When my mother was ripped away from me, it was physical, it was visceral, like something vital had been suddenly carved from my chest, like all the marrow and substance of my bones had drained away. The home we lived in, it was no longer a home, unbalanced, now just a cruel illusion that it is as it always had been, though we knew what it had lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My father, too, sick with grief, didn’t know what to do with me. The dynamics of our nuclear family, with my father as the hunter-gatherer and my mother as the doting housewife, fell apart the day a drunk driver 'didn't see her' and my father got the call.
My father tried to be kind and I felt smothered. He tried to be aloof and I felt neglected. He tried to be stern and I felt misunderstood. The way my mother tucked me in when I was but a boy, wrapped in a tight but cosy cocoon, and she’d say goodnight to her little caterpillar. And the way she would kiss my cheek and ruffle my hair, every single time, without fail, when I left the house to go to school. My father knew better than to mimic that. He would smirk and that bushy moustache full of golden wires would curl and he would offer a lame joke, just to try and lighten the mood. It didn’t work.
Home was where everything was difficult. Any possibility of happiness there was drowned in the dense bitter tar that was loss and grief and that insidious, unquestionable, wholly baffling feeling that we had been betrayed, by no more solid a substance than life. So I was barely ever there. I sought out what sweet relief I could in the idiot frivolities of friends, and for just a little while I found a slight sense of balance, a distraction from the pain, in amongst all the mundane prattle and bottles of cheap booze.
But that didn’t scratch the inexorable itch for long. What happiness I could get, if not immediate, if not wholly consuming, could not divert me from my pain. Chemicals, it seemed, could help me become someone else, lifting me from the constraints of the natural, to something entirely supernatural. With a needle in my veins I could escape the dull sting of death, capsize the average workaday world and all its pointless endeavours. I could throw off all my clothes, arch my back and spread star shaped across the floor, melting away into a horizon of pure gold.
It became an addiction of course, a trap, the only direction I could follow, for all other roads led to sorrow and pain. And my father suffered alongside me. He suffered when I stole and sold his beloved collection of old vinyl, as well as his record player, just so I could afford my next fix. And then he changed the locks on me, watching me with tired, haunted eyes through the window as I threw myself against the back door, until I found a brick to hurl against the glass. And he suffered again when I threatened him with a butcher's knife and he calmly told me he loved me and I kicked him in the spine while he lay curled and afraid on the cold kitchen tiles.
Then the numbness, the emptiness I felt inside, became worse than the pain of withdrawal. It took a used syringe held tight in my fist and the knowledge that if I injected enough I could say goodbye to the world forever, that made me want to stop. But just knowing wasn't enough. There needed to be something to replace the craving. And my father, who had lost all that I had lost, perhaps more, helped me become someone else. He helped me become someone better than the boy I had been. He who I had stolen from, beaten, terrorised and abandoned, he once again gave me shelter. He took me in his old bashed up beige Mini Cooper to the job centre, to the local college, to the community centre, signed me up for anything that even slightly peaked my interest, kept me busy. I sat at desk after desk after desk, my father fidgeting next to me, grinning politely in his check lumberjack shirt, urging me on, making up for my inertia with his boundless energy.
Somehow it worked. Somehow, exhausted but free, my father kept me straight. And after seven months of being drug-free, he told me he was proud of me and made me smile. It wasn’t a rush, nor a high, just a mundane joy, but it would do.
Some things, like family, are just more important than happiness.