In the fall of 1992 I entered the Seventh grade. By that time nearly two years had passed since my mama relocated us to Seattle from San Diego. I’d come to terms with the fact that this wet, perpetually gray city was now my home. This was an improvement from 1990, when I was given the news of the move en route. As our Amtrak coach rolled past Oregon’s bucolic Klamath Hills that November my mom told me we would not be returning to San Diego once her sick sister recovered. She tried to explain the benefits of being closer to her family, but nothing she said could calm the anger I felt. I cried bitter tears the rest of the way, dreading the experience of being the new kid at school once again. My displeasure only increased when I asked my cousins when the rain would stop and was told the weather would be that way until May.
Though Seattle could not quite compete with San Diego’s sun and beaches I did experience a different sort of warmth in the Emerald City. Back in Cali the only family that we had was composed of my mother’s military pals, most of who disappeared when she was dishonorably discharged from the Navy. What Seattle lacked in sun was balanced by the firm and steady love of both my blood and church family.
The strong, unyielding care of my maternal family especially would prove to be both timely and necessary. I know my mom thought that the move to Seattle would give her a fresh start, enabling her to overcome the addiction that plagued her since 1988. Her optimism was quickly proven to be futile. Within four months of our arrival she was using again. Over the course of those two years I would become quite familiar with what we called The Binge.
Anyone who has a friend or loved one that has fallen into addiction knows what I am referring to when I speak of The Binge, but for those who do not I will explain. It usually starts out as a normal day. They tell you that they are making a run-maybe going to the store or to the bank. But then night comes and they don’t return. In the early 90s there were no cell phones, so tracking them down via text or calls wasn’t an option. The first time it happens you are scared out of your mind. You pace the floors, ruminating on all the possible dreadful fates they could have met and wondering when you will see them again. But your loved one comes back. They have to, because they’ve burned through all their money.
I lost count of the number of binges we lived with during those years. Today I sat and tried hard to remember the number; I simply couldn’t. However I had no trouble recalling how I felt, how the flame of love for my mother became smoldering embers
“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children”. A friend of mine paraphrased that quote in a recent discussion. The words certainly rang true for me from the time I was born until the year I turned 12. Mama was god; she was everything. When I heard love songs as a little girl, not yet having any desire or idea what romantic love was, my reaction was to attach the reverence and devotion contained therein to the person who defined what love was in my life. Even now I feel fortunate to say that in my early years my mama’s care and commitment for me was something I never doubted. Indeed, it was her outstanding efforts that made what came later so devastating to me.
I wasn’t angry the first time her addiction spiraled out of control and she went to rehab. I was dismayed that she would be gone for six months but believed our lives would go back to normal once she completed her program. Our life didn’t go back to normal, yet I kept my faith in her anyway.
Three years later my faith was wearing thin. When my mother returned from a binge I felt relief, but I no longer rushed to embrace her warmly. Each time she would tearfully promise to kick her habit for the sake of me and my sisters and tell me she loved us. I’d say nothing, opting instead to suck my teeth and give her an icy stare.
My Grandma didn’t care for my insolent attitude. “Even if she’s messin’ up now she’s STILL YO’ MAMA GIRL”, she yelled as she admonished me about my behavior. I continued to brood on the sofa and committed one of the major sins in a Southern Black family: I rolled my eyes at an elder. Luckily for me my great-Aunt was visiting us at the time. As my Grandma rose from her spot my great-Aunt intervened.
“Sis not now. Let that gal be!”
“But Lula she-“
“NOT NOW SIS”, my great-Aunt thundered back. “Dinky you go to your room and rest a little while, ya hear?”
I wasted no time complying and jumped up. “Yes ma’am”, I said as I scurried out of the living room. As I walked away I could hear my Grandma and great-Aunt argue.
When I reached my room I shut my door and turned on the radio to drown out their voices. When the commercial break ended the following song came on:
It wasn’t my first time hearing “More Than Words” by Extreme, but it was the first time it affected me so deeply. That time I held my face in my hands and sobbed. I thought of my Grandma’s tears, which she tried to hide from me. I thought of my mom’s speeches each time she came back, and the ambivalence they caused in me. At that day, hour and minute Extreme said it all for me:
What would you do if my heart was torn in two?
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say if I took those words away?
Then you couldn’t make things new
Just by saying I love you
At twelve years old I now understood that ballads like this were written about relationships. But I also knew that being disappointed by someone you love wasn’t limited to romantic relationships. Even the love for a mother, the very individual you owe your existence to, can be tested.