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really had no concept of death in the way that it was understood by the adults around her. She was inconsolable, hurt and angry at her mother for leaving her all alone. She cried rivers of tears demanding that her mother return, but her wish went unfulfilled.
Charlene and Luke’s biological father was a man named Charles Samuel. He was an oilfield worker, who indulged in alcohol and gambling. He had no yearning for children and the thought of being a parent was completely foreign to him. Early on, when Betsy became pregnant, Charles Samuel promised to marry her, all the while becoming more distant and less involved. As a result, after the children were born, Charles Samuel was rarely present for them to have as a daddy. His attendance in their life was unpredictable. Charlene’s experience of her father was of his long absences, punctuated by brief happy times when he would come visit her. Even after Charlene’s mother died, her father made little effort to come see her. Charlene remembered the time her father brought her a bicycle, but he did not stay long enough to help her learn to ride it. He was just not available, and actually not capable of being a father to a young child. Many promises were made and broken, but her father remained as remote as ever.
Of necessity, Charlene and her brother Luke were raised by a variety of relatives, sadly not including their daddy. Charlene was primarily raised by her paternal grandmother, Mrs. Kate Samuel; while Luke was moved episodically from home to home, catch as catch can. Grandma Kate was a corpulent women and a chain smoker. She had smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day since her early teenage years. In fact, Charlene’s memories of her grandmother always included a lit cigarette and a room full of suffocating smoke. At times Grandma Kate was unknowingly smoking two cigarettes at once. She would sit at the kitchen table, talking away, not realizing that she had one cigarette burning in the ashtray and another cigarette between her fingers. She seemed to take great delight in lighting a cigarette and inhaling the first draw of the nicotine infusion, after which she would exhale a long, sinuous stream of smoke while grinning from ear to ear. It was hedonistic pleasure at its finest.
Grandma Kate was a vain woman, and her vanity was based solely upon a fabricated self-image, which she protected and upheld until her last breath. In vogue with her identity, Grandma Kate thought of smoking as a glamorous accessory. When she was smoking she secretly believed she was just like those Hollywood starlets she had seen in the movies. Everyone knows that in Hollywood all the movie stars drive around in a new Buick or a convertible Cadillac, while smoking elegant looking cigarettes. So, Grandma Kate thought smoking made her look stylish and desirable. At least in her mind it was so. Of course, this story was a ruse to disguise the fact that she was horribly addicted to nicotine.
After her mommy passed away, Charlene would cling to Grandma Kate. It was a natural response to feeling abandoned and alone. Clinging to Grandma Kate gave Charlene the immediate benefit of closeness, which soothed away her tears of loss and sadness. After all, it was very difficult for a small child to grieve for her lost mommy. There was a sort of clinging by Grandma Kate towards Charlene, as well. There was no doubt that Grandma Kate enjoyed the benefit of sharing Charlene’s close company. Grandma Kate would hold Charlene and dramatically state, “No child should be made to suffer this way.”
As one might expect, there were untoward consequences to this arrangement. Beginning in early childhood and for many years thereafter, Charlene was exposed to Grandma Kate’s cigarette smoke. At first Charlene would only cough when she was sitting on her grandmother’s lap, due to the inevitable breathing of the choking fumes. When the cigarette stench irritated her, she would hop down to the floor and run off to play with the other children. However, as time went by her cough became more persistent and worrisome. Little Charlene would have coughing spells that lasted for quite some time. She would even awaken at night with persistent coughing.
As the symptoms were getting worse, Grandma Kate took the child to see old Doc Roberts. Working out of a small office in downtown Pleasanton, he had been the family physician for generations. Madge, his office secretary and nurse, kept the place as neat as a pin, and her record keeping was flawless. Best of all, Madge had a welcoming smile, which provided a measure of relief to suffering patients as they arrived for their assigned appointments. Truth be known, there were times when Madge had a greater healing impact on patients visiting the office than Doc Roberts. The salubrious effects of Madge’s care giving as a nurse, was something that Doc Robert’s would never quite comprehend, but the patients were glad for her nurturance and they looked forward to the next time they would see her.
After examining the child and listening to Grandma Kate describe Charlene’s symptoms, Doc Roberts diagnosed Charlene as having Asthma. Doc Roberts said Charlene would need medication. He consoled them, stating there was no cure for Asthma, but the medications usually helped treat the symptoms. The strange thing was, none of the typical Asthma medicines seemed to work for Charlene. Doc Roberts tried every Asthma medication he could find with Charlene, to no good end. Her coughing spells continued and even worsened. Finally, not knowing what else to do, Doc Roberts prescribed a purple cough syrup that contained codeine. Lo and behold, the purple cough syrup worked! Of course, this was to be expected, as codeine is one of the best cough suppressants known to modern medicine. The resolution of the cough was welcomed by all. However, the long term consequences of this treatment could not have been predicted by anyone at the time.
Little Charlene did not have Asthma. Her coughing was a direct result of chronic exposure to cigarette smoke. So the codeine laced cough syrup treated Charlene’s symptoms, but the underlying cause was never addressed. The codeine, being a narcotic, would last for a few hours before wearing off. Curiously, when the codeine wore off, Charlene’s cough might return quickly or it might not return for several days. As could have been easily predicted, whenever the cough returned Grandma Kate was quick to hold Charlene in her arms, while giving her soothing words and another dose of the cloying elixir. In this way Charlene unconsciously learned two things, both being the benefits of coughing. First, coughing always got Charlene the attention she was craving at the moment. After all, Grandma Kate could not ignore such a serious ailment, still believing the child had Asthma. Charlene’s coughing was serious and needed immediate attention. Second, coughing invariably resulted in being given a spoonful of the glorious purple cough syrup, which meant being given a dose of codeine. Charlene learned to like the effects of the cough syrup, not realizing that she was growing accustomed to the sedating effects of a narcotic.
The coddling behaviors between Grandma Kate and Charlene went on for many years, unabated by any reasonable intervention. Old Doc Roberts kept blindly allowing refills of the syrupy cough medicine. Year after year, refill after refill, until “the purple cough medicine,” became a house hold word. Charlene would ask for it by name. If Grandma Kate was busy and did not immediately respond to Charlene’s request, the coughing would become persistent and louder, until Grandma Kate picked up Charlene and gave her the next dose. In retrospect, this is something unbelievable. A relationship of mutual dependency between Grandmother and child was fostered and encouraged. Charlene grew up thinking of herself as a sick person with a chronic ailment. There was an unconscious collusion between the treatment of the physical symptom of coughing and the emotional needs of the child. Charlene learned that whenever she felt bad, physically or emotionally, the codeine laced medicine was the trick to gain relief. Unfortunately, this easy way out from any form of distress effectively arrested Charlene’s emotional development. She never learned to cope with problems.
When Charlene became a teenager, the depression which had been lurking under the surface since her mother died, became fully manifest. On a deep emotional level she always missed her mommy. Having grown past childhood, she fully realized that her mother would not be coming back. Yet, having that bit of logic did not prevent her from having a secret wish that her mommy would somehow return and rescue her from the unbearably suffocati
ng life with Grandma Kate. Charlene’s response to losing her mommy during childhood would be a life long struggle with depression. And, as if adding insult to injury, her response to being raised by Grandma Kate would be a strong tendency towards relying on prescription medications as a convenient way to cope with even the slightest suffering or heartache.
One could speculate for many years and still wonder about Charlene’s upbringing. How had such a sweet and innocent child turned out to be the embodiment of a pitiable life? Possibly, it was easiest to understand Charlene by realizing that after her mommy died she was mostly raised by Grandma Kate. The consequences of this upbringing were undeniable. It seemed to Charlene that no matter how hard she tried, she could not escape the dark clouds of depression, which always seemed to block the rays of sunlight. However, she had certainly learned that a dose of the revered purple cough medicine would make the bad feelings go away, at least for a while. Effectively, Charlene had become a drug addict during childhood.
Once she reached her early teens,