With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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You are living with your grandparents at the age of twenty because you have been kicked out of a recovery home for women alcoholics. Unable to shake your old habits of defiance, you stayed out all night (curfew was 9 P.M.) with a member of the opposite sex, albeit a sober one, riding a big motorcycle he called his “hog,” the wind whistling past your ears as he drove you helmetless through the dark hills of Laguna Canyon. At sunrise you climbed through your bedroom window at the recovery home and found a note waiting on your untouched pillow: “This was your final warning. Pack today.”
Even though you are sober and have a ninety-day plastic chip as proof (twelve-step programs award chips for various lengths of sobriety: ninety days, six months, a year; legend has it that a local bar accepts chips as payment for drinks), you feel like a failure: a college dropout, an ex-lush, and a groupie. Your brother and your friends are finishing college and embarking on respectable careers. Your life, meanwhile, seems like an insurmountable challenge, and your goals have become as simple as brushing your teeth and making your bed. You carry the chip in your pocket to work, where you sell pastel-colored frozen yogurt.
Your grandmother has said you can stay with them as long as you need to. Your grandfather built this house on the bay in Corona del Mar the same year you were born. For you, your grandparents’ home has always signified permanence and stability. Their offer to put you up indefinitely sinks into your core, makes you feel unconditionally loved, and binds you to them — which is ironic, since they are the hard-asses of the family: judgmental, powerful, wealthy. Your rebellion was in part against your grandfather, whom you self-righteously accused during family therapy of being at the heart of your family’s dysfunction. (He was drunk on martinis at the time, and you now see it as testament to his love for you that he came to the session at all.) Other family members treat your grandparents with reverence and fear. Their taking you in has given you a strange, exalted power, and you feel safe. Your grandparents support your effort to quit drinking and express their admiration. They have admitted (only to you) their own inability, or unwillingness, to cease drinking.
It is a bewildering alliance of alcoholics, one in recovery, the other two still drinking. At first you slip twelve-step literature onto the table by the bed where your grandfather naps. He leaves hints that he has read it: a corner folded to mark his place; a pamphlet moved to a different angle. But when there is no real change, your initial enthusiasm settles to a hopeful resignation, and you resolve to stick by them, as they have stuck by you.
A mournful noise, like a shriek and a howl combined, wakes you. One of your grandfather’s golf clubs leans against the wall. Although you intuitively deem the noise not to be burglary or violence, you grab the club anyway, clutching the handle as you pad down the hallway, your bare feet sinking into the white carpet.
The silhouette of a man appears from around the corner, and you jump back. It’s your grandfather. Seeing him in his striped boxers, with his slightly bowed, skinny legs, alarms you. He looks ridiculous and vulnerable, nothing like the imposing, mythic man you were trained as a child to “keep quiet” around.
He gasps. “Jesus Christ,” he says. “Put my goddamn seven iron down.” He runs a hand over his bald head. The strange howling continues.
“What is that?” you ask, resting the golf club against the wall.
“Cats screwing,” he says, and his eyes light up wickedly, but then he looks embarrassed by the situation.
“Oh,” you say, smiling. You look at his feet, which appear delicate, narrow and pale, the toes curved inward, a tan line at the base of his ankles where his golf socks end.
He stands on the patio and throws golf balls at the cats. “So we can get some peace, and some goddamn sleep,” he says. The animals are on a ledge. The balls thump against the brick wall like small white bombs. Shadows rustle and leap. A breeze and a dark mass whisk past your legs.
“Jesus Christ,” your grandfather says. “Did you feel that?” The two of you go back inside, and he shuts the sliding glass door. “Well, well, well,” he says. You can tell he’s enjoying himself. You kiss him good night, your fingers touching his forearm, lips brushing his stubble. He smells of vodka and toothpaste.
“G’night, honey,” he says, in a sweet voice he reserves especially for you. He calls you “honey” often these days. Both your grandparents, never keen on displays of affection, have become increasingly demonstrative. Your grandmother likes to kiss you wetly on the lips, making a loud smacking noise and leaving coral lip prints and the lingering odor of Chanel No. 5.
You lie in bed surrounded by the smells of your grandparents and imagine them asleep in the next room. Waves shush-shush against the shore of the bay. A sense of calm overcomes you, as if you can rest for the first time in years. You fall asleep and dream of the bay water: steely black at night, mossy green in the day. Sometimes you are flying, arms spread, fingers skimming the surface, and when you look down into the water, the dark forms of stingrays lurk on the sandy bottom.
You are staying at your grandparents’ house just this one night so you can be near Grandma before she goes into the hospital tomorrow. She is sick with cancer: no more breasts, half a lung. She plays solitaire, sitting on her bar stool; you sit next to her, careful not to disturb her game. A soft yellow light blankets the kitchen. The woven green place mats and checkered napkins are already set out on the bar for tomorrow’s breakfast, along with a container of sugar substitute and the wooden salt and pepper shakers.
Grandpa keeps hundred-dollar bills folded tight in his money clip, which he tosses on the bar when he comes home, next to his diamond wedding ring, Swiss Army knife, and loose change. He sits in the living room and swears at the television. His leather recliner is off-limits, sacred, “Grandpa’s chair.” He watches Jeopardy! at high volume and drinks a martini with an olive speared on a toothpick. When he goes to the bathroom, you walk over and turn the television down.
Your grandfather goes to the kitchen to make another martini. An ice cube falls and slides across the yellow kitchen tiles. He picks it up and chucks it into the sink. His eyes tear, and he rubs them with the back of his hand. He goes back to his chair and turns the volume up with his remote.
After your grandparents are asleep in their bedroom, you find her suitcase on the dryer, petite and ordered, her initials engraved near the leather handle: DGM. You unzip the suitcase, and as you open it, your fingers touch silk pajamas. You know she will wear her slippers with the fur puffs on top in the hospital. You leave a note in her suitcase: “I love you, XXX OOO XXX.” (She always signs her letters to you with Xs and Os.)
At 6 A.M. you hear the clink of silverware, the clearing of throats, and the rustle of a newspaper, but not one word between them. Finally the back door shuts. The house vibrates as the garage door opens, and Grandpa takes Grandma to the hospital.
Three Christmases after your grandmother’s death, your grandfather walks slowly with his cane to the table for dinner. Your sons Cole and Ry, ages four and two, are already seated. You try to help Grandpa, but he shoos you away with his hand. When he sits, his chair falls over backward, and his head whacks the wall. You help him up, saying, “Stupid chair.” The boys are laughing. You tell them to knock it off, and they fall silent when they see the anger in your eyes.
“I’m fine,” Grandpa says, his hands on the table. His skin has a yellow tint. Your family stands for the prayer: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.” Usually the prayer makes Grandpa smile, but tonight his head hangs down.
You visit him often these days. Mostly you talk and he listens — until he dismisses you with a wave of his hand. He reads sexy Western novels. Sometimes you grocery-shop for him. “Sweet rolls and vodka,” he says when you ask what he needs.
Another funeral for a relative you don’t know or care about, but you attend because your grandpa wants you there. Your relatives are mostly strangers with familiar faces. You kneel next to your grandpa, and he holds your hand and says, “Well, what do you know,” and wipes his eyes with the back of his other hand.
He places his flowers on your grandmother’s grave instead of the newly deceased relative’s coffin. He starts to tumble backward, but you catch him. People are watching. Usually he hates attention, but this time he seems to enjoy it. He taps his cane on Grandma’s headstone. “I’ll be with you soon, honey,” he says. “I’m on my way.”
You and your kids visit him at his vacation home in La Quinta. The sun is setting pink along the golf course. Grandpa cusses at the television — goddamn this, and goddamn that — but when the boys come running into the living room to tell him good night, he softens and says, “Get a load of that. I’ll be.”
He moves to the kitchen using his walker. His hand yanks at the light switch. He has trouble unscrewing the cap from a new bottle of Smirnoff vodka; he takes his pocketknife out and struggles with the plastic seal.
Later the sound from the television wakes you. Your grandfather sits in his chair wearing only his boxers, one hand holding the remote, the other a martini. He mutes the TV and tells you he’s been watching the boys sleep, which strikes you as odd. When you check on the boys, they seem fine, sprawled on twin beds, breathing deeply. You go back to bed. Soon after, you hear Grandpa shouting, “Go to bed, God damn it! Go to bed! God damn you! Little fucker!” Your throat tightens. You hurry to the boys’ room. Grandpa is making his way back to his bedroom, hands on the wall for support, and your shoulder grazes his arm as you pass.
Ry is lying on his stomach, his face in a pillow, trying his best to keep quiet; his body makes hiccup motions. You see blood on the bedspread first, a thick mess, and you find yourself hoping it’s an old stain, but then you see the blood on the carpet. Ry is relieved to see you; he repeats, “My mamaaa. My mamaaa,” arms out, blood down the front of his pajamas. The room smells like urine. You are hot and sweaty, and suddenly you know you will throw up.
“Mommy, I peed my underwear,” Cole says. He sounds afraid.
“I’ll be right back,” you say, heading to the bathroom. “Give me one second.”
On your knees, hands gripping the toilet rim, you vomit. We’ll leave, you think. We’ll leave and never come back. I hate him. I hate him.
When you come out of the bathroom, the boys are watching you cautiously. The cut is near Ry’s chin, like a small open mouth. Cole is naked except for a dinosaur undershirt. His urine-soaked underwear lies in a mound on the carpet. A tacky portrait of your brother stares down from the wall. On the other side of the room is your portrait, unsmiling, head tilted. You’re feeling sick again.
“I’m going to ask you a question,” you say, kneeling next to Ry’s bed, “and it is very important that you answer the honest truth.” Your hands are shaking, so you set them on your thighs. “Did Grandpa hurt you?”
Ry’s eyes are full of horror and wonder. “I fell off the bed, Mama,” he says. “Grandpa yelled. He kept yelling.”
You look to Cole for confirmation, but he remains silent, watching.
“Grandpa hurt my feelings!” Ry says, and begins crying loudly.
That’s better, you think. OK. I can do this. You pull Ry’s bloody pajama top off and carry him to your grandfather’s room. Cole follows, holding the tail of your shirt.
Grandpa turns on his bedside lamp. You stand in his doorway, Ry’s legs wrapped around your waist, his fingers gripping your neck. You can feel him staring angrily at Grandpa. “He’s hurt,” you say. “I have to take him to the emergency room. The cut is deep. He must have fallen off the bed and hit his chin on the nightstand.”
“Are you sure?” Grandpa says. He looks alarmed and blinks. You know Ry is giving him a stare-down, safe in your arms. “Jesus,” Grandpa says to Ry, “I’m so sorry. Jesus Christ, I’m sorry.”
Give him time, you want to say. Your youngest holds grudges. He does not forgive easily. But then Ry surprises you. “OK,” he says, his grip on your neck loosening. “OK, Grandpa.”
Grandpa tries to kill himself soon after that. Your mother catches him in the garage in his maroon Mercedes SUV with the garage door closed and the engine running.
“He’s tried it before,” Mom tells you on the phone, “but he hears me coming up the driveway and turns the ignition off. I told him it’s not going to work with all the cracks and vents in the garage.”
You visit your grandfather in the psychiatric ward. When you were twenty, before you went into the recovery home, you spent four weeks in a psychiatric hospital for alcoholism and depression. Now you are thirty-four and have been sober for thirteen years. Grandpa is eighty-seven. He’s “code 5150,” meaning he might be a danger to himself or others. You were never 5150. He wears beige slacks and a dark green cashmere sweater.
“You look handsome,” you say.
“The people here are crazy,” he tells you. “They scream all night. I have no shower, no phone.”
“You tried to kill yourself,” you say.
He scans the room; then his eyes peer into yours. “Did you ever try to kill yourself?”
A nurse carts a tray down the hallway. Someone screams. You hear the noise of a television from the next room. “They were afraid I was going to take my life,” you say, and you pause. He knows “they” means doctors, psychologists, counselors.
“Is that right?” he asks. There’s surprise in his voice, but also something else, as if he’s proud. “Did they make you go to all this goddamn group therapy?” he asks.
You tell him you had to go to countless group-therapy sessions; you never got used to it.
“Did they ask you whether the glass was half full or half empty?”
“I don’t know whether it’s half full or half empty. It’s just a goddamn glass.”
The pay phone in the hall rings. A man answers, then drops the receiver. It hangs like a broken branch.
“Mom promised Grandma we’d look after you,” you say, although he already knows this. “Grandma said it would be hell.” The abandoned phone emits a caustic beeping. A nurse hangs up the receiver with a bang. “Grandma would want you to go out with more dignity.”
“I know,” Grandpa says sheepishly. “It’s all gone. The house — everything.” The family tried to convince him not to sell the home he’d built in Corona del Mar, but he did. After the sale was done, you attempted to comfort him about his choice.
“It’s still in my heart,” you say now, pressing your hand to your chest. “I have it inside.” Even as you comfort him, you are angry with him for having sold the house you loved.
“OK, then,” he says, and looks at his lap. You can tell he wants you to leave.
His social worker, Sally, walks you to your car. “The alcoholics always break my heart,” she says. “He’s going to find a way out of here. And most likely he’ll try to kill himself again.”
Your grandfather gets out of the hospital using his connections and his money. He pitches back cocktails at the clubhouse bar by the golf course in La Quinta. If he had a choice, if there were a switch labeled LIVE and DIE, he would flick it to DIE.
The clouds cast patches of shadow on the mountains. There is a waiter who serves only your table. He stands to the side and watches while you eat. The busboy, a small Japanese man Grandpa calls “Pee Wee,” has been clearing your plates and filling your water glass ever since you were a tot. When he pours you more water, his hand shakes, and a little liquid sloshes over the side of the glass. Your boys are running around out on the putting green. “Stop kicking the flowers!” you yell.
Afterward, crammed into the golf cart with you and your kids, Grandpa lights a cigarette. Ry sits on your lap and watches Grandpa smoke. “You are making fire,” Ry says. “Are you going to eat that stick?”
Grandpa gives him a deliciously crazy grin. You’ve seen this grin your whole life; it borders on cruel, but it still makes you feel wild with delight, and grief. With each of his self-killing acts, each drink and smoke, you feel some measure of awe. To be self-destructive and loved anyway is powerful, you think.
When you look into Grandpa’s rheumy, miserable eyes, you sense that old death wish. This is our connection, you think. He knows I know. You do your best not to let the wish take hold and drag you down, but you feel it thump at your temples.
Marsha the nurse says Grandpa can hear you, even though he is in a coma. “This is the best he’s been all day,” she says. She turns him on his side. Marsha is a gregarious, hefty woman with a large diamond wedding ring. She sucks saliva out of Grandpa’s mouth with a tube and talks about the Lord taking each person when the Lord sees fit. You are alternately revolted and comforted by her.
Grandpa is wearing a neck brace. He was drunk and stoned on antidepressants and pain medications when he fell and broke his neck. An oxygen mask covers his nose and mouth, and there’s a milky glaze over his eyes. You hold his hand and talk to him. If he weren’t in a coma, he would probably tell you to be quiet and leave. Grandpa does not like too much togetherness. Voices come from the nurses’ station, talking about last night’s episode of Sex and the City.
Marsha pokes her head between the curtains. She says his body is shutting down, points out how his toes and fingers have turned purple. “He must have been amazing in his day,” she says.
On January 7, at 6:18 P.M., your grandfather stops breathing while you are holding his hand. His eyes are open, and his eyeballs jerk involuntarily. Marsha comes in and places her fingers on his wrist, feeling for a pulse. “It’s over,” she says. Grandpa’s eyes flicker again — one last synapse firing. He is already beginning to turn yellow.
Marsha flips through his chart and makes notes. “Boy, he kept on trucking after you arrived,” she says. “He must’ve really loved you.”
“He was very resilient,” she says, and her big thighs make a rustling noise as she walks past. “Lucky you,” she says distractedly, pulling a sheet over Grandpa. “You get his genes.”
Thank you for publishing Victoria Patterson’s family memoir of alcoholism [“Sweet Rolls and Vodka,” July 2006]. Though the idea of alcoholism as a family illness has been gaining acceptance in recent decades, the strange interplay between environment and genetics is still not fully understood. Patterson’s essay reminds us of the stigma and denial that still afflict the alcoholic family, and evokes the pain, messiness, and joy that occur within it. The essay also illustrates that both the practicing and the recovering alcoholics in the family must bear responsibility for their roles in the self-destructive drama.
By creating a sympathetic and realistic account of the core truths of the alcoholic family, Patterson has made an impressive addition to the literature of recovery. I recommend her essay to anyone who seeks to understand how alcoholism damages, defines, and even strengthens the families in which it appears.