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  • Writer's pictureImagine a Bird

The Dance: Losing an Alcoholic Mom

Last Saturday, on the 18th of November, I thought of my mom as I drove to a friend's poetry-comedy-music variety show. That night marked 25 years since her death. We had a complicated relationship, but I'm certain she would have been proud of - or at least quietly pleased by - the woman I've become. Tonight, I wanted to record this reading and share the written version of my narrative from QUIVER. Thank you for listening/reading.

I danced amongst urban cowboys in tight jeans the night before my mom died. There was no question: after a day at the hospital, it made sense at the time that one of my longtime best friends would take me out on the town. He loved my mom, too.

I remember feeling nearly gleeful on the dance floor. Free. Happy to be alive.

She was several blocks away. Her brain had suffered a series of strokes; her heart, heart attacks; her arteries and organs, breakdowns, and malnourishment. Stuffed into her mouth was a ventilator tube.

And there I was, dancing in a gay bar.

The year was 1998. I was 27.

Our stories can only share so much.

As daughters, especially, how can we possibly

contain our mothers

within the boundaries of words?

Memories that sing…

With her 70-year-old boyfriend, she showed up in my college town on the back of his motorcycle. It was a span of time between her surgery and her death. Usually a robust and curvy woman, she had grown thin with gaunt cheeks. But, on this day, her face was flushed pink and she looked relatively healthy. She was enjoying a respite from critical health issues and loving her guy, a nurturing yet adventurous man with whom she was madly in love.

I remember giggling with her as he and I helped her off the motorcycle. I surveyed her “gear”: black cotton gloves; black leg warmers with silver glitter, and a black acrylic scarf. She looked like a 1980’s Hell’s Angels aerobics instructor – only it was 1997.

…and sting…

Between college classes and my office job, I called the hospital several times on the day of her major surgery in 1996. It was estimated to last a few hours, but after 10 hours, I finally heard the doctor’s voice on the other end of the line. It was shaking, slightly.

“Your mother’s arteries and veins were very weak,” he reported, “but the surgery is done and she’s in recovery.”

My brothers told me after-the-fact that Mom withheld the truth from her doctor: that she had been drinking hard liquor every night since she was 16 years old. When they opened her up, her insides were a mess. She was only 63.

This was the invasive procedure she’d worried about and postponed for a long time. Ten years earlier, she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

…and moan…

My mom wrecked her car drinking and driving the year after the surgery. No other cars were involved. The officer didn’t notice the vodka cocktail she had boldly kept in the cup holder.

She was tight-lipped with me. Her sister, my aunt, revealed this incident after Mom had passed away. Even my anxious awareness of her drinking didn’t affect the trust I had in her around that time. She’d begun gradually returning to work but was still managing post-surgery complications.

Never in a million years would I have guessed she’d pull such a stunt.

The aorta:

that artery,

the largest in our body,

running through the center of us,

through our core,

from our heart.

On the dance floor, the scene from earlier that evening moved through my head: my brothers and I had gathered around her hospital bed, talking to one another and to her, hoping she could understand us.

It was my first time being in the presence of a near-death human being. I watched, in heart-dropping shock, as she shifted herself around in her bed with more energy than I’d seen her express in months. Her eyelids were opened, but she showed no awareness that we were there. Her eyes were clouded over with infection. She turned her head toward a corner of the intensive care room. Attempting to rise up out of bed, she stretched her arm in the direction of her gaze.

We create, tear down, repair, keep going.

We build and lose friendships

Try our hearts at romantic love.

We keep bodies alive through our own health scares.

All the while, if we’ve lost our parent

– whether through abandonment, neglect, death –

we are also stripping away layers of

motherless grief across our lifetimes.

I awoke very early the morning after our night out. I quietly dressed as my friend continued to sleep. I left to take a walk around the neighborhood. I remember stopping in front of a bakery and enjoying watching the workers ready the shop for opening. It was a cool, overcast southern California morning in November and I breathed in the damp air and the smell of the breads and pastries.

On my stroll, I was hoping to come across a pay phone. I wanted to call the hospital for my daily check-in.

Everything felt calm. I felt calm. I strolled past shoe stores, gift stores, a small park, and warehouses. It didn’t occur to me at the time that last night’s dancing and the morning walk didn’t fit in with the roller coaster of terror, ecstatic relief when she appeared well, and guilt that I’d been riding for two years.

Finding a phone in front of a bank, I inserted the coins and dialed the hospital. When I was connected to my mom’s nursing station, I said, “Hi, this is Kim, Jackie’s daughter. I’m just calling to see how she’s doing this morning? I’ll be visiting later today.”

I could hear other nurses’ voices in the background and the electronic sounds of an intensive care unit. The nurse on the phone was quiet for a long moment. “Sweetheart, are you sitting down?” she asked.

She must have asked that question in particular because I have a clear memory of looking around me – at the sidewalk, the gray concrete of the bank building, the polished chrome of the pay phone stand – and I answered, “Well, no. There’s nowhere to sit. I’m at a pay phone.”

My knees began to tremble a little.

In a quietly gentle voice, she explained that my mother had just passed away minutes before I called.

I remember hearing her and I recall responding in a respectful manner – “Oh my god ok well thank you for taking care of her thank you for letting me know” – a rush of words from a sweet, shocked young lady for whom I now, as I write this, have the utmost compassion and love.

I hung up the phone and I nearly fell. My legs were jelly.

Saying goodbye to a mother,

especially a mother who drinks,

may also mean letting go of the habit of

supporting a grown woman,

of wanting to keep her safe,

of being a mom to your mom.

Over time,

in slow and small ways,

the hope is that we will learn to

parent ourselves.

When we arrived at the hospital, I was anxious. Every detail of spending time with a sick and dying human was a first for me, but I’d somehow managed to get through the experiences with relative strength. But seeing your own mother’s corpse? A nightmare.

What I didn’t expect was what I saw, instead:

All lines, machines and needles had been removed from her body. The nurses had straightened up the sheets and blankets, smoothing them across her chest and under her neck. Her thin hair was brushed, and her face was smooth and clean.

For the first time in my lifetime, my mom looked restful.

I knew she was gone but I still stood there, saying goodbye.

"The Dance" was published in QUIVER: spoken words returned to the page, by Kimberlee Adonna (2023).

Publishing house: Read or Green Books.

Note: everyone should be able to access the SoundCloud file at the top of this post, whether or not you have a SoundCloud account. Please let me know if you have any issues listening. Thank you!


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