I was terrified to be in the same room with her. She was hooked up to a respirator and heart machine, with tubes from a plastic bag swinging on a pole beside her bed carrying blood to a needle in her hand. Her face was gray and sunken, and she did not open her eyes when I called her name. She was curled up in the hospital bed looking as if she were 100 years old.
But my mother was only 40, and she was dying.
The death certificate read that she died of liver failure. But I knew it was the overall effects of 15 years of alcoholism that had eaten away at her. No part of her body was spared--the alcohol had not discriminated.
My mom had made a long journey before coming to lie in that hospital bed. Her death came quickly. But I realize now how slow her dying actually was.
At 18, my mom was unmarried and pregnant. She faced the decision every unwed woman must make and chose to give me life. My parents married, and we lived quietly as a family in a small apartment in Maryland.
It was hard for her to adjust to this new life style. Gone were the days of meeting her girlfriends at local hangouts or performing the leads in school plays. I was here and demanding of attention from a mother who was merely a child herself.
On my first morning of kindergarten, my mom walked me to school, showing me the way. That day she got a job as a waitress, taking the day-shift so she would be home to greet me after school. She later found a job as a bank teller.
One Wednesday when I was 9, my mom asked me if I might want to move to Texas (where we had relatives). On the following Friday, my daddy left. My mom and I sat on her bed, both crying, me not understanding what was happening to my family, she thinking that her whole life was tumbling down around her.
She stopped my crying and tried to cheer me up by making French fries in our new deep-fryer. We had fun cooking those fries. She made us forget for a time how scared and sad we really were. I never have been able to think about my parents' divorce, or homemade fries, without recalling that night.
We didn't move to Texas, but stayed put as a single-parent household. The years that followed were hard. She was still young, now single, and wanted to live the more carefree life that her friends led. She was a beautiful woman with a great sense of humor and she dated often. On weekends she would go out to bars and nightclubs, living it up with her friends. She used alcohol to escape her real world as a struggling single parent.
I spent my childhood worrying about my mother. We used to joke about how our roles were reversed, how I mothered her. Her moods swung up and down; she was happy, then depressed, nice and then mean. She was both hard to live with and wonderful to live with.
When I was 14, my mom remarried and we moved to California. For me, the transition was easy. I was in love with the idea of moving from our hometown to the excitement of Los Angeles.
For my mother, however, the move was devastating. She was homesick from the beginning. By the time I was a senior in high school, our house was in a state of chaos. She was drinking heavily, refusing to complete any treatment program my stepfather and I begged her to attend.
As a result, her new marriage fell apart. Being alone with her again was difficult, but I was older now and had finally learned that I was not responsible for worrying about her problems. Eventually, I also left our home to live with a friend's family until I went off to college in the fall.
The next three years were a mix of disappointment and happiness. While my mom and I actually became close, her alcoholism became worse and I did not know what to do for her.
During this past year alone, she was in three treatment centers, each time giving me renewed hope. But after a few weeks of sobriety, she would always begin drinking again.
We were on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. All the outside intervention in the world was not helping, and she would not help herself.
On July 24, I discovered she had again been drinking heavily and was very sick. I took her to the hospital, expecting her to be on her feet and detoxified in a couple of hours as had always been the case before. In one week, she was dead.
Looking at her in her hospital bed, I denied she was the mother I knew. She could not have been the one who made French fries with me that night, not the one who made special gelatin with fruit floating in it for me, certainly not the one with whom I used to decorate the Christmas tree. How could this dying woman be the one I used to share clothes with and talk to about boys?
I never had the courage to say goodby. I was paralyzed with fear. I hate myself for all the times I turned down just being with her because I was too busy with my own life. I had always thought I had a lifetime of visits yet to come.
Despite her alcoholism, I loved my mother, but I never knew how much until she was gone. I still find myself getting ready to pick up the phone and call her. I have to keep reminding myself each day that she is gone.
I just turned 21--legal drinking age. Most people would be excited about the prospect of going to bars and nightclubs, but I am scared.
I don't want to end up like my mom.
I realize, however, that my mom taught me an important lesson. That's why I am educating myself about the disease of alcoholism, a disease that affects more than 35% of American households.