The thin layer of frost crusting the grass held strong as the sun emerged from the horizon. I felt at peace watching the burnt orange leaves of the maple tree in our front yard quiver, knowing even then that the crisp breeze signified the eventual coming of winter.
We were out on the driveway, my youngest heading off to school as we kissed our final round of goodbyes. She turned to go, then stopped. “Mama, can you please retie my shoe?” she asked.
Harper is in sixth grade, old enough to tie her own shoes. But that wasn’t the point. She was laden with her laptop, lunch, and a backpack that threatened to overpower her. Her hands were full and she was running late.
I set my coffee on the driveway as I kneeled down to tie her loose lace for her. I was happy to do this small favor for my little girl. But as I untied and retied her lace, my hands stood still as I breathlessly recalled that I had never taught Harper how to tie her shoes.
Me. Her mother. But I wasn’t able to do it back then.
I’d been completely checked out when she was in second grade and learning to tie her shoes. I was obsessed with work and trying to prove to everyone what a success I was. In reality, work was just a distraction from the truth: my life was consumed by alcohol.
When Harper was nine months old and just beginning to crawl, she fell down the stairs. The accident was over in only a few seconds, but the memory of her body tumbling in a freefall still pierces my heart.
Our pediatrician said her crying was a good sign and told us to watch for symptoms of concussion. She slept fitfully through the night and woke up in her crib the next morning, her big blue eyes round and sparkling, babbling as if nothing had happened.
Everything appeared to be fine, so it seemed.
But when I went to get her out of her crib six days later, I was taken aback as I entered her room. She was sitting up after her nap, laughing as she clutched her pink blanket. The afternoon sun haloed the blonde fuzz of her perfectly round head. As she turned to reach for me, I saw that the left side of her head was no longer curved, but was now flat.
The emergency room doctor identified skull fractures on her x-ray: a fracture in her left parietal bone, with a second fracture extending into her left temporal bone. Harper was rushed into a CT scan, which showed an epidural hematoma: bleeding in her skull.
The emergency room team called around to local Chicago area hospitals to find a pediatric neurosurgeon who could take a closer look at her, but no one was available. They considered keeping Harper overnight for observation but decided that since she’d been symptom-free for six days, she was likely safe to go home.
We followed up the next day with another CT scan at a nearby level one hospital where the pediatric neurosurgeon told us her accident was very serious, and we were very lucky. He said she might need surgery to open her skull to relieve the swelling, but for now we would take a wait-and-see approach. As we left, the doctor strongly advised, “Don’t let her hit her head again.”
For the next six months, I alternated between obsessively watching over Harper and Googling as much information as I could. Each new fact and figure on epidural hematomas seared itself into my brain. Reading things like, “A serious head injury with a 50% fatality rate,” “Among the deadliest of all head injuries,” and “Some people never make a full recovery” did nothing to lessen my anxiety.
At night I would lie awake, listening for her down the hall. I constantly found myself in Harper’s room, checking on her as I put my ear to her chest to feel the rise and fall of her breathing, needing to feel the steady pounding of her little heart. I was driven to press my cheek against hers, to smell her sweet baby breath and tuck my arm underneath her soft, warm weight as I pulled her close. I would breathe in time with her until her steady unconsciousness could calm me back to finding my own.
We continued with the CT scans to track her recovery until she was given a clean bill of health one year later. In the meantime, I hoped diving into work would distract me from reliving the accident. Instead, my guilt consumed me and I plunged right into the bottom of a bottle.
I’d only had two glasses of wine the night of Harper’s fall. In the months leading up to the accident, Bill had been dropping hints that I should cut back on my drinking. I knew he was right, but I rarely made much of an effort. That night, as Harper played on the floor after dinner while I folded a basket of laundry, I remembered thinking about what a nice evening we’d had. “If I could only limit myself to two glasses every night,” I thought. In the few seconds it took me to walk a stack of shirts to our closet, Harper crawled out the door.
My nightly glasses of wine soon became empty bottles hidden in my endless quest for oblivion. I would drink late into the night before passing out only to dream that Harper had died, then rush to her room to make sure she was still breathing. Instead of the white wooden slats of her crib, I would see the white satin lining of an infant-sized casket, her head caved in, her skull now exposed, her big blue eyes still smiling.
As the years went on, her crib transitioned to a big-girl bed, but my nightly hauntings continued. Her pink blanket grew shabbier and I would pick it up when it fell to the floor, smelling its baby smell before tucking it back under her cheek.
Miring myself in unconsciousness soon became a nearly full-time job. By the time Harper was seven, I was relying almost entirely on my husband and our sitter to care for our children. I couldn’t even protect my own baby from falling; I believed my family was better off without me.
When Harper was in second grade, Bill discovered another bottle of wine I’d sloppily stashed in a cabinet the night before. When he left for work on that crisp October morning, he didn’t dump it out like he usually did. “I don’t care what you do to yourself anymore,” he said, exhausted. “We’re done living like this.”
After the kids got off to school, I set to work on Harper’s Halloween costume: a large cupcake with hot pink frosting and a sprinkle headband with a cherry on top. It wasn’t long before I abandoned my project for the bottle of wine. Sensing I was too drunk to go to the office, I decided I wasn’t going to make it into work that day.
I thought about what Bill had said. I decided I was done living like this, too.
I texted my husband and siblings goodbye, then walked out the front door in a daze, leaving a trail of glitter and hot glue behind me. My weaving down a nearby country road ended when I planted my feet in the path of an oncoming Mack truck.
I was in the back of an ambulance before I realized I’d been holding Harper’s pink blanket the entire time.
That hospital stay was only the first of four over the next six months as I struggled to quit drinking. It took nearly a year of more self-cutting, blackout driving, and 911 calls before I bumped and skidded to my own drawn-out bottom.
It was on a sunny September day while I huddled alone with a bottle of vodka in my bed while my family was outside doing yard work when, even in a drunken haze, I realized I was choosing alcohol over them—and they were living their lives without me. I was choosing alcohol over my own life.
I called my sponsor and told her—again—that I was really done this time. And again, just like all the other times, she welcomed me back. But this time, I actually did what she suggested: I went to as many AA meetings as possible and started to work the steps. I found exercise again and remembered my love of yoga. I continued seeing my therapist and began to build a sober fellowship. And most importantly, I reconnected with my higher power, who I choose to call God, and didn’t drink: one day at a time.
I learned that my fear and guilt over Harper’s accident was only the beginning of a litany of fears that I had tried to drown out with alcohol.
I was afraid of random school shootings and my inadequacies as a mother. I was afraid my business would go under and I’d look like a failure.
I was afraid of reliving childhood trauma and my lifelong depression which at times became so overpowering, it blacked out everything else and yet suddenly—almost magically—went away once I got sober.
I was afraid to quit drinking because I didn’t know how to live without alcohol. But it was only in removing alcohol from my life that my fears began to dissipate and I could truly start to live.
I didn’t tell Harper any of this as I was bending down to tie her shoe. These memories aren’t her burden to bear, but mine. She wasn’t remembering that I didn’t teach her how to tie her shoes. She was recalling how her sister Maya and our sitter Kenzie had taught her, and she was intrigued by how I was doing it now.
As I was finishing up with her lace, she stopped me. “Wait, can you do that again? Show me how you did that.” I did as she bid, slower this time so she could see. She was mesmerized. “What a strange way to tie shoes!”
“Maya and Kenzie taught me how to do it this way,” she said, bending down to show me. We laughed.
“Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” I said.
“What a strange saying, Mama!”
Then she added, “Some kids still don’t know how to tie their shoes. In sixth grade. Can you believe it?” And with her question I realized: not everyone is as lucky to have what we now have. There are still sixth graders who don’t know how to tie their shoes. And we are not the only family to have gone through a thing.
It’s during moments like this, when I least expect it. No matter how well our life is going. No matter how long I’ve gone without a drink. No matter how many years I’ve lived without so much as the desire to drink—all of this, of course, a miracle in itself—it is in these moments when I am blindsided. These seemingly small comments from my youngest child. These are the things that make me remember that it wasn’t always this way.
These are the words that offer just a peek into what our world was like, for a time. These comments, these questions—like pulling back the curtain and getting a glimpse into that old life. The desire is strong to quickly let the curtain fall. Just let it go, make it cover up everything I don’t want to see. What I don’t want to feel.
And it is in these moments that I must remember it happened. That is the fact. That is the truth.
I let this truth sit with me as I breathe in.
Then do it again.
I sip my coffee and notice the steam rising in the cool air as I watch the reds and oranges of the season fluttering to the ground. Nature doing what it does: releasing that which no longer serves.
I watch my baby girl skipping down the street as she meets up with her friend, wondering how she can bounce like that under the weight of her backpack. They make their way to the bus, happy that it’s a beautiful Friday. Making plans for our neighborhood Halloween party the next day and trick-or-treating the following week.
And I think again: not every sixth grader knows how to tie her shoes. And we are not the only family who has been through a thing.
But thankfully, we survived.