The children were in the kitchen. One was in a highchair, face smeared with spaghetti. The other was banging on pots, one-man-band style. I took off my confining work blazer and pulled my bra through an armhole of my dress. Then I wiped day-care germs off the tiny percussionist and popped him into a booster seat. He carefully wound his spaghetti onto a fork.
I was teetering on one foot, trying to remove a black pump, when the phone rang. In no mood to chat, I let the machine answer it. From the speaker I heard my husband’s brother Daniel say, “Hey. It’s me.”
One shoe still on, I hobbled to the phone.
“Hi, you! I just got in from work,” I said.
Daniel paused. Then he told me that his sister Michelle, my sister-in-law, was dead.
I remember hearing the garage door open and knowing that my husband, Ken, was home. I noticed my kids looking at me and realized I was crying.
It was a car accident. Michelle had died at the scene, Daniel said. I asked if she had caused it. It looked that way, he said. “Also . . . she killed someone.”
My husband walked in the door smiling. I handed him the phone.
At long last we’d gotten The Call.
There had been precursors: The call that Michelle had gone AWOL from her military post. The call that Michelle’s abusive husband had pushed her down a staircase and caused her to miscarry. The call that she was in rehab. The call that she was out of rehab. The call that she was back in rehab. The call that Daniel and three other family members would be taking a private plane to retrieve Michelle from abusive husband number two.
I’d first met Michelle after Ken and I had been dating for a while, when I was invited to his parents’ home for Thanksgiving dinner. The house was an enormous white colonial with all the grandeur and arrogance of the Old South. When I arrived, the men were gathered around the television drinking beer, and the women were having midday cocktails in what they referred to as the “keeping room.” Dinner was to be served at four, so the women were dressed in linen, which they considered casual enough for afternoon dining. They had actual hairdos. They did not hug or kiss me when I was introduced but shook my hand by grabbing just my fingers.
“Is Michelle coming?” I asked. I’d heard she was a recovering addict, and the free-flowing alcohol didn’t seem appropriate.
“Why?” a sixtyish woman asked me with a drawl. The wariness in my voice must have given away my concern.
“Well,” I said, all eyes on me, “I just thought—”
The woman cut me off: “Michelle is just going to have to learn to cope in a world where other people can hold their liquor.” The others nodded appreciatively. I said nothing.
Michelle arrived wearing jeans, an emerald sateen shirt (half unbuttoned), and a jacket emblazoned with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s name on the back and the Budweiser logo on the front. She placed a well-worn plastic bowl containing gelatin fruit salad among the elegant casserole dishes, then burst into the quiet keeping room with the exuberance of a Labrador. “Where is Kenny’s new girl?” she bellowed, casting her eyes around the room. Spotting me, she wrapped me in a bear hug that smelled of stale smoke and perfume. “Let me look at you.” She spun me around and said, “You are a doll. Come on out to the patio and talk to me. I gotta have a cigarette.”
On the patio she pulled a pack from her giant handbag and offered me one. Though I’d quit, I took it. Blowing smoke and eyeing the back window of the house, she said, “Don’t let them look down their ass at you. Tell me about you and Kenny.” I told her how Ken — I’d never heard him called “Kenny” — and I had met. Michelle told me about her own boyfriend, then swore me to secrecy. “They don’t know who I’m dating, and I don’t want them to,” she said, hooking a thumb back toward the house, where the other women were passing by the windows.
“I don’t think they like me,” I told her.
“They probably don’t,” she said. “But they don’t like anyone.” Then she asked me to help her make some cornbread. She stood, gathered our cigarette butts in her hand, and took them to an outdoor trash bin. “Nasty habit,” she said as she led me inside.
Dinner was served on china. Ken’s mother raised a wineglass and made a toast to “family.” Michelle winked at me across the table, raising her own glass of water. By Christmas she would be drinking again.
I had experience with affable alcoholics. One of my earliest childhood memories was of my grandfather carrying me to the corner tavern and placing me on the sticky bar to show off his “favorite girl” to his drinking buddies. Soused regulars gathered around, fawning over me. Just five years old, I felt like a pageant queen. Then my grandmother stormed into the tavern, snatched me off the bar, and unleashed a tirade that sent patrons slinking into the dark recesses of the room.
This did not dissuade me from idolizing my grandfather, who’d been a drinker so long that he exuded alcohol fumes from his pores. Long retired, he still wore his work trousers every day but only a T-shirt on top — dirty and V-necked with burn holes in it. I never saw him cleanshaven. The fingers on his right hand were permanently stained where a cigarette dangled at all times. When he waved to me with that hand, the fingers didn’t move, making him look like the pope delivering a blessing. My grandmother doted on the other grandchildren, lavishing them with toys and favors, while she punished me with indifference for adoring the old man. My grandfather rewarded my worship by filling a three-foot-deep wading pool and flinging handfuls of silver dollars and Liberty dimes into it, proclaiming that the first grandkid to swim beneath the surface and retrieve the money could have it — knowing that only I, the oldest, could do it. And, when no one was looking, my grandfather would let me have sips of his beer.
My young-adult experiences with alcohol eventually taught me that genetics had dealt me a hand not worth playing. When your lineage includes two alcoholic grandfathers, one of whom keeled over in the snow from his cirrhotic liver, it’s best not to gamble. By the age of twenty-four I was as dry as a raisin. I should have gotten the message sooner, but, in truth, it took a few blackouts and public scenes outside bars, cursing nonexistent thieves for stealing my car when I couldn’t remember where I’d parked it. It took some failed relationships. It took near misses, dented fenders, frequent vomiting, and monetary losses. It took lost friendships. It took falling down, in every sense of the word, over and over.
When I was fifteen, my friend’s older sister walked me home from her family’s annual Christmas Eve daiquiri party. My mother greeted me at the door, and I vomited at her feet. She lacked Christmas spirit the next morning.
At seventeen I would emerge into the light of day on a Sunday, head pounding, bewildered to find my car in the driveway. I’d shake my head and think, Damn, how did I get back here?
In my junior year of college I experienced a terrible breakup with a man I’d planned to marry. My cousin Steven took pity on me and folded me into his massive tribe of friends. We’d walk to a local bar called Dockside, dump our quarters into the jukebox, and sing along in a drunken, swaying circle to Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” loudly proclaiming we would “all go down together.” Then we’d walk back into the night, draped around each other, swapping affections as the tide of alcohol swept us into the arms or bed of a not-quite stranger.
A large group of us made a trip to a Bahamian island that was nearly vacated during the summer. We descended on a large house with a dock that reached its wooden finger far out into the clear blue ocean. In the high-ceilinged common room, the drunken men took turns walking along a rafter twelve feet above the tile floor. At night we lay stoned in unspoiled dunes under inky skies, taking in a show of shooting stars. By day we piloted a boat to an even more secluded nearby island, where Steven and I would suit up and plunge into the water, oblivious to the dangers of sharks and barracuda, and chase fish we could not name. Once, armed with only a mesh bag and a bellyful of vodka, he managed to capture a small octopus. Victorious, he sprang from the water, holding his catch high above his head. Then his foot landed on a sea urchin, which discharged its spines in protest. I was one of two sober people present, and I was worried. Steven was diabetic. For him a foot injury in a place without medical facilities was no joke. The crowd frowned at my concern, cheering wildly, “Shot! Shot! Shot! Shot!” Then they poured liquor down Steven’s throat. I didn’t drink again the rest of the week, instead mothering Steven until he resented me.
I would like to say that was the end of my drinking, but it wasn’t. I’d need a few more similar episodes before I finally stopped.
On a ski trip in North Carolina, our chalet was stocked with cases of Captain Morgan’s rum, and a couple of my friends made an ill-fated, 2 AM trip down the slopes on the lid of our hot tub, ending in a collision with a tree. One woman left in an ambulance with a compound fracture in her arm. I was passed out and missed the excitement. Most of the group found the incident funny, but I had the sobering thought that someone I knew was going to die, or come close to it.
The last time I got drunk was at Steven’s wedding. I was there with Ken, who was my fiancé at the time, and I lost count of my cocktails. I don’t remember a thing after our arrival at the reception. Ken told me later that I had talked wistfully about my ex-boyfriend between trips to the bathroom to throw up. He recounted the story with adequate mirth, but I knew I’d messed up. I didn’t want to risk ruining this relationship. That was the end of my drinking.
I was lucky. I didn’t have a physical dependency on alcohol. I just drank to be like everyone else at the party. Faced with a choice between dying young in a tangle of smashed things or pulling it together to have a regular life, I chose the regular life. I traded living on the edge for just living. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Every single day, for more than twenty years, I have made the decision not to drink. And I can never escape the stories people still tell about me, such as the time I crept from a bar bathroom, having stolen a toilet seat on a dare.
When my husband’s family criticized Michelle, decrying her inexplicable failure, I thought that, but for my critical lack of physical addiction, I could be her. It was easy for her relatives, over highballs at the country club, to view Michelle’s sloppy, beer-soaked lifestyle as a character flaw, a lack of class. They would climb into their luxury SUVs, unfit to be behind the wheel but confident that good taste made them better than she was. They abused alcohol in fluted glasses and deemed it social drinking. They could toast their choices only because they’d managed not to lose their jobs, or worse. They spoke of Michelle as damaged, unworthy. When her accident happened, it was as if their judgment had been declared sound. The entire family got drunk mourning her.
Two days before Michelle died, a package had arrived at my house with coloring books and crayons for our kids. While other relatives sometimes forgot my children’s names, she remembered them every holiday, mailing boxes of cheap Valentine candies, plastic leprechauns, and even seeds for Arbor Day. I’d called her to thank her, and she’d asked to talk to the kids. Her speech was slurred, but what did it matter to two children under the age of three? She babbled to them in high-pitched baby talk and laughed in delight. Then we said goodbye, not knowing it would be for the last time.
During his call Daniel shared the brutal details of the accident: After crossing the center line, Michelle had hit an old woman on, of all things, a scooter, crushing her against a concrete post. Michelle hadn’t been wearing a seat belt and had been thrown through the windshield.
On the horizon were lawsuits and accusations over everything from the accident to who should take Michelle’s dogs. My in-laws abhorred her common-law husband, but I wanted to reach out to him. It felt wrong for me to call, and also wrong not to. The box of gifts Michelle had sent to our children sat accusingly. I didn’t call.
On our way to Michelle’s funeral, driving through the rural Southern town where my husband was raised, we passed the intersection where the accident had happened. Heaps of flowers and a giant purple ribbon hugged the concrete post: a memorial for the woman Michelle had killed, an eighty-year-old great-grandmother on her way home from picking up medicine for her diabetic husband. Michelle, fresh from rehab, had knocked back a sedative with whiskey and was fetching some ingredients to make tacos — or so we’d pieced together from the autopsy report and the groceries found in her trunk.
Small-town life may feel like being trapped in a permanent nowhere, but at least there’s a big turnout for your funeral. Michelle’s parents were awash in people they’d known all their lives and would know until their deaths. Her father never removed his sunglasses and sat with his feet shoulder width apart. Her mother sat bolt upright, chin out and up, her hands tight around a hankie and trembling with grief or rage.
In the months that followed, the dead woman’s family filed suit against Michelle’s common-law husband for insurance money. Standing in court, he listened to the charges, then shouted, “This is fucking bullshit! My wife is dead!” His sobbing did not deter the judge from citing him with contempt. Michelle’s husband was dragged from the courtroom straining against guards, who later told the crime-desk reporter that he “smelled drunk as hell.” We never saw him again.
Some people didn’t blame Michelle’s parents for what their daughter had done. Some never stopped blaming them. Regardless, my in-laws were now the people whose daughter had killed an innocent old woman. A pall fell over the couple, and the pictures of the happy little girl who’d giggled easily disappeared from their counters and walls. My father-in-law was the only one I heard mention her, and then only when he was deep in a bottle of cabernet. “She was such a beautiful baby,” he’d mutter to the glass. “She was sick. She wasn’t a killer.”
I did not know the young Michelle, who’d helped care for her sisters and brothers. I’d heard about teen Michelle, who’d snuck out of the house and introduced Daniel to wine coolers and weed. There’s no sense to be made of her siblings’ accomplishments in academics, medicine, and law while Michelle’s life was nothing but false starts.
As the years passed, I would think of Michelle every once in a while. Christmas ornaments she’d fashioned of smiling Santas and glittering stars made their way on and off our tree. Tucked deep in the branches, a single dried rose from her funeral reminded me to stay sober. Each year my young children grew closer to the age at which they, too, would test the boundaries of sobriety.
Thirteen Christmases came and went before I found the empty water bottle hidden in my son’s jacket. The casing of a ballpoint pen jutted from the clear plastic, which was lined with oily soot. A makeshift bong. My stomach lurched. Was this an alarm bell, or was he just doing what most teenagers do — what I had done: swiping beer from the fridge, smoking, speeding, breaking curfew, lifting ten dollars from a purse, trying drugs? I heard the echo of Michelle’s promises to do better in each excuse my son made for his poor performance in middle school and then high school. I also heard the lies I’d told my own mother, and myself.
When did my in-laws know that what was happening with their daughter wasn’t just normal rebellion? By the time they knew, was it too late? As a mother I’d adhered to the principles of letting children have their privacy and learn from their mistakes, as my own mother had done with me. Michelle’s parents had gone the other route, enforcing strict rules and sweeping her into rehabs, programs, and finally the military. Do parenting styles matter, or are the Michelles of the world just wild horses who would rather die than be stabled?
Children do all kinds of things their parents never imagined they would. As a mother or father you expect to have to swallow your disappointment someday about a career move or choice of spouse, but nothing prepares you to be the parent of that child: The robber. The dealer. The addict. The murderer.
My son’s every youthful indiscretion caused me to worry that he might be led astray by poor judgment or heredity. Now he is at college, but I still worry the way I did when he entered middle school and calls from the principal’s office became about more than just a boy running a fever. When I see my son’s number on an incoming call these days, I am both relieved and terrified. He’s happy, well adjusted, sober, and a standout student, but the fear never leaves me that I will get The Call.
I cannot change the course of my son’s life, can’t childproof his world. Even if he is safe from himself, he is never safe. There are mothers right now getting calls that their children are gone. Fathers are receiving the news that the young man they taught to play chess is being held on charges. All the near misses that lead up to the final disaster are no preparation. Not even a lifetime of worrying is enough to make you ready for the day you answer the phone and hear those words.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.