I wonder if you ever paused to consider the “messages” you were sending (and the pain you were inflicting) as you shuffled us off to bed in the waning sunlight of beautiful South Florida summer afternoons well into our middle school years and headed out the door to meet up with your neighborhood drinking buddy for your daily afternoon Scotches. Because, intended or not, the messages were as clear to me as the air on those same summer days: “The drinks are more important to me than your dad, than your brother, than your sister, than you. I’d rather spend my time, hours each day, with them, than spend it loving any of you, holding you, listening to you, encouraging you.”
I wonder if you knew how many times I fantasized about you turning around, blasting back through my closed bedroom door and saying, “Not today! Today, I want to know how you’re doing, about the girl who got away, about your fears. I want to listen to your heart, to your poetry, to learn what brings you joy and makes you sad. Today, instead of simply dropping you off at the driving range, I want to stay and watch you hit balls, find out why it is you love the game so much, what it is the teaching pros ‘see’ that has them insisting that their students pay careful attention to your swing, and if there’s something I can do to support your talent.”
“Today, rather than spend another afternoon in a haze, I want to do what you want to do. Maybe we could catch a movie, grab a pizza or some ice cream? Maybe we could go bowling, even though I’m not very good at it! Or simply talk about whatever’s on your mind?”
I know now, of course, that alcoholism is much more complicated than that—that what may well have started out as a “choice” borne of your own heartache became a disease that would require hard work to overcome. But, I also know you had to be the one to take the first step, to decide that there was someone or something in your life more important to you than the next drink.
You could’ve done the work, Mom—used the courage and the toughness it took to survive all those wounds to embrace and rise above the scars they left behind to “show them who was the boss around here,” rather than always trying to show us. You could’ve run towards, rather than away from, the voids in your soul and filled them with so many things other than Scotch (the pursuit of your dreams, encouraging and inspiring us to reach for ours, real hugs, genuine smiles, service to others) and, in the process, set an example for us—taught us that brokenness is only the beginning, the cocoon in which true beauty resides and, if we will allow it, from which it ultimately emerges.
I still wonder why you never took that step, why you never even admitted you had a problem, let alone asked for help and support in battling alcoholism—help and support I’m certain Dad would unhesitatingly have provided if given the chance and the prospect of regaining his wife/life? But most of all, I wonder why, long after you could see the debris field left in the wake of it all, you never once said you were sorry. I gave you every chance to at least do that, right up to your last breath, and all you did was leave me wondering (still): Why couldn’t you see that you were important enough? Why weren’t we important enough? Why wasn’t I important enough?
Your Middle Son
P.S. It took me awhile to fill in the gaps, and truth be told, I still have a ways to go, a few wounds of my own to patch up, lots more to learn where empathy and vulnerability are concerned. But all things considered, I think you’d be (mostly) proud of the man I became—at least I hope so.
Truth is: Parenting is an imperfect art—for all of us. Consequently, despite our best efforts and even better intentions, cries for a parental or childhood “do-over” are not uncommon. But, whether you relate to the mother in this letter or the son (or both!), “doing over” is not the answer; “doing now” is. For Mom, “doing now” means mustering the courage to take a step back and consider if the choices she’s making to soothe her own hurts and needs are teaching her children how an adult deals with life. For her son (or daughter), it’s finding the courage to forgive and to use the pain and brokenness of the past as a catalyst for positive change not only in their own life, but in the lives of those depending on them not to repeat it.