“Mommy? Do you still love Daddy?”
I rolled an omelet onto Molly’s favorite plate and placed it on the kitchen table where she sat doing homework. I helped her push her papers aside before sitting next to her with a salad. Determined to make up for all of the lies in our life by always telling her the truth, I struggled to answer as I speared a tomato. I knew she wanted a one-word answer, and hoped it to be yes. I didn’t know what to say. I often asked myself the same question these days. Did I still love this man whose addiction wreaked havoc in our lives? I imagined Molly thought if I answered ‘yes’ to her question, everything would be fine, but I couldn’t. Everything wasn’t going to be fine – not yet, maybe never.
“I feel so many things about Daddy right now Molly. Yes, I love him. But honey, I don’t want life to be crazy anymore.”
Molly accepted my answer asking, “Does this have cheese in it?” my cue to stop talking.
With Neil gone, a heavy mantle of worry seemed to lift from the house. Days became predictable. Only his phone calls shattered our peace. The thrill of returning ‘home’, (as he still called England) of seeing friends and family, seemed to last only a week. He grew more agitated as I quizzed him. “What about rehab? You’re going to do rehab, right?” I asked.
“Honestly, we don’t have any rehab places in the Midlands. There aren’t even regular AA meetings here and I really miss them. But I’m seeing my GP regularly,” he said as if that were enough. Then he changed the subject.
“There are so many beautiful little villages around here. There’s one I went to yesterday that has a lovely school Molly could even walk to… and we’re so close to Europe. Remember how we used to love our trips?”
He launched into the perfect scenario he’d concocted for us – we just needed to step into our assigned spots.
“Look, you wouldn’t even have to work. You could paint and write,” he offered me my favorite fantasy. I wouldn’t bite. The phone felt like it was turning cold in my hand as he described our imagined life. I knew enough of the lingo of addiction and recovery by now to recognize this ‘geographic’. Rather than deal with his issues, he acted like moving to England was solution enough. In fact, he was back where his problems began.
A week later, news of Neil’s two dodgy friends christened by Molly (along with her father) the three stooges, being arrested was splashed across the front-page of our local paper. My stomach soured remembering the afternoon I left Molly with these guys in my house. But I couldn’t help feeling vindicated as I reported this close call to Neil.
“You should consider yourself lucky to be there, rather than in jail with your buddies. According to the paper, the FBI has been watching them for months so I’m sure they know who you are too. Listen Neil, since you might easily have been in jail, why not think of this as an opportunity at real freedom, and do the necessary work?”
“I’m getting it sorted! Why won’t you believe me? And it’s bloody hard, I can tell you,” he said.
News of the arrest seemed to calm him for about a week but his moods were still erratic. He often called to yell at me, his fury stoked by drink and who knows what else.
“You – you’ve lost nothing! I’ve lost everything! I’m the one over here struggling and you have Molly and the house and I haven’t a pot to piss in! You still have everything!”
I held the phone away from my ear as he screamed. Sometimes I tried reasoning with him but when Molly was not home, I yelled my rage right back across the Atlantic.
“Yes I did lose, Neil. I’ve lost a lot! I’ve lost time — all those years when I should have been enjoying our beautiful daughter instead of stressing about you! Don’t you even think about that? What you’ve missed? Not to mention all the money! God, I can’t even think about that without feeling sick to my stomach. But most of all, it’s the time, Neil. It’s all the fucking wasted time, all of our dreams. You shattered them so don’t even suggest it was my fault!”
I stood in the living room screaming at the top of my lungs. The other end of the line grew quiet.
“Listen,” I lowered my voice, “You have to understand: we were on a sinking boat together – the three of us. It finally dawned on me that if Molly and I were going to survive, she and I better get out of the boat. Because the fact is, you never cared if we all drowned – you weren’t going to save us because you were sinking it. I did lose something, Neil: I lost you. I lost my husband.”
Was he listening?
“And I still hope you can get yourself out of that sinking ship, that you can save yourself. But let’s be clear: you did this, not me. And to hear you go on at me, it’s clear you still don’t own your own shit! I have news for you: this is not my fault!”
He’d hung up.
Molly was not spared the drama or manipulation. One evening she got off the phone in tears, “Daddy was crying! He wants to come home but says you won’t let him!”
“No honey, he can’t. Not yet. He’s not ready and I’m not ready.”
“When is he going to be ready?”
“That’s a good question. I really wish I knew the answer.”
After these agitated phone calls, anger and sadness reverberated through the house for hours. Some nights he called again and again making terrible threats one minute and then calling back a half hour later, weeping and begging for my forgiveness.
I worked hard to remain detached reminding myself there was nothing I could do for him, no threat or trick or drama I could concoct so he would finally experience his defining moment, his bottom. Without him in the house such detachment became easier. Only his calls drew me back onto the track of anxiety worn into my psyche over the years so I began to let the answering machine pick up, lifting the receiver only if he sounded calm and sane, otherwise leaving him to rant on tape.
Life without the worry and daily fallout from Neil’s addiction was a revelation. I connected with neighbors and made new friends. Single parenting no longer seemed so daunting as I realized the love and support available to me. When school was cancelled due to winter snowstorms the phone rang with offers from neighbors inviting Molly to stay with them if I needed to go to work. We became particularly close to two families a short walk from our house. Molly would hang out with their children while I shared wine, meals and laughs with Christine and Amina. I felt less alone.
I had long been the sole provider plus, unknowingly, supported Neil’s addiction so why did I doubt I could support just us? The shrink with the bed in his office was right: I had acted like a mother to him, picking up the shattered pieces left after he’d barreled on to feed his habit. No more. The economics felt fragile but I would figure it out, just as I always had. Money could no longer be one of my excuses for inaction.
Reluctantly, I agreed Neil could spend Christmas with us. Through the years, he’d always rally to decorate the house, cook an elaborate, roasted meal and somehow manage to buy a ridiculous number of gifts I knew we couldn’t afford while I scrounged for bargains so house bills would still get paid. I dreaded disrupting our serenity but Molly was excited to have her daddy home for the holiday. Grouchy from retail madness, I was no match for his spirit. I would be glad this year for the excuse of the crazy shopping season for working long hours – and avoiding him.
A taxi pulled into the driveway and my jaw set into a familiar clench. I watched from the house as he got out of the car. He looked healthy, like he’d gained weight since September. Molly rushed out of the house into his outstretched arms. I watched from the window as he lifted her up in the air and covered her with kisses. As they came through the doorway we hugged and I gave him a quick peck and tasted tobacco. I asked him about his family and life in England and he launched into his vision of our life together living in a little village in the West Midlands. I tried not to pay attention. The old fantasy that he might actually get his life together and be able to support both himself and his family had not vanished from my mind. Only with this story, the one he made up about our potential life in England, did it seem we had any possible future.
With all of his bridges burned in the States, his credit shot and friendships strained, Neil agreed that England would give him a chance to start fresh and get on his feet again. He had been working in his brother’s pub and seemed excited by the opportunity to help make the business successful.
The days passed without incident. The house sparkled with lights, the tree too big for our little house, was gorgeous. Molly cuddled up on the couch with him watching re-runs of holiday movies while a blazing fire filled the room with warmth. It looked idyllic. I stayed away, working as much as possible. We were civil, even sharing the bed although it was as if an invisible wall neither of us breeched ran down the center of the mattress. I woke often in the night, hovering on the edge, my fists and jaw clamped tight.
I left early for work and when I came home Neil asked to borrow the car so he could go to AA meetings. I furtively cleared the mileage meter and the next day saw that he’d put more than forty miles on the car. AA meetings were less than 5 miles away. I resumed my searches between cracks in the cushions and boxes in the basement, scanning the floor for white powder. I found nothing.
On his best behavior, he kept almost normal hours and was good-natured, even funny. He cleaned the house, cooked the meals and was affectionate and attentive to Molly. It was helpful having the extra set of hands and Molly was getting long overdue time with her father. I trusted none of it. I counted the days until his departure. Christmas morning, he showered Molly with presents brought from England and gave me a ring set with three stones saying they represented our family and his love for us. The weight of it on my finger felt uncomfortable.
We were upstairs in the bedroom putting away laundry when he asked me, “Can I borrow $300?”
“No! What the fuck? I don’t believe you! You haven’t given us any money and I’m scraping by here to keep everything together and you’re asking me for $300? No, I can’t give you $300!”
I yanked a handful of clothes out of the basket, throwing his into a separate pile for him to deal with. I folded Molly’s little shirts, pants and pajamas touching the soft fabric to my nose, the combination of her sweet scent and laundry detergent calming me.
“All right. All right, that’s fine.”
He picked up a gray, once white t-shirt and folding it, continued, changing the subject.
“So you’ll both come to England during Molly’s February break, right?”
He grabbed his socks and underwear with one hand and put them into the bureau drawer.
“Yeah,” I answered unenthusiastically.
“I promise you’ll have a great time. I have some dosh coming to me next month so I’ll send you plane tickets. You’ll see for yourself how our life would be so much better there. You’ll love it!”
I listened, my pulse racing.
“What? Don’t you want to come over?” he asked in response to my silence.
“Of course I do. But I want you to get your life together, Neil. That’s what’s important to me. That you are clean and can pay your bills.”
“I am clean! I swear on Molly’s life, I’m clean! And I am going to take care of you both. You watch – I’ve got the pub now and I can always get a job driving.”
I lifted Molly’s pile of clothing off the bed.
“I need to get dinner started.”
“I’ll do it. How about some eggs and chips?”
“Fine. I’ll get Molly in the bath before dinner.”
Neil had befriended a taxi driver during his stint at the train station and had arranged for this friend to drive him back to the airport. I thought this extravagant – the airport shuttle bus would be cheaper – but I figured his friend must have given him a good deal. On the day Neil left, we hugged in the driveway as the driver put his suitcase into the trunk of the cab.
“I’ll see you both in February – only 6 weeks away. I love you!”
He leaned out of the window blowing kisses and waving at us as long as the car was in sight of the house. Molly and I went inside.
“I don’t want Daddy to go! Why can’t he stay, Mommy?”
“I know hon, it’s hard to say goodbye. But we’ll go to England and see him during your February break. That’ll be fun, seeing your sisters and all those cousins.”
The week had gone better than I imagined. I kept my cool and he stayed calm. There were no scenes. Anyone peering in the window would think us the model family. And I couldn’t quite let go of the hope that things might work out in the end. I believed he loved us. As much as was possible for him, he really loved us. Molly and I went back into the house now strangely empty without Neil’s energy. But as I pushed the door closed behind us, I breathed a sigh of relief.