Friday, May 6, 2016

Her Name Was Linda

In my two essay collections I've written several stories about my mother. In the book GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU I describe her as "a petite brunette with bright red lipstick and sparkling eyes" and I tell the reader "the sparkle was from a mix of glamour, narcotics, and madness." Her name was Linda and I lost her to liver cancer when she was 59 years old.

In many ways, though, I'd lost her a long time before. I don't know when her addiction began. In the early 70's is my best guess, that era when many doctors were free and easy with the prescription pad, especially when prescribing for women. By the time I was in kindergarten I remember my mother having two change purses inside her purse: one was for change and the other was filled to the top with pills and capsules of every color.

That purse was always the more important of the two, and she made sure to keep it close by.

The media is beginning to report the seriousness of prescription drug addiction. I can't tell you what it's like to be the person who's addicted. I can only describe what it was like to watch that addiction claim the only mother I would ever have.

I grew up learning medicine had names like Darvon, Demerol, Codeine, Percodan, and others. I could even spell these words correctly because I saw them so often on bottles all over our house. I never saw my mother take a pill because she had pain. I saw her taking a pill because she said she MIGHT have pain later on, and this way, she'd be ready. Preventative, it was. Addiction, it surely was.

By the time I was in grade school I understood my mother had many, many doctors and none of them knew about each other. Sometimes my mom would drive long distances in order to find new ones. At home she studied medical manuals so she could find illnesses that caused great pain but had no verifiable outward signs. She'd study the symptoms closely so she could repeat them later, in performances designed to get more painkillers.

I got used to my classmates looking frightened of my mom. They'd be around her for just a few minutes and they'd go pale, and their eyes would look frightened, and they'd ask me, "Why does your mom act like that?" And I always had to say "I don't know."

Some of the time my mother would have looked like any woman you'd see at the grocery store or shopping in a mall. She kept herself put together. I witnessed her performances for doctors many times. I saw her change characters as needed: sometimes a helpless, suffering childlike woman, sometimes a flirtatious one who would bat her lashes, sometimes a shrill, high pitched stormcloud of a woman, threatening and demanding until she got her way. Afterward she'd smile like that cheshire cat in Alice In Wonderland.

Gradually, her good episodes became shorter and her bad ones much longer. There would be screaming rages for no reason. She would become a person without the ability to reason, who sometimes spoke in near-babble. Our family of four became one person who was the unpredictable one and the other three who would never know, from day to day, or even moment to moment, what might set her off.

It was no secret she had something wrong with her. It certainly wasn't a secret from my teachers, who would dread parent teacher conferences. I was a good student and them telling my mother this would often lead to her shouting for a half hour or more that they didn't know what they were talking about. The day after these conferences my teachers would look at me with pity and would speak to me in soft tones. By high school I felt so sorry for the teachers who had to deal with her that I told my mom an outrageous lie: that the school district had decided to stop having parent teacher conferences, to save money.

"My mom can't make it," I'd tell my teachers, and they'd quickly say "That's fine."

We lived in the suburbs and the neighbors in the half dozen homes near ours were familiar with the sound of her ranting and raving by the hour. It wasn't something they did anything about. It was just what our house sounded like.

Possessed of my father's fine health insurance, my mother discovered the joy of unnecessary invasive surgery. This would allow for even stronger drugs, and for all the prescriptions afterward.

By the time I was a senior in high school she had begun saying truly frightening things. One day I heard my mother casually say that a situation she had with another woman was going to "end up with somebody dead." And when my mom left for the grocery store, I called the police on my mother.

I spoke to a sergeant and told him what my mom was like. I told him how many pills she took and which kind. I told him how everyone was afraid of her, and that we had a gun in the house, and exactly what my mom had said. I told him I was afraid my mom might hurt someone. The sergeant believed me. And then he explained why there wasn't anything they could do about it unless she did something.

Who helps you if family, friends, doctors, teachers, and the police all seem to be helpless? No one.

By the time I was in college my mother had advanced to giving herself injections in the back of her hand. Injections of what, I don't know. Years passed as our family tried to work around the problem, as we made excuses, as we felt ashamed for the way she acted.

Because you see, she never felt ashamed, and was never sorry, and it seemed like someone should be. And so we were.

In the last years of her life, she maintained employment but had to come home for two hours during the day so she could take what she called her "medicine." If I tell you she was a preschool teacher, will you gasp and hope that wasn't true? It was.

Her liver had pretty well had it by the time she was in her late fifties. When the cancer came it raced through her, anxious to claim squatter's rights not just in her liver but in her lungs, her heart, and her brain. At the hospice center I told the nurses the truth about how long she'd been abusing prescription drugs. I told them her tolerance was so high, she probably required a much higher dose of everything than they normally gave dying patients.

For the only time in my life, I requested a medical professional give my mother whatever drugs she asked for.

And after she died, and I was faced with the task of writing her obituary, I had the urge beyond urges to write an honest one. I wanted, with all my heart, to write something that would help someone. I wanted to say that she had been an addict and that our entire family had suffered her addiction. I wanted to ask people, in lieu of flowers, to themselves never choose a pill over a family. To never choose feeling high over feeling real.

I wanted to say those things, but I didn't. Instead I said that we'd remember her whenever we heard the music of James Taylor, and whenever we smelled cinnamon rolls. Those were the two strongest memories from the time so long before when my mom had had a choice to make: the pills or us and she had quickly chosen the pills.

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