On Allie’s fourteenth birthday, Christopher felt his hard-won sanity begin its retreat—right there at the kitchen table. It started as he watched Allie, his step-daughter, try to tell Cyndi, her mother, stories about their day at Christopher’s parents’ ranch: the picnic, the piñata, the horseback riding—their birthday traditions. Cyndi was just as absent from the conversation as she was from the party; wandering eyes mean a wandering mind, Christopher thought with concern. Her eyes drifted from the clock to Allie to the leftover birthday cake she knew she wasn’t allowed to eat. She interrupted her daughter’s story with her immediate concern:
“Come on, Chris, can’t just have a slice of that cake? And isn’t it time for my dinner round?” She winced in pain—or was it just impatience? Christopher nervously watched her head shake ever-so-slightly. If she could just stay lucid for a long enough time, she’d see that she needs to cut it out and back off her meds.
“No, sweetie, you told me you wanted it right when we got home, so I gave it to you then.” She couldn’t even remember taking the pills. No wonder she was always taking too many and getting so loopy.
The “dinner round” of pills was the one she could potentially overdose on, so Christopher had to give her those himself. The only reason he trusted himself to carry around a bunch of prescription medication was that she needed them, he knew. But it was hard sometimes, especially seeing how powerful of an effect they had on her. Holding her pills. Not taking them for himself. Giving them to her. Watching her descend into oblivion. He struggled with this every day.
Unfortunately she had the Percocet to herself, though, which made her wobble around like a drunk, then pass out when she took too many. Even on a normal dosage, the ethereal state Cyndi entered shortly after waking up and popping pills unsettled Christopher: it took away her pain, but it also took the spirit out of her. What made Christopher most nervous was that she really depended on them. The doctors said Cyndi shouldn’t be relying on as much medication, but her prescriptions seemed bottomless to him. They said she should start getting out–but she was so unsteady on her feet, and listless. When Christopher looked in her eyes, he thought in a sense that she wasn’t really alive.
After today, Christopher wondered how much more any of them could cope with her “new lease on life,” especially under these terms. That morning, while he packed the car and fixed breakfast, she took a double dosage—he stewed over whether it was an accident or intentional. When he came to get her, she warbled, “I’m feelin’ puny, Chris, I think I’ll stay here and watch TV.” He didn’t want her to be this way for Allie. Thinking back to how he was before they married five years ago, he didn’t know how much longer he could be around her like this, either. Snap out of it, Chris, it’s your turn to be the caretaker now.
“Babe, you want some more vegetables to eat, or maybe a cup of coffee?’ He hoped the food and coffee would bring her to her senses. She responded in a meek, but indignant, voice:
“Chris you know what I want is cake. Why can’t you let me have it? Do you think those doctors really think one little piece is going to make a difference? Like the medicine? They say don’t take too many extra of those, but we all know I won’t die if I do…”
“Cyndi don’t you talk like…”
He winced and cut himself off, glancing at Allie, who looked pierced by her mother’s ambivalence about her health and her life. Funny, I thought she was surviving because she wanted to live. Is she? Allie excused herself from the table to watch the DVD she got for her birthday. Christopher busied himself, cleaning the kitchen and brewing a fresh pot of coffee. Does she know how much it hurts us when she knocks herself out? Does she really want to be in that world rather than here with us?
“Mom and Dad send their love. They were so sorry you couldn’t come out today. We all were.” Christopher anxiously tried to draw her out. Did she even realize it was her daughter’s birthday?
Oblivious to the tension, she replied, “Oh gosh, Chris, you know I wanted come and help out. I was just feelin’ puny today, though. I just needed to stay here by myself and watch some TV. I was hurtin’ today, you know?”
He ruminated on her pain. She hadn’t left the house since her last round of chemo. The doctors said activity would help her recovery, why won’t she just do it. He wanted her to show some vital signs—for Allie, for himself—to make worthwhile everyone’s suffering to spare her life. Today, he almost had her out the door for Allie’s birthday picnic…then she snuck those damn Percs and stayed here all day watching Jeopardy. Christopher startled himself, making an automatic assumption that she was abusing her medication. What do I do, hold all her medicine now? How can I doubt her when she says she’s hurting?
Cyndi looked at the clock and began tapping her foot and wincing—it drove Christopher crazy that he couldn’t tell what this meant anymore. Was she putting on an act to get more drugs? No, that’s what you would do. Was he just projecting his old problems onto her…or was she really that uncomfortable? I can’t know her pain. How can I question her? I should be happy she’s still alive. The thought sickened him.
“Baby is there anything I can do for you?”
“No…no…I can’t think of anything…hmm…you know…” she paused, forgetting what she said mid-sentence, then continued, “I think I’m…gonna go watch some…and get in bed.” She rose to her unsteady feet, forgetting about the food and coffee he was preparing, and left him alone with the fresh pot of coffee to fuel his inner battle.
Christopher poured a cup and sat at alone at the kitchen table, and tried to think about Cyndi as she really was. She’s always been so afraid of pain, he mused, thinking back before Cyndi got cancer, before they married. That’s why she never dieted. It’s why she didn’t want to go to the doctor for shots and checkups when she should have…and it’s why she chose chemo instead of the surgery, which would be more invasive, at least physically. She’s not the only one that’s suffering. Christopher was mortified at the bitter, shameful thoughts he couldn’t stop from creeping into his mind. How could resent someone who had gone through so much: she stuck with him through his days as an addict, and not giving up on him by succumbing to cancer, either.
She’s different now. She’s giving up. She’ll drag you down. He didn’t recognize the saggy, sad skin that masked the energetic woman inside. He loved that Cyndi: she was a great teacher, a cheerleading coach, and a caring and involved mother. Was. But he hated her, rather this: the dispirited sack of a personality that disease and medication had made out of his wife. Christopher never thought he would see the day he was taking care of his Cyndi, then she got cancer. He never thought she would be the one dragging him down.
Christopher had another gulp of his coffee and walked in the living room to look at their wedding photo. She looked so beautiful and spirited, so different from today. His image showed the lingering scars of his meth addiction: a drawn face, splotchy complexion, weary eyes…but something about him seemed content and peaceful. I didn’t think I was worthy of her then, and I don’t think I deserve her now…as a punishment. The fact that he was even capable of having such a thought sent a jolt of shame through his entire body.
Christopher stuck his shaky hand in his pocket and pulled the “dinner round” bottle. He glared at the label, unable to make sense of the medical jargon, but knowing full well what was going on inside the bottle. They’re drugs, no matter how you get them or take them. He certainly needed them more than she did; he knew that if he didn’t get rid of them, he would take them and become a zombie just like her.
The gravity of this situation sank in. The only reason I am alive today was because she loved me enough make me stop doing drugs. It hurt, but it was necessary. I would have died. There’s no difference with her. The drugs are taking her away from me, and I owe it to her to put a stop to this. Christopher walked to the kitchen and opened the bottle, wondering how much her insurance company paid for these vicious little pills. She’s got to come back to reality. He turned on the sink disposal and poured them down.
Satisfied by that small victory, Christopher wondered if he should hunt around for the rest of her medicine. I know what’s going on with her. I’ve been there. Everything’s gotta go. Since Christopher cleaned up his act, he hadn’t touched any substances—not even booze or cigarettes—because he knew it was too great a temptation. She won’t get better till she stops being an addict, he thought. This will solve everything. She’ll be back again in no time.
Christopher hunted around the living room for stashes of Percs he knew Cyndi must be hiding. He felt himself working up an anxious sweat on his face as he checked behind books on the shelf, in her purse, under the cushions of the sofa. Nothing. He couldn’t calm down. In his jittery frustration, he knocked over a lamp in the living room that crashed to the floor.
“Dad?” Allie called from her room. His heart raced in fear, as if he had been doing something wrong. I haven’t been doing anything, Allie, it’s fine, he tried to console her in his mind to keep her from coming into the living room, but she didn’t hear his thoughts.
“What’s up?” She appeared, looking instantly unsettled at the maniacal expression on Christopher’s face.
“Nothing, sweetie, just trying to find the remote. How’s my birthday girl, huh?” Smile. Act normal. As he spoke, he noticed his voice didn’t have its usual calm pitch, but rather an erratic booming quality. He tried to wipe the moisture from his forehead and realized that he had been crying, not sweating.
“Is everything ok, though?”
Christopher didn’t know how to answer in a way that wouldn’t frighten Allie. He tried to consider his words, but before he could, he blurted out, “I think your mom is going crazy,” punctuating the sentence with one short, hysterical sob. Allie shuddered for a moment, then came over and gave him a hug.
“She’s taking too many drugs, Allie. She can’t stop. I don’t want her to become like me,” he said into her hair, “she has to stop taking those drugs. I owe it to her, I have to help her just like she did me.”
Allie sighed, and gave him a squeeze.
“No Allie, I’m serious, if we love her we can’t let her take all those drugs. She’s hooked on them. She’ll never get better.”
—CUT STORY HERE—
We thought it would be better if the story ended here. It’s cooler.