Gone, Always Gone
There were moments--I count two, my mother could have stepped forward as a hero, when she could have brought her children to safety. Instead, she died frightened and worn, in a charity hospital, a widow alienated from her children and rooming with a beer joint companion.
Both my parents began a descent into alcoholic neglect when I was 8, after my father’s only business venture failed. By the time I was 10, he’d abandoned us. (I have 2 older sisters and a younger, now dead, brother) At the time my oldest sister, a teenager, was estranged and living with another family. My mother was trying to keep the rest of us together on the 5 bucks and nightly tips she made as a barmaid.
I remember a particularly harrowing eviction, a short stay at a barmaid friend’s motel and at least three other squalid apartments we lived in during this time. At one point, there were regular door-pounding visits from truancy agents when we missed school, along with an especially humiliating Thanksgiving when I came home to find we’d been the recipients of that year’s school food drive for the needy.
After struggling for several months, my mother turned us over to the care of the county child welfare department. (I was picked up on the street walking home from school, with my mother hanging out of a car door urging me to get in. I went like a sheep. Two hours later I was processed in and being shown a bed.) We were installed in a large, comfortable campus for abandoned children, where we lived for about 3 months. (There were actually 3 large houses on the grounds; two for young girls and one for boys, up to the age of 16. I think the youngest kid I saw was about 4.) The kids were bussed every day to a local elementary school and were clothed, fed and cared for in a professionally-run group home environment. There were chapel services on Sundays, sports and occasional parties on-campus or trips to films or other special events, all provided for us by local charities. Our parents were allowed one Sunday visit a month and I saw my mother at least once when I was there. My father was still in the wind—to this day none of us know where he was, and I wouldn’t see him again until I was nearly 12.
In January of the following year, my youngest sister, brother and I were sent to live with a farm family in the Texas hill country. It was a smaller group home—with 3 other kids there, two brothers and a young woman, and the “parents” were an older couple who’d been taking in kids for about a decade.
Again, we went to the local school, in a small town near the farm, bussing back and forth every day. Despite being in the area for many years, the parents were very adamantly against any of the foster kids involving themselves in school projects. I was chosen twice to appear in after school assemblies and was harshly prevented both times. We did minor chores on the farm, roamed the hill country acres pretty freely, were well-fed and clothed (one of the annual chores was planting rows of vegetables in a truck garden on the property.) and generally treated compassionately.
. The parents were much older and, unfortunately, carried an older generation’s ration of impatience and racial bigotry. I was chastised once for reading a library book about a “n…,” the star baseball player Jackie Robinson. I remember their sneering glee when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
My sister, a pudgy, conventional girl, bonded closely with our foster parents and went back to visit at least twice. She also kept up a steady correspondence until they passed away some time in the Seventies. My brother and I never felt that tug and, though we paid one visit—for a week the summer after we returned home, he and I shied away after that.
My parents were still allowed one visit a month. But due to the long distance (we were about 150 miles from our hometown) and their lack of a car, we seldom saw them. My mother did write, sending birthday cards and Xmas gifts.
At some point towards the end of our 18 month farm stay, my parents reconciled and began a successful campaign to win back custody. One weekend in early summer, we were allowed a visit to their new home—a large, 3 bedroom apartment in a working class area. And after interviews with our caseworker, just before the school year started, we went home.
Although both of them were employed (my father in a manufacturing plant, my mother in a crew of night maids for an office building) they lived as functioning alcoholics. My father tended to drink heavily only on weekends (he had a single 16 oz. beer every night with dinner) though once or twice a year he would go on week-long whiskey binges, foregoing work and leaving us to cover for him with his ever-understanding bosses. Sometime in the 2 years we were in foster care, my mother had taken a nasty fall while drunk, breaking her left leg and leaving a horrific scar above her knee cap. She sometimes drank heavily during the day and from time to time, we’d arrive home from school to find her too incoherent to work. One of us, whoever found her or whoever lost the argument, would make the covering call of “Mom’s sick today” to her boss. She would bounce back the next day. My father tended to ignore her episodes, barely bothering to check as she slept away.
Their work schedules were set so they rarely met up during the week--my father working 4- 10 hour days, my mother from 3-10 in the evening with a half day on Saturday. He made dinner for us and was in bed by 7:30. She came home as we were angling towards bedtime. I did hear them occasionally whispering to each other before he left for work. They tended towards conversations about something we’d done that required disciplinary attention. In the years between our return and his death, they never shared a bed. My mother slept alone in a single bed in the smallest bedroom. My father shared a double bed, with either my brother or me splitting duty. The story we were told was their disparate habits (he was a noisy, restless sleeper) made it impossible for them to share a bedroom. My father was a tall, attractive man and later there were hints that a history of adultery kept them apart.
They did make a weekly habit of meeting on Saturday afternoon, joining up at a local beer joint when she returned to the neighborhood around 3 and he’d finished his own bar rounds for the day. They drank steadily until 10, when they’d buy several six packs of beer and return home to fight.
I was in my forties, having a conversation about family with a girlfriend, before I realized how truly odd my stories of a weekly drunken, parental, bitch fight were. I have an indelible image of the two of them, hammered, swaying into the apartment, a grocery bag full of beer under my father’s arm. They would deposit the contents in the refrigerator, then rage and drink in the kitchen until the early morning hours. We would slip the telephone into an adjoining bedroom for long conversations with friends or sit in the living room, reading and watching television, resolutely not hearing the details. We never interfered and were usually not included in the quarrels. Though the beer and rage often outlasted us, at some point all parties would collapse and head for sleep. The next morning, my mother would lay in her room, usually not dressing out of her sleeping clothes, while my father cooked breakfast and later, dinner. Both meals were normally served to her in her bedroom while the rest of us ate off tv trays in the living room.
My mother was a pack rat. And her job as a maid in a business tower allowed her nightly opportunities to indulge the fetish: an endless stream of letterhead from defunct businesses, discarded ring binders, dry pens, mechanical pencils without lead, desk calendars of every size. In her mind, it was all usable for home and classroom (flip the ring binder over to hide the logo; calendar pages make good memo pads for phone messages). However, the letterhead came in 500 sheet reams, the calendars in rubber banded stacks, the pens and pencils in handfuls that eventually over-flowed the apartment.
Her job was also a source for unceasing, gossipy complaints. She’d found an archenemy in Margie, one of the cleaning crew members, and every shift would end with tales of injury and conspiracy. As she arrived home, unloading her haul of office supplies, my mother’s plaintive recitation was filled with schemes hatched by, favors granted to and insults extended from…Margie.
Perhaps because there was ready, daily supply of newspapers, my mother became a consumer and dispenser of bad news. Forever diving into the pages of both local newspapers looking for stories of crime and sudden, shocking death, she was always prepared to send us out to school and play with warnings of out-of-control buses, cars careening onto sidewalks to crush pedestrians and the lurk of drug addict killers in search of junior high school victims.
My father began to die midway through my junior year in high school. A long-time smoker despite his asthma, he began experiencing chest pains during the winter. (One of my chores was going to the VA hospital monthly to pick up his inhalers; the other was to insure his drinking clothes—blue jean painter’s pants and a heavily starched white dress shirt, were laundered and available for him on weekends.) He’d injured his back slightly in a jobsite accident the previous year and the doctor had given him hot packs to relieve the strain. He dug out the packs and began applying them to his chest, hoping to alleviate the nameless, gnawing pain. By late spring he checked into the VA hospital and in late July died there of lung cancer.
When my father went into the hospital, home routines began to fall apart. Active and in charge of housecleaning, he’d been able to ward off my mother’s pack rat predisposition. With the start of his hospital stay, she soon overwhelmed the house, ignoring our pleas to stop and refusing to allow anything to be tossed away. The best my brother and I could do was carve out bedroom spaces for ourselves. (My sisters had long since departed. The oldest to live with her musician/day worker boyfriend, the youngest in marriage to her high school sweetheart, a sergeant in the Air Force, and their growing family.)
Despite the animosity that saturated their marriage, my mother seemed genuinely frightened of life without him. At his death, she quit her job, filed for his Social Security benefits (my brother and I were eligible too-- as minors, and those were filed for as well), and then, like a Southern belle who’d lost her dear husband in the War, took to her bed. She never left it.
Very quickly, the relationship between the home survivors became one of roommates rather than siblings and parent. Torpor, fear and alcohol gripped my mother and, except for the occasional complaint, instruction or cooked meal, she let her responsibilities as parent slide away. The three of us received monthly government checks and split the bills and rent. My brother and I had high school years left to finish but my strongest memory of this time is signing my own report cards and writing any school notes that would excuse an absence. I assume my brother did the same. My mother never questioned the arrangement or our schedules.
After my brother graduated high school, we were forced to leave the apartment we’d lived in for 7 years. (The landlord had decided to remodel and we were politely asked to vacate.) We relocated several miles away, in a huge, dark, rather crummy complex near an older shopping mall. My brother and I were both working but the living situation continued to decline. I had begun a years-long battle with my own growing alcoholism. He was spending time with friends he’d met carousing in the local gay bars. And we were living with our mother in a corrosive, bickering, mutually boozy collective. I specifically remember one incident that perfectly illustrates the relationship: my brother had given me a bottle of poppers—butyl nitrite, a drug popular in the clubs he frequented. I smoked a joint in my bedroom and went out to watch TV in the living room. My mother was drunk on the couch, burbling incoherently. At every commercial, I would jump up, rush to my bedroom and do as many popper hits as I could during the break, then stumble back to Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. That was a Wednesday.
At the same time I had struck up an easy way of buying pot from my older sister. She would breeze in past our mother, go to my room and trade the cash I’d left in a dresser drawer for a stash of weed, then breeze back out. I’d arrive, ask if big sister had come by. If my mother said yes, I’d head directly for my room. We did this for a year. My mother finally caught on when she popped into my room once when I was smoking with my sister and a friend. She stopped, gaped and exited without a word, then or later. Even one Christmas Eve, when my sister and I tried to get her high—as a replacement for the cheap local beer she drank, she only giggled through her haze.
One spring, about 4 years after my father died, I bailed out. I’d been prepping a move for several months, buying the necessary items to stock an apartment. Then a woman I’d been seeing asked me to move into her high end apartment and I accepted, leaving the next day. My brother was understandably pissed at being left with more of the bills to pay. But he followed me out the door six months later, taking with him most of the goods I’d left behind.
Unable to pay for a two bedroom apartment on a government check, refusing to work, my mother ended up living for a few weeks with my oldest sister. That situation quickly blew up (my sister has a vile temper and her common law marriage was freighted with breakups, drugs and violent tantrums from both parties) and soon my mother was sharing an apartment with a friend in our old neighborhood, a block or two from the beer joint she and my father had once spent Saturday nights. I would occasionally hear from her, usually requests for money or complaining news about my siblings. And there was little to no contact with them. My youngest sister was following her airman husband to various overseas assignments and part of the time my brother was living in the Midwest. During this period, my girlfriend had left for college in another state and I started a new, manager’s job, in a new apartment.
Alcoholism, beery indolence, smoking and no exercise left my mother in dangerously poor health. The years of inactivity following her decision to take to bed after my father’s death had left her with six inch long embolisms on veins in both legs. Just after Thanksgiving, I received a phone call, either from her or my older sister, telling me she’d checked into the local charity hospital. She was waiting for her doctor, a well-known surgeon who volunteered time, to find a break in his schedule to operate. When I broke from Christmas work to visit, I could tell she was terribly frightened; the operation was a risky one. And there was the hint as well, that she was wrung out and ready to surrender a hard, disappointing life.
She didn’t make it. The operation was pronounced a success and when she woke from the anesthesia, she was bright and cheerful with the nurses. But the first of four strokes hit her later in the night. And before the last, fatal one, she’d fallen into a permanent, vegetative state.
I got the news at work, midafternoon. I ran for a bus and made it to the hospital as quickly as I could. Reaching the correct nurse’s station, I was led in to see her body, then left alone. I don’t believe I got closer than within 4 or 5 feet. My mother was short, barely five feet tall. I looked at her small, bloated body and uttered the prayer children make over ravaged parents. Then, thinking like a dutiful son for the first time in years, I went out and got drunk.
A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, R.T. Castleberry is a widely published poet and critic. He was a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, Comstock Review, Green Mountains Review, The Alembic, Pacific Review, Iodine, Foliate Oak and Silk Road. His chapbook, Arriving At The Riverside, was published by Finishing Line Press in January, 2010. An e-book, Dialogue and Appetite, was published by Right Hand Pointing in May, 2011.