Someone once told me, “You don’t have to respect your father for all he’s done to you. But you have to love him.” I have stood by those remarks all my life. In many ways, I was the man of the house. Most of the time, I was the only man in the house, thanks to a father who had a bad record of absenteeism.
For what it’s worth, my dad struggled all his life, even during childhood. He was the youngest of four boys living in a crowded house, which was situated in the same dead-end town that I was forced to call home. By my father’s account (tall tale or not, I never knew), the house had mice in the walls. The family had neither much nor much money to get much.
Right around the time my dad was born, his father up and left the family. They never saw him again, leaving the four boys and a mother to fend for themselves (oh, the irony). They later learned that he had been found dead in a bush outside L.A.’s Dodger Stadium. What happened between his departure and his “ultimate departure” will never be known. And he was a grandfather I never knew.
Because of that tragic event, my father had a deep connection with his mother and often blamed himself for his father’s leaving. If my father decided to abandon the family after I was born, I wouldn’t blame myself but rather my father for having mixed-up priorities and a lack of maturity. We all knew that he wasn’t to blame for his father’s death, but that is the pity he constantly felt for himself. But that was his choice, and that’s how he decided to live his life — with regret over his own existence and guilt over his family’s breakup.
When he was in high school, apparently he was excelled in poetry; running; and making trouble, often resulting in disciplinary action. After high school, he got a job at the local foundry, where he’d work all his life. And one day he decided to take his own life with a gun. Only he failed, not on the follow-through but on the successful execution. Rather than point the gun at his head or heart, he opted for the stomach. Years later when I was old enough to handle the truth, I asked about the two scars on his abdomen, one an entry wound and the other an exit. Those are the two biggest reasons he always felt uncomfortable removing his shirt in public.
In 1982, when I was just two years old, my father received another devastating blow when his mother suffered a heart attack. The paramedics rushed her to a hospital in Green Bay, but not before transferring her to another ambulance just across the county line. The exchange occurred in the parking lot of a quaint church. Every time we passed by that church during my childhood, my dad would retell the story of his mother’s passing, right there in the parking lot. For a son so close to his mother, losing the only parent he ever knew proved unbearable, setting in motion of lifetime of heartache.
When my dad met and married my mom, he liked to drink, probably as a way to drown the sorrows of his young life. Not one for hard booze, he let beer be his vice, his Achilles’ heel. According to my mom, the drinking stopped for some time, prior to my sister’s birth in 1982. The dry spell came to a screeching halt when the nurses brought celebratory champagne into the hospital room (apparently, that was a thing back then), wherein my sister was seeing the world for the first time.
Like sweet nectar, like replenishing nourishment from the summer sun, that slight taste of intoxication would set my dad down a bitter path of alcoholism and drug addiction. On December 20, 1982, the voices of temptation dwelling inside his head finally got their way. They had won. Their prey — my father — was on a crash course with destiny that would result in his fateful end. But before that could happen, a 19-year beer binge would make life hell for the rest of us.
Most of my childhood was spent dealing with his foolish alcoholic antics or covering up for them. When most kids in school had “normal” fathers, mine was different. So I had to find creative ways to justify his behaviors to my friends. Other times, I merely hid my head in shame, too embarrassed to even try rationalizing what he had done this time.
The worst part was that every person in our small town knew my father and what he was about. They knew when he got drunk and needed rides home from the cops. They knew when he was involved in bar fights. They knew when he attempted to swallow razor blades to end it all. They knew when he tried crossing the little creek on barefoot, instead of safely using the sidewalk like the other kids’ normal parents. They knew when he was whisked away to the psych ward of the hospital or yet another halfway house.
And so my sister and I walked about town, hoping, pretending that no one knew the true story of our family. We didn’t want to be “those poor, little kids” who required extra love and attention. We didn’t want the teachers’ little sympathy talks at school.
We just coveted the absence of alcohol in our lives, like it never existed. We just wanted our dad back. We just wished our family could be normal. We just longed for happiness.