"Believe the broken heart can heal the wound", by Nikki McMurray
The path of addiction is a gradual but certain one. On it, the person dissolves into the addict, but in time so that you can never pinpoint exactly how it began or concluded. I witnessed that path unfolding right after I chose to move in with my dad when I was twelve years old.
It started with alcohol. I would come home to find him on the back porch, smoking a cigarette, only able to stand up with support from the rail. His breath reeked of vodka.
He hid liquor in the downstairs freezer, thinking we would never know. Then he started hiding marijuana. As much as his demeanour became stronger in force, he was becoming weaker inside. I would ask him a question. He would explode in anger, and throw the red ceramic dishes he once cherished. Eventually, they were all broken.
I was the only one left remembering the trauma of his outbursts. He would say defiantly ‘I never did that,’ and he would mean it, because the vodka has erased it from his memory, as it had erased my childhood innocence and my admiration of my father.
He tried to keep his composure, tried to show the world that nothing was wrong. This is the most tragic of the tale of an addict, familiar for anyone who has ever been close enough to know. For time, his acting worked. He was remarkably good at compartmentalising his dark side, keeping it from the public view. My protests to his behaviour were written off as teen angst. But then, the mask dissolved under the weight of the face behind it. There was still a limit to how much makeup could cover the true colour of his skin. My mom, who was still close to Dad, started to see through the cracks in the paint. She was worried about my father, and also worried about her friend.
At fourteen, I shook in sadness as I told Mom that I thought Dad was doing hard drugs. I didn’t want to believe it. My brain could cope with Dad, the drunk pot head, but it struggled to face the dad who kept an aluminium foil crack-pipe in his underwear drawer. It was my friend Katie who had forced the reality onto me, by making me search his room after we watched him burn peanut butter pancakes at four in the morning, hoovering the kitchen table and the bathroom sink.
Mom was worried. I broke down and told her about the violence, how he once shoved me into the wall because I argued with him. We decided I needed to move back in with her, but I chose to stay for the time being because the school year was almost over. I spent most of my time with friends.
Just a couple of weeks after I had confessed it all to Mom, I came home to find Dad and Grandma in the kitchen. As I walked in, I felt tension rise in my stomach. The room seemed to feel angry, but then again I was used to the feeling of anger.
I was surprised, though, when the anger came from my grandma. ‘How dare you accuse your father of doing those things!’ she shouted at me, suddenly.
I was so shocked at her outburst, unlikely for her, that all I could do was freeze. She did not touch me, but cornered me against the wall. ‘Your father would never do those drugs!’ she shouted. My mom told me later that she had told Grandma out of care, seeking advice and help, which never came.
I didn’t know what to do, except start crying. I wanted desperately for her words to be true. Maybe I had gotten it all wrong, I began to think. Maybe that crack pipe was actually nothing more than for tobacco. Maybe Dad had been spending so many nights awake, signing along to Bob Dylan CDs like he was on stage with him because of the alcohol. Maybe he just had a lot of energy.
‘Okay,’ I said, and then looked to Dad, ‘then look me in the eye and tell me that you wouldn’t do it.’
He looked at me, but his eyes wavered. They matched mine for a moment, but they were the eyes of the mask. He said, very clearly: ‘No, I wouldn’t touch that stuff.’
That was the moment that I lost all of my trust in my father; the moment that I knew I had been betrayed as a daughter, misplaced for a substance in the order of his priorities. Whether sadly or for the better, nothing my father did could hurt me deeply after that moment. In my mind he was now a coward, a write-off, a hopeless place for my trust.
I gave up on my father when I was fourteen. I still loved him. I still reached out to him, tried to show that if he wanted to quit I would support him. But I did not expect him to change. I gave him birthday gifts, and hugged him through the stench of vodka, but my heart remained at a distance. It simply hurt too much.
For my grandma, I had not come to such conclusions. She was still the woman that I adored. I hadn’t seen that she also wore her masks, she also hid her pains and her failures.
Looking back, I might understand her more clearly. My aunt shared details that I could never have known. My dad was only acting as he had seen his family act; my grandpa was successful, but a wreck behind closed doors. He beat my uncle, dragged him from bed and burnt him. My uncle developed a cocaine addiction, then spent years living in the streets. Dad had fared far better – up until that time. Grandma never talked about her husband, now dead, about his violence, or the alcohol. But she obsessively protected my dad from any criticism. Looking back, I wonder: was she worried about facing the truth behind his mask? Was she worried about facing herself, her guilt for failing as a parent, for the mess she had left swept under the rug?
She began to blame me for things – anything that went wrong and affected my dad. When my mom came to help me move some things out of my dad’s house, Grandma watched as he stood- drunk, before midday-yet scolded me for switching homes, adding stress to his already burdened life.
One night before Dad, Grandma and my sister left for holiday, I came home from work to find Dad passed out drunk. This was normal and uneventful. My sister told me he had promised her five dollars for cleaning his car. Her nine year old eyes were glittering as she talked about the money – she was imagining I would take her to the convenience store and she would gorge herself on sweets. I agreed to help her clean, and went to see if I could find the keys. They were nowhere to be found, but Dad woke from his slumber, groggy and confused.
First, he took off his shoe, and offered it to me.
I stood dumbfounded, as anyone would, and then said loudly ‘please give me your keys.’
And then he started throwing things – the shoe, a bar of deodorant, whatever was in front of him. My sister went back into his room, and now he threw things at her. ‘Get out! Get out!’ I heard him shouting.
We left, and I took her out to a late night restaurant with me and my friends. We ate greasy food and tried to ignore what had just happened.
After midnight, we went home, and Dad had passed out again. Hours later, I finally slept, tense as I was often.
But my sleep was interrupted just six hours later. Dad came into my room shouting that I had lost a piece of his blender. Half-awake, I rolled over and shouted back that I had no idea where it was, and why did he need the blender at six in the morning? He grabbed my legs and dragged me onto the floor and started kicking me. Now fully awake, I fought him, desperate to just leave. In the midst of it all, I grabbed at his t-shirt - silk, with an Asian print, that my sister had given him for his birthday. The shirt ripped. I ran away.
I ended up at my friend’s house, in a pile of tears. My friend tried to console me, it was good that I was moving, she said. I sat there for a few hours.
Just when I was calm again, my grandma walked in. She had made my sister tell her where I would be. She looked at me gravely, and said in front of my friend: ‘What makes you think you can ruin your family’s vacation!?’
I had no response. I walked back home with her - I hadn’t taken a key - and went to find my bedroom completely destroyed: furniture and pieces of broken glass everywhere. Through the wall I heard my Grandma tell my dad that I had no respect, how could I have attacked him and ripped his nicest shirt.
The psychological pain of her words still resonates with me. I had written off my dad. In a way, it was easy to forgive him, because he was doing what drug addicts did. But my grandma, she was the creative, charismatic woman who had always been there to offer advice. She had always been the grandma that all my friends loved and wanted as their own.
My confidence was shattered. My sanity became a mountain, a long and strenuous climb. I struggled my way up, finishing school and university through counselling, meditation groups, and tears.
Seven years later, I had just moved into my own flat. This was six months after my dad had begun acting especially strange. I had tried to go see him, but after driving for two hours, I would find him in a daze. The house was emptier of belongings, yet fuller of a dark and dirty presence. He had stopped answering his phone. He had stopped going to work.
I was worried about the cat that was living with him. My best friend had agreed to help me get her. When we arrived, the lights were off, the door was locked. My key didn’t work. My friend found the cat. I battled with the lock and the increasing heaviness in my stomach.
I called my Grandma for the first time in three years. She told me that Dad had run away from home. After checking into and out of a rehab clinic, he was now on the streets.
My jaw dropped. My whole world had just been turned upside down. I said ‘how long ago did this happen?’
Her response: ‘If you cared about your father, you would have called him. If he wasn’t so stressed, because of you, this might have never happened.’
My friend took me to the local grocery store, and we wandered aimlessly around the deli section. I tried to hold myself together. It was like I was on a boat that had been swept to sea.
That was the last time that I thought I could stomach seeing my grandma. I blocked her from my mind. I knew she was alive, but it was like she was a ghost. I wasn’t angry, I was too numb. I forgot about her birthdays, forgot about her at Christmas. I wiped her existence from my life, as I did with my dad.
For my dad, I’ve written another essay, about the long, slow, painful process of forgiveness. But for my grandma, the process looked different.
It was August a couple of years ago. I had just arrived back home for a three week holiday. Although I was jet-lagged from the right-hour flight, I was excited to spend time in the sun with my friends, to hike with my mom, eat, and escape the everyday stress of work.
It didn’t exactly work according to my plan. The next day, I read an email from my cousin. My grandma was in a coma: 28 days earlier, she had suffered a stroke. The specialist had said even if she came back, she would never use her right side fully again.
Did I want to go see her? I nearly didn’t. And then my sister said ‘I’ll go if you go.’
As soon as I saw her in that bed, it all changed. Now, she was so fragile. Her frail skin was cracking, her lips dry. Her eyelids thin, her breath shallow. She had cords running everywhere around her, tubes of plastic keeping her alive.
Suddenly, all of the pain of the last 15 years vanished. I was a child again, happy because Grandma had purchased about 12 cups from my lemonade stand and was taking me to the comic book shop to spend my revenues. I was four years old, hiding in the Little Mermaid sleeping bag she bought me for Christmas.
I didn’t think I would have wanted reach out and take her hand. I felt her squeeze on it. She began breathing heavily. Behind her thin eyelids, her eyes moved quickly, like she was looking for something.
For 28 days, she hadn’t said a word. Now, she said few words, very clearly. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I think…’ and then she was gone again, her eyes stopped moving.
Then she said ‘Help me.’
She breathed heavily again.
My sister took her hand. Her breath calmed, she started smiling.
‘Grandma,’ I said, ‘it’s me, Nicole.’
I held her hand now too, and I imagined I was sending a healing energy up through her arm, into her whole body. I imagined that she absorbed it.
This energy was my forgiveness. She squeezed my hand in agreement. I felt her finger brush the palm of my hand. She breathed slowly and steadily. ‘Grandma,’ I continued, ‘I love you.’
Her face made a genuine, relaxed smile.
She was still beautiful, even in this hospital bed, even with bedsores and swollen wrists. Even after all the pain and anger, she was still beautiful.
She died the next day.
I can’t help but think Grandma was waiting for me; she knew that I had to hold her hand, for both of us to find out peace. When I think about the clarity I felt in that room, I still shiver. Five minutes in a hospital room, displacing a decade of pain. I didn’t realise until I held her hand how much I was suffering without forgiveness. That wall in my heart had grown so solid I forgot what fresh air felt like. In the end, that wall had divided me from myself. Now, looking back, I know that my heart was broken. But I remember most the moment it opened up to heal the wound.
Winner, 3rd prize, While There's Still Time: Writing about putting things right
About the author
Nikki McMurray works in sustainable development, and runs an up-cycling business located in Brighton. She has been writing since eight years old, when she used an old typewriter to type stories. Most of her adult writing experience has been in positions including blogging and writing web content. She loves nature and aims to one day publish a book that moves people to spend more time outside.