Said goodbye this morning to my 13-year-old, watching him shamble down the front steps into the first mild morning we’ve had this year. There was something about how he looked walking toward the school bus, wearing the new coat that he calls his “rock-star coat,” which he bought on his own when he walked with his friends from our house down to the shops last week… I watched him from behind, and coupled with that feeling that he’s no longer my little boy came a regret that I’d spent a number of years of his early childhood unsober.
I shut the door, locked it, walked back into the kitchen and started washing the dishes from breakfast before settling down to work. Pretty soon my tears were dripping into the dishwater. Sometimes I can’t do anything about it: I Regret The Past and Wish To Shut The Door On It.
Thirteen years ago, I was a fearful new mom. The fear settled on me as soon as I knew I was pregnant. I knew I was pregnant even before I took the drugstore test. I could feel it in my body. I’d gotten pregnant by accident and after the second line in the pregnancy test’s window confirmed what I already knew, I stood in the front hall and burst into tears—I was sure I had no idea how to raise a kid, and I had no confidence that I could figure it out. I read lots of books, and I even wrote a book about my pregnancy (which was great—my pregnancy, that is), but books didn’t give me that sense of Being Right inside myself.
When my son was born, and I saw his face, I knew he was the one I was supposed to meet. You know what I mean? His eyes were open. They were stone-colored, and he looked hard at me. I was absolutely flattened by love. I swore to myself I’d do my best.
My best turned out to be several years of addiction.
I got sober when he was turning 11.
As I finished washing the dishes I thought to myself how I can’t turn the clock back. My kid is one person I have to make living amends to. You can’t go to a child and tell him the ways you’ve harmed him… The facts of parenthood force me to live as an example of sobriety, to live as healthily and as spiritually-directed as I can today. Letting the rest go is the hard part. The self-recrimination. The thoughts, when I look into his face, of “what if?” What if he’d been given a different mother. What if I’d been able to get sober earlier. Blah blah blah, self-pity.
I know how I’m supposed to think. I’m supposed to stay in the present moment.
Doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen always makes me think of my own mother. She taught me specific ways of house-cleaning. She did not tolerate drips or crumbs on the countertop. She did not tolerate leaving dishes in the sink. We didn’t have a dishwasher. She used to point to her piano (which is now in our front hall) and say, “There’s my dishwasher”—to emphasize the point that she’d chosen to invest in a musical instrument rather than a kitchen appliance.
I used to think at those moments that, actually, I was the dishwasher, and so was my sister, but I never said so.
We didn’t even have a sink-sprayer. There was a little cup by the faucet that we used to rinse out the sink. (Of course, we had no disposal.)
This morning as I wiped the countertop clean I thought of my mother. She’s been dead of lung cancer from smoking, it’s been almost 12 years.
Recently my father-in-law died, and my husband, on the first night after his dad’s death, curled up next to me in bed and asked, “Where do you think we go after we die?” It was a childlike question borne of childlike feelings. I thought of my mother then. There is nothing left of my mother’s body, surely, except her bones. Her grave is on a hillside 15 miles to the east of here. But can it be said that there is nothing left of her, when I so diligently empty the sink, when I wipe the countertop clean… when I beat myself over the head for making mistakes—the way she taught me?
Instead of doing my yoga at home today, I went to my friend Jenn’s class. I needed to get out of the house, and I needed to hear Jenn’s voice. As I walked in, she was already leading the students in opening meditation. I sat down on my mat, and Jenn said, “Now think of a place of comfort,” and the first thing that came to my mind was my mother’s lap when I was a child. I could feel her shoulders under the blue-and-brown flannel shirt and I could smell her cigarette smoke, and I could hear her voice. Though my mother hit me when I was small, I also remember how much I used to love it when she sometimes held me on her lap. She also sometimes sang, or read books.
I held my son, I sang to him, I read to him… even when I was not sober…
I started to cry in the yoga studio. (I was in the back…)
One problem I’ve had is that I made my mother my higher power. I did everything she said, down to wiping the countertops clean in a certain way. I am a good reporter and student because I can remember conversations and lectures verbatim, because I was trained to remember things my mother said (or else).
I can see that my son won’t have some of these problems. I’m not his higher power. He is not my confidante. He has privacy, and a good relationship with his father, and productive friendships. There are appropriate boundaries between us.
Driving home from yoga I was thinking that, at the very least, I’m here. I’m alive and well, if not perfect. (By now you will have noticed that I’d like to be perfect… ) I think kids are hardwired to forgive their parents, especially if their parents make an effort. If my mother had gotten well, and had lived to see my son grow up, I could have let go of everything that had gone before.
I mean, by the time she died, I had let go of it anyway. … Anyone know what I mean?
But who knows how much possibility for growth, how much joy we might have had?
And she would have been here. Priceless.
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