Digging for happy memories, like an archaeologist of love

On the crisp cold day after Thanksgiving, instead of joining the crowds for Black Friday, I found myself wandering into Our Lady of the Desert Catholic church, here in Mattawa, Wash.

My husband Dan and I own a wee two-bedroom mobile home in eastern Washington. We come here as often as possible, to escape the rain on the west side of the Cascade mountain range.

Many folks who don't live in Washington state picture it as all-over green from perpetual rain. What most locals understand is that the state is actually about one third high desert. On this side of the mountains, it looks and feels very much like the California of my youth. Low meandering ridges of brown hills -- that look like long sleeping dinosaurs -- big starry skies, orchards and vineyards, and the morning sounds of desert doves and quail. It is my happy place, and soothes me, body and soul.

It felt much needed that day in particular, as this was the first Thanksgiving after Mom died. It felt right to head out into the 20-degree morning, to go find a candle to light for her. Her light was very bright, once, though that was a very long time ago.

My mom died just a few weeks before Thanksgiving, but she has been dying for many many years. Since her final slipping away, my feelings have swung like a big aching pendulum between mad and sad.

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I have sat down a couple times to try to write about her death, but depending on the day, what came out was all mad or all sad. And while both of those are accurate, neither extreme says it all.           

A dear friend wrote me a note after my mom passed, letting me know that she understands more than most about when a parent who was an addict dies. There is no redeeming Hallmark moment. There is only this long slow circling of the drain, an inexorable spiral of loss and decay. And then it is over. The relief is palpable, as the drama has ceased. But in its place is this vast empty space. Like how I know Lake Michigan is a lake, but the opposite shore is so distant, there is no seeing it, so it might as well be an ocean.

My mom spent 52 of her 74 years addicted to alcohol and cigarettes. She always happily blamed both of these habits on me. It seems the colic I had as an infant was so stressful, my pediatrician -- who, the story goes, had nine kids and smoked like a chimney in the office -- gave my mom two "prescriptions" to help her relax.

Number one, start smoking.

Number two, fill a baby bottle half full of whiskey, and half with water.

My mom said: "I should feed that to the baby?!"

The doctor responded: "Hell, no, that's for you. You go in a closet, you drink the bottle, you forget about the baby!"

Whether that conversation actually occurred, or whether it is apocryphal, the toll both "medications" took on mom's beauty and vitality was ultimately -- as my son Duncan expressed two days before she died -- "scarier than 'The Walking Dead.'"

Perhaps that is why there is such a void where my mom used to be. I have no recent happy memories to use as a bridge from who she was to whom she became. I find myself digging into the far past, like an archeologist but without the cool outfit and tools. Just the need to find something, anything, that links me back to the time when she was somebody worth missing.

Once upon a time, there was this young woman named Bonnie Nelle who looked like a movie star. She had short dark hair, jade green eyes, and was petite in stature but athletic and sturdy. This gal had world class gams (legs for the younger readers), and a rifle crack laugh that could freeze a room full of people, where she often found herself, as she was once a social whirlwind.

She was also one of the most intelligent, quick-witted, talented ladies one can imagine. There was not much she couldn't do, and well: playing the guitar and singing, cooking amazing and adventurous meals, sewing and upholstering and decorating, painting and wallpapering, playing golf and tennis. She could crank out the New York Times crossword puzzle in nothing flat. And she often read a book a day. This woman was a Tasmanian Devil of brains and talent. Once.

Sadly, that woman started to fade away when I was about 11 years old. I have long felt for my three younger brothers, because my best memories are from my first 10 years with Mom. Their memories of her must be respectively shorter, or significantly different, staggered by our age differences and her steady disappearance.

As I held the lit match over the votive candles, choosing the exact one that felt like it was for my mother, I found myself brushing sand away from treasured memories. Three stand out.

When I was 3 years old, and my brother Tim was one, mom would tuck him into his crib, then climb into bed with me, spooning my short chubby body, her knees behind mine. She would rub her hand over my ear, each pass of her warm fingers pulling a seashell-like cup of ocean sound from my chin into my hair. She repeated that she loved me until I fell asleep. That is a good one.

Then, when I was a little older, around 5 or 6, and we were at a crowded park or beach, I could always find my mom by her legs (remember, I was still very short), and the smell of her warm skin. I was like her baby elephant in the savannah. We were hard-wired, so even if there was a moment of panic in a sea of Bermuda shorts, I found myself in a bee-line for her body. That is also a good one.

My best one was when I was about 10 years old. Mom's sister Robin was visiting us, and we drove her up the California coast in our yellow camper van.

I remember a stormy night at the beach in Sonoma. There was rain and howling wind, and we were all huddled inside the lantern-lit, wind-rocked van, a sweaty warm haven of bodies. Mom, Robin, my three brothers, Sparky our fat beagle dog, and I. There was a full bag of Fritos, canned chili warmed on the camp stove, Mom playing her guitar, and all of us singing.

We sang about green alligators and long neck geese, some humpty back camels and some chimpanzees. Into the night, against the wind, together, in that moment, forever.

In the universe, there was at that particular moment, no place more safe or full of love and salty, sandy perfection. I am certain of this fact.

It is has become in my memory like one of those chunks of amber in "Jurassic Park." A perfect golden freeze-frame, encapsulating the best, most comforting memory of all time.

And much like that prehistoric creature caught in its heyday, by the next year, our mom started the long process of becoming extinct. That year is the marker between before gin and after gin. I was too young to know the reasons, but that year, mom switched from drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night to the hard stuff. Ironically, to Beefeaters Gin, the preferred drink of her father, whose own drinking often made him sharp and mean.

I later learned that grandpa did eventually stop drinking, and became a kinder version of himself. But when I was 7 years old, and my grandfather had departed after a tense and inebriated visit, my mom pulled me tightly to her and whispered in my ear: "Don't ever let me become like my father."

It seemed obvious that I was just too small to take on that serious of a promise.

But three years later -- when my mom seemed to turn away from me and my little brothers, and towards that bottle of Beefeaters -- it sure felt like it was somehow all my fault. Like I had fallen down on the job she handed to me. It certainly felt like my project for the next nearly 40 years, to try to get her back, and keep that promise that I had unknowingly but completely made.

I chose a candle with a colorful Our Lady of Guadalupe emblem in the back row and lit it. As the flame flickered into life, I exhaled loudly, and again experienced the release from that day in 2009. That year, I had walked around the block in the pouring rain, finally handing that long-carried promise back to God.

My brother Tim and I had just spent many months, and much of our time and money, helping our mom get into an assisted living center in Port Townsend, Wash. She was finally clean, and fed, and well cared for. Her hair was regularly washed, her sheets were changed, and they had flushing toilets, even. And crucially, it was a place where family and friends could actually come and visit her.

But mom missed her husband Fred, her cats, and most of all, drinking and smoking. She checked herself out. And that was that.

I finally let go and let God, as the saying goes. It had literally taken all of my adult life to learn the core lesson of addiction: the addict has to choose. We simply cannot choose for them. Period.

Which really, really, really stinks. I know God came up with this free will thing. But dang, it is hard to watch someone you adore die slowly from their own choices. Maybe the hardest thing ever.

As I turned from the warmth of the candles, and headed back through the cold church, I found my cheeks were wet with tears. But I didn't feel mad. Or even sad. I was just simply glad. Glad mom's downward journey was finally over. Glad she was free of that horrifyingly frail body, of the pain from the gangrenous bed sores that infected and finally killed her, of the addictions that stole away all her other choices.

My heart exults in the idea of her soul going through the big cosmic carwash of heaven, where God remembers exactly who you are -- who you would and should and could have been -- and rubs you clean again. Like a pink baby, dewy fresh and spanking new and full of hope.

And from safe in God's big hand, she can see me. Down here. Loving her. Like I did when I ran through a crowd to grab her warm beautiful legs, rubbing my face into her mom-smelling skin. She was my center, once. My safe place in the storm. My everything.

She sees me, and knows how hard I tried, and forgives me for not being able to keep that promise. Just as I forgive her for asking it of me.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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