Hope terrified me at the first sight of it. It froze me in my tracks, right there in the basement, the laundry basket on my hip.
I’d done everything I could to end it. I’d gotten the lawyer, gotten the agreements, and refinanced the house. I’d untethered phones, cable, and internet. I’d started in the tightest circle, telling the news, expanding it outward like a slow ripple. I’d packed everything I could from the parts of the house that were mine, the things that we’d agreed would be his, boxes stacked in neat rows as close to the front door as possible. Ready for him to take. Ready for him to go.
For his part, he had managed to get his own place. But he wasn’t leaving. Even with a literal key to his new, loudly-desired life in his hand, he sat, week after week, behind the closed door of his bedroom, drinking, not even hiding it anymore. Not taking. Not going.
And since he was stuck, so was I. It seemed the last tie binding us, throttling us, and with hope long gone I was starting to lose patience, too. I didn’t expect our relationship to improve with a divorce impending, but it had gotten so much worse than I could have imagined, or prepared myself for. Especially as the main reason for the divorce was to be done watching him drink himself to death, not to have to watch him lean into it, double down on it, right in front of my face despite being behind his closed bedroom door. “Well, we’re separated now, so this is none of your business, is it?” he’d ask, mockingly, on his way up the steps as soon as he’d come through the door from his singular errand, with the brown paper bag under his arm, very similar to the brown paper bag of the day before yesterday, equally similar to the brown paper bag of the day after tomorrow.
I don’t remember wanting anything quite the way I wanted him out.
With the brown paper bag parade stretching further forward and back into the future and the past, and with my 50th birthday a little more than two weeks away, my mom asked if I would let her come down, plague or no plague, and celebrate it. I’d been pretty steadfast about quarantine and distance, so I surprised her when I immediately accepted. And so, I found one effective pry bar for a persistent alcoholic: a looming mother-in-law.
Yet even with such a force bearing down, one part of the move seemed to verge on impossible.
The basement, his basement, was full. In the dry-ish period after his first hospitalization, he’d become a collector. That’s on me, really. For his first birthday after the hospital, I got him a samurai Darth Vader figure. In those more innocent days, I thought it was quite a cool object. He agreed. But it opened the floodgates for another addiction: a placeholder for the booze during its brief hiatus, and a complement when it returned. Comic books lined shelves, in boxes, in bound sets. Prints, test panels and commissions from graphic novel artists filled every inch of wall space from floor to ceiling. Comic and movie figures were posed for action north south east and west, some even in battle diorama: zombies, capes, armor, zero-gravity boobs, and even Cthulhu wielding a tall ship. There was seldom a week that went by without multiple new arrivals in cardboard boxes and DO NOT BEND envelopes. He called his basement the Bat Cave, despite the fact that he preferred The Joker. And at the foot of the stairs, greeting all comers, a private commission hung: Joker, green hair and slashed-open grin, locked in an embrace with pig-tailed Harley Quinn, his eternally-devoted, much-abused partner, aiming guns at each other’s heads.
Not even knowing how to begin, his best idea, born of desperation, was to have a friend come help him decommission the sprawling scenario. It took multiple days and many six-packs, a departure from the handles of vodka, which were collecting under his bed, behind the closed door.
My first trip down the stairs, after the packing I was no part of, was for laundry, and I was ambushed, wholly unprepared to stand in that space.
A yawning hole that looked like it could swallow up my entire house, and me along with it.
I stood and stared at it for ages, almost forgetting the laundry, letting the terror wash over me, adrenaline spikes and hair standing on end and goosebumps and tears welling. Little word bubbles burbled and teased in mocking voices.
You haven’t been alone for 23 years. You wanted him out. This is what the thing you wanted looks like. Couldn’t you have guessed?
And then a laugh, mine now, a surprise and a release, weightless and hopeful.
Well, this is how I know he’s really gone.
I sucked in a breath, let it back out, and continued through my empty basement to the washing machine.
After the surgery, once trouble had begun for us, I described what kept me with John as The Three Hs: History, Habit, and Hope. Past, present and future, in effect. Hope fell away first, the forward-looking piece, as it became clear we had no future. (Habit and History fell, too, in that order, stripped away backwards through time. I’ll leave those for another day.)
Hope is a shape-shifter, so if you’re out of practice entertaining it you can certainly be forgiven for not recognizing its constantly-evolving form. Slowly, though, it will become familiar again.
The very long day I moved him out, and got what I wanted, I ordered a pizza with black olives on it because he never liked black olives, and I sat there by myself and called it freedom pizza, and laughed again, because hope is small, too. It fits in little moments, like eating a dumb pizza with overripe salty fruit on it, with my basement beneath my feet really empty now, filthy, huge, dark, full of echoes and nail holes.
Hope comes tap-tap-tapping out of a shell that’s been your unseen boundary, the point past which you knew, without knowing, to go no further. Hope hurts, like re-breaking a badly-healed bone. Hope is a freefall, to go with sudden empty spaces: you put your hand out to lean on a familiar wall and it’s not there, and sometimes the floor disappears too. Hope expands into the unknown, catching you. Hope is a clearing in the debris, for you to fill as you like, as you want, as you need.
But hope is delightfully ridiculous too, absurd even. Like my mother buying a half-dozen huge bouquets of flowers for my 50th birthday from “the rest of the family” that were all really from her. Like us moving the living room couch down the basement steps and getting it stuck so badly it seemed destined to become a permanent fixture. And like her helping me repaint the former Cave in a light-clay Coastal Cottage color that is, in all honesty, in all actuality, and a little on accident: pink.
If you could use some help navigating hope, and you love or loved an alcoholic, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.