Raised by an Alcoholic

    Hummingbirds are cool she tried to tell me. She stood there in her yard and excitedly told me about the hummingbirds that visited her feeder every day. I looked at her like she was nuts. I feel guilty just thinking about it. The look on her face was so happy to share something with me. I just ignored it and tossed the thought to the side like it didn’t matter. Truth be told, I just didn’t understand. The worst part is that I didn’t try to understand. The incident is seared into my brain.
Growing up, she was only a parent part of the time. Most of the time she was a raging alcoholic that seemed to forget she even had children. She loved us, that was clear. But growing up with an alcoholic parent doesn’t create an empathetic person. Somehow all the rotten things she did all those years caused me to be a bit cold to her. I loved her, but we didn’t hug or say sweet things much.  My husband says that I was “jaded”. Not really clear on what that means but I know there were a few pieces missing from our otherwise normal parent-child relationship. When she was sober, we did get along and we got along well. She was nice to me then, and she did a lot of things that were interesting. She made beads and she worked with shells and she did a lot of arts and crafts and planted plants and all sorts of things that I never really cared for. We were very different to say the least. As an adult, I went to her house so many times and I really didn’t like it there. It was dirty and always smelled dirty and I was always uncomfortable. I realize now that some of my discomfort was simply a lack of trust in her presence. Post-traumatic stress, I guess.    As an alcoholic she was always apologizing, then rationalizing her behavior; but never changing her behavior. As an aging recovering alcoholic, she was often sad and usually trying to just be happy. The older she got the less I understood life from her perspective, and I realize now it was just a part of aging. Kids just don’t understand until we are older. It’s a vicious cycle, really. As I get older, I see myself drawn to some of the things that she was drawn to like making arts and crafts and reading books. Things that my young self simply didn’t understand at the time. The lack of trust that had built over time prevented me from sharing a lot of her better moments. I am glad for the times we shared with laughter and happiness. Sometimes a simple trip to the store was fun and I’m glad I was there with her.My younger brother was her kindred spirit. They understood each other on a level that I could never achieve. He didn’t last much longer after she passed away. Life without her was just too much for him. He died of a drug overdose. She was an alcoholic and truly understood addiction. She would have understood his death far better than I ever could. I’m glad that she didn’t have to lose him. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. It is one thing that went right for her in a sea of things that did not.I had a dream shortly after she died. She was in a two-story house filled with books. She showed me the books and we talked about recipes. Just like so many e days before when I called her for a recipe from one of her books; she was happy to hear from me. It was a different place than her home. She was all smiles and happy there. When I mentioned going outside, she simply looked away and avoided the subject, not answering. I realized that it was my brain’s way of saying that she was limited to being with the books now, and no longer part of the outside world. I miss her and her books so much but somehow that dream brought me peace.Her drinking slowed down as she got older and she often came to stay with me at my house to help me care for my children. We did get along and we got along well. I have many, many memories of moments where she was trying to connect, and I just didn’t get it. I realize now that even in her death she tried to protect me from pain. I was always busy. I had kids on my own and a full-time job. I didn’t spend a lot of time at her house or in her yard with her plants and her bird feeders. Of course, I went over there and I took her things she needed and I visited. I talked to her on the phone every day. I did all the right things.But I missed a lot of things, too. Always in a rush. Lots of things to do.   Thinking about it now I wonder if I ever really listened to her. Did I just make sure her needs were met? She had all of her medication and her funeral was planned. I prepped the kids and myself. Everything was tidy and neat, and we were ready when the cancer finally won.
But nothing can really prepare you for that kind of loss. Yes, everyone has to go through it. It’s a club I never wanted to join. But I always thought I took care of her.

I realize now that in many ways, even in the madness of her addiction, she always managed to put me first. Situations that I had ignored or shrugged off are now clear.  She needed comfort in her last days that I didn’t give her. I simply didn’t know how. Our love for each other was strong; yet it often felt awkward and unfamiliar. Sometimes we just sat silently or watched television. I was completely crippled by her illness. I was just trained not to show fear or pain. It’s a side effect of being raised by an alcoholic. There is a lot to be said about accepting people for who they are and not who we wish them to be.  I know she took many painful secrets to her grave. There were so many things I wanted to know. I would ask if she was ok, and did she need anything. Those questions were answered but anything more personal were often ignored. Why did she ignore some of my questions? I realize now it was because she knew that I was better off not having all the answers. Her addictions and subsequent feelings of inferiority had me on a pedestal in her world. She avoided so many of her feelings to protect mine. These are things I understand now.. I now do some of the same things with my own children. Still, when I think of my mother I regret being so self-centered.

One time I took off work to visit her in the hospital. I hated how difficult it was for me to arrange being off work for even an hour.  I was torn because I needed to be with her, but I also needed that job to take care of my family. It wasn’t the only time I took off work to go and see her in the hospital but on that day, she had a scary incident and I was worried about her. I raced down there and talked with her for a while and she seemed to be fine. She was in a good mood, she looked great. She seemed happy. She could not eat yet, so I bought her a lollipop at the gift shop so that she could have something for her wild sweet tooth. We laughed and watched TV and for a little while there wasn’t any cancer in the room. It was a nice visit that day. She was often so sick that visits were hard. I wondered; when did she get so old? How did I not see this coming? It is a surprise that her chain smoking and alcoholism did not kill her sooner. Still, her illness and her death somehow came as a surprise.

I have learned most of my lessons the hard way. One thing I know for sure is that life is unfair, and death is certain. We all grow old if we survive our life choices. In my mother`s childhood home there was a framed photo of Mark Twain. He was like a hero to her father. Mark Twain said that first we choose our habits, then our habits choose the rest of our lives. He was right. Well, my mother always told me that growing old is not for sissies. She was right, too. Once we slow down and learn to be still, we can see things from a different perspective. My life is slower now and I often sit and look outside at my own bird feeder. My mother was right about a lot of things. I wish I could go back to that day by the bird feeder and share that moment with her.  Hummingbirds are cool.