Johnny, this is a family disease. Think of your mother. Think of the effect her drinking had on you, your sister and brother, your father, everyone around her. Think of how she never engaged with the cure, only the problem. And think of the effect your drinking has had on you, your family, your ex-wife, the decision to marry her, but most importantly, how has your drinking affected your children?
They won’t see me.
Your own children don’t want to have a relationship with you, Johnny. I think you even said that they escaped you the way you wished you could have escaped your mother.
Tears well and then stream down my hot cheeks.
I’ve become my mother.
No, not yet. You’re still trying to get better.
I put my face in my hands.
Johnny, you need to forgive your mother and let go of what she’s done to you.
She’s dead, I say through my fingers.
I want you to write a letter to her.
Why the hell would I do that? I hated her and she was a complete wreck and probably why I’m here right now.
Shut up and go do it.
I drive home and sit down with a pad of paper. I stare at it for an hour. I throw it. I pick it up and sit down again. I stare at it. Then I remember a bit of writing advice a friend once shared: Start with just one true sentence.
I write: As of this date you have been gone from my life for eighteen years.
Then: In reality I feel like I have never had a mother and honestly remember very little of you.
Followed by: I am filled with so many what ifs? Maybe I should start at the beginning.
One sentence follows the next and for two hours I hover over that pad of paper sobbing. I speak with Mom in a way I never have or could. I feel each resentment like a cancer, its black tendrils penetrating deep into the tissue of my heart and psyche. As my words touch each of these lesions, they burn and throb. They awaken a child’s yearning for a mother’s embrace, a mother’s love, to understand why she didn’t love me enough. Was I unlovable?
My body shivers, not just from the raw sweat of withdrawal, but from rage, anguish and loss.
The next evening I bring the letter to Barbara.
She is quiet as she reads. This is good, Johnny. It reads true.
Now, I want you to read it to the group.
Johnny, I am small, but I am tough. Let go and stop placing conditions on how you stop killing yourself. Read this letter, tonight.
And so, an hour later I stand before about twenty people. Tears fall down my cheeks even before I start. I struggle to keep my body still and my voice steady, but it’s no good. I melt.
Mom, up to age nine I have very few memories of you. I have fond memories of Lizzy and, in all honesty, I consider her my mother. I remember our walks down the lane, spending most of my time with her and feeling safe in her presence. She would have laid down her life for me and I know she loved me. “As much as a kitten loves cream,” she used to say. I remember, too, when I was a boy, she would say, “John David, I knew you were coming to me because I could see your soft, blond hair bouncing from the woods and up the yard.”
I have no memory of you saying such things.
What I remember is after Dad and you told us the two of you were divorcing, you took us to Florida and the hotel staff carried you up to our room because you were so drunk. And I remember Dad tying you up in the pantry. He told me to untie you once he left.
Then you were sent away.
Then you came back and we went through the custody fight. How could you put us through that terrifying ordeal and then separate us? On top of that, you married Dale, who was verbally abusive to all of us, and physically abusive to Joshua.
Most of my memories of you are from age fifteen on, and they are not pretty. Didn’t you ever wonder why I didn’t bring friends around? Not one friend, including Margaret. Would you even know who she is and what she meant to me?
My memory of you is lying passed out on the couch in your urine-soaked nightgown day after day, night after night, with cigarette burns in the carpet below you.
I remember thinking I am never going to be like you. The many ambulances in the driveway, the trips to the hospital because you fell. Being rushed out the restaurant on a stretcher, and the only time I remember you driving, you got pulled over for your drunken driving.
At age twenty-two, I received a call you were in a coma. Looking at all the tubes coming out of you, yellow skinned, bloated. That is the memory I am left with. None of us shed a tear at that moment or at your funeral, where there were only five people in attendance.
I am mad, Mom, angry and full of resentment. How could you? I have grown close to most of my girlfriends’ mothers over the years. I guess it is my way of having a mom. I have never understood the closeness my friends feel for their mothers.
As I stated in the beginning, I did not want to relive these memories or write this letter. I told my counselor, “Why do I want to write a letter to my dead mother?” She said, “Just do it.”
In my six weeks in the program I have learned one thing, which amazes me. I have learned that you did the best you could and I have to accept that fact. I have the same disease as you and my life hasn’t turned out very well up to this point.
I do want to thank you for my life. Obviously, without you it wouldn’t be possible. I hope God is looking over your soul.
I stand sobbing before the group.
Thank you, Johnny, a man says.
Another says thank you, and then another.
I am drenched in sweat. Every muscle in my body eases from absolute tautness to a tranquil calm. My mind is still. I am hollowed of the burning compulsion to drink. It is impermanent, I am not done with my work, but it is real and I feel that I can now, finally, let go.
It’s the twelfth week and I’m sitting with Barbara in her office. Sobriety is still work, but the intense need for alcohol has dissipated to a slight yearning.
I feel comfortable, relaxed as we talk. Why do you think I’ve been able to get sober—
You’re doing well, but there’s more to do, she reminds me.
True, but I’ve done more than my mom ever did. Why?
Johnny, I don’t know, other than to say that we aren’t here for those who need it. We’re here for those who want it.
The next day I take the letter to the crypt where Mom’s body rests and read it to her. I fold it and put it in my pocket. Margaret’s mom is only a few feet away.
Standing before Mrs. Tice’s stone, tears well.
You were right. I was a terrible boyfriend, horrible. I’m sorry, truly sorry. But you were right, too, when you said that in my heart I’m a good kid. I’m sorry it took so long to figure that out. I love you.
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