James Joyce once said, “Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not.” I don’t know much about that, but I know addiction is not unsure either.
The first time I met my mother I was 8 years old. You might try to argue that we met on the day I was born, so I’ll briefly mention that I was born premature and with drugs in my system. My mother wasn’t allowed to hold me.
We were sitting in traffic on a hot day under a freeway overpass. My dad said to his children, “That’s your mom.” All four of us looked around for someone we had only ever heard of. We saw a homeless lady draped in rags and wild hair. She walked with her head down. I remember wondering how he knew it was her. How could he know her out of all the other homeless people just like her? My dad gave my older brother a twenty and asked him to give it to her. Imagine an 11-year-old boy getting out of the car in the middle of traffic with a twenty approaching a woman who was not asking for anything but needing a life. She didn’t know him, she had to ask him who he was.
“I’m your son.” The instant she recognized him she reached to hug him. My heart was pounding as I watched him run from her back to the car. We yelled and told him to hurry as she chased after him. He was afraid of her. We all were afraid of her. She got to the car just as he slammed the door behind him. She leaned into the front passenger window where my little brother was sitting and asked my father if she could see him later.
“No Patrice,” he spoke with a love I’ll never understand, and I never knew myself. “and don’t use that for drugs”
“You’re all so beautiful. Look at you.”
When the cars started to move, my dad told her we had to go. Not one of us took our eyes off her until she was out of sight and when she was gone my dad said, “I feel bad for her.”
“feel bad for her!?” I thought.
“She probably goes most days without remembering she has kids. But she will have to go to sleep tonight, wherever she will be, and know that she has a family somewhere. It’ll be hard for her.”
The next and last time I saw my mother I was 17 years old and was living at home with my 2 brothers and our father who would soon also abandon us, lose his job, lose his house, and sanity on his downward spiral from being a working-class citizen to a homeless drug addict. I was in my room watching a movie when he brought this woman that he picked up off the street in to see me. She looked a lifetime older than she was. Her life of using and living on the streets had stolen anything about her that may have once been beautiful. A short, wrinkled, decayed-mouthed wench stood before me. “You’re so beautiful!” she said to me and was met with a polite thank you. My father tried to tell her about me, but that stranger in my doorway, the one who reeked, could only tell me how beautiful I was. She said it so much that it made her aware, probably for the first time in decades, of her own vanity because she asked me for makeup. Her skin was burned, and cracking. She was wrinkled and filthy. Her lips curled in and she was easily the ugliest thing I’d ever seen up close. And she asked me for makeup. Of all things for that woman to ask of me, and of all the people to ask anything of me. It was a mother who had never known me a day in my life asking for something as desperate and pathetic as makeup. A mother who chose again and again a life of drugs over me. This ironic encounter with her after all these years would be the hallmark of my dad’s descent into his own addiction and this was one of the last days that I remember being someone’s child.
This is what addiction has looked like in my life.