“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
December 20, 2011 — My phone rang, waking me with a start. It was my mother, which I found odd because she knew to never to call me before noon. And, in that off moment of sleepy confusion — I knew — she had bad news. At the end of the line, a coast away, my mother choked out the words: My cousin had been killed the night before in a tragic accident. She had bought me a plane ticket home. I was going back East.
I had been drunk, almost constantly, for several months prior to his death. And, in the truly sobering moments that followed my mother’s phone call, I struggled to locate my emotion. I had rendered myself dull and numb. Tears dammed up behind my eyes. Words got caught in my larynx. Nothing in the room moved — except my arm — which swung out to my right side, off the bed, and grabbed for the open bottle of gin sitting on my bedside table. 7:43AM. I remember. I took a swig.
At work, my gracious coworkers had rallied for me. The skeleton crew that remained for the Christmas holiday had all divvied up my waitressing shifts without complaint. The bartender slipped me shots of whiskey during dinner service. It was the first time I ever drank on the job. After my shift, I sat at the pub around the corner from my apartment and I drank more. Bourbon. I left at last call and I only slept for a few hours before waking up and tossing my clothing into a suitcase haphazardly between swigs from my bottle of bedroom gin.
I arrived at the airport early and I sat at the bar while I waited to board my flight. As I slurped up the last, red sip of my 4th Bloody Mary through a long black straw, the man next to me asked me if he could buy me another. “I’m guessing you’re not having such a Merry Christmas,” he said. The bartender put my 5th drink down in front of me as the man got up. “Happy Holidays,” he said, wheeling his bag toward the gate. When I asked the bartender for my tab, she told me that the man had taken care of my entire bill.
I have never been so drunk on a plane. I ordered two 2 vodkas — the flight attendant handed me the 4 little minis like a vendor at a sporting event. I didn’t bother to mix them with my club soda. I remember holding each blue bottle up to my lips — one, then another, then another. I woke up from a blackout as we hit the runway at JFK International Airport. My head felt like it had been slammed between two bricks. My cousin met me at the baggage claim, where we collapsed into each other’s arms and cried. As we walked to the car she said, “Jesus Christ, Sarah. You reek of vodka.”
It has never been necessary to hide my drinking from my family. This behavior was routine — my routine — our routine. And, given the circumstance of my return, I wasn’t the only one taking nips on the sly. We shuttled from my childhood home, to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey, and back again. We all wept and drank. We sat perfectly still between embraces, and we were silent between sobs. The Christmas decorations only noted the season. We’d all forgotten what day is was — the clocks had stopped and the calendar was just a piece of paper on the wall.
Christmas Day, just days after the funeral, I flew home to Portland. I drank more vodka on the plane. And, when we landed, I had my cabbie drive me directly to the pub. I didn’t bother to stop at home and drop off my bags. For last call, the bartender turned off the juke box and played Elvis’ Blue Christmas and I got up to vomit in the women’s room.
* * *
This will be my third sober Christmas. And, when I arrive at PDX to fly East, I will sit and wait for my plane at the gate — not the bar. I will sip my complimentary cranberry cocktail and I will page through a fashion magazine and listen to Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums on my headphones. I will lay my head on the folding tray and try to sleep until the captain illuminates the “Fasten Seat Belt Sign” and announces our descent.
At JFK, I will walk past the baggage carousel and see the same spot where my cousin and I fell into each other’s arms before she drove me home, stinking of vodka. And, while I wait in the taxi line, the dam will break and I will cry again for my cousin who is gone.
I will pull my bags out of the back seat of a yellow cab and I will hug my mother on the stoop of our house in Brooklyn. When I walk in our front door, I will smell the perfume of the Douglas Fir. And when I see that Christmas tree, lit, in the corner of our living room — nostalgia will stop my heart for a just a few beats. My father will come down the squeaky steps and fold me in his arms before he kisses my forehead and says, “It’s good to have you home Monkeybird.” And, in my eyes, he’ll see — It’s good to be home.
It’s also good to be sober. So, I won’t think about drinking until I open the cabinet to the left of the microwave. I always find my old bottle of Jim Beam while I’m looking for something else in my mother’s kitchen. I poured my cousin a secret drink from that same bottle on Thanksgiving Day, 2011, just a month before his death. It seems fitting that the bottle should remain unfinished. And so, I honor his memory with every drink I do not take.
These were shadows of things that have been. — That they are what they are, do not blame me.
So, I leave my bottle on the shelf for ghosts. Because, my parents never cared for bourbon.
Which is crazy. — I know.
[Italicized Prose Excerpt: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Artwork (before edits): Sol Eytinge, Jr.]