I awoke to the sounds of my mother cleaning her already spotless home. Once, it was my home, but now I am a guest.
My eyes opened and my hand grasped the phone lying on the bedside table. I was startled to see it was after noon—six hours of sleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept that long. Methamphetamine is a wonder for getting through the day, but it’s a bitch at bedtime. Long nights, afraid to close my eyes and see the distorted faces that haunted me each night. Back then, I felt lucky if I could fall into a fitful doze for a few hours. I would wake feeling tired, but a line or two of meth later, I was running about my small apartment, ready to jump back on the merry-go-round that was my life.
As I descended the staircase, my mother’s vacuum went silent.
“Claire, you should have stayed in bed longer. You really need to rest.”
I made my way into the living room to see my mom looking at me. “I just thought that you know. You might be withdrawn or something.”
“You mean in withdrawal, Mom.” My mother did not know the ways of life beyond this small part of Brooklyn. Or so I thought. “I’m fine. More than well rested.”
“Well, let me make you some French Toast.” Food was the cure for everything that ailed us, according to Mrs. Margaret Dayak. I, Claire Dayak, used to happily oblige her need to nourish me. But, not now.
“Nah. You’ve got too much to do already without making me brunch. I’ll grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
I made my way into the kitchen, got the jam from the fridge, the Skippy from the pantry, and sat at the table to make my sandwich. I was hungry and this was a feeling I’d not had in over two years. Sandwich made, I readied myself for the myriad questions I anticipated from my mom.
“How was your flight?” She asked, sitting beside me. “I’m sorry it was the red-eye, but you sounded like you wanted to come home right away.” Her chocolate brown eyes, now dewy with unshed tears, invited me to lose my shit. If I started bawling now, I knew I would not be able to stop. I had to keep myself together.
“It was great, Mom. Thank you for making the reservation and paying for my ticket. I’ll pay you back. It’s just that I couldn’t stay in California anymore.”
She got up and went to the sink to clean the butter knife which I had used then thoughtlessly left it in the sink. As she did so, I could see her hands shake and I knew those tears were going down the drain with the dirty water. She turned to me, her eyes wet and red. I imagined if she were to turn to the mirror, hanging near the sink, she would be embarrassed. My mother did not cry easily.
As she stood there, I got a good look at her. There wasn’t a dark hair on her head of pure silver. Two years ago, after our argument, her hair had been merely streaked with grey, hadn’t it? Did I put those deep wrinkles around her eyes? Had my mother grown ten years older in two?
“Oh, Claire, you don’t have to thank me. I knew you wouldn’t have asked me if you could come home unless you were in trouble.”
My cheeks flushed with shame. She was right. After Dad’s funeral two years ago, we argued. I had not seen my father in twelve years because of her.
“Mom, please don’t go there. I don’t want to start arguing with you right now. I’m just too tired.” The truth was although I felt grateful for the plane ticket and a place to sleep, I wanted to hold my mother at a distance just as I always had.
Her lips pressed together into a thin line. I felt frightened. I believed my mother was getting herself worked up to say something and I was not sure I wanted to hear it. A part of me wished to stay in my hidey hole forever and never face my problems.
She poured herself a cup of coffee. “You called me. After two years of hearing nothing from you, you called me. And I jumped at the chance to help you. You’ve shut me out of your life since you were a teenager and I let you do that. I should have explained things to you years ago.”
There was a buzzing in my head. I wanted to shut her up, but I wanted to hear what she had to say, too. Why was I still blaming my mother for everything wrong that had happened to me? Because she kept my dad away from me. The truth was I believed she didn’t really love me. If she did, why would she have done that?
“Claire, your father was an alcoholic,” Mom said softly as she set her coffee cup on the table. “He left because I told him he had to quit drinking or leave. He chose to leave.”
I couldn’t control my mouth as it opened in shock. Dad. An alcoholic? I immediately felt the need to defend him. “Mom, Dad was a great guy. Everyone loved him. Besides, I never saw Dad drink.”
I needed an answer, an easy one if possible. Anything too complicated would cause me to spin out of control. Until the age of twelve, my dad was the most important person in my young life. Whenever I had a problem, he always made me feel better with his wit and wisdom.
My mom was staring at me, waiting for the truth to sink in. “Honey, everyone loved him because he was a ‘good time Charlie’. Always had a joke. Always in a good mood. At least that’s the persona he took in front of other people. Some drunks get mean. Your dad was a good-natured drunk. That is, except when he was with me. Then he allowed himself a little meanness.”
My mind turned back the clock to my tenth birthday. I was sitting in the living room with five of my best friends, enjoying a party game. I forget which one. My dad came in the front door at four o’clock which was odd because his work shift ended at two. He had promised me that morning that he would help decorate the room before my party began and I was more than slightly hurt. Without warning, the front door flew open and my dad stepped across the threshold.
“Is this a party?” He asked, his mouth broadening into a wide grin. “What’s the occasion?”
I thought he was joking and merely teasing me about my birthday. “Dad, you’re being silly! It’s my birthday.”
Now, looking back, I realized he’d forgotten his own daughter’s birthday. My mom had come into the room and took him by the hand. “William, come. Help me cut Claire’s birthday cake.” She looked around at my guests and gave them a wink. “Claire’s dad can be such a silly.”
Later, I learned he had no present for me even though that morning, before he left for work, he had promised to bring home something special. As she tucked me into bed that night, my mom said Dad was extremely busy at work and I should just be glad we could afford a party and a nice birthday cake.
Now my mom looked to me for understanding. “You look like you just had an epiphany. Are you remembering any of the times when your dad seemed odd?”
I slowly nodded. Weren’t there other times Dad’s behavior had seemed odd? My feelings of resentment toward my mom were ingrained in me, though. “But why, Mom? Why did you keep him from me after he left us?” The void within me cried out for answers. So many unanswered questions had left me with an intense feeling of abandonment by my father. I had been blaming my mother for his absence since I was twelve.
“That doesn’t explain why you wouldn’t let him see me after he left. Okay, so he was an alcoholic. He was still my father and I wanted to see him.” I couldn’t shake this feeling of longing. “I loved him!”
Mom looked at the ceiling as though she would find an answer to my accusations there. After a long moment, her eyes focused back on me. “Remember when your father was in the hospital when you were eleven?”
I nodded for my mom to go on and she continued. “I told you he got into an accident at work, remember? You begged to see him, but I told you they didn’t allow children to visit.” She tilted her head. “Didn’t you think it was strange that I took the bus to get there?”
My eyes opened wide with sudden comprehension. “Our car was gone! I remember when he came home we bought a new one. He didn’t have an accident at work, did he? He wrecked our old car.” My mother nodded and picked up her cup of coffee.
Now I saw the tears make their way down her cheeks. She made no attempt to hide them. “Claire, he was always drunk. The first couple of times he came by to see you, he put you in the car before I could say no. I was a mental wreck, waiting for him to return you. Luckily, he didn’t keep you very long.”
I looked back at that time, twelve years ago. I remembered my feelings of disappointment when our visits ended so quickly. He took me to the ice cream shop, then straight back home, explaining his need to finish up some work he had.
“I remember. There were three visits, all the same. The ice cream store, then back home with a quick goodbye.”
I saw hope in my mom’s eyes mixed with those tears.
My world was being turned upside-down and I couldn’t stop it from happening. My use of drugs had started early. I think I was fourteen when I smoked my first joint. At sixteen, a boyfriend introduced me to meth and I was hooked. Each night I returned home after being with him, my mother would be sitting on the sofa, watching TV. She’d look at me with disdain and the arguments would begin. My mother had sent me to two different drug counselors, but nothing stuck. At seventeen, I moved in with a different boyfriend, and while I still snorted cocaine and meth, I was careful. With a job as a secretary for a small cleaning company, I could pay my share of the rent and still have enough left over for my habit. I had not used drugs continuously since then, though—I had even made it through college. But the temptation seemed to find me every two or three years.
Now, I could see Mom had stopped crying and her eyes were full of anger. “If I could go back in time, I would have done things differently. I should have been truthful.” She left the table, plucked a tissue from the box on the counter, and dabbed at her nose. “After your dad’s funeral, I started seeing a therapist, a really good one. We discussed how mature you were when you were twelve. Looking back, I realized that if you knew about your dad’s alcohol abuse, you might not have been so angry with me.” She tossed the tissue into the trash. “Claire, it’s true that I made your father leave, but I did it for you. He couldn’t hold down a job and was drinking even more. I don’t know if you remember, or not, but he was becoming more of a mean drunk than a happy one. I was afraid for both you and me, I guess.”
I rocked back and forth in my seat with my arms folded tightly across my chest. I couldn’t think straight. My mind was in chaos as I attempted to hold onto the pedestal where I had put my dad since I was a small child. When I thought of my mom, I remembered thinking she was like a drill sergeant, always making me stick to the rules. I had no way of knowing then, but as I looked at the past with this new knowledge, I thought maybe she just wanted what was best for me. Dad was fun, full of laughter, never serious. Mom always reminded me to do my homework, nagged at me to get good grades, and wear clean socks. My dad brought home candy for me, but it was Mom who made sure I brushed and flossed before bedtime.
How could I have been so blind before today? My mother had worked two jobs to keep us in a small apartment, I always had food to eat, and clean clothes. she really tried to give me a good life. There were still birthday parties with special cakes and presents after Dad left. She made every attempt to give me a secure and happy life. Sure, Dad couldn’t take me anywhere in the car, but he still could have visited, couldn’t he? It was so difficult to admit, but after leaving, my dad never even sent me a birthday card.
This time it was my turn to cry. “Mom, I didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t want to know. There was this hunger inside me. I needed something. I never knew what it was until Dad’s funeral. Dad abandoned me. Growing up, I felt so ashamed when my friends talked about their dads. I felt so angry with you. To me, you were the cause of his leaving, and his abandoning me. Plus, you hated me for using drugs!” I held my head in my hands as I tried to absorb the facts of my life, not the suppositions.
She grabbed my hands and held them. “My Claire. I never hated you. I was angry, and terrified, too. Terrified of losing my marriage, and so afraid that you would get hurt. Then you started using drugs and I felt responsible for your drug use, but never knew how to fix it, fix you.”
I had to interrupt. “Mom, I blamed you for my drug use. I felt like I had to fill this hollowness inside me. There was a vacuum where Dad had been.”
She smiled a sad smile. “Going through therapy, I found out that addiction can be hereditary. I let go of those feelings of guilt.”
I knew addiction could be hereditary, but since I didn’t know my dad was an alcoholic, I had blamed my mother for my drug use. It was her fault that I was broken. She took away my father. The twelve-year-old child in me still fought with these feelings. I wanted to forgive her, knew I had to forgive her to move on, but I continued to vacillate. The resentment I held for my mother was so deeply ingrained that it felt like a ball of tar, stuck inside my heart.
Finally, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. This was the moment I had to decide whether or not I wanted to be free of that heavy black ball of tar forever.
I looked at this woman I called my mother. How could I have harbored such hate for her when I knew deep down that she loved me? The pain she must have felt all these years! If only we had sat and had this conversation long ago. So much suffering would have been avoided. But, was I ready to listen, really listen to her before now?
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the falsehoods I held to be true for these seventeen years. Suddenly, uncontrollably, the corners of my mouth raised up and I let out a little laugh. “Well, it looks like we both need to recover from years of abuse-—the abuse of ourselves. Me with an awful, nasty drug habit, and you, living each year in silent suffering caused by a selfish daughter.”
She pushed a piece of hair out of my eyes and held my chin in her hands. “I think we both need to forgive each other in order to move on. And, there are some wonderful facilities in this city. Places where people can help you. I know you want to get clean. If you didn’t, you never would have called to come home. Home. This is your home Claire. You can stay if you like. We can work on our recoveries together. I don’t think I can get away from all the guilt I’ve felt without help, so I’ll research counselors.” She wiped away all signs of her tears and nodded. “Yes, I believe we can do this.”
I gently took my mother’s hand and kissed it. How could I have been so blind, so cruel all these years. There had been a huge part of me who wanted to punish my mother for my unhappiness. That was over. I could still feel that void, that hunger inside me, but maybe it was not so big now. Maybe she and I had managed to fill it just a bit. I knew I could learn to fill it more, though. Now that I knew my mom was on my side, I could face my life and work to change it. My goal was to become unbroken.