Ten years ago—though all seemed in check—my world was about to implode.
I had been enjoying an unprecedented year of international travel as the guitarist for the Young at Heart Chorus, having joined in December of 2004 and beginning our ritual of touring twice a year overseas. That year we had gone to Belgium and Holland for two weeks. Those two weeks turned into a month as the rest of my main band at the time, Drunk Stuntmen, found themselves included in the tour, finagling plane tickets and lodging, and piggybacking it all into an actual international tour of The Netherlands.
Though I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, when I think of those days I can actually feel myself as being lighter and more alive—each day floating down like a feather from an exploded pillow. The memories come to me like a dream because that’s how it all seemed, as if every day was a windy scene in a movie. Each new act circling like leaves and newspapers around and around, the frame spinning itself out of focus and the present day taking control again. And then I’m just here on my couch, 45 years old and very much sober and aware how much it all is interconnected.
I think about that time period and remember how much of a mess things were with my health and my addiction to alcohol. And while I was certainly a walking (or stumbling) disaster by all accounts, I find it amazing that I did have my life together enough to make sure that I had just enough money to get my pint of Smirnoff and six pack at the end of the day, as well as taking care of my bills, connecting with my family every few days, and playing in two successful bands.
When you first start to go to meetings, as I did for a few months, you learn some key ideas. They are laid out in clear and simple terms in order to be utilized by anybody who wants to clean up their life. But one of the big ones I’ll never forget is that staying sober seems like the hardest task in the world at first. And it’s not an easy thing to do by any means. But staying fucked up is a hell of a lot harder. You just don’t think about it like that when it’s happening because the end result is disconnecting and checking out. But when you’re trying to just stay on one level and take life as it comes, everyday can seem like a prison.
I made it through the first year of international debauchery and came back with some great stories and a few stamps on my fresh passport.
I’ll never forget telling my mom and aunt, on one of their many trips to visit me here in Western Mass, how I needed to go get my picture taken at AAA. They asked why and I told them, with great enthusiasm, that I needed a passport to go to Europe! For me this was a huge deal. And they were so happy for me, as they were both very experienced international travelers and knew how amazing it is to see a world outside of the one most Americans know. But they were also worried for me because of the same reasons they were always worried.
But I made it through 2004 and my tour of Belgium and Holland and continued to play in both bands. In the summer of 2005 my orders came in that we would be traveling to London for the last two weeks of October (a “fortnight” I was fond of joking).
I was over the moon. London. Pubs. Nightclubs. Fish and Chips. Everything comped and a nice paycheck at the end of it all.
But my return from that trip would be forever seared in my memory as the end of the first 35 years of my life.
My mother, Judy, had suffered her share of scares with her health.
Melanoma was a constant worry. It stemmed from endless instances of severe sunburns she suffered battling her lily white skin. She told me that when she was a young girl she wanted to blend in with all of the darker-skinned Portuguese and Italian girls in her hometown of Fall River, MA. But being of Polish, Irish and English heritage this was a longing that would prove to be a formidable challenge. And her many attempts of tanning would end up with disastrous results. Had we known as much about skin cancer then as we do now who knows what might have been. In the throes of youth not standing out can feel more honorable and important than any threat of illness later in life. This, I know all too well.
Judy battled numerous instances of skin cancer on her face as well as in her breasts, to the point of requiring a double-mastectomy in her early 60s. Her doctors gave her several clean bills of health and she would excitedly shared these with me as soon as she could. My mom always wanted to make sure her boy knew she was going to be okay. But I know without a shred of doubt that through it all she was more worried about me than she was for herself. She could survive without her breasts. She could recover from multiple skin surgeries. But she felt she could not recover if anything happened to me. And for all the times I seemingly attempted to check out for good I always did wake up and I always did make sure she knew I was still here. Even if "here" was used in its loosest translation.
I feel so hardened to pain and suffering now due to the events that followed. But one of my deepest regrets is not having been more aware of her struggles and the seriousness of it all when this was happening. I’m sure part of the reason I numbed myself each and every night came from my fear of losing her. But my own selfishness I will never fully forgive myself for. It’s okay, I’m not a sad person and I don’t hold a grudge against myself. But when one makes up a list of things they wish they could have done differently, me not being present for the truly life-changing twists and turns in my mother’s health would be right there at the top.
Ten years ago in September my mom was in a car accident—a fender bender. Somebody rear-ended her while driving her beloved Nissan Maxima. When I close my eyes I can remember exactly the way that car always smelled—deep and bright lavender, a result of the scented fabric softener she used. When she would pick me up at the bus stop in New Bedford on any of my many trips back home that familiar scent always made me smile as I threw my belongings in the backseat and then settled myself in with a kiss on her cheek and a hug around her big belly. I remember the way the seat belt felt across my chest in that passenger seat. She loved her little comfort-accents. One of those was the rainbow-colored fake fur wrap on the chest strap of her seat belts. It was a simple touch and I’m sure helped her find her car in a crowded lot.
But it was this same seat belt (on her side) that prolonged her life in two ways. First it, of course, protected her when she got rear ended. But in that same accident in September of 2005 she suffered a small injury to her abdomen. It wasn’t that big of a deal but, apparently, it was enough for the doctor to order some tests, X-rays or something.
And it was the result of those tests that alerted the doctor that there may be something much more serious going on than a bruised rib.
After the tests came back she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But the doctors said that thanks to the accident they had found it early enough to potentially remove it. They called it “treatable and curable.” I’ll never forget those words. Had I been of the right mind to do a quick online search I would have found out in three tenths of a second or less that pancreatic cancer was one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of the disease. It took my grandmother at age 68. In most cases the symptoms show up so late in the development that treatment often proves futile and the patient rarely has more than a few months left. But my mom had been through so many bouts of cancer that I took it in stride. The two of them—my mom and aunt—played it off too. I will never know if they did it that way so as to not worry me into drinking myself into a coma. If they only knew how bad it was with me maybe things would have been different. But the doctors gave them hope.
They told Judy Johnson that her beloved seat belt gave her more than a fighting chance.
And so, in October of 2005—right before I went away to London for those two weeks—my mom and aunt would visit me for the last time as characters in that first 35-year chapter of my life.
We went to a local family restaurant here in Northampton and got gigantic cheeseburgers with fries.
We talked about how exciting it was that I was getting to go back to Europe after just being there in the summer.
We held hands at the table and, with trembling voices, made a toast to the next time they would come to visit me—when my mom’s cancer was gone and things were back to normal.
They left the driveway of my apartment after an extremely teary goodbye. I lit up a cigarette, poured a very tall glass of vodka over ice, turned on the TV and just let time slip away.
The trip to London was a great success. It was on that run of shows that a filmmaking duo saw the group perform and approached the directors with the idea of making a movie about us—here at home in Northampton. And it was because of that movie’s international success that we traveled to Japan (twice), New Zealand, and all over the US.
We returned from the trip on the evening of October 30th, 2005. I had originally planned to take the early morning bus to New Bedford so we could all go out to lunch and have as much time as possible together before my mom had her surgery on November 1.
On the bus ride back home from the airport I borrowed a cell phone from one of the chorus members and called my mom like I always did—just to let her know we made it back to the U.S. safe. She was so happy to hear my voice she began crying. She said, “I can’t wait for this to be over. I just want this thing out of me! I just want to be able to live my life again. I can't wait to dance with you again!”
But—and this pains me to no end to say—my addiction had other plans for me. I decided it was more important to me to be able to stay up all night drinking vodka at home and sleeping late and then taking the afternoon bus back home. This meant that we would barely have any time at all to spend together as bedtime would be extremely early in order to leave for the hospital at 4am. We needed to do this to get my mother prepared to go in for a potentially 12 hour procedure.
The nerve. The fucking nerve!
I need to jump in here and say that I am writing this story not only because it marks a decade since its occurrence. But I need to remind myself that my reliance on alcohol at this time in my life clouded my judgement to the point where I made decisions for which I will always regret. And that it can and does happen to anyone who lets it. I’m not one to allow the idea that the addiction is more at fault than the person—we are proud to make our decisions freely in this country. But I will always be amazed at how deeply my compassion and ability to reason had been held hostage.
The events that followed are somewhat cloudy but I still remember pretty well.
I came in on the evening bus on Halloween—hungover, of course—and I think we had some sort of dinner. Because it was so late we ordered take out and at at the house. We all went to bed around 9pm or so and I woke up at 3am to get ready to leave the house at 4.
I was sort of mad about the whole scenario. I was also quite jet lagged and that made things all the worse.
But in the early morning hours of November 1 we got my mom in the passenger seat of my aunt’s Toyota Highlander and I curled up in the back. They threw a blanket and pillow in there so I could sleep during the 12 hour procedure. We drove to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and all walked in together. They prepped my mom for surgery and we had some time to spend together before she was rolled down the hallway.
I wish I could remember more of what we talked about in those few minutes but I do remember this. She called me in close—her only child—and said, “I want you to know, Alex, I have never been more proud of you than I am right now. Always remember this.”
This, after my insolence and grand selfishness of sleeping all morning after staying up drinking British vodka all night. She was proud of me.
I didn’t know what to say.
She said, “If anything happens to me I want you and Auntie to be good to each other. Because you will only have each other and there is nothing more important to me than to know you can get along.”
My aunt and I had had our differences over the years. She had often felt I was a selfish and spoiled brat that my mother should have disciplined long ago. But we did love each other very much, this much cannot be denied. And my work with the Young at Heart as well as my career turn as a mental health counselor had made her rethink things a bit.
I hugged my mom, poked fun at her free shower cap the hospital had fitted her with, told her I loved her more than anything or anyone and stood next to my aunt as they wheeled her away through the first set of swinging doors and around a corner.
I can still feel my heart beating as fast as it did then. I thought I might pass out and my aunt felt the same.
They gave us each one of those little plastic discs that you get at restaurants when you are going to be waiting a long time for a table. When it blinks you are supposed to come and see what’s up. I got mine and went out to the parking garage and climbed into the back seat, covered myself with the blanket and settled into the less-than-optimal surroundings for a nap.
I woke up a few hours later and had to use the bathroom.
I decided to walk back to check in on my aunt. As I was walking toward the waiting room the lights on my disc began to whirl around. When I got 50 feet away I saw my aunt standing there—pale as a ghost. She was waving me towards her and shaking profusely.
The doctors wanted to talk with us about the procedure. It was slated to take 12 hours. This was only hour four.
There’s no way this could be good.
They had done what they could but the cancer had spread.
I remember they asked if we wanted to talk to a priest and my aunt—vehemently agnostic—said “Why the hell would we want to do that? Um . . . NO!”
It was a scene. It was a horrific scene. My aunt was crying. And it was one of those times when you know something is the worst it could be and somebody is crying so you can’t join them because you feel you have to keep your shit together to help them. I’ll never forget not being able to cry with my aunt. But I held her close—she was hot and soaked with sweat from worry—and we just stood there and the magnitude of that event just rained down on us for what seemed like forever.
When my aunt was able to compose herself we walked to the cafeteria. Not that even a shred of me felt hungry but my aunt wanted to make sure we ate a salad. Because in these few years of health scares she realized how horrendous our diets had been and she was trying all she could to reverse the damage. I remember the way the tongs felt in my hand as I picked up a clump of sliced carrots and let them loose on my spinach. If felt like a front loader releasing two tons of concrete. I’ll never forget the way those carrots felt as I crunched on them and stared ahead blankly at all the other people in the dining room, some of them doctors, some of them nurses, many of them family and friends and each with a different story playing out in their heads.
But this was our story and this was our day and we had not planned on this.
I remember finally losing my shit, though, while on the phone to my friend and bandmate, Steve. I had called him on my aunt’s cell phone from the hospital entranceway. “She’s not going to be okay!” I said to him. “The cancer spread and they can’t get it out!” I was sobbing and shouting and just dripping tears.
“I’m so sorry, Fred,” he said to me “I really am.”
We realized we couldn’t do much else at the hospital that day, and there was no way we were going to be able to see my mom until tomorrow when she could talk. So we walked to the car together holding each other close. We knew she wasn’t coming home with us that day when we brought her there, but we certainly didn’t think this is how we would be leaving.
That night I’ll never forget how my aunt was a complete wreck. We stood outside in the backyard of their home in Mattapoisett and she was babbling. She was screaming about how I needed to have a child and how she wished she had children so the family would go on. She implored me to have children between crying fits. I had to shake her by the shoulders and tell her how much I loved her. I told her that none of what she is suggesting is going to help the situation right now and she needed to go in and get some sleep. I told her to look up at the heavens and think how little we are compared to the universe.
And at that point we both witnessed the most amazing shooting star across the Cape Cod sky either one of us had ever seen.
We hugged for what seemed like an hour and then went to our respective sides of the house and went to sleep.
So much happened following that first day of November in 2005.
My mother asked me—on our first visit to see her after her surgery—if I would stop drinking for her and I told her no.
I told her no because if I stopped drinking for her and then she died then what would I all have been for?
I can tell myself that this was the right thing to do but, of course, it was partly me being selfish again. And certainly it was the addiction talking.
I would spend the following two years spiraling completely out of control and diving into a world of pills and other things that I’ve written about pretty extensively. I’m certainly not proud of what I did in reaction to my mom--and then my aunt--passing away while I was still in my 30s. But I do get some sort of peace from being able to divide my life up in ten year chunks like this. To be able to look back at a full decade and see how it began—with a simple fender bender and an x-ray—and follow that through all the massive boulders in the road and tracing all the steps that it took for me to get to my DUI in December of 2007 that would start me on my path towards sobriety is really something special. To see the awakening of my soul while my aunt was alive for those first five months of sobriety—before her own terminal diagnosis—and to know that she was able to witness the seeds of my understanding of where some of my self-destructive behavior came from is something I hold near and dear.
I lost so very much in first few years following my mother’s diagnosis, but in these past ten years I have gained more than I could have ever pictured. From learning how to drive again at 35 (after thankfully swearing off car ownership at 21) when my mom bought my my trusty Subaru so I could come home to visit her, to finding the love of my life in Jodi. It has all been unforgettable. Oh, how I wish they could have all met each other, but I always feel a little less like I am without the two most important women in my life when I am with this one. And I know it is because of my sobriety that I am able to stay with her and stay present in my world.
I get up every day, wash my face with warm water and look in the mirror. In that mirror I see on my face the lines that befit a man of my age. I am not 35 anymore and I try not to pretend that I am. But I think back to the days when I was and I can feel that heaviness that I should have never lived with. I can—just for a few seconds at a time—relive that feeling of dread and regret that I woke with nearly every day. I can remember trying to retrace my steps from the night before by looking in and around the trash can for clues of what I ate and what I drank. I can still see in the faces of some people I don’t even know that they remember me as that guy. I don’t feel the need to ask them what I ever did to them. I’d rather not know. Because the hands on the clocks will always only go in one direction.
I have made my peace with my family.
I have made my peace with my friends.
I have realized where I went wrong and I understand the root of those decisions.
I can write about these days like this because they are the events that made me who I am.
And sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to have found love as true and as honest as this. I think back to all the times I thought of myself first and let others down.
But each one of our days are so very long and at any moment we can be asked to do the one thing that will change our lives forever.
That thing for me was to put down the bottle and hope to never pick it up again.
Ten years of changes is upon me now. And as they flow through my existence each and every day I can safely say that they have filled me with the joys of a lifetime.
Thanks for reading,