Random intermittent reinforcement.
The same thing that keeps the casinos in business was the same thing that kept me going for years. As long as I had one good day, every once in a great while, then each morning when I woke up I could think that maybe this would be a good day. The winter of 1984-85 almost killed that theory. I couldn't afford to go back to Westfield State and I was too depressed to go out and find a job. My mother had a stroke two days after I graduated High School in June of '83 and recovered after brain surgery. The following January she had another which left her completely paralyzed on her left side. A January later I was paralyzed by my circumstances, no college, mother disabled, brothers and sisters devastated by poverty and uncertainty, no job. On top of all that, the previous fall, my brother left a candle burning on top of his stereo while passing out drunk. Everything was ruined. All of my clothes, books, childhood mementos, gone. The apartment complex owners moved her immediately, but into a much smaller apartment. There was no random intermittent reinforcement, just constant negative reinforcement.
My days that winter consisted of laying in bed until noon, scrounging up some money by offering to go to the store for my mother and keeping the change so I could get a 3 for 5 deal from Smitty. He had the cheapest, shittiest weed around, but it got me high enough to occupy my mind temporarily. Every evening, after I cooked dinner for my family, I would head out to friends to drink. Even though I was broke I always found a way to drink. I would roll into bed around 2 PM, drunk and numb.
In mid-February I decided to get a job at the insistence of my Aunt Rosie who had visited us from Boston. She was distressed at our situation, but living 100 miles away could not do anything, but give some occasional moral support and send an occasional check to my mother. The job was at a nursing home and was mindless. It gave me money to help out my mother, but also gave me the means to drink and drug as much as I wanted, which was always. When my Aunt came back to visit in March she was happy to see we had gotten curtains for the windows and that the refrigerator was full of food. She was not happy with much else. She chastised me for my drinking when she heard me crashing in the door late night. She absolutely flipped out when she walked in on my brother having sex with a girl in the room she was supposed to sleep. When she left Sunday evening I was guilt ridden and ashamed. The next night we got the call.
I came home from work and my mother was sitting in her chair, crying. My Aunt had a stroke. Just like her sister. She was 45.
We made our way to Boston and her wake. My brother and I smoked a joint and drank from a fifth of Seagrams 7 on the walk from my grandmothers house, where my aunt had lived, to Folsom Funeral Home. Upon entering the foyer I was greeted by family and friends, but could only focus on the casket sitting in the center of the viewing area. I made a beeline for the kneeler ignoring condolences that were softly spoken in my direction. I knelt and closed my eyes unable to look at her. She was so many things to me. As a toddler she was my playmate. When my parents were fighting she was my confidant. When my father left and she moved in, she was my dad. When my mother was emotionally unavailable, she was my mother. She taught me, she listened to me, she loved me. I slowly opened my eyes and looked upon her face. The taste of the whiskey and the weed lingered in my mouth. I thought about how disappointed she was when she had left my house on Sunday. I thought about how she was one of only a few people in the world that loved me unconditionally. I remembered warm spring days walking through Arnold Arboretum looking at the trees and flowers. I remembered the sound of her laughter watching us wrestling in the sand on Wolloston Beach. I remembered the smell of coffee and cigarettes that were a constant presence in her little blue Renault. I remembered the the sound of her voice reading to me while I snuggled in the crook of her arm in the dim light of her reading lamp. I started crying. I hadn't cried in years.
I stood up from the kneeler and quickly made my way to the exit, ignoring more condolences. I found the bottle of Seagrams I had stashed in the bushes and walked in the rain to Fallon Field near my grandmothers house. It was raining lightly, not much stronger than a mist. I sat in the dugout, cried and polished off the bottle. I cried harder, then softer, then harder until it was just a whimper. I felt better, but couldn't tell whether it was the booze or the crying. I walked back to my grandmothers and decided that I had to start living again. I had to go back to school. I had to get away from my current life.
We buried my Aunt the next morning at Saint Josephs Cemetery in West Roxbury. It was cold, raining and blustery. While standing over her flower covered casket, I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and take control of the things that I could control.
My family gathered at my grandmothers house after the service for cold cuts and conversation. My brother and I sat on her front steps, side by side, sharing a pint of whisky "hidden" in a brown paper bag. We reminisced about sitting on those same steps eating ice cream and chuckled at our deviance. Beams of sunlight shone down in between the clouds and the temperature noticeably jumped up a few degrees. Spring had arrived just in time.