The last time I saw my mother was December 26th, 2010, two months before she died.
My mother was supposed to spend Christmas at my sister’s, along with my boyfriend, aunt, uncle, cousins, and me, but she missed it, like most recent holidays, because she was drunk. This time it was kind of my fault.
I spent the day before Christmas with my mother alone. My sister wanted to spend time with her husband and sons, so our mother was my responsibility. She wasn’t drunk when I arrived, which was impressive, but she was a mess. Her gray, frizzy hair was oily and unwashed. Her skin was waxy and sallow. Her mobility was particularly bad. She could only get down the stairs on her butt, and she needed to hold on to something when she walked—the wall, a chair, my arm. She was no longer skinny but she was frail.
Midway through the night my mother asked me to get her some wine. I said I didn’t want to but she asked again, and because I’d stopped fighting her long ago, I said yes. If I didn’t go she would become increasingly difficult and bitchy, which meant neither of us would end up having the civilized evening I was trying to orchestrate. Eventually she’d try to go herself, and even though the liquor store was only two blocks away she would have a hard time making it. So I went.
My mother lived in a nice neighborhood in downtown Boston, and the liquor store was a fancy one; a small, sedate place that didn’t sell many cheap thrills. I wished the clerk (a real Bahston guy) Merry Christmas as I looked for my mother’s standby—double bottles of Chardonnay. I explained the wine was for my mom and he instantly knew who she was.
Oh, he knew my mother—everyone who worked there did, and they all looked out for her. Did I know little Nicky, the red-haired kid who worked during the day? I didn’t. Well, Nicky walked my mother home more than once when she was in bad shape. Not because she was drunk, but because she could barely walk. I was so sad and embarrassed to think of the spectacle my mother must have made of herself, and so grateful that instead of ignoring her, people tried to help. “Your mother is a good woman,” he said, shaking his head. He told me about his own father’s struggle with alcoholism, and his struggle with his father’s struggle. Before I left he gave me his card and told me I could call anytime I needed help with her. That was the best thing that happened over Christmas.
I gave my mom some wine and she settled in to watch TV. Later, when I spoke to my sister, I told her about the liquor store incident and laughed about little Nicky. My sister was pissed. She said, “You know this means she’s going to miss Christmas, right?” Did I? Was she? I didn’t know what to say. My sister, who could barely control her rage at my mother and never wanted her around, was uncharacteristically mad that she’d be missing the holiday. I guess I told myself she’d just have a drink or two and be fine. I went to my sister’s later that evening so I’d be there when my nephew’s attacked their presents at dawn, and when I kissed my mother goodbye she was awake and said she was looking forward to seeing the family the next day.
Of course she missed Christmas. The holiday was more relaxed without her, but I felt bad. I thought I’d wanted to give her a nice Christmas, but maybe I wanted her out of the way.
The next day my boyfriend and I went to her house to check on her and deliver her presents. My mother was in bed watching TV and seemed a little buzzed, but not super drunk. Since she couldn’t get out of bed we alternated between sitting on the edge of her stained comforter and sitting on the stained wooden floor.
Almost immediately my mother became cheerful and chatty. She was a very image-conscious person, always ready to whip out her game face. It didn’t matter that she stank of cigarettes or couldn’t get my boyfriend’s name right—she was willing to grin it all away. When I told her we’d missed her the day before, she gave me a dismissive wave of her hand.
She opened her presents with minimal interest, pushing the boxes and torn wrapping paper away until they fell off the bed. It was obvious her mind was elsewhere. She told me she was having trouble sleeping and asked us to go to the drugstore and pick up her Klonopin. My boyfriend and I went, got her medication, and quickly returned.
We’d been chatting for about five minutes when she asked me to go out again to buy her cigarettes. I said I didn’t feel like going out again. She said please. I said yes. On my way out she asked me to get her another bottle of wine, so I did, along with five packs of smokes.
She was already looking more relaxed when we got back. I opened her wine and made sure her cigarettes were within reach. I wanted to leave on a positive note, so I quickly told her some random things about grad school and teaching, about my cat and apartment—things that would make her feel, or make it seem, like she was a part of my life. I could play charades, too. It was Christmas, and we were giving each other the gift of complicit deceit.
After a few minutes, she interrupted the show and said my boyfriend and I needed to leave. The medication was kicking in and she wanted to sleep. For the first time in a while, I became really angry with her. I didn’t show it—what was the point?—but something in me hardened.
Everyone has a “role” in an alcoholic family (or that’s what they tell you at Betty Ford). My sister was the angry daughter, and I was the cheerleader, the nice(r) one (and also the one that was a little unhinged herself). I rallied behind my mother and always talked to her about her future like it was worth looking forward to. But in that moment in her bedroom, I decided I was done. I thought, fuck you, lady. I come over here with presents, stories and all the love I can muster and you send me on errands and then on my way?
I talked to her a few times after that, but the feeling remained. I don’t know if it made her death easier. She’d become a stranger, a person I actively didn’t like. I wasn’t sure I loved her.
I wonder what my mother would have said about her life. What was she thinking about at the end? Did she ever take stock? She was highly emotional but not very reflective, and I don’t think she felt comfortable being honest with herself. I wonder a lot about how she really felt about my father. In particular, I wonder how she felt about his temper and the way he terrified us. Did she know about his temper beforehand, or was she totally surprised that he turned out to be that kind of parent? I remember him yelling at us more than her—I don’t remember him yelling at her at all, though they definitely fought. But is it possible that he only treated us that way? Now that I have so much evidence of their love, it’s forcing me to rethink my story.