(note: all names are changed)
When my daughter rolled up her sleeve, I could no longer deny the horrifying truth. Up to that moment, Matthew and I had assumed that, like our parents before us, we would soon send our three kids off to college, careers, and families of their own, then retire from our fulfilling careers to spend our last couple of decades travelling and enjoying our grandchildren. That night I felt like we had been travelling confidently down a west Texas highway at 90 miles per hour, the horizon unobstructed for miles around, when suddenly the car bizarrely took control of itself and veered onto a rutted dirt and gravel road. Our destination, once clear, was shrouded in a dusty haze of uncertainty.
I don’t know why my eldest daughter’s heroin addiction came as a such a shock to me. It shouldn’t have. Her scumbag boyfriend had died after consuming a heroin-valium cocktail just two months earlier – on her birthday. That night, having been tipped off, I waited in her bedroom for her return from an “errand,” my stomach tied up in the selfsame knots I had experienced as a child - waiting, sick with dread, for my father to return home from a weekend bender.
When she opened the door, and I confronted her, at first she spluttered and fumed, affronted that I would insinuate she was stupid enough to be doing drugs. Until I told her to roll up her sleeve. Then the defiant sparks in her black eyes disappeared, the flare of her nostrils collapsed, and the tears began to fall. Time froze. Twenty years later I still remember her burgundy sweater and the soft light in her bedroom. I didn’t cry or explode. I calmly told her she had a choice: go with me to a rehab center tomorrow to start a detox program - or leave our house right away. In either case, I assured her, her daughter was staying with us until she was clean. Then I went to my bedroom, closed the door, and my bones turned to liquid despair.
But all the threats in my mom basket of behavior modification tricks were useless in competition with an addiction I didn’t understand. So, in 1997, my husband and I took on the unexpected challenge of raising a fourth child, our precious and precocious three-year-old granddaughter, Nikki. The irony of our taking on a fourth child to raise was that Matthew and I were both only children, ill-equipped to raise a passel of kids. Such a pairing as ours must not be very research-worthy. I tried once to find out the official odds of only children marrying successfully, but all I could find in my birth order research was the inadvisability of such a match. Expert conclusions stereotypically claim that first/only children are too selfish and perfectionistic to live together in harmony. Some opine that onlies who marry are cheating their future children, who have no aunts, uncles, or cousins. (I can see their point, having had 15 aunts and uncles and 42 first cousins. I loved our family get-togethers where so many playmates were available.) I do sometimes wonder if we were less prepared than most couples to navigate parenthood, but when we met at North Texas State University, our mutual birth status was not a factor in our mutual attraction.
Gradually, after we married and had children, we learned that maneuvering the dynamic of sibling rivalry was not in our parental toolbox. When our two daughters squabbled and vied for attention, while simultaneously relentlessly bullying their noncombative younger brother, we just shrugged our shoulders, totally clueless about our role in the peacekeeping element of familyhood. We simply had no experience in such pointless bickering for bickering’s sake. The kids just seemed to work out their differences themselves, without our mediation expertise – because we had no expertise. For years, our bossy eldest, Kristine, had convinced her more docile younger sister that she was in command by the laws of nature. She was oldest by two and a half years, and thus smarter, better looking, and more intelligent. She lorded it over her younger sister in our presence and was downright mean to her behind our backs. When they were in junior high, however, the tables turned in a single night. Matthew and I came home one night from a movie to find Kristine, sputtering and red-faced, helplessly flailing her arms and legs, while her sister Michelle – the natural born athlete of the three kids – calmly sat astraddle her back. We heard them before we arrived at the scene:
“Mooooooooom, get her off me! I can’t breathe. Michelle, get OFF me!”
“Not until you give me back my earrings. They’re not yours, and you didn’t ask if you could wear them, you little thief!”
“Moooooooooooooom, help me!! She won’t let me up!! I can’t feel my legs!””
Matthew and I looked at each other and smiled just the tiniest bit.
“Michelle, how long have you been sitting on your sister?”
“I don’t know…45 minutes, maybe?”
“Hours!” wailed Kristine. “It’s been hours!! I’m dying Mom. Heeeeeeelllllllp!!!!”
The tables had turned, the battle for dominance decided, and we, the parents, had played no role in that momentous shift in power that still has never changed.
Before Kristine graduated high school, we had stumbled along as best we could and somehow steered our children into almost- adulthood alive, all the while praying our bumbling efforts at parenthood had somehow managed to leave our children relatively unscathed. Of course, we encountered some worrisome obstacles the along the way. Who doesn’t? One of our children had dyslexia, another had inherited the family predisposition for depression and anxiety, the third was painfully shy and flat out lazy. Admittedly, of the two of us parents, I was the problem-solver – the fixer – the doer - and I liked it that way because I liked the feeling of being in control. Matthew worked so many hours, he was grateful to leave the heavy lifting to me – the carpooling, school shopping, meal decisions, helping with homework, finding tutors, doctors, dentists, and daycare. Even though I worked a fulltime job myself. And I had managed, I thought, just fine.
And then we learned our eldest, at age 17, was pregnant. At first, we were distraught, sure she had ruined her future, but she proved to be such a devoted mother to her baby, our fears took a back seat to that particular ecstasy exclusive to first-time grandparents. We took a step back and decided her life would all turn out ok, after all. Unfortunately, though, our beautiful and precocious granddaughter, Nikki, was only two when her mother met Zeke, an unemployed, wastrel junkie who introduced her to those malevolent little brown capsules of death. When he died, he left Kristine in the grip of opiate addiction, circling the vortex that eventually sucked her entire family into its spinning circle of misery.
In the ensuing decades, Kristine bore two more children in casual relationships, whose care and support gradually became our responsibility. She followed a path of broken relationships with losers, unemployment, and addictive behavior, and aside from a few years living independently with her second child, relinquished her parental responsibility because she knew she could.
She knew we couldn’t abandon those kids. So, we joined the 2.5 million other American grandparents who are raising a second family, a number that is growing exponentially with the opioid crisis. Nikki is now a stunning 25-year-old college grad, living in California. Her father became a sometime dad, but he died of cancer when she was 16. Chase is a tall, skinny 18-year-old who has never known his deadbeat dad. Through the years of battling his autism and ADHD, we’re proud that he will graduate from high school this year. It’s been a tough road, but we have hope he’ll one day be independent. He’s come so very far. And Sean is an exceptionally bright and athletically talented 12-year-old seventh grader, whose dad became a part of his life six years ago and sees him every other weekend. Matthew and I still go to meetings, carpool to school, help with homework, shuffle kids to the doctor and dentist and extracurricular activities, and I still set my alarm to get kids up and off to school. Our fixed incomes seem to shrink with the passing years since retirement, and instead of planning for our nursing care, we worry that we can’t afford to send our youngest to college.
A year ago, we made another alarming discovery…we’re old as dirt! Matthew was hospitalized when an infection in his foot, aggravated by diabetes and an old injury, spread throughout his body like lightning and nearly took his life. The wound is still open, significantly impairing his mobility, and amputation looms. His health crisis has forced us to face the reality that our roles as caregivers can’t last forever. We try not to think about Kristine’s current pregnancy and entanglement with another man whose life choices have been disastrous. We can’t possibly - physically or financially - raise another child. And yet, what is to become of this child whose parents are homeless and living on the edge? We just don’t know. We pray for the best.
Our so-called golden years haven’t turned out like we once thought they would, but we’re grateful we still have all four feet planted on top of the red Texas dirt. Our house is paid for, we still have plenty to eat, and enough cash left over for a comfortable life. The boys are reasonably self-sufficient, healthy, and happy. We haven’t been able to travel the world, but every day is an adventure. We groan occasionally about the restrictions of extended parenthood, but in our hearts, we know that we are blessed beyond measure to have this very special relationship with these kids. Perhaps it was meant to be – two only children, often lonely growing up without playmates, most likely never to be lonely again. We’ve certainly encountered our share of potholes in the care-worn road of parenting six kids, and learned more than we can even know, but we still don’t know how to maneuver deftly around the gaping sinkhole of sporadic sibling disharmony. Despite our extended childrearing experience, we are even now completely flummoxed when we happen upon a shoe flying across the room, furiously aimed at the temple of an offending brother who continues to heap verbal abuse on his sibling while simultaneously ducking the missile.
I guess some things in life, you just have to experience to understand.