I always dreamed that when I finally gave birth and held my first baby, the moment would be divinely special. I'm not a new mother, nor even a father, but a first-time author who delivered a book. It's no coincidence that Dangerous When Wet, my first born, has just been published in time for Mother's Day. It's about my relationship with my Texas tornado of a mother, Mama Jean, who always wanted me to be a writer. She recognized the talent early in me, because it was a talent I'd inherited from my father.
She also recognized early the other talent I inherited from my father: drinking. The memoir is about that too. With the same dauntless and determined drive that made her a financial success in the good ole boys' club of the Southern small-town where I grew up, she loved me fiercely and tried unsuccessfully to grab my hand from the bottle and shove it onto the writing keyboard. I tried to outrun her love, which cast a shadow as big and wide as her Texas-sized hairdo. "No mother could love a son as much as I do," she often told me.
Meanwhile, I fell deep in love with alcohol, which I tmay have loved as much as Mama Jean loved me. Thousands of miles away from her, Mama Jean was always with me no matter how deep in booze I swam. I couldn't escape the thought - especially when I was doing something of which she wouldn't approve or just making stupid decisions - WWMJT? (What Would Mama Jean Think?). Near the end of my drinking, her voice in my head was just about the only thing left of my conscience. When my love affair with booze died in 2006 in a big way (my suicide attempt) she rushed to my side to foot the bill for rehab.
Three years later, on December 14, 2009, just as I was rebuilding my sober life, hers ended after a rapid decline from Lewy body dementia, a progressive neurological and muscular disease. I helped my father plan every detail of her funeral down to her burial dress (her red St. John Knits gown), the red roses on her casket, and the music. At the wake a vocalist sang her namesake song, "Jean," from the Maggie Smith movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Jean, Jean, roses are red
All of the leaves have gone green
Ironically, a year after she died I started to become a writer, what she always wanted me to be. I had to overcome the fear that by writing about her, I was betraying her, and the only way I could do that was by writing about her. It wasn't a betrayal but an honest portrayal and a love letter to her.
The shadow that Mama Jean cast while alive stayed with me as I wrote the book over the next three years, which was the second hardest thing I've done after getting sober. I usually write in the living room of my high-rise New York apartment at the head of my dining room table with my "old person" online radio station from Jacksonville, Florida streaming a mix of Muzak-y instrumentals and American popular standards. Behind my chair Mama Jean, in a black-and-white glossy from 1965, stares down upon me from a high shelf in an Art Deco vitrine. She is in a pose you rarely see anymore: she gazes over her shoulder, which is in the middle of the frame, perpendicular to the viewer. Her hair is one solid bouffant flip, a "Cat Five" - as in it could withstand a category five hurricane.
I pulled an all-nighter when I finished the first draft of the manuscript. I was not elated. I didn't scream, "I did it!" I was too exhausted to feel joy. I felt like what I imagine it must be like after giving birth. I was simply spent from a task that nearly killed me. I lay my head down on my outstretched arm for a while on the table. Then I looked over my shoulder at Mama Jean who was looking over her shoulder in that penetrating gaze of hers.
I looked at the time. It was 12:48 A.M., December 14, 2013. I finished the manuscript on the third anniversary of Mama Jean's death.
The work wasn't done. Over the next year, I worked with my editor at St. Martin's Press, writing and revising the manuscript, finalizing the book jacket, asking famous authors to gold-dust it with their endorsements, copy editing, proof reading, legal reading until I signed off on the final manuscript. I had a few more months to wait for the finished hard cover, the newborn.
I was determined that I would have a special solitary and sacred moment when the book arrived. Would I make a cup of tea, take off all my clothes, slip into a bubble bath surrounded by candles and read the book cover-to-cover? Would I wait to open the book until I was seated alone in a fancy restaurant, order an extravagant meal and toast myself with something bubbly and non-alcoholic? Would I just throw it up in the air à la Mary Tyler Moore in the opening credits of her TV show?
The day the book was expected to arrive, I worked that morning, as I usually do, at the dining room table with my old person radio station playing and Mama Jean's photo over my shoulder. I left at noon to go to the gym and run errands. In the lobby I saw that there was a package waiting for me. I was certain it was the book, because my editor's assistant had told me that she'd overnighted it to me. "It's here," I said to myself. "But not yet. Get it when you come back."
I returned an hour and half later with shopping bags of groceries and some new clothes. "I believe there's a package waiting for me," I told the doorman. He opened the cabinet behind his desk and searched for probably fifteen seconds, but it seemed like an hour. He pulled out a rectangular, padded envelope, about the size of one hardcover book. He set it down on the credenza. I looked at the label, which had the return address of St. Martin's Press, but I didn't touch the package. First I had to sign for it in the doorman's log. The doorman handed me the package, which seemed as heavy as a boulder and as delicate as an infant.
"Not yet," I told myself. "Wait until you get upstairs. Damn! I never decided how this super-sacred, solo moment I'm finally about to have should play out."
On the elevator ride to the tenth floor of my apartment, I was weighed down with my gym bag and shopping packages, but the package that held my book was the one that tipped the scales.
I walked into the empty apartment with both sunlight and my old person music streaming in. I went straight to my bedroom. I placed on the bed my gym bag and shopping packages, and then the book. "Not yet," I said. "It's got to be right." I put away the gym bag. I put away the groceries. I ripped off and threw away the price tags of the new clothes. I put away the clothes. The bed was clear, save for one, rectangular, padded envelope.
I opened it. I certainly knew what the cover, looked like since I'd approved it, but I was worried that the finished version might not be just right. I pulled the book out of the package and actually gasped as I gazed at it. It was beautiful. It was better than I imagined it could be. Between its hard covers was something I'd created, born of pain, suffering and love. It was my baby.
I carried the book into the living room. I held Dangerous When Wet in both hands and stared at it with the gaze of a mother's love. I caressed the glossy finish of the cover photo of three-year-old me sitting by a pool bar at a table with two cocktails in front of me and Mama Jean's purse beside me.
I stood there in a fog for I don't know how long before I pricked up my ears. My heart raced when I heard the song emanating from my old person station. It was "Jean."
I walked to the dining room table and held the book up to Mama Jean's photo as her song played: Jean, Jean . . . come out of your half-dreamed dream
Instantly, I knew that I was having my super-sacred, special moment, a moment far beyond anything I could have dreamed. But it wasn't solo. Mama Jean was there to share it with me.
Jamie Brickhouse is the author of Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir (St. Martin's Press).
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