Last month, my mom was taken in an ambulance to the hospital.
Mom was delirious and admitted to the intensive care unit, and we were told she had cirrhosis of the liver. For the children of an alcoholic mother, maybe the news shouldn’t have been so shocking.
One of the earliest memories I have of her drinking was during Easter in 1996. My mom has always done the holidays gloriously and generously. We always looked forward to Easter, not only because we would each have a basket loaded with goodies, but because she would put on an amazing egg hunt. She’d hide dozens and dozens of plastic eggs filled with candy and money, and we’d just about knock each other down to find the most.
That Easter, when I was 9, we woke up to nothing. Mom sat on the couch, quiet and ashamed. We were young then. Too young to blame it on drinking.
Around the same time, I saw the first hint of mom’s dark side. We were living in an apartment complex and made some new friends. After a long day of play, my brother and I asked mom if we could have a sleep over with them. I was probably 8, and I don’t remember all the words and details in between, but I remember my confusion at her knocking the recliner my brother and I were sitting in right over onto its back. Her energy was mean, and it was surprising because that’s just not the truth of who she is.
In the years that followed, her drinking became something we were well aware of, but joked about. She’d roll her eyes, and we continued to make light of it.
Mom was always our rock, the woman who would do anything for us. But soon, she and my father started going out at night and leaving us at home. It didn’t matter if it was a school night or not. When the sun started setting, I always got scared. I so badly just wanted the comfort of my parents at home, but asking them was of no use. Chances were I’d end up pacing the floor with my 1-year-old sister in the middle of the night, while going through the phone book looking for my parents.
Come middle school and high school, we were well accustomed to our mom having two sides: a drunk one and a sober one. We loved her when she was sober, and she loved us too. We argued with her when she was drinking, and she blamed us for giving her a hard time, denying every accusation we made, which left us feeling guilty and belligerent.
One time, she took my brother to help him get a rental car, and the employees denied her because they could tell she was intoxicated. Another time, I overheard a parent of one of my friends say she couldn’t come to my house because my parents are drunks and never home.
I got so tired of coming home to find my mom passed out, that I moved out at 15.
I got breast implants when I was 22 and my mom flew in to be with me, but when I called her from the living room to ask her for help to get to the bathroom, she couldn’t hear me. Again, she was unavailable.
When I brought my newborn baby into her home, I cried and cried at the pain of engorgement and the difficulty of getting him to nurse. I expected her to be at my side, but she was nowhere to be found.
I was somehow surprised every time.
I know she sounds like the typical alcoholic. The deadbeat. The loser. But the truth is that she also had our backs and cheered us on. She’d leave us notes around the house telling us how proud she is, and how much she loves us. She’d let us play hooky from school to get one-on-one time with her. She’d smile as we sang, and cook our favorite foods, and give us a love so pure and true that it’s hard for me to explain. She’s the kind of mom you tell everything to: fears, mistakes, problems.
While she let us down in her alcoholism, she was also there for us like no one else could be.
She’s the kind of mom who answered the phone through the night if you needed her. She would stay on the phone to talk about nothing if you wanted to. She’s the kind of mom who’d stock the fridge with homemade lasagna, cakes and chocolate almond milk before I came for a visit. She’s the mom who’d tell you how perfect you are and that the only thing you need to do is believe in yourself. She’s the mom who got genuinely upset when others hurt us. Her default was always to have our backs, even when we didn’t really deserve it. She never found fault in us, even when it would have been easy to.
She’s a dichotomy. The best and the worst. The reason for my joy and the reason for my anger. She’s all the best parts of me, and many of the parts I loathe. She’s my angel and my antagonist. She is someone I deeply need yet someone I can’t even be around. And ever since I moved out when I was 15, that’s something I have struggled with. Sharing space with someone so toxic penetrates me in a way I can’t allow, yet keeping her at a distance seems cruel and unusual for us both.
I’ve done the dance that starts with the desire to be together and ends with frustration. I’d get frustrated with her for drinking and being someone she’s really not when she’s drunk. Someone who’s snarky and cold, when the purity of her heart is total joy and love.
Until this trip to the hospital, we didn’t realize she had drank herself dangerously close to her death bed. I thought of all the times I felt like I was exaggerating when I referred to her an alcoholic, all the times we made light of it and joked about it, and I realized just how real it has been.
I thought of all the time I spent mad at my mom, all the times I wanted her to feel bad, to feel guilty, and again, I was mad at myself for not knowing how to love her purely instead, regardless of if she was drunk or sober, sweet or sour. I thought about the disease that is alcoholism.
As I looked at her lifeless body, I saw the child in her. The child who just so happened to be my parent. The child who has clearly suffered so deeply. I climbed on the bed and held that poor child in my arms and kissed her and whispered to her about her perfection and beauty.
I didn’t leave that hospital for five straight days, but on the final one, I left with knowing that we’re all wounded little children. With this realization, I thought of all the expectations I always had of her. Expectations for her to be a perfect parent and a perfect adult, and the perfect grandma to my children. I wished that I could just go back in time and just love her like a child.
We are all the parent and the child.