It was the middle of the night when the accident happened. I was sleeping, completely oblivious to the quiet cursing and flailing in the basement. It was in the spring of seventh grade year, unsure of what words like addiction, dependence, and alcoholism meant. I was also unaware of what our family’s go-to coping mechanism, denial, meant.
Because we were so enmeshed in the denial, my parents’ alcohol abuse was not seen as anything other than completely normal. I thought every kid must have to put mommy to bed after she passed out on the couch, being careful to ensure she didn’t burn the house down with a light cigarette in her hand in the process. I believed that every kid’s dad came home with half a quart of beer in a bag in hand, the first half consumed on the way home from work. I also thought every kid had the same kind of clumsy mother, who was constantly hurting herself by either not paying attention to where she was going or due to her carelessness in the kitchen. I believed every kid’s dad would periodically wreck the car on his way home from the VFW.
Of course, I know now that it was definitely not normal or healthy to grow up around this kind of behavior. While no one told me that I shouldn’t be worried about mommy’s empty wine glass or that she couldn’t commit to picking me up after a certain hour because it cut into her drinking time, certainly, no one told me that it was something we never talk about with other people. It was always implied, something I got really good at figuring out too late, way after the fact.
My youngest brother, no more than eight years old at the time, awoke to the sound of my mother calling out for help through the vent in his room that let the warm air waft up from the basement. It was late spring, still cold at nights, so we still kept a fire burning through the night to keep the house warm. My mother had awoken from her stupor, realizing it was the middle of the night, went downstairs to check on the fire in the wood stove before finally going upstairs to bed. She never made it upstairs.
Combined with the alcohol and the darkness, I imagine she was a bit disoriented and missed only the bottom step. She fell onto the concrete floor with enough force to fracture and dislocate her ankle. By the time I came on the scene, the ambulance was already there. The flashing red lights outside my bedroom window woke me. I went out to find them wheeling my mother out of the house on a stretcher.
The rest is a blur, I don’t remember anyone explaining what was happening to me. The next thing I remember is going to school the next day and explaining it to my few friends. A few days later, my mother had surgery to repair her ankle and my father was left to care for us until she could come home. His understanding of our home routine was severely lacking. It was in that moment that I began to realize how little he was tuned into our day to day life.
As an adult, I see why it was that way. He was a dysfunctional person in his own right, but was tied to a woman with a drinking problem and now they had three kids. His intervention was mostly to punish us for whatever egregious issue he deemed beating-worthy, from not putting the mail in the correct place to hiding behind furniture during a party while trying to avoid the drunks they had invited over. Denial about the dysfunction and abuse was easier than trying to fix it.
Eventually word of my mother’s accident traveled through the neighborhood, spreading like wildfire in the tiny community in which we lived. The next door neighbor, whom my father detested, came by to check in and see if we were okay. My father and I were talking with him in the kitchen, and I made an off-hand comment about the accident, one which I was almost certain I had heard my father state verbatim himself.
“She was probably drunk.” I said, my twelve year old mind not really appreciating the severity of the statement. My father excused himself from the conversation and drug me down the hall to my room by my arm, firmly at first. As soon as the door closed behind us, he flung me down onto my bed and put his hand over my mouth. His face was inches from mine as he hissed hateful words at me, I can’t recall exactly, but he was furious, possibly embarrassed. I’d never seen him so angry this close up.
Tears were streaming down my face as his hand clasped harder over my face, muffling the sound of my crying. He growled at me to shut up over and over again until I was quiet enough for him to remove his hand. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I didn’t go back out of my room until the neighbor left. My mind was reeling, confused at how my simple parroted comment about what was the absolute truth could be so upsetting. How could me simply saying mom was probably drunk when she fell warrant his reaction?
My mother had done real damage in the fall, needing surgery to place a metal plate and screws into her ankle to reset the bones. A few days later, my mother came home from the hospital. True to form, the entire house had to be reordered to accommodate her. I was told to give up my bedroom, which was the closest to the bathroom, so she could have it. The recovery process would take months, and my brothers gave up their rooms in turns for me, sharing the big bed upstairs with my father.
My mother would bark orders to me in the morning, that my duties now also included serving her meals and coffee, in addition to her wine in the evenings. None of it was ever correct. The coffee didn’t have the correct balance of sugar and milk, often spilling on my hands and burning me as I tried to carefully carry the very full cup to her. None of the food I brought her was correct either, too cold or hot, or not prepared as lovingly as she would like.
While she was supposed to be doing physical therapy exercises, she was far more interested in doing her crafts and watching day time television. This occurred during the Waco standoff with the Branch Davidians, so she was glued to the coverage. She didn’t move from the room except to go to the bathroom for six weeks.
Eventually, she recovered, and was given a driving boot so she could drive to work again. Life returned to “normal” and she never had another major accident. She had all manner of minor cuts and burns that would happen to anyone trying to prepare a meal for five people while smashed out of the mind on jug wine. She would still bump into displays in the store, knocking the contents everywhere and keep moving as though nothing happened. I realize now that this was probably a long term effect of the alcohol abuse, that her peripheral nerves were most likely damaged that she really couldn’t help herself.
Some twenty years later, after many, many years in therapy, I had finally had enough. As I have indicated in other posts, there wasn’t any one thing that set off my decision to stop having contact with my mother. Instead, it was the death by a thousand cuts, each more insulting and demeaning than the last, until finally, I bled out. I had no more to give. It is particularly disappointing to her, I imagine, because she has so much more that she needs to take before her time on earth is over.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still wracked with guilt over it, knowing that most who read this will not fully understand or appreciate the intricacies of my decision. I don’t expect it. But, what I had come to understand from my family’s dictation of my role as daughter was that I was placed in the role of servant, supplicant, fixer of problems, bringer of things, but never recognized for who I am as a person, even allowed to have feelings.
I saw confirmation of my suspicion in the form a Facebook conversation that happened about a year ago. My best friend from high school posted how she had hurt her ankle and would be laid up for a few days to recover. I was about to click the comment box to send my sympathies when I saw the following comment from my mother, the first comment following the status post:
Have your family wait on you hand and foot.
Ah, yes. There it is. No matter what happens in life, no matter what I change, this is how I will always be seen to them, especially her. I realized then, and now that I think about it, how much of her recovery was made out to be far worse than it was to get attention and to be “waited on, hand and foot.” I realized that I’ll never be seen as an adult, a separate entity or even a human being to them.
And, although mother’s day is right around the corner, and I’m going through the expected self-loathing and guilt that would accompany anyone who is estranged from their family, I remember now why I’m not in contact with them. I am much more peaceful I am not having to cope with their constant histrionics. Maybe someday, I’ll have kids of my own, and I can show them what a real mother is, and hopefully never demonstrate the same kind of dehumanizing behavior that I was subjected to as a child.