“You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your family.” ~My Step-Mom
A year ago, my step-mom, Cindy, passed away. She was found on her front porch by her mailman. She was 58 years old.
I like to imagine she was found in death, like I remember her best in life. Dressed to the nine’s. Hair and makeup, perfect. A Kool Mild cigarette in one well manicured hand and a Cosmopolitan in the other. Almost like she’d just stepped out of an episode of Mad Men.
In reality, I think it likely looked far more tragic. And for a woman who prided herself on optics, it seems an exceptionally cruel way for death to have come knocking.
Although she had been my step-mom for nearly 30 years, I learned of her death via Facebook; one cryptic post.
To be fair, I suppose she wasn’t technically my step-mom any more. She and my dad had divorced a few years prior and in the wake of their divorce, she made it clear that she was divorcing my brother and me as well.
So perhaps, I didn’t deserve to be counted among those who got a phone call with a gentle breaking of the news. I wasn’t family anymore.
Cindy was a beautiful, funny, vivacious, silly, complicated woman, who was also a drug addict.
It began in the late-90’s, when she was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition in the aftermath of a work related injury to her left arm. It wasn’t a serious injury, but it required minor, outpatient surgery. In the months that followed, the pain never lessened. Instead, it became increasingly more severe.
Once, while at their home for the weekend, I woke up in the middle of the night and found Cindy in the bathroom, sweating profusely. She looked like she wanted to crawl out of her own body for the pain and she couldn’t stop vomiting. Her left arm, from her elbow to her hand, was swollen and waxy looking.
When I talked to my dad about it the next day, he said it had been going on for months and no one was able to explain it. She’d been to doctor after doctor, most of whom suggested it was all in her head.
Eventually, she was properly diagnosed, but not before she began to lose some of the strength and coordination in her left hand, along with her spirit and her interest in life.
After the diagnosis, her treatment included things like nerve blocks, physical therapy, and narcotics; specifically, Oxycodone. There were other treatment options as well, but over time, she abandoned those for the quick fix of the drug.
Then, there were more drugs; many, more drugs. Drugs for insomnia, anxiety, depression, different drugs for the pain, etc., etc., etc.
By the time I was an adult, she seemed to have connections in pharmaceuticals….and not the legal kind. But, she always maintained that her doctors knew what she was taking and she didn’t seem as though she felt she needed to hide anything. The pills were always in prescription bottles with her name on them, but had I looked closer, I would have noticed the expiration dates had long since passed.
Eventually, she started mixing her meds and washing them down with alcohol. Then, my brother found a small baggie in their house that contained a white powdery substance. At first, he thought it was cocaine, but later learned, at a family gathering when Cindy became inebriated, that she’d been grinding up her medications and snorting them.
“My doctor told me to,” she said, “because it helps the medication get into my system faster and then I don’t have to take as many pills. It’s better for my liver.”
We didn’t believe her, but we didn’t question her either. There were no staged interventions, or heart-felt discussions about our concerns for her well-being. We didn’t call a hotline, or the authorities. We didn’t talk to our dad about it. We didn’t know what to do, so we didn’t do anything at all.
Looking back on those days, it was so obvious that she was losing herself and that we were losing her. Her personality began to subtly and then drastically change. Sometimes, she would wander around in a fuzzy bathrobe and a pair of Ugg slippers, looking disheveled and vacant. Sometimes, she was mean; very clearly angry with everyone and everything and looking for a fight.
But then, she would sort of snap out of it and she’d be almost back to her old self and we could still see glimpses of the person she’d used to be; impeccably groomed, upbeat and silly. Maybe she was fine after all, we’d think.
Cindy had never been able to have children of her own, save for two twin boys she had miscarried late in the pregnancy. They weren’t my fathers children, they had been conceived when she was married to her first husband.
A few years after the miscarriage, her husband was killed in an automobile accident. A few years after that, she’d had to have an emergency hysterectomy.
As a kid, I couldn’t understand all that loss. I just saw her as the kind of aunt and step-mom who never missed an opportunity to shower the kids in her life with fun.
She always came home from the store with an assortment of quirky things. Like wind up toys in the shapes of animals wearing formal wear, small tubes of slime, glow in the dark Yo-Yo’s and other treasures she’d discovered in some check-out aisle, or when wandering through a Five and Dime shop.
She brought home weird candy that came in tins shaped like coffins, or a toilet. There were sour elixirs in test tubes and lollipops with real bugs like centipedes and grasshoppers in their centers.
She also always stocked up on the latest National Enquirer, Star, Weekly World News and Sun magazines. We would all take turns reading, while laughing and seriously debating the truthfulness of the articles.
She introduced us to movies like Hairspray, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Tommy and many other off-beat flicks we watched on repeat until we had them memorized.
She loved cartoons and on Saturday mornings, we’d lounge around in the living room watching old episodes of the Flintstones, the Jetsons and the Smurfs.
When I was an early teen, she got a job at a factory that made car parts for the now defunct, Saturn automobiles. She worked a second shift, so that during our extended summer visits with our dad, someone would always be home with my brother and me.
Every morning, we would watch The People’s Court and all the daytime talk shows; Sally Jesse Raphael, Donahue, Montel Williams, Jerry Springer, etc, followed by repeats of Designing Women and the Golden Girls.
In the evenings, my brother and I would wait for her to come home and while she ate her dinner, we would watch old sitcoms on Nick at Nite, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dick Van Dyke, Rhoda and Laverne and Shirley.
Cindy loved Elvis and Rod Stewart, who she called, “Rod the Bod” and occasionally, she would break out into one of their songs, while doing a little dance and trying to entice our dad, who didn’t dance, to join her, while she giggled and swayed.
She regaled us with tales from her 20’s, that often included stories about dancing her nights away in Disco clubs.
Like the story about the man who approached her one night wearing a silk shirt, with the top most buttons undone, so as to show off his ample chest hair (sexy), and wearing a necklace in the shape of a working stop-light. She said he walked up to her and switched the light on his necklace from green to red and said, “I saw you from the across the room baby and my heart stopped.”
My brother and I would erupt into shrieks of laughter at how corny and gross it all sounded and she would say, “What!? That was cool!”
At one point, she had raced American muscle cars at a local drag strip. She would tell us that when she pulled up to the starting line, wearing a sparkly pink helmet and a rhinestone jumpsuit, the men would laugh. And then….she’d leave them in her dust.
Cindy loved a good scary story, the quirkier and more paranormal, the better. Her favorite authors were Stephen King and Dean Koontz. But as much as she loved to read scary stories, she loved to tell them more.
In the summer, we’d gather around an enormous bon-fire in their yard, surrounded by thick woods, and she would tell us an elaborate story that always had local origins. Inevitably, she would manage to scare us into screams, tears, wet pants….and afterwards, she would laugh until she cried, while recounting how scared we’d been.
She loved the water and for a number of years, she and my dad lived on a lake and we’d spend our weekends on their boat from sun up to sun down. We’d water ski and tube and read and swim and float.
She knew a million recipes that almost always included a can of some type of Campbell’s soup and my brother and I thought she was the best cook around.
I loved to watch her work in the kitchen and though I was a tom-boy with no interest in cooking, or anything domestic, I would sit on a stool at the counter and we’d chat about anything and everything, while she cooked.
She was high maintenance and a total girly girl, who took a Caboodle case full of makeup and hair products along on our annual, weeklong camping trips and I don’t recall ever seeing her without a glossy red manicure on her perfect fingernails. “A girl’s always gotta look her best” she would say.
Her hair was naturally curly and she wore it the exact same way, until she discovered Chi flat irons in early 2,000.
Her personal life and backstory were fascinating to me and she never held back the details. I could ask her anything and she didn’t hesitate to tell me.
But the questions I should have been asking later in life, I never did.
Her addiction seemed to draw to the surface old, buried wounds from her childhood and her first marriage and the loss of her babies and her inability to have biological children of her own.
And it was addiction that kept her from coping with these things in a healthy way. Instead, she began to dwell and stew in resentment and it wreaked havoc on her mental health and her relationships.
I had always imagined that Cindy would be a funny and quirky grandma for my kids. I looked forward to sending them to her house for long weekends and hearing all about the Snipe hunt she’d tricked them into and about that time she dated a Vampire.
But addiction took that away long before it was anything more than a hope. The last years that I was a part of her life were complicated and filled with anger and disappointment. We didn’t fight directly. Instead, we didn’t really talk at all, which was worse in a lot of ways.
When I needed her most as an adult, when I was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, she wasn’t capable of being there for me. But looking back on all of it, I realize that she might have needed me first and I wasn’t there for her either.
Her addiction was a well kept secret that everyone knew, but no one talked about, except in whispered side conversations. Instead of calling her out, we all tiptoed around her, hoping we’d just get through things; holidays, birthdays, funerals, weddings and other family gatherings.
I would find out later that she wasn’t in denial about her addiction. That she and my dad had many conversations and fights about it over the years. That she made promises and then tried to hide things and then decided she didn’t have to hide anything and she would do whatever she wanted.
That cycle of acknowledgment, deception and defiance, repeated itself for years.
And then, the marriage imploded and she was gone from our lives. I was angry with her for letting us go, but I didn’t reach out. I kept waiting for her to come to me. To snap out of her addiction. To realize she’d messed everything up and want to make it right.
I never fantasied that she and my dad would rekindle their romance, but I thought she would want to rekindle a relationship with me. I thought she would want to know my son and that we would figure out how to forge a new relationship in the wake of our broken family.
I wanted her to tell me she was sorry.
Then, I wanted to tell her about how I had always loved when she introduced me to people as her daughter, because it made me feel wanted and important in a way my own mother never made me feel.
I wanted to tell her that some of the best parts of me as a step-mother and a mother, I learned from her.
I wanted to tell her how grateful I was for the hundreds of wonderful things, both big and small, that she did to make our lives better.
When I became a step-mom, I wanted to tell her that I could now understand how difficult it had been for her at times, and I wanted to tell her thank-you for hanging in there.
I wanted to tell her I loved her.
Addiction doesn’t give you the things you want though and I didn’t understand that until it was too late.
I also didn’t understand Cindy’s kind of addiction. She wasn’t smoking crack, or shooting heroine.
She was taking pills that had been prescribed, at least in the beginning, by her doctor. I didn’t understand that those pills could have the same hold on her as any other drug.
I thought she could just stop taking them if she wanted to. Especially when other treatments she tried for her condition, were working and she no longer needed the pills. I thought she was choosing to be a junkie and I hated her for it.
In the end, I never said good-bye to her. After the divorce, it never occurred to me that I should. I always expected we would reconnect.
And when she died, I chose not to attend the Celebration of Life her family held. In part, because my brother and I weren’t mentioned in her obituary and the rejection stung.
For so many years, more than half or lives, we’d been her kids. She’d witnessed and participated in our milestones. She’d helped to provide for us, financially and emotionally. Now, she was gone and it all felt unfinished and permanently broken.
Life goes on though and over the past year, I’ve tried to make peace with all that happened. And the thing is, I don’t want the final chapter of her story, of our story, to define the whole thing.
It wouldn’t be fair. Not to her, or to me. Instead, I’m going to celebrate and remember the woman she was, before addiction took her away.
Goodbye Cindy. I hope you have found all the peace.