“Training Wheels” by Amie McGraham

“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

The Proposal

He proposed to me in a roomful of people, from the podium of the drab fellowship hall. Coffee brewed in the kitchenette; someone had brought a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. “’Boy meets girl on AA campus,’” he said, the microphone carrying his confident voice across the room. “Will you marry me, Amie?” We had met in that very room at my first Twelve Step meeting four years before.

I wanted a Valentine’s Day wedding. Simple and small, no sappy white lace or roses. The free spirit in me needed the freedom of the outdoors, so we settled on a spot at the top of the hill where we’d trained together for the Boston Marathon a few years before. Our friend George, a mail-order minister we knew from the meetings, would perform the ceremony.

The week before Valentine’s Day, we drove to City Hall for a marriage license. “The Justice of the Peace is marrying another couple here in an hour,” the clerk informed us. “If you don’t feel like waiting.”

Marathon Marriage

He became a personal trainer not long after we started dating, ending a career in sales to pursue his lifelong passion for fitness. He spent months studying at the library, backpack heavy with physiology textbooks and anatomy charts, and passed the rigorous certification testing with high marks. I was the perfect test subject as he built his client list; he trained me for my first marathon in San Francisco at age thirty-five. “Cool weather and a postcard perfect course,” he told me. Never mind the relentless hills or the hottest July on record, I finished, sweat-soaked and wanted more. In just two years, he helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon, a runner’s Holy Grail.

***

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, spontaneity triumphed. Years of heavy drinking had resulted in a “do it now” kind of impulsiveness that floated just beneath the surface of our alcoholic personalities. Even sober, it often proved difficult to corral.

“The couple that trains together remains together,” he said. “Might as well tie the knot today.”

I nodded in silent agreement, the hilltop desert wedding fading into oblivion. An hour later, we exchanged vows before the judge and another couple, each playing the dual roles of witnesses to our respective jeans-clad ceremonies.

We had both been married before, but this relationship redefined our concept of marriage. We lifted weights together and shared a mutual passion for John Sandford novels. We preferred protein shakes to French fries; were addicted to Law & Order reruns. Together we discovered the electronic lull of trance music. We rarely argued.

We vacationed on the beaches of Maui, Miami, and Mexico; he accompanied me on president’s club trips to Hawaii and Banff for which I’d qualified through my sales job. As the years passed, we were known as the “power couple,” yet we never lost our own identities. We were one. And we were separate. We were sober. And we were still wildly, passionately in love.

Departure

I had always assumed he’d retire first, mainly due to our double-digit age difference. My career as vice president for a national insurance company was approaching the quarter-century mark, a once unfathomable achievement considering the half measures of my drunken past. Over the years, I’d moved thirty-odd times, across the country, across the street and across the ocean, drifting between various jobs and school, It had taken three universities, three coasts, a foreign country and nearly twenty years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in English.

Then, life took an unexpected turn and it was I who stepped down from my career.

Recovery

My family is small and intellectual to a fault. I am an only child. My parents divorced the same year I first drank alcohol—two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven—and from then on, my life became a study in doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t intentional; I didn’t set out to get busted by Principal Johnson for smoking a joint in the locker room, or lose my driver’s license for a year because I drove home from a Christmas party in a blackout, or nearly drop out of high school with a 4.0 GPA.

At sixteen, I moved into a double-wide trailer with a boyfriend which led to a brief marriage as hazy and jagged as our cigarette-laden hangovers. At twenty-three, I ditched the waist-high snowbanks of perpetual New England winters for Southern California and its endless summer of surfboards and skaters, keg parties and cocaine. I never looked back. And I rarely went back.

Through my blurred teens and twenties and thirties I lived a hard, fast life and as long as Anheuser-Busch was still brewing beer, my world was complete.

My parents remained an ocean away and on my infrequent visits home, I logged more time in the bars of my past than I did on that island of my youth, where my mother had become something of a celebrity. On one summer visit, she’d just returned from promoting her recently-published cookbook in bookstores from Bangor to Boston with her second husband, whom I’d never fully embraced as a stepfather even after their twenty-odd years of marital bliss. He was seventeen years older; one of those eternally happy people you just want to shake; a Marine, for God’s sake. These were not people I wanted to hang out with in the self-centered orbit of my world, where life was a never-ending party. They did not drink.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

But, like anything that seems too good to be true, my self-proclaimed life of fun became fun with problems. Then, it was just problems. Too many times, I woke up in hotel rooms, the air thick with the stench of stale ashtrays and Merlot-crusted wineglasses, with no recollection of where I’d been, what I’d said, where I’d parked. I constantly sought an escape route through the anonymity of business trip cocktails only to return to the same unhappy life I’d left.

Eventually, I found a Twelve Step program at the subtle suggestion of a co-worker with a decade of sobriety. Staying sober was harder than running a marathon; harder than meeting million dollar sales quotas; and a shit ton harder than drinking. I struggled through the first six months, missing that cloudy buzz of a drunk, craving the high of irresponsibility, wishing for wine, beer, even the bitter sharpness of tequila shooters, any liquor-induced escape to avoid facing the suddenness of myself.

Motherhood

My mother is a woman of many talents. Artist. Writer. Gourmet cook. She’s witty, eclectic, creative, generous, and brilliant. She’s also rigid and uptight, conservative to the core. Reagan will always be her hero. Her childhood consisted largely of family gatherings around the hi-fi of the suburban Boston living room, listening to “Father Knows Best.” She got straight A’s in Home Ec, knew every book of the bible, and owned both ballet flats and tap shoes.

She was a stay-at-home mom, but not the Harriet Nelson kind. She worked from home, a freelance graphic artist. She drew fashion models for newspaper ads, painted landscapes and floral arrangements, designed layouts for magazines. As a preschooler, I sat alongside her in the studio, an aspiring artist grasping my own tiny paintbrush with watercolor-smeared fingers.

My mother is also endearingly naïve. The relic of a life largely lived on a Maine island, she was long insulated from traffic lights and shopping malls, immune to hijabs and border walls. The only gunshots she ever heard were from the occasional hunter in search of a deer in the back woods. For thirty years, she wrote and illustrated a monthly newsletter on cooking, traveled to England twice, published a cookbook and played the organ at her church.

She devoted her life to that church, a congregation of ten, which espouses temperance and faith-healing and forbids medicine and physicians. She has never tasted champagne or swallowed a Tylenol or drunk any caffeine but instant Sanka. She is a rules-follower, a people pleaser, the consummate good girl. “Daddy taught me to do the right thing,” she often reminded me. “I never disappointed him.”

***

I’m a quick study when it comes to book learning and business affairs. I know my way around every major city in the nation, I’ve closed thousands of sales contracts, and can craft a marketing campaign with my eyes closed. But with family matters, I’m a slow learner. For all the years I drank, the distance between my parents and me was not merely defined by geography; I had erected an invisible wall of self-absorption.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

When I finally realized I wanted to not drink more than I wanted to drink, living a sober life—eerily coherent and oddly enjoyable—became my way of life. So did the simple principles I learned in recovery: Trust God. Clean House. Help Others.

Gradually, I became better daughter.

With the selfless clarity that comes from sobriety, a few years ago I noticed my mother needing help with daily activities. Getting dressed was a task for two; following the steps of her favorite recipes, an exercise in frustration. Adrift on the time-space continuum, she was never certain of the day of the week, the season, or whether it was morning or night. “I’m having a little trouble understanding August,” she confessed and pointed to the calendar, now as perplexing as her windup clock.

And so I left the corporate career and moved back to the island home of my childhood to care for my mother.

I’ve never had kids other than those with tails. These days, I am a parent to two children: an eighty-seven-year-old who fancies himself the Casanova of the east coast, who still drives and can recite his entire credit card number by heart. Relentlessly self-sufficient, my father lives a quiet life alone in his New England cottage. I handle his finances and legal matters.

And an eighty-three-year-old with Alzheimer’s. For three years, I was my mother’s in-home caregiver, an unanticipated career with an excruciatingly fluid job description and no training manual. Other than the part-time high school job I’d had as a nurse’s aide in the local nursing home, my resume for this job was a blank page.

My first year as an Alzheimer’s caregiver felt a lot like the first year in sobriety, which felt a lot like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. The control freak in me—long dormant after finally acknowledging that something bigger was in charge of the universe—reawakened like a fly on the windowsill in spring; the patience and tolerance I’d cultivated in recovery evaporating each time my mother repeated a question—which was often—or failed to remember what I’d just told her, which was more often. I was restless and irritable not just with my mother, but too, with the man I’d met in my Twelve Step group and later married, when even in our long-distance marriage, he’d been nothing but supportive. And I was resentful toward my new job: the dementia that had hijacked my mother’s brain.

In a dim corner of my mind, alcohol beckoned and I almost sought the escape route again. But, as I’d learned from my mother and in sobriety, I needed to do the right thing, even if I didn’t like doing it or want to do it. I am my mother’s only living blood relative. I couldn’t just walk away.

My life, sober or not, has often been one of all-or-nothing. So, in my second year, I vowed to learn as much as humanly possible about Alzheimer’s. I highlighted stacks of reference books. Combed through dozens of online research journals. Joined caregiving support groups on the internet. Met with friends who’d cared for parents with dementia. Shared caregiving tips in tweets and blog posts with caregivers as far away as Berlin. And I didn’t drink.

In my third year of caregiving, when depression struck with the force of a Nor’easter and I languished in lethargy, the escape route I sought came not from a bottle or a pill, but through therapy: a family counselor and part-time lobsterwoman who had converted an old B&B to a dementia care home. Each hour we spent together helped confirm that the rapid progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s would soon require more care than I could give.

Today, my mother and I are closer than we’ve ever been. She’s in a memory care home five minutes from my house and I visit her almost every day. Moving her across the country from the comfort of the old island farmhouse where she’d lived for the past fifty years to a big city was not without multiple challenges. She didn’t sleep for days. She hallucinated the first week, one moment convinced she was being held against her will by foreign-speaking terrorists in a Bible-lined cellar, then in a panic over the man in her closet wearing her high heels. She’s never owned a pair of heels, and the building has no cellar. For the first two months, I obsessed about whether I had done the right thing.

Like most things in the world of Alzheimer’s, recollections fade. She has friends in her new home, and things to do. She may have lost her ability to draw, but she takes weekly art classes, her fingers now stained with watercolors like mine so many years ago. And although she can no longer bake a cake by herself, she’s teaching a friend’s young daughter how to cook.

To those outside the demented doorway which I stepped through a lifetime ago, this may not seem like growth. But as fast as the disease has progressed, my mother has taken giant leaps forward in a short time, and this I know in my heart: we have done the right thing.

I’m slowly getting my life back. I’ve been sober now almost as long as I drank. I find the escape route through putting words on a page, volunteering at an animal shelter and in an unlikely new job as a pet sitter. I still go to meetings and help others stay sober. I am still a caregiver, which turns out to be the ultimate act of service. And being of service to others—alcoholic or otherwise—is an essential part of recovery.

The parallel of our lives, my mother’s and mine, is like looking in a mirror. As life can be in dementia, mirrors are often terrifying; reflections unrecognizable. We both have a disease of perception that centers in the mind; we both have a disease of denial.

It’s been said that alcoholism is the only disease that tells a person they don’t have it. Most people living with Alzheimer’s face a dual battle of denial. To accept it is to confirm its relentless death-grip. To acknowledge it requires logic and comprehension, both missing in the ethereal dementia-drift in and out of reality. For my mother, it’s a trifecta of denial since her religion rejects the concept of disease or any form of sickness.

As Alzheimer’s—the ultimate identity thief—robs her of the prolific life she once led, she remains forever trapped in her mind. Yet I, through recovery, have been freed from mine.

Taking care of my mother has given me a deeper understanding of recovery, and of family. Until I got sober, I never felt like I was part of anything real. My relationship with a husband who loves me for who I have become teaches me how to be present, how to be a mother to my mother, how to accept my father’s stubborn independence.

My husband has been present for me, all along. He was there for me at my first meeting. He was there for me when I ran the Boston Marathon. He was there for me when I quit my job and stepped into the quagmire of Alzheimer’s, a reality as unavoidable as my own self. And he was there when I was no longer sure who that self truly was.

He’s still a personal trainer; I still run marathons. Dust gathers on the sales trophies lining my bookshelves; business suits have been swapped for yoga pants. This year, we celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary and a combined total of fifty years without a drink. Our sobriety is intact; our marriage is solid. But after my time away, some reassembly is required. “You’re a good daughter,” he said recently, after I returned from a day at the aquarium with my mother.

I’m working on the good wife part now.

 

Amie McGraham grew up on an island in Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A freelance writer, family caregiver and petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Fulton Prize, New Guard Review and The Offbeat and she was a two-time semi-finalist in Tucson’s Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has appeared in Exposition Review, Motherwell, Women on Writing, The Caregiver Space, Wanderlust Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Best Friends Animal Society and elsewhere. Her flash blog, “This Demented Life,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is read internationally.

One thought on ““Training Wheels” by Amie McGraham

  1. I sincerely hope to see this in a major publication. It is relevant to all of us humans, on so many levels. Beautifully written, with honesty, clarity, and the vulnerability that comes with being not just an addict, but a human with pain. I know the end of this story and I can’t express how important it is that it is heard.

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