My Mother, Broken Hearts, and Class Rings

In honor of International Women’s Day, I penned this short story about my mother. My mother is the greatest person that I have ever known and she is directly responsible for the way I feel about women to this day. Thanks to her, I have everlasting respect and admiration for the battles that women must fight in our society, battles that we as men will never understand. My mother’s story is deep and mysterious, even to her children, of which there are seven. She raised all of us in poverty, and thanks to her ingenuity, determination, faith and strength, we never went without. Her quiet dignity is without parallel. I owe everything that I am to this woman and thanks to her, will never be intimidated by a strong woman. I love you Mom. 

I sat in the backyard of our house in the darkness and shadows adjacent to the plot of land that we had tilled up and called a garden. The Groundhogs, one of which I had named and raised, would not leave the vegetables alone, rendering all the work nearly useless. I angrily threw my recently re-acquired class ring away into the dimly light patch of weeds and broken fence, then stumbled, sobbing as only a sixteen year old boy whose heart had just been broken could. I had not been hurt like that before. I had never felt so betrayed, exposed, useless and more than anything else, lonely.

Not even my Grandmother’s passing the summer before hurt quite as much as this. I could wrap my brain around the fact that she could not continue the pain of living and feared the burden she would cause in years to come on her family more than she feared the brief and instant moment of a bullet passing through her heart. I could not understand why the living could betray one another. I thought I was in love. I thought I would die. My dog whined uneasily and the house that we had worked so hard to build and make a home was dark and silent. Nobody quite dared follow me, not knowing what to say. My little sisters, who were my constant companions, were already inside and in bed, not realizing the drama unfolding just outside. My car sat ticking in the cool night air and the breeze was redolent with peaches.

My mother found me. Silent as only she could be in her bare feet, she often seemed ethereal at night. She was filled with a strength that only a mother could have, bearing seven children in the poverty stricken highlands of the coal country. We took her for granted, as only children can. She was sometimes as silent as she was loving, as filled with mystery as the night sky, yet somehow so fragile in the dim light. Nobody really knew her. Not even her children. I would hear her at night, relentlessly cleaning, with her tears occasionally mingling with the bleach she scrubbed away imaginary germs with.

She didn’t say anything. She rarely did. She just gave away pieces of herself until I wondered if there was anything left. She comforted me as only she could, stealing out of the mist and placing one tender hand on my shoulder as I wept for all that was lost – my childhood, the innocent love without fear, the knowledge that I would soon be leaving for college, leaving behind the only thing that I knew. She cried with me that night and gave away another precious bit of herself.

Nearly a decade later I wept into a pay phone as the light went out of the sky in Apalachicola. The sun painted the sky an ethereal palette of color as I dialed her number from memory. Still the oldest of seven, I was again heartbroken and needed my mother. As the phosphorous in the surf twinkled in the early dark and the moon followed the sun into the sky, I once again wept as only the broken and spent can.

She didn’t say anything. She simply cried with me on the phone as I choked on bitter tears and the hurt and loneliness threatened to sweep me away. She gave another piece of herself so that I could live. Just as she had twenty-five years earlier during a screaming hot night in August of 1973 as she brought me into this world through the ferocity and shear will power that only a mother can possess, she beat my demons into the night with her force of will from her place in deep Appalachia.

Fourteen years later, with a young son and wife of my own, I screamed silently into the tile floor beside a toilet with no lid. I didn’t know where I was. The fluorescent lights beat me like an immortal enemy that would not be driven back. I shook violently, my fever skyrocketing as sweat poured off me in stinking, yellow waves. I shook with withdrawal as my nose bled into the drain in the middle of the pale yellow tile. The steel toilet silently took witness as I chewed my shirt to avoid swallowing my tongue. Slipping and sliding through the mist of the lonely place where most do not survive, I managed to scream out for her into the drain as darkness slid across my throat. Somewhere, the devil laughed. In the midst of all that agony and despair and fear, as I traversed a high place, staring at a near certain death, I felt a hand on my shoulder in the cold of the unblinking light. As I spiraled into darkness, I relaxed. No words were needed.

It was my mother.

The Hidden Angel

The light was a bit bereft, perhaps, as you would expect in these shadow places, these places that don’t really exist except within the brief and waning memories of our aging souls. There is rug, made not of normal materials, but of spent climbing rope in one corner, by a great and aging, but still glowing wood stove. A pot of Tibetan Tea simmers on a partially open eye. A great mastiff, his muzzle aged but capable, wags his tail half-threateningly, content to be alone, but ready as always to wage war. A pair of tired old ice axes, the duct tape covering their grips sagging with age, hang nearby.

Cast your eye about you, if you dare! There, in a corner, are the rusting remnants of a mighty KX-500, the last king of the open class two-strokes. And there, just there! The aging hulk of yet another beast of a motorcycle, the mighty Ducati Monster SSR-2X, worth a veritable fortune on the open market if restored.

Over there! Another classic, a Mad River Explorer Canoe, designed such that it could be dropped from great heights by sea plane, found by others and warmed back into shape by feeble propane and mixed-fuel stoves. Another find! A mighty diesel powered military version suburban, obviously highly modified and lightened for rapid overland travel. Further deconstruction reveals a false floor, covered by what is obviously the great mastiff’s fur. One whiff of what would have been the contents verify that very high grade shine and Floyd’s Finest Green was once transported here, in the heart of this great mechanical beast.

Another cursory glance indicates more items of this ilk: Empty mason jars, jars of sex wax, mostly used; several broken boards, curious to those that know for they indicate the skill of the riders that plied their obsession on the great and cold waves of the Pacific, their heads hidden in the clouds and mist as the skill and courage of their riders was lost upon them. A small but mighty sailing vessel also catches our gaze, it’s sales ripped and torn, her mast asunder.

Massive amounts of empty bottles, the dead soldiers, the remnants of addiction past, line the walls, spilling from their broken black plastic bags, long since rotten in the emptiness of this place, devoid of memory. Screaming their misery and the hurt and the pain and loss. A shudder runs through any soul seeking solace in the corners of this mysterious maze of misery.

But this is not what we seek, amongst the lost ramblings and long sheets of paper chronicling the voyages of this individual. What we see is love. Has he ever known it? Has he ever shook the hair out if his eyes to look to the other? We find, as our eyes adjust, another place, not quite a hall in this curiously circular place, but an area that breathes a different breath. A bluer note. Something gentle. Tangibly different. Here we are filled with wonder, as we witness two little girls, sisters no doubt. There are scattered remnants of cobwebbed old things; a conch necklace. A battered old beach bike. A beautiful hat, somehow not fitting with the coal miners hat and gear we found before. A pair of impossibly high slip on shoes. A Martini in Italy, lifted not in gratitude nor love, but in victory. There are wigs, and vibrators, and other sexual objects, all shrouded in cobwebs, with no love lost.

We hear the broken footsteps of the man we seek, and we feel the attention of another, of a great love, a true heart as opposed to the object of our search. We know that she is female, and her power is as great as a fiery volcano, and as long lasting as an ice age. She is there, but she is new to this story that we are descending, a force of nature as huge as the mighty slabs our broken hero once surfed.

Then we hear the call of a newborn boy, and we first feel the emotion of the man we are exploring. We see him weeping as he holds the baby, his mother’s eyes indifferent.  We catch a glimpse, no, a full expression of the girl with the martini. We shudder, and step back, but the man is indifferent, uncaring. We fear for his soul. We watch as he breaks under the strain of her rage, her bitterness at wrongs long past, but never forgiven.

As we descend, in search of we know not what, images scatter about. Real ones. First steps. A tall and proud little boy, always in close embrace with his father. We see he shares his fearlessness, recklessness. We see him on the roof of a make-shift chicken shed, proudly reaching down to his father. We see him expertly swimming the channel, his father in mad chase. We watch as he launches himself down the steps of the cape cod house on his first bike, his face unclouded by confusion or indecision.

We also see the mother, her eyes distant and clouded, not sharing the bond between father and son. Then we see hurt! Oh, the hurt! The pain. The confusion. The retreat, by this once brave man, from his own. The same man who once laughed into the abyss now crushed and running in shame.

We see the boy and the man reunited, and for some reason there is a policeman present. We are astonished, as the man’s life revolves around this boy. They cry, and hold one another, and the boy whispers for his father to come home. The man cries, and his world collapses. He falls into the oblivion of his familiar ways, seeking solace from the old comforts, the false gods, the angry truth. He hides in the mist, ashamed.

We dive deeper, for there is more! There is a door, here, now, thick and ugly and bonded in such a way that there is no access. Nor is there a key. We peer through the keyhole, and gasp! This room is full of new and wonderful things, such that have never been seen. It is dusty, but there is homemade furniture, a glowing stove, the bubbling smells of good things, and love is here. The man is still locked in the battle of a thousand demons, and although he may have once had the ability to break down this mighty helm, no more. His strength is waning in the face of his battles.

We feel once again the presence of another, someone stronger than our subject. Someone, something, with a love as strong and deep as can be imagined, someone with battle ringing through veins, someone unafraid, unaffected.

But still, who has the key to the door??? We listen to the monsters rush towards our subject, we see him sink to the ground, unable to stand. We shriek in shock, and scream the question aloud, and then we hear the gentle tingle of a slight chain, and a mighty key is inserted into the lock. Who could bear such a thing, what warrior could possibly break such a lock, and free such a tired warrior, beaten now, gasping, on his knees, with his demons shrieking in delight? God himself has looked away, his job done, his hope gone.

She looked round – she was sleek and strong, and oh so beautiful. She wore no breastplate and carried no shield, nor sword did she bear. But her heart was pure. Then her eyes blazed back up the trail, an impossible combination of deep ocean green and sky blue. Her heart was pure, and she needed no protection. All her man’s enemies fell away, shrieking. The man shook, impossibly, then rose to his feet, across the hearth and into the room of laughing children and warmth and food, and love.

She glared across her hearth, and dared any to follow. Her eyes, so green now, showed no mercy for those who would harm her own.

The evil things fled.

The Falling

My feet were in the air, my heart was in my throat. I pulled furiously on the lead rope, hating the man on the other end. He had been recommended to me by a former climbing partner, someone who would no longer climb with me. She said I was dangerous. She said I took risks beyond what she was willing to deal. I am Southern. I smiled and told her I was terribly sorry, that I must have given the wrong impression. She was not Southern, and she did not smile. She glared at me over her gin and tonic.

Now, I was angry. I am rarely angry; it is an emotion that is as unfamiliar to me as snowstorms in July. Yes, they do occur, but they are abnormalities, far from the norm. If pressed, even now, I can remember every time that I was ever actually angry. The unfortunate thing, for me, is that when angry, logic, reason, tact, restraint, and every other safeguard of human emotion is abandoned in the heat of the moment. I was fast approaching that moment.

My climbing partner, met a few days’ prior at the restaurant in which I moonlighted, had seemed capable enough. He had recommendations. I asked around about him, as I’m sure he did me. He was a good climber, they said. He was a good second. He was not a lead, but he was good at belay, cleaning and so forth.

Ice particles hit my face. The rock had been almost unbearably hot, exposed as it was to the western sun. Lake Tahoe danced in the distance, not visible, but there, nonetheless. I could feel the wind off the face of the deep waters. In midair, I wondered briefly what it must be like, at that moment, to dive into its cold depths, to welcome the blue.

Even as the thought went through my head, I silenced it. I was not going to die. Not that day. Not with some spineless idiot tethered to the end of my lifeline. I had yanked and pulled on the rope all day, feeling his apathy at paying out line, feeling the hold of his fear. I was climbing, in those days, in the grips of mania, convinced of my own mortality. He, on the other hand, was terrified by me. All of the rumors of me were true. I was nuts. Bonkers. I climbed and surfed as though there was no other destiny for me, other than death.

I planted my feet on the rock wall and shove out. I screamed something about the asshole on the other end of the rope getting the hell out of the way as I fell straight for him. Passive protection anchors popped like sparkling coals as I fell, feeling the tug of each piece as it came loose. I thought I had done a better job at setting them, but in my irritation and haste, I had not.

They say that there is no time to think while you are falling. I beg to differ. Anyone who says otherwise has not fallen that far. I had time to think. I thought it was a damn shame that I didn’t get to climb more in Nevada and California. I was slated to be in Washington, D.C. in two weeks to begin a new job. I thought I wasn’t ready for that. I thought it sucked that I would never see my ex-girlfriend again. But most of all, my brain was on fire with survival. I tried to grab sections of the granite (orthoclase, I thought) as I fell past. My fingernails parted from my hands with miraculous ease, sending pain signals through my frontal lobe, although I ignored them as completely as I have always ignored pain.

Three weeks later, I was in the Outer Banks, on the opposite coast, still procrastinating. I didn’t want to start the new job. It was going to be my life, I thought. I camped, morosely, staring at the impossibly flat ocean. My favorite surf spot was a bathtub. Phosphorescence turned the sea impossibly green. I scraped my feet on the sand at night to watch the glow of my receding prints, reminded over and over of my own mortality.

That was October. In June of the following year, sitting in a bar at 11:57 a.m., a girl slammed through the door of the establishment, looked around impatiently, and grabbed her phone. She was wearing a white skirt and a black tank top. Her blonde hair was yanked back and constrained by a tie. She wore another on her wrist. She was in short heels, with no makeup. She was my blind date. She was my future wife, the mother of my son. I picked up my beer and watched her carefully. She called several numbers, irritated that no one was answering. My phone rang. It was not her, and I ignored it, as I am prone to do. I have issues with cell phones. Her phone rang. She obviously did not have issues, and she seemed irritated by the conversation.

Our lunch company was late. Ten minutes. We ordered our food, I ordered another beer. We ate, and I watched her carefully, as sunlight played about her features, rendering her beautiful. I wondered what she was like, where she went to college, if her heart had been broken before me. I had no idea that twelve years later we could break like fine china in the face of addiction, grief and loneliness. I had no idea that this was the one woman I would love like no other, for the rest of my life. I had no idea that she had been born on September 20th, and that one day, twelve years later, I would not be able to wish her happy birthday. I had no idea that we would travel across Italy, Mexico and Costa Rica together. I had no idea we would have a son, whom I would love as fiercely and completely as any human could love another. I had no idea how much I would love her parents, nor how devastated I would be when her father passed.

I had no idea. I was falling. Again.

The Boathouse Preview

My dearest family. I cannot express the sorrow that I feel. I cannot apologize enough, or sincerely enough, for my relapse into addiction. My sorrow, my pain, my apologies, my words: They are simply not enough. My actions must now speak for me. My day to day life must be my liaison, if such a thing applies. Every single day that I do not succumb to my addiction, every single day that I do not die from illness, is a battle won, a conflict scored in my favor. It would be so easy, at this point, to simply quit.

Three and a half years ago, there was a singular miracle in Roanoke, Virginia. There was a child born to parents, namely Laura Friedel Matney and Ronald N. Matney, II. The father had no real expectations of having a child. In 1997, he had himself checked for fertility, and the doctors decreed that he had 99.9% chance of not having a child. Nonetheless, on December 30, 2012, one Nolan Gray Matney, named after me, his father, and his Papa, his wife’s father, was born at 10:28 a.m. As his father, I was allowed to hold him first. The nurse released him from the bonds of the womb and handed him to me.

He did not cry. Instead, this child of mine, this miracle of birth, looked about in amazement. Truth be told, on that day, I was only five days sober. I had been drinking for years, and my son; this baby; this human being to whom I shall be bound for all eternity, looked about while I was in the preliminary struggles of escaping my addiction. I had fought through it all to be sober for that moment, but I was shaking badly. I held my son, my only son, close, and I cried. I handed him to his mother, my wife, glowing in the moment. She was so strong, so resilient. I admired her strength and courage, and loved her with all my heart. I still do.

He looked about. The nurses laughed and marveled at his alertness, and it seemed everyone in the hospital came to see him, but there was nothing to shake the bond between the new mother and her child. For hours, he looked about. He noticed light. He noticed when the nurses came and went. He noticed when I spoke. But most of all, he gazed at his mother in what can only be described as adoration. It was if he was finally thrilled to see his mother’s face. For five hours, this child of mine looked about him, and analyzed the world. My wife sang to him. “Wagon Wheel” was his first song. Eventually, he gave into his exhaustion and slept. So did his mother.

I stole about, feeling ashamed and a bit intrusive. The nurses looked at me warily. In December of 2012, I weighed 312 pounds. Today, I weigh 165. I was horribly sick. I was jaundiced. I shook horribly from withdrawals. I could not discern between what was real and what was not. But I knew this: My son had just been born. So, I needed to man up, and be a Dad. I had never before had this feeling, this feeling of fierce love, and protection, and humility; I knew that in order to be a good Dad, I was going to have to be a sober Dad. Not one bound by addiction. Not one sick and weak and disgusting and handicapped by mental disorders.

So began my journey into sobriety, chronicled in detail elsewhere on this website and in an upcoming book, “Out of the Weeds.” What I first assumed would be easy was not. My body and mind had become dependent on alcohol and I was terribly sick during withdrawals. I kept trying, and failing. My wife watched nervously, preoccupied with our new son, but astute enough to realize something was terribly wrong. For three long months, long after my diagnosis with terminal liver cirrhosis, I fought for, but did not achieve, sobriety.

At long last, in March of 2013, I was finally hospitalized. My body was failing. My mind was shot. The harder I tried to kick my addiction, the tighter its grip became, until I could take no more. For five days, the doctors treated me with Benz opines, pain medication and fluids. I was finally sober. My wife was overjoyed! I was somewhat dubious, still in the grips of addiction and still not quite sure about the not drinking for the rest of my life thing.

Those first weeks were the worst. I distinctly remember driving to the liquor store, sitting in the parking lot, and crying. I took care of my son as my wife returned to work. My life became entangled with his, as he and my wife were all that kept me sober. Boredom set in as the weather was horrible and outside activities were limited. As soon as I was able, I walked. I walked for miles every day, accompanied by our Labrador Retriever, who was vastly confused by his sudden demotion from his position as head of household.

Let us fast forward, shall we? I can tell of you of my subsequent relapse, on my son’s baptism date, no less. My wife’s parents hrew a celebration, complete with Bloody Mary’s, not three months into my sobriety. Everyone watched me carefully, to make sure that I did not drink. I did not walk the walk or talk the talk. To say that I relapsed that day is an understatement. The thing, is, aside from my wife’s brother, not one person knew. The months following were hell. I hid it as best I could from my family, but there was no mistaking that I had fallen off the wagon.

Then there came total sobriety, of which I have written about at length. Three years. Three years, and not one drink. I ran half marathons. I defied the odds. I astonished the doctors. But I still, to quote my wife, was not happy. I railed against my situation. I grew more and more unhappy, for reasons that I did not understand. I blamed others, namely my wife, who did not understand, nor did I, my anger. My resentments grew and became festering sores, replacing the whiskey blisters that permeated my soul in the beginning of my sobriety.

So finally, came my final straw. I relapsed. Big time. I fell so hard, and so far, that angels feared tread where I was. I made an ass of myself, over and over. My family looked askance at where I was. I checked in and out of detox. I went to rehab. Nothing worked.

The day I checked out of rehab, I took a cab ride to BWI airport, to discover that my truck sat on three flats, had been broken into, and did not start. I managed to fix the flats and work my mechanics genius shit under the hood, and got it running. I was three hours late to my meeting with my lawyers, who had prepared divorce papers.

I could not sign the papers. I sat in their office, and for the first time, began to take ownership of what I had done. Of the addict that I am. With tears running down my face, I confessed to my legal team that I loved my wife. That I loved my family. That I regretted what I had done with all my heart. As the assimilated that information, the phone rang. And rang. And rang. On the line, someone explained to me that my father in law, a man for whom I have the deepest love and respect, had passed. I sat numb. I wept. I prayed for my wife and son, for the first time, I prayed for them, honestly and truly. I prayed for them to be at peace, despite me. I prayed for my beloved mother in law. How terrible she must feel. I prayed for the family, for a great man had passed. For the first time, I prayed for God to change the me, not the circumstance. It was not to be taken lightly, nor in stride. I stumbled out of the office, poured myself into my truck and headed south.

The rest is history. I relapsed again. I nearly died. Again. My brother peeled me off the floor of his bathroom where I had lost over 80% of my blood. I recovered, despite myself. I fled deeper into the mountains, seeking solace in the rocks and moss of the familiar. Nothing would heal my wounds. Nothing. Now, here I am. Sober. Fighting for the ability to do the right thing. I prayed to God to change my circumstances. Then I realized that God is trying to change me. That is my only path. To change myself. To rid myself of the addiction, the selfishness, the pride, the wounded attitude. To admit what I have done wrong. To begin clearing the wreckage of what I have done. I pray that it is enough

The Hole In My Soul

His face was a mass of wrinkles and his old eyes were dim, but at 85, with 42 years sober, his mind was still intact. More than you can say for mine at this moment. He squinted at me. “Son, there was a hole in my soul. The wind blew through it. It hurt.” I feel his words. My spirit is bruised, broken, sick, weak, lonely and racked with sorrow. My body eerily resembles my spirit. Since May 30th, I have been in three short-term rehabilitation and/or terminal care clinics, one 30-Day Rehabilitation Program, three hospitals and one intensive care unit. I ran away. I missed my wife and son. I gave up. I limped back into town beaten, exhausted, destitute.

My doctor gave me no chance. He was impatient, brusque. He dismissed me from his office with strict instructions to go to the Emergency Room. Despite my best efforts, my life had fallen into shreds. I simply was not prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual turmoil. Every time I lifted my head it seemed, something else slammed me back to the ground. I began to feel like a battered boxer, but with no hope of victory, just more punishment.

I crumpled like mist outside the ER and wept. For the first time in my adult life, I had no more hope. The hole in my soul howled with the wind sweeping off the Bay. Nowhere else to go. No chance. Nothing. My bank account stood in the negative, my meager life savings shredded in lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, and the cost of living out of one’s vehicle. I left my sunglasses on and thought of my son, my wife. How long it had been since I had seen them? July 10th. It seemed like an eternity ago, when I had burned with self-righteous anger. The self-righteousness had evaporated like mist on scorching pavement as the full realization of my offense magnified itself to me.

In desperation. I prayed. Not for me. Not for my life. Not for my sobriety. I prayed for my wife. What must she be going through? I prayed for my young son. I prayed for my wife’s family, for my friends, for everyone I could think of, everyone I had betrayed with my relapse and consequent actions. I prayed, finally, for me. For God to grant me the strength and the longevity to do what I must do. I must seek forgiveness.

On May 30th of this year, after nearly three years of total sobriety, I relapsed. There is no easy way to say this, although I have told the story so many times now that it seems redundant. I’m still dealing with the ramifications. I had promised my wife that I would never relapse. I had promised myself I would never relapse. I had sworn a solemn oath to my young son that I would never relapse. I promised everyone, including you, dear reader, that I would never relapse. I did. I bought a six pack of beer, intending on having a beer while I worked in the garden. After all, what is the harm? Other people I knew who had been alcoholics were enjoying a beer or two. I had watched them. Somewhat enviously, I might add.

One beer turned into all six which led to a bottle of tequila. I was ashamed, angry, and emotional. I must have read to my son for two hours that night, continuing on after he fell asleep. I called everyone I trusted to come help and even dove into Facebook, flirting with random women, seeking solace for my relapse. The next morning, I was awakened by my young son, who was miraculously clean, obviously fed, but very angry with me. At three, he knew something was wrong. In a fit of defiance at me, he scattered cereal all over the house, glaring at me the entire time. He then ran to the bathroom, where he proceeded to flush the toilet repeatedly. I ran after him, wondering what he was doing. There, in the doorway, the magnitude of what had happened hit me.

My three-year-old son, barely a toddler, had gathered up all the beer bottles and the empty bottle of tequila and thrown them into the toilet, where he was trying his hardest to flush them. He turned to me, and clearly asked, “Daddy, are you sick?” In a fit of despair, I burst into tears, picked him up, and for what would turn out to be the last time since, I held him alone, scrubbed the stubble of my beard over his scalp, something he has loved since he was an infant. I told him, yes, I’m sick, and I am so, so sorry. I called the doctor, the ER and finally answered my wife’s repeated phone calls. I confessed. My son and I cried together, although he possesses his mother and his late Papa’s strength of will and determination. I had never been more ashamed.

So began my descent into hell. My wife, true to her promise three years prior, left me. I was filled with indignation and rage. I did not realize at that time the depths of my addiction. True to an addict’s nature, I blamed everyone for my relapse, mainly my wife. It was her fault, I said. If she had only paid me more attention, given me more love, been a better wife, a closer friend. I denied the depths of my addiction.

I relapsed again. Again I committed myself to detox. I came out even more furious. My wife had changed the locks, taken my key, limited my visits with my son. I became angrier, blaming her even more. It was all her fault. My parents fault. Anyone’s fault but mine. The doctors removed me from the transplant list, where I had risen to near the top. Finally, after my third relapse, I checked myself into a 30-day facility, after extracting a half-hearted promise from my wife to come to counseling with me there and bring my son to visit.

Little was I to know the depths my addiction was to take me. I brooded and became morose, even though I participated in all counseling and threw myself into the rehab program. I vowed to make my wife let me see my son, and threatened to myself that I would sue her into submission. I spent the little money I had left on lawyers. They told me all I wanted to hear. It was everyone’s fault but mine. That’s their job. Then I found that my father-in-law, beloved by all, including me, the man I looked up to more than anyone, my wife’s hero and life, my best friend, one of the only to visit me in detox, had passed while I was in rehab. I had not been there for her. The magnitude of my addiction took on a knew note.

I left rehab on a shaky note, scared, but no long sure of my self-righteousness. You see, I had started to realize some things. First and foremost, for lack of a better term, and because I like the word, my paradigm of sobriety had been wrong. When I achieved sobriety three years prior, I did it out of fear. I became a willing participant in all household chores, taking over cleaning, shopping, cooking – for the three years I was the primary caregiver for our son. Despite my joy in these activities, I wasn’t really sober. I was not drinking, but I was not sober. Only an addict can understand this. You see, my fear dictated my sobriety. I was only sober because I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my wife and son.

I wasn’t really sober. My mind still operated as an addict. I built resentments, real and imagined, but mostly imagined. I carefully dictated my diet, ran constantly, practiced yoga, and became arrogant in my self-will and abilities. I wasn’t really sober. My resentments grew, built, and became real in my mind. I began to blame my wife for my unhappiness. My wife is the greatest person I know. She is the smartest, most beautiful, most talented, most faithful, most loving person I have ever met. I would have been lucky to have ever crossed her path. But she married me!!! All she asked in return was that I be sober.

That day, sobbing outside the ER, I came to the full realization of my addiction. Shaking and swollen with Ascites, confused with Hepatic Encephalopathy, jaundiced and racked with depression, still weak from internal bleeding, sweating profusely, broken in mind and body, I realized the full magnitude of my betrayal. I had betrayed her. I had betrayed my son. Most of all, I had betrayed myself.

So, I did not admit myself to the ER. For the first time, I chose to face the magnitude of my life. After all, I knew what to do. In six days, I attended fourteen AA meetings. I cleaned up my diet. I walked everywhere. I limited my fluid intake, my caloric intake. I re-enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient Program for addicts and people suffering from acute illness. I got a sponsor in AA. For the first time ever, I honestly started working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, despite what has been a tumultuous, stressful, and terrible week, I am actually getting better. I’m still not sleeping, but my hands have stopped shaking. My head is clearing. The ascites is subsiding. Most importantly, I am sober. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am no longer thinking with an addict’s brain. Will I live long? I don’t think of that. I only think of today, and what I can do to be a better person, today. Will I see my beloved wife and son again and be able to tell them I love them and that I am sorry? I don’t know. I try not to think of that, although I can’t help it. Will I run a half-marathon again? I don’t know. I’ll be happy to be able to walk downtown.

I don’t know much of anything. Except that the hole in my soul needs to be fixed. Finally, I realize: That all starts with me.

What You Don’t See

I knelt on the ground outside the ER, retching blood miserably into the sodden concrete, already wet with the early morning dew. There was little in the way of conscious thought, just memory, wrecked by time and space and hurt and disease and loneliness. A single bit of mica winked in the streetlight as bright blood spattered. A life worth living. A life not worth living. A simple thing, really, a veil that parts on occasion and lets us see into our own souls, sometimes in the worst of moments. I wonder why I have drug myself this far, and then I feel the corners of the folded photographs in my pocket.

The nurse held the two pictures and looked at me curiously. I have carried the one for twelve years, not the original, mind you. It has worn through many times, creased and broken and worn, but never lost. I carry the file, the true original, in a zip drive. This rendition is dutifully worn, dusted from sunlight, creased from use, covered in memory and longing. A white hat. A flowered bikini. Big sunglasses. A surfboard rests in the sand nearby. You can’t see it, but I know it’s there.

I want to see more, see what else is there, what the picture doesn’t show. I try and tell the nurse. I desperately reach for the picture as consciousness ebbs, bends. Light distorts and I feel the gravity of the blood I have lost. I see the fine sand stuck to the girl’s legs, I smell the odor of sunscreen and Carolina air and peach shaving gel. I see the worn white slightly platform flip-flops, thinking who wears those? I see them in the top of our closet, twelve years later.

I smell the smoke of distant beach fires, the spray of hurricane winds. I see the worn toenail polish. I struggle to ask the nurse why the girl painted her toes but not her fingernails? I smell sweat and feel the chill of morning air as we run the early morning trail, mists swirling off the mountains, bodies floating, easy. I see a wedding dress with closed loop buttons, a thousand bobby pins scattered on a bed from hair that had never been more beautiful. The steps of a distant land. The smell of fish grilling over a fire. The smell of a stone wall in the suns early glare. My love seemed huge in the space of the room.

Tears roll down my face and the picture seems to fall. There are yells. I see the creases and the years, the western sun, a big blue barn. I see a sailing vessel, a family, a patriarch. A great man. Mild and gentle, wise and melancholy, so much better than me. A man who shared his daughter, his love, his life, with me.

The other picture is of a little boy, as blonde as his mother, in gray shorts and a blue coat. His brown eyes are frowning as he pulls on a branch that is lodged in the bay. I hear the putter of diesel engines, hear the shutter clicks of his mom’s camera. I see the sand lodged between his toes, the abrasions where his shoes rub his skin. I smell the warm skin of a healthy boy and I see a green room, with a toybox and trains and a changing station where I have attended to a thousand dirty diapers. I hear a mother’s voice, the sound of music and feel the love in the home. I hear chickens clucking gently and I feel the cool sweat of an early morning run drying on my face as I make coffee.

There are towels there, too; lying on the sand, one orange, one brown, and the same girl that wore the flowered bikini so many years before, even more beautiful, with her hat and smile and impossibly worn shoes. I try to pick up the pictures, as they lie in the tangle of cords and IV’s on my chest, but they slip from my grasp. The nurse places them aside impatiently, intent on saving a life.

I try to explain it’s not worth saving. I can’t. The nurse has a job to do.

Seven days later, I sit on a park bench in a distant town, watching the sun set. I’m looking at what’s not here. I am curiously at peace, for the first time in many years. Saddened beyond belief, I am prone to quick and embarrassing tears. I think of hiking a distant trail, as I once did, but the walk across the park is tiring enough. I think of the little boy, and the girl in the hat. My days of ruin are done. I feel old and beaten. Broken. No anger, only sorrow. My tears mean little, and are embarrassing to those who witness them. My beloved mountains no longer sing their song to me. My ancestors are silent, awaiting my decision. Waves crash on some distant shore. I can hear them, but they no longer beckon.

I spread the two pictures in front of me. The girl. The little boy. My wife. My son. Oh, how I love them! I weep conscious of the stares, hoping I am not arrested for vagrancy but hardly caring. I am so far from home. I am so far from two I love most. I’m not sure how to get back. The sun is setting in the west, low now, as birds cry their way back to their nests. My truck sits nearby, the tired old engine tick-tocking as it cools. A plane wings its way overhead. My passport and the last of my cash and credit cards rest in the zipper of my old pack. I wait for a sign, silently praying, for the first time, in a long time, for guidance.

A little boy suddenly runs through the grass in front of me, intent on chasing a cat just weaseled from his grasp. He is tall for his age, and blonde. My heart suddenly lurches, as it always does whenever I catch sight of a mass of blonde curls. I know it is not my son, but that is sign enough for me. I place the pictures in my pocket and grab my keys, paying no heed to the direction of the setting sun. My way is east. Home. To those I love.

I need some new pictures.

A Waterman with a Poet’s Soul

She drove towards Annapolis from Gaithersburg, a fine late summer morning. Always quiet, she was more silent than normal. As I would find out over the years, she has a penchant for dolling out information on a need to know basis. I’m firmly convinced that she doubles as a secret agent of some sort. How else can you explain her ability to vanish at will, in black socks?

I can tell something is up, but only a few months into our relationship, back in late August of 2004, I already know better than to press the matter. I relax, secure in the knowledge that she will let me know when I need to do something. I suspect that we are going somewhere nice, as she had me deviate from my usual goofy attire of camo shorts and t-shirts to khaki’s and a shirt with buttons. I had no idea.

We parked in downtown Annapolis, already in a bit of an argument. She is walking at her normal clip, which is to say just under a jog. I preferred to meander, take my time, amble along. She, on the other hand, has things to do. More specifically, we have her parents to meet. I’m irritated and feel foolish. How can we already be meeting her parents? We just met. She informs me that we met three months ago, and it is time to meet her parents.

I resign myself to the fact, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, that I was going to do as she said. My biggest question then was, “Where are we meeting?” I’m a redneck mountain boy from the hollers and hills of Southwestern Virginia, and unless my sense of direction was badly off, which it never was, we were headed in the direction of the waterfront. She looked at me, cutting me off in mid-sentence. We waited on the docks while a small dinghy puttered up, firing more or less on all cylinders.

A tall man, slightly stooped, in glasses, a hat and dark sweatshirt greeted us warmly, shook my hand, and welcomed me aboard. Whatever nervous aspirations I’d had about meeting my future wife’s parents evaporated in that moment. I have never, not once, been made to feel more welcome. He ferried us out to their sailboat, and his wife, my future mother-in-law, fussed over our boarding, set out a plate of Chacuterie, poured me a glass of wine, and made me feel as if I were part of the family.

I didn’t know I was going to marry Laura Friedel, daughter of Gerald Friedel, at that moment. I do think that she knew she was going to marry me. I didn’t know how the future would turn out. I do know that on that day in Annapolis, I met one of the greatest men who ever lived.

An engineer with a poet’s soul, a waterman to his core, I loved him with all I had. He became a father to me, someone with who I shared everything. He was the one who stepped in and helped me when I needed it as an engineer. He was the one who took me out for my very first bowl of she crab soup. He was the first to call when my own father was sick. He taught me how to plane doorways, how to properly tie off a boat at dock, how to toss a crab trap. He taught me how to eat muskrat stew and regaled me with stories of beach camping when he was young.

He took me skeet shooting and hunting. He taught me the finer points of upland waterfowl. Always keen to the wind, a waterman always, he took me goose hunting for the first time in my life. At night he and I sat and chortled over action movies, watching Bad Boys II while Mama Sue Friedel pretended to be horrified over the antics.

How proud he was of his daughter! How nervous I was when I asked him if I could marry her! I asked him in person, and he, always the romantic, cried with me and told me he would be honored. He told me the most important thing in a marriage was to always love, and always remember the little things.

Our wedding day was bright and clear, and I have never seen a man happier than Mr. Friedel. He danced with is daughter, a shimmering vision in white and I cried, knowing that no matter what, she would always be the light of his life. He placed her hand in mine and admonished me to take care of her, no matter what. I promised him I would.

Over the years, he was my closest friend, my surrogate father. When I stumbled and fell, which was often, he was always there for me, never judging, never admonishing. He stood up for me, stuck by me – a man’s man. Highly educated and prominent in the community, he was always the first in line with a shovel when “real work” needed to be done. The last thing we did together was load old carpet and a door out of a warehouse in Cambridge. I reminded him that he had already paid someone to do it – he just grinned and reminded me that we should get to share in the fun.

He cast a big shadow, and like any son-in-law, I sometimes chafed under his wisdom and guidance. I was often jealous of my wife’s affection for him and their bond, so deep between that communication was not necessary between them. His shadow, though, was deep and humble. Not once, not one time, in the twelve years that I knew him, despite the situation, did he offer a cross word or a heated exchange. Despite my bull-headed stubbornness and bewildering aptitude for doing all the wrong things at exactly the wrong time, he was patient and kind. Nor was any piece of advice he ever offered wrong.

I’ve never seen a prouder Grandfather. Nolan Gray Matney, named after Mr. Friedel and I, loved his Papa more than anything. The highlight of his day was when Papa was coming – Papa meant boat rides, fishing trips, car rides scrapple, and most importantly, ice cream. Sometimes, when the light was just right, I would look at the two of them and be eerily surprised by the similarities. Nolan possesses his Papa’s mechanical aptitude, passion for the Bay, and uncanny judge of character. Everything good in my young son is inherited from his Papa.

Mr. Friedel, I love you. You were my role model, my mentor, my father, my sounding board, my conscious. You were careful with your words, loving, and every bit the man that I wish I were. You are the father of my wife, the Grandfather of my son. You had a greater impact on my life than every other person I met before you put together. Most of all, all the way until the end, you were my friend. It was a true honor.

A waterman with a poet’s soul. Your memory will never dim.

Ronald N. Matney, II