My father’s return wasn’t the joyous, celebrated homecoming that he probably had in mind. He got progressively worse — the polar opposite of his stay in Seattle, even with the Christmas Eve relapse. Drugs, alcohol and the wrong crowd were his undoing, as his two children stared on in helpless wonder.
Each time we left his lonely, sorrowful apartment, trekking 30 miles to the home he used to share with us, a common thought united my sister and me: “I hope this isn’t the last time we see dad; I hope he’s alive the next time we’re here.”
While we shared the same sentiment, it remained unspoken. We feared that by speaking the very words, some force bigger than us would catch wind of them, only to transform our thoughts into a harsh reality. And each time we reentered his apartment, tiptoeing up the stairs and down the corridor, we held our collective breath that he’d be conscious, living, breathing.
Permitting my father to fade away into the annals of time would’ve been easy. It may even have been what he wanted. Many times I think my dad was ready to give up the fight, bogged down by guilt, despair, and a feeling that he was undeserving of salvation. In our naïveté, my sister and I couldn’t give up the fight, holding firm to an idealistic dream that dad would miraculously become the father we always hoped he’d be.
We had exhausted away our youth looking after him, when it should’ve been the other way around. We had gone to extremes on his behalf. We had suffered a life of nervousness and sleeplessness because we never knew what he might do next. Yes, the odds were against us, but we held strong against feelings of defeat, refusing to raise the white flag over a life we dearly treasured despite the weight that same life had thrown onto our backs all those years.
Admittedly, I had moments of giving up. Eighteen years of unchanging behaviors had taken their toll. But it was my sister, on most occasions, who kept me going, renewing my perspective that we had to bear this cross because dad couldn’t carry it on his own. I’m the big brother, but in many ways she was the one who kept me going strong, head held high, ever hopeful for the promise of a better life to come. As I got older, my love for dad didn’t wane, but my tolerance certainly did. Forced to mature much faster than any boy should, I became the man of the house and the protector of my family. I saw through my dad’s lies. I wanted my mom to be happy and my sister to live the carefree life an innocent girl should have.
By the time my father returned from Seattle, I had solidified myself in high school, my sister just two years behind in the sophomore class. With that stage of adolescence comes little patience for the embarrassment and humiliation that come with looking after an alcoholic father. And I had had enough of his games; it was “get serious about getting better, or get the hell out.” Under that stern approach was a solid layer of love, but it was tough love. And I needed to show it, my desperate attempt to get through to him. See, a waning tolerance coating an underbelly of love.
Tough love is exactly how it sounds: tough. In fact, my family probably didn’t care for my attitude most days. But I wasn’t backing down. I may have seemed cold and full of hate, but it was quite the opposite. Over time, my father could feel the distance, the separation. I still have a birthday card he gave me one of those lonely years; it was his way of apologizing, but I had heard his apologies for 18 years. Inside the card, below a catchy one-liner, was dad’s cursive handwriting hardly legible because of his constant episodes of “the shakes.” He wrote, telling me that he hoped we could be friends again.
My tough love obviously wasn’t working, possibly sending my father into a deeper depression and giving him more rationale to abuse his body. It was a never-ending cycle, so my sister often had to deal with my father. Daddy’s little girl, she meant the world to him. What he might do to himself scared her more than anything. Many times she’d visit him after school to find him asleep in his own vomit and hardly able to speak. She’d clean him up and get him to bed, where he’d sleep it off until an apologetic tomorrow.
I remember visiting dad after school once and finding him in a similar situation: passed out on his black futon, the smell of piss and shit emanating from his worn jeans. I tapped him violently, followed by his slow journey to consciousness. He didn’t recognize me, couldn’t even speak to me. I yelled at him to get up, the most upset I had been up to that point in my life. After repeated attempts to stir him, I finally gave up and walked out, slamming the door behind me. And what did I do? I called my sister, telling her that she should get over there because I couldn’t stand it any longer. Waning tolerance.
And so she did, her big heart broken once again. On one occasion, her love and loyalty really shone through and transcended the meaning of family. We were pulled out of class by my mother and whisked across town to the courthouse. Having arrived a little early, we saw our father being escorted into the building by the police, the handcuffs a metaphor for the shackles he had put on our lives.
In the next sequence of events, my sister, with trepidation and a perplexed conscience, was put on the stand and asked to testify against my father. Her words would put my father away, committing him to the protection of the legal system and whichever halfway house or hospital it deemed appropriate this time. Plain and simple, he just wasn’t fit to live on his own. With no one to look after him 24/7, the fear of his imminent death haunted my sister and me. So after a few words and with eyes full of tears, my sister’s work was finished.
In that instant, my sister did the hardest thing either one of us had ever done. She had shown her own version of tough love. She had sent a message to my father. She had made her family proud. She had testified to love.