I'm pacing back and forth at the end of my driveway; Finn is late. He's on his first bus ride ever, and my heart is caught in my throat.
After thirty minutes of edgy waiting in the rain, the bus company finally calls.
"We have him," they say. "There was a mix-up at the school. He's supposed to be on Bus #1, but they put him on #2. Hang tight; he's almost home."
I keep my voice light as he skips down the bus stairs. "You okay, buddy?"
He gives me a puzzled look. "Sure. I wasn't scared. We drove by the house once and I saw you standing there. I told them 'Look! There's my Mom!' and so they knew where to go."
I give him a squeeze, smiling with pride, and we head into the house for a snack.
I take a moment to check email and by the time I get into the kitchen Finn is standing on a stool, the ingredients for a sandwich spread out in front of him; he's spreading jelly onto a piece of bread with a plastic knife. His tongue sticks out in concentration.
He catches me staring and gives me a grin. "Look, I can do it all by myself, Momma," he says.
I tell him I can't believe how grown up he is, the same thing I've said to him countless times in the past few days as we prepare for the first day of school, but this time the words trigger a distant, unwanted memory, and the power of it stops me dead in my tracks:
Greta stands on her tiptoes, reaching for a bag of chips on a high shelf in our pantry. I'm sitting at the kitchen table, watching her, swirling my glass full of red wine. I'm glowering, nursing a morose, dull feeling, a mixture of rage and boredom. It's 6pm, and I have no plans for dinner.
A good mother wouldn't let her have a snack this late, I think, but I make no move to stop her. I'm on my second glass of wine - or is it my third? The warm glow of the first glass feels long gone, replaced by this sour dullness. I'm lost in self pity, thinking about how long the days are, how I don't want to fix another dinner, I just want to disappear.
She reaches the chips, and breaks into a smile. "Look, Momma! I can do it all by myself!"
I give her half a smile, and take another sip of wine.
She stares at the wineglass a moment, looking uncertain. "Aren't you proud of me, Momma?"
"Sure," I grunt, and get up to refill my glass.
As she slumps away, I'm thinking a nasty little thought: jeez, the kid can't even get a bag of chips without needing validation.
I realize what has been dogging me these days: Finn is the age now that Greta was when I got sober. He is hitting all these big milestones with his observant, loving, present Mom right by his side. The shadows that follow me are the ringing memories of the past, of how it was for Greta to spend her first five years with a drinking mother.
The guilt wells up, crushing me; I can barely breathe. Oh Greta, I'm so sorry.
The flood gates open, and oily, black memories flow into my head: Greta poking my inert form under the covers, asking to play, her crestfallen face saying 'Momma, you're ALWAYS tired'; getting up again and again while we play a board game- Mommy will be right back! - to sneak sips from a stashed bottle of wine; reading her a bedtime story with booze on my breath.
I leave Finn at the kitchen table, munching on his sandwich, and go lie down in my darkened bedroom. I let the shame and guilt wash over me, let the memories come.
After five minutes or so I take a deep breath, and push the memories back into the shadows. I can't let guilt take the wheel. I lived so long with guilt as a drinking Mom; as a sober Mom I can't afford to lose myself in the past. I can't change what has happened, and if I let the guilt win out it will lead me back to a drink. Guilt is, at its root, a selfish emotion; it makes a painful situation all about me, how I feel, how hard it is for me. And it's not about me anymore. It's about being a present mom, one who lives her amends to her children as best she can. Here. Now.
I'm a different mother now, but not it the ways I expected when I got sober.
In sobriety, I have learned that I'm a more impatient person than I realize. More anxious, too. I'm capable of rage that is more potent than anything I ever felt when I was drinking. When I was still drinking and dreaming of sobriety, I saw myself as an apple cheeked, effervescent mother, smiling serenely through the long days, wallowing in my kids. That's not how it turned out. I do feel more joy, serenity and peace of mind. But the tough emotions - anger, boredom, irritation, resentment - are all so much pointier, now that I'm not hiding from them, going around the tough stuff by numbing out.
I'm more snappish now than I was when I was drinking, more quick to reprimand or lose it over something small, like spilled juice or sibling rivalry.
The difference, though, is I don't feel guilt like I used to. I don't have that nagging voice in my head that whispers: you're like this because you drink. When I forget appointments, lose homework, show up late or over-react and yell at the kids, I know that it's because I'm human. I can own my part in things - apologize if necessary - and move on.
Drinking made me so self-centered; I was constantly awash in guilt. My disease liked it that way; the guilt drove me right back to the bottle, again and again. As a sober woman, I refuse to let shame own me anymore.
I take a deep breath, and walk back into the kitchen. Finn is finishing the last of his sandwich with a sticky purple grin.
"Let's go wait for Sissy's bus, okay?" I say, and the last of the guilt scuttles away into the shadows.