When I was newly sober, an alcoholic mother confessed her failings to me. Now that I’m a mom, I see her last act as unspeakably courageous.
Annie’s skin was a dull, orange-ish hue, her eyes rimmed in yellow. Her tight, swollen belly unnaturally filled her lap, weighing down stick-thin legs that had gone useless long ago.
The sun was just setting, painting the Florida dusk in warm pastels of orange and lavender as we settled around an iron table in a small, breezy courtyard at the hospice house where she’d come to spend her last days.
I had seen people with liver disease before. There was the guy I had been in treatment with who had a stomach the size of those ergo-dynamic balls used as desk chairs; he precariously perched on flamingo legs that always looked ready to tip.
There was also the middle-aged guy in cut-off shorts in detox who was enough of a regular for the nurses to scold. I remember over-hearing them make it clear that if he drank again, he’d be dead. He was so swollen that I thought, in my own half-sober haze, that one more whiskey might actually cause him to burst like the poor soul in the Monty Python sketch.
The next morning his room was empty. He’d apparently had room for a few more.
Still, I had to catch myself when I saw Annie wheeled in that fading evening. I’d never seen a human that particular, splotchy color or eyes that gave off such a sad, sick glow. I hoped to hide my look of shock and pity but I’m not sure I succeeded.
Annie had told her hospice nurse that she wanted to talk with someone in AA. She was by then what the hospice team called “actively dying”—a technical term charted with care and a numerical value attached to each stage of diminishing bodily function: the higher the number, the shorter the time. Her number was high.
The request had come to me in the hospice public relations office where we often did Make-A-Wish kind of work when we could. I hadn’t worked there long so no one knew I was in recovery. But I said I would make it happen that day. The nurse seemed pleased and didn’t ask any other questions.
I was toe-deep in the program at the time: no home group, meetings at whatever place was closest on the list that I kept in the car. I asked at a noon meeting if there was anyone who could help me on a 12-step call and a guy named Jeff volunteered. I had never seen him before that and I haven’t seen him since.
Annie had said she wanted to make a tape for her family so I brought a cassette player and two sets of back-up batteries—and a notebook and pen in case all else failed.
I was nervous but did what I did, and still do, when uncomfortable in an interview. I whipped on my “reporter’s cape” and pretended I knew exactly what I was doing. I jusr started asking questions as if I had some clue of what she needed to say.
She talked with little prompting, saying that she had known she was an alcoholic for a long time. She’d tried going to AA back home in Ohio. There were almost no women in the program when she went: it was a boys club where she didn’t seem to belong. She didn’t drink in bars. She didn’t get into fights. She didn’t go to work in an office where she kept a bottle in her desk.
I got the feeling that this was a story she had never told, a secret she’d kept for herself. She remembered the meetings fondly, recalled that they always offered her coffee and told her to keep coming back. And she had, for a short time, been sober. But that had been decades ago.
Her drinking story was unremarkable in the way that all solitary drinker’s stories can be: sad, small and lonely. She started to drink wine while cooking dinner, soon took to drinking over eating and finally, and lastly, drank and barely managed little else.
Then she talked about her kids. She skipped around a bit, illness and age and her morphine drip blurring the already faded lines of her life.
It was clear she’d lost touch with her two boys years ago. It seemed she left them after being pushed out by their father and then, shamed for her drinking, embarrassed by how far she fell short as a mother, she crawled away and stayed there.
Her relative sins seemed commonplace: no confessions of beatings or belittling or starvation, not even enough for the mildest movie-of-the-week adaptation. It was more like a tale of benign neglect but just thinking about it made tears come to her eyes. There could have been more that she just couldn’t face or tell but the ache of falling short with her boys was as evident on her face as the disease that was killing her.
I was in my twenties when I met her, years away from having my own daughter and still in the tangle of emotions that comes from trying to extricate myself from the pain caused by my own and other people’s drinking.
Listening to her was the first time I saw an alcoholic parent as a person in pain instead of just a person responsible for causing it. It was the first time I had seen the long shadow of regret that comes from failing the ones you love because, in one too many moments, you seem to love alcohol more. All she had left, in the end, was a longing for all she didn’t do. She couldn’t be there. She couldn’t get out of her own way to give them what they needed. And she knew it. It haunted her.
The next morning, she died.
I mailed the tape of our conversation to her estranged son somewhere in the Midwest. He did not travel south to bury her. Read More…