I Owe You an Amend

By Lucinda Lumiere 07/06/16

When I was 15, I introduced my 11-year-old cousin to IV drugs. How do you make amends for that?

I Owe You an Amend
I don’t know why it’s taken me 27 years to make this amend.

The car pulls up into its spot. The engine slows, then stops. I hear the ticking of the cooling system. An old Volvo ticks like that, it’s very specific. I look out the window, at the crystalline blue air of the town my parents grew up in, where all my extended family still lives. I have never lived here, but it’s home. Christmas, summer vacations, funerals. Roses, hydrangeas, fir trees.

I look at the driver, my cousin. The familiar contours of her baby face. Even at 44, she has no wrinkles. She has spent most of her life in the dark. 

I owe you an amend, I say. My heart begins to race. I had kind of planned this, but not really. Let’s say I was aware it needed to be done. It was just Time. 

I introduced you to IV drugs when I was 15 and you were 11, and for that I am profoundly sorry. 

A sideways look at her right cheek, her profile. I see a look of relief wash over her sweet face. 

There is no way to explain this, to justify it, I realize. Still, I want to make sense of this atrocity for her, for us. 

Don’t rationalize this, I say to myself. 

The words hang in the air, the truth painful, but instantly liberating.

I don’t know why it’s taken me 27 years to make this amend. I made all the other ones, some quickly and some slowly. 

The first amends were easy. As an addict, I shoplifted from department stores. I also pocketed the cash from customers instead of ringing up sales in the bakery where I worked. Small bills grew into mountains in my apron pockets. Contacting old employers was relatively easy, though scary at times. The flood of relief upon making restitution was instant. An adrenaline rush, even. 

As time progressed, I “came to” more and more. These later amends weren’t always itemized on a list, but often came in flashes of awareness. Then it was time for the amends to family members. I couldn’t make one to my grandmother whose pain pills I stole when she was dying of cancer, so I went to her plot at the cemetery with a letter, some flowers, and a prayer. It took me ten years of sobriety to make a formal amend to my dad. I am from California, and somehow believed I was living an amend by having a relationship with him. It took a New York City sponsor with a Lower East Side accent to change that.

I don’t know what a living amend is, she said. But if you ever want to have a good relationship with any man ever, you need to make a real amend, a formal one to your father.

Not long after, I sat with my dad on his familiar sectional sofa and told him I owed him an amend for stealing his jean jacket when I ran away from home at 15. Again, cash register honesty was somehow easier than the nebulous emotional stuff. 

And I’m sorry I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, I added. I wasn’t honest with you. 

For years, I had held on to my wounds, for dad was a drinker, too. I nursed resentment, milked a sense of victimization. It was a mark of my progress that I could just own my own side of the equation. I did it for relief, for the promise of maybe one day finding a man to love me, not even for my dad, who I’d given up on anyway. The cold, shutdown alcoholic. He quit drinking the same year as me, but didn’t do recovery. 

A dry drunk, he was inaccessible. 

I’m doing this for me, I said to myself, repeating my New York sponsor’s words. 

It is I who owe you the amend, he said in his deep and professorial voice. 

I caused you pain. I wasn’t there for you. And for that, I am sorry. 

And then, we went fishing. I had gone fishing with my dad many times before. The first time was at age four. I caught a carp, which he had helped me reel in. It was the proudest moment of my life. I was so disappointed when we took it home to cook it and mom tossed it, saying carp was inedible.

“They eat carp in Poland,” dad replied. 

So here we were fishing again, but it was different. In the intervening years, I had gone out on the boat with him and been disappointed at the slow pace, the obsessive tracking of the sonar waves to find Mister Linesides, as my dad calls stripers. My dad bringing me along for the ride, doing what he wanted and making me keep him company. 

But now the delta was peaceful, the light dappled, and he showed me the currents where the stripers ran. 

He hooked one up and reeled it in, sweat drops forming on his ruddy Swedish skin. He barked orders to me to navigate as he duked it out. He pulled the thrashing fish in, and promptly clubbed him on the head. I made squeamish noises about the poor fish. 

They eat their young, he told me. All pity vanished. 

Now we were on the same team.

It comes and goes with my father, but the amend was a sea change. In owning my part, I earned freedom, self-respect. Not long after, I met the man who would be my husband. 

The air in the Volvo is miraculously as clear as the air outside. The molecules or particles or whatever have shifted. 

My cousin tells me with the velocity of an uncorked champagne bottle how hard it was for her to be influenced by me and my big brother. How she looked up to us, and we each betrayed her trust. We talk about the numerous instances of family dysfunction in which we were the recipients. Inappropriate conduct, elders charged with watching us who brought us to dangerous places. I was both the subject of it, and with her, the perpetrator. It is a dark family legacy. 

But for now, it is solely my responsibility to correct my error. And this I do, as honestly and bravely as I know how. 

Yeah, it took me 27 years. 

In those years, my cousin battled addiction, a psychotic break, dual diagnosis, depression. She was chronically unable to take care of herself, and the family network, though well-meaning, enabled her for most of her life. To this day, they support her, take her to doctors, and pay her rent. 

But you know what? She has a therapist she likes, is tapering off some hardcore meds, and I can see the flaxen angel kid I always loved, who was the closest thing to a sister I ever had. 

I used to look forward to seeing you at Christmas, I say. You were always my favorite cousin.

There is a picture of me playing the piano in a Swiss dot dress and braids. She sits next to me on the piano bench, upturned face adoringly gazing at me. I am 8 and she is 4. 

Me too, she says.

And when I gave you that dope, I thought I was giving you the best thing in the world. I wanted to share it with you because I loved you. 

I know, she says. 

Did I cause my cousin to become a drug addict? I don’t know. I certainly set her further on the path. She was already drinking and raiding her parents’ medicine cabinet. All I know is that I can only speak the truth and clear the air.

We don’t ask for forgiveness, the literature says.

And yet, I do. I can’t help it. 

I hope you can forgive me, I say. I want you to know I am in your corner. Whatever I can do to help you, please let me know.

Be my friend, she says. 

I am, I say, I love you. 

I love you, too. 

And then we go thrift store shopping. She finds a dress she wants but can’t fit, and offers it to me. I see one I want but that would look better on her than me, and throw it her way. We get excited, skirts and jackets and antique teapots soaring through the air. We stay out too long and my mom calls. 

Where are you? She barks. Dinner will be ruined!

I’m sorry, I say, we were just getting into something and it took longer than I thought.

We giggle, keep sorting through vintage treasures, and finally tally up our trophies and get back in the car. The Volvo speeds down the street, much too slowly for me. 

My mom will be furious, I say. We are in so much trouble!

Conspirators, partners in crime. Again. 

You’re coming in the house with me when we get there. I’m not taking the hit alone. She does. 

The chicken sits there, still warm, my mom, husband and daughter eating. 

It’s okay, my mom says, I should have known you guys would take a while. She smiles. 

They say an amend is a correction. And sometimes it can be a restoration. 

At least we can be the generation that puts the brakes on the legacy, I had said in the Volvo. Unlike a Eugene O’Neill play where the trauma just goes on forever. 

I have received the gift of recovery and I can share it. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. It has to start with today. 

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