Voices On Addiction: SALVE CAPUT


During a summer storm of three to four days of chilling rain, flocks leave the nesting grounds and may fly hundreds of miles until they encounter favorable weather. After the storm, they return in small groups to the nests. In their absence, the young survive without food, becoming torpid, cold, motionless, and barely breathing. Lower metabolism prevents starvation, thus allowing the young to be raised through alternating periods of plenty and shortage. Black Swift (Cypseloides niger), National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region

I woke from a deep refreshing sleep, my arms wrapped, probably too tightly, around Mark. I felt confused. Something had changed. Oh, my mother was dead. I was an orphan. “My mother is dead,” I announced, as if repetition would convince me.

My brother wanted me to drive him to the graveyard. Paul had not yet seen the plot I reserved for our parents. When I pulled up beside our parents’ cabin, Paul waited outside, hunched like an old man in a too-light ragged coat. As he walked to my car, he tripped. “I don’t care where they’re buried,” he said, slurring his words. “I’m over it. I’m not sentimental.” I don’t care. I’m over it. My brother’s most repeated expressions.

“We don’t have to go,” I said. “I can show you another time.” I told myself to show him love, because someday he might be that rasping dying person our mother had been at the end, and I filled with regrets about pushing him away.

“Let’s get it over with,” Paul said. “The mortuary needs to know.”

The tiny settlers’ graveyard, just three miles from our cabins, was flanked on three sides by foothills and mountains, the bay glinting like a long, twisted finger in front. The cemetery commissioner, an elected position for our rural village of three hundred souls, stood waiting to meet us. He consulted a sheet of paper holding rough notations. From the fence, he measured with a long tape measure, and then drove wooden stakes into the ground in the shape of a grave.

“I’m glad our mother is buried next to O’Wota,” I said, “or Kate, as it calls her here. My mother’s named Kate too.” The original people, the Strong Ones, lived in the area for twelve thousand years. O’Wota married a Norwegian settler, fostered orphaned children, and set aside land for a post office, a school, and this graveyard, where she and her husband were commemorated by a pillar.

Mark texted. “You okay? Invite Paul for breakfast?”

Paul bolted the eggs, muffins, and fruit Mark laid out on the table. “Nobody appreciates what I’ve done,” Paul said. “Nobody appreciates how hard it was to take care of everything.” After he left, Mark and I walked in the forest with the dogs, following the original people’s trails that lined the cliffs. I could hear my mother’s dying breath beside me, my brother’s sobs from the opposite side of her cot. The forest was golden in the late morning light.

“I will do whatever you need me to do,” Mark said, although I had asked for nothing aloud. I did not want to talk at any length. There was nothing to talk about. Mom died. Mom is dead. I still did not even want to tell people that. I wanted to keep it close to me. I just wanted to hunker down with Mark and the animals. I reserved the right to remain silent. My awareness was heightened, like a needle about to pierce my vein, and I needed to be relaxed yet alert, looking and yet looking away.

Paul had already scheduled the burial. It would be in two days. “I don’t give a fuck if you’re there,” he said when I called. “Nobody wants you around. I liked it better when you were in New York.”

“I liked it better when we were in New York too,” I said. In Manhattan, everyone gave parties. Night after night, we walked up to buildings, offered our names to the doorman, and pressed a number on an elevator. Rather than the dragging loneliness in this edge of the world, I’d had a heightened sense of awareness. If people needed a tribe, here in my place of birth, I had none.

With what seemed perfect logic, I made a plan. The day my mother was buried, I would start drinking again. That first night, my mother’s death had brought a sense of cleanness, even elation. My life was always about the two of them, my parents so solidly joined. It was impossible for there to be only one. That was why Dad had died first. The woman he loved had vacated the premises. He chose a coward’s way out. For the year between my father’s and now my mother’s deaths, I had known I too needed to erase myself.

After that one night of pure deep sleep, though, that first night after her death, even when sleeping, I felt as though I was awake. A sense of uneasiness hovered at the edge. For the year between their deaths, I had lived a form of insanity, denial coupled with waiting. Now I was released. But not released. Paul left messages, one after the other, with no greeting or salutation. He delivered plastic sacks of my mother’s clothes. “Maybe you can use these,” he said. Briefly, I was so angry I wanted to kill him. I understood how people could buy guns and then use those guns. My anger filled me up. Then I let the anger go and returned to the grimness. I no longer remembered who I was.

On an unusually warm morning, I bundled myself in layers and sat outside on my bench to drink espresso. The willow leaves had turned lemon yellow, and the resident eagle pair and two great blue herons perched nearby. They made screaming dives, flying back to their perches in curved flight. The days were short, yet they seemed to go on and on. “I don’t want to go to the burial,” I told Mark, “or the memorial.” Paul had scheduled a gathering in the Anglican church for the following week.

“You can do whatever you want,” he said. “When my parents died, my siblings scheduled parties and dinners, and I couldn’t go. I couldn’t even imagine it.”

“I’d like to get drunk.” There had been a time when we’d both stopped drinking, when Paul and I talked five times a day. Siblings in recovery. Siblings in blood.

Mark looked at me without expression or judgment. “There is no way you can make this better,” he said.

One piece at a time, I sorted through my mother’s clothes. I placed each item into boxes to donate. Paul texted. “You’re supposed to write the obituary. That’s your contribution. I’ve done everything else.”

I didn’t want to. I wanted my life back. I wanted the life I had before, in New York and here in my own home, minus the weekly visits to my dying mother.

I glanced out the window. Looking like a sad old street person, Paul walked down the path toward the house. I wanted to hide, as I so often wanted to hide when my mother made her own visits toward the end. Instead, just as I had when she visited, I opened the door, welcomed him inside, and offered him tea or coffee.

“Why aren’t you responding to my calls or texts?” Paul asked. “Are you upset to your stomach?” As he always did when crossfaded, he enunciated carefully, and he did not wait for my answer. “I can’t be alone,” he said.

The fourth day following my mother’s death, in the middle of the night, I jolted awake in utter panic and horror. “I didn’t spend enough time with her,” I told Mark, weeping in his arms.

“You were kind and gracious,” he said. “Always. To both your parents. Before Paul took over, you made dinner every night and carried it to them, set their table, and lit candles. You cleaned their house, cared for their pets, and drove them to appointments. I never once saw you be rude to either of them. You are polite and kind to your brother now.” He hesitated.


“You let them walk all over you.”

“I ran away. I abandoned them.”

“Your father was consistently nasty to you. You left because you were burned out, and it was your brother’s turn. Paul didn’t want you around. He made that clear. And I wanted you with me.” Again, he paused. “By going to New York, you saved your life.”

“I should be able to help him.”

“You both suffered the same loss. You can’t tend to his.”

Yes, Paul, I do feel sick to my stomach.

The morning of my mother’s burial, the sky was overcast. I could not stop crying. I wondered if I would ever stop. As if I were already drunk, Mark walked me along the forest paths. As if through thick fog or mud, I forced my feet along. The sky remained dark throughout the day. Burn them. Bury them. I would give myself the life-giving drink if only I could get through this.

Without consulting me, or maybe I’d missed the call, Paul made another decision. My father had wanted his ashes scattered on the bay. Instead, Paul instructed the mortuary to tuck the plastic urn holding Dad’s ashes into our mother’s casket. I liked the idea. Our father, always cerebral, was ash, while Mother remained in her physical body, our father tucked in her graceful hands.

A large truck and earth-moving equipment blocked the grave. As we approached, Kathy, Paul’s girlfriend, flashed her camera in my face. Although I held up my hand, she took shot after shot. Paul wore an oversized sweatshirt with a huge ring of keys around his neck. “Paul owns your parents’ place now,” Kathy said.

Beside the grave stood a stranger who looked to me like a gnarled frog. “This is Mom’s minister,” Paul said. In her final months, Paul drove our mother to a small Anglican church down the Canal.

“I have the feeling your mother and I would have had a lot of fun together,” the man told me, “if we’d had more time.” He made some sort of speech, but his words were so trite and insulting, making it clear he knew nothing about her, that I shut them out, concentrating instead on the rectangular hole in front of us. The dirt was a brownish orange studded with muddy boulders. The coffin had not yet been removed from whatever vehicle transported it. Not a hearse, it seemed. Perhaps a hearse cost extra money, and Paul, as executor, signatory to their checkbook and accounts, did not want to spend that money. Perhaps nobody used hearses anymore. Perhaps our mother’s coffin sat in the back of the truck.

“Would either of the children like to speak?” the minister asked at last. Mark, his arm firm, held me upright. I shook my head.

Kathy stepped forward. “Paul took care of his parents for years and years,” she said. “Nobody helped. He did it all alone.” She had a loud braying voice, and as with the minister, I shut it off. My parents were being put into the ground. I was glad they were together, my father in the cheap plastic urn with our mother in the cheap plastic coffin, like leftovers in a kitchen, each item properly labeled.

“It’s very simple,” Mark said when we arrived home. “Here is a pan of soup. Here is bread. Here is cheese.” He spread food across the table and lit a candle. “Eat.”

“I want to drink.” I was in a dream, and my mother had been dead forever. For as long as I lived, I would be sloughing through these thick days. Nothing I tasted, felt, or saw seemed real. It was as if someone had clawed off my skin and then dug into my eyeballs and tongue and brain. If I tried to think or move ahead, I would explode. In my forehead was a sharp and terrible pain. I could no longer remember anything. I could not remember how to read.

But she had only been dead four days and five hours.

“We live in this beautiful place where we can walk by the water, with nature,” Mark said.

“You never said anything like that before. All you ever talk about is wanting to go back to New York.”

“I’m glad we went, and I’m glad we returned.”

Although I didn’t want to be rude to Mark or to scare him, I was frightened, as if my father could rise out of the coffin to drag me down with him. My heart pounded so hard I felt it would pound right out of my chest, particularly at night, when I sank into exhausted sleep only to rise to full wakefulness as if popping up out of deep water. I needed Mark to hold me, touch me, look at me constantly. If he did not look at me, I might not exist. I was an infant, cupping her mother’s face in her hands, turning her to look at me. At the end, my mother had done that when I sat beside her dying body and cried. She lifted the tiny quilt the hospice people gave her, wrapped it around my knees and pressed my hands around hers.

“I don’t think I can go to the memorial,” I said.

“Think of yourself shutting down around your organs, as your mother did. You’re protecting yourself. You do not have to go. You do not have to take care of your brother.”

During Mother’s final weeks, I’d joined a support group. I wasn’t sure I liked it. The members, from teenagers to elders, spoke of what they called rescuing: brothers, sisters, children, parents, friends. Animals. Theresa had nineteen disabled cats and Sue twenty-two pit bulls. Walt and Marge had adopted an elderly man in their neighborhood, checking daily to see if he was all right, providing company and food, and taking him on errands. If they moved, they planned to take him with them. Taking care of others was a reflex action for these people. To me, it seemed a derangement. This ceaseless caregiving could kill them. It was killing them.

“You’re not saying much today.” As the group was about to end, Michaela, the facilitator, turned toward me.

“Oh, I’m having some mild depression,” I said. “I’m sure it’s normal for someone whose parents have died.” Several talked about medication. How once they took the magic pills, they could function again. “I don’t want to take medication,” I said.

“Thinking you can get through a clinical depression on your own is Calvinistic thinking,” Michaela said. “You deserve to be punished. You should be depressed your entire life.”

“I do deserve to be punished.” I did not tell them my plan to drink. For this moment, their kindness kept me afloat.

I decided I would after all write my mother’s obituary. I kept it short and simple. “She was concentrated sweetness,” I said. In response, Paul forwarded an email string, and I saw how he portrayed me to others. “This is who I have to deal with,” was the header. “Then my cat peed on the keyboard. That says it all.”

As if holding up a shield, I told Paul about the support group. “I don’t see why you want to sit around with strangers, sharing your personal information,” he said. “It’s all a bunch of clichés.” I felt no obligation to decipher the mystery. Tree spirits. Water spirits. I walked through clouds of thumb-sized birds, creepers, with their lisping high-pitched tsee, their song a tinkling descending warble, and bushtits, nuthatches, and kinglets, with calls thin and wiry, an ascending ti-ti-ti, followed by tumbling chatter.

In our home, I could make dinner with Mark, light candles. I could be grateful the terrible year of dying was about to end. We lay in bed and talked about death, our own dying, what we would want.

Someone tapped at the door. Paul stood on the front steps, talking to himself. Then he called, “Come get me,” in a small pathetic child’s voice, and I did not even know what he was referring to or where I should take him. We were reeling on the planet, free-floating, mired in the worst of ourselves. Mark held me close, and my brother finally turned and walked away. I felt as if something had been ripped from my body.

“You and I should be at the door to greet each guest,” Paul texted the morning of the memorial. I was crying so hard I thought I would turn inside out. Fuck defending my boundaries. I was sick of it. It didn’t feel right. I should please others, do what they wanted. This new way sucked. But there was no way I could go early and greet the guests.

From the back of my closet, I pulled out slacks, a blouse, and a jacket still in the dry-cleaner bags we carried home from New York. I had lost so much weight that nothing fit. In the end, I cinched my slacks with a belt and wore the over-sized clothes.

When we arrived, the pews were almost filled. The minister recited a prayer. Friends and relatives spoke. A niece sang “Ave Maria,” and then the brief service was over. Everyone filed into an adjoining room, where tables were covered with trays of food. Paul had spliced old home movies into an endless loop. In our faces, I could see every second of the future. Dad, handsome and aloof, mostly behind the camera and therefore invisible. Mother, former Stardust Queen and model, wearing elegant clothing no matter that we lived in the wilderness. I always stood off to the side, as if waiting to be summonsed, while Paul played tricks, diving from the boat or climbing onto cliffs and leaping into thin air.

I greeted a few cousins and uncles, thanked family friends, and then Paul thrust himself in front of me with a plastic zip lock bag. He extracted a document. “Sign this,” he said. “It’s papers about the estate.” I told him I’d look later. “Now,” he said.

“Can you drive me to my group?” I asked Mark. “If we leave right now, I’ll make it.” I needed to place my body in that circle of chairs. We didn’t speak much on that journey. I knew he was upset that I’d signed the papers without reading them. That I’d let Paul walk all over me.

When I walked into the familiar room in my baggy black, formal funeral clothes, Michaela looked at me with her clear calm eyes. “How are you?” she asked.

“I became hysterical,” I said. I confessed how I had failed. I abandoned my parents. My brother. I let everyone down. The mere thought of myself made me sick. I felt ancient, older than my dead mother, and that I’d been old since infancy.

“Your self-loathing consumes you,” Michaela said. She was filled with surprises. She was the person I wanted to become, complete with silver ponytail, sky blue beret, clear eyes, and air of utter confidence and calm. “Your childhood carved you out from the inside, and you filled yourself with pain instead. Your feelings aren’t hysteria. That was deep processing of the most profound, the most important kind.”

“You didn’t abandon them,” Michaela said. “They abandoned you.” For that entire session, Michaela and the group gave me special care, the kind I’d always craved. Attention did not have to mean pain.

As Mark and I headed home, Paul messaged me. “Do you need to debrief? I have big news.”

“Kathy’s pregnant?”

“No no no no no,” Paul responded. “I’m clean.”

When Mark asked if I still planned to drink, I said, Not today. That was all I could say.

I returned to my rituals and was grateful for the smallness of them. I made coffee, fed the cats, changed their litter, walked the dogs, cleaned up the kitchen, tidied the house, washed and hung laundry. I listened to “The Sacred Journey, Salve Caput Cruentatum.” Then I made more coffee, and Mark and I were silent or we talked. I worked in my studio and Mark in his. Time vanished into the familiar scents and sounds, the texture of wood in my hands. I sharpened, oiled and hung the tools that had belonged to my grandfather and father. “You’re a bottomless pit,” my brother once had accused me. It was true. You couldn’t pour anything into a jar with a giant hole in the bottom, or with tiny secret cracks. I released my brother from the burden of loving me, and perhaps he would heal. I would at last learn what distances to keep and not keep.

On the first day of the new year, sunrise struck the bay golden and deep red. I walked in the forest with the dogs, a physical imperative. I wondered if the paths had always been this beautiful, and I hadn’t allowed myself to see. I could barely breathe it all in. I wanted to turn myself inside out with joy. By four, light vanished over the hillside behind the cabin. The gibbous moon rose white gold over silvery water. I wished I knew a word for the green of moss right when it starts up freshly in spring. I would lie down on it and roll around. I would pray to it. I would sing its name.


Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick

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, interviews, and book reviews 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.

Kirie Pedersen’s writing appears in Hunger Mountain, Emrys Journal, Superstition Review, Under the Sun, Still Point Arts Journal, Lunch Ticket, Juked, Eclectica, Quiddity, Cleaver, PANK, Catching Days, and elsewhere, and includes nominations for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2018, guest edited by Hilton Als. Additional writing can be found at www.kiriepedersen.com. More from this author →