Zero. What an awful number. Especially if you’re staring at it, in blaring red neon on the heart monitor. I was sitting next to my 86-pound dad in the hospital, listening to the slowed beeping of the monitor. His gaunt, pale, sunken face haunted me, but it didn’t stop me from climbing into the bed beside him, knowing I would never get the chance again. The COPD he had battled for years had finally overtaken his lungs, causing him to go into unconsciousness when they wheeled him into the emergency room from the ambulance a few days prior. Now, in his room, before the nurse left, she had said it was only a matter of time until he would slip away. She came back into the room and told us this was it–his heart rate was fading fast. My mom and I sat in silence. My mama, stricken with her second bout of lung cancer, sitting on the chair with her colored scarf covering her chemo-ridden scalp, was nervous and scared. She didn’t know quite what to do. I laid my head on his chest and watched his lifeless body slip away as I stared at the machines for verification. I told my mom to come over and say goodbye. Suddenly, I heard his heart beating strong again. I said, “He’s alive! Go get the nurse!” My dad raised his right arm, as if it were a flailing last attempt to beat this disease, then dropped it to the bed. He was gone. Years of smoking took his life and then my mom’s just four months later.
So why then, twelve years later, were my oldest daughter and I standing in a convenience store on an Indian reservation in the middle of December– waiting in a long line of people who were all there for the same reason? To get a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes for half the price. It was for my son, of course. Wasn’t everything? He was in his first rehab and out of state. Remember, life with an addiction has you doing things you never thought you would. We were thrilled to have found these cigarettes for him because we had searched online on how to send some directly to him. Apparently, that’s not an option. It’s illegal so that kids can’t buy them.
It took me back to that little girl carrying a handwritten note to the grocery store forty years earlier: “Please let Samantha buy one pack of Pall Mall!*” And they let me! What a circle of life!
Turns out though, that even if both your parents died of lung related diseases, directly as a result of smoking all their lives, the shock of finding out that your kids smoke has completely worn off when you realized your son is a heavy IV drug user. To “only smoke” is HUGE compared to THAT world. We were thrilled to be able to do that for him, as long as he was in rehab, and they were allowing cigarettes to help with the absence of the drugs. Let’s talk about guilt. Ugh. Brené Brown made a fortune by speaking about healing shame, but guilt is an entirely different monster. Al-Anon teaches:
I didn’t cause it,
I can’t cure it,
and I can’t control it.
This is the motto for all in family recovery to help them feel better about being “powerless” in the journey of addiction of a loved one. Truth be told, as Moms, we all seem to keep this little tinge of guilt inside us to bring out on particularly bad days. Not the days when you are completely, insanely angry. Not the days when you yell, cry, or try to beat (figuratively) any possible common sense into your (mostly adult) child about the causes and effects of their actions. No, it’s the days when you see a dad with his kids sitting in a restaurant. It’s when you pass a construction site with a huge crane, and you wish beyond anything that your son was running that job or even getting paid to show up every day.
It’s the days when you meet a new coworker, and you are petrified he or she will ask about your family. How are you going to say, “I have another son. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing because, well, he struggles with which master to follow, I suppose.”
Those are days when you casually look at an old picture, evoking such bittersweet memories, that you completely break down, pleading to God for a do-over— to just take you back to a certain time and you’ll do it all again. You’ll do it right this time. You’ll take that little boy in your arms and say, “Do you know how wonderful you are? Do you know the challenges you will face and how strong you will have to be to say no?
Do you know you will have a beautiful little girl with light towheaded hair like you and a cute little boy with your thick wavy hair and your smile who will idolize the ground you walk on, if only you will stay the course?”
Remembering your innocent child and all the things you wish you had said or done is a hell only a mother knows. “They,” the experts, say, that in order to process this trauma of loving an addict, you have to let go of the guilt. But I know I will always have a tinge of guilt about things that may have left him feeling empty as a little boy. He always stated that he had a great childhood, that he’s one of the twenty percent of addicts who wasn’t abused, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have trauma or have an environment that led him unable to manage his emotions or process pain.
I remember sitting in the grass, under the shady sour green crab apple tree, by the red brick house on the corner of main street. My best friend and I were watching the cars go by. We were 12 years old. This was our spot to view the world and make all our plans. We were preteens and unaware of anything outside our little town except what we saw on the three channels that came into our TV. We would walk down to the Dairy Queen, then back up to that faithful old apple tree and sit and talk about the future as we saw it. We asked things like, “Do people who have ugly kids know they are ugly? If we ever have ugly kids, let’s promise to tell each other the truth,” and, “I’m sure the only way anyone will ever have kids with me is if I accidentally get pregnant.”
Wait, what? Was that how low my self-esteem was? How could that be? I had two parents my whole life. I mean, they didn’t sleep in the same bed or ever show affection. In fact, I used to fear coming home because my mom always threatened that my dad’s things would be out on the road. But, hey, we were “intact.” There was NO fractured, single parenting in our house. We did have weeks we called “starvation weeks,” when there was literally no food in the house. We lived on pasta in V8 juice and TV dinners the other weeks. My parents worked hard. Really hard. They were poor folks. They each came from large Mormon families. My mom had fifteen brothers and sisters. All were born at home, except the last baby girl who was born in the hospital and died. My dad had thirteen brothers and sisters, and his parents actually divorced then remarried each other, I think twice, which was rare in those days. Dad told me that his mom got pregnant with him in 1932 and his dad “had to marry her.” Allegedly, my grandfather beat my dad from the beginning, often calling him a mistake.
My parents grew up in pure survival mode so they raised us in pure survival mode. NOT THRIVE-AL, SURVIVE-AL. My role in the house was the peacemaker and to prevent my mom from going into one of her “moods.” Those moods were torture. The saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” could have been on our family crest. I remember coming home from school and being able to FEEL the heavy darkness from a mile away. She would lock herself in the bathroom for hours and just not talk or sit at the kitchen table staring into the abyss and chain smoking. When she wouldn’t answer a simple question, I would resort to sliding papers under the door, with riddles or tic-tac-toe or the old dot and box game, where you drew dots in squares then each took turns drawing one line between the dots in order to see who could make the most boxes.
I didn’t know it then, but this begging for validation and being the peacemaker in the house makes a child develop an acute sense of inadequacy, hence the apple tree conversation.
So where does a small-town girl with a developing sense of inferior ego and poor communication skills find a husband? Well, her friend sets her up on a blind date to the local basketball game at the ripe age of fifteen, and she ends up having a beautiful baby girl a year later while her friends were at the junior prom. In all fairness, I had a great husband who was a great father for twenty-four years. The problem was that I was a child raising a child. Even so, I loved being pregnant. I loved having amazing little humans inside me. Mason came when I was barely nineteen. We moved to the big city where I drove my little yellow 1977 Ford Pinto in and out of the busy city streets–- a small-town girl completely out of her league. Luckily, I had great in-laws who were helpful and nonjudgmental. My parents, even in their dysfunction, were great grandparents to my kids. But I still had this apple tree self-esteem issue. The trouble with “getting pregnant” in a small Mormon community is the amount of shame that you may internalize.
Stack that onto everything else, and you have a mom who tries to live out her worthiness through her kids. Yup. From the get-go, I set out to prove that I was worthy of having these beautiful little children. I mean, they were perfect. They were innocent and playful and curious and bright and just so beautiful. Did I mention beautiful?
I loved my babies. Their jerky, yet synchronized little movements, their feet–climbing invisible mountains. Their curious fingers. The smell of babies! I reveled in the glory of this amazing thing of creating a living, breathing life. An emotionally healthy person would bask in this sublimity and exquisiteness, but not this small-town, still shame filled girl. Nope, she had to prove herself worthy of their essence. She had to see them shine, so SHE would shine. To see them as perfection, to cover her imperfections.
Subsequently, I spent many years attempting to make my daughter a star. I did this through lessons, modeling, extras in movies, and little girl pageants. We used to drive all over the state doing those. Even though we weren’t rich, we spent time and money on gas, dresses, photo sessions, contest fees, and photo contests. It was an addiction. And where was Mason? On the sidelines. I have videos. I see this little boy, playing on the floor by the chairs. I see his sweet, innocent, chubby cheek face and big, gorgeous lips looking up at me for approval, for love.
Did I give him enough?
I can almost see the frazzled young mom, trying to do it all and have it all, being impatient with her husband, with her kids. I thought my value was somehow dependent on having my children achieve everything that I didn’t. I had to prove that it was okay that I “got pregnant.” I imagine my grandmother back in 1932 feeling the same shame. Back then, it would have been a worse tragedy. In 1983, not so much, but shame is shame. No matter where or when.
When I think back to those years, the first two verses of Bette Midler’s, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” always come to mind. Although the context of the song doesn’t fit, and I am not placing ANY of these words on my now grown-up beauty pageant girl, or even Mason, but the words hit deep for the pain my son might have felt all those years. Possibly setting him up to prove himself worthy. Worthy of love, of success, of awards, of just being.
We all have stories like this. Not many people can say they had a completely trauma-free, functional childhood. Many people with the worst childhoods grow up just fine. Was I enmeshed in my daughter’s pageantry for all those years? Did I ever run my kids’ homework to school when they forgot it? Did I make my kids stand up for themselves or did I come to their rescue? Of course, I did, but what am I going to do about it? I was young, but even if I had waited to have kids, it still would have been my first experience with every situation. You don’t know what you don’t know! People do better when they know better. To be fair, I wasn’t a whole lot different than those around me. The culture in Mormon hood was to achieve. It was all about sports, the awards, school functions, medals, and eventually sending your kids on missions for the church and being married in the temple.