I’m sitting in a room surrounded by strangers. Some of them are patients, others are, like me, family members of patients. My brother and sister are there, too. It feels like a dream. Is this happening? Is this my life? Is this my family?
My Mom is sitting in the middle of the small circle. Her chair turned toward mine. I hear a voice of authority call out a warning, an instruction, Don’t make promises. The authoritative voice of the drug and alcohol therapist knew what I already knew, too many promises have already been broken. After all this time, promises mean nothing.
My Mom ignored the warning of the authoritative voice and looked me in the eye, I promise I will never drink again. Her words are spoken with deep sincerity, eyes filled with determination. I want to believe her. I know she wants her words to be true as much as I do. I think we both know, though. I think we both know it won’t be that easy.
Some of the memories are so vivid, like they happened yesterday. Others are lost, buried somewhere deep where I can’t find them. I search my mind for the details. So much has faded with time. Or is my mind just protective? What good can come from remembering?
Twenty-nine days ago we turned the calendar to March and I felt it immediately. This month. The anniversary month. A walk through March takes me back to the last month with my Mom. I remember when Chad’s dad got a diagnosis, prompting me to call my Mom after I had stepped out of her life (again), no longer able to weather the storms alcoholism. That phone call opened the floodgates again–I was never able to stay away for long. I loved her too much. March 10th, Chad’s birthday, I remember talking with her about the dinner Charlie, Chanelle and I were making for him. The cake.
She extended an invitation. A visit? Again, I had no resistance.
Not long after that visit, she was gone.
It’s been 8 years now. Eight years without my Mom.
The morning of her death I felt off. I sent a few texts to friends before I went to work. . . I don’t feel right this morning. . . say a prayer for me? Such texts were out of character for me–something I almost never did. A look back in my journal from that day, I feel off. . . I’m not sure what’s wrong. Is it Mom? My job?
I went to a work. Counseling clients, being a helper. My final client that day canceled. I got home an hour early. I was chopping carrots and celery when my Dad called. I will forever feel gratitude for that canceled client. When I heard my Dad’s words, Mom passed away, I was with Chad, Charlie, and Chanelle, not alone in my office.
I am the daughter of an alcoholic. Or, I was the daughter of an alcoholic. Does the fact that she’s gone change that? I’m still not sure about that one.
Now I am a motherless daughter who is still working out what all of this means–what all of it meant. I write because this is part of my story and I believe deeply in the power of sharing our stories.
I had a good Mom. An wonderful Mom. When I look back at my childhood I have nothing but good memories. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who was present in our daily lives. She was always there. She was an excellent cook and made incredible meals for us. She took care of us when we were sick, kissed our boo-boos, and did all the things you would expect a mom to do. She also did the special things–like on our birthday she made my siblings and I feel like we were the most important person in the world. She created homemade costumes for Trick-or-Treat and she loved to gussy up her little girls. I remember our girl shopping trips–those were my favorite. I remember the silly songs she sang and the way she would sit and color with us. I remember the way she made each holiday an event.
Even as I transitioned from elementary age to pre-teen to teen years, my Mom and I didn’t have the push-pull relationship you hear many mothers and daughters have. My mom was a supporter, encourager, and someone I trusted. I used to love to sit and talk with my Mom and share the details of my teenage life. She was a listener. . .a great listener.
My mom was an excellent mother.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I suspected there was a problem. It was so subtle. I began noticing that she would have her evening glass of wine earlier and earlier. I noticed that the glass seemed to empty quickly, but never seemed to be empty at the same time. I started to find glasses hidden in places they shouldn’t be.
During those years I told myself I was crazy. I told myself that it wasn’t a problem. For the most part, she was still the same supportive, present, loving Mom. I also felt that I had no right to talk about it. . . I was the child, she was the adult. I kept the secret, unsure of myself, for many, many years. I told myself it was in my head. . . I worried too much.
As the years moved on, I graduated from college, got married, and started my own family. I knew that the problem wasn’t getting better. The elephant in the living room was so big. The day finally came when I knew I had to talk about it–the elephant–as if my chest would explode if I didn’t. I remember my entire body shaking as I asked my Dad if we could talk. I needed that talk. I think he did, too. My mom joined our conversation that day. It was the first of many broken promises that she would get better.
After that day, my family walked through the hell of loving an alcoholic. . . loving her deeply. So. very. deeply. For four years my family fought hard for her. . . in the end we fought harder than she did.
I can recount the seemingly hundreds of conversations I had with my Mom about her drinking. I can recall the endless promises she made that she was going to do better, try harder, get better. As a family we did everything we knew to do. Therapy, treatment centers, interventions, staying in her life, removing ourselves from her life, pleading, loving, getting angry. . . . I could go on and on. Somewhere over those years my mom and I reversed roles. . . I became the parent and she was the child.
During that time, we had glimpses of our “real” Mom. It was in those glimpses that I convinced myself that she was getting better. It will to be okay. . . maybe this will be it. There were moments when I needed my Mom and she was there with her usual listening ear, giving spirit, and love. They were just glimpses, though, and those times got shorter and shorter and farther in between.
My story intersects with the story of my family members. Some times these stories pull families apart, but we rallied for my Mom. . . we rallied together. We got angry, we got sad, we supported each other and we loved her. And my Dad, the constant for us all, did his best to protect us. I know I will never truly understand all my Dad did and saw during that time. I will never know the strength it took him to hang on. He loved my Mom with the kind of love that wedding vows talk about–in sickness and health; in good times and bad. He was committed to her because like all of us. . . he knew she was still in there.
In those days, I verbalized that I didn’t think she would make it. . . that it would get her before she got it. Like saying it would make it easier if it happened. It didn’t. When it happened, when we lost her, it was like having my heart torn from my chest.
I often wonder if she would have known how much her death would devastate us, would she have fought harder?
I believe my Mom wanted to get better. I know she loved us. I believe her heart broke by the pain she inflicted on all of us during those years. I imagine the shame she felt was unbearable. I will never forget looking at her calendar after she died. It was just a few days before Easter when we were all to go home and Easter was circled in red with the words “KID’S HOME!!” written on it. I know she loved us. I have no doubt about it. In the end, it was just bigger than she was.
To this day I have no idea what plagued my Mom. I don’t think she did either. Would it help if I knew? I’m not sure. In the end I realize that I can not make sense of senseless things. There are still days when I am angry and others when I am so sad. There are also many days when I am doing fine. . . Every day I miss her. I’ve learned that this is grief.
When all is said and done I know I was blessed to have her as my Mom. Despite all turmoil I have no doubts that my Mom loved me. And even now, knowing everything I know about how her life and our life would unfold, if given the choice, I would not trade my Mom for the world.
Eight years have passed since I lost my Mom and in those eight years, I’ve learned some of the biggest lessons of my life.
I’ve learned that there are questions that will never have answers. It is possible to find peace among the questions.
I’ve learned that often sadness and joy intermix to form a depth of experience that can’t be captured in words. Sadness doesn’t dampen joy, in fact, sometimes, it enhances it.
I’ve learned that shame has no place in our stories. To embrace our stories, is to embrace our life.
I’ve learned that I can do hard things. I’ve learned that I, all of us, are much stronger than we know.
I’ve learned that, when we allow it, beauty can be found among the ashes.
I wish my Mom were here today. I wish she were here to see that her therapist daughter took a turn and became a photographer. I wish I could text her pictures of the chaos of our house or call her when I’m on the verge of losing my mind because we’ve made slime again. I wish she knew we lived in a red house (she might be appalled) in the country. Oh, how I wish she could see how Charlie has grown from the 4-year old she knew. Or how Chanelle has changed since she was 2. Not a week goes by when I don’t wish that she would have had a chance to know Meadow.
But the thing is, to this day, I’m not sure if I would have found my way to photography or writing had I not lost her. I’m not sure I would have moved to the countryside. I’m not sure there would be a Meadow.
So I hold them both–the joy and the sadness. I ride the waves of grief as they come and I claim my story as it is. And every year, on this day, I look back and notice just how far I’ve come.