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 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.