When my mother dies, I will start drinking again.
It won’t be out of grief. I’m confident I have the strength to handle adversity sober from the four and a half years I haven’t picked up a drink. But if any reason is understandable, even to my non-drinking community, it will be the death of my remaining parent.
It will be a reasonable cause of relapse—a get out of jail free card. It wouldn’t be frowned upon like the summer afternoons I’ve come close to trading my O’Doul’s for a Corona with lime pulp begging to be licked. Or the lure of my old, cheap labels I pass in the wine section of my grocery store.
My mother never dated or remarried after my father died, so as the only child, the burden of her estate will land on me, along with the funeral and burial arrangements, which will be easier to manage with a whiskey on the rocks while I sit at her kitchen table. Concerned but understanding family members will occupy the seats around me and quietly suggest I eat something if I drink any more. I might even hear a more sympathetic aunt in the kitchen bend and crack ice trays to refresh my glass.
If my father were alive, he and I would share his Crown Royal in monogrammed glasses from the cabinet my mother emptied once I got to high school. He and I would raise our glasses to loss and commiseration, to still having each other.
* * *
There are alternate versions to my daydream of the first drink. In some, it happens during the funeral preparations, or even on the eight-hour drive from where I live in Asheville. Watermelon Four Lokos, sticky when I spilled them on my skin, used to keep me company on road trips. In other versions, I start the morning of the funeral, regardless of how early, and do my best to pace myself throughout the day.
But my favorite version is waiting until after the funeral when I drive to an old dive by myself, somewhere that still allows smoking inside. I’ll have to be single, otherwise my plan will be foiled by someone pulling me back and telling me no. I’ll still be dressed in black, though I will have shed my cardigan, my last motion of respect I’d show my mother by not exposing my tattoos in a church, and at her funeral.
The giddiness will start before I order, just as the phantom symptoms of cocaine used to kick in before I would shimmy the contents out of the plastic baggy. I wouldn’t try to “play the tape forward” or challenge the motivation behind my cravings as I’ve learned to do by “working the program” of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wouldn’t call my sponsor to confess or look up meetings close by. I would bask in the glow of the glass, one at a time, without imagining what would happen by the end of the night.
Depending on how soon my mother dies, maybe the same bartenders will be there since my last stint in Memphis, my past frozen in time along with the people in it. The same neon beer signs will offset curling event posters, the same graffiti in the bathroom that I may have contributed to, if I could remember.
Ideally, I’d start slowly, aware that drinking the quantity I did at my most alcoholic would leave me prostrate by the nearest toilet within a few hours. I’d start with a glass of whiskey soda that will sweat a deep ring into the cocktail napkin. I will pull opposite corners of the napkin and watch soggy tears grow in the paper. I will make immediate friends with the drinkers on either side of me, hinting about cocaine and hoping that someone has a stash in their pocket and is eager to share.
* * *
My mother wants to be buried in an urn in the same plot as her father in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Milford, Connecticut, where she’d grown up and her parents had stayed until they died. She would be in the plot next to her mother and diagonal from her brother who died from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was nineteen. During one of her rare disclosures about her afterlife wishes, my mother had told me there was enough room for me, too, if I wanted to be cremated.
“Because I don’t want you to go through two funerals again,” she’d said hastily. I’d been pushing her about why she didn’t want to have one in Memphis, where we’d lived since I was nine-months old. “That was insane, what we did with your father,” she added. We’d had two memorial services for him, the first one in Memphis and the other in Connecticut, where both sides of our family lived.
There had been folded and packaged flags at both of them. In Connecticut, there had been one for my father’s parents, one for both of his sisters, and one for my mother. I didn’t get one at either memorial.
I know my mother’s friends will insist that she has a proper service in Memphis and will win despite the reluctance she had on my behalf. It will be at the catholic church that I attended growing up and where I made it through three sacraments, and where my father’s memorial service had been.
I imagine who will be there. Other than her expected friends and members of the women’s charities she volunteers for, I hope for people from my past who still live in Memphis, people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. High school classmates and male friends who’d attended the nearby all-boys’ school might come to pay their respects. The latter group might bear condolence gifts of dime bags of cocaine and rolled joints that they invite me to smoke with them afterward. Maybe someone will slip me a Xanax or Lortab in a discreet handshake.
If my family decides not to hire a car to drive us to the church, I will drive alone, maybe with a backup pint of Jim Beam in my glove compartment like I used to keep. I will park in the lot where my mother and I saw the news station van, the reporters waiting to swarm us the morning of my father’s service. (We were the only ones in the area who’d lost someone in the September 11th attacks, so we’d become local celebrities.) My mother had taken my hand and steered me away from them, but they managed to televise his service from the church balcony.
At least there will be a body this time, unless the circumstances of my mother’s death prevent there from being one. I’d consider it unjustifiably cruel if there isn’t. I never got closure from the photograph of my father propped up at the front of the church surrounded by flower arrangements instead of a coffin. The picture had been of the two of us on the most recent Father’s Day, but I wasn’t there next to him. His face was pixelated from someone cropping me out and zooming in on him. I couldn’t take having my mother’s body missing, too.
The church felt bursting the day of my father’s service in Memphis, all of the pews taken and the area in the back filled with people standing. It was crowded with people my mother and I didn’t know. I know that when I return for her, everything will seem smaller—the church, the people, the volume of the organ. Compared to my ten-year-old memory of my father’s memorial, hers will feel shrunken.
* * *
Thankfully, I didn’t have the typical “rock bottom” that recovering alcoholics share about in meetings: DUIs, jail time, waking up in a hospital or detox after a near-overdose. Mine was a flurry of mishaps that led to the end.
I relapsed after thirty days in. A co-worker fresh out of rehab told me that if I made it a month without drinking, it was proof I could stay sober for the long haul. The afternoon of my one-month mark, I drove to a half-indoor, half-outdoor bar just a few minutes from my house. I settled onto the same stool I had before I quit, flagged the bartender who still recognized me, and ordered a whiskey-Sprite.
After the first night back out, I drank consistently but tried to do it at home. Three days in, I ran my car off the road and tried driving on a flat until a cop pulled me over and had me towed. Miraculously, he drove me home without conducting a sobriety test. I knew my luck was running out, so I tried my best to stay in when I drank to minimize my consequences.
My trip to Connecticut for Thanksgiving was the last leg of my relapse, about two weeks after the night the cop drove me home. While I waited for my things to go through security at the Asheville airport, I spotted the shelves of bottles at the restaurant ahead of me. Each of them looked like a book that wanted to be opened. By the time I tied the laces on my boots, I had decided on a Stella Artois because it always smelled like weed to me. I figured it wasn’t as bad as carrying an eight-ball of cocaine in my carryon like I had the last flight I took a few months before.
The shots of Jameson came after the bottle of Stella. The bartender said, “You know, they say one drink on land equals two in the air.” She smiled, but I knew what she was insinuating.
Once I got to Atlanta, my layover changed from an hour to three, then four and a half. After the first change, I found a bar upstairs in Terminal C that, to my relief, allowed smoking. The Stellas and whiskeys continued until it was time to head to my gate.
I remember leaning my head against the window before takeoff. I was jolted awake by screams from the woman next to me. I had splattered my left leg with half-digested whiskey and tortilla chips I’d shared with someone at the bar. For some reason, I laughed. Then came another vomiting spell, and then another. When we landed, I was escorted off the plane before anyone else. I don’t remember the walk through the airport. Maybe I’d been taken in one of the beeping carts, and I sat in one of the backward-facing chairs, avoiding eye contact with people I was facing. I only remember the look on my mother’s face when she met me at baggage claim.
The relapse ended with bottles of lukewarm gas station chardonnay I’d hidden around the house. I’d gotten rid of my wine glasses when I first quit, so I drank from water glasses or straight from the bottle. The incident on the plane, though it should have made for an obvious finale, hadn’t closed the curtain. It was an episode of an utter lack of control and free will. I wanted to be the one to write the ending, and to remember it.
* * *
The second time getting sober was different. I knew by then that it was my only option. I’d been unscathed by the more devastating potentials of addiction. Aside from a misdemeanor for marijuana possession that I’d gotten expunged when I was in college, my record was clean. I hadn’t been to an inpatient/outpatient program, though I would have benefited from one. I was clear-headed enough to see that if I continued, I would lose everything. There was a part of me, somewhere buried in self-loathing, that wanted to survive.
* * *
My relationship with my mother improved once I got sober, when I wasn’t ignoring her calls because I was blitzed or doing rails in sticky restrooms. I visited when I said I would and let her in more than I ever had. But I never apologized for the incident on the plane, her holding me on the shuttle from the airport while I cried and reeked of bile, and her making up an excuse to delay our Thanksgiving visit with family while I suffered through a three-day hangover.
I know that not bringing it up is more of an apology than addressing it head on with her. My mother has never been one to be vulnerable or begin intimate conversations. She rarely talks about my father. By not saying anything, I am sparing her from the details that would only horrify, and possibly break her. I am leaving her only with what she remembers seeing.
She hadn’t told many people in her circle that I had a drinking problem, even her sisters. She said it wasn’t her story to tell. But those who know will whisper at her funeral if I’ve already started drinking and can’t mask the smell, saying how hard I’m taking it.
There will be no photographers or reporters at my mother’s funeral as there had been at my father’s, all crouched in the balcony near the organ where the choir sang for the 10:30 a.m. Sunday mass. There will be no American flags pinned to lapels or blouses this time, and the line coming toward me at the end of the service will be smaller, and older. Regardless of her cause of death, it will not, cannot be as catastrophic as the one my other parent suffered.
If there is a reception, it will be in a single room, not one allocated for adults and the other for children, as there had been at my father’s. I’d been ordered to stay with my classmates and friends while my mother entertained the adult mourners. Maybe I’ll arrange an open bar alongside a tasteful spread of pastries and fruit. That way I wouldn’t need to rely on sneaking swigs from the flask I’ll keep in my purse, if I’ve decided I can’t wait until after the reception to start. Maybe I will pop bars of Xanax like mints and snort cocaine off the church toilet tank in the same bathroom where my mother had fussed with my First Communion dress. Or I will sit on the toilet seat, clothed, as I’d done at the reception for my father’s second memorial, hoping no one would come looking for me, this time as I tap white powder on the flesh between my thumb and pointer finger.
I assume she will be able to see what I’m really doing for the first time once she’s passed. Hopefully all judgment will be removed along with her body. She will not approve, but she will understand. She has to. She may even blame herself.
* * *
When I have particularly nagging cravings, I hope that the funeral comes sooner rather than later, though I don’t mean it maliciously. The week after 9/11 when she told me that my father was dead, my mother said that God would keep her on earth for a very long time to take care of me, and I still believe her. Despite her arthritic elbows and knees, I imagine she will hang on longer than most her age.
Rather than redirect my energy to healthier pre-occupations when I have these itches, I visualize the undecided bar I’ll visit after the service. I will tap a new pack of cigarettes against my wrist and leave the plastic wrapping on the counter. Maybe I will buy Parliaments so I can fill their recessed filters with cocaine that I’ll either snort or smoke in the cigarette until my lips are numb. I will have a lighter but will choose instead to ask someone sitting nearby—a potential listener, preferably someone sympathetic and attractive. I will remove my black pumps, hooking the heels on the stool’s bottom rung. I will breathe in the liquor-soaked carpet from sloppy pours, the permanent haze of smoke, and the hint of sour rags.
In my fantasy, I don’t think about the guilt. I don’t think about the inevitable hangover or what happens the next day, or the day after. Whatever I drink won’t lead to fractured memories, or waking up in a bedroom I’d torn to shreds in a blacked-out rage.
I don’t know when I would stop. But I could do the early sobriety march again. I would go to meetings where I didn’t know anyone. I could pick up the white chip again, collect phone lists and promise to call people. If she does find out, my sponsor will tell me to take all the time I need, that there’s no reason to go to meetings until I’m ready to. I might stay in Memphis and live in my childhood house with both of my parents’ ghosts to keep me company, far away from my recovery community.
I’ve made it this far. I’ve proven that I’m capable. I know I could do it again.