I’ve spent my life waiting for things to change, expecting the worst, counting on crises, and planning for disasters.
I watch the cigarette ash beginning to bend, threatening to break apart and scatter on the Persian rug. My body tenses, waiting for it, wanting to stop it. But I force myself to think about the painting on the wall—the one a distant cousin painted of the ancestral home in Norway—anything to take my mind off the cigarette. I’m 8 years old, and I know it’s not my place to correct her. At the last possible moment, Grandma moves her cigarette toward the ashtray and taps it. Disaster averted. For now.
When we stayed with my maternal grandparents in Madison, Grandma slept late; Grandpa fixed breakfast: toast with Smucker’s raspberry jam. We ate in the kitchen, with the cracked counter-tops. I slept in the small bedroom under the attic stairwell and snuck up the narrow stairs, browsed the musty books, and inhaled mothballed trunks filled with Madame Alexander dolls and sheet music. My great-grandmother’s braided rag rugs hid the wood floors throughout the 200-year-old house. Lace doilies covered the soiled armrests of the living room furniture.
She died when I was 18, having suffered a stroke two years previously, which left her paralyzed and speechless. At the nursing home, her eyes darted about, occasionally filling with tears, expressing something the rest of her body could not. I regret not speaking to her before she lost her voice. But I was a teenager and not at all interested in the life of an old woman who had never showed me much love and now drooled on her hospital gown.
What I know now is this: After her last child was born, Grandma started using Demerol to manage the pain of her angina. Somehow, she progressed from pain management for angina to daily injections, which my grandfather, a pediatrician, administered.
She used the painkiller for 20 years. Then my grandpa died of kidney failure. Following his death, I imagine Grandma suffering withdrawal alone. Enduring vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, chills, sweats, body aches, and delirium. Not to mention grieving for her dead husband.
I wouldn’t learn about her addiction until 10 years after she died.
Four years after my parents told me Grandma’s secret, I met my future husband. At that point he was only drinking and using pot, but two cities, two houses, two children, and two dogs later, I found pills hidden in our kids’ old dresser in the spare room.
What were they? Heart racing, I researched the pills’ color, shape, and identifying information online: Vicodin.
Somehow I’d always known—what the pills were, how they disappeared, why his moods changed, where the extra money went. He’d taken pills from me before—when our daughter was born and the doctor prescribed Lortab for my post-C-section pain. I never said anything, just denied the truth and constructed an alternate reality for myself so that I could stay with the father of my children. But this time I was terrified. When I confronted him with the pills, I realized he was terrified too.
I supported him while his body withdrew from the opiates: vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, chills, sweats, body aches, and delirium. I found him AA meetings and an AA sponsor. Then he relapsed.
But this time he couldn’t quit by himself. So I found him a physician who would prescribe him Suboxone to dampen the cravings. I found him new AA meetings and another AA sponsor. When he started drinking and smoking again, all I could say was “I’m tired.”
I’m tired of worrying about what will happen when—not if—he uses again. I’ve spent my life waiting for things to change, expecting the worst, counting on crises, and planning for disasters.
The disaster has already occurred. By looking for pills where I know I’ll find them, I live the reality I’m so afraid of inhabiting. My husband’s already relapsed.
And my Grandma’s cigarette ash fell long ago.
Becky Jo Gesteland is a professor of English at Weber State University, where she teaches classes in American literature and technical writing. Her previous publications include interviews with Geraldine Brooks and Alice Sebold (for Weber: The Contemporary West); a cultural analysis of anthropologist Gladys Reichard’s fieldwork with the Navajo (for Plateau Journal); and articles on content management, program assessment, and XML (for various technical communication books and journals). Becky’s latest project is a personal essay collection titled “Unraveling.”