Content Warning: addiction, alcohol abuse.
My earliest memory is from age three. Who’ll Stop the Rain by Creedence Clearwater played from my dad’s stereo as we drove home from his band mate’s cabin in the last breath of summer. We stopped on the side of the road for my mom to photograph a heron struggling to wade in the river below. My dad picked raspberries from a small bush at the river’s edge, but before he could eat them, he spilled the red juice on the light blue denim of his Levi jeans. Raspberries have always been my favourite fruit.
My next memory is being five at my grandma’s house. I was curled up with her old black Labrador when my mom asked me to get a card from her purse in the guest room. While I rummaged through looking for a paper envelope, I found empty wine bottles clanking around with her keys. I didn’t know why they were there, but I felt sure I wasn’t supposed to see them.
I once read an article about how memories are recovered through scent. Apparently odors trigger your brain’s olfactory bulb. When I smell raspberries, I hold my parents’ hands while the heron sways. My mom’s camera clicks as the river catches the afternoon sunlight and John Fogerty sings in the background. When I smell alcohol, I relive everything after that day.
I see rooms piled so high with clutter that there remains no pathway from the bed to the door. I hear my parents fighting most nights. I hear them finally telling me they are separating. I watch dinner burning on the stove and my cat whining for water while my mom falls asleep on the couch. I stare at my reflection in her glassy eyes while telling her about my day at school.
These memories are like blurry old photos. I remember the pain they elicited, but the nuances of each event have washed away along with the contents of bottles hidden in cabinets and drawers in my childhood home. I’ve tried blacking out blocks of time from my memory just like my mom did, but every time I smell alcohol, they all come flooding right back.
As my mom’s illness worsened over the years, I became a stranger to the woman I once grew inside of. I learned to navigate my way in the world without the maternal guidance I craved, and I discovered that no perfect grade or homemade gift could resuscitate the person I once saw as my unconditional protector.
I had heard people say that blood is thicker than water, but I began to wonder whether it was thicker than alcohol, too.
I spent a long time resenting my mom for how she had been decaying, though I neglected to notice that I had been as well. I became a cold shell of the kid I once was. I thought about the heron who struggled to stand as the river grew more rapid.
When I was sixteen, I brought her flowers and ice cream on Mother’s Day. I was still hoping material offerings of love might mend the frayed seams inside that home. When I opened the door, I learned that what she needed instead was to go to the ER. My dad drove to the hospital and I lay awake wondering if my failure to fix the broken parts of our relationship had finally broken her too. The ice cream melted and my cat licked it up.
I am lucky. Instead of losing my mom that night, she finally woke up the next day – literally and figuratively. She started seeing the glass half full instead of needing to always refill it. Her recovery has been important to my wellbeing, but it’s my own that has been more necessary. I started going to AA meetings, I moved back into her house part-time, and I began to forgive what the memories in my olfactory bulb wouldn’t let me forget.
When I’m upset, I go for walks and listen to Who’ll Stop the Rain. It’s calming in a way nothing else is. It reminds me of that day by the river, my only complete memory from before I became aware of the drinking, the only thing left untarnished by alcohol.
Those raspberries are the purest taste I can imagine. I wish I could watch my dad pick them again and bathe in the hopeful naivety of a child whose parents will always be her heroes. I wish I could tell that little girl how loved she is when she starts to feel the opposite. I wish things could have been simpler than they turned out to be.
Unluckily for me and for her, recollections of fruits and songs and feeble-legged birds cannot undo the damage of the years that followed. As the photos in my head become fuzzier over time, the knots in my stomach twist tighter. My anxiety about addiction as a genetic predisposition becomes more real as I near adulthood. I usually try to combat this worry through yoga or therapy, but sometimes I just drown it out with alcohol myself.
Though memories are fading, I’ve yet to make peace with much of the trauma. I switch between trying to forget and succumbing to every tangible trigger point. Alcohol isn’t just a fragment of my distant memory, but a reality of human life. It’s even sold in grocery stores now, only a couple of aisles over from the produce section where the raspberries are kept.
I’m not sure how similar I am to that little girl. Ruined holidays taught me caution. My parents’ failed relationship taught me independence. I grew up quickly when I realized their love couldn’t fix everything, and that I had to protect the person who I thought would always protect me.
I catch glimpses of that girl sometimes, though. All she wanted was to feel the warmth and joy of that day over and over. It’s still all I want.
As my mom packed up her camera and we got back into the car, I was too busy giggling at the red stains on my dad’s jeans to notice anything else around me. I wonder if the heron made it all the way across the river.