That’s my dad in the right lower corner of this photo. I look like him, as much as a woman can look like a man—meaning I have his eyes, his nose, his basic body type. Like me, Dad was also a Gemini, a person with a dual nature. He could be very sweet and silly. He loved books, especially Westerns. A Navy man, he also loved ships, especially old clippers, and spent time building models or doing paint-by-numbers of them. On Sundays in summertime, he’d fire up the grill and cook steaks. And like me, he was quite introverted yet managed to be charming.
Well, I’m introverted, anyway—maybe not so charming.
And like Dad, I’m an alcoholic, although unlike Dad, I’m in recovery. I didn’t see Dad drunk too many times because he ceased the huge benders once he got a DWI, lost his driver’s license, and then lost his job. I was probably around ten, and I remember being in the front yard raking when I looked up, and there was Dad, walking home from the bus station. There was some kind of a row that night, but I couldn’t tell what was going on, could hear only the muffled terse voices downstairs with my bedroom door shut. Later on, it was my Aunt Vilma (the woman in the photo) who filled me in on what had happened.
After losing his job, Dad drank only on weekends—except for once when he took a trip with himself down memory lane, playing old records like the Venturas while sorting through photos after Lois (my stepmom) died. The next morning, he clearly felt like crap. Age was catching up with him, though he died still a young man, of heart disease at age 56, my first year in grad school.
When I look at this photo, it’s weird to think that everybody in it is dead now except for the youngest, Uncle Gil. (At least, I think he’s still living—my family wasn’t very close to this part of the family.) I am friends with some cousins on Facebook. I’m struck by how much my cousin Kevin looks like my brother Wayne. If you put us all in a photo together, it’d be really clear we’re all related. I wonder who else in our family is an alcoholic, or has problems with substance abuse. I know my cousin Stewart does, or did.
My own brother has been in jail for possession. But that was long, long ago.
I think of how alcohol operated in my dad’s life. He never identified as an alcoholic, because back in those days, alcoholics were the “Skid Row Drunks.” Dad had a job, had a family, didn’t get in fights, didn’t drink during the week anymore. From all outer appearances, he seemed fine. But I know he wasn’t. Time, and understanding how alcohol has operated in my own life, lets me see that now. He made some bad choices. After my mom died, he married the woman with whom he’d been having an affair, probably because he thought he loved her and because his kids needed a mom. I’m sure he’d had no idea she would be the abusive, angry person she turned out to be.
My father became the classic p-whipped man. After a few lost battles, he stopped trying to argue with Lois at all. He’d retreat into the living room after dinner each night, stick his nose in a book, and tune all of us out. He let Lois be responsible for everything—setting rules, doling out punishments—and turned a blind eye to the beatings, the prohibitions, the utter breaking of Wayne’s and my spirits. In desperation, severely depressed, at age 15 I tried to kill myself, landing in the psych ward at Chippenham Hospital for 16 days. Dad surprised me one day by stopping by the hospital to bring me a book.
“Honey,” he said. “I’m sorry. I promise I will divorce Lois before I let her drive you to this again.”
A remarkable statement. He’d just told me he knew damn well that woman was destroying me. He’d already let her drive Wayne away from home; she’d already forbidden my two oldest brothers to ever visit. (I didn’t know at the time that Dad actually sneaked behind her back to go see them once a month.) Having almost lost me—the doctor said I’d taken enough medication to kill an elephant, so I am lucky to even be alive--he was on the verge of losing his youngest, too, and he finally was going to stand up to the bitch.
Of course he didn’t. Years later, he explained to me that it was shortly after that day that Lois was diagnosed with kidney disease and was dying—she would eventually need dialysis a couple of times a week. He reasoned that Lois needed him then more than I needed him, and he could always reconcile with me. So I came home from the hospital, the abuse continued, and I finally resorted to a healthier strategy—I took my own parents to family court to be free of them. I became a ward of the State of Virginia and entered foster care.
Foster care is no picnic, and you get shuffled around from home to home a lot, but it was still better than living in a house where I was simultaneously neglected by one parent and emotionally and physically abused by the other.
Dad and I did reconcile after Lois died, just as he’d wanted. I have never been one to hang onto anger. Actually what I held onto for many years was just hurt. Hurt and shame, realizing that my father had been a spineless wuss. But now, even that perspective has altered as I work through my Fourth Step in recovery. I have done stupid things too, and hurt people with choices I have made. I didn’t live in my Dad’s skin. I’m sure he had an entire set of reasons and rationalizations that made perfect sense to him way back when. Mostly, I think he felt trapped. He probably figured that no matter what he did, he was going to hurt somebody. And he couldn’t bear the circumstances of his own life. Instead of burying his sorrows in a bottle because he couldn’t anymore, he buried his face in a book. It was the only peace he could find.
Dad and I were on good terms when he died—I’d been spending summers with him and his new wife, Sadie, while I was in college. He’d come to my graduation from Randolph-Macon and told me how proud he was to have a kid who’d not only finished high school, but college to boot, and was now going off to grad school. And all without any financial help from her parents! It was a weird moment. But I took it at face value: my Daddy was proud of me.
Later that year, I came home for Winter Break from Penn State and spent Christmas with my Dad. He’d had a heart attack a year earlier and was still having problems with an arrhythmia. In January, he’d be going into the hospital for a pacemaker. All pretty routine. Life was looking up.
Well, he didn’t survive the surgery; he died in the recovery room. I’d been back at Penn State for two days and had to turn around and come back home to Virginia. I missed the first week of classes—my friend Jaime took over my freshman comp section for me. I think some of my friends saw me cry for the first time at Dad’s funeral. Actually, I was stunned by the number of Randolph-Macon people who showed up at Dad’s funeral. BJ Seymour sat me with me, quietly, for hours at the funeral home the night before. Amy Peterschmidt drove down from Northern Virginia and stayed a few days with me at Sadie’s house. My friends were my rock during this very confusing time. It has never failed to amaze me how much people are willing to hold you up when you need them to. It amazes me even more today when I think about the person I was when I was in college. I was mostly a self-righteous smartass. But apparently people saw through that.
There are, no doubt, more lessons I’ve yet to learn from my dad. But I think the one that sticks out for me today, this Father’s Day, is this: Don’t allow your life to be ruled by “shoulds.” If a voice hissing in your ear says, “You SHOULD do this,” or “You SHOULD do that,” challenge the voice. Whose is it? Is it your voice saying that? If not, and if that “should” would choke you or prevent you from being who you really are, tell that voice to shut the fuck up.