The Benefit of Others
I had seen her before. She was a clichéd amalgamation of traits I find threatening — young, blonde, curvy and bubbly. Most damning was her high-pitched giggly Hi and fingers-only, half-hand wave that automatically grouped her into a category of women I distrust.
We were in an AA meeting in the basement of St. Kevin’s. I arrived early and helped set up folding chairs before taking a seat against the wall, so that no one was behind me and I could keep an eye on the door. The meeting was almost starting and the room was filling. The buzz of different conversations quieted to a low murmur. But then a tittering disrupted the calm. Women seated in different parts of the room turned toward the door, mouthed hellos, waved and smiled at whomever was making the late entrance.
We had never spoken and I didn’t know her name. But enough of the women in the room whom I liked and respected greeted her. And so after catching her eye, I gave a barely perceptible head-flick acknowledgement, the kind exchanged by teenage boys affecting hypermasculine gestures to compensate for social insecurities.
She was the speaker that night. After the preliminaries, she stood and shrugged off her jacket, a cherry red peacoat with oversized buttons. “My name is G——. I’m an alcoholic.” She told her story. It’s what we do in the rooms.
Disclosing the extent of our addiction, describing the scorched battlefields of our drinking lives, owning up to relationships ruined by our debauchery, lies, self-pity and manipulations makes us relatable to one another. We recognize the commonalities, overcome the differences. Halfway through her share, G’s little wave and sunny disposition seemed like miraculous feats after years of degradation. Her truth defeated my bias.
And then she told us what she had done as a drinking mother, in a blackout. Something she had no memory of. Her neighbor informed her of it after G had been sober almost a year. G admitted to doing something similar to what my own mother had done, something that had, up until then, been a cornerstone of my own narrative.
It was as if I had been stilled by a stun gun. The meeting continued; G called on women with their hands up, but nothing anyone else said registered.
I was up on the third floor playing in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister. I was seven years old, and scurried into the hallway in socks, across the wooden floor near the top of the staircase. I went to go down the way I always did — running. I remember laughing with my sister, sliding. But those actions preceding the accident are etched in my mind likely because of my having to repeat them to each adult who asked.
I fell down the wooden staircase. The thumping and bouncing of my body surrendering to gravity, hitting stair after stair, and the twisted, contorted position of my limbs and torso in a pile at the bottom of the stairs activated some maternal instinct in my mother. She told me not to move, instructed me to lie still.
She later said she knew something was wrong when she heard the crashing and banging and then silence. The ambulance crew slid a stretcher that opened in two slats vertically under my body. They whisked me to the hospital where I was X-rayed and found to have three cracked vertebrae in my neck. My mother was praised for not attempting to move me as I had lain crumpled on the floor. Doctors and nurses remarked on how fortunate I was, how I could have been paralyzed. And always, people commented on my mother’s presence of mind to not move me.
For that I owe her. And for other things, as children often do their mothers.
The team of pediatric orthopedic surgeons kept me in the hospital for a week, in traction. And then they measured me for a customized metal brace to stabilize my neck and torso. I was to wear it at all times, for four months, except when sleeping. It was fitted with a lock; they were concerned I would try to take it off. I cried when they first locked me in it. The metal was cold, the proportions unwieldy — a cumbersome weight upon my child body. I hated the metal cage around my torso. But I had no choice. I was afraid of not walking again.
The brace marks the significant incident as having occurred in my seventh year. It is the detail of the brace, the brace that I was mandated to wear to ensure a full recovery and not risk permanent paralysis, that telegraphed to my seven-year old self that something was wrong.
My mother came to our bedroom in the middle of the night and woke us. I remember thinking We should not be up this late. But what most confused me was that she was ushering me and my little sister down the stairs.
“What about my brace?”
“It’s okay; it doesn’t matter, now. Come on, girls.” She was the mother, was supposed to know best. My sister and I were sleepy and complied.
Her breath gave her away. Even at that young age, I had developed the ability to discern if my mother or father was drunk. My whole short life, I had watched how one or the other, or both, might morph from their default, regular parent state during the day into an unpredictable, sometimes-laughing, sometimes-crying, sometimes-yelling parent in the evening, usually accompanied by empty glasses or bottles of wine, the smell of liquor and cigarettes more heady the later it got.
Of my parents, my mother scared me more.
Once, she made me and a sister walk to a neighbor’s house in the evening to fetch our father after we were already in our pajamas; he had stayed later at a party and she wanted him home. I could not articulate the shame but I felt it, for my father and for myself. I begged my mother not to make me walk down the street in pajamas. I didn’t want to go up to the door of a neighbor’s house in my nightgown and “tell” my father to come home. I understood, even at a young age, that my mother’s aim was to humiliate my father and that she would use us to do it.
That night when I was seven, she woke us up to watch her kill herself.
She brought my sister and me downstairs to the living room where our father sat slumped in an armchair, looking tired.
“Okay, kids. Say goodbye to Mama. She’s had it.” My mother held a vial of pills in her hand I only then noticed. She pointed at my father. “Look at him there, not doing a thing.”
I now understand that she was performing for my father, but my sister and I were the audience who believed what we saw. My sister was crying, holding on to me. I couldn’t understand why my father wasn’t stopping her. He had to stop her. “Daddy, please. Please! No, Ma, don’t do it.”
“Babe, come on. Don’t do this. Babe, what are you doing?” Our father called her Babe so much that I thought it was her first name.
I was crying; my little sister was crying. My mother was killing herself and my father wasn’t doing anything to stop her. Our older siblings were not with us. Was it late enough that they were in bed, and we two youngest were the most convenient audience? It was a macabre and genius Madea move — torment the children to get at the father. I don’t recall my father responding. In memory, he was a sigh away from ignoring her. His unresponsiveness was likely his calling her bluff, de-escalating the situation. He was resigned, his posture a sign of defeat or inebriation, highball glasses still on the coffee table; regardless, his calm calmed me.
I cannot forget, though, my mother repeating herself. “Look at him, he doesn’t even care. That’s it kids. Say goodbye to Mama.” She opened the vial, poured the pills into her cupped hand, and shoved them into her mouth.
After so many years, the subtext is clear: I’m hurting, I need attention. Nobody cares if I die. Please, tell me you love me. It had the pathos of an emoted, B-script monologue.
My sister and I were spared the next act. We made it back to bed. Our mother survived the incident. But as a seven-year old roused from bed, ushered downstairs without the back brace that doctors insisted I wear to ensure non-paralysis, the wearing of which my parents had strictly enforced, just to serve as audience for my mother’s suicide attempt, that memory became part of me.
When G told her story, she reached inside me and extracted, revised, crumpled, refolded, and colored in the scene.
By the time G told the women gathered in St. Kevin’s basement what she had done while still drinking, my mother had been dead for over 23 years, my father even longer. Before my mother died, I made peace with her. I had learned to hate the alcohol and not the alcoholic, to see her as a sick person, not a bad person. A lot of therapy, and moving away to college, then to Europe, then the West Coast helped our relationship. I never worried about her not forgiving me. No matter what I did to my mother, she always got back at me by loving me.
I gave up trying to get her sober. As a teenager, though, I had so much rage that I would want to hit her; a few times, I did hit her. I told the social services therapist my high school counselor referred me to that I hated my mother so much that I dug my fingernails into her arm to keep myself from doing worse. Seeing the half-moon crescent bloodied marks my nails left on her forearm sickened me. Then I learned that I could dig my fingernails into my own arm to quell my rage. Eventually, I stopped hitting her, stopped hating her. I felt sorry and embarrassed for her. In her last year, her stomach had extended so much from the effects of cirrhosis that my sister and I had to take her shopping for maternity clothes. It was easier to feel pity when she was so sickly, with yellow skin and frail limbs, bruises and discolorations running up and down.
The world didn’t see my mother as damaged as I saw her. Our friends loved her. For her sense of humor, her politics, her kindness. My sisters and I joked that one of us could have brought home Attila the Hun as a boyfriend and our mother would have welcomed him with open arms. She never made a judgmental or unkind remark about any of our friends. When my best friend in middle school gushed over how beautiful my mother was, and how “cool”, I didn’t believe her. Yeah, she bought us cases of beer, and gave four 15-year old girls a ride one hour north to the town of Kent and left us so we could camp for three days by ourselves along the Appalachian Trail, but that was only half the story.
Too often we came home from school to find her passed out on the couch, an overflowing ashtray next to her, a cigarette still smoldering. The house smelled like pee, and not because of our cat. On one occasion, when she had again fallen down the staircase, we found her unconscious on the floor and called an ambulance. I yelled at her, “I hate you! I hate you!” One of the medics, a guy not much older than I was, reprimanded me. “Have some respect. That’s no way to talk to your mother.” I seethed at the nerve of this stranger telling me I should respect this woman who had done nothing to earn it.
And though I had once come close to killing her, but stopped myself, I worried about her growing older. One of us would have to take her in when the trust fund my father left her dried up. I would never be able to have a wedding because I would not want her there. She was unkempt and smelled like urine and unwashed privates. She would get drunk and ruin everything.
One night before I was flying back to the West Coast, after my mother had come home from one of her hospitalizations for alcohol-related ailments, I sat with her on the screened-in porch at the back of the house. Despite years of animosity towards her, I had begun to feel protective. She was so frail. And we had things in common. We both liked Erica Jong and Dostoevsky, Led Zeppelin and Tchaikovsky. Playing Scrabble and singing. On that sweaty July evening, we enjoyed a new calm between us, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and talking. Then we sang Shine on Harvest Moon and By the Light of the Silvery Moon, trying in our amateur way to harmonize.
It had taken time and distance. I remembered my mother with a sweeter kind of bitterness. But then G told her story.
“My sponsor didn’t mess around. Every time I made an amends, she said I had to ask the person if there was anything I left out.” G rolled her eyes. A few people laughed on cue, knowing too well what is required. “But man, I did not want to have that talk with my neighbor.”
G used to invent emergencies and call her neighbor to watch her kids. Then she would go out drinking and stay out later than she’d arranged, a few times overnight. She described how difficult it had been to come clean about all of that. When she was done admitting to the stuff she’d pulled, G asked her neighbor if she’d left out anything.
“It seems I had called and told her to come get my girls. I said I was going to kill myself. And I left the house before she even got there.” G looked down and shook her head as if incredulous. “I stayed away for two days.” The neighbor had been frantic, not knowing what happened to G, or where she was. G had no memory of it. She looked at us. “I’m not that woman anymore.”
For my whole life, I had felt sorry for myself, for the younger me, who’d had to figure out a way to live with the mother I was dealt. G made me realize it wasn’t only about me. She made me understand how much my mother had been hurting, how sick she had been. She was no longer just a drunk mother who caused scenes, who pissed herself, whom I blamed for my own failed suicide attempt at 13. She was one of us, someone just like me. I didn’t feel sorry for her as much as I felt connected. G had ripped off a bandage and showed me a beautiful scar underneath, a scar that was proof of resiliency and healing; it helped me understand that others’ pain was not less or more than my own.
Before she’d been ravaged by the disease, my mother had been blonde like G, and beautiful and lively, a baton-wielding majorette in tasseled-boots as a teenager. A photo of her at a nightclub table with my father, her platinum-dyed hair elegantly coiffed, and looking sultry in an off-the shoulder black cocktail dress, a pearl choker, elbow-length black gloves and clasping a long cigarette holder revealed a glimpse of the woman I may have contended with. G had gotten sober, earned several degrees, improved her relationships, and was a supportive mother and friend. I could imagine what my mother might have been, and maybe was, if I hadn’t seen her only from the limited vantage point of her daughter.
I don’t know if G got it. Her admitting that she told the neighbor she was going to kill herself while her kids were home loosened and broke free a calcified imprint on my life. One of the program’s promises is that no matter how “far down” we’ve fallen, we’ll “see how our experiences can benefit others.” And it’s true. My once admitting that I used to hit my mother prompted an elderly woman from a senior center AA meeting to approach me weeks later at my regular meeting.
“I have to thank you. I heard you tell your story.” The woman stood close enough that I noticed facial powder in the creases along her mouth. With her thinning white hair, and bones prominent beneath a blouse and skirt, she looked like she might shatter.
“Oh, you were there? I had never been before.” The senior center meeting was in a section of the city I rarely visited, less likely at noon on a Wednesday. But I had been asked to speak, so I did.
The woman took my hand and held it. She looked on the verge of tears. Her voice was low and quaked. “I used to hit my mother, too. A long time ago. I felt so ashamed about it. Thank you for talking about it. Thank you.”
The last time I saw my mother was in a hospital. I had stayed up late the night before working on a mural to partially cover the walls painted a shade of dried puke. I do not, as a rule, make crafty things. My mother reached for my arm as I turned to hang it. “I’m not worried about you.” She said it out of nowhere.
I kissed her forehead. “I love you, Ma.”
She watched me press the corners of the scene onto the wall with tape folded over itself on the underside. “You’ll be okay,” she said.
The mural looked like an elementary school art project, a winter scene with a dark blue foil paper background. I had glued on cotton balls to look like smoke rising out of the chimney of a construction paper house, snowflakes cut out from lined notebook paper, and triangle evergreen trees with notches for the boughs. I pasted silver and gold stars against the night sky, and a yellow, crescent moon. It was a parting gift, the only thing I could think of to leave her.
Anita Cabrera‘s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain,Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Best Travelers’ Tales 2021 Anthology, MER, Deronda, and other journals. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company. She lives in San Francisco where she is active in dance and recovery communities. Visit her website: www.aacabrera.com