The Giving Season
Sometimes the best gift is not being yourself.
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by A.J. Daulerio
“Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.”
— James Tate, “Goodtime Jesus”
A couple hours after I left rehab, I craved McDonald's, so I ran to a shopping center across from the hotel I was staying at in Jupiter, Fla. I put a semi-expensive hotel room on a high-interest credit card I rarely used because I didn't want to spend my first night out on the pull-out couch at my parent's condominium, which was also in Jupiter. My favorite counselor at the rehab (Betty, whom many others thought was cold and unkind) said staying at a hotel was a risk, and she recommended I ask the staff to remove all the alcohol from the mini bar. I was too embarrassed to ask the front desk to do that, convinced that such a request would subject me to levels of imaginary ridicule I was not sober enough to endure just yet. This was eight years ago, and although I'd had a productive, transformative stay at the rehab, I still wasn't totally committed to an aftercare program.
At the rehab, we were nudged toward AA, but, like most stubborn alcoholics, I did not want to feign interest in the 12-Step version of God – a Higher Power, if you must – for both agnostic reasons and because the hole in my heart was full of awful memories and insecurities. If God entered the equation, I'd be forced to think about how many times I'd ruthlessly hurt people, and I wasn't ready to make any amends yet, not today, definitely not until after my McDonald's.
I had my usual order: A Big Mac, a cheeseburger, large fries, six McNuggets, and a large Hi-C orange drink, and I could have gone for a second round of the entire order. It's not that the food in rehab was awful; it was pretty good, but it was the fact that McDonald's was a place that had existed outside the facility, and therefore, I could not have it. When I’d see those gold arches and the giant banners announcing the triumphant return of the McRib from the inside of a rehab shuttle, it created in me a real sense of separation from the outside world. I realized I could not eat at McDonald's for at least a month, maybe more.
It was 50 days, to be exact. I went into rehab in mid-October. By the time I got out, Christmas lights were wrapped around the trunks of palm trees and atop the masts of boats cruising in the intercoastal.
As I walked through the parking lot back to the hotel, a bellyful of McD's, I lit up a smoke, looked down on the asphalt, and saw what appeared to be a $100 bill lazily blowing around that landed in a small puddle. I went down to pick it up, and after my eyes adjusted, it turned out it was real. And then I looked a little to the left and, wouldn't you know it, another $100 bill was lying under a parked car.
Thoroughly convinced now that God had officially shot me, I attended an AA meeting that night. When it came time to pass the basket around, I raised my hand and announced to all the other drunks in attendance that I had $200 in to put in the basket. "I found this in the parking lot today. I'm not trying to show off or anything." The man running the meeting laughed, amused by what I can only guess was the panicky, guilt-ridden expression I wore across my face. He thanked me for my generosity but suggested that it might be put to better use for the toy drive. "You could probably give a couple of families a very happy Christmas this year." The next day, I went to Target and bought two shopping carts full of toys. I even spent over $200 because I assumed God wanted me to give and give and give.
Last week, I passed by that same McDonald's on the way to the Jupiter Medical Center to visit my mother. She had just been admitted for the second time in ten days. First, she had an upper respiratory infection, which turned out to be bronchitis. After her breathing stabilized and her cough broke up, she was sent home to her senior center, where she rents a small but expensive two-bedroom apartment. The next day she was dizzy and disoriented, and when her friend across the hall went to check on her, my mother began to vomit uncontrollably. The ambulance came and took her back that night.
My aunt, who also lives in Florida for part of the year, had visited her in the hospital and suggested I should fly down to her to get her situated. "Decisions about her health will have to be made," she said. And now that my father was dead, that was my job.
My wife and children were going to continue with their Thanksgiving in Palm Springs, our annual tradition where we spend a week in a giant house in La Quinta with her mother. It's a sensational week, filled with mindless overeating and nights playing little kid games in a steamy jacuzzi under the moonlight. The grownups who are not me watch old musicals and drink too much wine. I do a lazy, low-impact turkey trot in the shadow of the San Jacinto mountains, basking in how dramatically my life has changed for the better since I got out of rehab.
But I had to check on my mother, not out of fear that she was in grave danger, but due to the particular set of responsibilities required at this moment: I am now a sober man whose new human contract states explicitly that I am to give back whenever possible, especially when it requires a small sacrifice, which in this case, meant spending Thanksgiving caring for my mother in Florida. Everyone understood.
Marc Maron was on my flight from LAX to Ft. Lauderdale. I have a weird connection to him in that I admire everything he does–his standup, his podcast, and his old TV series on IFC–but I wouldn't categorize myself as just a fan. I feel closer to him than that because sometimes I daydream about being interviewed by him on his WTF podcast, specifically about sobriety and all the giving and sacrificing I'm doing now that I'm no longer a selfish asshole anymore. Oftentimes, I answer the questions to these imaginary interviews out loud.
“Marc, I work a program, but sometimes I wonder if I AM the program, you know?”
I've had this fantasy so often that it took everything I had not to go up to him at the gate and greet him as if we were a couple of old pals. The reason I didn't? Quentin Tarantino.
In 2014, I saw QT with another man having a quiet lunch at El Compadre in Hollywood. Even though I don't like to fawn over celebrities overtly, I'd make an exception this one time and go over to his table to say hello.
Unfortunately for him, I'd had two giant margaritas at lunch. Not only would I say hello, but I'd convinced myself that he'd actually want to talk to me and that after only a minute or two of small talk, he'd be delighted to discover that such a thoughtful and cool person loved his movies. Then I'd beckon the waiter to get my new friend Quentin and me a fresh round of margaritas. "Let's make it official!"
I was sure that this was the destined outcome. But when I saw Quentin Tarantino up close, my margarita brain completely short-circuited. I noticed that his companion was going to the bathroom, so I decided that was my cue to slide into his booth. He was genuinely frightened and angry, and his hands were up in a defensive pose. He began to yell at me.
"Hey! Stop! Don't sit here!"
The restaurant manager ran over, and I jumped out of the booth with my arms in the air, like a criminal surrounded by a SWAT team. "Go back to your table!"
Maron was a preferred Mint customer, so he boarded early, disappearing inside the plane without incident.
On the flight down, I tried to think how long it had been since I spent Thanksgiving with my mother. It was 11 years ago in Philadelphia. Since then, I've spent Thanksgiving in Swampscott, LA, Lisbon, Cairo, Rehab, and the last six in Palm Springs.
I took an hour-long Uber from Ft. Lauderdale to Jupiter and got to my mother's condo around 10 p.m. She was still in the hospital, so I spent the night there by myself. There was a photo on her dresser of her, my father, and me that was taken this time last year when we visited him at his memory care facility a few miles away from her place the month before he died. I realized I was wearing the same shirt as the one I wore in the picture, a button-down I'd overpaid for when I tried to dress better, more stylishly, and more appropriate for my age. Part of dressing better meant buying new clothes more regularly, yet here I was, a year later, wearing the same shirt because grownup decisions about my mother's health had to be made and it was still one of the only grownup shirts I owned.
When she finally left the hospital, there was a difference in her. Over the next few days, she was withdrawn, quiet, and a little confused. Her energy was low. She slept a lot and she wet the bed.
When she had ovarian cancer in 2012, she beat it, but the surgery to remove the tumor and the chemo kicked the shit out of her. The physical toll was expected, but for almost six years after that, her spirit never returned. In 2018, her oncologist called me and recommended hospice for her, that the treatments were no longer working. Yet, somehow, she became cancer-free and returned more vibrant and alive than ever. I used to joke that somewhere along the way, when they ran out of second opinions, my father threw her in the Cocoon pool; it was that miraculous.
She maintained that energy and joy for the past four years, but it was all gone this trip.
But at least I was there. I made sure she had food in her stomach before she took her half a dozen pills. I reminded her to shower and to put on clothes that fit. I stripped her wet bed and put new sheets on.
I had to shake her a bit during her afternoon nap to wake her up, and she got nasty with me. "I'm not ready yet!" she said. If this were a decade ago, I would have reacted poorly—I would have stormed out and slammed the door, telling her to take care of herself. But I wasn’t bothered by it, and I gently shook her awake again. She softened and apologized for snapping at me. "Thank you for taking care of me." She'd never said that to me before–she never had the opportunity to.
Because throughout my life of being her son, I wouldn't show up for this part at all. I didn't show up when she was sick with cancer, even when we all thought she would die. Her caretaking would always be up to my father, my sister, and my aunts. I couldn’t provide even the bare minimum of support, like calling her more often just to brighten up her day. It was better that I stayed away.
I left on Sunday morning, but before I left, I decided that the best thing for her was to have 24-hour care until she felt better. This will be unaffordable if it goes on for too long, but we'll figure something out no matter what. I truly believe that.
Special Thanks to Ben T G for the James Tate poem.
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“All I wanted to do for the holidays this year was be home. Spend time with my wife, daughter, and needy menagerie of pets. Every time I make the effort to pack the car and drive to my parent’s house or my in-laws, my anxiety goes through the roof as I think about all the things my mom will say that will piss me off or what my in-laws won't say which will also piss me off. My mom drinks to cope, which means she drinks a hell of a lot of wine and then proclaims it's ok because she'll just fall asleep and we won't count the hurtful side comments made while she was busy refilling her 5th glass. I drink too much when I'm home—a way to numb my feelings around my mom. I barely drink with my in-laws but I'm on edge the entire time, feeling like I have to perform as I open the gifts I don't want since they never ask what I'd like. Can't fucking wait.”
“My family checked my little brother into a residential facility in another state last week. He’s battling addiction at 15. He’s already missed Thanksgiving, and he might have to miss Christmas, too. I look back at who I was at 15 — also in the throes of addiction, desperate for help, not getting it. My parents have learned and grown a lot since then. My brother has had more support than I ever did. But he still fell into the same trap, and I feel like a failure as a sibling — I couldn’t stop him, and I cannot save him. All those self-centering feelings of guilt rise because I’m the eldest. I was supposed to protect him, help him be better than me, and make the mistakes so he doesn’t have to. But I’m over a decade older and live states away. All we have in common is our family, sometimes skateboarding. And this, now, I guess.”
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A Poem on the Way Out
As one who, reading late into the night,
When overcome by sleep, turns off the light
And yields whatever he can sense by sight
To what the gates of ivory or of horn
Will send him, sightless as a child unborn,
To goad, amuse, remind, reveal or warn,
So may I turn a light off and embrace
With resignation, better still with grace,
The dreamless sleep that all awake must face.
— “Grace” by David Berman
ALL ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDITH ZIMMERMAN