1st Place Winner: 2006 Curios Nonfiction Contest
My small hands hurt from tightly gripping the red steering wheel of my mother’s Ford Galaxy 500. My eyes were white with fear and my mouth gaped open because it was easier to inhale the scent of stale alcohol through my mouth than through my nose. We were heading east on an old narrow highway and whenever a westbound car passed me, my grip on the wheel tightened, as my white knuckles showed. I was nervous and anxious because we were on our way to Hillcrest Cemetery. Worried, I’d turn my head and look down to my right, taking in quick glimpses of my mother. She lay slumped next to the passenger door like a rag doll. Her rough, worn hands lay limp a few inches from my right thigh, her starched white blouse was wrinkled and the threads on three of her buttons were stretched to their limits. Sadly, I thought to myself that even sleep could not bring her peace. Her face still looked terribly anguished.
Hours earlier she called me up at home and got me out of bed. I picked up the phone to hear her slurred voice on the other end, asking me to pick her up from a local dive, which was a few minutes drive from my home in La Junta, Colorado. Like so many torturous nights before, she had been drinking too much and needed a lift home. I complied and picked her up. It was 1970, and I was an anorexic-looking teenager, all arms and legs, much like a spider monkey.
One of the many tragic events that sent my mother into this downward spiral was the death of her eldest son. The controversial Vietnam War was raging on, and young men’s bodies were being shipped home in record numbers. One of those bodies was my brother’s. Tony was 20 years old and a short-timer, which meant that his tour of duty was almost complete. In a few months, he would have been released from his voluntary three-year enlistment with the U.S. Army.
And his death was senseless. He had joined several of his friends at the enlisted men’s club for a party when several soldiers started dunking their comrades into a barrel of water. A fight broke out between two soldiers, one of whom pulled out a knife, the other an M-16. My peacemaker brother tried to calm them down, but tragically, he was unable to do so. He stepped toward the man with the M-16, his hands in the air. It would be his last step. Some said that the M-16 accidentally went off; others held that it was aimed and fired at Tony’s head. I imagine that his young body was lifeless before he hit the barroom floor. Life for this courageous man was over, but life at my house would never be the same.
The Army labeled the incident an accident; however, my mother and my siblings suspected cold-blooded murder. The Army added salt to our wounds when my brother’s murderer was sentenced to only one pitiful year of hard labor. My brother was described as “a man’s man,” a paratrooper, and an expert marksman. He had earned the hard-to-achieve good conduct medal and the bronze star.
Mother grieved for three horrifically long years before she recovered. She tried to escape her unbearable pain with the help of bottles of beer chased by shots of mourning and grief. She was visited constantly by such vile companions as anger, despair and frustration. My four siblings and I tried to chase them off, but they were too sly and crafty for us. In fact, they ran circles around us.
They followed her everywhere, so when I picked up my intoxicated mother from the bar, they came along with us. She told me to go to the liquor store. Gloom immediately took me over, and for a fleeting moment, I thought of saying no. The liquor store was just a few blocks away, and my mother quickly opened up her quart of beer.
Before we could reach the house, it started happening again, mourning and despair tried to scratch their way out of my mother’s body. Not addressing anyone in particular, Mama screamed, “He killed my son like a dog.” Her piercing screams and heaving sobs turned to painful yelps, like a wounded dog being slowly tortured to death. My mother’s beautiful face looked like melting wax, contorted into dozens of faces of desolation. Mama, who was always so careful about her appearance, was now tearing at her starched white blouse with her long fingernails. Her blood-red lipstick was smudged. As if possessed, she took to tearing at her perfectly teased bouffant. Hair was floating in the air in all directions, tufts of her shiny black hair in her hands, the hands of a hardworking woman.
I backed away and stared. The only words I could muster were, “Mama, mama, please!” But my begging fell on deaf ears. Mama was lost to me at that moment. It was beyond painful to see her hurt like this. My young mind was unable to process what it meant for my mother to lose her child in such an irrational manner. My heart sank, my nerves were on edge and I felt so helpless – I just wanted it all to stop.
Then those familiar words slurred out of her melting mouth: “Take me to Tony’s grave.” As always, she instructed me to take the back road to the cemetery. I felt my body grow stiff and my stomach started to churn. No argument came from me, just a small scared voice. “Yes, Mama.”
So there I was at one in the morning, driving twenty miles to Rocky Ford, where my brother had been laid to rest. I was only fourteen, certainly not old enough to obtain a driver’s license, although getting pulled over by the police seemed less of a threat to me then telling my fiercely determined mother, “No.”
I began to pray silently, hoping that she would pass out before we reached the cemetery. “Oh please Lord, oh please Lord, make her pass out,” I prayed over and over in a silent, frantic voice. And God was merciful to me that night. Mama did pass out; I would not have to endure another night at the cemetery.
Now, I needed to find a spot on the highway wide enough for a U-turn – our reverse gear was broken. I continued to pray that I could make the turn just right and not get stuck on this lonely highway in the dead of the night. After successfully turning around, I decided to get off this lonely road and onto Highway 50, but once on the highway I started to panic. I didn’t recognize the road. I thought I was lost, so I pulled over and knocked on a farmer’s door. When no one answered, I took off.
Mama and I did make it home that night, and I look back on that night now with forgiveness and understanding. My two grown daughters are close to their sober grandmother, who drank her last bottle in 1974. Mama put that fierce determination of hers to good use when she went back to school to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Though she is now retired, she still has a heart for helping “lost souls,” and you can find her phone number under the Alcoholics Anonymous listing in the La Junta phone book.