I can still remember the first time I saw my mom shoot up. I must have been 4 or 5. I hardly remember anything about that age but I remember the candle burning on the coffee table, the lights were low in the apartment and the thing I remember most is the smell as she put the spoon underneath the flame. It was pungent, vinegar with a hint of smoke. To this day I can’t stomach anything with vinegar. Being that young I was just sucked into the image as the flame engulfed the bottom of the spoon. It just hit it and moved around the edges like it was trying to eat it.
My mom would pass out on the couch and I would take the blanket I had and I curled up with her. That was as close as I could get to her in those days. She smelled of patchouli and stale smoke, I never cared for those smells but she was warm and the heaving of her chest would put me to sleep like a lullaby. Nights revolved around men or women I didn’t know, coming and going. She would give me comics or paper and crayons and sit me at the table.
“Can you be a good boy and draw me something?” My mother would ask as she put her hand to my cheek.
“Yes momma,” I would say as I grabbed the crayons and started to scribble.
I was determined to make her the greatest picture. I wanted her to be so proud so I colored and I colored and when I thought I was done I colored some more. The sun had set and I had lost track of the time. I remember the street lights being on and not noticing when they were lit. I put my crayons down and looked at my creation. It was me and mom. We were standing, holding hands and I had made the most beautiful sunset behind us. This was a place I wished to go. This was where we lived in my mind.
By the time I was done everyone was asleep. I walked over and blew out the candle and tucked the drawing under my mother’s arms. She stirred a bit and I petted her head as she mumbled a few words and fell back asleep. I had done it. I had created the perfect picture tucked well under her loving arms. I felt accomplished and having done my good deed made my way to bed.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of arguments. I wandered into the room and saw a man standing in the middle of the room grabbing my mother by the arms and shaking her. Her face was frightened and not knowing the context I ran over and started to hit the man on the legs. He stopped and looked down at me.
“Hey little man, me and your momma gotta talk. Can you go back to your room a minute?” The man said putting his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s ok sweetheart, we’ll only be a minute,” Said my mother.
I walked back to my room and closed the door. I pressed my ear to the wood and couldn’t make out the words only the tones which went up and down. It got heated and then it got silent and then the door slammed. I knew he was gone and made my way to the living room where my mother was slumped on the couch crying.
“Who was that?” I asked cuddling her on the couch.
“A man I owe money to. He was mad I didn’t have all of it.”
“Is he going to come back?”
“Yes, but I’ll think of something. I always find a way sweetheart. Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of it.”
This went on for years. After awhile I stopped being scared. It just became the normal. And just when I thought I had fell into a rhythm life threw me a curveball.
“I need to talk with you sweetheart. I have some news. You’re going to have a sister. You’re going to be a big brother. Are you excited?”
I was old enough by now to realize this was unexpected and the fresh hell I was in for. What mom was really saying was: I messed up and now you’re going to end up paying for it.
I have to admit, part of me was curious. And the other part said well you’ve been doing it this long what’s one more?
Nine months later and there I was. Standing in the hospital room looking down at my mother holding the purest thing she would ever do with her life.
Kayla was born on a rainy Tuesday and we had stale tatter tots and what passed for meatloaf as we sat in the hospital room and marveled at this wonder that had been pushed from my mother. I didn’t realize how adorable babies were. They were like kittens, the way their eyes opened wide with hope, free from the poisons of life. Ah, to be born and naïve. I envied her in that moment, but as I thought about it a little more I realized I didn’t want her to see or experience the things I had to. Right there in that hospital room I made it my mission to protect her from the things I had been subjected to. Little did I realize at that age how much of an undertaking that would be.
By Kayla’s first birthday we had survived two overdoses, three evictions, and two arrests (possession and prostitution). I had become adept in the kitchen. Between the food channel and YouTube I had learned how to make a mean scrambled egg and fluffy pancakes. Chocolate chip were Kayla’s favorite. I made sure to dump half the package into the batter. It looked like more chocolate than pancake but that’s what she liked so that’s what she got. I know it wasn’t the healthiest but seeing how her life was as shitty as mine a few extra chocolate chips never hurt anyone, if anything it only made you look forward to the next day. It was the always the little things that kept me going and if I could instill that in my little sister she would learn that the world was conquered one day at a time.
As we got older it became harder to hide what my mother did. I tried to shelter Kayla but sometimes it was unavoidable. The used needles on the table, the coming and going of junkies and our mother’s utter lack of function became apparent.
“Why does momma sleep all day?” Kayla asked me as we made our way down to the bodega to buy milk and bread.
I thought about how to answer this. I could tell her the truth. I could tell her a lie. I could blend both of these but in the end I was in a dark philosophy that life was what it was and why should I sugar coat it.
“Momma is a junkie,” I said holding her hand walking into the bodega.
“What’s a junkie?” Kayla asked.
“A junkie is someone who has a drug problem.”
“What are drugs?”
“Drugs are things people take to get high.”
“Why do they get high?”
“People get high for a lot of reasons. Some people use it to be social. Some use it to escape their feelings. Some just like the way it feels.”
“Why does momma take them?”
“I think she started to take them for fun and then she became addicted and now she can’t stop.”
“Why can’t she stop?”
“I wish I could answer that kiddo.”
We bought milk and bread and had the long walk home where my sister now knew what a junkie was. It was oddly satisfying to know that I could tell her that. I didn’t feel guilty or ashamed. I felt like I had done a service. I felt like I was preparing her for the world.
“You told her I was a fucking junkie!!” Why the fuck would you do that?” My mother said confronting me in the kitchen the next morning.
“You are one,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean you have to tell her that. She’s 5 years old; she doesn’t need to know about any of this.”
“You think she doesn’t see it? Did you think I didn’t see it?”
“You…You were different.”
“How? How was I any different? I still saw you shoot up. I saw your withdrawals. I saw it all, no filter. Why would I lie to her about anything? At the very least she can figure out she’s fucked a lot sooner than I did. “
My mother stood there speechless. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she started to spasm in an uncontrollable fit of misery. She hugged me, the first time in years she showed any form of emotion towards me. I hesitated a moment before returning the hug.
“I’m gonna get clean. I swear to you,” She said hugging me harder.
My mom tried. She really did. For that I commend her, but in the end the mistakes of her past had caught up with her. Sharing needles for that long resulted in her catching Hepatitis C. She lived awhile but eventually her liver became compromised and she died. It was long and sad and something I wished my sister didn’t have to see but she handled it surprisingly well. Some members of moms had come down to handle the funeral arrangements. Kayla and I were going to be shipped off to some distant relative. It didn’t bother either of us. Any life we had outside of this was bound to be better.
At the funeral, after the service, Kayla reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Momma said it was her favorite,” Kayla said with a smile.
I unfolded it and it was the drawing I had done for my mother where we were holding hands and had the sunset behind us. I started to cry.
“Are you ok?” Kayla asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
I placed the drawing at base of the headstone.
“Won’t it get rained on?” Kayla asked.
“It’s ok. Mom will remember what it looks like.”
“Can we go?”
“Yeah, let’s go home.”