I climb into my worn-out blue Cherokee and take the freeway east from Santa Monica, shooting through the guts of Los Angeles like a bullet. I pass the Hollywood sign, faded and small against the hills. I’ve lived in this city all my life, but I can still feel the pulse of the dream, beating like a giant, amped up heart.
Traffic comes to a dead stop merging onto the 110 downtown. They’ve closed a lane for construction and it’s exacerbating the usual bottleneck. I turn up the radio when The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” comes on, thinking if it weren’t for the “fast lane,” I wouldn’t be driving out to my mother’s house right now.
I pass the off-ramp to Dodger Stadium, site of her most recent car accident. It’s a narrow, steep, concrete chute, leading to an overpass that feeds into the stadium. She claims someone rammed into her, but the police report said Reckless Driving. It wasn’t the first time she’d crashed a car, so no surprise there. Driving requires too much focus for some people.
Somewhere along the way, the salty fresh sea breezes of the beach are replaced by the drier, more metallic air of my mother’s neighborhood. It might as well be a different continent. It starts with the rundown shacks that line the freeway at the bottom of the hill in Highland Park, and continues up into Mt. Washington’s curvy, funky streets and precariously perched houses. The neighborhood is a haven for eccentrics, a well-kept secret in the world of LA’s oddballs and artists.
I park against the crooked curb, and once inside, I can hear the sound of the radio, tuned to NPR as usual. Dorothy Healey drones on about the sorry state of Washington, DC. A pile of bills is oddly placed on a chair in the hallway, as if waiting for someone to come along and pay. A glimpse of pink and yellow paper peeks through the plastic envelope windows, telling me that she is overdue on her gas and electricity again. I stop and leaf through the bills.
There’s also one from her reverse mortgage company, North Hills Bank, that hasn’t even been opened. By the bold red lettering on the envelope spelling out the words URGENT, I know it can’t be good. The curt letter inside is to notify her that she has reached her maximum allowable draw off the equity of her house, and her request for more funds has been denied. Panic presses on me and my stomach burns.
I find her lying in a tangle of blankets coated with Blue Goo medicinal gel. Her long black hair—dyed these days—is tamed in a headband, and her loud turquoise blouse, black shorts, and red and white striped socks clash like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
Even though she’s given up her serious partying now that she’s a senior citizen, she still has a habit of taking too many pain pills. I can tell just by looking at her that she’s taken too much Codeine again. She lifts her head and stares right through me.
“Hi, honey. I know. It’s a mess.”
“What are we going to do with you?”
I lift the sheet up and find a sickening sight. Her knee is swollen to the size of a baseball, and black and blue. A few red veins spider out from the bone and I wonder if it’s infected.
“Does it hurt right now?”
She shakes her head, but I can tell she’s just trying to be strong.
“Okay. Roll over to that side, please.” I pull the wet, sticky sheets away and push her carefully, trying not to move her knee too much. Once the bed is stripped, I throw the gunk-covered linen in the washer, grab some clean sheets from the closet and remake the bed. Then I sit down next to her. I want to help her, but I’m having trouble feeling compassion when she’s this messed up.
“How much Codeine did you take today?”
“I don’t know. However much I was supposed to, I guess.”
I open the dresser drawer filled with white-capped translucent orange bottles, check the date on her Codeine and realize it’s only been a week since this was filled with a thirty-day supply. I count the pills that are left, only five. I’m about to close the drawer when I see a bottle I haven’t seen before, something called Empirin #3. I’ve never heard of the prescribing doctor, either.
I clutch the bottle of drugs. “What’s this?”
“It’s just for pain.”
I can see it’s not even prescribed for my mother. “This is for Alex, not you.”
“You remember, he gave you piano lessons?”
“Sure, I remember. He also tried to get me to smoke Thai stick when I was twelve.”
I’m reminded of all those greasy, babbling addicts in torn batik shirts and jeans, the rattle of bottles and jars filled with multi-syllabic chemicals, hypodermics on the bathroom counter, and edgy, lethargic people drifting to and fro in back rooms.
Seven years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, but it wasn’t caused by alcohol. Hers came courtesy of Hepatitis C, the junkie’s disease. I don’t know exactly how she got it; all I know is she must have shared a needle with someone during one of those drugged-out weekends long ago.
A warning sign on the bottle says it contains Aspirin.
“Mom, you know you’re not supposed to have anything with Aspirin in it.”
Her liver disease puts her at risk for internal bleeding, mainly in her esophagus, but also in her stomach and other organs. Aspirin, or any blood thinner, is off-limits unless she wants to bleed to death.
“I know, honey. I don’t like to take it, but I’m almost out of the other.”
“Well you wouldn’t be if you hadn’t taken so much.”
She pushes off the bed and limps over to the bathroom. When she’s out of sight, I grab the Empirin and the Codeine and stuff them into my sweatshirt pocket.
The freezer is stacked full with frozen TV dinners. I take one out and put it in the oven for her. Then I find an orange, and, in a sudden burst of nurturing, cut it up into eighths, because I know she likes them that way. I sit on the living room couch and wait while the Swanson’s is cooking.
On the surface, her house is very nice, with all of its skylights and twenty-foot ceilings, gaping canyon views out the picture windows, tall old eucalyptus and purple jacaranda trees filling the valley. My mother spent every last dime of her money remodeling it, and it’s an elegant space, I have to admit. But still I find it oppressive in here. Maybe it’s all the clutter, so many inlaid tables, marble statuettes and halogen lamps. Thousands of books and magazines on every subject imaginable stuffed into the floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Cheap calendar pictures of dogs and wildflower-filled meadows are taped to the walls above all the stacks of Soviet Life magazine and everything Erich Fromm ever wrote.
The carpeting is new, but it’s hard to walk on because of all the piles of old newspapers and unsorted junk mail on the floor. The guest bathroom doubles as a doggie dining room, with bowls and bags of food and dog vitamins everywhere. I have to rearrange it all just to use the toilet, and the smell of lamb and rice is overpowering.
Being here makes me feel lost and helpless.
She’s leaning back on her pillows watching CNN when I bring in her food on a tray.
“Do you want anything else?”
“I don’t think so. This is the most fabulous spread I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, right.” Hyperbole is her specialty, but still, I feel momentarily appreciated.
“It is. Honest. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Oh, you’d survive.” But even as I say it, I know it isn’t true.
The guest room is on the lowest level of the house. French doors lead outside to a long wooden deck that overlooks the valley below. Before I fall asleep, I turn on the intercom right next to the bed, one of my mother’s many extravagant improvements to the house. Sleep is impossible. I cover and uncover myself with sheets and blankets, cold one minute and hot the next.
I don’t want to be here, but whose fault is it that I am? No one forces me to help her, but for some reason I feel compelled to keep trying, like Sisyphus, to somehow save her from herself.
Of course there is a cost. I’ve already had to turn down work to take her to her doctor’s appointments, I have no love life to speak of, and my ulcer sometimes hurts so much I can’t even think straight.
Just when I’ve finally fallen asleep, a scream penetrates the room. It sounds like someone’s being stabbed to death. I jump up, bounce off the bed, and run up the stairs, all in one half-unconscious movement.
I can hear my mother shriek, “My pills!”
“I took them.” I’m out of breath from my sprint up the stairs.
“Candace! Why?” She sounds disappointed in me, and angry, too.
“Because, you’re taking too many. And you’re not supposed to have this kind.” But it’s useless, I know. I could repeat the facts a million times—it’d never make her addiction disappear.
“I need them, Candace. My leg hurts.”
My back twinges like it wants to go out. I take deep breaths to release the tension as I lug myself back downstairs and get her pills.
When I toss them down on her bed, she doesn’t say anything, just opens the bottle and pops one, then reaches for her water glass and takes a long drink, gulping loudly.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she says, using her best “I’m still the mommy” voice.
I sit down next to her on the bed. “Sorry,” I say. And I am sorry.
She lies down, and after I prop her leg up on a few pillows, she smiles at me, peaceful as a baby, and begins to drift off.
Back in bed downstairs, I struggle to clear my mind of images: blood vessels bursting, leaking everywhere, everything soaked red and black. When it finally comes, my sleep is deep and hard, like surrender.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.
“Surrender” is excerpted from The Rope Swing, by Candace Kearns Read, from Eagle Wings Press, copyright 2016, all rights reserved.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.