In a kinder world, we would not subject a teenager to a storm of pain that could bend an oak. But this is not that world.
Samantha Leach was 14 and too young to have no hand to hold on to. But tragedy does not happen by a rational calendar.
With Samantha standing close to the hospital bed, the nurse leaned over the dying woman: "Cheryl, do you love your daughters? If yes, squeeze her hand."
Samantha loosely held her mother's weakened hand and waited. Then she felt the pressure. Soft, but it was there.
"That was the last time she told me she loved me," Samantha says, three years after her mother died of alcoholism at age 48.
That was where it ended, but it began before Samantha was born. Her mother, Cheryl Stewart-Johnston, was diagnosed with sclerosis of the liver when Samantha was 2, the result of years of nonstop drinking, years that could have put a traumatized child as well as the alcoholic parent on the track of destruction.
Samantha is now a senior of 17 taking advance-placement classes at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos. However, the memories of her mother's decline are still a red scar on her mind.
She lived in San Marcos with her mother and stepfather. Her sister, who is nine years older, had moved on. "We lived in a two-bedroom duplex, with one bath, a small kitchen and a living room. It wasn't well-maintained. The owner didn't care. It was trashy," she says.
The family lived pretty much hand-to-mouth, Samantha says.
Her birth father does not generate pleasant memories. "My dad? Growing up, (my parents) fought all the time. Every time they put me to bed, they'd start arguing." Her unmarried parents separated permanently when Samantha was 3, and from that time he was seldom in her life.
But vodka was.
"I remember in middle school and before, I'd walk into her room and mom would be chugging vodka," Samantha says. "I'd see the bottles; it was Smirnoff, so I knew. She'd drink it straight. She'd start at five in the morning, and also every night. It didn't matter what time it was. It was crazy.
"I knew she had to stop drinking, but she didn't stop drinking."
What would your mother have been like if she weren't a drinker?
"My mom was a very happy drunk. Sober, I think she'd still be very happy, but then again I think the alcohol helped with that. She could be a little irrational, but she was never angry. She was never scary."
Do you remember a time when she didn't drink?
"No, she drank my entire life."
Did she ever express remorse to you for her alcoholism?
"At first she did, yes, but my mom was so much in denial with herself, why would she apologize to me if she couldn't even apologize to herself? So I don't take that personally. I'm not upset about that.
"I kept talking to her. I was like, ‘Mom, you need to stop.' She said she would stop, and started going to AA meetings, but she didn't stop. I told her, ‘They said if you keep going like this, you're going to die within a year.'
"I think it was to the point where she could not stop. People have said to me, ‘Well, your mom couldn't stop drinking for you. I believe that is complete crap, because alcoholism is an unforgiving disease, and I have come to terms with that.
"I know my mom would have stopped if she could've, but she'd been drinking for so long and depended so hard on it, it was at the point of no return."
Samantha says Cheryl's employment was delivering car parts, and to disguise the fact that she was drinking while driving on the job, she would consume mouthwash for her alcohol fix, but without the tell-tale breath.
The sad circle closed as it always does in that circumstance - without grace or dignity. It was on a gray early morning three years ago this month.
"I woke up to a banging on the wall. It was really weird. I thought it was in my dream, so I kept sleeping. But it kept happening, so I got out of bed and I walked into the bathroom, which was (adjoining) my room. She was laying on the floor. I was like, ‘Mom, are you OK?'
"She couldn't respond, and when she tried, she sounded as if, you know, when a deaf person is trying to communicate how they just sound off, and you can't understand what they're saying."
Did you call 911?
"No. My stepdad and I talked about it. We said, do we want that bill which we can't afford, or do we want to just take her? In the hospital, the first question they asked me was if she was an alcoholic. I said yes."
The daughter who spent those awful hours watching her mother die was only a high school freshman. Too young for all that. Three years later, the emotion of retelling shows in flashes on her face and quickly caught quavering in her voice.
She naturally talks in teenage-ese, but the words and tone are very grown-up.
"It was freaking me out. I was in tears. They did a whole bunch of scans and tests, and what they found out was she had a blood mass in her brain. It was huge. What they explained to me was when you drink so much, your liver stops functioning, it pushes the blood up to your heart, and when there's too much blood it goes up to your brain."
(One can't escape the specter of a child standing in the cold sterility of this forbidding, other-worldly place called a hospital and being told in detail how her mother was soon to die badly.)
"So we came to the conclusion that we were going to pull the plug. When we decided to do that, they said she was going to go quick. That was not the case. She lasted all day off the tube. It was crazy."
The ending was inevitable, but it happened peacefully with the nurse's soft words and the squeeze of the hand.
Samantha was fond of her stepfather, but that living arrangement would not have worked out. The normal thing would have been for her to rejoin her father, who was in another marriage in a far-away state. But there's not a lot of normal in this story.
Two years ago, he tried to obtain custody, but Samantha fought it in family court and prevailed. Instead, she is the god-daughter of former neighbors Jason and Lorissa Givans, who took her under their roof with guardianship. Samantha says her father has now blocked her on Facebook.
(I considered contacting her father and revisiting the issues from that custody hearing, but I decided this story is grim enough. And if reconciliation between father and daughter is even remotely possible, I wouldn't want my words to stand in the way.)
Lorissa Givans says, "My husband and I took care of her as a small child. I think she was at our house more than her own home. She's a huge fighter for life, and the sweetest thing ever with tremendous compassion for people."
She was warned by behavioral experts about the emotional blowback from what Samantha had gone through. "I was told she very likely would go through turmoil and cause problems, and would I be ready for that.
"I said, ‘Yeah, I'm ready for that.' But Samantha's done the opposite. She's had her little bumps in the road, but she's really mature and deals with her issues. We can talk things through with her."
Samantha, like most children of deep alcoholics, has a dread of the genetic snare of the disease. She doesn't know much about inherited traits, but she's seen enough to know what addiction can do, and she runs from all intoxicants and drugs as from a ghost.
Samantha is an A-minus student and plans on starting college in the fall. Her educational goals dabble across the curricula, but her unchanging purpose is to prepare for a career that serves people. That's a great "major" to start with.
Samantha calls herself tough, and I agree. But her tough is leather that can bend and be shaped, and yes, even be soft. That's not the same as hard, which is iron and will rust over time.
For her classmates who may read this: While others are worried about their SAT scores, Samantha has been tested in a larger way, and she finished in the 99th percentile.
Samantha Leach has learned too much of the bad side of life too early. Now, she must go out and discover more of the good.
It's there for the taking.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]© Copyright 2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.