The holidays. Those two words used to bring such joy to my heart and plans to my head. I would head to the store with my list and always ended up with more than I bargained for. I would envision the day. The table, the turkey, family and friends, all together celebrating our blessings. We started in the dining room, but always ended up in the kitchen. Pouring more wine, picking on leftovers, and laughing about how much we ate. Three generations gathered under one roof. Even the pups shared in the spirit of the day, lying under the table knowing which person was tender hearted and would drop pieces of turkey into their waiting mouths.
Three years ago, my youngest son Matt was living in a half-way house a thousand miles away from home. His absence left a void in my heart, but his recovery was the most important thing on my mind. I called his cell as we were all gathered around the table. Each one of us took turns sharing the day, and praising him for his new way of life. We all agreed he sounded great, just like the old Matt before his addiction took over his life and nearly destroyed ours.
We all loved Matt and desperately wanted him to live a life of joy, returning to the person he was before the demons took over. I felt a bit of guilt not bringing him home for the holidays, but I feared being home would be a trigger, and connect him with the ones that brought him down. I couldn’t and wouldn’t take that risk. I hid my tears, and put on the same smile that I so often did during his active addiction. My husband and older son were the only ones who knew the turmoil that was in my heart.
Before we knew it, the Hallmark commercials were on TV, and Christmas was only a few weeks away. The turmoil returned and once again we needed to make a choice about bringing Matt home for the holidays. I missed him terribly and was not used to him being away for so long. But once again, we decided his recovery was the priority over my need for an intact family and we shared the holiday by phone and photo. Seeing Matt dressed up as Santa eased my pain of his absence, and gave me the assurance that Matt was handling the holidays away from home better than I was. Our traditional Christmas open house was its usual success, but again, my heart felt the void left by Matts absence. I would tell myself, “once a mom, always a mom”, and try to move on.
As the mother of a long-term addict, I got used to rethinking some of the decisions we made during periods of recovery and relapse. We always did what we thought was best at that moment in time. I trained myself not to rethink every choice, or allow that bit of doubt to grow into something my mind would not be able to control. I constantly lived on the edge (as I think most families of addicts do), never fully relaxing or thinking we were out of the woods.
I guess you could call it a mother’s instinct. January was right around the corner and I’d read that so many relapses occur on New Year’s Eve. Every commercial promoted drinking and partying which once again sent my nerves on high alert. I would cringe at every ad promoting partying to bring in the New Year. There was no escape. It seemed that if you weren’t attending a party, and holding a drink in your hand, that you just weren’t a part of the “in” crowd. I allowed myself a false sense of security in knowing that alcohol was not Matts go to drug- Opioids and Benzos were.
Once again, we shared the holiday by phone- a thousand miles away from each other. He attended an NA meeting, as I watched the ball drop from my couch. We spoke the following day. All seemed well, except for the nagging doubt in my gut that something was off.
January 3, 2015 changed the dynamics of our family forever, and how we would celebrate future holidays. Two days after we rang in the New Year with high hopes for new beginnings, Matt was gone from an overdose. He became one of the many people who just couldn’t fight the fight any longer. The pressure to fit in was just too much. Just one more time, as so many addicts think they can do, just one more time and survive. But, he didn’t.
Years have passed since that fateful day. The holidays are weeks away, and the joy I once felt is overshadowed by the pain of a son gone forever. Our family, once temporarily separated by addiction is now permanently fractured. Traditions have changed forever. One son, who will never return. His temporary absence has now become permanent. My mind will always wonder if we made different decisions, would that have kept our family intact? I will never know, but as I said before, we always did what we thought was best at the time.
The holidays- two words that once brought such joy to my heart, now brings a feeling of mixed emotions. The profound joy I once felt is now overshadowed by grief. I look around and see the smiling faces of mothers pushing their carts loaded with the fixings for holiday dinner, and remember how life used to be. I am jealous of the smile on their faces, and the spring in their step. I yearn to turn back time, and feel the anticipation of the feast I would be creating with all my loved ones sitting around the holiday table. The stress I once felt is nothing compared to the void I now live with.
There is no instruction manual for surviving this time of year. Nothing to guide moms like me as we prepare for the celebration of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s after the death of a child. I remember watching “A Christmas Carole” with the ghost of Christmas past reminding Scrooge of the people he loved. I will close my eyes and think of past holidays and allow the joy to fill my aching heart. I will remember the smile of my son who is no longer here. I will hear his laugh and feel the warmth of his big bear hug. I will look around at my family and friends and allow their happiness to find a place in my soul. I will thank God for blessings that found their way through the grief that filled my life.
I will live each day to the fullest, knowing that tomorrow is promised to no one. I will take no one for granted. I will honor my son by continuing our family traditions, and will remember the love we shared as we transcend through the holidays and find comfort in that for the rest of my life. Mat’s last words are forever etched in my heart, “I love you mom”
I love you Matt.