Lisa Hickey looks back on the fears she had and the mistakes she made with her son.
My daughters have taken me out to the Armenian diner for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, wheat toast, a white carnation from the waitress. “Happy Mother’s Day!” My daughters remind me we had gone here last year, received a very similar looking white carnation.
Together we peer at a text message from their brother, John. I am trying to tell them why I am worried that John asked me to go for a hike today. He’s at school in Western Mass, it will be a three-hour drive for me, he’s coming home for the summer in less than a week. “I think he’s sad,” I tell the girls. “I think he wants to talk to me.”
Allie and Shannon look at his text message, a short, “maybe we could go for a hike today or something.” They agree I should go. They want to spend some time with me first so we bicycle down to the park, play a few games. They scatter, I get in my car and head west.
I am filled with dread.
Twenty-three years ago, Johnny was born not breathing and with no heartbeat. I still am haunted by the thought that “he was dead before he was alive.” That moment remains vivid, the frantic rolling of the hospital bed into the surgery room when the heart monitor flatlined. But by the time John’s heart had stopped, he was too far down the birth canal to do a c-section. He weighed 12 pounds. There was no time for anesthesia.
I had given one last push, with everything I had. My husband leaned over to me and said, “I know you’re not the praying sort, but you might want to start now.” I hear the doctor say grimly, “Apgar score, zero.” I know that can’t be good.
An eternity in which the only sound is the sound of no heartbeat, and finally a wail pierces the room. The relief is tangible. Johnny turns bright red, does not stop screaming. After a bit, I say, “I think he’s hungry.” Laughter.
Johnny has arrived.
The hike starts out foreboding. We park by a deserted paper mill, the bridge John thinks leads to the trailhead is closed. We soon see why, as we walk across we can see a roiling river below through holes in the concrete. Two boys in camouflage run ahead of us, bb guns on their shoulders. The wind picks up, I hear the sound of thunder. There’s always thunder in my nightmares.
We walk down the road, hit a dead-end with a multitude of no trespassing signs. We duck into the woods where we think the mountain is. Follow some train tracks. I’m reminded of how when John was 4 or 5, our “family movie” was “Stand By Me”. Johnny loved to re-enact the scene where the boys are walking the railroad tracks and a train comes along. The problem is, John would be standing in a supermarket express line. Get a faraway look in his eyes, yell “traaaaaiiiiinnnn”, hop down flat on the floor, wherever we were. He hates that story. I don’t remind him.
We find a path that follows the tracks, and then a smaller path that looks like it goes up the mountain. There are no markers but it looks relatively easy to follow. I remind John to turn around, look at where we’ve been. “You need to see where you’ve been to know where you are going.” I sigh. I am a poet. My life is one big metaphor.
We head up the mountain. There had been a forest fire a couple of weeks before. Blacks skeletons of trees, the smell of burnt wood everywhere. I ask John if he wants to talk, tell him I was worried about the texts. “Oh, sorry mom. I know my texts sounded short. It’s this phone, I had to get a 1992 Sprint phone because my other phone broke. Impossible to text on. I’m fine. Sorry you were worried.” His eyes are a gorgeous shade of blue. His smile lights up the mountain.
Sometime when John was in his late teens, I got a call. “Hi, this is the Worcester State Police. Do you have a son named John?” Within a split second of hearing those words, I wonder, “if they call to tell you your son has died, do they say “hi” first?” To this day, I can’t get a phone call without worrying it’s something wrong with one of my children. Not because of that call, because of all the calls. Because of all that could go wrong. Because of all that does. Because of a responsibility that often feels far too much to handle.
My fears about John are profound. So profound that I didn’t know how to raise him, and so I didn’t. I worried, and I didn’t know what to do about the worry, so I drank instead. I was there, at least physically, until John was sixteen. The age I was when my father died. And when John needed me most, I left the family. I was an alcoholic at the time. I did not leave nicely. My relationship with my kids, always fragile, was strained to the max. John blamed many of his problems on me. I don’t blame him. Once I got sober, I blamed many of his problems on me. By the time I actually realized I needed to take responsibility for raising him right, he well past eighteen. I was trying to clean up the mess I had made of my life, and I had to do it sober. Ask any recovering alcoholic how hard that is.
John and I get to a point where we have to rock-scramble. We both love this part. The way you have to combine physical exertion with logic. “To get to point C, grab on rock A and get a toehold on rock B”. We get to the top of a ledge and look back. The land is a green carpet with the Mass Pike running through it. A quarry is in the distance. We are dizzy and breathless. A hiker on his way down tells us it’s another mile to the top. “You up for it, mom?” “You know I am,” I reply.
A year after I had left the family, I realized my relationship with my son was almost non-existent. In an effort to make up for all I hadn’t done, I decide I need a grand gesture. We will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We fly to Africa, and mid-way over the Atlantic the captain says, “We have reached our cruising altitude of 19,000 feet.” I tell John, “Tomorrow, all we have to do is wake up and walk up to the height of this plane. Then walk back down.”
It’s the reason I love mountain climbing. It’s the only thing I have done my whole life where I understand exactly what success is. “Walk up to the top of the mountain. Walk back down.” It’s clear. It’s tangible. I’ve climbed hundreds of mountains, and love every ascent. Love every descent. And am always in awe at the summit, a world-view of which I never tire.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with John was great, but it didn’t solve everything. There’s rarely a “happily ever after” between an alcoholic parent and their child, even a recovered one. It took me a year after that trip to get sober, and a long time after that to start to figure out what I needed to do to make things right. To understand that what I need to do is take action. Positive action. All the time. I need to demonstrate love, not just say the words. I need to be there when I say I will, to help my kids when they need me to help. To talk to my children, engage in their lives in a way that is so far beyond what I had ever done before.
John and I reach the top of today’s mountain, breathe in the view, turn around. As we make our way back down, he holds branches out of the way so they don’t hit into me. Despite all my efforts to pay attention, we lose our way. We panic for a moment, hurry, and I lose my footing. John intuitively turns around to catch my arm so I don’t fall.
We come out under a huge bridge, the Mass Pike soars and rumbles above us. We spot the railroad tracks, find our car, head back to his school. John thanks me over and over for a great time. “I got away from my worries. I didn’t think. I wasn’t stressed. And it was even nice to get away from technology,” he says. “Except for my taking photos with the iPhone” I finish the sentence, laugh. I note that I haven’t checked my email once.
I drop John off at his dorm and head East. My fears of not being a good enough mother are, for the moment, lifted. I have come to realize that goodness is not an inherent quality, but an endless series of moment-by-moment decisions. And on this Mother’s day, I have done what I could for my son, with love, and for today, that is enough.
This post first ran in 2010, on The Good Men Project blog, right before the launch of this website. All photos by the author.