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When a Betrayal Is an Act of Love

April 21, 1993|CYNTHIA G. SOKOL

In my mother's hospital room there was a single window, and if you stood before the window you could see the Aerial Bridge. In Minnesota this is a famous bridge, often photographed on postcards, and around the bridge stretched Lake Superior, flat and pearled and vast as the sea. My mother told me over the telephone that she had a view of the lake. I was standing in my kitchen in California and willing my voice not to crack. You checked into the hospital five days ago without letting any of us know, I said carefully into the telephone, and when she answered me back I thought stupidly for a moment, she is drunk in the hospital, how can she be drunk in the hospital? "I don't want you to come," said my mother, thickly, making herself sound jolly. "I wouldn't know what to do with you. I just got tired of feeling sick, my stomach hurt, I was coughing so much. The nurses are nice. I have a view of the lake."

All of this took place in the spring, just a little while ago, and I am writing about it now because I want you to know what happens when someone you love dies of alcoholism.

I am not going to preach, or call in the sociologists, or heave around a lot of numbers and research theories and Alcoholics Anonymous advice. I did that when my mother was alive, in my own scrabbling way, and while I did it my mother went on drinking. She drank quietly and discreetly, in the privacy of her own pleasantly cluttered home. She was active in her church and traveled internationally and volunteered on committees to help the homeless and care for Latin American refugees; she read prodigiously and wrote in three languages and had friends in places like Leon, Nicaragua, and Harbin, China. You can see that she was a woman of curiosity and learning and great intelligence. She died in March, of cirrhosis of the liver, which is also what kills the men under blankets by the sewer grates.

I want you to know this, because if you are like me or like my mother you think you know it, but you don't, not really. You don't know that when an educated lady in her 60s has cirrhosis of the liver she will be lying in a hospital bed near the oncology wing and that when you get off the elevator the nurses will come toward you quickly because they need to prepare you for what you are about to see. You don't know that your first glimpse into the open door of the hospital room will be of skin, the skin of a leg or an arm, you can't tell which because the skin is green and it seems impossible that this could in fact be human skin. There must be makeup involved, or some malfunction of hospital lighting. The nurses are murmuring around you she looks pretty bad right now and the body shifts position and you see that it is not bad lighting after all. This is what cirrhosis does to the human body. Before it kills you, it turns you ochre green.

I wish somebody had told my mother that before it happened to her.

She was unbearably thirsty and for the first few days, when they thought she might recover, they gave her water only in tiny sips. When my brothers and I arrived, she asked us to sneak her some water. I suppose the irony of this request was not lost on any of us because my mother had never asked us to sneak her alcohol; in our house the gin and vodka bottles were delivered by the grocery boy and left just as seamlessly in the household garbage, having been emptied in dignified fashion into large glasses with slices of lime. My mother never drove erratically or beat us with hairbrushes or acted like one of the crazy women in the movie star exposes. It was only after she went through the residential treatment program and kept drinking anyway that she began hiding the bottles, putting them under her clothes in the bottom of the suitcase when she came to visit. She never talked about it. When we tried to talk about it, she waved her hand and changed the subject and we sat moving our mouths noiselessly behind the thick glass wall that she had pulled from the air and jammed firmly into the ground between herself and the rest of us. She was able to do this because we were her children and made ourselves too small to beat it down.

In the hospital she wore an eye patch when we arrived, but by the second day the nurses had taken it off and we saw that one eye looked as though it had exploded from inside. Apparently this was not one of the things that hurt her, but a spidery web of blood had spread across the eyeball, and it was difficult to look at her face without staring at the bad eye. Her belly was swollen where the fluids were building up. Her skin was loose around her bones, crepey and soft green. When I stroked her head her hair seemed very shiny and black to me, and I remember thinking that this was the only part of her that held what looked like life, the hair on the top of her head.

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