Twenty years ago this week, I met my children’s father. Nineteen years ago this summer, my own father drank himself to death. The two events are related in a way, though not in the way you might be thinking. Unless you are thinking that my father finally let go when he knew both of his daughters were safely in the hands of men he deemed good men; in that case, things are exactly as you suppose.
I knew two versions of my father, one from my childhood – all piggyback rides, swimming races and books – and one from my adulthood, when both he and I were grown people. During the years between my father was a ghost, a lonely, displaced man who appeared intermittently at Christmas or other family events, often by surprise as he did at my college graduation. It was during these ghost years that my mother told us, or me at least, that Daddy was an alcoholic. I did not believe her. Alcoholics were sloppy, slurring, falling-down people. My father was aimless, disheveled and never without a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy in the evenings; but he was not an alcoholic.
The way my mother told the story, both at the time and later in the written family history she left behind for my sister Margaret and me, her goal in moving us out of our house and into one that didn’t have room for my father was that he would get his act together and then rejoin the family. She wanted him to be clean and sober and successful on his own; meanwhile, she would raise the two of us. In truth she was always the head of our family, before, during, after.
Things did not work out as she had hoped. Daddy did, eventually, build a successful business selling airplanes, his life’s passion; but he did not stop drinking. He waited years for my mother to take him back before he finally agreed to go on a blind date, fell in love, filed for divorce, and started a new life with a new wife, one who was funny, pretty and sociable. She was also, if anything, even more of a drunk than my father.
It was in this his second life that I got to know my father as a man, the one who invited me to dinner, who called me at my office in the middle of the day while he was out driving around smoking cigars, the one who wrote notes to himself on tiny pieces of paper stored in his wallet. He was fascinated that I’d landed a job in telecommunications despite having a visual arts degree, thrilled that I decided to take up tennis at the age of 25, and over the moon when I started fly fishing. “You know fly fishermen have the lowest rate of criminal behavior out of all sportsmen; I checked,” he said. “Any man you meet while fly fishing is probably OK to date.” Daddy was always concerned about his girls’ welfare.
The first Christmas we had to split between our mother and father, my sister and I knew we were in a brave new world. Our mother was classic and reserved; our father and stepmother were silly and extravagant. At home (our mother’s house), there were pretty, thoughtful, personal gifts and proper breakfast with white linen napkins. At Daddy’s there were gag gifts in our stockings, plastic stick-on earrings from Claire’s, gaudy Christmas china, and paper crowns for us to wear at lunch. Everything was fun, fun, fun and served with cocktails, cocktails, cocktails. Daddy wore a Santa hat the entire day and was pleased as punch that everyone had such a good time.
The first time we almost lost my father, two or three years after this first adult Christmas, was when vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium carried by raw oysters, attacked his less-than-perfect liver. We were on death watch for weeks that summer while Daddy received countless blood transfusions and medicines and every kind of medical magic the doctors had to offer. We waited for him to die, and instead he got better. And when it was clear that he was actually going to pull all the way through, the doctor sat us down, my sister, stepmother and me, and told us Daddy must never drink alcohol again, ever. His liver was so badly damaged that even small amounts of alcohol would kill him.
My stepmother’s solution was to put a lock on the liquor cabinet, but her resolve was short-lived. Just one small drink, so the dinner company wouldn’t have to drink alone, that’s how it started. A little here, a little there, and soon their lives were just as before, one happy party after another, seemingly with no dire effect.
At this point my sister and I were divided. She wanted to do something, to impress upon our father the seriousness of his situation. I argued that he was a grown man, an intelligent one, fully capable of making his own decisions. He would either drink or not drink, and the decision was fully his. We were both right, I suppose, though I wonder now what would have happened if I’d listened more to her and less to myself.
The year before our father died, Margaret, who was teaching ballet in Jackson, WY, met and fell in love with a transplanted Yankee from Andover. Daddy approved of him anyway. What delighted Daddy most was knowing that his little Margaret, the flighty sister, would be taken care of by a sensible and pragmatic career man. Looking back, this seems hysterically funny.
Three months after Margaret’s wedding, I, the pragmatic sister, quit my job, leased my house, and drove to Wyoming to chase a boy of my own, one whom I’d met the summer before when he shared a condo with my sister’s then-fiancé. My father assisted, to a degree, in this crazy adventure, volunteering to check on my house and help with my mail. He wasn’t sure the boy I was chasing was going to set the world on fire, but he also knew that wasn’t what I needed in a companion anyway.
The last time I talked to my father in person was in July 1996, nine months after my sister married, six months after I ditched Memphis to chase Bernard, three months after I came to my senses, accepted my financial reality and took a corporate communications job in Omaha. We had dinner on a restaurant terrace, despite the summer heat, as the terrace was the only wheelchair-accessible dining area and my father was fully wheelchair-bound. His knees were worn out from years of playing handball, but his liver was too weak to withstand anesthesia for knee replacement surgery. He seemed a little depressed about it, I thought, but then again thought it was just my imagination. “You girls turned out all right,” he said as we left dinner. “You’re both gonna be just fine.”
A few weeks later, as I was driving to spend a long weekend in Jackson, I got the call that Daddy had been rushed to the hospital. Margaret and I boarded a plane the next morning and spent the following weeks – three or four, I can’t remember now – driving to the ICU every day for visiting hours, listening to the crazy babbles of a delirious, dying man, watching him blow air kisses in the brief, fleeting, lucid moments when he recognized the sound of our voices.
We learned later, much later, that in the weeks leading up to his hospitalization Daddy had been starting each day with a boilermaker or two, early in the morning while his wife was still in bed. He hid the whiskey bottles and beer cans. He was apparently drinking through the entire day, every day, allowing tiny, bursting blood vessels to leak into his esophagus, building a toxic cocktail of waste in his veins as his liver stopped functioning.
My father’s kind of alcoholism was not dramatic but rather the slow, dull, dripping kind, the kind that wears away at things imperceptibly over time but eventually cuts all the way through. There were no DUIs or car accidents. Nor were there falls or, certainly, fights. Daddy was pleasant and amiable, if mischievous, his entire life; he was especially so when drinking. He was quick to make a light joke, quick to expose his own awkwardness if it could put another at ease. He saw more than he acknowledged, internalized little hurts instead of lashing back. He was so clever in avoiding conflict that many people, mistakenly, thought him a bit of a simpleton. He drank, I suspect, to blunt the edges around him, blunting his own edge and drive in the process. He was loving and gentle and flawed.
I think about Daddy often when I’m out running errands, think about the days when I used to pick him up so he could ride in the car with Ella-dog and me and visit about nothing at all. Riding in the car was one of the few things he could do in his last year when walking became too difficult. I wish I had told him on one of those trips, while I had him all to myself, that he mattered to me, that it was important for him to stop drinking. I wish I had said those words not for him, but for me.