Empty Nests and Morphine

by Lee Gallagher

Aside from a few drinks and a joint or two, which hardly counts, I was basically clean throughout my son’s childhood. My last dose of anything good back then, in fact, was the morphine they gave me in the hospital when I had him.

roadIt’s 1a.m. and dead empty on this stretch of Georgia highway, lit mostly by billboards advertising sex trafficking joints, thinly veiled as spas, massage parlors, and tanning studios. They are just as you’d expect–young, half-naked women and large fonts indicating plenty of trucker parking. I scope out the ladders leading up to each I pass and promise myself I’ll roll through some other night and artfully destroy them, one by one. Tonight, though, I’m heading from Atlanta to the town of Zebulon to pick up some morphine from a guy I know.

I turn the dial to clean the window before realizing I have forgotten, again, to refill the washer fluid. The wipers screech dryly across the glass, leaving the corners a red-dust frame which fades and brightens with each passing streetlight. I have thirty miles until my next exit. With the drive ahead, my mind pulls me where it wants to, and I go willingly this time. It takes me where my most piercing loneliness lives; into my empty womb, my empty arms, into the emptiest nest that is breaking in the wind, built foolishly upon the flimsiest branch.

I’m not deluding myself; I know this is more self-medication than recreation, but because the access is sporadic, I believe it’s less of a problem than the whiskey I had been slugging down nightly for awhile. The guy I know isn’t consistent in his supply anyway; he had 7.5 mg of Vicodin a couple weeks back, a little more like it a few weeks before that, and of course the lucky score of my favorite, Dilaudid, two months ago. I don’t do any crazy drug-addict shit with it like plug it, snort it, or shoot it. Even though I’d come on to it better, I know not to cross that line.

Aside from a few drinks and a joint or two, which hardly counts, I was basically clean throughout my son’s childhood. My last dose of anything good back then, in fact, was the morphine they gave me in the hospital when I had him. I suppose it was even around this time of night when the anesthesiologist arrived and I came on to the euphoria within seconds. Contractions became softer waves washing through me like a baptism. I let myself focus on the idea that, with him, my body held a capacity for love that violence hadn’t yet killed. His beginnings wouldn’t color my relationship with him. We would be new together—he would be born pure, and I, too, would summon my long-hidden purity. His first gasping breath would breathe new life into both of us and the empty word “mother” would await my own definition, and it would hold him forever.

My head drifts, and so do my tires, signaled by the rhythmic pattern of bumps on the shoulder of the road reminding me to correct my direction. I can vaguely remember the similar sound of his rhythmic heartbeat on the monitors strapped to my young, naked body back then. His pulse and mine, sometimes coming together as a tangled, off-beat repetition. The no-nonsense nurse would come in without a word and roughly adjust them until my own beat was silenced for a clear read of his. I mothered that way, too, not so much from my heart, but from the still silence between beats. Admittedly from my own hollow place of unmet needs. And in that quiet, I would listen for his heart and treat it as a promise I would not break.

I’m still an outsider here, I guess. After a year, I still don’t know many people, which I’ll confess is mostly a relief. I’ve grown more introverted over the years, and, as a rule, more people simply reinforce my loneliness. For a number of reasons, the accumulation of life in Seattle had become a burden I needed to depart from in favor of self preservation, and hopefully growth. When my son was accepted to an East Coast university, a clean slate a day’s drive away from him seemed the best option. I had, in a sense, graduated from motherhood, so it felt natural to pack what was necessary and hit the road. It turns out what was necessary fit into nine boxes of mostly books, documents, my kid’s school and art work, and the impressive train set I had stolen for him, piece-by-piece over the years, hoping it would someday become an heirloom.

The roads are literally rougher here from the lack of maintenance, and my truck rattles down Interstate 75 with each crack and pothole. Broken infrastructure litters the landscape, and when it’s inconvenient to address, which is always, it is repackaged as old fashioned, Southern charm. There is also a high social premium placed on conformity here, but far more actual diversity than the individualistic yet homogeneous communities of the Northwest I’d grown used to. Atlanta is a dirty town that feels lived-in, and I’m comforted by how honestly that reflects reality. Poverty is more pervasive and dangerous, and so is the ignorance that constructed it. Both are particularly more pronounced with each passing mile outside the urban center. The down-home food lays as heavy as the thick air, and in this warm humidity there is evidence of life. The cicadas are a deafening chorus throughout the summer. The meadowlarks are charismatic preachers who, unlike most birds, sing even while in flight. The accents of the people tell stories independent of what is spoken. The specific vernacular, cadence, and curvature of words tell you, almost down to the county, where the speaker is from, and if you grow to know the cultures, a great deal of one’s identity can be understood.

My son sent me a rather cold text last night informing me he wouldn’t be coming home for winter break. Apparently he and his girlfriend are a package deal now, and Connecticut-bound instead. I fear this will become more common, and I’m ashamed at how deeply my feelings are hurt. All my rationality doesn’t touch the ache that so precisely mimics the grief of my mom’s leaving. Its like a monster rolling around in my rib cage, and it feels so familiar that I fear it is a permanent part of me. I won’t tell him he’s being an asshole. I won’t tell him about my mother and how I feel orphaned again. I will operate from my promise, the clarity of silence, wish him the love and freedom he seeks, and remind him I’ll be right here whenever he needs me.

Miles of dark fields give way to county prison floodlights. Across the highway, a disturbingly ironic sign reads, “Free at Last Bail Bonds,” illuminated under the neon glow of a primary-toned rainbow. I laugh bitterly at this absurdly co-opted message, and insulting false cheer of its simplified colors.I am constantly culture shocked and feeling very far from home. The lights eventually fade into my rearview mirror, and continue into the dark of the deep-set road for ten quiet miles.

I reach Mr. B’s Minimart on the corner of Harp street. They close by dark, but I pull in and get a bottle of Coke from the vending machine to take the morphine. I sit on the curb and text the guy I know to signal that I’m ten minutes out. I’ll wait here for his response, count out my cash, and let this cold concrete hold me still. I drift into the pulse of the night. The stars are strikingly bright this far outside the city, obstructed by nothing. The ache within starts to yield to the sort of anticipation I feel only in my secret life—the untouched places that remain my own.

My heart jumps at the chime of my phone. “Sure,” he responds, and I’m back in the truck. I drive slowly to give him time, and search the radio for a moment. The songs are all out of range and unrecognizable under whining static. I run through the dial anyway but eventually cut it off just before turning the corner to his street. I roll down my window and spot his shadow walking two small, fluffy dogs who are decidedly incongruent to this clandestine context. As I pull up next to him, he leans in and casually drapes his arms in the window frame. He drops the bottle into my hand, I pass the cash to him, and he reminds me that I have twenty-three extended-release 60 mg. “Thanks, I’ll be in touch,” I say. Then I turn the truck around, and I’m back on my way. Once I round the corner, I pull over briefly, crush up one and a half to speed the time release, and wash it down in a grateful swig.

The nearby town of Williamson is, at face value, like most other small Southern towns I’ve seen. There’s no apparent charm, just a landscape of strip malls, a Walmart, Chick-fil-A, a few Waffle Houses, and an equal number of churches and taverns. Tucked a couple of miles off the highway, though, there are wide-open pastures, and that is where I’m headed. I cross the tracks, and once I’m in the vacancy, I cut the headlights to see the moonlit fields and silhouettes. The beauty is profound, and it fills me as I begin to come on to the morphine. I find a turnoff on the side of the road and step into the empty street, looking skyward, stretching, and feeling the soft vibration under my skin, the warmth that fills my chest, the insulating gauze that quiets my mind. Loneliness becomes a softer solitude.

I grab my sleeping bag, crawl into the truck bed, and lean my head against the cool window. A dim porch light flickers off like a lightning bug from the one nearby house that stands, weathered and crooked, on all of these acres. I think of the lives it has held, and the one late-nighter it holds tonight. I slide all the way down and tuck myself into the warmth like a child, close one eye, and trace made-up constellations into the stars. Their boundaries hold whatever picture I make, but they, like the morphine, will fade. I can briefly alter, but can’t reinvent my reality. My history holds a long line of motherless children, and the heirloom of their loneliness was set in the grooves of my genes before I arrived. I tried to change that course for my son and give him more. I silenced my longing by becoming for him the mother I hadn’t had. Without him, the longing is present and the mother of me is gone. He did what he was meant to, though. He grew and struggled toward independence, I suppose, in a manner that a well-mothered child might. Perhaps that is what he is.

I close my eyes until the meadowlarks, scattered throughout the field, wake me with their rhythmless songs. I listen to each until the last one rises from the perch of its fence and sings until it fades in the distance. Someone is awake in the nearby house and the kitchen light glows in the still, dark morning. My body sweats and chills and I breath in the sharpness of the cold air that slices through me, bringing me back to reality. There are no distractions. Nature absorbs its own echos. The sky is growing lighter now, and as I climb to my feet and jump over the side, I don’t mind the aches from my unforgiving metal bed. I can feel it. I can feel all of it. I stuff my sleeping bag in the cab and climb in, and with the door slung open, I take in the stark view of this moment. The beauty and agony wash over me as one, and with their force, I can feel my heartbeat.


Lee Gallagher is a pen name that the author, Alex, used in homage to her great grandmother, Rosalee Gallagher. Rosalee was born in 1901, immigrated from Ireland in 1919, and lived a solitary, lonely life in the country with her two young children. She died in her farmhouse at the age of 25. Though little beyond that is known of her, it is certain that her short life held powerful, untold stories about woomanhood, motherhood, loneliness, and hope. The author exists as evidence that bloodlines, like stories, carry pieces of their creators. 

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