I was four years old when my mother taught me to lie. There were certain instances, she explained, when lying was acceptable, when it wasn’t even lying, really. These circumstances included convenience, and when the lie made more sense than the truth. The first lie she taught me to tell fit both criteria.
We had driven to Sunset Lake where I would enroll in my very first swimming lesson. Sign-ups started at 9 a.m. sharp, and we were running late, as usual. My mother had a very fluid sense of time, a fluidity that bothered me even before I knew how to read a clock. All I knew was that whenever we had to go somewhere we were usually scrambling from the house in a panic after a frantic search for my shoes, one brother’s blanky, and the other’s pacifier. This morning was no different. My mother had parked illegally just outside the little shack by the lake, right in front of all the other mothers in line. We took our place behind them, where she squinted to see the times for various age groups listed on the bulletin board propped by the door.
“What?” she asked no one in particular. “Does that say Polliwogs meet at noon?”
Like my mother, the lady in front of her had one child on her hip, another in a stroller, and a kid my age. “Yeah,” she said. “Polliwogs, at noon, Guppies at eleven, and Minnows at ten.”
I was staring at the sign, too. I couldn’t read the words, but I could read the numbers, and I saw my number right away. “Look, Mum! There’s the four! That’s my number!”
But my mother was still talking to the lady in front of her. “Noon?” she was saying, “That’s a nightmare! I can’t get all three of these kids here at lunchtime. It’s no big deal if a four-year-old swims with the Guppies at eleven, right?”
By then I knew that when my mother said “lunch,” what she really meant was “nap.” This was the one event to which my mother’s relaxed sense of time did not apply. My youngest brother was only six months old, and as far as I was concerned he had done nothing but cry from the minute they brought him home from the hospital. I knew babies were supposed to be cute, but when I looked at this one all I could see was a bright red face dominated by an outsized mouth stretched wide open for maximum volume. His name was Brian, which our neighbor, who lived well within earshot, delighted in telling my mother was perfect, because it rhymed with “cryin’.”
So Brian’s naps were not only a profound relief, they were unfailingly punctual. There was no way my mother would mess with his schedule.
The lady in front of us was dealing with her own crying baby, so my mother turned to me and said, “Suz, if they ask how old you are, just say five, ok?”
“But I’m not five. I’m four.” I held up four fingers for emphasis, thinking about how great it would be when I was actually five and could let the thumb join all the others, and my whole hand would be like a wide-open starfish.
“It doesn’t matter,” my mother was whispering now. “Just say you’re five. Then we can go right home for lunch after swimming lessons.”
I looked at the other lady, and she was looking at me with a mean face, the same one the teachers in nursery school used when one of the boys peed his pants. And then I looked at my mother and she gave me a little wink, my favorite one: the secret one that she only ever gave to me. I gave her the secret wink back, and she bent down and whispered in my ear, “You probably swim even better than these five year olds anyway.” And we both looked at the little robot pushing the stroller and giggled.
Standing in the hospital room on what would be the first of many episodes watching my mother detox, all I really knew was that my mother liked to have a glass or two of wine when Oprah came on at four o’clock. And also a glass or two when we went out to lunch. And usually a cocktail followed by a glass or two of wine when we out for dinner. But an alcoholic? No.
My father and brothers were shocked at the diagnosis, but I was furious that our secret was out, and just as my mother had predicted, those not privileged to be in on the secret in the first place always overreacted and misunderstood. That’s why most secrets require lies. Just like that other mother at Sunset Lake, those on the outside are too stupid to understand when a lie is not just convenient, but necessary. Of course I should swim with the five-year-olds when I was four. Of course people would conflate my mother’s ability to relax and have a good time with alcoholism. No surprise here. Most rule-followers are as boring as they are predictable. That’s why people like us need to keep secrets. We’re smarter than them.
My mother’s theory was proven at that initial intake—a visit to the ER we thought was a simple precaution against dehydration for a particularly bad stomach flu—when the first of many nurses uttered the a-word.
“She’s not an alcoholic,” I said, eyeing her clipboard. Was that word written down there somewhere?
The nurse just shook her head, and started blathering some tripe about how common it was for the family to be the last to know.
I could tell she was on autopilot, instructing us about the signs of alcoholism, but mid-speech I saw a flicker of recognition cross her face. She had just figured out what I knew the minute she approached us in the waiting room. In my memory, I saw her pumping away on the Stairmaster in front of my treadmill, dressed not in scrubs, but in low-riding bike shorts and a gray running bra. At least two or three times a week I’d watch the gray of her bra turn black with sweat and the strings of her thong underwear peak out from the waistband of her shorts.
“There’s blood in her vomit, indicating severe gastritis,” she was saying. “There’s a strong odor of alcohol,” she paused. “She told us the last thing she drank was blackberry brandy.”
This made perfect sense to me, but I could see how it would look to an outsider. I grew up with hot toddies, and it wasn’t until I was in college that it dawned on me that this wasn’t the standard treatment for colds, sore throats, upset stomachs, and “general malaise”—a phrase I remember reading on the nurse’s notes I would give my mother when I was dismissed from the pressure cooker of fifth grade.
“Can we just go back and talk to her?” I asked. “Is the doctor back there with her?” I’d decided I didn’t want to waste any more time with a nurse.
What I really wanted to do was whisper a great story to my mother about this annoying nurse in her baggy scrubs and ugly white clogs. Mum, she wears a thong to the gym! She’s on that Stairmaster for like an hour nonstop! She’s totally cut; there’s not an ounce of fat on her; she’s obsessed! Can you believe she thinks you’re an alcoholic? My mother would laugh and roll her eyes. We’d both agree that this nurse was just another one of those health nut goody two-shoes. She probably drinks the one cup of coffee she allows herself every day with skim milk and Sweet ‘n Lo, I’d say. She probably doesn’t even like a good steak. We knew her type.
My mother was admitted late that night, and when I went to visit the next morning I was surprised to see the bed next to hers empty. It was just like my mother to finagle a private room. Good for her, I thought.
“Look at you with your upgrade!” I said as I walked in. She didn’t stir.
I approached the bed, glad for the chance to look her over without having to worry about the expression on my face. Then I saw the straps around her wrists and ankles. She was lying in the bed with her mouth wide open, breathing heavily, her eyeballs skittering underneath her lids. She looked like a mental patient.
I needed her to wake up and look like herself again. I shook her wrist above the Velcro restraint: Wake up. I put my mouth to her ear and began yelling.
She peered at me through half-open lids and I couldn’t recognize her eyes. Their color had faded from bright blue-green to murky sage.
One of the nurses came in with her finger to her lips. “Ssshhh,” she hissed. “She needs her sleep.”
“What have you done to her? Why is she tied up? What is she on?”
“She became very agitated so we gave her some Ativan to calm her down.”
Ativan? I knew exactly what Ativan was. My own doctor gave it to me to help with my chronic insomnia. This was one secret I kept from my mother; I knew she’d want some, and I didn’t want to share.
“Jesus, how much did you give her?” I asked. “She’s totally out of it.”
The nurse looked at the chart. “Two milligrams.”
“That’s it?” I took one milligram myself, sometimes two if I had PMS. I’d learned from my mother in grade school that only saps take two aspirin for a headache when three kick in a lot faster.
“Look, she’s exhausted and dehydrated. Come back tomorrow and we’ll see where we are.” It wasn’t a suggestion, more like a directive. The nurse wasn’t going to leave the room until I did.
Fuck you, I thought. “Mum, they gave you some sleeping pills,” I said. “You’ll get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”
My mother’s eyes flipped open and she looked at me with complete lucidity. “Don’t go,” she said, “or they’ll put me in the dungeon.”
“She’s hallucinating,” the nurse said. “That’s normal with detox.”
I looked at my mother, waiting for her to ask the nurse just who she thought she was, but she’d nodded off and was starting to snore. I left the room.
By the next morning, she looked even worse. The corners of her mouth were caked with dried saliva and her lips were flakey and chapped. Her short hair was matted to her scalp. I knew she’d be furious when she woke up and realized people saw her looking like this. I tried to fluff her hair into an approximation of the stylish cut she maintained with monthly visits to her hairdresser. I considered whether lipstick would help. She hated her thin Irish lips and was rarely seen in public without a gloss of color. I was twisting the cap off my Sheer Mauve Madness when the doctor came in, trailed by a line of medical students who looked like they were in junior high. A few of the guys were cute, though. I knew she’d be pissed if I didn’t fix her up before this crew came in.
I slipped the lipstick back in my bag with an air of exaggerated indifference. Whether the medical staff thought I was about to touch up my own makeup or apply it to my mother’s unconscious mouth, I knew I’d come off looking either vain or slightly crazy. This was not the first impression I was hoping for. I needed all the credibility I could get when I mounted her defense.
“Are you a family member?” The question sounded like an accusation.
“Are you the doctor?” I asked, biting back the real question. Are you the doctor who overdosed her on Ativan? I thought my mother was hallucinating. It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d learn she wasn’t metabolizing the medication properly because of liver damage. For now, I blamed the doctor. I wondered if he knew it was his stupidity that had caused my mother to be strapped to the bed.
He was taken aback, clearly accustomed to reverence and respect from the family members. “Yes, I’m Dr. Souza,” he said, proceeding to introduce each of the residents clustered behind him like a Greek chorus.
I didn’t tell him my name and he didn’t notice. Instead, he turned his back and started presenting the case to his students, oblivious to the filthy looks I was giving them. They listened, occasionally glancing at my mother’s prone form.
The doctor began telling them that this was a sixty-two-year-old mildly obese woman who arrived by ambulance in the ER the previous night. What? She’s a little thick around the middle, but obese? Patient was complaining of gastrointestinal distress. Intake nurse noted a strong odor of alcohol. Upon initial questioning, patient first stated she drank one bottle of beer daily. See? Clearly she was sick, maybe even delirious. Mum hates beer. Except on a hot sunny day with a hot dog off the grill. Maybe once or twice in the summer. Upon later questioning, patient stated she drank one bottle of wine with dinner each night. A glass! She meant to say a glass! For God’s sake how can you quote statements made by someone delirious from the flu? Abdominal region was tender to the touch and palpitation revealed an enlarged liver. Of course the region was “tender,” she’d been vomiting all night!
After this introduction, the doctor replaced words with numbers relating to blood chemistry and metabolic indications, details of which were so foreign to me that I gave up and turned all my concentration toward willing my mother to wake up. I fantasized about her sitting up in the bed, casually removing the tangle of tubes and wires and chatting amiably with her visitors. She’d let me take care of the discharge paperwork and we’d stop for brunch on our way home. She’d want a mimosa, but this time I’d say no.
After twelve days, she was finally deemed fit to be released. The confusion and hallucinations ebbed, but conversations with her were still an exercise in patience. The worst ones were on the topic of her drinking.
The doctors and nurses had approached these conversations with an enviable detachment. To them, it was like simple math. Long-term excessive drinking equals gastrointestinal distress, and can also equal diabetes, especially when the drinking involves sweet, acidic lemonade and vodka. Adding aspirin to the equation didn’t complicate the math; it simply changed the addition factor to a multiplication factor. There was no mystery here. They told my mother she could no longer drink. They’d be happy to provide her with resources to help her with what they acknowledged would be a “difficult transition,” but they weren’t interested in debating the causality of her admission to the hospital.
Desperate to leave the hospital, my mother finally learned to nod like a guilty child each time this little sermon was delivered. At first, she attempted to negotiate with the hospital staff—What about just one glass of wine with dinner? No? How about just when we go out to eat? No hard stuff, just wine. No? What about just on special occasions, like a wedding? To me, these seemed like perfectly legitimate reasons for taking a little break from enforced sobriety, but the medical personnel didn’t see it that way. So rigid, my mother later told me, it’s all or nothing with these people. And I nodded like that four-year-old, in on a secret the others were too stupid to figure out.
It was in this spirit that my mother arrived at the final hurdle before her discharge: the team meeting. The gathering was held in a small conference room at the end of her floor. The nurse led my mother in, holding her arm above the elbow as if to emphasize just who was the patient here and reminding me of the way court officers led in the defendant—all that was missing were the cuffs.
Dr. Reed, whom I’d come to hate almost as much as my mother did, began the proceedings. He greeted my mother cordially and asked how she was feeling. “Fine!” she answered before he could finish his question, as if the speed and perkiness of her answer might directly correlate to the length and outcome of this meeting she had come to dread.
He nodded pleasantly and began his introductions. Although his voice was not quite a monotone, it was clear that Dr. Reed was less than fascinated by the proceedings. He was unnaturally tall, and like the other professionals in the room, decidedly trim. In contrast to the staff in their hospital garb, my father and I were bulky in our street clothes.
In addition to Dr. Reed (or “Dr. Thin As A Reed” as my mother referred to him in our conversations), there was the nurse, a social worker, a case manager and an “addiction specialist.” My mother rolled her eyes at me when this last person was introduced.
The medical details of her hospitalization were quickly recited, concluding with Dr. Reed’s confirmation that the patient was now stable: all gastrointestinal issues were resolved. However, he noted, there was a serious risk of readmission if the patient continued to abuse alcohol.
My mother leapt at this statement. “Oh, I know that,” she said brightly. “Of course, I’m not gonna drink too much,” she nodded at the group. “I know I have to watch it.”
My mother sighed and shook her head as each of the people at the table confirmed this admonition with varying degrees of tact. I knew that the only word my mother was hearing was “alcoholic,” and that since she didn’t consider herself one of those, all of the other words were wasted.
It was Dr. Reed who unwittingly uttered the magic phrase. He told my mother her body was “more sensitive” to alcohol than most, and that therefore while some people could drink moderately with little to no adverse affect on their health, this was not the case for her.
Here was the dispensation my mother had been looking for all along.
“So what you mean is that I don’t drink more than anyone else—like, look at my husband! Look at my daughter!” she said, cocking her head in our direction. “They love to drink! We all love to drink! But you’re saying it’s just that for some reason my body can’t handle it the way theirs can, right?”
Dr. Reed nodded carefully, as if waiting to see where this was going.
“So, it’s not that I’m an alcoholic like some bum on the street,” she continued. “It’s just that my body is sensitive, so I can’t drink. Is that what you’re saying?”
All he had to do was nod, but Dr. Reed refused to endorse this line of thinking.
“Maureen,” he said, “a lot of people don’t want to admit that they’re alcoholics. It’s very important, however, that you come to terms with your addiction before you can begin your recovery.” Having delivered this line, which may have come straight from the hospital’s “Do You Have a Drinking Problem?” brochure, Dr. Reed snuck a look at his watch.
In an effort to salvage the damage, the social worker reached across the table and held my mother’s hand. “Maureen, we just don’t want to see you back in this situation,” she said. “We want to make sure you understand how serious this is and that you’ll get some help, because it’s tough. Okay?”
Dr. Reed’s beeper sounded and he excused himself with a look of great relief on his face, and I imagined he had pre-arranged this page like someone going on a blind date: Beep me in twenty minutes if I’m not out of there.
After scribbling notes and shuffling through her stack of papers, the case manager handed my mother a list of “resources.” But, she warned, we needed to have a plan; this wasn’t something we could procrastinate about. “Let’s brainstorm,” she said. “When is your favorite time of day to have a drink?”
“Four o’clock when Oprah comes on,” my mother answered immediately.
“Ok, that’s good, that’s really concrete,” said the case manager, excited. “So what we need to do is come up with an alternative activity to distract you from that event that triggers your craving for a drink.”
I felt myself drawn irresistibly to her enthusiasm. I’m a sucker for new beginnings. This would be just like any number of schemes my mother and I plotted—getting me a job, talking the saleslady into a deeper discount on that clearance-sale sweater, joining Weight Watchers, quitting smoking. A plan! We would make a plan.
“Mum,” I said, “maybe you can join the Y, and instead of having a drink at four o’clock with the Oprah show you can watch it while you walk on the treadmill.”
The case manager loved this idea and nodded enthusiastically and the other women at the table joined in. “What a great idea!” said one of the nurses. “You’ll be replacing an unhealthy activity with a healthy one.”
“And a gym is a great place to meet new people,” the social worker agreed, “which is really important in your recovery.”
My mother wasn’t nearly as excited as the rest of us, but she played along gamely.
“I guess I could do that,” she said. “Sure.”
“So, Maureen, let’s make a plan for this afternoon. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?” the nurse asked.
“I’m going to walk into my kitchen and get a drink,” and here she paused and gave me her special wink, “of water.”
My mother hung on for another eight years after that first detox, and it was only at the very end that she stopped winking at me. As she cycled between compliance and defiance, her mental and physical health declined. It wasn’t until her last hospitalization that I finally met a doctor who gave me the acquittal I was looking for. She wasn’t confused because she was drunk. But it was worse; she had suffered irreversible brain damage as a result of her liver’s inability to clear her body of toxins.
This, however, was not the exoneration my mother was looking for. And the fact that after all this time I had chosen to side with the doctors was not just a disappointment. It was a betrayal. She thought I would always be her partner in crime, but breaking the rules was only a hobby for me. I was raising kids—she knew what that was like, so that was ok—but I was also going to graduate school, building a career, and seeing more of the world than she ever had. These accomplishments were meaningless to her when she realized that I, too, was one of the stupid.
It wasn’t until after she died that I acknowledged what I had long suspected: sometimes when we think we’re telling lies to the stupid, we’re really only telling them to ourselves.
Rumpus original art by Karen Cygnarowicz.