My mom absolutely loved Christmas and she was passionate about getting into the holiday spirit. I remember one year when I was about 15, Mom started pulling boxes of garlands and ornaments down from the attic somewhere around mid-October and had the entire house decorated by Halloween. Which launched a nightly battle between her turning the lights on and me chasing behind her to turn them off so the neighbors didn’t see we had our tree up a month before Thanksgiving.
Still, as proactive as Mom was about decorating, she never quite got the hang of shopping early. Every Christmas Eve, she’d pack me and my sister Amy in the car and drive us to Albany or Macon—the closest towns where there was a decent mall—and we’d spend the entire day running from store to store so she could be sure she had enough stuff to give us a good Christmas.
Mom never made a lot of money, but on Christmas she’d go all out. She’d spend every penny she had on expensive gifts like Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Atari game systems, then on Christmas morning in her last-minute-shopping-hangover, she’d slip deeper and deeper into buyer’s remorse with every present we opened. She’d hand over boxes with comments like, “You have no idea how much it costs to give you a good Christmas,” or, “I sure hope Fitzgerald Water, Light & Bond are still in the holiday spirit when I can’t pay the bill next month.”
By the time we finished unwrapping everything, I’d be surrounded with awesome gifts that I absolutely hated because I felt so shitty about what a financial burden I was on Mom.
After I left for college, Christmas soon became the only time I went home to visit, and every year it got more difficult. Mom gradually eased up on the massive number of extravagant gifts, but she also began to see me as an outsider who’d deserted her.
When I left home at first, it was for a 2-year school just a couple of towns over, but then I transferred to Florida State in Tallahassee, studied abroad in Italy for a year, and eventually made my way to NYC when I was in my 20’s. With every move I made toward my increasingly expanded horizons, I felt the chasm between me and my mom widen. “I don’t know, Susan. It’s like you’ve moved up there, and you’re living this high falutin’ life, and now you think you’re better than all of us.”
Which is not true. I never thought I was better than my family, but I am different. I always have been, which was a constant point of contention whenever I was at home for the holidays, which was why I eventually decided I wasn’t going back for Christmas. “I really can’t afford the flight,” I lied to Mom because I knew if there was anything she’d understand, it was a lack of money, and she did.
That year, I spent two nights with a bunch of friends at an apartment in Brooklyn and we drank and danced and watched movies, and not once did anyone mention how much they’d scrimped and saved to buy me gifts I “probably wasn’t going to appreciate anyway.” On Christmas day, a few of us headed to the porn shops on Third Avenue in Sunset Park. We laughed at how edgy and outrageous we were as we picked out gifts for everyone. Cherry red stripper heels for Jane, a rope and instructional VHS tape for Jeanne who’d just gotten a dungeon gig as a dominatrix, and a riding crop for me that I named Lucy after the saint who dug her own eyes out so she didn’t have to look at sin. It was irreverent, and kinda blasphemous, and it solidified my decision to not go home for Christmas anymore.
Once I broke holiday visit barrier, I only went back to Georgia for emergencies like the time a year later when Mom was rushed to the emergency room after Amy found her collapsed in the kitchen floor.
“Well, when Mama woke up in the hospital, she said she had a migraine so they gave her a Tylenol 3, but that didn’t touch the pain so they gave her a Vicodin.” Amy went on to tell me that the Vicodin didn’t work either, so they gave Mom a Percocet, and then another, and then eventually they knocked her out with a Dilaudid. “I’m worried, Susan. She must be really sick if she needs all that medicine.”
I’m not sure about you, dear reader, but I’ve taken Vicodin and Percocet and I can not imagine how one would go about building up a tolerance so high that you could take all those pills and stay coherent enough to ask for more. It was obvious to me what was going on.
“Amy, Mom’s not sick. She’s a drug addict.”
At that point, Mom was fighting stage 3 breast cancer and somewhere along the way, she’d also developed a 90-pill-a-week habit. According to the piles of empty prescription bottles I found at her house, Xanax and Ambien were her top favorites. Luckily, I’d developed a habit of my own—a severe addiction to Intervention on A&E—so I knew exactly what I needed to do.
I took the huge shopping bag of bottles I amassed to Mom’s doctor and we decided to have her forcibly admitted to rehab. Then I spent the next two nights sleeping on a cot next to her in the hospital while she detoxed from the pills. Coming off of benzos is a wild ride of hallucinations and, in Mom’s case, a broken wrist from falling in the middle of the night when she tried to climb out of bed on her own. It was a lot to watch and experience, so I started processing it all in my journal in a series of entries I called, “Stories from the Cot.” Thing was, this was back in 2008 and my journal at the time was this blog.
I posted several stories about Mom’s addiction and detox, as well as some others about my other family members, and when they all found their way to Southern Discomforts, because, of course they did, I got a text from Amy, the only person who’d known about the blog from the beginning. “Susan. They all read it. And they are done with you.”
When I heard that I’d been disowned—that’s what “done with” means in Georgia talk—I wasn’t really surprised. I mean, what did I expect would come from airing our dirty laundry on the world wide web? Still, I was also really hurt, so I wrote another blog post.
This one was the story of my Great Uncle Elzie, the only other family member I knew of who’d gotten the done with treatment, and I addressed it directly to my family who’d apparently reading my posts for quite a while at that point. It felt powerful and triumphant … for about an hour until my mom made a comment. She asserted that she’d never used the word “done” then accused me of lying about Uncle Elzie, and of trying to “destroy my family, my hometown and especially my mother.” She signed it, “Now I’m done.”
After that, Mom and I didn’t speak to each other for over a year and then it was only because her doctor suggested that she get her affairs in order. As we talked on the phone that day, I told her how sorry I was that I hurt her so much with the blog and assured her I’d taken all the posts down as soon as she left her comment. She told me how hard it had been to be estranged from me and that she’d missed me. “Susan, it’s just that I used to love you so much.”
“Excuse me. Was that past tense, Mom?”
Mom ended the conversation by telling me that we could probably repair our relationship if I called her more often, but after she told me that she didn’t love me anymore, I just didn’t see the point. We didn’t speak again until a year and a half later when Amy called me home because Mom had been put on hospice care.
It was the beginning of December 2010 and despite Mom’s health, the whole house was decorated just like always, which made the living room feel like Santa Claus’s nursing home. Every surface was covered with a nativity set or a Santa figurine. There was a poinsettia on the end table, garlands and bows on the mirror above the piano, a big tree in the front window surrounded by wrapped presents, and in the middle of it all, was Mom on a hospital bed where the sofa used to be.
She glared at me and asked, “What are YOU doing here?” when I walked in, and my first thought was, “I’m here to watch you die,” but of course I didn’t say that. Instead I walked over to the bed and hugged her. “I’m here to see you, Mom.” I said, “I love you.” She didn’t say it back.
“You didn’t need to come. I know how you feel about me from you not calling.”
“Mom. You told me you used to love me, past tense.”
“You’ll never understand how much you hurt me.”
I’d managed to hold back my tears so far, but when she still wouldn’t say she loved me again, I broke down. “Please, Mommy. I’m so sorry that I hurt you. I took everything down and I never wrote anything about you again. I don’t know what else I can do but tell you how awful I feel. I can’t take it back, what do you want me to do? I need you to please forgive me; we don’t have much time left.”
“Susan … you broke my heart more than you can imagine.”
The hospice nurses had given Amy a checklist of 9 things to look for as Mom’s health declined and not long after I realized I wasn’t going to get the death bed reconciliation I’d hoped for, Mom hit 7 out of 9. At that point, she was hardly waking up at all anymore so we decided that even though Christmas was just a week away, we’d go ahead and celebrate the next time she came around.
It’s not easy to buy a gift for your dying mom and I was relieved that Mom laughed when she got to mine that day. “Oh Susan, if I had been able to get out and shop, I was totally going to get you a Snuggie, too!”
It wasn’t lost on me that she’d planned to get me a gift, despite how angry and hurt she was, and it made me sad that I’d missed out on so many Christmases with her, miserable or otherwise. A few days later, she hit 8 out of 9 on the checklist. Although Mom hadn’t moved or spoken in a couple of days, one of the hospice nurses told us that we shouldn’t be too sure she was going just yet. “I’ve seen ’em last like that for years.”
The next morning, we moved Mom into a temporary care facility so Amy could have a little time to prepare for having her on the hospital bed in the living room for the next couple of years. Mom wasn’t talking, but she seemed lucid and when I asked if she knew where she was, she nodded her head that she did. She nodded again when I asked if she was scared. I explained to her that we were just moving her in for a couple of weeks and she jerked her head away from me to show how mad she was. Later, as we were walking out to get dinner, she looked directly into my eyes and forced out a single word: heartbroken.
It was a curse. My heart shattered and I left the room feeling more defeated than I ever have in my life. Before we made it to the restaurant, Amy got a call from the care facility. They’d found Mom unresponsive in her room and rushed her to the hospital. Just over 12 hours later, on the morning of December 29, a nurse put a stethoscope to Mom’s chest and told us, “I’m sorry, she’s gone.”
Since then, I’ve hated Christmas more than ever. But instead of feeling dread about coming up with an excuse to not go home, it’s about my preoccupation with avoiding reminders I no longer have that home to go to.
This is my fifth December since Mom died, and my therapist assures me that just because the last ones were an emotional shit storm, doesn’t mean this one will be. And as of yet, I have not spiraled into a drinking binge to avoid my feelings, or crawled into a hermit-y hole of depression to avoid everything else. Instead I’m channeling that energy into doing what I know works for me: processing my emotions through my writing, and just over a week ago, I premiered my first solo show, Into the Belly of the Beast, on Mom’s birthday.
I performed live at RISK! a couple of days ago and my first Snap Judgment podcast story dropped yesterday. So, although Christmas is still a week away and how that day will go remains to be seen, I’m happy to report that so far, holiday season 2015 is a huge success.