My mother stands at the top of the stairs, thin as a skeleton and reeking of booze.
“Are you drunk?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
“Have you had anything to drink today?”
“No,” she says.
Lies, all lies. There are always more.
“Have you eaten?”
“A peanut butter sandwich.” She sees my look. “And a glass of milk.”
“There’s no milk in the fridge.”
“I just finished it,” she says, irritated. This is her house, after all, her life. Who’s the parent here?
I could look in the garbage can to see if the milk carton is there, or under the sink to check how much is left of the 40-pounder of Bacardi white that was full yesterday. Or we could have a peaceful visit instead. Maybe it’ll give her a reason not to drink the next time she feels the need.
She’s not the only one who can lie to herself.
My mother has always been a fibber, a peddler of relative truth. In her hands, facts curve and shift until they’re true, but not true. It’s usually harmless, and often entertaining.
“Your Uncle Frank was a hero,” she declares. “He was decorated ten times.”
“It was two times, Gail,” says my aunt with a twinge of impatience.
My mother waves away disagreement with a slosh of rum and water. “The point is he was goddamned brave.” It’s the gist of the thing that’s important, and whatever serves the gist of it is true enough.
As my mother’s social drinking became heavy drinking and then slipped across the line into hard drinking, she hid it behind charming exaggerations and comical in-accuracies. The one true thing was her need for liquor, and over time everything else in her life became a lie. She never missed a day of work. She balanced her checkbook and kept a lovely home. She was so adept, so clever at hiding the truth, that it took me years to see it.
She leans on the back of a kitchen chair, right leg anchored to the floor by a plaster cast. She lives alone and has fallen down the stairs twice in recent months.
“How did you get that bruise on your forehead?” I ask.
“I walked into a door,” she says, gently touching the spot.
“Were you drunk?” I have never spoken to her so directly; she’s not used to being cornered. My lies have been lies of omission.
There is a pause, barely a pause, and then her voice brightens. “This floor’s too slippery,” she says. “I’ve decided to get wall-to-wall carpeting.”
I examine the blond linoleum. “Sure, the floor’s slippery, Mum. But were you drunk?”
She pivots on the end of her cast and hobbles away.
I stare at the floor, wondering if I’ve accused her falsely. Accidents do happen, after all. A few minutes later she hobbles back past me and into the kitchen, gabbing on about her cat’s arthritis, as if I hadn’t asked about her drinking and she hadn’t refused to answer.
My chest contracts with despair and squeezes upward, wringing me like a dishcloth until my breathing nearly stops. By her silences, by her nested lies of confusion, omission, and evasion, she has turned countless conversations and incidents into inventions of my imagination.
Her face is locked tight, revealing nothing. She fills the silence with the story of the cat’s lousy hip. She is as far beyond choosing to lie about drinking as she is beyond choosing to drink. I know it, but the more I try to make her face the truth, the more I succeed only in humiliating her. I try to catch her out in her lies and only force her to tell me more. We grind against each other like gears that won’t mesh. She settles into one kitchen chair and painstakingly hefts her cast up onto another, now into a rambling monologue about the feline leukemia that turned the neighbor’s calico into Swiss cheese.
I rummage through the kitchen cupboards, seething with frustration, wanting to force her back to the bruise, the drinking, the evasion. But she looks so fragile; the flesh on her hands and face is melting away, exposing the bones. She’s drinking herself to death. What’s one more lie? Or a dozen? They’re not the gist of it anyway.
“Would you like me to make you some tomato soup?” I ask. The cans are covered in dust. The fridge is nearly empty.
“No thanks,” she says, fumbling with the cigarette lighter. “I’m not hungry.”
“Some tea, then?”
“I love you, you know,” she says. Her voice is small and afraid. It pierces my chest and pins my heart against my backbone like a bloodied apple.
This is all so hard, so painful and miserable and maddening, that it feels like a lie. How could she love me and do this to herself? To me? But she does love me, of course. I know it’s true. And I love her.
“Do you want a drink?” I ask.
She goes still, smoke curling along her cheek, and stares hard at the birds fluttering at the feeder outside the kitchen window. I stare into the dark corners of the cupboard.
“Yes,” she says.
Quade Hermann blogs at HalftheUnknown World.blogspot.com. Reprinted from Geist (#65), a Canadian magazine of ideas and culture. Subscriptions: outside Canada $31/yr. (4 issues), in Canada $24 Canadian from #200-341 Water St., Vancouver, BC V6B 1B8, Canada; www.geist.com.