Here With You: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Addiction
by Kathy Wagner
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2023
$26.95 / 9781771623667
Reviewed by Betty Jane Hegerat
Kathy Wagner’s Here With You reads like every parent’s nightmare. But this is not a dream. This is memoir, real life, and Wagner and her son, Tristan, live the nightmares over and over again for seven years and then beyond.
The potential audience for this book is huge. Addiction, alcoholism in particular, has been ever with us, and narcotics addiction is spreading with deadly speed. No one is immune from news about the pernicious availability of opoids and fentanyl, and the unspeakable sorrow of lost lives.
In her memoir, Kathy Wagner tells Tristan’s and her stories, which are tightly bound, with honesty, intimate detail, and painful insight.
Wagner describes her third child, Tristan, as a boy who “gave and received love abundantly.” Each of her two daughters had their own demons; one an alcoholic, the other with Type 1 diabetes and dangerously casual about the strict regime that would protect her. In the first two parts of the book, the sisters are mentioned mainly in their reactions to their brother’s addiction and the choices he makes.
A single mother after her husband leaves because of her resistance to “tough love,” with periodic support from her first husband, the father of the children, Wagner is travelling this path alone.
The first call when Tristan is fourteen comes inevitably at night. Not the knock on the door, or phone call from a police officer, but a call from “a voice that sounded young and scared.” It was a call asking Kathy Wagner to come and get Tristan because he is “not okay.” Tristan was in seizure and frothing at the mouth. He had suffered alcohol poisoning. He was diagnosed as being overly sensitive to alcohol, and his mother leaned on the hope that this had been a one-time lapse.
In a matter of months, Tristan left alcohol behind and turned to drugs. From using to selling, from weed to cocaine, his path was one of expulsion from schools, and finally his mother’s admitting that he would not outgrow this “phase.” Through it all, though, she was determined to save her boy. She “held onto the hope—blind, baseless hope—that Tristan had finally learned his lesson.”
Tristan resisted treatment of any kind, but he had a dream of being a master of martial arts. Programs in North America were beyond expensive and none involved residency. To use this passion as a road to rehabilitation, Kathy Wagner resorted to proposing enrolment in a training centre in China, and after weeks of resistance, Tristan agreed to go. During the weeks she was with him, she maintained her own recovery program through meditation and tai chi. All going well, she left him to complete the full year of his program.
After eight months at home and a brief hopeful period, Tristan fell back into his old patterns, and begged to go back to China. What followed was China to Thailand, back home and the roller coaster ride of treatment programs and relapse.
When Tristan was twenty, in culinary school, his mother admitted that she was exhausted and needed peace and quiet. She told Tanis, who was still living with her, and Tristan that it was time for them to move out. After some months, she began to look for new ways to help Tristan but ways to help herself as well. She attended recovery support groups and worked to resist Tristan’s calls for help, usually money to buy his way out of deals gone wrong.
After four years of desperately trying to find answers, possible scenarios became obvious: Tristan would end up in The Downtown Eastside, sleeping in alleyways; Tristan would hit a bad patch of something, overdose, and die; Tristan would overdose and be brain-damaged and require twenty-four hours of support for the rest of his life.
As I read this mother’s pain and fear and desperate need for help for herself, there were times when I had to put the book aside. Even when she joined Nar Anon and began working through the Twelve Step Program, acknowledging that there were things she could not change, I was torn with compassion over her courage in attempting those that she could. The wisdom to know the difference involves a long and tortured journey.
The painful insights into the fine line between loving and helping, and enabling came from a deep place that I felt in my own heart.
There was a period of respite, and then the final phone call, again in the night but this time from Tristan’s dad, Kathy’s ex-husband, hysterical at the news that their son was dead. Tristan was twenty-one years old.
Part III of the memoir is titled “Rewriting Hope.” In profound sadness, there is relief, and Kathy Wagner’s poem to Tristan begins:
Be free, sweet boy
From the fight
From the struggle
From the shadow’s calling…
Then begins the mother’s deepest pain, and the need to grieve aloud and in private, but at the same time go through the motions of choreographing a perfect farewell. Tristan’s journals, Kathy Wagner’s struggle with whether to read them or honour his privacy, offer Tristan’s own pain and acknowledgement of the pain he’s caused others and shine a light on the darkness of the addiction he lived.
To read this book is to put one’s foot on a path paved with love, incredible strength, courage, and recognition. It evokes a passionate need for an answer to a universal assault on young lives. Kathy Wagner’s step forward into absolute support for Moms Stop the Harm, should invoke in every reader the need to do the same.
Betty Jane Hegerat, a social worker by profession in earlier years, is a Calgary author, teacher and mentor. She has published five books: two novels , a collection of short fiction, a work of creative non-fiction that is a blend of fiction, investigative journalism, memoir and metafiction, and a novel for young adults. Her first love has always been short fiction and she is currently working on a new collection. She was the 2015 recipient of the Writers Guild of Alberta Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement in writing. [Editor’s note: Betty Jane Hegerat has reviewed the work of Tara Sidhoo Fraser and Patricia Jean Smith previously for The British Columbia Review.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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