Tobi almost smiled as he studied the large portrait in front of him. It was a picture he’d looked at dozens of times. Hundreds, probably. But today, he looked at it with different eyes.
He remembered the moment well – it was taken at his father-in-law’s wedding, more than twenty years ago… The same year Tobi and Stefan had discovered their birth father. It was the height of Tobi’s career – the regular season had just ended, and he was getting ready to start training for the World Cup qualifiers. Lettie had just discovered a few weeks earlier that she was pregnant with Gus, and the twins had just celebrated their seventh birthday.
And now his granddaughters had celebrated their own seventh birthday just a few days ago. It was such a wonderful age. So full of energy and innocence. Tobi peered closely at the adorable little faces of his children. They were so naïve back then. They had no idea where the future would take them.
His sweet little Jocelyne never knew she’d one day be so wronged by her family, and spend so many years estranged from them because of it. And Lucas… How could he have known he would never live past thirty? That he’d one day be replaced by a hunk of charred and twisted flesh?
Tobi closed his eyes as the vision entered his mind, but try as he might, it would not fade. God, I need a drink.
“Beautiful picture, isn’t it?” A soft voice called from over Tobi’s shoulder. “That was always one of my favorites.”
He sighed softly, turning around. “Mama, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Mari just smiled. “No ‘sneaking’, just seeing what you were up to.”
Something about the way she was looking at him made him uneasy. “Yeah, well, I’m just about to head downstairs anyway.”
“Mind if I join you?” His mother asked kindly. “I was hoping you had a minute to talk.”
Tobi felt his heart sink. He’d known she was up to something. “Not this again. Please.”
“Tobi, honey, I just –”
“No.” He shook his head, his irritation rising. “We’ve had this conversation more than enough times, okay? And I’m sick of it. I’m tired of you and Papa and Lettie and Jocelyne ganging up on me all the damn time.”
Mari shrugged her shoulders slightly. “Who’s ganging up on anyone? Colette and Jocelyne are at work, and your Papa’s seeing that new superhero move with Clara… It’s just me.”
Tobi wasn’t quite sure how to respond. What was his mother expecting? Did she want him to smile and nod and say “Oh, well if it’s just you, then sure!”?
Apparently so, because when he did not respond, Mari drew closer to him, and began speaking again. “I just want to talk to you, honey. Let’s go downstairs.”
He knew there was no way this would end well. It would be the same as it always was – She would give some stupid lecture over-exaggerating his drinking, he’d end up yelling and getting defensive, and they’d both end up angry and frustrated with each other.
Tobi sighed. “Mama…”
“Give me five minutes. Please?”
This time, Tobi did not argue.
Mari cleared her throat nervously as she took a seat on the couch beside her son. He eyed her curiously for a few moments. He could not remember the last time he’d seen his mother like this.
At last, she broke the silence. “Tobi? I’d like to tell you a story.”
Mari nodded. “I was hoping you’d be able to find your way through this without me having to tell it, but after what happened at the birthday party…” She shrugged. “This won’t be easy. But I hope this helps you understand…”
Tobi just stared at her.
His mother took a slow, deep breath. “A long time ago, there was a young girl who grew up here in Windenburg. She had a loving family – a mother, a father, two sisters… But she always struggled a little bit growing up. She was the ‘bad’ one of the family. She always got in trouble and was blamed for everything, it seemed. And it made her a very angry and bitter child. It felt like she was worthless… Like she always did everything wrong.
But when she got older, she met someone who helped her to not feel angry anymore. She fell in love with him. He was everything to her. And then he broke her heart.”
Tobi stared at her. He knew exactly what story she was telling – it was one he and Stefan had pieced together themselves over the years. But what did it have to do with anything? “Mama, what –?”
“It was devastating. She was young and silly and knew nothing about what real loss felt like. So to her, it was the end of her entire world. It broke her, almost beyond repair. And her heartbreak consumed her. It changed her. It brought all that anger back. And she wasn’t happy anymore. She was depressed, and empty. And she didn’t know how to deal with it. So she turned to alcohol for comfort. And… other things.” Mari paused, clearing her throat uncomfortably for a moment.
“It all seemed so harmless at first. She was an adult. She could make her own decisions… and her own mistakes. She wasn’t hurting anyone. That’s what she forced herself to believe. But she was a fool. She was hurting so many people, Tobi. Her parents. Her sisters. Herself.”
Tobi felt a sudden burning in the back of his throat and a prickling at the corner of his eyes. He knew that his mother had not spoken to anyone about this in years. Decades. “Mama…”
“Her family tried and tried to talk to her. They tried to help her see just how much damage she was doing to herself and everyone who loved her. They wanted her to get help for how depressed and broken she felt. But she wouldn’t listen. She was too busy trying to drown her sorrows in sex and booze.” Mari rose to her feet, spitting the words bitterly. “She was a coward, too afraid to face her problems… So she kept hiding.
But believe it or not, there were some good times too. There were days when she laughed and spent time with her sisters. She started playing the piano again. Her parents loved that.” For a moment, her lips curled into a smile.
“And best of all, she had the two most precious little baby boys. She loved them more than anything else in the world.
But even that wasn’t enough to make her stop. She was too comfortable using booze to numb the pain, or finding comfort with a stranger. She had a serious problem — with her addiction, and with her depression too… But she couldn’t admit it to anyone. She was too stubborn. Too proud. And too afraid of admitting that what she really needed was help.
Then one day, she made the biggest mistake of her life. She went out drinking again, just like always… But she forgot she was supposed to be watching her babies. So she left them alone at home. For hours.”
Tobi’s eyes widened. No one had ever told him this part of the story before.
“When she got home that night, she realized her mistake. But it was too late. Her sister had gotten there first, and realized what had happened. So she took the babies away. And she refused to give them back until their mother agreed to get the help she needed.”
Tobi rose from the couch and placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders. He could already feel his own tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Tobi, I almost lost you. Both of you. And for what? I didn’t realize it until it was almost too late… I was sick. I needed help. For my family, and for myself too.”
He pulled his mother close to him. Tobi had no idea what to say. There was a heaviness in his chest, and he had to fight to choke back a sob that threatened to escape his lips.
Mari closed her eyes, clinging tightly to her son. “Please. Please. Get help. Talk to someone about what you’re going through. Before it’s too late. Before you make a mistake you’ll regret for the rest of your life.” She let out a small sob. “Don’t wait any longer. You can’t. Your family needs you back. We’ve already lost Lucas. We can’t lose you too.”
Tobi pulled away from her, shaking his head slowly. “You’ll never lose me, Mama.”
“Yes we will.” Mari insisted. “We’re losing you already… I understand how you’re feeling, honey. I really do. I’ve been there. You know I have.” She paused, wiping away a few of her tears. “But I was brave enough to ask for help, and it was the best decision of my life. Please, Tobi. Promise me you’ll try to do the same.”
Tobi felt so ashamed. So embarrassed. So guilty. So sad. He could not find the words to speak.
So instead, he simply nodded.