This piece originally appeared in my Off the Clock with The Checkout Girl column, over at RVA News.
My kids and I are big text messagers. Whether they are at school, or I am at work, they are with friends, or I am out doing errands, our lives don’t lend themselves to phone conversations. And goodness knows, with a 16 and an 18 year old, actual face time is limited to the one dinner and one weekend day per week that we brainstormed everyone could spare without seriously effecting their social standing.
So, we tap out our messages, on our cell phones, in a modern day Morse Code.
From the common, everyday stuff:
* Can we go to Red Lobster tonight?
* We can’t afford it. Doctor bills have us pretty broke until payday.
* Okay. Dollar menu at BK, then?
* Help! I have a bag of Doritos on my bed that I need for a class party in English. Can you bring them to school please?
* That’s exactly how I’d dreamed of spending my day off! Sure.
To the comical:
* I didn’t get raptured. You?
* I’m at Target, so I can’t tell.
* Pooping so much in the IHOP bathroom. There’s NO WAY the people in the restaurant can’t hear it.
* Well, I’m glad you had your phone with you to share this moment with me.
* Smartypants. Okay, gotta go pretend the noises were someone else. Love you!
To the touching base to let each other know that we care:
* Hey mother, did you know you are the coolest, awesomest mom in the entire world?
* Did you know you are the best daughter? Besides Dakota Fanning, I mean. Duh. I loves you.
* How was your doctor’s appointment? Did they figure out that you are a zombie?
* No, I went brain-free the entire time! But now I’m starved!!
* So you’re okay? I was worried. Good about the brains, though.
When Jeff Conaway died recently, I knew my daughter would take it hard. I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else, so I texted her.
* Goddamn it, Jeff Conaway died.
* Oh. He had a hard life.
* Should we talk about this when I get home?
When I got home, we did talk about it. She asked if he had finally died of an overdose.
We took to the internet for more info. She nodded as I read the details out loud. Pneumonia. Coma. Life support. Terminated.
We both had tears in our eyes.
Why should the death of a 60-year-old, washed up actor, matter to a 16-year-old high school sophomore and her checkout girl mother? Yes, we both grew up on the movie Grease, knowing every word of every song, and dreaming of our dream parts should the movie version of a Broadway play ever need a fresh-faced remake. But there’s more. An undercurrent to every sensational, drug-related Hollywood death. Corey Haim. Michael Jackson. Greg Giraldo. All, the same reaction.
A look cross-wise. A second where we meet each other’s gaze and time stops, then we look away and life is back to normal.
We love an addict.
My brother, her uncle, struggles with addiction.
Born when I was 16, my brother, now 22, is more like my child than sibling. For the first three years of his life, I helped care for him, before marrying and having children of my own. My kids have grown up with him, spending weekends and school vacations with him, and embracing him more as a brother than an uncle. And we all love him, right down to our core.
Time and tide took us away from our hometown of San Diego and landed us in Richmond. And, while we had all kept in touch, I hadn’t actually seen my brother in two years when I got a call from my dad.
“Your brother is a heroin addict.”
Confusion. Tears, yes. Anger, yes. But, mostly, confusion.
I mean, sure, we come from alcoholics and eaters, but heroin? What was that, even?
My brother went to rehab, while I went to educate myself. He learned 12 steps while I learned what he’d been going through for five years. He struggled with his demons, while I struggled to revise, in my head, the image of the boy that I thought I knew inside and out. Guilt over not having been there gave way to a vow to be there now, even though I’m not actually there.
And he still struggles, daily. One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back. We believe in him. And love him, as much as we ever did. More, in fact, because now we are loving him for who he really is, not who we thought he was.
But every middle of the night phone call brings the same cross-wise look, as my children and I meet in the living room to check the caller ID. There’s a slight feeling of sadness when we recall family fun from the past, and a slight feeling of worry when we talk about the future.
And I text them a bit more. Sometimes to tell them to watch out for dog poo when they get home because I saw it while I was running out the door but was already late for work, and sometimes to tell them that I love them and am proud of the choices they are making.
Will my brother overcome this? My heart will only allow me to believe yes. The thought of any other possibility leaves me paralyzed, and I have things to do. And his struggle has brought my children and I closer, more willing to express our feelings because we know that tomorrow is a promise not always kept.
As for Jeff Conaway, I read, about a year ago, that he wanted to die at home, and was requesting a Viking funeral, including being burned on a boat and sent out to sea. While he didn’t get those things in the end, he got peace. We all do, some of us just need it more than others.