The Post-Drunkalogue: part 2


August 1st arrived and I arrived at Penn Station.  It smelled like retired piss.  God I’d missed this place.  It was noisy and there was so much to look at you couldn’t focus on any one thing.  Luckily I’d stayed in touch with my friend Beau and he let me stay with him in the South Slope for a few days, until after the wedding, where I’d then get to housesit for my brother and his fiancé (Luis and Kathleen, or L & K) while they were in Bora Bora for their honeymoon.  They were balls-busy with plans but made time for me a few times before the 6th, their appointed day.

One day we met up at Chock Full O’ Nuts on Avenue of the Americas.  Having just picked up the ushers suits, they were a little stressed but oh, so excited.  They graciously wanted to know about my first anniversary, a few months back.  I told them it was great, I felt deeply proud and went on to tell them about going to a meeting, announcing myself, and collecting a coin.  That night was their rehearsal dinner.  By this time the rest of my “fem-ily” had arrived up from Miami and we joined them that night at a trendy SOHO eatery.  Relieved that I wouldn’t have to make a toast or tell them about “feelings and stuff,” I made wise with jokes, the racier the better.

It seemed that I still joked the way I did when I was drinking, there was just less slurring.  So, I guess my mental editor didn’t survive the transition to sobriety.  But I was kind of glad; it made me feel edgy instead of boring.

I had a great time; we all did.  I was amazed to see my mom in New York City and watched her a lot – there laughing with her brother, my Uncle Lawrence.  It was amazing to me because my mom didn’t venture out too far from her apartment, her job, or any place that sold cigarettes.  She was a serious chain smoker and had been fighting a war with us kids over the issue of stopping, for years.  Actually we’d surrendered on that front long ago.  Mom was an implacable foe.

My mom got around about as well as she always did but she was pretty wheezy.  That part was getting worse.  She tired easily, she was an old 62.  But I still enjoyed watching her interactions with Lawrence; living in different states as they did, they never got too much time together as adults.

Right before the wedding I attended Luis’ bachelor party with him and his cronies.  It was at a unisex strip club in an intentionally unmarked building in the Meatpacking District.  I saw a guy set his dick on fire that night.  Just think, if I was drinking, I might not have remembered that!  Later we stood on the corner of East 8th and 2nd Ave, puffin’ stogies until it was time to go home.

The wedding itself was, what can I say, amazing and beautiful.  And L & K had practiced a tango that, in my eyes, went off without a hitch.  A camera guy came around to record our thoughts and I embarrassedly stammered out something unintelligible, relieved when he’d moved on to my sister.

When all the hullabaloo died down I headed to L & K’s now empty apartment on State Street.  I hadn’t really planned anything beyond attending the wedding; didn’t even have a return ticket back to Miami.  I decided to stay in New York.  It was back to the Village Voice classifieds for me.

I spent these two weeks remembering when I’d first arrived in New York and stayed in the same apartment with Luis.  It was only seven years prior but it seemed like such a long time for me.  I was a naïve kid when I arrived but by the time of my house-sitting stint I’d cast myself as a preternaturally jaded adult.  I mused that maybe all people go through stuff like that in their twenties.

It was going to be tough getting started, I owed money; I had some serious financial debts in fact.  But via the Voice ads, I found an apartment share and a job on almost the same day.  Luis and Kathleen came back from the Pacific and I moved into a semi-rundown 3 story building on East 5th Street in Midwood, Brooklyn.

My 2 roommates were middle aged New York nerds, the kind endemic to the area.  They were representatives of a whole subpopulation of quiet mousy commuters that faded into the background but were really the working class backbone of the city.  Always seen alone on subways (and often bespectacled), they seemed kind of toneless, these native New Yorkers, using and reusing bags that said “D’ag Bag.”  These two guys had Brooklyn accents and knew all the city freebies, spending a lot of time in the Public Libraries.  They marked everything in the kitchen with their names, and were territorial over what was limited space indeed.  Technically unrelated, they were definitely of a type.

I used to be kind of embarrassed to meet new people in my drinking days, now I was far from it; I felt like the coolest guy in my apartment.  I was younger than my roomies by about 15 years, I was the garrulous roommate.  My room had that crappy 70’s fake wood paneling on three sides.  I had clothes, a few books and an old portable black and white TV.  My second floor window was right over the building entrance so I could always hear people come and go.  I had a view of one of those “Tree Grows in Brooklyn” trees.  I didn’t have a phone because I owed money to New York Telephone.  I found a couple of months later that they knew I was back and they weren’t done with me yet.

The roomies didn’t mind my smoking if I kept it to my room with my door closed.  I’d been on about a pack and a half a day habit for over five years.  It got me through some anxious times in my early dry days.  Cigarettes were my stinky crutches.

My home phone was an older kind of beat up pay phone out on Ocean Parkway, I used it enough times to recognize other neighborhoodies starting or finishing calls, they were likely also in trouble with NY Telephone.  I’d call my mom on it every few days then trudge back to my apartment a couple of blocks away.  Obviously, until I opened a voicemail account a few days later (at a busy place on Union Square South), it was real hard for people to get in touch with me.  I didn’t mind that, I’d gotten so used to laying low and avoiding creditors as well as worried family members.  I liked it also because I continued to have nightmares where “The Landlord” is knocking on my door in the middle of the night.  It happened to me once and it was scary and disorienting.

So I was a little hermit-like, that was a carryover from the old days, and I ignored my financial problems, that was another.  The problem with the latter was that I no longer had the coping mechanism I used to use to forget unwanted thoughts and issues.  As a result, a couple of months after I started my new job at Perelandra Natural Foods, NY Telephone seized my Manny Hanny checking account; and that just hours after my paycheck had been direct deposited!  That was awful but it did pay them off, it took care of the problem, and somewhat later, by mid-’97, I was able to get my own phone.  From that experience I learned a little better to open all my mail in the future.

I spent more time with Luis and Kathleen; and because of them, this was my golden era in New York.  We went to movies and dined out.  We bought the newly introduced Sony Playstations at the old toy store out on Steinway Street (L & K had moved to Astoria Queens in ’96).  We saw Tyson chew on Holyfield’s ear.  We had fun and developed an in-joke way of relating to things that was distinctly us.  I never felt like a third wheel, I never felt weird.  What I did feel was that process of getting older, a little at a time, that I’d missed out on while I was drinking.  What that really was, was my noticing for the first time that I was changing, getting a little better, hopefully evolving.  It’s hard to describe, it was like coming out of suspended animation.  It’s been a very good surprise.

Also Luis and Kathleen and I got closer, I felt like I had a brother I could be proud to tell stuff too.  I was always too ashamed to do that in the past.  I could tell he felt the same thing was happening, that he’d gained a long-lost brother.  Our mom was really very happy about this; I could tell during those times we’d call her from Queens.  By this time Kathleen was working with me at Perelandra and we were having good times.

I’d even started working out, joined a gym, and had as my personal trainer our store’s Produce Manager, Ross.  He got me on a weight gaining diet and I quickly picked up pounds.  Self-conscious about my skinniness; I quit smoking in March when Ross convinced me I could really take off, muscle wise, without those Camel Lights.  I quit smoking with half a pack left one morning, thinking about how much better it was going to make me look.  I idly wondered why it was never that easy for my mom, or other smokers I knew.

At the end of the summer of ’96 I moved to the other side of Midwood, the Hasidic neighborhood that was also the “better side of the tracks.”  Having just ticked off a second year sober (I still told people that fact in grinning disbelief), I settled into a big red hundred-year-old house on East 18th Street, where I shared the basement with a Japanese exchange student.  I found a new “home” pay phone, a nice new hooded model (probably the last new payphone model introduced in the City before the real advent of cells), and not on Ocean Parkway, but this time on Ocean Avenue (both roads so named as they headed out to the west end of Jamaica Bay).

I continued to call mom from there.  One day she told me about a cataract surgery, recently concluded, that she’d put off for years.  Her description of it almost made me faint right there on Ocean Ave (I never liked eye stuff).  They had also miraculously talked her into going to a regular doctor for a little look-see, a tuneup.  She didn’t like doctors or hospitals; I think that’s something I definitely inherited from her.  She hadn’t seen a doctor in years, maybe decades.  Somehow she just kept puffing along.

One of my sisters called my voicemail, it turned out mom had gone to the doctor again because of a worse-than-her-usual wracking cough.  They wanted to see her again because she had a broken rib.  My siblings and I fretted.  I told myself everything was fine.  If ciggies couldn’t harm her years ago what could they possibly do now?

Things moved pretty fast after that first visit.  In between calls with my sisters on that pay phone, outside in the dark, I talked to my mom.  I tried to reassure her, but she sounded just a little further away every time we spoke, her voice diminished, weaker.

I had those old familiar feelings, I unplugged, turtled up; like in the bad old days.  My brother would likely have called it “full avoidance mode.”  I wanted to stay in my little basement, and not hear anymore.  I felt nervous and queasy; then the doctor visits came fast and furious, one after another.  Every time they saw her they just had to get a little more.

The tests came back.  It was cancer.  It was here, it was there, it turned out it was everywhere.  “We’ll do what we can.”  It was New Year’s week of ’97 and I shivered out there at the end of the receiver on Ocean Ave, from both the news and the cold.  I really wished I could just talk to her about her cataract surgery.  And she was becoming the only one I was always willing to talk to at all.

This was one of those occasions I was glad I didn’t have a phone.  If I just avoided that one telephone on the corner of Ocean and Avenue I (eye) then things couldn’t get much worse, right?  But I was drawn to it anyway, I had to talk to my mother; it was an impulse that was a little stronger than the deep grooves of my old habits.  But just barely.

Most of all I worried about myself, “Was I going to be ok?  I still had my whole life ahead of me, what would I do without my mother?”  I wondered if this would make me so mad I would just throw away my 30 months of progress. It made me angry, after all I’d told her for years that this would be the outcome of her smoking.  It was like Eddie saying to me as I sat on the sidewalk of that same Ocean Ave 2 ½ years before, “See?  That’s what happens man.”  The inevitable was happening to my mom, to Jeannine Wooten.

One night, cold, flurrying, I stood there and listened to my older sister tell me the doc was giving her six months.  The next day I went to see Luis and Kathleen.  We brooded together, sad, thinking about how the times we spent with her could have been better.  The old “things said and unsaid” thing.  From what I could tell, mom seemed stoic; she continued working in between the hospital stints and medical treatments.  But inside her now smaller voice, I could also hear fear.  She tried, as she always did in any stressful situation, to cover it up.

This really sucked- but it was time for a visit.  Luis tried to talk about funeral plans but I wouldn’t hear any of it, “la-la-la-la-la.”  He also talked about us all flying down there to see her; the first in what would be several visits planned before the end.  I tried to tell him I couldn’t get the time off.  His wife knew better, she was the Personnel Manager at my store.  That tack took me nowhere.  I tried to tell him I couldn’t afford to go down there.  He said he’d pay.

Damn.  I felt very comfortable the way that my two sisters were handling things down in Miami.  They were doing a good job, why mess it up?  OK, fuck it; I knew I had to go.   Luis jerked me out of my backsliding tendencies.

It was really sad when Feb. 13th came, it was what we all knew would be my mom’s last birthday; though I’d by then really convinced myself she’d have one or two more after that.  I called her; she was tired and had to get off the phone early.  My sisters were with her.

I didn’t want to look at mom, didn’t want to see her, could barely handle that tinny ship-to-shore voice on the phone.  This was a real pile of shit.  A couple of days after mom’s birthday I flew down alone.  L & K followed me from LaGuardia that night.  My sisters picked me up, solemn.  I was real glad when they told me I wouldn’t be seeing her until the next day.  What the hell was I going to say to her?

I don’t remember the flight down, I had disconnected by then, except for angry.  Why was I put in this position?  I pretty much stayed that way as I lay tossing and turning on a guest bed in a house in Coral Gables that night.  I finally slept even though I knew our first order of business was to head over to Mount Sinai on Alton road the next morning.  I took solace in the fact mom had worked that day, a half day, though it was only downstairs in the same building, at Silver Paint and Hardware.  But then she felt weak and had gone back to the hospital.  If she worked at all then she couldn’t be THAT bad, maybe we could hang out and talk about something other than this depressing stuff.  Grab a bite at Puerto Sagua Restaurant, like we used to…..

I had coffee for breakfast; my stomach had that overly solid feel like I’d done a million sit-ups.  We threaded our way back up through Coral Gables and hit I-95.  Walking to the hospital elevator, I tailed at the end.  As far as I could tell, I was the only one silent and furious; also the only one thinking solely about himself (or just kicking himself for it).  We entered her room.  Mom…..  I melted, I was glad to see her, though she was a drawn grey version of herself.

I forgot myself in that moment and felt so protective of her.  Jeannine looked fantastically vulnerable. She leaned her head up and hoarsely exclaimed, “You’re big as a horse.”  She slumped down again.  Mary talked to her a bit, I myself didn’t know what to say; my wits had really abandoned me on this visit.  We changed the channel on her TV for her.  We left.  I was shocked how out of it she was, it was the morphine.  I just never counted on that happening in my imaginings, her being so away from us.  Not fair.  Not fair at all.

They wanted to know what I thought.  I told them I thought it sucked.  I changed the subject; “let’s go get something to eat.”  With this first hurdle passed, my appetite had returned.  It was Sunday, and after we left we got a lot of news, all of it bad.

Fluid was filling her lungs; she had a breathing apparatus now.  Sometime that afternoon or night we learned that she might not make it out of there, like ever.  Luis and Kathleen visited mom and then us.  I was glad to see them; I drew a lot of strength, in particular, from Luis’ mournful but strong eyes.  Then it was official, mom was dying.

February 17th was my mom’s last day with us.  It was a long day; we talked about the do-not-resuscitate order.  I think my older sibs were in charge of that decision making – which was really easy because mom always made clear what she wanted with regards to all that.  But I was still so relieved I didn’t have to do it.  How very glad I was to not be the oldest.

Mom was on a machine that day, she couldn’t breathe without it.  Her brother was flying out from St Louis Airport to see her.  We had to wait for that, for he had to see her alive one more time.  It got to be later and later.  I sat in the waiting room and tried to distract myself by sketching on a napkin some of the other people there, waiting for shitty outcomes like we were.

I felt so shaken, thinking of the fear that my mom must be experiencing, and then to be doped up and out of it.  Did she know what was happening?  I wondered if I’d make it myself, but by this point, brooding for hours in that waiting room, I decided I’d be OK no matter what happened.

I imagined a little net under me that would catch me no matter how far I fell.  I think that new found confidence occurred because I finally let myself sympathize more with my mom and her plight more than with my own “sturm and drang.”  It was time to grow up and really be present, but what a climb that was.

I was still angry too, I couldn’t bear to go back in that room and see that awful tube coming out her mouth – my mom rendered utterly helpless.

It got to be later.  Kathleen and I tried to pay attention to “Melrose Place,” a show we watched but Luis hated.  There was something about a guy standing in a yard beseeching his girlfriend to forgive him.  He knocked over a white picket fence.  I think he was drunk…….Then Lawrence arrived from the airport.

The only thing left to do at this point was for all of us to get together, file into my mom’s room, and say goodbye.  Everybody crying as the beeps got fainter, then further apart.  It was 10:14.  Her eyes kind of de-animated and she was gone.  Our mom, the lady from Missouri who entered beauty pageants, who was a thesaurus of country homilies and who moved her kids all around the country, was gone.  Loud sobbing from everyone, angry silence from me.  Til the last moment I had resisted feeling this.  I never wanted any of this, for any of us.  But for her especially.

Blurrily we headed back to Coral Gables, I said nothing.  Sitting in the kitchen I sobbed loudly and very suddenly, somewhat violently.  Because I knew my mom was ok, because I knew she had to be better than she was all doped up; and maybe not even able to mark her own passing.  And because I knew I was going to be ok, no matter happened in the future this would be the worst thing I could experience.  I didn’t think about drinking.  I just wanted to sleep and then go home.

1 reply
  1. Mare
    Mare says:

    Interesting perspective. I liked reading about how you felt. You know when you mentioned about New Year’s Eve ….. I remember I spent New Year’s Eve with Mom. I gave her a peace – beaded necklace and told her that I was there for the night… To spend it with her. As the nurses all said “Happy New Year”. I looked over at Mom, who was sleeping and whispered, “Happy New Year’s Mom….. I love you.” I’ll never forget that night.
    And in reference to her birthday…. I gave her a “Gone With The Wind” jewelry box knowing I’d be getting it back any day now…..it was a weird feeling and I know Mom was thinking the exact same thing…. I could see it in her eyes.
    Love you Bill!


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