From Beginning to End

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”

                                         Joan Didion

I remember the beginning – the moment I met Swenny – like it was yesterday. Sitting in a large lecture hall on the first day of class second semester of my sophomore year, I fell nearly head over heels down the stepped aisle to catch him when class let out. By the time we reached the door, we had plans for the weekend. As the semester went along, I fell harder. And before classes let out for summer, I was in love.

And continued to be through a marriage that has held more joy than not. Alcoholism, though, has eclipsed what was best about us. Even with the end on the horizon, I chose to believe that what I was seeing was a future free from alcoholism.

Over time, relapse after relapse blurred that end. As I explored sober houses and recovery programs, Swenny became more determined to manage alone, justifying his inaction with promises as empty as my threats. Using harmony as currency to buy time toward an ending preceded by happy, I lost my way.

So I circled. Taking comfort in my own patterns of searching for bottles and lost conversations, I tracked the scent of relapse. Time and again, my instincts made true what I suspected. Which is why I found myself last night, with nothing more than a hunch, confronting Swenny about his drinking. As he stood in denial, I pulled on my boots as if leaving for the drugstore to purchase a breathalyzer test. Before calling my bluff, he turned away from me in tears.

He told me that his relapse in November has left him feeling alone. Charging me with giving up on him, he has been taking comfort in beers shared with co-workers in a meat cooler after work. Where for them it is a nightcap before heading home, for Swenny it is a way to leave no trace. A way to leave me searching for proof of which I need none. A way to tell me just what he thinks of me and my expectations for his sobriety.

A way to make clear the ending that I have lacked the courage to see through. Until now. With this, Swenny has given me closure.

 

 

From without

When our children turned 18, they made known their independence by getting tattoos. While Swenny and I wrote checks for tuition and housing, and put spending money in their pockets, they drew from their savings to ink themselves. In answer to my expectation that they exercise restraint and judgement in the number and placement, they invited me to get one of my own.

Because our conversations are sprinkled with references to long term recovery and what it would mean for our family, I always fall back on the semicolon. A symbol of recovery, it says with one simple mark that alcoholism is not the end of my story; there is more.

While I’m unsure that the semicolon is for me, I embrace its message that it’s not about the disease, but about the person and the people who surround them. Addiction was introduced into my story long before Swenny by my uncle who succumbed to his use, my grandparents and father who mourned him, and my aunt for whom his passing made all but impossible a happy ending. After he died, she carried on but with struggles of her own, including alcoholism. But that was never her story…she was.

Left a single mother, she raised an accomplished son in my cousin who is building his own happy life. My grandparents sought to ease her burdens by providing support when they could. Because both remained broken by my uncle’s death, and because of circumstances I cannot possibly appreciate, their good intentions were often cut short. Still, she persevered.

My memories of her play in the shadow of my uncle’s death and its aftermath. From the phone call to our home that he had died to the times we spent as a family in the years that followed, I recognize now how misplaced our concern was – always for someone other than her. Not once did we consider the impact of his passing on her. Not once as an adult did I reach out to her, letting slip by the opportunity to know her outside the boundaries of a tragedy we claimed as ours without acknowledging the distress in which she was left. With a sense of entitlement, though, I avowed her as my Godmother and noted each year our shared birthday. And still do.

Somehow, she made room for the family that estranged her because of an event not of her making. What must it have been like for her to wear the burden of my grandparents’ grief? Where from without she was strong, I wonder if the same was true from within.

Eventually, her visits stopped. The last time I saw her was at my cousin’s wedding. Her death a few years ago coincided with a period when Swenny struggled most, so I missed her memorial gathering, spending the day packing boxes for our first of two moves in less than as many years.

Today, my memory is crowded in a way that leaves me unable to smoothly merge our stories. I can, though, treasure what I remember best about her: the courage, strength and steeliness that saw her through. My aunt was tough in a way I have never been, and weathered in a way that made others take note.

Because I could use some of what she had, I woke up recently in the middle of the night with a message for my cousin. “Tell me about your Mom’s tattoos,” I asked. She had many, and none spoke to her struggles. They told instead about what she loved.

Encouraged by my cousin to follow her example, I have decided to stay away from any mark that suggests a break in my story forced by alcoholism or anything else. Because it continues, absent any pause, to the happily ever after that I keep within and guard from without.