Miriam Esther Figueroa, my mother, left home when she was 15. The story Mom told me was that her mother had caught her kissing a man on the fire escape during her birthday party. She dragged my mother by her hair, through the window, back into the party, and proceeded to beat her in front of her guests. When the man who she’d kissed, her first, offered to take her away from her abusive mother, my mom jumped at the chance.
She didn’t know this man. She didn’t know he was much older than she was or what he even did for a living. She definitely didn’t know he was a heroin addict. One evening, enticing her with the idea that it would make sex more interesting, he injected mom with a dose. Not very long after that, my mom found out she was expecting a child. The man soon abandoned my mother, pregnant, addicted to heroin.
She struggled during her pregnancy, eating at diners in New York and sneaking out when it came time to pay the bill, doing whatever it took to survive and maintain her habit. Carlos, my older brother, was born addicted to heroin and had to go through detox. My mother, frustrated that her child didn’t even have a crib—he slept in the bottom drawer of a dresser stuffed with a blanket—finally went to her mother, pleading with her to take her back. My grandmother turned her away, but offered to take Carlos. Having little choice, mom obliged.
I was not born addicted to heroin. When I came along, in the summer of 1969, my mother was happily married and clean. However, her criminal past caught up with her. I was an infant when my parents’ apartment was raided. The cops claimed to have found illegal drugs in the medicine cabinet. My father came home just as they were about to arrest Mom and I was about to be carted off by Child Protective Services. She was pregnant with my younger sister. My dad claimed the drugs were his and let them arrest him, instead.
This sent my mother into a dark spiral. She began using again. Kyra was also born addicted to heroin.
As you might imagine, mine was not the easiest of childhoods. I was a fairly aware child, and it didn’t take me long to realize there was something wrong with Mom. Everything came into focus, though, during fifth grade. We had a unit about illegal drugs. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had the all the information I needed to understand Mom, to help her.
I could hardly contain my excitement on my way home. I’d barely stepped through the door of our apartment in Hoboken when I started telling Mom everything I’d learned, and that I finally understood what was wrong, and that I could help her stay off drugs. She looked at me, unmoved, and said, “What do you know? You don’t know [crap]! You kids are the reason I use drugs.”
I never mentioned her habit again, unprompted.
It wasn’t always bad. My mother was actually a very loving woman. She had an open door policy, willing to help anyone she could with their problems. After we moved to Baltimore in 1984, she did a lot of work helping to establish Baltimore’s Hispanic community. She helped families who arrived here find housing, employment and social services — whatever they needed to help make Baltimore home. She even translated for them and helped them get into English classes.
She was a strict mother, sometimes too strict. She put an emphasis on education and expected her children to achieve their potential, and she didn’t accept excuses. Most importantly, she believed in us. Mom always told us to believe in ourselves. She supported my desire to be a writer from a very early age, making me promise only that I would one day tell her story. But she also taught us that it didn’t matter what we became. “Fernando,” she told me once, “I don’t care if you’re a garbageman, as long as you’re a happy garbageman. As long as that’s what you want to do with your life, I’ll be proud of you.”
That’s perhaps what was oddest about my mother, that she could have such a profound understanding of life, but had to struggle so mightily to shake an addiction that wasn’t even really her choice. She did, eventually. Then, in 1989, she went through some training programs and got her first job working for the Census Bureau. We worked there together, in an office in Towson. For the first time in my memory, I got to see my mother walk through life as if on a feather. She had purpose. She had drive.
Sadly, that all stopped when she was diagnosed with AIDS. She’d unknowingly had it for some time, and it was already at an advanced stage. She died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. She was 41 years old. AIDS would also take the life of her brother, Andres, whom she deeply regretted introducing to heroin. Uncle Andy, as I knew him, was the closest thing I had to a consistent father figure growing up. My little brother, Joe, who was not quite 16 when mom passed away, would end up in his own vicious struggle with addiction. He eventually contracted AIDS, as well. We lost him on the day after Christmas, 2006.
It was an odd feeling when I made it to my 42nd birthday this past Fourth of July. I was happy to have made it, but outliving my own mother bothered me. She had warned us that she didn’t expect to reach old age. Mom constantly told me the story of how, after Woodstock, she’d brought Janis Joplin over to our place, how Janice had cuddled and fed me. My mother was shocked to hear of her death, just a little over a year later. She also realized that, considering they shared the same habit, she might not be too far behind.
When my sons each turned 13, I took them out for a fancy dinner. We discussed girls over appetizers. They each proclaimed to know much; I reinforced the need to treat women with respect, and to protect against starting a family before being ready, something my mother and I had both failed at. Over dinner, we discussed the perils of alcoholism and addiction. I told them my mother’s story, the grandmother they met only as infants, and I was honest about my own struggles with alcohol during my early teens. Over dessert, I let them know that they could become anything they dreamed of. But I also let them know that I’d always be proud of them, even if they became garbagemen, as long as they were happy doing it.