On Drinking and Dead Parents and Life on Other Planets
If I still drank, I would have last night.
There was nothing noticeably different yesterday from all my other days. I woke in the morning and helped my husband get our second grader ready for school — my husband fixed our son’s breakfast while I laid out his clothes and made sure he had a snack, his folder and a water bottle in his backpack. I ironed a navy blue t-shirt my 13-year-old daughter wanted to wear, and told her “not a chance” when she asked to borrow my new pale pink espadrille platforms. As her bus took off from our driveway, I settled into my workday.
I work from home, so I was there when my kids got off the bus, the second-grader at 3:00 p.m., the seventh-grader ten minutes past 4:00. By 5:00, I was helping my son search for his drum sticks for his 5:30 drum lesson. Before we left, I told my daughter to do her homework, and not to be glued to her phone while we’re gone.
And then, while my son was with his drum teacher and I was nestled into the oversized stuffy chair in the back of the music store, with parents and kids coming and going and an assortment of instrument sounds — flutes, guitars, tubas — coming from behind closed doors, I read these lines:
When did you realize your mother was actually dead, Sister Sonja would ask again months later.
Never. Every day. Yesterday. Right at this moment.
It’s from the last chapter of Jaqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn — a book about four young friends in Brooklyn, and what happens to girls at 12 and 13 and beyond, as they move from being girls to young women.
But, it’s also about growing up knowing — and not knowing — your parent is dead. That line stopped me. With a hopscotch of musical sounds surrounding me, I put the book down and focused my attention on the family who had just walked into the room — a mom, dad, and a younger brother along with the grandparents. They were talking about an art exhibit at the local library showcasing their kid’s artwork. I forgot my son had a piece of pottery on display there too, and decided we’d make the short walk to the library after drums.
I tried to go back to the book, but stayed on that line — “When did you realize your mother was actually dead.” It hung there on the page like a painting I needed to stare at to figure out. I remembered a librarian who used to run the children’s room at our local library. As if pulled from the pages of a picture book, her name was Miss Applegate and she wore starched, white button down shirts with a short red scarf tied at her neck. When my daughter was no taller than a step ladder, I took her to one of Miss Applegate’s story hours at the library.
“I knew your mom when she was smaller than you are now,” Miss Applegate told my daughter, “Her dad used to bring her here all the time to pick out books.”
I don’t remember my dad taking me to the library, but I remember Miss Applegate’s story about it. The only memory I have of my dad is that he drowned two months before I turned four. I don’t know when this memory replaced all the other memories I had of him. What he smelled like. How he said my name. The gait of his walk. How he moved his hands when he talked. If he moved his hands when he talked.
This memory — that my dad drowned before my fourth birthday — is the earliest memory I have about myself, the most hardwired.
I didn’t cry at Jimmy’s Music Center while my son was beating on drums. I didn’t think about drinking. After my son’s music lesson, we stopped at the library art exhibit. I didn’t feel sad at the library, but I also told my son, “No, we were short on time,” when he wanted to go to the children’s book room. I was hungry. I wanted a coffee, but the nearby coffee shop was closed. Woodson’s line came back to me when we got in the truck to drive home.
When did you realize your mother was actually dead…
I do have one memory. It’s my mom and me asleep in my grandmother’s guest bedroom. I remember lying beside my mom in bed and the phone ringing on the nightstand. It was one of those heavy, rotary phones with a long extension cord that everyone had in the 70s. I remember sitting up and my mom answering the phone, and then crying. I don’t remember any words. I don’t remember if she said anything to me during or after the call, but I remember her crying. I don’t know who called mom — whether it was one of my aunts or uncles on my dad’s side of the family — or, how they knew to reach my mom at her mother’s house, but they called to tell her my dad, her ex-husband, was dead.
It wasn’t until the drive home from the art exhibit with my son that I started crying. We were a short distance from our subdivision when the song “Don’t give up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush came on the radio. My son was sitting in the back seat asking me about the clouds surrounding the planet Venus and why scientists always look for water first when exploring other planets. He was telling me that he knew, absolutely 100 percent knew, there was life somewhere else beyond our solar system because there were just too many stars — too many galaxies — for ours to be the only one with life.
“I think you’re right,” I said just as Kate Bush’s voice entered the song, singing the lines ‘Don’t give up, you’re not beaten yet, don’t give up, I know you can make it good’ and it broke me. I adjusted the rear-view mirror so my son couldn’t see me wipe tears from my eyes, keeping one hand on the wheel. Minutes later when we pulled in the driveway, I told my son not to forget his drum sticks and to go inside without me.
“I’ll be there in just a sec — I need to check my work email real quick,” I said and remained buckled in the driver’s seat.
But, I didn’t look at my phone. I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror and used my ring finger to wipe away smudged mascara from under my eyes. I thought how nice it would be to go inside and pour a glass of wine. I don’t remember the last time I had this thought.
I didn’t drink, even though we have two unopened bottles of wine in the house. We also have a half-full bottle of Citron vodka, a nearly full bottle of Don Julio tequila and Seagram’s 7 from a holiday party we hosted. There are a few bottles of my husband’s home-brewed beer in the back of the fridge. I wasn’t tempted to open any by the time I walked into our kitchen.
I did lose my temper with the kids. Later in the evening, I was mean to my daughter, raising my voice at her. “I’m not cooking two meals just because you want to be a vegan,” I said when she didn’t want the Alfredo sauce I offered to make after realizing there was no marinara to go on the spaghetti noodles already in boiling water. I felt badly about how I talked to her and made her a salad and steamed broccoli and apple slices with peanut butter.
I went from yelling at my kids to fighting with my husband when he told me I was over-reacting. I got mad at him a second time when he didn’t take the dog for a walk right away. After the kids were asleep and my husband was out walking the dog, I fixed myself a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream covered in thick hot fudge warmed in the microwave. I ate the maraschino cherries straight from the glass jar.
I was being a dry drunk — someone who doesn’t drink or get high, but still has the emotional threshold of an addict in full-force addiction mode. If I did still drink, I would have been drunk by the time my husband got back from walking the dog. I would have smoked at least two cigarettes after putting the kids to bed — one right after the next. I would have had that glass of wine, plus two more. Probably a shot of the tequila. Maybe a cocktail using the Citron vodka mixed with the generic tonic water I keep because I like it with fresh lime juice. If I still drank, I probably would still have connections — someone I could text after 9:00 p.m. to ask for weed — or maybe just a few Xanax.
Sitting here today, thinking about why yesterday was harder than most, I can’t imagine being in that world anymore. A night that starts with one glass of wine and ends with some ridiculous plan to get high. I’ve been sober ten years and that world is so much scarier than any sadness I may have to wade through every now and again. Just writing about it — considering the steep slide down — is horrifying.
If I still drank, I would have gotten drunk last night — and I would have kept drinking today, and again tomorrow. The thought of having a glass of wine didn’t go beyond a thought because I know I can’t stop after one glass, or two, or three. And the sadness — the grief of remembering and not remembering, a dead parent — would still be there tomorrow.
There is no big ending here. No great elegy of my former alcoholic self, cured by sobriety. No digging deep into the soul of a daughter without a father. Only that I had a hard day, and remembered something that made me sad — but, I didn’t start drinking because I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop.