"What about me?" I spat at my mother as she sat frail and broken in a wheelchair, her legs too wasted to carry her emaciated body.
It was Christmas of 1999, and my father, two brothers, and I were at a family-counseling session during my mother's second — though not her last — stint in rehab in Florida. My father had found her a few weeks earlier, lying half-dead on the couch, her once-pristine condo looking like a homeless person's final filthy squat, splattered with puke and diarrhea. I guess our tough-love tactic — booting her out of the house in New Jersey to go "deal with herself" near her sister in Florida, plus my father's recent visit on their anniversary to announce that he didn't love her anymore and wanted a separation — was too much for a woman who had always defined tough. When my father scooped her off the couch and rushed her to the hospital that day, the doctor glared at him and asked my mother, "Who did this to you?"
What a stupid question, I would have said to the doctor, had I been there. She did this to herself.
So there we sat, on uncomfortable seats under the blinding sun on that suffocatingly humid day, as the counselor prattled on about what my mother needed from us to get her healthy. My mother explained that she was feeling physically better and mentally optimistic — hell, she was even making jokes. And I just unloaded. I told her that I had always hated her, that she was a lousy drunk, that she deserved everything she was getting. I wanted her to feel my pain. I wanted her to cry. I had never seen her cry, and she didn't that day, either.
Was I being selfish? Maybe. But that's how we are with our mothers, judging them by how well, or how poorly, they looked out for us and how they prepared us for life. It's a role that we see strictly from our point of view, stripped of all backstory, all emotional narrative — except for how it pertains to us.
So the question of what made my mother such a catastrophically bad one never occurred to me until the other night, when I was dining with some girlfriends and talking about the uniquely feminine compromises and frustrations we were tussling with while working and raising kids. And it got me wondering what my mother's were and how they drove her to lose herself nightly in a bottle of Stoli.
After three failed rehabs, a couple of DUIs, and at least one serious flirtation with death, my mother quietly quit drinking for good about five years ago. Since then, we slipped into a peaceful détente and, terrified of testing it, never, ever talked about our 30-year war. But suddenly, I realized I needed to. Now that her mind was clear, now that I was in a place where understanding could take the place of judgment, I wanted to hear from her what the hell had happened. After all, we are mirror images of each other — blonde hair and blue eyes, high cheekbones and small builds — and I'm at that same age and stage of life that she was when everything fell apart for her.
I didn't want to chance it in person — we are both still too raw for that — but she did agree to get into it over the phone.
This is what I remember. Tiptoeing down the beige-carpeted stairs late at night, I poked my head far enough around the wall to peer into the living room, where my mother rocked in her navy-blue chair, swigging cheap white wine. I stood, riveted, staring at her nighttime face, which was contorted with depthless rage. She never noticed me hidden in the shadows as her cigarette withered in the ashtray while she gesticulated wildly, thrusting her middle finger into the face of someone who wasn't there. This was my routine for years, compulsively spying on her, trying to figure out who this beautiful and smart and tortured woman was from a distance. I felt — no, I knew — she did not love me. Curled into a question mark, I cried myself to sleep every night.
"Nobody said that life is fair." That was her favorite saying, a stinging maternal salve in response to a daughter's tears. I know there was a good lesson in there for me, but I wasn't ready to hear it. Instead, I thought, No shit. If life were fair, it would have smelled of home-baked cookies instead of stale booze; it would have felt like a warm hug instead of a cold shoulder.
"If you loved me, you'd stop drinking." That was my favorite comeback. Fair or not, mothers were supposed to live for their kids, I thought, and her nightly swan dive into a gallon jug of Gallo was a sloppy declaration of rejection. I took her drinking as wholly personal, and so I tried to make myself more lovable by overachieving in the classroom and on the soccer field; I tried to show her how much I was hurting by turning myself into an 88-pound skeleton. But none of that changed a thing. My mother still crawled naked up the stairs to her bedroom, still hid glasses of vodka in cupboards throughout the house, still chose booze over me.
And so I ran — up to Andover, down to Duke, across the country to San Francisco. But our reckless fights — my vicious takedowns and her slurred diatribes — carried on over the phone lines.
That's what I remember. Then my mother filled in the blanks.
One day, when my mom was growing up in a big, poor family in Alabama, her mother, Helen — an emotionally dead woman hitched to a violently alcoholic man — asked her if she wanted some ice cream. Helen had never asked my mother if she wanted anything, and so my mother, craving some ice cream, decided to test her. No, my mother said, I don't want any ice cream — hoping that Helen, for the first time, would simply know what her daughter wanted, what she needed. But Helen walked away, and my mother was crushed.
My mom returns to this story repeatedly as if it explains everything. If her own mother could not meet her needs, spoken or not, what was the point in acknowledging them, even to herself? Burying who she was and what she wanted, losing herself to whatever role she was asked to play — such as when my father demanded that she quit working to tend house — lit the fuse on her future self-destruction. "Life just didn't meet my expectations," she says with a laugh.
Still, she hadn't always been a drunk. Back when we lived in New Hope, PA, a funky, artsy town where she had real friends and access to like-minded, kooky creative types, she was happy. But then we moved to a competitive suburb in New Jersey. There, she was expected to do the coffee-klatch thing with the local June Cleaver wannabes, as she calls them, to dull her sharp intellect in order to play the dutiful role of stay-at-home wife to a workaholic husband and mother to a bunch of ungrateful kids. "There was nothing for me," she explains. "I thought, What am I doing here, taking up space on this earth? So I said, Okay, I can have a drink, and I can deal with this. Dinners were on the table, the house was kept up, and I met my obligations. Drinking was my little hobby. I don't know how else to put it — drinking was mine."
And so what I was seeing on my nightly recon mission, as she sat gesticulating furiously if silently in her chair, was all that corked-up pressure and pain exploding. At first, she restricted her drinking to the nightly blackout. She even went back to school for a master's degree in social work, thinking that a job would help pull her out of her black hole. But soon her mother died, my brother was in a serious motorcycle accident, and my father was diagnosed with cancer, then worked around the clock to save his company from bankruptcy. She was expected to deal with all of it, and her plans to do something for herself vanished. That's when she started chasing vodka during the day, and when our whole family turned our backs on her.
She spent the next six years in and out of rehab. "When I was in rehab, I'd run the place. I was a perfect student," she says. Every time she left, she hoped it would be different. But she didn't have a plan. There wasn't anything for her at home but loneliness and emptiness. So she opened the bottle again. And again.
I have no memories of my mother before she was an alcoholic, so I ask her what our relationship was like when I was a kid. This is the story she tells: Every evening, before bed — even though she wasn't comfortable doing what she calls the "coochy-coo thing" — she would ask me for a good-night kiss. And every evening, I would stand at a safe distance, turn my head, and offer her a bit of cheek. It was like I was daring her to jump over a huge wall and wrap me up in a great big bear hug. She never did it, and I never asked her to; she thought I didn't love her, and I thought she didn't love me. It was, she says, unmet needs and expectations, never given a voice, just like with her and her mother and the damned ice cream.
But instead of burying my needs like she had, I simply turned my back on her and melted into my dad's warm embrace. I needed hugs and affection, and he gave them to me — and an affectionate nickname ("Peanie," short for peanut) to boot.
I had given up on my mother well before she had given up on herself — our relationship had been broken long before I could blame it on booze. I remember looking over at her during my wedding five-and-a-half years ago as she sat laughing with my best friends, delighting them with her fabulously offbeat sense of humor. There she was in her beautiful mint green gown, chain-smoking Merits and clutching a sweaty glass of chardonnay. It didn't matter to me that she had managed to dance with a smile on her face even though my father had brought his new girlfriend — the one with whom he had hooked up before he left my mother for good — along with (though he had promised not to) her young kids. It didn't occur to me how unbelievably gracious she was being despite my having essentially cut her out of the whole wedding-planning process. No, what I saw in that stemware was yet another casually reneged promise to stay sober. And my heart broke.
About a year later, while I was busy living my own carefully constructed life, my husband and I found out that the baby I had carried in my belly for 18 weeks was plagued with irreparable genetic defects. We decided to terminate the pregnancy. I hadn't felt sadness and helplessness like that since I was a child.
I did not call my mother. But she called me, sobbing, after my brother told her what had happened, saying that she wanted to come help me. I told her not to, but she showed up on my doorstep anyway.
I think we both needed something bigger than us to get over ourselves, and that tragedy broke us down and brought us together in a way that we had never managed on our own. If it was a test, we both passed — my mother knew instinctively what her daughter needed, and I let her give it to me. "It was the first time you were there for me as the mother I needed," I said to her on the phone recently, choking up at the memory. "You even gave me a hug." My mother laughed, reminding me that I actually had to ask her for that hug, and I laughed through my tears along with her.
The truth is, I never would have embraced her if she hadn't quit drinking, which, in a bittersweet twist of irony, she had done on the down-low when she found out I was pregnant five months earlier. There were no rehabs, no interventions. For the first time, she says, she quit for herself. She quit drinking not because anyone was forcing her to, but because she wanted to have a relationship with my child, and she knew that she couldn't have both. It wasn't easy — though acupuncture helped with the physical withdrawal — but once she made the choice, that was that. She hasn't picked up a drink since.
Now she calls her "alcoholic episode" — all two decades of it — over and done. "It's not even a part of me anymore. That was my emptiness, my loneliness, my best friend. I'd rather have my grandkids than my other best friend." Part of me wants to say, "What about me? Why couldn't you quit for me?" But I don't want to get greedy.
Now, I schlep my sons down to visit their beloved Nana in Florida as often as I can. She has reinvented herself in the Sunshine State — playing bridge with the ladies in her condo complex, devouring esoteric books, and yakking with her astrologer. She bought a house that the grandkids would want to visit — near the playground and pool, even though she hates to swim. "I am getting what I want. I am me now, and I think that makes me free," she says.
And even though my mother lives alone, she's not lonely like she was when she lived with all of us. Sometimes, when she's out pulling weeds, she finds herself dancing. "And I'm good. I'm actually loose," she says. "And I'm thinking, I used to believe I had to drink to dance. I'm better sober."
I know that there is a good lesson in there for my friends and me, and I'm finally ready to hear it. Nobody said that life is fair. My mother felt squashed by not having any of her own choices; we feel overwhelmed by having too many. Being a woman is never easy, and these days we are pushed and pulled and stretched in a thousand different directions trying to be the wife, the mother, and the career woman. Tell your friends, my mom says, as they try to work out this impossible balancing act, not to forget to dance for themselves.
But there is something else that is just for me. A few days after we finished slogging through our tortured history, she called me up. "I've been really worried about you," she said. "I was afraid that these conversations have upset you, have hurt your feelings." Funny, I thought, I was really worried about your feelings. That is a first for us both.