This story is by lynn bowie and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My brother and I were raised in a household of perfection. We had parents with high expectations, where any type of failure was not acceptable. I spent my childhood addicted to pleasing others. Being daddy’s girl meant learning quickly that his disappointments were emotionally painful for me. I set really high standards and goals for myself in an effort to prove what a great over achiever I could actually be. “This way” I thought, “daddy will always love me.”
Academically, I was straight A’s all the way, despite having so much anxiety. There were days that I tried not to throw up in front of my classmates, due to stress. My sole dream was to become a prima ballerina, and I had talent. There were many hours of private practice to coincide with my studies. I danced and danced and danced, hoping to make my dream come true.
For years my parents had been bragging to their friends and family that one day I, Kathleen, would be their successful star and light up the stage as a classical ballerina for The London Ballet Company! But alas, this overachiever’s dream never came true. The discontent my parents felt could not be extinguished, not even with time.
The darkness of depression was always present; the inability to feel satisfied and valuable since I was a little girl controlled me. Leaving home for college helped liberate me from the suffocation of overbearing parenting. I received a degree in finance, worked in the corporate world, met a wonderful man, and had a son. But, I could never find true happiness. Although a grown woman, my damaged soul remained morphed and childlike, crying out for parental acceptance.
Soon, alcohol overtook my need for security, love and knowledge. I lost my husband, my son, my career and myself. The more my brother succeeded, the more we became estranged.
Dreamers who strive for success, especially ballerina’s who wear tutu’s, don’t hang out in low life bars. “It’s natural that I be here,” is what I convinced myself. Surrounded by drinking buddies, the bars nurtured my self-pity. The lifestyle embraced my alcohol dependency which temporarily justified my guilt, freed my shame, and reinforced the truth that a loser belongs here, in this world. Eventually, burned out and broken down, I needed a change.
My dad had a saying. “Stop being lazy! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps kids, and you’ll go far!” Though literally impossible, the meaning was deeply ingrained. He would roar this message throughout the house, even stomping the ground, as if that would make it inevitable. So, tugging on my bootstraps, I found solace in AA groups with like-minded people. This rejuvenation led to a waitress job, and making enough money to support a room, car, gas, insurance, and food.
Scheduled for the 10 AM shift so that I could benefit from the lunch crowd tips and hopefully pick up the dinner shift as well, I became pressed for time. It was bright and sunny out, a warm pleasant day. I was quite proud of myself actually, for being sober, and I was reflecting on making new goals. There was clarity about my life and the hope that things were changing for the better.
I controlled the steering wheel with one hand, while juggling my morning coffee in the other. Black coffee remains my favorite; it eases the shakes from not drinking alcohol and the heat soothes my soul. The bitter taste was gritty, like burned coffee residue from the bottom of the pot. I found the aroma comforting.
To avoid the traffic lights downtown, I decided to take an unfamiliar detour. The winding roads, curves and hills were challenging. The sun was directly in my face, and I remember squinting to make sense of the parallel universe of sunlight and blue sky before me. As I breasted the next hill, music was playing on the radio. I felt confident and gleeful for the first time in a long while.
Suddenly, there was a thump off the passenger side of my car, causing me to spill my coffee and stiffen in my seat. “I must have a flat tire!” I thought. Parked on the shoulder, I looked around trying to figure out what just happened. I saw a long driveway, a home in the distance, and a group of people hastily running across the green grass. Frantically, they began tending to something on the side of the street.
Brain frozen and heart racing, I quickly walked to the gathered site. There, before me lay a bundle of broken bones and blood. It was a child; a boy about 7, wearing a jacket, ski hat and only one shoe. It was in that instant that I knew it was me. I had struck that innocent child with my car and he was dead. Vertigo set in, causing me to vomit. He wasn’t moving, and neither was I.
Shock waves tore through me like electrical currents. I was both sick and suffocating. Screams and cries burned my ears. My body ached with the all too familiar shame, remorse, guilt and self-loathing. Time became invisible and my memory unmanageable, as I grieved.
In court, people testified on my behalf. The most compelling story was from a truck driver who stated that he drove that route several times before. He knew the boy, because he played “chicken” by running across the street just as the truck was coming over the hill. The driver told everyone “I think the boy liked it when I blew my horn!”
There were no charges; however, I could not be consoled. I was a failure as a mother, a wife, a daughter and a person. I knew that this was the punishment I deserved, and I welcomed it. Drenched in self-pity, I lapsed into a catatonic depression. I went to a place so dark that only a psychiatric hospital could contain me, so as not to kill myself. I had a nervous breakdown fueled by the hope that his parents would forgive me, but how could they when I couldn’t even forgive myself? I was haunted by a vision of that bloody boy in a box, and wished that it was me, instead.
Three months later I had made little progress. One day the staff announced that a visitor was there to see me. It was the boy’s mother. The staff asked me how I felt about meeting her, and at the time, I felt it made no difference. Anything she had to say to me, I deserved and it would only seal the fate I knew that awaited me. My own death.
The staff were on high alert as they sat close by, and listened to the conversation between two mourning women; one grieving the death of her son, the other grieving her own existence. The mother was frail and guarded. I barely remembered her from that day, or the day in court. She was lethargic as her squeaky voice began to speak. I was scared, so scared my teeth were chattering, and I hugged myself to stop my brain from rattling. What was she going to say? This is the end of my existence. Surely, I will not survive this mother’s grief.
“I heard that you were here, in this place. I’m really sorry. I need to tell you something. That day, well there was a lot of arguing going on between me and my husband. I was washing the dishes. I was tired and worn out. I was unhappy and mad at the world. I was looking out the kitchen window. I was watching my boy. What a handful. Always in trouble. And I blamed him for the troubles we were having. I wanted to run away, and leave them all behind. Show them how much they would miss me. I closed my eyes and prayed ‘Lord, save me from this life. I can’t take it anymore.’ And he did. God took my child. It’s my fault he’s dead. Not yours.”
No amount of sobbing, holding and words of understanding could comfort either one of us. The staff stood there grieving and miserable in our presence. Two worlds collided, and then two mothers went their separate ways. I left that place, but that childhood addiction to please others became once again, a ruthless alcohol addiction to destroy myself.
The overachiever was still in me; if I was going to be an alcoholic, I better be the best alcoholic I can be. Broken and homeless, time took its toll on my body. Hospitalizations, recovery, psych meds and therapy eventually grabbed hold and saved me from my own demise. I linger still, an emotional flatland void of love and happiness. My parents have passed, but I talk with my brother and son on occasion. The smell of burned coffee can still trigger memories, but I keep trying. What else can I do?