There are 85.4 million mothers in America.
On Mother’s Day this year my mother isn’t one of them, and for the first time since Babe died in 2014, I’m glad.
I called Mom Babe, because she asked me to — she disliked her given name, Gladys. Besides, it was fun to say, and it suited her. She was some Babe. She was so much livelier than most mothers I’ve known. Her party drugs of choice — d & d — were drinking and dancing. “Your Dad and I definitely never sat and just drank alcohol,” she said. “We danced!” ‘Never sit if you can dance’ was her mantra.
I had Babe for almost 98 years, and I was greedy for more. Until now. Because how would this mother of the 20th century, whose worst vices had been a scotch and soda at cocktail hour, and a bite of Ambien at bedtime, make sense of the fact that Tony, her first grandson, had died at 43 of an opiate addiction?
Almost daily the media repeats the C.D.C. estimate that there are 47,000 drug overdose deaths a year, primarily from addiction to prescription painkillers. Most of us can identify alcohol abuse, but who amongst us can identify the clues of opiate excess?
About three years ago, Tony had visited my husband and me in Southern California. Tony, who was always game for anything fun, had been hula-hooping with me and my LED lighted hoops in the backyard. It was crazy, silly fun, and I thought I was seeing the new and recovered Tony. Until the next day when I was on my way out to the grocery store, and I asked if I could pick up anything for him.
“Beer,” he said.
“Beer?” I was taken aback. I was not buying him alcohol and told him so. Years earlier, he’d entered a facility for alcohol abuse, but he checked himself out after the first week, saying the therapist said he had a personality disorder, not an alcohol problem. I was clear that I wouldn’t be an enabler with alcohol, but when and how had opiates slipped into his picture, and had I unwittingly been an enabler? Because like most people who have had the occasional surgery — a meniscus tear, a rotator cuff repair — or who have traveled to exotic places where emergency medical care is scarce, my husband and I had leftover opiates in the house (Percoset, Vicodin), and we never hid them when Tony visited. And like most Americans we weren’t used to thinking that Tony — white, college-educated, 6’3’ handsome, a talented writer, a global traveler, and a good cook — fit the stereotypical profile of a drug addict.
Tony had visited Babe the last year of her life when she was enrolled in hospice care because of her stroke. Afterward on the phone Mom had mentioned that he hadn’t looked so good; He’d gained weight, he looked pale, and bloated. But none of us connected the dots. Meanwhile, taking up the entire second shelf in her refrigerator was a white paper bag, the hospice comfort pack, an arsenal of pain pills, including hydromorphine and codeine. It did not occur to any of us that those very opiates, that in Babe’s case were on hand to numb pain at the end of life, were the “cocktail” that her talented grandson had graduated to. Why had our smart family been so dumb, so caught off-guard by this national epidemic? And what could we have done that would have been more successful than Tony’s one aborted attempt at alcohol rehab?
As my husband, Ed, and I were leaving Seattle after attending Tony’s memorial service, I said to him, “I keep thinking I have to tell Mother about this.”
Our next family trip to Seattle was supposed to have been for Tony’s wedding, not his funeral. Just that November he had proudly proposed to his fiancée with a diamond from Babe.
“What would you tell her?” Ed asked.
“I’d tell her what a heroic job my brother did at the service.”
When my brother had phoned on January 3, his voice trembling, he said Tony was hospitalized, on life support in Bangkok, where he and his fiancée had flown for a vacation. The doctors hoped he’d pull through. Just half-an-hour later, Jim called back in tears, the only time I ever heard my 70 year-old brother cry. Tony had died.
“This is the first time I’m glad Mother isn’t alive,” I said. “So she doesn’t have to know this.”
The last time Jim saw Tony was just 17 days earlier in mid-December. Jim was home, just west of Austin, recovering from hip replacement surgery. He’d been discharged with 100 hydrocodone pills, 10 mg, for pain, as needed, the legitimate use for which this drug was intended. His surgeon had told him to keep ahead of the pain, but after taking seven pills, he quit; the bottle with the remaining 93 pills was on the kitchen counter. After paying a brief sick visit to his dad, Tony left to pick up lunch, and he had a few beers. When he returned he spotted the pills on the kitchen counter.
Jim heard the recognizable sound of the bottle of pills being opened. When he confronted his son with the half-empty bottle, Tony said, “I only took three.” He’d already swallowed them. “In case my ankle hurts.”
“Your ankle’s fine,” said Jim. “You either return all the pills you’ve stolen, or take them all if you think you need them worse than I do”.
Tony lied, saying he returned all the pills. “You want to count them?” he asked, knowing he’d kept sixteen. Then he lay on the bed next to his dad, and Jim said he could feel the stubble of his son’s beard. In a dreamy, far-away voice, Tony said, “I like pills.”
My brother knew the moment his son was conceived, and he knew then, at that moment, that his son was gone.
About halfway through Tony’s memorial service, I nudged Ed, “Is no one going to speak about the cause of his death?”
The last speaker, Jim, my brother, approached the podium slowly and reluctantly; he was using a cane because he was only seven weeks post-op. His dark suit hung limply off him; He was the one who had made the arrangements with the U.S. embassy in Bangkok to release his son’s body to Chris, his younger son who had flown to Bangkok in his stead. As Jim stood before the lectern, and looked out over the sea of hundreds of mourners in that hotel ballroom, he choked. Then my brother, always tall at 6’9,” stood even taller, as he confronted Tony’s addiction head on. Although he hadn’t been able to save his own son, he said maybe someone present today dealing with addiction in their own family, still could. For the first time in the service, I cried, and so did Ed. Babe would have cried, too.
After the family group hug where all us were shaking and sobbing, and after drinks and appetizers were passed, Marion, who I’ve known since I was 11, revealed that she had a grandson who was an addict, who had been in and out of rehab, and he’d stolen a diamond ring from her, and money. And Marion’s brother, David, who had just had a kidney transplant, said that when they have guests his wife puts their pills away because you never know.
The shame and stigma of friends and family of drug-addicts that have help keep this current epidemic silent. My brother’s openness in speaking about his son’s addiction, finally blew the subject wide open in our circle of friends and family.
As a grandmother, Babe would have suffered inconsolably over the loss of her grandson, and yet as a mother, she would have been extraordinarily proud of her son.