They tell me it’s not my fault. Because that’s what you say to children of alcoholics. But they haven’t lived through my eyes, walked in my heavy footsteps, with my heart beating as loudly as it does in my ears.
It feels wrong wanting to not love your mother. It feels biologically counterintuitive; essentially impossible. You cannot unlove from where you were born. I’ve tried to build walls to protect myself but instead I built panic attacks, hypochondria, and chronic anxiety. But I am a happy person because I work hard not to be sad, like my mother. My funny, sarcastic mother who biologically transplanted her sadness into my varicose veins which mimic hers. I spent most of my life trying not to be like my mother.
But as I cry the tears I only shed for mama, they taste too familiar.
I’ll go to my grave with the sense I could have done more. I compulsively review moments in history, crucial crossroads where I turned one way when maybe I could have gone another direction. I have a perpetual guilt cutting at my throat with a dull blade and it won’t back down.
“I was selfish,” I say.
“So was she,” my husband says. “She would have found any reason to drink. You have nothing to do with it.”
He says this à la Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” Only I won’t crumble. I am a rock in my truth.
“No teenager should have to feel guilty for living her life,” my husband is my shrink and my one-man Al-Anon. “No daughter should feel weighed down by poor choices her mother made. Would you want our daughter to stop her life to take care of you?” The Devil’s Advocate routine isn’t helping. My heart has a halo, my brain a pitchfork.
I live in a perpetual state of “waiting for the call.” The hospital or a friend or a stranger who found her on the street. I hypothesize scenarios for how they find her dead. I think about what I will discover in her house after she’s dead. I imagine how hard I’ll sob, my heart, squeezed like a sponge who could never get its fill of water.
One of the most attentive conversations I have had with my mother was when she was in the hospital because she thought she was having a heart attack. She wasn’t. She had severe anemia and complications associated with it. She blames her current ailments on a childhood bout with Scarlet Fever rather than a lifetime of unhealthy choices.
“I had Scarlet Fever as a child too and I’m fine,” I tell her.
“Just you wait,” she promises.
Her belly is swollen with of fluid; I see her bones peeking through her translucent skin. Her calves and feet are swollen and look like one of my watercolors in shades of blues and pinks, decorated with scaly patches the doctors are worried about.
“My legs are just like Baba’s,” she says. “We have bad circulation in our family. It comes with the veins.”
“Baba has congestive heart failure. Her arteries are blocked. She is 87 years old and survived colon cancer and brain surgery.”
She was taunting me with a future I’ve spent a lifetime of choices avoiding.
They gave her a blood transfusion for the anemia. They gave her morphine shots in her stomach for her intense back and chest pain. They gave her doses of Xanax which weren’t enough for her to sleep. Now they’re worried about her kidneys. Her blood pressure was double mine.
“Can I take that pill and put it in my pocket to save for later and you give me a second pill to take now?” She asks the male nurse who had just come to introduce himself.
“No, we have to actually see you take the pill if we give it to you. If it doesn’t work in an hour, we can call the doctor for another prescription.”
She wheezes with each breath. She winces in pain, but in the three hours I visit her, we laugh while I share iPhone photos, reviewing my life over the last 5 months because usually she is not focused enough to hear it. Here, she sat listening attentively to my words, which seem to have no end. She appeared interested in what I was writing, who I was writing about (yay, it’s the step-mom), what my kids are doing. I showed off pictures of my daughter’s new toothless grin. I tried to suck her in as I sat in front of her, the little girl putting on a show for her mom to distract her from pinching IVs and arms covered in purple bruises. I clung onto this fleeting moment. My anger, my sadness, my guilt, my negativity; all of it is extinguished by looking into my mother’s sober eyes. This is from whom I came.
“You’ve gone four days without smoking!” I say to her. “Maybe it’ll be easier to not do it anymore?” I’ve never pestered her about quitting her pack-a-day habit.
“No way! It’ll be the first thing I do when I get out of here,” she says proudly, visually electrified at the thought of smoke hitting her corroded lungs. Less than two hours ago she was attached to oxygen because every word she spoke made her gasp with pain.
We took a walk down the hallway after they disconnected her IV. We made jokes. I signed up to be her health care proxy, not that reaching a doctor on the phone at the hospital is any easier than procuring Hamilton tickets.
“Last time I was in the hospital, I asked them to disconnect my IV so I could go to the bathroom, but instead, I went out for a smoke,” she confessed to me.
I laughed. She was always my teenage daughter, cracking jokes, lying, creating diversions. I wore the grown up hat, born an old soul.
“Galina come here for a minute,” she yelled for me as I hung out with friends on the block. I was 14; it was 1988. I got to the door and her hand was clenched in a fist. “Take this,” she said and gave me a disposable razor she had broken apart in an effort to extract the razor.
I came inside to spend the evening comforting her on our worn-in brown, leather couches. Teenagers make the best psychiatrists apparently. She sips a melon ball, holds a Russian wool blanket, makes slurred phone calls. I am her sober coach only I’m not allowed to keep her sober. I hope if I stay near her, she’ll be happier and less inclined to drink. She isn’t. She still drinks. She still cries. Eventually, I went upstairs so I can have my turn to cry.
The irony is my mother doesn’t think it affects me. “How do my habits affect your life?” This has always been her lifetime defense. She doesn’t ask me for anything. She has always supported herself. Through her eyes, if she stopped drinking, life would suck just as much, only without the only joy, she currently extols from it. Yet I sat there in front of her, wishing she could see me as the joy.
Having an alcoholic mother is a part of who I am. This is my story as much as her’s.
While she proclaims her behaviors don’t have any impact on my life, the fact remains it has influenced every element of who I am, from mothering to nutrition. From living a deliberate life of choosing happiness to not letting a man define me. I want to define my personality with how I respond during times of adversity.
But none of this matters. What matters is NOW. TODAY. HERE. When she is in pain in the hospital and she is my mommy and I don’t want her to hurt. I want to stir up a magical cocktail, inject it into her IV, transfuse her with some of my thick, O-positive blood and send her home for her cigarettes. I know she loves me; I have never doubted her love. I have only doubted mine. I have her heart; I know I do. I can feel her pain and I know she is fucking lonely and angry and tired.
“Your father used to keep a bottle of cognac next to the bed and take a swig every night. I don’t do that. I mean I keep a bottle of wine at home and once in a while I have a sip. I’m certainly not going to stop doing that; it’s barely anything.”
I thought this would be a wake -up call; tête-à-tête with mortality. Some kind of eureka moment? No.
I miss my mother; it was a strange feeling to have her back for a few hours only to know I’ll lose her to the bottle again.