This post was originally written and published on Father’s Day in 2012.
My father was an alcoholic. With a permanent bar fight scar on his lip and several DWIs on his résumé, my father was an arrogant, argumentative, belligerent, blackout drunk – a fearful, resentful, self-seeking, self-pitying failure. But I never knew this man.
My father had his last drink on February 28th, 1975. I was four years old. With the exception of a vague memory from my toddlerhood of the smell of scotch and pounding on my daddy’s chest and crying because he wouldn’t wake up (he had passed out), I have no real clear recollection of my dad being drunk.
A little backstory… When my father met my mother in late 1969, he was a thirty-three year old bachelor, and my mother was a thirty-three year old widow with four children. Two weeks after their first date, he proposed. They were married several months later. On February 14th, 1970 (Valentine’s Day), a thirty-three year old bachelor suddenly had a beautiful wife, two little boys and two little girls. Nine months and one day later, he got another little boy… me.
When my dad’s drinking was coming to a head in early 1975, my older brother Michael, who was around thirteen at the time, had gotten upset with him. Dad promised Michael he was sorry and that he would never do it again. When dad did it again, Michael called him a liar. “You lied to me!” he snapped. According to my mother, who related this story to me several years ago, it apparently hurt my father deeply that he had hurt Michael, and he knew that something had to change. That change was up to him, and he did it. But he didn’t do it alone. He had help.
With the help of friends like Mr. Foley, Mr. Madigan and many other amazing sober men and women whom I still see when I visit home, dad went to meetings and learned about how to live a sober life. On many of those meetings, dad was asked to talk, sharing his experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics. I have no personal experience with my dad’s meetings. He was quite anonymous about the work he did on himself and with other alcoholics, and he never discussed any of it with us at home. But I do have many of his handwritten notes from those talks at those meetings. In sections of notes where he talks about how it was, he describes that arrogant, belligerent, blacked out, drunk-driving man I never knew. With regards to alcohol itself, he wrote:
“I resent alcohol and will never forgive it. It robbed me of my ability to reason… It stilted my thought processes… and it smothered my emotions and feelings under a 90 proof haze for the better part of fifteen years of my adult life.”
My father was an alcoholic, but I didn’t have a drunk father. Because he got help and got sober, I had a father who showed up. He showed up for himself, for his family, for his friends, for his work, for his life. He was a father who was always present, sometimes annoyingly present to a teenager who wanted to get away with things his friends got away with. In fact, because he pulled so many underhanded stunts as an active alcoholic, he was miles ahead of us children when we tried to pull our own various (and numerous) fast ones. When we were in high school, we had to kiss dad goodnight when we got home. The kiss goodnight was 30% affection, 70% sniff test. I got my first bust in eighth grade.
But dad didn’t just show up. He showed up with grand pageantry. When it was our birthday, dad made us feel like the most special children in the world. When we graduated, he cranked up the pride to such a volume, it was almost embarrassing. When each of us started college, he didn’t just drop us off. He clearly felt it was one of life’s biggest rites of passage, turning orientation and parents’ weekend into family events. And sure, we’d still have a wonderful dinner and open presents by the fire to the holiday sound of Andy Williams, but Christmas was never the same after he died.
It’s not to say that life with dad was always lollipops and rainbows. Part of showing up by dad’s standards required that we, his children, show up just the same. Whether due to falling grades, coming home late (or drunk), denting the car or any other suburban underage trouble we could find, dad’s demonstration of disappointment was crushing. With a disappointed stare from across a room, he could wilt you into the floor. But he was a man who gave everything for his family. In return, out of respect for ourselves and for him, he expected us children to do our best. Self-absorbed teenagers don’t see it at the time. But I sure see it now.
At the end of the day, we were undeniably and unconditionally loved, and dad made sure we knew it.
In 1974, dad faced open-heart surgery. In the notes from his talks with alcoholics, he wrote that it was his greatest battle, fearing that he might leave behind five children and leave mom widowed again. But he survived, got sober and spent the next fifteen years being the greatest father I could ever ask for. On March 2nd, 1990, two weeks after my parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary and two days after he celebrated fifteen years of sobriety, dad faced open-heart surgery for the second time. We lost him the next day. He was 53. It ripped a hole in my heart that still hurts, especially on Fathers’ Day.
I want to spend the day with dad, maybe have him visit New York. He came to the city for business often, and he loved it here. In fact, he brought me with him on a business trip to Manhattan when I was about eleven or twelve years old, taking me to see my very first Broadway show (A Chorus Line at The Shubert Theater). I’ve been in love with the city ever since. He never got to see me move here and do the things I’ve done since. I’d love to take him to dinner at Joe Allen, then to the theater, then to Bar Centrale for dessert. I’d love to tell him how proud I am of him because, having battled my own demons and been sober for many years now, I understand how hard it was. I’d love to tell him that if I had given him grandchildren, I would borrow so much from his playbook. I would be able to thank him for everything he did for me. All of those things he did for me were all possible because he was a sober father.
But for all the Fathers’ Days since 1990, and for all the Fathers’ Days to come, I am only able to remember. When I see a father walking with his son on Fathers’ Day, I have to admit that it’s still painful. But I also feel a tremendous sense of gratitude because for the first nineteen years of my life, I got to have that. And because my father was an alcoholic who got sober and showed up in all of the spectacular ways he did, I got to have that in spades.
Thank you, dad. For everything. I’m so proud to be your son.
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