It was the season for endings; late Fall. The night we got the call saying we couldn’t go home we’d been celebrating my brother’s birthday. He was born the same day as our father, whose name he shares. The pain of division was magnified against the weight of its timing. Katie and Reid howled on a blanket in the guestroom while our mother gently explained what was happening. Breathe. Breathe. I stayed in the dining room next to the empty table and half eaten, homemade sheet cake, matter-of-factly telling my Papa this was the very best thing we could’ve hoped for but they were too little to understand yet. Embracing a new routine from their house in Cumberland, abandoning Woonsocket for good and being done with all it’d meant to live with a violent, unpredictable bear registered as complete relief. Like becoming a brand new parent, I was naive at first. My Papa was an accountant who always kept a pen in his shirt pocket. He swiped at his chest, gently and repeatedly in silence as if math skills could somehow come to our rescue. I loved him for his tender gesture, but this was too big for a pen or a pill.
He’d started taking Antibuse earlier that year. We’d all hoped it would be the magic cure it promised. Visits from Bill, the social worker who wore a tie, blue jeans and reassuring smile, showed us where the Antibuse would live in our kitchen. As long as he took it, it should erase the cravings. If that didn’t work, knowing the combination of alcohol and this medication was lethal should scare him into not drinking; a completely hopeless, useless, thoughtless, insensitive, uninformed notion for any true addict but something big pharma could easily market to desperate loved ones.
In the weeks that followed we’d watch our father fail repeatedly. It was a time of cascading breakdown; of things being wet, like clothes and blankets from vomit, tears and piss. It was a time of hiding secrets from extended family, our own feelings and mountains of empty containers of vodka, orange juice, whiskey and sometimes cough syrup. These things were composting under the foundation of what had once been our family, which was now sinking. One night my mother made Hungarian Goulash, which we called ‘train wreck’; a brown porridge-like meal containing mystery meat, leftover vegetables and some type of gravy poured over rice or a slice of bread. My father was sitting on the edge of their bed, across from our blonde, walnut dining table. I think it belonged to his great grandmother, big meme which was cheap for grand memere. It weighed over a hundred pounds and had ornately carved legs and feet like claws, as if it’d crawled out of a tree and into the room by itself. He was sitting in his own puddle of woes and sick while my mother gently removed his socks, which had been troubling him and he repeatedly apologized over in soggy tones. One, two, three, six? times he filled the yellow Fischer Price baby tub, which my mother dutifully carried past the table and emptied into the larger tub in the bathroom. We sat mutely over our gravy covered corn and peas and once while passing us with a fresh tub of sloshing puke, looked at us, as if from some parallel reality and said “Whatsamatter? Eat.” We essentially understood it then but would later gain confirmation that this was the night we almost watched our father die. He needed to lose nearly everything in order to find his way out and back again.
I think my mother wanted to save him with her love. I think we, as a family, wanted to believe we were worth loving, worth choosing over all the other things and that by some measure of being good enough, could achieve collective acceptance, resolution, rightness or peace. Some status of being which would tell us and the world that we were ok. A hardened heart is incapable of love; it has to be broken first. He broke everything else instead. We weren’t allowed to go back to the apartment that week but my mom went with a small crew of aunties and uncles. Apparently he’d taken exactly half of everything, which in some cases meant ripping things like towels or dividing certain pieces of furniture and then breaking most of the remaining things, or so I’m told. A split in every sense of the word. I imagined the pain of perceived rejection as my mother stood in the ruins of her own life. Strangely, or not, I recall her laughing in the face of my father’s twisted display of sarcasm. (She can laugh at the days to come. Proverbs 31:25) She described it as some kind of poetic justice which almost helped me understand how she’d once fallen in love with him.
Rejection registers in the same place in our brain as threat of death. Exclusion from the safety of belonging once meant in our genetic history, extinction. Actual dismissal from social groups, failure, inability to achieve, messages of comparison, not measuring up, not being wanted, unrequited love or simply perceiving we’re disliked all hurt in the same place, in the same way to varying degrees. The pain registers as physical therefore we go to immeasurable lengths to avoid it. I’ve had front-row seats to both codependence and addiction; an understanding from inside and out. I remember begging my mother to let go starting roughly in first grade. They often fought in the latest part of night. I think she cried from a real place then, or maybe the crying was my own. Either way, she’d tempt me to the kitchen with Oreo’s and we’d weigh the pros and cons of their marriage together, with cups of milk. We’d review the intensity of the fight against the pathology of the children, her family history, his family history and the coming of hunting season which was often a welcomed, albeit brief respite. In his absence my mother would make comforting pots of Weight Watcher’s chili and play game boards with us, like Clue. Mrs. Peacock did it in the Conservatory with the Candlestick. I thought I was comforting her. Our chats often ended with the sound of his Isuzu. Sometimes he’d sleep in it in the driveway or behind the stone house. Sometimes he’d come in and there’d be a quiet resolution, resignation, or truce. Occasionally flannel shirts would be thrown into a pile along with ultimatums that were never kept. Eventually the sun would rise and another day would begin.
We tolerate the sick cycles of our own creation until finally yielding to what comes naturally. Leggo my ego. His drinking never had anything to do with us. It was there first, but instead of attending to her own construction, my mother chose the role of bystander to my father’s self-destruction. It gives us something do instead of facing everything we hate about ourselves; by us I mean codependents. We tether ourselves to various kinds of addictions, gripping onto them for dear life to avoid pain, which only makes us hurt more until we finally give up, give in, face it, feel it and let go. We fall and get back up. We die to our self and discover renewal. We dare to envision another future, a different way of being, seeing, doing. We embrace everything unknown and give up being an expert on anything. We become willing to explore from the mulch of burning ashes. We grow again.
The leaves let go of trees instinctively trusting that Spring will come. This same wisdom lives within us, which some call faith and still others know as love.