My mom got sober when my dad was in rehab. This was 1985. She was sitting in the bathtub sipping a vodka tonic and flipping through a paperback. It was the same book my father would be reading in his recovery program. She came across these lines: “Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it twice.” After years of boozing and drugging, those words revealed an undiscovered truth: At 35, she, too, needed to clean up.
My mom and I have always had each other’s back. I never knew when we struggled financially, how she felt about my dad leaving, or the trials she faced in our community. I, too, gave her an edited version of my own issues because I didn’t want her to worry. But two things happened over the past few years that drew us closer.
First, I realized that I have the family drinking bones, a condition that leads a man to believe his world will be perfect after the next drink. She was the first person I called. “You’re not a bad person,” she said. “You’re just a sick person. Here’s what I did when I was in your situation. . .” In our hours of conversation afterward, she delivered empathy and advice in a nonjudgmental way that let me know she was there for me, but that this was my journey and I wasn’t that damn special. I now understand that I don’t have to worry whether I can stop drinking abruptly if I don’t start drinking in the first place.
Last May she called to tell me she had cancer. For the first time, I saw a chink in her armor. She said she was afraid of what she’d see at the hospital, that she was tired from all the chemicals in her body and angry that her beautiful hair was falling out.
I gave whatever advice I could and told her when her thoughts were getting ahead of her. I’ve been able to return, in a small way, all the help she’s given me. Cancer didn’t get my mom, but it sure did kill our filters.
As men, we think we can control everything. I now realize that it’s not only okay to be vulnerable, but that embracing your powerlessness is necessary for emotional and spiritual growth. It allows you to quit fighting when you’re beat, and cures you of the notion that your way is the only way.
When I try to understand the ultimate promise of my mother, I’m left with the idea that you need to bet on and strengthen yourself so that you can improve the lives of others. She placed a bet on herself: that she could get clean, build a business, and be a good parent. Then she tipped the odds in her favor by working her hardest, and—most important—paying it forward.
Seeing her live out this idea recently gave me the strength to leave a high-profile magazine job and move across the country to teach in college. So now, happy with my choice, I remember a lesson she taught me: When the cards fall your way, don’t forget to stop and dance to a little Motown.