Person reaches for their car keys after drinking alcohol

‘Mommy isn’t coming home, sweetie’

By Airman 1st Class Madison Sylvester
319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Airman holds a photo of her mother and of a sign warning against drinking and driving
Airman 1st Class Madison Sylvester shares the story of how her first scar became her reason for never driving while under the influence of alcohol. Sylvester is a 319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs broadcaster. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Xavier Navarro/Released)

As a young child, you don’t think much if someone doesn’t show up when they’re supposed to because you have better, more important things to worry about, like bugs and dolls. They’re just another shape flashing around you in your own little world.

Occasionally, a child will stop and ask a question about the sky, their toys or where their parent is. The answer always seems to be, “Oh honey, they’re right over there,” and life goes on without a hitch.

When I stopped playing one night in 1998 and asked the question, “Daddy, when is Mommy coming home?” it brought everyone around to a sudden halt. My father cleared his throat and blinked a few times, obviously taken by surprise that his 3-year-old was asking this question so early. He replied quietly, “Mommy isn’t coming home sweetie. She’s living with the angels now.”

My mother was killed in a head-on collision March 24, 1997, as a result of drinking and driving.

That wasn’t the beginning of her relationship with alcohol, however. Her decision to drive home after drinking this night was not her first time doing so. It was a regular thing. Consumption of alcohol, or rather the inability to stop consuming it, had ruined my parents’ relationship. Already in the process of divorce, they had been fighting that particular day over my mother breaking into my grandparents’ liquor cabinet.

The attempt to lie was immediately wiped away with the first glance of her, so she decided that she would leave. She tried to bring me along with her, but my father was able to wrestle me away. My dad wasn’t worried. He thought she would take a walk down the street to calm down; he thought he had the keys. Little did he know, she had a spare set made. Almost running him over in his attempt to stop her, she sped off.

My father got remarried to a wonderful woman six months later and because I didn’t understand, I didn’t act like anything was wrong. It wasn’t until I was five years old that I really, fully understood where my mom had gone. People had stopped sugarcoating things and telling me that I was too young to get it.

Never wanting to upset the woman I now called Mom, I waited until I had my father alone to ask again, “Daddy, what really happened to mommy?” Judging from the look on his face, he had thought he had some time before any real explanations had to be given. I quickly apologized seeing the distressed look and got up to rush to another room but he stopped me and said, “No, it’s okay, I just didn’t think I would have to do this so soon… Your mother had a problem.”

A problem. That’s what we hear today when someone invites alcohol into their lives for too long. A problem. A mistake. What my mother had was not simply a problem; my mother had a disease. One that nobody cared to diagnose because that would mean their own failure. She would get sad and drink, she would get mad and drink, and soon she had made any emotion an excuse to drink. I grew older with conflicting images of her.

“She was a wonderful mother; she loved you, so full of life and laughter,” collided with “Your mother was a liar, a cheater and a drunk.”

Yes. I had a woman who married my father, gave me a little sister, and took on the task of taking care of me too. But there was always a hole that couldn’t be filled in me. I had questions that people felt too guilty about to answer. Did I do something so wrong that she needed to drink again? If she really loved me, how could she be so careless? I was grieving years after everyone else had moved on.

However, I learned to deal with my own hurt and turned it into understanding and proactivity. My mother was not the only person to ever have alcoholism. I was not the only person ever to lose someone this way, nor would I be the last. I would not allow myself to be a victim, but instead became an advocate. The one thing that I took away from my own loss was that I never wanted anyone else to go through the same experience. My family brushed her addiction under the rug because addictions are ugly, they’re taboo, and deep down inside they didn’t want to admit that their daughter, sister and granddaughter wasn’t okay. But the truth of the matter is that she wasn’t and others aren’t either.

I urge you to help your wingmen. If you notice that their weekend fun is turning into everyday fun, say something. If you suspect that they’re having hard times, say something. Even better than that, do something. Don’t let them get in that car after they’ve been drinking. We have so many resources that can help prevent the loss of another brother or sister-in-arms. Most people are not willing to look at their own reflection and say “I have a problem. I need to stop.”

Help them. Love them. Support them.

This disease is long-standing in my lineage. I will be the one to end it. Will you do the same with our Air Force family?