By Erin St. John Kelly
Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, my mother arrived at my house for dinner holding on hard to my stepfather’s arm, sporting a fresh, scabby shiner.
She’d managed to fall up the stairs, slamming into the baluster of her staircase the night before. I nudged her towards a chair in my little kitchen as efficiently and subtly as I could, hoping to minimize her mobility and the possibility of another accident.
My mother sat at the head of the table, having a slur of a rant to no one in particular. Among my assembled friends and family, one of my sisters and her daughter sat quietly leaking tears at their places. My eldest daughter left the table after a short while and the rest of the children followed her. Their grandmother was scaring them during the appetizer and they opted for crackers and cheese in the next room instead. She was impenetrable, only vaguely resembling the person they’d known as their grandmother.
My brother James had died earlier that year. It was sudden, out of the blue, and far, far away from my mother’s bucolic college town. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye. She hadn’t seen his body. After he died she lamented that she never should have let him go. As if he’d asked, and as if he would have obeyed. She couldn’t relate to the distant place he’d died except through the story of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” because they too had died in Tupiza, Bolivia. James wasn’t robbing banks and he didn’t die in a shoot-out. He and his wife were backpacking around the world, doing good works, before they would settle down to raise a family. He died of altitude sickness in an Andean emergency room that had no oxygen mask. He came home as a box of ashes.
My mother was raised on an apple farm in Southern Quebec, the middle child of seven girls. She was the first ever in her family to go to college. She survived a bout with breast cancer, a stint in women’s prison for civil disobedience, and Woodstock in the rain, but it was her despair from James’ death that triggered her descent into raging alcoholism.
My mother was so drunk she smelled. She wore the same sweatpants and sweatshirt day in and day out. She had once loved a martini – we called them garbage-tinis because she’d pretend it was good for her by adorning it with limp, brown vegetables culled from the drawers of the fridge, creating a stinky salad in a fancy glass. Now she was pared right down to gin, in a coffee mug, while lying in bed.
My mother has read all of Proust. She has probably spent more time immersed in the matters of Congress, albeit via C-SPAN, than have most actual Members. As a matter of course, three televisions and at least one radio were on at all times, and two or three daily newspapers were ingested. When we were growing up she took us to rock concerts, peace rallies and hitchhiking through the Yukon.
Then, a cacophonous slide into nothing. The televisions were all on but she didn’t care about what was happening on them. She didn’t know what time of day it was– it was irrelevant. She was either in a rage, or on the verge of one. She complained that she didn’t hear from us, her children, enough. We did call, but she didn’t remember having spoken to us. One winter my eight-year-old daughter realized that my mother was surprised to see her every time she walked past. She said to me, “Mom, I am worried about Granny’s memory.” Mom had provided me a tremendous opportunity to explain the nexus of martinis, mourning and memory.
My five remaining siblings and I felt helpless for more than a year to address her drinking, except among each other. His death brought the revelation that the family had depended on James, the middle child, to be our emotional and cultural center. Now we had lost him, and it. He was so steadfast, earnest and good. He signed off all his emails from abroad with this Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
James was also a worry-wort. Be it concern for the global state of humanity or trying to eat healthier, he was on it. No one hated my mother’s drinking like James had.
I hadn’t planned to confront Mom for everyone’s Easter dinner. I had planned to serve a specially ordered ham instead. I had been rolling around the need to deal with her in my mind, but hadn’t been able to form a real plan of how and when to do it. Turns out, there’s no good time for an intervention with your mother.
It started by accident. I sat next to her and suggested she eat something every now and again, maybe even drink a glass of water. I offered to get her one. She mumbled that she couldn’t, that I just didn’t understand how it felt to be her. She dropped the sickening bomb I knew she had, but didn’t think I had it in me to withstand. She didn’t save it up. It came out fast. “You haven’t lost a child,” she moaned. And everything froze. All the chopping, washing, table-setting and chat ceased.
My voice shook and I paused. Then I continued, motivated by the eternal regret and sorrow that I’d experience if I let her die without trying to make her stop, just once.
“You haven’t lost a child.” It was what I feared she would say. I felt almost guilty for not having a dead child myself. That without one, I had no understanding and therefore no grounds to complain. “No, I haven’t,” I said. Then it came to me why I could confront her. “But I have lost a brother. And now I am losing my mother. And my children are losing their grandmother.” There was more that just tumbled out, but I can no longer remember what else I said. My mother sat quietly waiting for me to finish. “Well, dear, Mommy loves you very much, but now she has to go,” she said, as she put her hand on my shoulder to raise herself up from the table.
I know that it is completely irrational to feel like James’ death was a personal failure of mine, but there it is. I did. As the oldest child I had always felt a conflicted mix of power and responsibility. I fixed things. I adjudicated. I felt I had failed everyone by not bringing him back from Bolivia alive. At the funeral home in La Paz, I saw him for the last time through the glass window of a little blue coffin. His shoulders were cramped against the wooden walls of a box built for a small Andean native – the biggest coffin his wife was able to find. I am haunted by his face with his lips pursed in the way they looked before he was going to say something that mattered to him. I couldn’t be so weak as to fail him and the family again, by letting Mom die a drunk.
At my desk on Monday, I wrote my mother an email to restate in print what I’d said at Easter dinner – I was afraid that my spoken words wouldn’t stick. I didn’t know how else to try to get through. I hoped that she would be able to process it, staring at the screen in her own time. In my email I begged her to stop, to take some pity on us – the survivors – her children and her grandchildren. Must we watch her kill herself? And then I typed what I had been unable to say: was the death of one of us worth more than the other five of us alive?
I sent a copy of my email to my siblings right after sending it to my mother. I wanted them to be aware of what I’d done, the possible horrors I’d unleashed. I waited with a panicky, shiny sense of dread for reaction – from them and from her.
Two days later, I was sitting at my desk when an email gently floated across my computer screen that simply said, “You’re right. I quit.” Oh my God, it’s a suicide note I thought, and I dialed the phone, to see if I could stop her or if it was too late. There she was on the other end of the phone. I was at work so I couldn’t say much except, “Really? What can I do to help?”
I thought rehab. “Let me try it my way,” my mother said. “If that doesn’t work then I promise to do it your way,” she said. She and my stepfather joined AA.
It’s been more than a year. She showers. She drinks seltzer and fruit juice spritzers in wine glasses. She goes to weekly AA meetings. A former reporter, she listens intently to other people’s tales of horror and redemption. And she thanks me all the time for writing the note. “I want to be sober until the day that I die,” she announced last summer. I believe her. My mother is nothing if not a zealous participator, a whole-hearted committer to things. She’s recommenced being her old quirky self, protesting for peace in front of the post office, glutting herself on news and stuffing her grandchildren full of snacks.
And now, even her sense of humor is reviving. On Mother’s Day this year she took me and two of my sisters out for dinner. She explained it was to make up for whatever she’d done wrong during our entire lives. She was practicing an AA step, and we had about an hour. We sipped delicious, unembellished tap water and I asked her what the secret element to her resolve was. “Maternal instinct,” she said. “I don’t want to worry the children. It’s not the way it’s supposed be.”
Erin St. John Kelly is the eldest of the eight children from her parents’ many marriages. She and her husband have two daughters. She has lived in Brooklyn, New York for almost 20 years. The writing she is most proud of has appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, Brain Child Magazine and on WBFO, the Buffalo NPR station. This essay originally appeared in “Knowing Pains,” an anthology that is a fundraiser for a breast cancer non-profit (http://www.knowingpains.com/about.html“)