Read an Excerpt
If I Die Before I Wake
A Memoir of Drinking & Recovery
By Barb Rogers
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2010 Barb Rogers
All rights reserved.
A Knock at the Door
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR, and the only constant in my life is gone. The one decent thing I ever did, my reason to go on, is no more. Music is playing on the radio, the cat is climbing the curtains, the dog is barking, the washing machine is humming and my son is dead. Everything is the same, and nothing is the same.
I wander through the shabby, rented house on the outskirts of Sullivan, Illinois, as if in a foreign land. In the kitchen, I fill a water glass half full of gin, drink it down in two gulps, and pour another. Glass in hand, I pace from one room to the next, touching the things he touched, looking at the things that belonged to him. Everything seems strange and out of place: the pool table and pinball machine my friend Tom gave him; the guitar propped up in the corner that he never learned to play well; his jacket hanging on its wooden peg. He will never touch those things again, and I will never touch him again.
The door to his bedroom is closed. Behind it, everything is as he left it, waiting for his return. I hesitate, drink the rest of my gin, and turn the knob. It appears so normal, like the typical room of a teenage boy. Hard rock posters are taped to the wall above the half-bed. On top of the chest of drawers are his plastic trophies; a troll doll with green hair standing on end, dressed in a tee shirt that says ROCK STAR in black letters; a wooden box for his treasures. A small, silver picture frame with no picture in it sits alone on the bedside table. He took his girlfriend's picture with him when he left. Everything is in its place—but Jon.
Angel, Jon's tiny black-and-white terrier, darts past me to leap on the bed she shared with him. I nearly lost her when Jon went away to the treatment center in Springfield—she stopped eating and moped around the house. Every day when the school bus pulled up, she'd run to the couch on the screened-in front porch, stand on her hind legs, and watch for him. It broke my heart because I knew just how she felt. I had always known loneliness, but nothing that compared to this.
Sitting on Jon's bed, I gather Angel into my arms, hold her close, and whisper into her ear, "He's not coming back." The flood of tears held closely in my broken heart lets loose. Great sobs of sorrow erupt from the deepest part of me. I lie across his bed and push my face into his pillow, wishing I hadn't washed the bedclothes so I could smell him, hang on to a part of him. What will I do without him?
Hours later I open my eyes, hoping I have had one of my nightmares. I'm in Jon's bed, Angel curled up beside me, and it feels like someone beat me up. My eyes are red and swollen, my mouth and throat dry, and the truth sits on my chest like a stone. Angel jumps off the bed, ready to be let out and fed. Automatically I stumble from the bed, drag myself to the back door, and let her outside. I stand in the open doorway and watch the sun moving toward the horizon. I hear the birds chirping, a squirrel barking, cars whizzing by in the distance, and a siren. The world, and everything in it, is going on. My world has stopped.
Clamping my hands over my ears, I scream, "Stop!" Birds fly, the squirrel stops and stares, Angel runs past me into the house. But the sun continues to set, car engines still roar, and life goes on. Don't they get it—don't they understand that someone special is gone?
"IT ONLY TAKES ONCE," my mother often said. That seemed to be the extent of my sex education, and it normally took place after several beers and a few pills. She may have been drunk and hopped up on pills, but that didn't make her any less right.
Mom, my stepdad (who used to be my uncle), my brother, and I moved to Scottsdale, Arizona from Mattoon, Illinois the year I started junior high school. Mother's rare lung disease, fungal in nature, required a dry climate.
As with many new Westerners, we took up horseback riding. That's where I met "him"—at the riding stables. One might have thought the smell of crap in the air would have been a clue about the ill-fated liaison—but couple young, stupid, and desperate to get away from family with a tall, handsome, blue-eyed cowboy, and there was bound to be a spark. He smiled; I melted.
I had left a boyfriend in Illinois, but he was a child compared to the much older, rugged stranger I met in Arizona. Unsure at first about the horseback riding thing, I suddenly discovered a passion for it and spent as much time as possible at the stables. Jim was a pro baseball player from California, helping out at the stables for boarding fees. He paid attention to me. I felt like one of those heroines in a romance novel. We would fall in love. He would sweep me off my feet and away from the life I hated, and we would ride off into the sunset.
"Would you like to go on a night ride sometime?" Jim said one afternoon as I turned to leave. I wanted to throw myself into his big, strong arms, kiss him, and scream, "Yes, take me!" However, the heroines in my books wouldn't act that way. They would pick just the right moment for the first kiss. I gave him a coy smile and said, "I'd like that." Did I sound breathless? Could he see my heart beating through my thin, white cotton western shirt? It didn't matter. I had a date with the man of my dreams.
I begged, pleaded, and ultimately resorted to blackmailing my brother Bill with some unsavory information I had on him to lie to our mother and tell her we were going to a double feature at the drive-in. My brother, a year older than I with a driver's license, would be the key to my romantic evening beneath the stars and the beginning of a new life.
My dream date didn't go quite as expected. Jim got Bill—a nerd with thick glasses, a crew cut, and an extremely high IQ—drunk before the ride. He put him on an old nag and told him to follow us. Jim and I rode side by side toward the star-filled horizon. He took my hand in his. Then a strange sound caught our attention. I turned. My brother lay on the ground, floundering like a turtle on its back, his horse grazing nearby. Every time we put him back on the horse, he fell off again. We gave up. Jim threw a coarse saddle blanket on the ground. We sat close, his arm around my back, and shared our first kiss to the sound of Bill puking in the cactus.
In the months that followed, I slipped out of my window late at night, lied, skipped school, made up study dates, and used my brother whenever possible to get out of the house for stolen moments with Jim. One such afternoon, when things were getting pretty hot and heavy, he said, "I'm going back to California tomorrow." I burst into tears. He held me, professed his love, and said he would come back for me as soon as he got some things straightened out. I couldn't imagine life without him. He had my heart. He wanted my body. I gave him all that I had to give that day.
* * *
Hours turned into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months, but Jim didn't return. And neither did my period. I panicked—I had to get in touch with him. That's when I realized how little I actually knew about Jim. What baseball team did he play for? What city in California did he call home? Did he have any family there? When I'd asked for a phone number, he said it would be better if he got in touch with me. Looking back, I couldn't believe that in all the talks we'd had, he'd revealed nothing about himself.
The one thing I did know was that Jim's dad lived in one room of a broken down farmhouse on Baseline Road on the outskirts of Phoenix. We'd stopped there once, but just for a few minutes, and I had stayed in the car. I convinced myself that I had to find that house, Jim's dad, a way to tell him of his impending fatherhood. As soon as he knew, he would come back, and everything would be okay.
Still not old enough to attain a driver's license, I asked an older girlfriend, Linda, to drive me up and down Baseline in hopes that I would recognize the house. Mostly orange groves and flower farms, there weren't that many houses from which to choose. I found it on the third try. Jim's dad Mac was a weathered, aging cowboy with thick white hair that stuck out around a well-worn, stained, brown felt cowboy hat. He lived in a kitchen that smelled of saddle soap, cigarettes, and coffee. His whole life seemed to be contained in that one room. Rodeo posters adorned one wall, an unmade half-bed beneath, and several wooden pegs draped with assorted jeans, shirts, jackets, and hats. A metal kitchen table, several chairs with ripped Naugahyde seats, a floor lamp with no shade, and a potbelly stove with a tin coffeepot on top completed the look of the dwelling of a man who either chose to live a very basic life or had no money.
Mac motioned me to a chair at the table. He lit an unfiltered cigarette, sat across from me, and said, "What can I do for you?" I poured out my heart to this man, a total stranger who would someday be my child's grandfather. Wiping my tears, I begged for any information about Jim's whereabouts. He took a long draw on the cigarette, smashed it out in a jar lid, and said, "I don't know what to tell you. I don't know where he is or how to get in touch with him. He just shows up here sometimes."
The next "sometime" Mac spoke of occurred in February. For eight months I'd lived on hope, convincing myself that Jim had a good reason for not coming back. Some days were more difficult than others. I missed going to school, spending time with the few friends I'd made in Arizona, and acting like a kid. I passed my days as a babysitter, housekeeper, and laundress for Mrs. Scopaletti, who lived three blocks from our house with her husband and six children. The majority of my earnings went to Scottsdale Baptist Hospital to pay for the birth of my child. I was miserable. But when one day the phone rang and I heard Jim's deep, familiar voice, everything I'd gone through went right out of my mind. He had come. We would get married, have the baby, and be a family. The dream was alive.
* * *
I'd heard that what you don't know can't hurt you, but in my case that simply wasn't true. What I didn't know nearly killed me. I dressed in my best maternity outfit, stood next to Jim in front of a minister in my parent's living room, and exchanged vows with him. We ate cake. Jim took my hand, and we walked outside. I imagined he had a surprise for me. He did, but not what I thought. He said, "I'm not staying. I married you so the baby would have a name. I'll take care of you and the baby financially, but we can't be together. I'm too old for you. It would never work." He turned and walked away.
Stunned, I walked through the house to my bedroom, closed the door, and sat in the wooden rocker I would use for the baby. I couldn't cry. I couldn't think. I just sat there in numbed silence until my mother walked through the door. When I saw her, the tears came. "You're going to have to pull yourself together," she said. "Think of the baby."
My tears were replaced with anger. First, she and my step-dad tried to make me get rid of the baby. When I refused, my stepdad slapped me across the face. Later, after they threatened me with no help, financial or otherwise, they thought they could make me put the baby up for adoption. Determined, I went to work. Their last ploy was that they would take the baby. There was no way I would let them do to an innocent baby what they'd done to my brother and me.
"The baby?" I screamed. "You mean the baby you wanted me to kill? Or, the baby you wanted me to give away? No ... no, the baby you think you're going to take from me? That baby?"
"You're hysterical. You need to calm down," my mother said.
I glared at her, hoping she could see the hate in my eyes. "He left. He married me, and then he left."
"Don't you get it, Barbara? Are you that stupid? He only married you to keep from going to jail for statutory rape."
Rape? "He didn't rape me!"
"For Christ's sake, he's twice your age. Do you really think he wants to spend his time with a teenager? He's a grown man. The law says when a man his age has sex with a child, it's rape."
"I'm not a child."
Mom hesitated with her hand on the doorknob, turned, and said, "No, you're going to be a mother. You better start thinking like one."
"Yeah, like you would know anything about that," I mumbled. She shot me a look. "What?"
"It doesn't matter," I said. No matter what I had to do, I wouldn't let my mother raise my baby.
* * *
Jon Luther Lewis, a miniature image of his father, made his entrance into the world on March 8. Overwhelmed with feelings I'd never experienced before, I cuddled the sweet-smelling, perfect, tiny bundle in my arms. "No one will ever take you away from me," I whispered into the small, shell-like ear. "I'll take you away from here. They'll never hurt you."
* * *
Fifteen years later and a week after the knock on the door, the harbinger of the news which is every mother's greatest fear, I stand at my son's grave. My dear son is in a box, under the ground. The choices I made killed him. I am alone.
DAYS PASS BY AS IF IN SLOW MOTION. I'm not here. I'm somewhere on the outside of the world, watching through a haze. Is that what it's like to be dead? If I kill myself, will I be reunited with my son, or lie in the ground, forgotten? Who will be left to remember my child or to mourn my passing? I pour a shot of brandy into my coffee. How should I do it? It must be dramatic; something memorable. I could take poison, lie across Jon's grave, leave a poignant note.
Angel is barking. It's the postman. If I don't get to the mail, she'll tear it up. I don't know why, but when the mail comes through the slot in the door, Angel just attacks. As a result, many of my bills are sent back shredded and taped together. It's a race to the door. The dog wins, grabs a flyer, and shakes it furiously while I gather the few envelopes. I thumb through the bills on the way back to the kitchen. If I don't kill myself, I'm going to have to go back to work soon. There's a letter from my brother at the bottom of the pile.
The irony of the situation doesn't escape me. My last link to my son is the brother I've been estranged from for many years. Mom may have been an alcoholic and a pill popper, but she held the family, dysfunctional as it was, together. When she died, the tentative hold we had on each other died with her. It's like a gunshot exploded and sent us all in different directions.
One more shot of brandy, and I'll read my brother's letter. I know I shouldn't be drinking this early in the day, especially after what happened to me before, but it's the only thing that keeps me from running screaming into the street. I pick up the letter, stare at it, and lay it down. I can't read it now. I need to get cleaned up, go to the restaurant, and find out if I still have a job. The bills aren't going to pay themselves.
In the shower, my tears mingle with the hot water streaming over my body. I wish the pure clean water could wash away my sins; that I could step from the shower with my insides as clean as my outsides. I've started my life over so many times—but never without Jon. Together, we'd overcome so much, and no matter what, we always had each other. Now I have no one. I turn the hot water off. Cold water hits me like a blast of icy air. I have to stop this. It's time to pull myself together.
Dry, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, it's time for the dreaded daily ritual of hair and makeup. I hate the woman in the mirror, the one who works so hard at looking good on the outside, but who I know is ugly. Mom used to say I looked like something the cat dragged in. I fixed that by learning the skills of styling hair and applying creams and makeup, but no amount of makeup can conceal what lives within. Now, I truly feel like something the cat dragged in—a hopelessly struggling victim trapped in the jaws of a cruel world.
Ablutions completed quickly, I glance at the letter, gulp down another shot of brandy, pop a mint in my mouth, and I'm out the door. I pray to the car god that my old car starts. It's too hot to walk the two miles to the Red Fox Restaurant, although I've had to do it many times before. I don't have the energy today.
The big, gold-colored gas hog, which sits in my driveway more often than not—either because it won't run or I don't have gas money—starts on the third try. I let out a sigh. If I had a phone, life would be easier. But that's not going to happen. Jon ran up a huge phone bill before he left for treatment, and I still don't have it paid off. I yelled at him about it, said things I wish I could take back. I shift the car into reverse and quickly back out of the drive before my thoughts wander to that dark place.
I walk through the bar, waving at the bartender who is setting up for the day ahead, past the dining room, and into the kitchen where I spend my working hours as a cook. Wayne, the owner and my boss, is prepping for lunch along with the salad girl. They stop and stare at me, obviously uncomfortable. I've encountered that a lot lately. It only makes things worse. I force a smile. Wayne leads me to his office and says, "Do you need a couple more days?"
Excerpted from If I Die Before I Wake by Barb Rogers. Copyright © 2010 Barb Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.