of the last days of warm summer sun.
“Hi honey. Want coffee?” my mother asked.
It happens every time and every time I am surprised by her ability to pretend like last night never happened. Her ability to have fake amnesia.
“I’m good. Can we talk?”
“Of course! I was just thinking we should figure out all the plans for Claire’s birthday party next weekend. We should definitely have it on the beach at the house here. Claire and her friends can dig for clams!”
I looked at her and saw the resemblance of her and my daughter. Not so much in appearance, although they did have the same single dimple on the left cheek, but rather as a human incapable of taking care of themselves. I saw her as someone who needed help to survive. Someone dependent on others but was too naive to see this for herself.
“Oh, did you want to talk about joining weight watchers? I have a pound or two to lose myself if you need me there for support.”
I was almost too exhausted to fight. I would have loved to take the easy road, nod my head yes and have amnesia just like her, but this time, I couldn’t.
“Mom, you can’t keep doing this. Something has to change.”
“Oh honey, it really isn’t that big of a deal. I am sorry you had to pick me up last night but I would have been fine to drive home.”
“You were passed out in the passenger seat with an empty fifth. I really don’t think you were fine.”
She took a sip of her coffee and I got a whiff of Bailey’s.
“You’re drinking right now!” I said in a higher pitch than normal. I scrunched my nose as I realized my tone sounded just like her. “You have to get help or we are done. No more Claire. No more me. Nothing.”
She looked at me with dead eyes. Eyes that told me she was too far gone. “Honey, if I had a problem I would go. But I don’t. So I won’t. Ha! I rhymed.”
She leaned in close as if she was going to whisper and I truly think in her mind she was. But in a loud voice she said an inch from my ear, “He’s the one who needs it,” and threw her thumb back in the direction of her husband.
In the past when I would reach this point in the ‘intervention’ conversation I would see my mother for who she used to be. Before the drugs, before the fighting, before the locking me out of the house and being too drunk to wake up and let me in so I had to sleep on the porch, she was a mother that a girl dreams of. One that that takes you to get your toes done after your first boyfriend dumps you in seventh grade. A mother that listens and puts all of your needs before hers. I would see the mother that she could be if she could just stop. But for once, I saw nothing. Her eyes were completely empty. I realized she was officially gone.
It’s possible she could come back some day but who would I be at that point? Would I continue to gain weight until my husband was no longer attracted to me? Would my anxiety leave me out of a job? Would the stress and anger make me the mother I promised I would never be?
I wasn’t willing to find out. I grabbed her hand, sticky from God knows what, and said, “I love you. But I can’t let this be my problem anymore.” And I walked out of the house. As I shut the door I could hear my mother start to rip into my father-in-law about how this was his fault.
I was overwhelmed by the urge to cry but instead a laugh squeaked out. I quickly put my hand to mouth but it didn’t stop the laughter from pouring out of me. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to stick to the ultimatum but in that moment I felt strong. I felt relieved. I felt like I wanted to go home, grab my husband and Claire and go do something that didn’t involve food.