There are a lot of unfortunate “by-products” associated with growing up in a house where the primary caretaker (in this case mom) is an alcoholic. One of them is that you reach adulthood with very few childhood memories. Then again, maybe it’s not “unfortunate” at all. Maybe freezing the lens on the “mind camera” that otherwise would record such memories to be played back in perpetuity is just the brain’s way of trying to protect itself (and its host) from the debilitating emotional pain and dysfunction that is an inescapable part of a family dynamic that has substance abuse at its epicenter.
It’s not that I don’t have any childhood memories, it’s just that the ones I do have are not the kind most people readily retrieve when they look back on the innocence of their youth – wistful warm summer afternoons spent frolicking in the surf at a South Florida beach; spontaneous picnics at a local playground or neighborhood park; social events with close family members or friends; sleep-overs and camp-outs; weeks spent at summer camp; lazy days spent lounging in pajamas in front of the TV set watching favorite family movies or playing board games; heartfelt embraces at the end of a long day or in a moment of disappointment; soft-spoken words of reassurance that tomorrow “will be a brighter day;” a reaffirmation of self-worth when it was most needed; an occasional smile or spontaneous act of playfulness . . . a simple tucking into bed at night.
No, my childhood memories are of a different kind: of slurred and often angry speech; of incoherence; of mom and next-door-neighbor-drinking-buddy setting up lawn chairs in one or the others front lawn to unabashedly share a few glasses of afternoon scotch; of being “put to bed” well into my early teenage years while it was still light outside, listening to friends joyfully at play outside my window – likely as confused as I was; of waking up to a badly blood-stained carpet in the family foyer, where I surmised alcohol had caused a “friend” of mom’s to mistaken a plate glass door-side window for the door itself; of an enabling dad, who, weary of the battle, chose the refuge he found “at 30,000 feet” as often as he could, leaving us to mostly fend for ourselves; and of vacuous, make-believe hugs that served as a daily reminder that – emotionally – we were on our own.
Those memories and the panoply of emotions they unfailingly bring with them washed over me again this past weekend when, while rummaging through 30 years of personal and family “keepsakes” in a back storage room, I stumbled upon two starkly contrasting black-and-white images. The first was a Xerox copy of a letter I had forgotten I’d written to my now deceased mom shortly after my daughter was born. In it, I shared with her, likely for the first time, the hurt that her drinking had caused me. I urged her in surprisingly non-judgmental and compassionate words (I say “surprisingly” because I was a very judgmental person at the time) to seek help, not only for her sake, but as a first step towards healing the wounds her disease had left in its wake; and then I closed by telling her that, unless and until she did, I could not in good conscience leave her alone with our children (her grandchildren) – ever again.
The second was the photo that accompanies this post – a taken-just-before-Christmas-1959 image of yours truly that captures the spirit (and smile) my mind tried so valiantly to protect and preserve all those years. As I sat staring at it and the reflection of its now 55 year-old counterpart in a nearby mirror, it occurred to me, as I’m sure it did to my mind long ago, that there was only so much it could do to shield its fragile “neighbor to the south” from the bruises and scars associated with being emotionally orphaned as a child, let alone to prevent the weight of it all from wilting the ends of that precious smile, leaving a trademark, upside-down imposter in its place. I also realized that, in the end, I couldn’t force my mom to seek the help she so desperately needed or, for that matter, to even respond to my letter or utter the words “I’m sorry” – neither of which, by the way, she ever did.
I did, however, have a choice. I could continue to allow myself to be held captive by the pain, brokenness and/or dysfunction of the past – and by “past” I mean anything that happened more than 5 minutes ago – or I could choose instead to use that past as a catalyst for positive change. I could begin to give myself the credit I deserve for being courageous and resilient in overcoming (or working to overcome) the challenges that have littered the path of my life journey. Eventually, I could even entertain the possibility that, as those who know me best have insisted all along, I am loved and, more importantly, that I am worthy of love. I’m not suggesting for a moment that choosing the path of hope (and healing) is “easy” or that it will happen overnight – I know better – as do all who have dared to step out of their brokenness and set foot on it.
But, I also know this: There is a joy in the heart of the little boy in that photograph that is undeniable and, before I die, I plan to rediscover it – if only for a day – no matter what I have to do.