Cathy Lee Fox
THROUGH THE VOICE OF HER DAUGHTER
I can’t write my mom’s story; only she could do that. But she’s not here, so what I can do is share who she was in my voice. Each day of my journey, I hope she’s proud of me. Each day of my journey, I pray that she approves. All I can do is imagine that if she were sober and healthy, she would understand. You see, my mother was a fiercely private person. She lived with immense shame from being an addict her entire adult life. The saying “you’re only as sick as your secrets” rings quite true in the Fox family, and we were as sick as you could get. I have no idea why but I fought that my entire life. I was the opposite: open, transparent, and unapologetically honest. Where did that come from? Certainly not from any family influence, I can promise you that. It has taken me 47 years to embrace this part of me instead of feeling bad. It’s taken me half a lifetime to accept that perhaps my comfort in telling my story, even the ugly, painful parts of it, was meant for something. Hopefully, it is this.
My mom, however, was not this way. She hated that I couldn’t fake it; she hated that I talked about it to friends. She blamed me for the fact that she had no friends. She once told me that I was the reason everyone knew she was an addict. I assured her that was impossible. Her last 28 program was at Betty Ford in 2008. Family week at Betty Ford with my brother James consisted of us signing contracts that we wouldn’t consume any drugs or alcohol while in town and that we would spend four full days at the clinic, not with our mother but in our groups, learning, and healing. I was not happy. On day one, my group therapist said that I seemed angry and disconnected like I didn’t want to be there. I assured him that he had earned his degree because he was 100% correct. I then asked if he had met my mom yet, to which he replied no. I said, “Ah, well, once you do, you might understand. This is not my first rodeo, and I’m not here by choice. I’m here because my father and sister insisted it was me that needed this. So here I am. Good luck.” When it came to our last day, and small groups got to sit in a circle with the loved ones that brought them there, it was my mom’s turn to sit in the middle of the circle with me, the daughter she blamed for a lot. He asked who wanted to go first, and out of respect, I gave her the nod. But really, I knew she’d set things up quite nicely for me. And she did not disappoint. One of the first things out of her mouth was “She’s my trigger” while pointing at me. It was at that moment the counselor looked at me, understanding, and then said to her, “Uh, no. Cathy, the fact that you’ve spent almost 28 days here and you could still look at your daughter and blame her for your drinking is concerning.” And that was that. I knew this was the best it was going to get. My openness was my sanity. But my sanity also created the divide between us that would last almost until she died.
My mom, my beautiful mom. Born 11.22.44, a unique birthdate for the most remarkable lady. She was a treasure and growing up, she exceeded any expectation a kid could have. She was lively, fun, energetic, hard-working, committed, and traditional. She put her kids and family first always. If presented with the crazy idea of going to Six Flags, she was the mom that would pile all the neighborhood kids in her hatchback Pacer to do just that on a random Saturday. She was the mom with different handwriting for Santa Claus and the mom that went up to the school in hysterics when the teacher gave up that Santa Claus wasn’t real. She was the mom that pushed us to be our best and, in hindsight, the reason I am somewhat of a perfectionist, something I only recognized recently. She is the reason for so much, and she was fantastic in every way when I was a kid.
She was also living with the pain of a broken childhood. I never fully appreciated this until I was older. Her father left for cigarettes on Christmas Eve and never came home. I don’t know how old she was when this happened but, does age matter? She spent time in an orphanage with her older brother and younger sister because my grandma worked her ass off but couldn’t manage three kids on her one income. They would finally move from Houston to Chicago to be closer to family and a support system that wouldn’t require them to go it alone. Many decades later she would be contacted by a hospital in LA because her father was dying from alcoholism-related pneumonia. I don’t recall how the hospital found her or why, but they did. She went to see this man that was her father. As a grown woman who had not seen her father since she was a young girl, only to find out that he left because he had another family, must have been incredibly painful. She had a half-sister that she never knew. I remember wanting to go with her so badly to meet my grandpa, my fathers’ dad having died when he was just a teen. But it wasn’t appropriate, given the circumstances. Of course, I understand that now.
My sweet mother did not have an easy life, and then she married my father. This is a tricky part of the story, given that I adore my father, and he is still alive and will read this. But he was not a great husband. Anger management issues, a short fuse, and the pre-programmed generational notion that he didn’t have to do much other than put money in the bank, that’s no surprise. When we know better, we do better, and I will always accept that he didn’t know any better. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to watch a man at the end of his life with so much regret. But he wishes he could go back to appreciate her and be the man he is today because he still loves her and talks about it often. I wish that for them too.
When I first started working for my father 21 years ago, I distinctly remember saying to my mom, who filed for divorce the summer before my junior year in high school, that I finally understood. He was hard to work for, so I couldn’t imagine being married to someone like that. Ironically I would do just that 14 years later. After three years of marriage myself, I heard her voice in my head one night telling me to run as fast as I could and never look back. I listened to that voice in 2017 like she was sitting next to me, even though she had been gone for a year. I finally understood all of those lonely nights in the basement pretending to do laundry. I finally understood the Xanax addiction that started the year of the divorce. I finally understood it all.
My relationship with my mom was complicated. It was beautifully authentic because we openly disliked each other a lot of the time. She made conscious, obvious choices to love on my siblings that she didn’t with me. She made an effort, concessions, and gave passes where I got none. She once allowed my sister to throw a family reunion/meet my fiancé party at one of her rental properties and not invite me. She justified that by saying, “It’s not my party; it wasn’t up to me.” She saw absolutely no wrong in what she did. She did a lot of mean things. I did a lot of mean things too. All of this is understandable, only now, though. I was the daddy’s girl with the relationship she had wanted with this man. It was a hard pill to swallow for everyone involved.
In 2013 I found my mom, preparing to move out of our family home of 43 years, overdosing on heroin. Hooked on Norco, a $20 per pill habit, Justin had convinced her snorting heroin was the same and much cheaper. She adored the ground Justin walked on and together, they were a destructive duo. Sober, they were two of the most unique, genuine, and loving humans on earth. But drugs take that from a person. They change who you are and who you want to be. They make you very ugly. It was our collective rock bottom as a family.
I contemplated not sharing this part of the story because it’s ugly. But it’s also the truth. And people need to know that even classy, wealthy, successful humans like my mother can fall prey to addiction. In fact, I was shocked to learn during my time at Betty Ford that prescription pill addiction amongst middle age adults, just like my mom, was the worst addiction Betty Ford had ever seen. It was honestly mind-boggling when I sat in the ER waiting room that day, going through her purse and finding a little bag with brown powder and the imprint of skull and bones, only to have the nurse call me back to apologize for having to call the police. It turned out that on her way into the hospital, my mom told the paramedics that her youngest son had given her heroin to snort and that, my friends, is elder abuse. I had zero idea – blindsided and dumbfounded. Justin showed up to the hospital that day; he was handcuffed on the spot and thrown in the back of a squad car, which would not be the first time I had seen that scenario play out.
That was 2013. My mom passed away in 2016 from lung cancer. The three years preceding her death were both years I cherish and regret. She lived with me for about six months after getting out of that short stay in rehab and forcing her out of my 1,200 square foot condo six months later, that I was then sharing with my soon to be husband, will be one of the very few regrets that I have in life. I remember her looking at me with tears welled up in her eyes. There I was, cheerleading her like she was ready to get back to her own home and her looking back at me like a scared child that knew better. She needed protection. I missed that and can only see it in retrospect. The picture of her for this story, my absolute favorite, was taken at this time before she moved out. She was sober. She was happy. She was the beautiful soul I knew as my mother. And I will always be so freaking grateful for that time I had with her, albeit wishing I had allowed it to be longer.
So my relationship with my mother ebbed and flowed through lightness and darkness, love and dislike, for the last 25 years. Through many of those years, whether we liked each other or not, she would call me to let me know that the magnolia tree was in bloom in our backyard. I cherished those moments we sat together so much, and the Nolia in Dragonolia is a nod to this time. My mother was a beautiful human – so much energy, charisma, and personal dreams left unfulfilled. If I dream of anything in my life, it is to live my life fulfilled in honor of her. I will always believe that her resentment of me was not something she wanted. I will always believe that it was rooted in pain she felt watching me live the life she was never brave enough to live. I can imagine that now, and I understand it so much.
Cathy Lee Fox died on March 12th, 2016. Her death certificate says March 13th because they didn’t pick her body up until after midnight. She died in her ex-husbands’ house, my father, who helped care for her the last two weeks of her life. I held her hand when she took her last breath, and she was glowing – literally glowing. No blood drained from her body, no pain in her face. She just looked angelic, beautiful and heavenly – just like I’d want to remember her. The gift she gave me, leaving this earth with just me and her in that room, was the closure I needed to our tumultuous love affair of 43 years. Dragonolia is as much in honor of her as it is my brother. Because she was a private person, I hope every day that my sharing finally makes sense to her, wherever she may be. Because it has been my lifeline to a happier, healthier version of my life, and I owe that to her every day. She gave me life. She gave me love. She gave me the best she could with what she had to offer.
Unfortunately, we often don’t see this until someone is gone. So I implore you, find the good in your loved ones now, while they are still here. Forgive. Stop judging. Don’t be like me and wish to go back because you’ll never be able to. I can only move forward as the best version of myself; my mother helped me get here. For that, I am forever indebted to her. She showed me both exactly how to be the most amazing, strong, and independent woman and how to not screw it up.
I hope I’m making her proud.