If there’s one bar I’ve always wanted to drink in, it’s the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, from the first Star Wars. As a child I was fascinated by the curious assortment of aliens who patronized the establishment: the thing that looks like a crocodile wearing a red beret; the bug-eyed instrumentalists; the mousy creature asking the bartender for another drink. Although Mos Eisley is clearly dangerous – Obi Wan Kenobi introduced Luke to it with “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” and it’s where Han Solo shot Greedo, but aside from droids it served all kinds, and I got the feeling that I’d fit in.
On Easter Sunday of 2000, my sister and I split a list of phone numbers and sat in our respective homes, she in Boston and me in Chicago, faced with the task of calling relatives and family friends with unpleasant news. I couldn’t get anyone on the phone –most people were traveling, and cell phones were still a novelty, so I left a lot of messages. There had been indications that this might happen. I’d had a bad feeling the night before while attending a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I don’t remember who was playing, but a sense of despair came over me during the performance and froze me in place. A thought crept in and lodged itself in my brain: what would it take for her to attempt suicide? She was miserable, disheveled, her body suffering from decades of alcohol abuse. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her wear anything besides sweatpants – this from a woman who once had a personal shopper at Rodier on trendy Newbury Street in Boston, and updated her wardrobe annually. When my sister called the next day, I already knew what she was going to tell me – my mother had just survived a failed suicide attempt.
I have a tremor in my right hand. It manifests when I try to raise something to my face: a glass of water; a fork; a tube of lipstick. My husband noticed it before I did, and made me see a neurologist.
“Have you ever noticed,” the doctor asked, “that the shaking subsides after a glass or two of wine?”
“Um….no,” I replied.
“The alcohol helps to calm the nerves,” he explained. I’m fairly certain that’s the only time alcohol will be prescribed to me. It turned out to be hereditary – my mom’s hands shake, but I always thought it was from drinking. My grandfather’s hands shook, but I thought it was from age.
The tremor makes me self-conscious, and I do a lot with my left hand to hide it. I lift beverages with the left – what would people think if they saw me lift a pint to my face with a shaky hand? I was blessed to be born with a ridiculously low tolerance for alcohol – which decreases the likelihood of addiction. Two beers in and I’m pretty much done. I won’t drink hard liquor, and the sight and smell of scotch (my mother’s drink of choice) instantly takes me back to the sound of ice cubes popping in the tumbler she kept at her bedside in the morning, before she’d even gotten out of bed, to the smell of metabolizing scotch that came through her pores, and to the sound of her labored breathing and heavy footsteps as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
If I’m on the phone with her and I hear the clink of ice cubes against glass I know she’s drinking, and, worse, I know she’s trying to hide it, and thinks she’s getting away with it.
The first Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope, was released on May 25, 1977, a few days after my sixth birthday. I saw it in the theater with Mom, and although I was too young to grasp the entire thing, was swept up in the story. Going to the movies with my mom was one of the only things we did together, one of the only rituals that remained after my parents divorced. It became an escape for both of us, and my capacity to remember dialogue and plot lines was remarkable. I only had to see a film once to be able to quote entire passages from it, and to retell it, scene by scene. The more fanciful the film, the more likely I was to have it memorized.
Mom and I saw all three of the original Star Wars films in the theater, and they lived on in my imagination long after the house lights came up. We’d return to our decidedly non-fanciful home, where I’d spend hours alone in my bedroom imagining myself as a character in the films I’d just seen, inventing dialogue for myself, and reliving the experience.
The tremor in my hand is a constant reminder of where I come from, of the shaky woman who birthed me. It reminds me of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand with a lightsaber and tells him: “Luke, I am your father.”
Luke tries in vain to deny his parentage, but it’s no use; “Search your feelings,” Vader says, “you know this to be true.”
In a later scene, Luke has been fitted with a prosthetic covered in a black glove. You can buy plastic action figures of Luke that have a pink left hand and a black right hand. Like him, I have in my right hand a constant reminder of where I come from, of the dark forces in my blood.
It wasn’t until her suicide attempt that I began going to ACOA – Adult Children of Alcoholics, in a post-war building on the north side of Chicago that smells like old cigarettes and plastic stacking chairs. The first time I read the list of ACOA traits was like reading a high school detention report: revelatory, and disturbing. Listed before me were all the traits that I had believed were part of my personality, but as it turned out, were just symptoms of growing up in a diseased household: We guess at what normal is; We judge ourselves harshly; and, the most damning one for me to read — It is easier for us to give in to others than to stand up for ourselves.
When I was a kid, some nights she’d come up the stairs in a drunken rage to scream at me, and I’d cower in a corner of my bedroom, silently absorbing her anger, and wait for the moment when she’d slam the door behind her so hard that objects flew from the walls. In the morning we’d both behave as if nothing had happened.
Thinking about it makes me tired, even now.
In my apartment, after leaving messages letting people know that Mom was in the hospital and we didn’t know what was going to happen, I manically cleaned to distract myself. I took breaks when the phone rang and spoke to Mom’s friends – some in tears, some curt and businesslike. I hadn’t heard from any of them in years. In fact, I haven’t heard from any of them since, except when some of them politely decline invitations to my wedding the following year.
“Well, at least it’s out in the open now,” Mom’s friend Irene said after I’d told her. Her words fell like fresh cat shit on my newly-mopped kitchen floor. At least now? Was she fucking kidding me?
Once, at Irene’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Mom had tripped down the stairs to the guest bedroom after throwing up in Irene’s toilet. Another time Mom had driven drunk to Irene’s country house in Vermont, gotten pulled over after sideswiping an 18-wheeler, and spent the night in jail.
I’d had to make a phone call to Irene that night too. I’d even warned Mom before she got in the car, which made me feel like devil spawn when my prediction came true. I was watching TV and heard her labored breathing as she collected her things to leave. I didn’t have to see her to know she’d been drinking. I asked, without getting up to look at her: “You getting in the car?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, that’s pretty fucking stupid, Mom,” I said, “but if you’re going to drive that car tonight, and you get in an accident, don’t come bitching to me.”
A few nights after speaking to Irene, I had a dream that I was looking for a new apartment and was considering renting a coach house from her. The space was great, and the rent was reasonable, but there was a woolly mammoth that charged the front door at random intervals. I knew what it meant – there was an elephant in the room, and not just any elephant — a prehistoric one, because this issue was fucking ancient and nobody wanted to deal with it.
When I got to the hospital a curtain had been pulled around Mom’s bed, and a social worker was asking her questions. I struggled with the ethics of listening in on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to hear, and in the end my curiosity won out – I wanted answers.
“What did you take?”
“Half a bottle of Tylenol, and half a bottle of Advil.”
“Did you realize that this could kill you?”
“Knowing now that it could kill you, do you think you would have done it anyway?”
There was a pause of maybe fifteen seconds, and then: “Yes, I think I would have.” The social worker pulled back the curtain, and Mom saw me sitting in a chair by the door.
“My God,” she said, blinking behind her glasses.
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
She acted like this was something that had happened to her, rather than something she’d done to herself. The details were nauseating; she’d taken the pills just before meeting a friend who was in town with her 8-year-old daughter.
In the hospital, she’d been prescribed what looked like a fast-food shake to combat the effects of the pills. She aimed it toward me, the plastic straw pointing at my face and playfully said: “Would you like a sip?”
“No, thanks,” I said, and she laughed, as if it were some kind of inside joke.
She reveled in the attention of her visitors, regaling them with tales of what had happened: “I felt a strange feeling in my stomach…” she’d begin, as if this were an adventure gone wrong, as if there were a different reason for us to be here.
There were conversations: with doctors, psychiatrists, aunts, family friends. The pills had damaged her liver, no one knew how much. “It upsets us because it makes us think about our own drinking,” one family friend said. “Was this a real suicide attempt or just a cry for help?” asked another.
Suddenly I was the expert, fielding questions I couldn’t possibly know the answers to, soothing the fears of people coming out of the woodwork. “It must be so hard knowing she’s in the hospital,” they said, misunderstanding the most basic tenet of a child raised in an alcoholic home: the time I worry least about my mother is when she’s in the hospital.
At the end of the week we met with the doctor, who told us there was no permanent damage – she wouldn’t have to take medication, and there were no complications to her already compromised liver. The cosmic unfairness of it hit me hard – she had cheated death, or at the very least, cheated permanent damage.
The first time I understood that Mom was an alcoholic was after a recovering alcoholic spoke at a special assembly at my high school. It didn’t hit me until I saw my mother drunk the following weekend: all those times that she asked me to remind her what she’d said in conversations the night before; all the times she sat in a corner and cried with her eyes closed until snot rolled down her face, impervious to my repeated question – “Mom, what’s wrong?”; the bottle of scotch that she kept in her desk drawer at work and drank out of a coffee mug to hide the fact that she wasn’t drinking tea, all the times I’d kept her awake at the wheel – this had been my normal, and it took an outside speaker to make me realize it wasn’t everyone else’s.
I wrote about mom’s drinking for the first time in a poem for a college class that I evasively titled Chihuahua Cheese. I buried the information about her drinking in the third or fourth stanza and deflected the issue with humor. “If mom were a superhero,” I wrote, “she’d have a big old D on the back of her cape for Dewar’s.”
I attended ACOA meetings for a few months before speaking in one, and when I did, I cried so hard I was barely intelligible.
In 1997, George Lucas updated the original trilogy with new special effects, with the excuse that at the time, the special effects he envisioned for the series weren’t available. He also managed to alter some key plot points. He modified the seminal scene at the Mos Eisley cantina where Han Solo shoots Greedo by inserting an extra gunshot that appears to come from Greedo, changing Han Solo’s entire character from a mercenary who can’t be trusted, (and subsequently transforms from anti-hero to hero), to merely a man who shot in self-defense.
This caused an uproar among older Star Wars fans, most of whom insisted that Han shot first. You can buy t-shirts with that very phrase to identify publicly as a disaffected fan (I own one.) In a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lucas stated:
The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. It had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.
He’s full of shit.
Worse than altering the storyline is the fact the original trilogy is no longer available. Unless you happen to have an old copy on VHS, or the DVD that was released in 2006 showing both versions, it is no longer possible to view these films the way I saw them with my mom. They are the property of Mr. Lucas, and there is nothing I can do about it, but he has taken a piece of my childhood and altered it forever.
A few months ago, Mom denied that she ever attempted suicide. My sister had brought it up in a joint therapy session, and in response my mom wrote a letter:
I never attempted suicide. I had no idea that Tylenol was dangerous. I took a bunch of whatever was in the house – not much. I took these few random pills, not really thinking or knowing what would happen… (and) ended up, to my great surprise, in ICU… so it wasn’t suicide at all – I’ve been clear about that always…then you called up the whole world, and they came. I suppose you told them all it was alcohol. I never heard ‘suicide’ until today.
She’s full of shit.
Luke Skywalker and I have more in common than I first realized; we were both born with one foot in the dark side, children without real parents, cobbling together our own families, rebels and survivors.
Like Luke, I cannot control where I came from, but I can try to steer myself towards the future of my choosing. If I could, I’d buy him a drink at the Mos Eisley cantina. We could talk about Leia’s attraction to bad boys like Han Solo; I could ask if Lando Calrissian likes to drink Colt 45. He could ask me about life on Earth, and we could compare his prosthetic right hand to my shaky human one.
J.H. Palmer is a Chicago-based writer and storyteller, and co-produces the live lit show That's All She Wrote. She has appeared at a number of live lit venues including: Story Lab, Story Club, Essay Fiesta, This Much Is True, 2nd Story, SKALD, Mortified!, WRITE CLUB!, Guts & Glory, and The Moth GrandSLAM. She is pursuing a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Chicago.