Grace Noonan, M3, Class of 2024
It’s Christmas morning. Her eyes flash open, a result of adrenaline from what’s downstairs. Not the presents or the smell of pine and peppermint, but the screaming. She hears Annie yelling and instantly knows what’s happening. She listens for a while, processing. She knows the cycle is starting again. Being the most observant of the family, she expected this was coming soon. She saw his pupils, the way his hunch was worsening, and even the rattle of the pill bottle in his pocket that she knew he stuffed with toilet paper or cotton balls.
When she hears her mom start to yell, she sulks quietly to Eileen’s room. She opens the door, keeps her eyes to the floor and instinctively gets in bed with her back facing Eileen. Suddenly, like a wave encasing the sand, she feels Eileen’s familiar, strong arm over her body and the sounds of quiet sobs from her sister. This makes her cry too. But ugly, gasping, wet sobs unlike the delicate whimpers from Eileen. For a second, she laughs at the juxtaposition of the scene unfolding downstairs: a family unraveling at the seams next to a sparkling gift wrapping, stockings stuffed with oranges at the bottom and Christmas lights that all scream happiness. If only they could be a fraction of what’s on the surface.
Eventually she makes her way downstairs. She can’t decide if it’s anger, fear or sadness that carriers her down. She feels hot, nauseous and almost comforted by the familiarity of it all. As she floats down, she eyes the syringe on the bathroom floor and her hair tie that was made into a tourniquet. She never had a problem with needles, but this makes her feel nauseous.
Once downstairs, she sees her mom’s face, blotched and stained with tears that feel permanent. This angers her. Whatever sorrowful emotions she had before have now been rapidly replaced with indignation. Rage takes hold as she joins the screaming. It’s an innate feeling, to protect her mom and everything else that’s holding this family together by a thread. She screams until she’s dizzy. She tells her father she wishes he was dead, that they would be better off without him, that they’re happier when he’s gone. She controls the room now. She makes him leave so they can resume what’s left of Christmas.
She watches from the window as he packs up his car with a duffle bag with nothing in it. She wonders if the duffle bag is just a show for the neighbors. If they looked up from their glistening presents and saw this scene, maybe the bag would make them think he’s going on a trip and that he was flying out on Christmas because that’s when flights are cheapest. Maybe they knew more than she thought. She watches as his car pulls away, and she wonders if he was able to grab what was left in his precious syringe.
The aftermath of the explosion is almost worse than the explosion itself. Four young women and their old dog standing around staring at each other not knowing exactly the next move. Despite this routine feeling like a broken record, there’s no innate instinct that develops in response to the situation. Instead they feel relief for just a second, which is quickly conquered by reality.
In separate rooms, the four women gather themselves and process the morning in their own ways. Eventually, Eileen, the most optimistic of them all, suggests to continue Christmas. They wear fake smiles, putting on a brave face for no one but themselves. As they sit around the tree, eyes glossy and numb, the events of the morning go unspoken and hang in the air around them like the heavy humidity after a thunderstorm.
In Key West, Florida, Rose rides her bike to get café con leche. A caffeine headache is coming on and she can’t rely on her boyfriend, Frankie, to make coffee up to her standards. She pedals without much effort, leisurely making her way to the market. She runs her hands through the palm, admiring the diverse foliage of the island and wonders how she’ll carry two cups of coffee while riding back.
In the small coffee shop with bright red stools, she orders their coffees in her sing-song voice that her friends used to deem as her “adult voice”. She tips well, tells all three employees to have a great day and rides back with both coffees tittering in one hand.
Once back at the house, her and Frankie enjoy their coffees together and debate about the agenda for the day. Rose wants to go parasailing or jet skiing or anything active. Frankie wants to lay at home in the pool and have Star Wars on in the background.
They decide to go parasailing.
With their towels, camera and sunscreen in hand, they get ready to leave and meet their boat driver on the edge of the island. Just as she’s climbing onto her bike, Rose gets a phone call from an unknown number. Hesitant but also positive it’s a telemarketer, she answers in her “adult voice”, ready to politely ask them to please remove her number from their call list.
“Hi um is this Ms. Jane Dearly?”
“Hi! Yes, it is!”
“Yes-ahem- well um well this is officer Gates of the Milwaukee Police Department, and, um, is this a good time to talk? We have your father with us. Your number was the only one listed on his medical file.”
Shit. She knew this would happen but not this soon and not here. She feels her heart start rushing, the back of her eyes sting and her throat tighten. She hears the noise of rushed voices and alarm bells in the background.
“Oh okay yes well um may I speak with him?”
She hasn’t spoken to her dad in almost six months. She did what she does best and suppressed her memories of Christmas morning, stowing them away without a second thought.
In a tender, timid tone, Office Gates response, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Ms. Dearly. We got to your father and, um, he was not responsive and was showing the classic signs of opioid overdose, so we administered our special antidote. He is stabilizing in the emergency room now.”
This cop thinks she’s naive. She knows about Narcan and even carries some in her purse just in case she comes across someone in this exact situation. As Rose’s initial joyful mood grows into despair for her own situation, Frankie walks up and immediately senses the turn of events. Rose heard some rustling on the phone as she’s mouthing “COPS” and “MY DAD” to Frankie. She hears Officer Gates telling the medical response team that he’s on the line with his daughter.
“Sorry Ms. Dearly, is this your father’s first time using recreational drugs?”
She feels like this is poor timing for this question. Clearly Office Gates is a young guy and didn’t watch the news in 2006 when her dad’s first arrest was aired on all newscasts across Wisconsin. Rose wants to assume he’s asking to gauge a level of her understanding, but she can’t help but think he’s just looking for a rabbit hole to crawl down.
“Um yeah he has a history…” says Rose, trying to give the smallest amount of detail possible to protect her father.
She goes on to tell Officer Gates that she is out of town and there’s nothing she can do, to just give her number to the medical staff who will take care of him and also gives the contact information for her mom.
She cries as she calls and warns her mom of what’s to come. She cries because she’s not there to help and instead has been basking in the sun of her boyfriend’s vacation home in the Southernmost point of the country. She cries because she’s embarrassed Frankie is witnessing this. Her embarrassment makes her cry more. She cries for her mom, her sisters and their broken family. She cries because all of their efforts the past ten years did nothing to prevent this. She cries for her father as she imagines his slumped over body in God knows where. She cries thinking about how long he was overdosing before someone found him. Frankie hugs her and, paradoxically, this makes her cry more.
Rose is sweating under her winter jacket while speed-walking to her last final of the semester. She is a junior in college this and is struggling to maintain a balance between school, Frankie, her family situation and just being a normal student living the “college experience” which is essentially getting drunk every night of the week besides Monday.
Just as she feels a line of sweat drip down her spine, her phone buzzes in her pocket. Her mom texted her family group chat of her, Eileen and Annie:
Hi girls. Your father’s hearing is over and he will be serving time at the Milwaukee House of Correction for 30 days. He says he will try to call when he has the chance.
Rose feels somewhat relieved. She would rather have him sitting in jail for a month than using dirty needles and risking an overdose every other day. She sits on the bench outside of her lecture hall, trying to tell herself to focus on this exam before truly processing everything. People continue on their own paths to their finals, living their own lives that she hopes are more seamless than hers. She can’t help but feel sorry for herself.
Before Rose knows it, it’s three minutes before the start of her exam and she races into the lecture hall. She limits the last 10 minutes of her thoughts and uses all of her energy to focus on the concepts around Physics 300.
She ended with an A in the class.
Today is her father’s release date. Neither Eileen, Annie, or Rose have mentioned the significance of this day to each other despite all of the being home for winter break. The girls have an unspoken agreement among the three of them where they only discuss family matters independently with their mom. On occasion someone will mention a cheerful memory of their father but this quickly turns into awkward laughter and a quick change of the subject.
To escape the stagnant tension in her home, Rose browses the Trader Joe’s down the street, admiring the colorful flowers that are 50% off. Her friends deem the Trader Joe’s their personal “happy place” because of the seasonal candles, cheesy ravioli and amazing dips. She thinks about their “dip party” where they properly stuffed their faces with dips and corresponding wines while watching trash TV. She thinks about laughing until she cried or until her abs hurt, whichever came first.
Rose buys herself peonies and wonders where in the World they were actually grown Peonies only bloom in the United States during the summer. She knows her mom would love them but would actually end up crying from the emotional overflow of the day. They’ll wait together the painful hours until one of their phones alarm with the bitter sweet ringtone. One of them will talk to him quietly in the basement, almost like whispering secretes. Then they will recap the whole conversation to the group, spilling said secretes. His plan of admitting himself to a halfway home to “get on his feet” and finding a “stable” job to help him along the way. The girls will scrutinize this, as this would be his third time through the same regime. Annie will ask if there’s even enough halfway houses in Milwaukee and Eileen will add that he’s just making his way through each one. Their mom will tell them that this may be his chance to turn around, as if he hasn’t had enough chances already. Rose will stay quiet as she holds back tears.
Rose’s anger has transformed to empathy and sorrow for his disease. She knows addiction well and has matured quickly, almost too quickly. She understands that none of this is her father’s fault. She has done her research, finished her psychology courses at school and learned that there can be no blame in addiction, but rather analysis of societal bias and regulation of mental health and substance abuse. Rose knows that to truly understand the depths of addiction, one needs to appreciate that it boils down to neurochemical synapses and complete rewiring of the crucial reward pathway of the brain. She knows you can’t blame the addict, but then who can you blame? Why blame anyone?
Rose worked the better part of her life trying to figure out who or what is the root cause of her father’s disease. But maybe it’s a million small factors falling into place at once, working in sync to create the addict himself. Maybe expending energy to figure out who to blame is energy wasted; energy that could be used working towards recovery. But how can one encourage recovery if the addict isn’t willing?
She snaps out of her deep thought process and realizes she’s still staring at the peonies. With a lump in her throat and her temples feeling hot, she grabs a bouquet and swiftly checks out, eager to make it home.
The peonies lay in the center of the kitchen island and Rose’s mom talks to her soon-to-be ex-husband on the phone. The plan is as expected: admission to another halfway house. Rose’s mom is a professional at making her voice sound hopeful and enthusiastic as he tells her his game plan. Once off the phone, the four women fall into routine: going back to their normal lives and waiting for another relapse.
Despite the cyclical journey Rose’s father has become attuned to, the relapse never came. Rose often wonders what cured him. She wonders if he had to hit rock bottom before coming to the realization that he would die without help. She wonders if his 6-month bout of homelessness, close call with death and true humiliation was used as motivation. She wonders if the global events that took hold between 2020-2021, such as COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, incongruously gave him the will to live and survive. Rose was sure one of these stressors would break her father’s sobriety.
But he never swayed.
He remains sober to this day.
Despite their father’s long sobriety, Rose, Annie, Eileen and their mother still await a phone call similar to the one Rose received from Officer Gates. They live in fear that this future call will hold worse news, that the cops didn’t get to their father soon enough. They live in constant uneasiness, carrying the burden of their father’s disease with them wherever they go, never able to escape.