Congratulations, you didn’t die.

Lots of people don’t participate in the graduation ceremony that’s held at the end of four years of college. My mom was one of those people. This has always baffled me. Why wouldn’t you celebrate such an arduous journey with a ten second stroll in the spotlight? Hell, I’ll take a spotlight any way I can get it. I’m just relieved this one isn’t attached to a police cruiser.

I didn’t go to college right out of high school, but I sure told everyone I was going. That was the natural order of things after all. I didn’t have the heart to tell all the people who weren’t the least bit concerned with my plans that I was too high to fill out the application. And if I wasn’t high, I was too petrified to do what everyone else was doing. I have always been semi-obsessed with living a very picturesque Americana existence, and I really did want to go to college. In my mind I decided the University of North Texas was the place for me. I never printed out an application or took the SATs. College was just a cloudy place in the back of my head, a fantasy, a daydream. Something to keep feeling like I fit in.

I just barely graduated high school and entered the exciting world of waiting tables. At my new job I met a gem of a human being who dealt meth in the wee hours of the night when he wasn’t busy smoking weed. It was okay though because he just sold to his friends. I discovered he had a lot of friends. Shack Crack turned out to be a passing phase for me. I discovered I like depressants a whole lot more.

After rocking and rolling for about a year in the drug scene I had grown very comfortable in, I met a nice guy who I married after knowing him for four months. How romantic. Drinking at this time was what it’d always been — a lot of fun most of the time and sometimes kind of dangerous. No big deal. I was young. I was in love. I was optimistic.

I can’t tell you how or why it happened, but at some point during the course of that marriage the thrash of alcoholism got a little wilder than what I was used to handling. Slowly and painfully, I started losing pieces of myself in the whipping and wailing that began to accompany my drinking more and more. And I was drinking almost everyday. I always wrote during this time — except when they keys mysteriously got smaller and started swaying side to side. Then I just watched M*A*S*H and dreamed up some pretty amazing acceptance speeches.

And wouldn’t you know it, one day I wound up in the nuthouse. Those overpaid psychiatrists really don’t know a drama queen when they see one. Shame on them. But I guess it’s hard to explain away a slit wrist. “Hey guys, it’s not what you think.” This event taught me that white light experiences are real and it’s not scary when you’re dying. You don’t even really know it’s happening. It’s all very peaceful. Until you wake up the next day and realize you’re in a locked-down unit and the authorities won’t let you smoke cigarettes. That was Christmas Day 2007.

I happened to be on probation at the time for a little whoopsy daisy evening I had the year before. All I’ll say is Long Island iced teas should be illegal. And if the cops put you in cuffs and throw you in the back of a squad car, you shouldn’t kick out the window and escape. They’ll taser you for that crap. Didn’t they know I was a very troubled tumbleweed?! A rebel with a cause?! A girl with a dream who was still slowly dying? I was grateful for the one joke that came out of the whole ordeal.

How does it feel to have 50,000 volts rush through your drunken body?

It’s electrifying.

See, it’s not even that good.

By this point in my imagined career, drinking had become very necessary. I took a few trips to try and shake myself out of it. I dabbled in Buddhism for a while — which really meant I just smoked weed all the time and told everyone I was Buddhist. When I’d wake up, I would tell myself that I wouldn’t drink. Sounded simple enough. Sometimes I’d make it all the way to ten in the morning. I was in a real pickle. Dark, damp and dismal was the dungeon I wallowed in, mournful for a time when things didn’t seem so bad. I shot up a flare. Send help.

The rest of the story is reserved for a group of my select friends. Point is, I eventually stopped drinking. On March 7, 2008, I woke up in a sterile detox joint that smelled like the nurse’s office in elementary school. Since that mild spring morning, I haven’t put alcohol or any other narcotics in my body. To this very day, no one has thrown me a parade. Ungrateful bastards. All of you.

Feeling much better physically and having a newfound clarity, I thought it’d be a good idea to go to college. Maybe it wasn’t too late to live the dream. That was August of 2008. I took nine hours at the local community college and felt like a real smart girl because I did really well. Oh, and I got divorced. I’m still friends with my ex-husband. We just decided there were too many issues to deal with. We were also still in our early twenties so we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.

The following spring I didn’t return to school. I was just going to work at my parents’ restaurant and write a screenplay. But what actually happened is I got pregnant. Some guy I dated for thirty seconds. Didn’t want to continue dating. Big plus sign on the stick. Alone. The end.

See how I avoided my martyrdom there?

And for the next fifteen months I managed a pizza joint, grew a human being in my body, delivered that human being and then practiced being responsible for the next six months. Ava was sitting in a shiny new buss tub that my dad and I had converted into a mobile-crib-thing when it hit me: “If I don’t go after my dream right now, I never will. And Jesus Christ, why is my kid in a buss tub?”

I enrolled again at the community college. After three happy semesters there, I transferred to Baylor University in August of 2011.

As proud as I was to be going to *THE* Baylor University, I hated it. All the labels I had attached to myself really clashed with the preconceived notions I held about this private institution of higher education (and Baptists in general). I just kept thinking, “I’m not joining a life group.” I also clearly remember wanting to mock everything and everyone by crowding up the chalk talk around campus with an exciting announcement about the “new, very exciting Unwed Mothers Club” which would meet at the Spiritual Life Center on a very exciting night — provided everyone could  find babysitters. Happily for the administration and the Asians For Christ group,  I got over myself pretty quickly. (Seriously, AFC has notes everywhere on the sidewalk. There’s not enough space to compete. It’s weird.)

All totaled, I’ve spent five whole semesters at Baylor with a summer stint at MCC in between to make up for lost time. Along the way I read lots of textbooks to Ava which has given her a rather expanded vocabulary for a four-year-old. I’ve been puked on before important final exams. Late nights of studying and writing led to early mornings of worrying that I didn’t do enough. Somewhere in between, Ava grew up a lot.

The thing I’ve consistently bitched about has been missing a lot of her childhood because of “educational activities.” The only thing I had to soothe myself was the thought that someday this would all be worth it. Someday I’d be able to get off “guvunment aid” and provide for both of us. Someday I’d be a writer and we’d have a nice life of health insurance and grocery money.

Now, you better believe I’m a writer already. Uh, hello? I’m doing it right now. But payment is another story. I did win some money at Baylor’s Black Glasses Film Festival for a screenplay I wrote. I used it to take Ava on the vacation I promised her. The overnight visit to Galveston that we took this past summer was one of the happiest times of my life. I felt like a really good mom. With the car loaded up with a cooler, towels and beach toys, we made the five hour trip to the coast in June. The smell of ocean water was as I remembered it when my mom and dad had taken me decades before. In fact, Galveston was the landing spot when I bottomed out with alcohol. Now a sober mother, taking my kid on the vacation I told her we’d take, I felt like a solid success in some small way, rather than the half-running, directionless dreamer I had been before. I took her out to eat and bought her a shirt. We built some sandcastles and let the warm waves tickle our bellies as we sat on the pressed, finely crushed pieces of earth that made up the beach. Just thinking about it now makes me tear up a little. Without Baylor, I wouldn’t have had that experience.

I’ve almost completed all the necessary steps to get into graduate school. Whether or not they pick me out of the other ONE THOUSAND APPLICATIONS THEY GET EVERY YEAR will remain a mystery until March. I’ve sort of surrendered to the idea that there’s a plan for me or something. All I have to do is say I’m going to do my very best, end up freaking out and doing just what I can and hope one of the Deciders is drunk when they read my writing sample. I’ll land where I’m supposed to be I’m sure… Well, I hope.

Graduation is in 45 days.

All of this is to say that you bet your persistently reading ass I’m going to that ceremony. Whoever is charged with the responsibility of watching Ava that day will bring her down to the bottom railing of the Ferrel Center when my name is about to be called. And in between those green, metal bars she’ll see me in a cap and gown, walking across some plywood stage to shake the hand of the man that wanted to kick Bill Clinton out of the White House for doing what presidents do best. I don’t know if she’ll remember it, but I think her spirit will. It’s without a doubt the longest walk I’ve ever taken, next to getting sober.

It’s important for her to see this. I want her to know that women are more than silhouettes and eyelashes. I want her to see that dreaming big is hard, but big dreams are possible. I want her to always remember her mind is the most powerful weapon in a world that wants to tell her plastic body parts will take you far. I want her to know deep down in her gut that falling off doesn’t mean falling out. Hope is always just a few steps away. Send up a flare if you need to.

She’s been so patient with me. Everyone has. As I near this very important date, unsure of my future, I  can only whisper prayers of sincere gratitude for the Divine Energy that helped me along the way. I didn’t die on the living room floor that one Christmas several years ago. I didn’t miscarry my pregnancy. All the events of my life that I thought were so backwards and misplaced were how they were supposed to be. So it has been for eons before my arrival on this planet, and so it will be long after I go down to dust and dreams.

I can sit back and remember it all. “I’m alive.” I think of the hardships, the work, the joy, the triumph, the soulful ring of a job well done. I’ve taken it all in stride. I need not worry. Mountains may crumble and rain might fall, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I can sit back and think, “Whew, we really have come a long way, baby.” Flares and all.


3 thoughts on “Congratulations, you didn’t die.

  1. Sometimes you have to stumble right up to the edge to realize that you really don’t want to jump off. Sounds like you got right to that edge. Congratulations for surviving your trip to the edge and turning into someone you can be proud to be. Ava is a lucky little girl who can be proud to have you.
    A papa rollo’s friend, David Bettinger

  2. Susan, you have grown to be a very special young woman, as will Ava because she has a very special mom who will make sure of that. And, you will grow more and more as you get older, not only in wisdom, but also in faith and love for all mankind and for yourself because you came to terms that you must also, love yourself. Not in the selfish kind of way that it makes you feel you are better than anyone, but in the way that you know that your body is a temple of God and that you must take care of it and to love yourself, you also love Him. God was truly watching over you that special Christmas Day, and he gave you a chance to see life as it is meant to be seen and lived. May God Bless You and Keep YOU and your special little princess AVA, ALWAYS AND FOREVER.
    Shirley Woodlock

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