HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
A kid I grew up with, Trevor, loved video games. In high school, his days began when the final bell rang and he could dart home to his command center—the desk under his bunk bed—and dive into Norrath or Azeroth or whatever other worlds awaited. My friends and I made fun of him for this. We’d invite him over for Halo LAN parties so we could piss him off by peeking at his screen. We’d set up AIM profiles for barely clothed girls who were into EverQuest and Gundam Wing and catfish him before catfishing existed. I haven’t asked him, but it’s easy to see why Trevor played video games. They were a way to escape shitheads like me.
My grandpa died of throat cancer in ‘91. My mom was 31 years old. Her siblings both lived out of town, so she spent the last several months of his life bearing the weight of the inevitable. Sleeping at the hospital. Communicating with his medical team. Helping him get his affairs in order. She never felt like my grandpa liked her or was even proud of her, though. The stories she’d tell of him years later were of torn up essays in high school, disparaging comments on her looks in adulthood. None of this mattered in ’91, though, because he was dying and she was the most capable one to make it as comfortable as possible. It’s one of the tough calls of having a sick parent—even if they’re shitty, there’s a time when the tables turn and it’s you have to care for them, so you do it. You smile or cry or grit your teeth or bite your tongue, but you help them because they’re your parent and it’s the right thing to do.
Mom’s experience with my grandpa’s death piqued her interest in nursing. She’d cared for him when he didn’t deserve it and thought it fulfilling to care for those who did. She got a job working at an assisted living facility in downtown Lafayette, but the shift was 3:00-11:00 p.m. She worked some nights, not all, but this didn’t satisfy her because she wanted to be a mom and she wanted to be a nurse and she couldn’t do both at once. The scales weren’t tipped in one’s favor then the other’s; they were bottomed out, broken from the weight on both sides, the one window of family togetherness—the hours between school ending and bedtime—blowing them both to bits. She tried, though. She told me to call the nurse’s station to tell her how my day went even though she wasn’t supposed to take personal calls. She started a family journal so we could write notes amongst ourselves to read. She created presence where none existed.
The thing about being all-in on both nursing and motherhood was that at 11:00 p.m., when her shift ended and her family was asleep, there was nothing for her. The quiet, the purposelessness of it enveloped her, so when her coworkers started asking her out for post-shift drinks at the bar across the street, she accepted. I don’t know if it was the loneliness or the weight or just the boredom of it all, but these nights out flipped a switch in her. She couldn’t be a mom and she couldn’t be a nurse, at least not until the next day, so she drank to forget it. And later, when rheumatoid arthritis forced her into retirement and college and marriage and careers took Isaac and me away from Lafayette, that same emptiness returned. I sometimes picture it chasing her in a room, a sprawling shadow craning up and over her like a wave, crashing onto her and pulling her in, only it’s not water that envelopes her, but the defeatism her family instilled in her, the belief that she was not enough and the only evidence to the contrary—her career and her kids—gone. Her pride had been pulled out from under her so swiftly that it crumbled her. She was a piece of dining ware on a table in one of those gigs where the tablecloth’s ripped away, left everything exposed. She stood there in retirement, tall, shimmering, by all appearances doing exactly what she was supposed to—reading, downsizing, seeing friends—but cracked, a hairline that didn’t matter then but, as cracks do, grew and shattered.
My mom died of an overdose in 2019. I was 32 years old. When you love an addict, there’s a hopelessness that can hit you, maybe like the wave that collapsed over my mom or that meme of Batman slapping Robin across the face. You realize that it’s out of your hands, that no matter how many visits you make or how many clinics you find, the person you want to help is on a trajectory that can’t end well. In the meantime, you do what you can.
My mom needed someone to listen to her, call her on her bullshit. I called her every other day to check in, asked her about notes she’d taken in her reality TV journal on American Idol or The Bachelorette, talked with her about how my life in Louisville was going. She loved hearing about my job and my wife and my home, probably because those are things by which we define success. I turned out alright. She could tell herself that she raised a good one.
Occasionally, I’d drive home to Lafayette to check on her. Most times, this resulted in the two of us sitting in front of the TV watching Dr. Phil or Shark Tank. Other times, though, things didn’t go so well. There was one weekend I came, and Mom and Dad were out. I took my bag upstairs to the guest room—not my room, since they’d sold my childhood home as soon as Isaac and I moved out—and noticed a towel caked in blood. Not new blood, but a sticky, dark goop that had almost solidified, made the towel stick to itself in angles crusted over at the edges. When my parents got home and I asked Mom about it, she said it was nothing. When I asked Dad about it, he told me she’d fallen backwards while drunk and split open the back of her head of the foyer tile. I tried to look at the wound, but her hair was matted in thick, stiff clumps. I asked her to go to the hospital, but she said no. They were going to Mexico Beach in a couple days, and she didn’t want to ruin her trip.
The helplessness is what makes it difficult. That, when you can’t make someone go to the hospital or check into rehab or stop drinking or taking pills, you’re left knowing you did everything you could but none of it mattered. When Mom died, I had no inspiration to go into a new career like she did when she lost her dad. I had only the list of things I did to try to stop it, so I parked myself in my head and re-watched the tape of her life, stopping and rewinding and pausing and trying to figure out what I could have done differently, how I could have acted better, what else I could have done to keep her alive. I trapped myself in it, watched it faster and faster, tried to grab onto something I could have done but missed it because it moved too quickly and I wasn’t good enough. If I was, after all, my mom wouldn’t have died in the first place.
That is, until I stopped myself, learned how to jump out of the tape. I found the button to shut it all down, turn it into pixels that painted exotic landscapes, vibrant greens and perfect whites that never tarnished because I never touched them. I immersed myself in their world while staying separate from it as if I was some sort of ghost who existed to show up, kill three bucks or kudu or elk or whatever else there is, and disappeared to another one, tried again. There was nothing else to it. Select site, hunt, repeat.
A few months into my Big Buck Hunter routine, I posted a picture to Instagram of the game at Hoops with a caption like “back to work” or “putting in the grind.” Trevor liked it. I hadn’t thought about him in years, not even when I was in town for Mom’s funeral, but I’d never felt so connected to him. One person reaching out to another with the tap of a thumb on an outline of a heart on a phone screen to show interest in an activity with which, I realized, he could relate. Trevor had spent years opting into a virtual world instead of a real one, here I was now, doing the same. I’d lost my mom. He’d been picked on by someone he thought was his friend. Different, sure, but to sit in a low place, stare up at the light and realize you’d sent someone down here is a special kind of ugly, the kind that makes you want to throw up or punch a mirror, break it all. I tried not to think about it, but it didn’t do much good. It joined the circle pit of grief and regret and loneliness that had been storming around, moshing in those little crevices of my brain, so I did what sounded good. I grabbed a beer.
Nobody thinks twice about someone ordering a beer while playing Big Buck Hunter. The 2019 World Championship was sponsored by Busch Light or one of the other interchangeable American lagers. I told myself this and other sorts of excuses to make me feel better for ordering a second or a third or a fourth as it became as much of a routine as playing five sites on a trek. Some nights, I told my wife I was going out to play when all I intended to do was drink. I’d put money in the machine, of course, shoot at a few animals. It didn’t matter much because by the end of the night, I stood with a beer in one hand and a plastic rifle in the other, waving back and forth and convincing myself that it I closed one eye or leaned on the barstool, it would help. Make me better.
Trevor would have torn me to bits for this. Or maybe not. He’s a better person than that.