February 19th, 2006, I boarded a plane to San Diego from my hometown in Washington. I was 21-years-old. The reasons for my departure were simple and yet very complex: I could not handle the pain of losing my mother one month prior, and all the love it seemed I had left in this town was not, at the time, enough to make me stay.
It is now eight years later and again I sit smack-dab in the middle of Vancouver – the place I grew up – the place I first rode a bike, first kissed a boy, and first fell in love… The place I went from being a little girl, skinned knees on a dirt road, to a young woman whom seemed to have the entire world at her fingertips.
Coming back to this place is always a bit surreal. So much of myself exists in shadows underneath streetlamps, in grocery-store aisles, and in the faces of those I see and call my family. A part of my heart will always remain here, but so much of me has left this place, and I only ever realize that after I have come back home to the Pacific Northwest.
This dichotomy inside me now is difficult to explain because the details, while simple to relay, are wrought with a pain that was so hard to endure it enticed me to leave all those years ago. Now, a 30-year-old woman with children of my own, I am once more faced with the bittersweet memories that once defined me, and I am not quite sure how I am supposed to orchestrate them into anything meaningful.
I guess where I shall begin, then, is with the most pressing of matters: My guilt. Setting the tone, the moment was a cold January evening, and the place was my dad’s living room. The sharp sting of realizing she was gone hit my father’s children as he told us the news he had heard from a coroner at the scene of an accidental death; alone she died, and with enough alcohol in her system to drown a man twice her size.
My mother was not a bad person, but she was very sick. As her oldest daughter and near the time of her death the closest to her amongst her children, I wanted to help but simply did not possess the knowledge or fortitude to even know where to begin. I remember falling to the floor and wanting so much to undo the impossible. As if a sinking ship, I hit the cold linoleum of my dad’s kitchen and felt as if I would never be able to remove myself from that spot. Could I not undo it? Was this really happening? We all knew it was coming down to do or die but, really, should we not have done more to stop it?
A million questions flood the mind, and I can recall them now with little effort. Because a moment like that – irreversible and gut-wrenchingly devastating – it cannot be turned back, it cannot be changed. The mind, however, cannot fully seem to comprehend death even when we believe we are prepared for it.
It does not fully occur to me, not really, how much I feel responsible for this until I am home again. You see, living in San Diego and then Texas, I dwell amongst faces and names that have absolutely nothing to do with the life I lived here in Washington. When I say to a new friend I lost my mother it is inconsequential to them – they didn’t know her, so why would it matter? Besides that, I am amongst a small handful of people I know whom have lost a parent at such a young age so it is rare I ever find anyone who will actually relate. So, in my life, day-to-day, my mother is a vague afterthought on most days. She does not live in anything but my memory, and I have trained myself well only to recall her on those anniversaries that matter – her birthday, Christmas, the day she died…
But when I am home, I realize how much I carry on my shoulders. An irrational, absurd amount of guilt that I did not do more back then to save the woman whom, for all intents and purposes as a mother, should have been fighting like hell to save me. All five of her children, really – save us from the lifelong torment of losing our mother to her greatest struggle. Raising our own children to know just a shadow of the person whom raised us…
Just to digress momentarily… I have my children with me on this trip and today we went to the Oregon Coast. My mother’s ashes are in the ocean at Cannon Beach and I told Layla this. So, in her five-year-old mind, she saw fit to gather handfuls of broken sand dollar shells from the shoreline, make inaudible wishes into them, and then toss them into the sea. When I finally got close enough to listen to her little voice, what she said knocked me straight into my soul, “Dear Jesus, please bring Mama’s mommy back to life so she can play with us at the beach”.
Moments like this I did not expect to feel so responsible for the fact that my mother succumbed to the worst addiction I have seen in my lifetime so far.
The sense of helplessness I feel now is both peaceful and in some ways devastating, because I know so much more about life now – 8 years later – and it is this knowledge that allows me to see my mother’s life in an entirely new perspective. Psychology major aside, I see the patterns of addiction in all of us differently, and from television to pop to drugs to porn to alcohol… Heck, for some people, working out is an addiction… The point is, we all have something that our mind has been unnaturally conditioned to crave, and it just takes more effort for some substances of activities to be redirected and overcome than others – my mother’s addiction of choice was alcohol… But I have learned from my own experiences with life since leaving home that even that oversimplification does absolutely nothing to explain the depth and devastation addiction plays in our lives if we allow it that power.
I wish now I could go back, knowing what I know, and simply have compassion for my mother. Simply hold her face and stare into her brown eyes and remind her she is not a bad person. I wish I could take a walk with her and really listen to her struggles – really try and understand what she felt, where is started, and why it was so hard for her to love herself. I wish I could reach into her heart and heal the brokenness and guilt and shame she felt that she could not just beat this darkness within.
Because, at 30-years-old, I am not unlike my mother in many ways. I have some of the same darkness in me, and though I am not an addict and conduct my life very differently than she did, I know – in some ways (at least I think I do but I cannot corroborate this with her, of course) what it feels like to battle yourself, and to feel so defeated it almost seems like, “what’s the point of even trying?”
While I am thankful that I have new perspective about who my mother is and the possible explanations and logic behind why she went through such challenging times near the end, it is also in some ways a curse – because I am helpless. Now, instead of being productive with the knowledge and compassion I have now, I am merely grasping at memories… Wishing I could change them.
Anyone that tells you to “let it go, there’s nothing you can do about it now” probably never watched their mother drink themselves to death… Because feeling helpless – what I feel now – is the reason I fled from my hometown, and it is the reason I have so many conflicting emotions now.
Most of all, I guess I’ll have a point in here somewhere after all, is that I just … I just freaking see her everywhere. I see her everywhere here and I can almost make out her voice calling for her oldest daughter, telling me she loves me. I can almost see her smile at me the way she did when I felt her really love me. I can almost see those moments she really loved herself as well and felt, in that second, that she could win this battle.
I see these things, I watch my children play on the same grass I played on as a kid beside my own mother, and I am both thankful I come back here and thankful I left it so long ago.
I am thankful she believed in something more than this world, more than her self, and that she believed she would beat this and be welcomed into something better than the darkness of this world. I am thankful she was passionate about God and taught her children to be the same way, because I know beyond doubt that I could not have come this far without Him.
When you’re that broken, whom else can you lean on but God? And even when I did not understand – when the pain was real, I would reach out my hands and worship Him, just the way she did, and know it was for the glory of God’s purpose that we pushed on another day. We had nothing left to give when she died… Nothing left to say, and only guilt and devastating in the wake of such a tragedy… But we had God, and so did she – that gives me hope, and it gives me purpose to be in the mire of how this feels now – to really feel it – and still know even in this residual pain that things were, are, and will always be okay.
I miss her. I know she is with me, and I believe she is proud of me. Proud of all her children. The guilt I feel is irrational, but at least it gives me compassion – to know that I can be better, and to see her brokenness as a chance to change the patterns, break the chains, and do better – be better – in my own life.
It was and is a hard lesson, and God knows I would have wished to learn it some other way, but that old adage of getting exactly what we need is totally true. I would not have picked that fate for my mother, and for all of us, but being back home – 8 years later – I can see how things worked out exactly as they should.
In the birth of my daughter three years – to the day – after mom died. In the arrival of my second child, two-and-a-half years later. In the eyes of my father still smiling, still here for his five children… In the embrace of my siblings and my nieces and nephews… And in these streets. She is gone, but God is with us, and soon, someday – we will see her again, and the plan will be gloriously revealed and it will have been perfect.
Right now, though, even that hope does not completely restore me. It is not a lack of faith but rather a lack of strength, that it hurts… But in the pain is the glory, and at least I still have that.