My Two Different Fathers

I had two different fathers. The first was loving, kind, intelligent and witty.  He told me how much he loved me, how proud he was of me, and how beautiful I was. He would follow this up with a phrase I heard often through the years: “You look just like your daddy. Aren’t you lucky?”  He was fiercely loyal and protective.  He taught me respect that has been beneficial in every aspect of my life.  Everyone-whether a boss, coworker, friend, cashier at the store, complete stranger-appreciates respect.

He took us camping and played softball and kickball with us.  He loved canoeing.

He attended college for sociology but due to a variety of factors wasn’t able to finish. He loved to read and write. Perhaps I get that from him. Yes, I’m sure I do, along with the sarcasm and family loyalty.

He would call me just to see how I was doing and we would have long conversations. He would ask me if I needed money (though I knew he didn’t have much himself).  He would invite me over for dinner.

He loved to garden.  I specifically remember one year that he planted a bunch of hot peppers. I remember because he told me to make sure not to touch my face after I picked some. I forgot and while I was driving home I rubbed my eye. I had to pull over and wait for the searing pain to subside.

This was the dad I wanted my kids to know.  He would have been a wonderful Grandpa. However, due to my other father, I kept them at a distance.

My other father could be very mean. He had vulgar language and made me cry with his words on more than one occasion. He got in fights. He demanded respect, but not in a loving way.  I never really knew what he might say and do.  I was afraid of him.  So were other people. This dad was selfish and had a hard time seeing outside of his own world to consider other people’s feelings.  This was the dad who drank.

It was a roller-coaster ride throughout his life- brief times of sobriety followed by longer periods of bondage to alcohol. Each time he was sober, we hoped this time it would be for good, but in our hearts we doubted it.  He attended AA meetings at one point, he even helped run the meetings for a time. Then he believed he had learned all he needed to and could do it on his own. He was wrong.

Finally, because of the condition of his liver, amongst other things, his doctor told him he was going to die if he didn’t quit drinking.  He was 58. He said he wanted to be around for his family (even this father had a deep love for his children). He quit-at home, alone, cold-turkey.  He went from drinking around 2 fifths of whiskey a day to nothing. He called me disoriented, unsure of where he was or even what time period it was.  I hurried over and called an ambulance.

His body was in shock and he was having hallucinations and violent episodes. They finally sedated him and put him on a thiamine treatment. This worked but he was suffering from alcohol induced dementia and the doctor wouldn’t release him without a guardian. So, I became my father’s guardian for the last year of his life.

The dementia mostly cleared within a few months, but the damage to his body had been done. He needed someone to dispense his medications and care for him, so the only choice was an adult foster care home. We all had families and children, and it just wasn’t possible to care for him and our own families.

Despite the fact that this terribly independent and prideful man wasn’t pleased with the way it all turned out, it ended up being a blessing in a lot of ways. It forced him to remain sober. In the last year of his life, his grandkids finally got a chance to get to know him. They have funny memories of things he said and did when we visited. He also repaired two relationships that his sheltered world of drinking allowed him to ignore and pretend didn’t matter. One was with his sister, and one with his father. It brought my grandpa and my dad peace to repair this relationship.

He was also able to attend church with us on a fairly regular basis. I actually heard my dad pray aloud, and he told me he was making things right with God.  When I wish things could have been different at the end of his life, I remind myself of these blessings.  God made some beautiful things out of the ugly.

It is coming up on three years since my dad passed. I had to stop and make sure. It seems unreal that it could be that long.  I still think about how different things could have been if I had been able to have the first dad I wrote about all the time. What kind of relationship would he have had with his grandkids?

I have debated with myself whether it was better or worse to see the glimpses of how great my dad could have been had alcohol never gotten a hold of him.  Would I be as sad? Would it have been better to never know and just rest in the fact that I was better off not having him around?  I don’t think so. I think it’s good to know that some of the qualities I see as assets in myself and consequently my children, actually come from him. I have good stories to tell my kids. Alcoholism isn’t my dad’s only legacy.

I imagine him free now. Free from chronic pain. Free from bondage, and enjoying peace.  Someday, I’ll get to see that dad again, and it won’t be fleeting.

Despite the personal pain, I like to tell this story.  I hope that it will help someone in some way. Whether it’s a child of an alcoholic who can see that other people know where they are coming from and can understand what they have felt, or whether it’s a parent who may be able to see the pain they are causing their children and can stop it before it’s too late.

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Willie Nelson, Zingers, and Snowballs

Today it was Willie Nelson that got me thinking. Sometimes it is something else, like Zingers or Snowballs (which he may have loved as much as Willie), but today it was Willie. I saw the MP3 album on the computer screen and decided to play it while I slow danced with my five-month old son: the boy who would never know the man who loved those songs so much.  It brought me back to that day.

Some of us have that one day. The day we will never forget. The day that things changed in our lives and for whatever reason would never be quite the same.  For me that day came late spring of 2013. I remember vividly. It was a beautiful sunny, warm day and I was garage saling with friends.  After getting back into the car after one sale, I noticed I had a couple of voicemails. I recognized the number as my dad’s.  I listened to the messages and they made no sense.  He was calling from his home number, but he was distraught and didn’t know where he was.  He said he was at a house in a nearby town but he didn’t know the number or address. He said my mom had thrown him out and he needed me to get a hold of him. He and my mom had been divorced for about 20 years.

My mind raced. He had been having memory trouble for a little while. Because of the rough life he lived: fighting, drinking, doing drugs, and the resultant effect on his health, we knew there would come a day when we would receive a call that he was found dead, or that he would require some kind of specialized care. “Was this it?” I wondered.  “Had his mind failed him?  What were we to do?”  The bright, warm sun coming through the window was a mocking contrast to the storm that had just entered my life.  That same sun would mock me again days later when my sisters and I would sit outside the hospital for a reprieve.

I braced myself and called him back.  He was completely confused.   I tried to explain to him that he was at his own house-that he and my mom had been divorced for many years.  He seemed to believe me, but didn’t completely understand.  I called my sisters and 911, then headed over to his house.

After an exam, and a dialogue with the responders in which he told them I was his sister, he was taken to the hospital.  It was determined that he was going through serious alcohol withdrawals. A few days prior his doctor told him that if he didn’t quit drinking he would die. He said he wanted to be around for his kids and grandkids, so he quit. On his own.  Alone at home.  Cold-turkey. For some people that might have worked; however, the sudden withdrawal of the large amount of alcohol he was consuming every day before that sent his body into shock.  The ER doctors gave him a 50/50 chance of surviving it.

That began what would be the last year of his life. It was a year tainted with sadness, stress, and frustration in which he would require a guardian and assisted living care (which he fought almost every step of the way), but would be highlighted by mended relationships and his heart-change toward God.  I’ve had a lot of time now to think about that year.  I wish a lot of things could have been different, but given the specific circumstances, I’m not sure I could have done anything differently.  At least there is that.

Prior to that last year, it wasn’t unusual for me to go a month or two without seeing dad because of a drinking binge, or something he said that hurt me, and I just needed a break.  After a little while though I would want to see him again. Because of that, I have to admit that I didn’t really miss him right away. However, now it’s been 9 months, and I want to see him again.

I’m sure with time it will be easier, but I wonder if I will ever be able to listen to Willie Nelson or see a box of Zingers or a package of snowballs again without a lump in my throat or a tear in my eye.