Mom’s Walmart name tag hung around her neck from a faded lanyard and her dark curls fell around her face like an overgrown garden. I stared at her over the German chocolate cake that I’d made with the single candle notching her one year of sobriety and a deep longing spread through my chest. A longing for her to be the person I’d spent my whole life trying to change. A longing for the reckless uncertainty that she had colored every moment of our life with. Now, her eyes looked muted and I hardly recognized this new version of her. Everything was gray and a sense of loss weighed heavy over me. I fumbled around searching for pieces of who she was, pieces of who I was—who I am—because of her.
In one of my earliest memories, the cops are breaking the door off its hinges and raiding our little house on Michelle Lane in the desert of southern California. The sound of clicking filled my ears as the notches on the handcuffs closed around the tiny bones of Mom’s wrists. She shouted curses at the sweaty cop with a red mustache and her wild, dark eyes looked like starless holes. But I couldn’t stop thinking how pretty she looked in her moss-green housecoat. What I didn’t know was that she had a bag of meth jammed into its pocket and that she’d made it in the newspaper for being a wanted criminal. The fingerprints they’d found all over the burglarized homes in San Bernardino County belonged to her—three hundred houses and counting.
After the raid, Mom was sentenced to four years in state prison at the California Institution for Women. Whenever I visited her, I’d spread my stick-figure drawings of our broken family—me, Dad, Mom, and my brother—across the visiting table that wobbled and rocked. Mom would shove her pack of Marlboros under the stammering leg and slap cards on the table for a game of Uno. I’d watch her from the lap of her cellmate, Susan Atkins of the Manson cult. Stroking Auntie Susan’s long pink acrylic nails, I’d listen to Mom’s big laugh after she’d play three Skip cards in a row. Auntie Susan would laugh, too, but it was a quiet, closed-mouth laugh. I’d think about how happy they looked and wonder if Mom would ever come home.
This was when I started measuring the years in prison sentences and release dates. The beginning of marking days on the calendar with sloppy red X’s, days until I could see her again. This was when I first discovered the person I’d become. The Fixer. The Overachiever. The Well-Meaning Enabler. My childish mind thought if I could just behave well enough, if I could just be good enough, then Mom would come home. If I could just make her happy enough, then she’d want to come back to me. This is when I became myself—an identity defined by a ceaseless need to be needed and a craving for control.
When Mom came home, she came back into my life like a hurricane. Part of me wanted to seek shelter from the havoc she could cause, but a bigger part of me was so mesmerized by her beauty and power that I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the storm of her. Her reckless, free spirit interlaced with methamphetamines and left a path of destruction behind—in my life and hers—that I felt responsible for fixing.
But then she went to prison again. And again. Lost days. In and out and back again. Thousands of permanent red X’s filled the pages of every calendar.
I spent twenty years trying to help her, but she’d never admit her addiction. The many times I’d come to her with a smoke-blackened meth pipe in hand or a tiny bag of powder as light as snowfall, she’d wave it off like it wasn’t hers. Sometimes I’d feel anger bubble up from the core of me, and sometimes I’d feel shame, but mostly I’d feel sympathy. I saw her addiction less as something she was guilty of and more as something she suffered from—something I needed to rescue her from.
How can you save someone from a problem they won’t admit to having? You can’t. But that didn’t stop me from trying. And the trying looked a whole lot like enabling—maybe it was. But I didn’t know how else to love her.
When she racked up all her credit cards, I gave her mine. When she disappeared into the lost hours of the night, I made excuses for her—mostly to myself, but also to my family. When the laundry piled up to the ceiling and her stale coffee cups littered every surface of the house, I cleaned it up. When she broke her foot trying to kick someone’s door in to rob their house, I rushed to take care of her. When the cops came for her again, I mourned her absence for the hundredth time and swore to myself that I was done spending my weekends in visiting wards under the shadow of razor wire. But then I went anyway.
I thought that if I were strong enough to carry some of the load of her struggle that she’d find the strength to get clean. But with every prison sentence, empty lie, and shattered expectation, I was left wondering, would it always be like this? Left in the wake of her arrivals and departures, staring down at my empty hands. I kept reaching, always grasping for her—for stability. She was a bright balloon that always floated just out of reach—my outstretched fingers pulsing like tiny hearts, left empty and aching.
I figured maybe if I just loved her enough it would be enough to keep her.
But it wasn’t.
When I was young and still carried around a tattered piece of Mom’s red lingerie as a security blanket, I’d put my little finger in the bend of her arm where the skin looked like a swirl of watercolors, blues and purples like a fading bruise. This is how I remember her much of the time—as the one who struggles, the one who needs fixing. She was dependent on the thrill of the ever-elusive high. And without my realizing it, I’d become dependent on her dependency. As long as she remained dependent, I remained the one who could save her.
Turns out, it hadn’t been stability I was after. It was an all-encompassing need to rescue. I was addicted to it—to the fix and the feeling of being needed. This addiction of mine saturated every one of my relationships and crept into all the corners of my life. I fucked boys with DUIs, musicians with coke habits, tortured artists without a home, and men twice my age who had been broken down by the fact that life never turns out like you thought it would. A sick part of me actually enjoyed the broken dreams, the addictions, the recklessness. Need me, need me, need me. I hungered for their fragility and I told myself that I was the one who could save them from their demons. Sometimes I was, and man, talk about a high.
But not Mom.
I wanted more than anything for her to be the mother I was robbed of as a child, but I never stood a chance against her addiction. The thing is, as much as I fought to change her, the not-changing felt more comfortable and familiar. I was used to the chaos, the uncertainty, the discomfort, the disappointment—I didn’t know how to be if I wasn’t fighting like hell, for her and for us, and for my place in her world. But after a life spent searching for my place in Mom’s dark universe, like a sudden patch of sunlight, I found something else—something I hadn’t realized I needed.
I found myself in a place where the sky was woven into the trees and the air felt like rain. I could taste the wood smoke on my tongue from the fires burning inside the houses dotted along the mountainside. And everything was blue. I slept on a mattress on the floor and could draw a twenty-two-hundred-mile line on the map from Mom to my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I wondered, could I make a home without her?
I’d spent most of my time writing—writing in an effort to find out who I was, who she was, and who I was without her. But then she’d call me again and off I’d go, spending more time back in the desert than I did in my home. When I’d return to the mountains, the grass in my yard would be up to my waist and I’d lose myself again. I’d want to go home, but then I’d remember, I was.
I’d missed the sound of her laugh and how her body swayed when she talked. On the rare occasion that I could get ahold of her when I called, I’d stare out the window at the green-leaved sky and listen to her tell animated stories about her life in the desert—her words quick and frantic, strung together like beads. The sound of her voice would make me feel so lonely, like all of a sudden I didn’t know anyone but her. Was this what home would always feel like?
Mom had always been my home. I’d grown used to her world. The world of polluted skies and drug deals on just about every corner. The world of burglaries and carjackings. The world of methamphetamines—smoking, snorting, slamming.
Then on a wet night in April—two years after I’d moved to my home in the mountains—the phone rang. Mom was in a coma. The doctor said she’d flatlined after an episode of cardiac arrest brought on by meth use and that if she woke up she’d likely be braindead. I traveled back to the dust of California on the first flight out, my blood buzzing with desperation.
The hospital was located through a dusty mountain pass on Happy Trails Highway in the Mojave Desert. I rushed through the automatic doors and into the emergency room. It was so full of sick people that they were spilling out into the boiling dark and I had to side-step my way to a security guard who sat at a podium in the corner. He asked for identification and I handed him my North Carolina driver’s license.
I added my sloppy, desperate signature to the sign-in sheet and he wrapped a yellow band around the tiny bones of my wrist. Buzz. The double doors opened. It felt like visiting Mom in jail—the sign-in sheet, the wrist, the phone on the wall, the buzzing.
Mom’s room smelled of latex and bleach, and the stale air of the ICU made my eyes feel like wool was being dragged across my corneas. Standing at her bedside, I studied her face but I could hardly recognize her under the bloated stillness. I tried to hold her hand, but it was too swollen from a blood clot. I settled for holding her toes. They were blue and cold in my hand.
Mom woke up from her coma five days later and reached her arms to me. Braindead? Not a fucking chance. I leaned over the bed railing and melted into her. She felt warm and damp and alive. Her swollen arms wrapped around me and I forgot where I was.
The following day the doctor said that if she kept using it would probably kill her, for good this time. The words made me feel like I could evaporate into the atmosphere at any moment. Besides a granola bar, I’d had nothing to eat in six days. It was as if I was trying to feel anything but the pain and the worry of losing her. It felt like the only thing I could control. I focused on my hunger and tried not to cry, but I couldn’t get any air. I rushed out of the hospital and into the sun-soaked parking lot and a raw, violent sob erupted from the center of me. I sat on the curb with my head in my hands and sweat crawled down my face and over my spine like a trail of fire ants.
How do you mourn someone who is still alive?
After remaining in the hospital for over a month, Mom was released two days after Mother’s Day. I’d been yearning for the day she could come home and been dreading it because her home was overflowing with meth addicts. I drifted in and out of fading joy and overwhelming fear and reveled in being able to hug her without all the machines and wires. But I was accustomed to the way that all good things were fleeting.
Seven months had passed since I’d received the call about Mom being in a coma, but my stomach still turned to concrete every time the phone rang. But this time it was Mom. And she had good news.
“I’ll be there in time for Christmas,” she said.
The guest room of my mountainside home had sat empty and dark for almost three years. But after her call, I set the room up with a hat rack to hold her many baseball caps. I put her favorite shampoo in the shower, the one that smells like oranges. I set out fresh towels, hung fairy lights, and cleared out the walk-in closet.
It was two days before Christmas when Mom pulled up to my house in the blue dark. I ran down the stairs at the sight of her headlights illuminating the frayed hemlocks on my property line. She looked as if she had aged backward and I hugged her on my doorstep in the gold glow of the porch light. She still smelled of nicotine and swayed when she talked. We had Christmas together. The first Christmas I had in my home since I bought it. Mom was wearing a leopard jumpsuit and glitter covered her eyelids, shimmering in the lights I’d strung around the Christmas tree. She put her arms around me and I fell into the night sea of her hair.
This is what I’ve always wanted.
Mom was coming up on one year sober when she got a job at Walmart working the night shift. I’d been waiting for this moment my whole life—for her to be clean and live a life outside of prison, without methamphetamines coursing through her veins. But when it finally happened I felt like I’d been split in two. A big part of me was proud of her for being clean and for getting a normal job but another part of me resented her for falling into the monotony of life so quickly. I’d watch her leave the house in a blue vest that said Proud Walmart Associate and my stomach would churn. I told her she was too smart to work at such a mind-numbing place and in my habitual enabling way, I encouraged her to quit.
“But I thought this was what you wanted?” she said.
I thought so, too. But I hardly recognized this new person she had become. Where was my wild-child mother? I’d lived off her addiction and criminal chaos for the entirety of my existence. Her addiction had let me live wrapped up in her troubles instead of my own, silencing my internal chatter and distracting me from my own neurosis. But now I was forced to confront all the pieces of myself I’d shoved away.
Who am I, anyway? I have no fucking clue.
What I do know is that Mom is clean now. Everything—the chaos, the fixing, the fight—is over. But I still fuss and I still worry over her because that’s all I’ve ever known how to do. I don’t know what to do with my hands. My questions climb all over themselves. Is she lonely? Is she bored? Is she happy? Is she clean? I’m overwhelmed by all the things she doesn’t need from me and hate myself for needing to be needed.
I find myself getting lost in our shared memories and in the stories from when she was still using. A familiar longing washes over me when I think about the mom who ran from the cops in a stolen fur coat in the dead of summer, the mom who chased a bully down the street with a sledgehammer because she’d grabbed me by the hair, and the mom who clutched a DEA agent by the jacket in the middle of a drug raid because she wanted answers.
That was living. Or at least it felt like the kind of living I was used to. I’d grown to identify with Mom—in the way that she struggled to live in the world as the world expected her to. Me too, Mom. Me too. I’d wanted something different—for her and for us. But now, it was the shitty fluorescent lighting of Walmart and the sounds of the mindless sitcoms coming from her room. Is this what starting a new life looks like? Is this what I’ve been fighting for all along?
It feels like giving up.
Accepting this new version of her is like saying fuck you to the person I’ve spent my whole life becoming, the person she’d turned me into. I don’t know who I am if I’m not The Fixer. That’s the only way I’ve ever known how to connect with her—to find her faults and try to strip them from her. And when that didn’t work, because it never did, I trained myself to love her anyway. And in that, I’ve partly romanticized her addiction. When everyone said her ninety-pound-frame looked sickly, I said she looked beautiful. When everyone said she was a criminal, I said she was brave. When everyone said she was crazy, I said she was free.
No one told me this would happen. We—I—worked so hard to get us here and I feel like I’m throwing it all away. Pulsing with guilt, I fight against my fear of the mundane and my craving for chaos and discomfort. Why can’t I just be happy for her, for us?
Now, we sit on her bed in her room—the room I always hoped she’d fill—with our legs criss crossed and the German chocolate cake between us to celebrate her one year of sobriety. I said that I was proud of her and positioned the cake just right so the side that I’d frosted more evenly faced her.
“Proud of what?” she asked. “Of me wasting my life being strung out?”
Grabbing her lighter from the floor, I lit the cake’s one candle. “You didn’t waste it.”
Mom rolled her eyes and picked at her nails that had been chewed down to brittle, sliver moons.
In this moment, there was something that still felt empty and desperate at the center of me, but I kept reminding myself that this was better. It’s better than the prison’s visiting ward and the beeping of metal detectors. Better than the police raids and the meth pipe I found in her jewelry box on Christmas morning. Better than the meth fumes filling the rooms of our sun-bleached house and her empty “I’ll be right backs” where my words bounced off the back of her head.
This is better.
“C’mon, we’re celebrating,” I said. “Make a wish.”
Mom blew out the candle and scooped the frosting off the top with her fingers. This is better. I scanned my brain for something to talk about. Something positive. Something present. Something true. But I ended up back in the past because somehow that’s where I always find myself. That was the us I was used to. That was the her I was comfortable with, the me I knew best.
“So, tell me about the time that guy was waiting for you with a loaded shotgun,” I said.
Her eyes lit up and her sugary mouth stretched into a smile.
“That motherfucker, he was ready to blow my head off.”
Then she laughed her big laugh and my heart exploded.
This is where I found myself—pieces of myself, pieces of her, pieces of us—somewhere between the present and the past. One arm stretched toward the light, the other holding onto the darkness.
Jessy Easton was raised in the Mojave Desert of California, and now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her writing has appeared in Beacon Quarterly and she is currently querying agents with her memoir. Jessy holds a BA in Communications from Vanguard University of Southern California and leads the marketing and creative direction behind Rhodes Wedding Co., an engagement ring and wedding band company she founded with her husband.