“Ready?” The store employee asked brightly. Standing near the doorway of Parnassus Books for my first reading of my first book tour, I thought I was ready. I had marked the pages I was going to read. I had practiced reading my selected passages and what to say afterward. I had invited hometown friends and family and even steamed a pencil skirt! But five minutes before my reading was about to begin, the door swung open and my mom walked in, and suddenly, I wasn’t ready at all. “Can we wait another few minutes?” I asked.
My mother looked around the bookstore. Why is she here? I wondered. When our eyes met, she rushed towards me. Why is she hugging me? I had asked if she wanted to come a few weeks prior. She declined, explaining that it would be too much for her. This was unsurprising. She had been out of most of my adult life. Why would today be any different? She lifted her sunglasses and squeezed my hand. “I was sitting in my apartment, Lauren, and I just thought, you know what? I don’t want to miss this. I’m going.” She paused and chuckled at herself, then wiped a tear from her eye. “I took a cab here.” I was happy to see her standing (not swaying) in front of me. But at the same time I was thinking: How am I supposed to read about my mom’s opioid and alcohol addiction ... in front of my mom? In front of all these people we know? My mom took her seat. This is going to be so awkward.
“Ready to go?” The nice woman smiled. I nodded my head, even though I wasn’t. Walking to the podium, my head was spinning. Could I switch my reading? I wondered. Is there a way to avoid reading about OxyContin and Sutter Home and rehab? My book wasn’t all about my mother’s addiction. It was a coming-of-age memoir called Gizelle’s Bucket List about my adventures with my 160-pound mastiff and a bucket list I made after discovering she had cancer. Maybe I can do a quick shift and focus on Gizelle eating the Ben & Jerry’s or wolfing down that massive ribeye in a single swallow? I didn’t have time to decide. So, I took a deep breath, opened my book and just…began.
I read about the bitterness I felt as a teenager, watching my mom slip away from the world and disappear from my life. I read about how I was sad that she missed family vacations and Christmas and Thanksgiving and phone calls. How I couldn’t understand why she kept picking the pills and alcohol over our family. But as I’ve grown older, I have tried to accept that addiction is a disease, and it makes people we love act in ways that are unrecognizable. And that I should do my best to forgive my mom because to do otherwise takes neither one of us in the right direction.
As the words stumbled out, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Was everyone in the room thinking: Oh my god, this poor girl, this poor mother? Were people judging my mom, feeling embarrassed for my family? I was certain that when I looked up, I would see my audience wincing, cringing, squirming in their seats. Certainly, my mom’s chair would be empty.
But instead, when I finished reading and looked up from my book, I saw the opposite. I saw a room filled with wet eyes and compassion. I saw an old friend of my mom’s sitting next to her, knee to knee, squeezing her hands with love. I saw my mom looking at me with love. When my eyes met hers, she pinched her lips into a tearful smile. Sure, she missed a lot of my growing up. She embarrassed me at times, broke my heart at others, but she was here today. Then I couldn’t think of much else to say except just that. “My mom showed up today! She didn’t miss this!” I blurted. Then, one person started clapping for her, and soon the whole room was clapping for her. And yes, it was sad that my mom ever had to struggle with addiction, but in that moment I was also so proud that she was my mom in the audience, and for an hour she was strong enough to overcome it.
That day my mom taught me that maybe success is the sum of our small efforts, repeated day after day. My mom could have stayed locked away in her apartment, trapped in her world, as another afternoon slipped by outside the window. But she showed up for me instead. And perhaps all of those years I spent trying to fix her, fight her, change her, hate her or let go of her, I had forgotten one of the most important things of all. To have hope for her. And although I am frustrated by addiction, I know that the person struggling with it needs more love, not less. I know that having hope for my mom’s small wins has inspired me to celebrate my own small daily wins as well. I believe that if she can show up for one afternoon in a bookstore, maybe one day she will show up for another. I know that perfect is something neither of us will ever be, but if I can keep trying to do my best with the hour in front of me, I’ll be okay.
Lauren talks more about growing up with addiction in her family and learning to love unconditionally in her book Gizelle's Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog, out now with Simon & Schuster. Her book has been translated into seventeen languages around the world and optioned for film.