Battling the Windmills of the Mind
"Remember me with smiles and laughter,
For that is how I will remember you all.
If you can only remember me with tears,
Then don't remember me at all."
-Laura Ingles Wilder
Bad times weigh more than good times. They are more embedded in the mind than happy memories, especially if planted early in life. Happy writes in pencil; sad uses a Sharpie. Charlie will attest to that.
People accumulate stuff throughout their lifetime. Then, someday after they’ve left this world, some poor soul will have to sort through it all.
Charlie figured he should get organized one more time before he died. And maybe he’d find something useful or significant in the stuff his wife, parents, grandparents, and three brothers left behind. (He outlived them all.)
It was at the bottom of a box in the attic, covered by a pair of gloves he remembered his mother once wore. Charlie stared at the image on the round-shaped top, the faded gold color, and he slumped to the floor. His mind shot back to that special day as his shaking hands moved closer to the treasured item he thought had been lost years ago, the childhood companion that shaped so much of his life. As he held it in his hands, he could feel the hope, prayers, sadness, and tears. Slowly, fearfully, he removed the cover, and after all that time, the music played.
“ Dad, do you think Jimmer and Vince could sleep over Saturday night?”
These were always hard questions for Dad. He knew such events were important to a twelve-year-old, and it hurt him to remove even small bits and pieces from Charlie’s childhood.
“I’m sorry, Charlie. That’s probably not a good idea.”
Charlie only half understood. He knew the reality. He lived it. But there was a part of him that carried the disappointment, the frustration, the anger. Love and anger had been waging an epic battle in Charlie’s mind ever since he was able to understand. It was a terrible struggle for a child as the battlefield was his feelings for his mother. Compassion and love vs. resentment and anger. There was never a winner. How could there be?
No one could remember when the dark cloud that hovered over their home first arrived. Charlie thought he must have been seven or eight years old when the shadow, the merciless enemy, the unbeatable foe, wrapped its arms around him and wouldn’t let go. What evil force brought it their way? Depression? Heredity? Repeated, prolonged consumption that ends with addiction? The cause didn’t matter so much to a child; he just wanted it to go away.
Stigma. That was the word back then. It was pre-Betty Ford and other well-known figures that fought addiction. Charlie’s mother didn’t want the stigma of being labled an alcoholic. Maybe at a later time, things may have been different, better.
Charlie wouldn’t see his mom for days, sometimes weeks. He avoided his parents’ bedroom like a House of Horrors, pretending, hoping there was nothing bad behind that door.
Charlie remembered that his poor dad, on a “good” day, usually a Sunday afternoon, would take his mom for a ride in the country. It seemed to be a pathetic enterprise, and Charlie wondered how smiles could somehow appear on their faces after a week or two of pure ugliness. It was at her funeral many years later, on the ride to the cemetery, that Charlie finally understood. His dad looked at him with empty eyes and said, “Your mother was the only girl I ever went out with.”
Whatever was going on, a kid wants to get his mom something for her birthday. Charlie was ten, and he was hoping for a taste of normal when he picked out the music box at the Clock Shop. The round lid bore an image of the Virgin Mary, and it played a melody he knew she liked- Ave Maria.
It was a rare good day. She was sober. Dad barbequed in the backyard. Charlie and his brothers made a cake. They all played croquette. She loved the music box. It was the best of times, and Charlie wished the day would last forever, but wishes are just that- wishes. Reality was back the next day.
Later in life, Charlie would tell his wife that as a kid he spent half his time trying to cling to the normal, half his time trying to cope with his mother’s condition, and half his time trying to figure out how she got the stuff. If you told Charlie that was too much time, he’d tell you there wasn’t enough time in a regular day to account for all his emotions. Unhappiness is not constrained by time.
Charlie and his one brother that remained in the home would often perform sentry duty as part of the family’s fruitless efforts to keep their mother from obtaining alcohol, but she was clever and constantly outwitted them. It was borderline miraculous or magic for someone who had been drunk in bed for three days to somehow acquire a new bottle of booze.
Charlie would often visit the music box which was sitting on a small table in the living room. He’d remove the cover and listen to the doleful tribute to Mary, sometimes remembering that special day, his mom’s birthday, sometimes praying for a miracle, sometimes just crying. He’d look at the image of Mary on the cover and think maybe the mother of Jesus could help his mother. He would hold the music box in his hands, trying to draw the power of the heavens to his cause. He tried as hard as any little boy ever tried to do anything.
Please help my mom. Please make her better. I want her back so much. Please.
Every time Charlie replaced the cover, he’d feel a slight vibration, hear a faint sound, signaling the end of the melody, the end of the prayer, as the small mechanism ground to a halt. It struck Charlie as a sad sound, marking the end of the hope he had been feeling, closing the door on a better life.
Charlie was the youngest by six years. Eventually, it was just him, his dad, and his mom in the home. His dad worked long hours, and with his mom being nonfunctional more than 90% of the time, he was often on his own for meals. Charlie once joked with his wife that if it weren’t for the invention of the pancake, he would have died by the time he was twelve.
As regular as things can become, there are some things one can never get used to. Charlie came to accept his mother “sleeping” in bed as part of life; he had a much harder time adjusting to moments like his mom downing a bottle of Vitalis or biting him in the hand when he tried to wrest a bottle of whiskey away from her.
Getting bitten by your mother in a battle over a bottle of booze would likely stand out as a traumatic, unforgettable moment in any kid’s childhood. That evening, Charlie awoke in the middle of the night, went downstairs, and sat in the darkened living room with the music box. As the sorrowful melody of Ave Maria filled his empty heart, there was no memory of a birthday, no prayers, only tears.
Dad did his best to get him to understand.
“She’s sick, Charlie. It’s like an illness, or like she hurt herself. We have to try to help her get better. I know she loves you, Charlie.”
And try they did. In the face of great reluctance, opposition, and downright defiance, Charlie’s dad got her to counseling sessions, outpatient therapy, and even a couple of one-week residential treatment attempts. Nothing worked. Hope-disappointment-hope-diasappointment-hope-disappointment. It’s hard to keep getting on that rollercoaster of emotion, get off, and then get back on again.
What could they do? She wasn’t mentally ill; she wasn’t a danger to herself or anyone else. There’s no law against getting drunk and lying in bed; there was no forced remedy, no legal recourse, available to Charlie’s dad to save his wife from herself. Charlie’s dad was a big, strong man, but he was no match for this enemy. Helplessness, frustration, sadness, and tears ruled the day.
Charlie tried to remember the good times by flipping through family photo albums. The history ended about the time her problems started, so it presented Charlie with the opportunity to see the times he wanted to remember- he and his mom riding bikes; the special birthday cake she made for him that looked like a car; Halloween pics- Charlie was Batman, his mom a scary looking witch; his mom soaking wet after Charlie nailed her with his Mega-Blaster Water Cannon; his mom holding him in her arms. Oh, God, how he wanted her back.
She was a good person, a good wife, and a good mom. She was a popular teacher, volunteered at their church, and coached the older boys’ soccer teams. It was hard to believe that something that came in a bottle could destroy it all. The person they knew was gone, vanished, replaced by this life form they couldn’t recognize. A life entirely wasted, dissolving before Charlie's eyes, and he was helpless to stop it.
The memories were all painful, but Charlie regularly revisited those years. What if societal attitudes had been better? What if his mom had not been so concerned about that damn “stigma” thing? What if there had been a better understanding of what he, his brothers, and his dad were dealing with? What if better and more accessible treatment had been available? Charlie could never let go of the ‘What ifs’.
It was difficult to be happy in those days. When he said goodbye to his dad as he left for school in the morning, there would be no mention of his mother passed out upstairs, but they always knew. It was forever on their minds, a suffocating cloak of unhappiness on their day, every day. There was no escape. Charlie’s feelings would swing wildly throughout the day. He’d feel bad for his mother, then bad for himself and his dad; then anger toward his mother, then anger toward all the taverns in town, every TV show and commercial that glamorized the world of drinking, the liquor stores, and every grocery store that now devoted more floor space to beer, wine and liquor than it did to fruits and vegetables.
The ”good” days were awkward. Charlie’s mother would clean herself up, perhaps even shower, and come downstairs. She looked weak, withdrawn, and sad. It was a balancing act- a few attempts at normal conversation followed by the need for rehab. Charlie would ask her how she was feeling and relate a couple of things going on at school. It all seemed so pointless, a brief oasis of time that was certain to be washed away within hours.
Charlie found comfort in the time he spent with the music box. Maybe it was spiritual. If Mary wasn’t helping his mom, maybe she was helping him. Sometimes he’d feel the soft tones of Ave Maria brought him closer to a better understanding of what his mother was going through, and he felt a certain peace. The feelings of anger were softened by the noblest traits of the human condition- understanding, compassion, and love.
When Charlie came home one afternoon from his summer job, he was surprised to see his mom and dad sitting at the kitchen table.
“Charlie, your mom has agreed to go to Hazelden for their month-long program.”
“I don’t want you to remember me…you, know, the way I’ve been. I want you to have good memories of your mother.”
Hazelden! The Holy Grail of treatment centers. It was what Charlie had prayed for so many times while the gentle tones of Ave Maria swirled around him. Prayers answered, the return of his mother, croquette in the backyard, a smiling dad. Charlie cried first, then Mom, then Dad.
“Thank you, Mom, thank you.”
The house felt different. That suffocating cloud left as soon as Charlie’s mom and dad pulled out of the driveway and headed for Minneapolis. Charlie never felt so relaxed, so happy. The music box! Charlie sprung up, grabbed the music box, wound it up, and played Ave Maria. He didn’t hear doleful tones; the melody had become powerful and joyful.
“Thank you, God…Mary…everyone up there who might have been listening.”
The preparation was extensive. The entire house was cleaned. They finished re-painting the kitchen. The refrigerator was stocked with Mom’s favorite foods. Charlie insisted on balloons and streamers for the day she returned home.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one”…or thing. Charlie and his brothers did an extensive search of the home, the garage, and the yard….every closet, every cabinet and drawer, every layer of clothing, shoes, boots, water pails, bushes, the dishwasher, the stove, wash machine, dryer, every place someone could hide something bigger than a stamp. They would not leave even a trace of temptation.
Happy. Charlie had not seen happy in that home for years. Hugs all around the moment Mom entered the house. Dad and the boys got Mom caught up on what they had been doing the past month. They thought it best to not touch on the rehab journey at his point. That was part of the past; enjoy the now. Pepsi, coffee, ham sandwiches, and some of Dad’s famous chocolate chip brownies. Charlie and Dad cleaned up after the mini-celebration, the older brothers retired to the living room, and Mom took some of her clothes down to the laundry room.
Happy and relaxed. Charlie hadn’t felt that way for so many years. His Mom looked like she did in those photo albums, and he felt the way he did on that special birthday. He thought of that wonderful day, the balloons and streamers, the lopsided cake, croquette… croquette! No one had mentioned it, but Charlie suddenly thought that would be the cherry on top, a no holds barred “jungle” croquette contest like they used to play, that they did that memorable day. He knew he could coax them all into playing.
Charlie went down to the basement to get the croquette set out of the storage room. As he passed the laundry room, he noticed his mom standing there. To those who have lived it, the look was unmistakable, empty, vacant, aloof, with an unsteady stance. Charlie would often reflect on his first reaction. It wasn’t that his mother had relapsed in the first few hours, that his dreams had been shattered, and that the life had just been sucked out of him. No, his initial thoughts were all about where she could have hidden the stuff. He was bewildered. It wasn’t possible. He and his brothers had searched every possible hiding place…twice. Freaking Houdini couldn’t have pulled it off. It was like being awestruck at a magic show. Sadness would always reign supreme, but the mystery would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Eighteen-year-olds also like to get a birthday present for their mom.
“She’s in bed, Charlie. You can try to talk to her.”
Charlie entered the bedroom, gift-wrapped earings in hand. The disheveled hair, the barely opened eyes, the smell. Her head raised for a moment and then fell back onto the pillow. Disappointment, frustration, and anger took hold of the moment. He tossed the package on the bed, mumbled “God dammit, here’s your birthday present”, and stormed out of the room.
That was the last time he saw her as she died just two days later from a stroke, never having recovered from the addiction. Charlie would forever remember and regret that he and his mother parted on bad terms. That was the most painful memory of the whole ordeal, a moment he could never undo.
Charlie got married, raised three fine children, and had a successful career in business, but he could never get past the sad memories of his mother. It weighed on him his entire life- the countless times he knew she was wasting away in bed, seeing her in the hallway looking like death warmed over, that day in the laundry room, tossing that birthday present on her bed in anger. There was a roadblock in his brain that would never let him get to a good memory of his mother. The day he related it all to his wife, he cried like a baby.
Charlie held the music box close to his chest as he crossed the attic floor. He sat down on an old trunk and stared at the picture of the Virgin Mary as he listened to the melody he remembered so well. He cried the tears of a ten-year-old as he relived those painful childhood years.
But then Charlie suddenly felt a comforting warmth come over him, a strange feeling that started in his fingers clutching the music box and moved to his mind and heart. Ave Maria, the prayerful melody wrapped itself around Charlie, held him tight, and gently massaged the memories of his mind. The sadness, the anger, the frustration, the sorrow, the regrets, all the horrible memories seemed to quietly float off into thin air. The melody played on. Charlie felt relaxed, at peace. He thought of his mother. But this time he didn’t see a pathetic figure wasting away in bed. He saw her riding a bike, baking a cake, sending her opponent’s croquette ball into the bushes, smiling and laughing as she was drenched with water. Charlie remembered her the way she wanted…and the way he wanted.
Charlie smiled. The gift he gave to his mother had just given his mother back to him.