I’ve always known he did his best. That was never in question. For many years now, however, I wallowed in my belief that his best wasn’t good enough – that he should have done more and known better. But time, when combined with an open mind and considerable reflection and contemplation, is a powerful potion to heal old wounds.
I’ve long blamed my dad. Now I’m not so sure…
Tell everybody waiting for Superman
That they should try to hold on the best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.
The Flaming Lips, “Waiting for Superman”
Someone is saying my name. Or so it seems. It also seems like I’ve been hearing it for a while, fading in from far away. Easy to ignore in the soft, quiet nowhere I am.
But I’m starting to remember. I’d just gone to sleep in the OR a minute ago. I know they’re planning to check out my liver with a scope to make sure it’s okay for donation. (The surgeon really didn’t like some of the cysts and small, stiffening spots that showed up on my MRIs. Turns out, you don’t have to be an alcoholic either to abuse alcohol, or to have scars from it.)
October is scary movie season for me. While watching The Exorcist a couple of weeks ago, it struck me how far we have come in the treatment of mental illness. The movie was made in 1973, and having the possessed girl talk to a psychiatrist was the absolute last resort. Psychiatrists were seen as kooks. The preferred treatment option, before talk therapy, was to drill into her skull and remove part of her brain.
I guess that is less an example of how far we have come, and more evidence of how recently we have been completely ass-backwards as it relates to mental health.
I was shocked when he said it. Not only did he admit to letting his drinking get in the way of spending time with his children, but even when he was actively engaged with his kids, he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to be somewhere else. The connection with his own flesh and blood was empty for him.
For a proud father, that was a bold and vulnerable admission. I know a thing or two about vulnerability. I have written and spoken publicly about some of my most despicable behavior. But I have never admitted to hating spending time with my children.
At quarter past nine last Saturday night, there was a knock on my front door.
There’s a vanishingly short list of people who could call me after 8 p.m. any day of the week and not get my voicemail, whether I’m there or not (I probably am), whether I’m busy or not (I’m probably not). I’m a by-appointment-only sort of introvert.
But an unannounced physical being summoning me to my door, in the flesh, with midnight less than three hours away… my God, what fresh hell was this?
While I was crossing a street in Chicago, a parked car backed into the crosswalk and stopped just short of taking me out at the knees. In anger, I slammed my fist down on the trunk of the car and shouted some obligatory curse words. The driver pulled forward into the parking spot, put the car in park, got out and punched me in the ear so hard that I had to puree all my food in a blender for the next two weeks. I thought he owed me an apology. He valued his car over my right to be disappointed with his driving. That was twenty-four years ago, and I haven’t made uninvited contact with another person’s car since.
I was seventeen, back in that long ago when you could stand with your whole family at the terminal gate as you waited to board your flight. So there the four of us were, shifting uncomfortably on our feet, staying together until the last available moment. A group of Canadians walked by, speaking their specialized version of French. Breakfast, eaten with an unfamiliar dread in the metallic airport café mere minutes before, lurched dangerously in my stomach.
I looked at Dad in despair. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
He looked back at me, and a flash of acute empathy briefly fractured his stoic Downeast faҫade. “You’ll do fine,” he said, quickly collecting himself.
As a prolific drinker, I confused politeness and stigmatized silence for concealment. Maybe it was my ego. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe my internal shame was all I could handle, and considering the truth about what my friends and family observed would have killed me from embarrassment. Whatever the reason, I actually thought most people who experienced my overconsumption didn’t notice.
Some people drink until they pass out. Others drink to blackout – that fully functioning, zombie-like state where we say and do stupid things, but are spared from the memories in the morning. I was an overachiever, proficient at both the blackout and the pass out under any circumstances and with very little warning. I often even surprised myself with my alcoholic dexterity.
“I’m gonna buy a gun.”
There were few worse sentences John could have slurred into the phone, his voice broken down into bits and pinging across six hundred miles worth of cell towers before reassembling itself in my horrified ear.
“No, you’re not.”
There were few sure things in that moment, with the physical miles separating us suddenly the shortest distance between us, but that was one thing. My previously calm Maine evening had been taken hostage by unbidden images of piles of unfortunate, unsuspecting, and quite dead delivery people at our doorstep, not to mention the thought of my own bespattered demise on attempting to rouse him from a signature catatonic state at just the wrong time.
He absolutely was not going to bring a gun into our house.
I was naked before the hotel-room door closed behind me. I love the rare occasions when we are behind the locked door of a hotel room – just me and my wife, Sheri. No kids. No neighbors. No one who hasn’t seen me naked more times than she’d like. I threw back the shades and walked straight onto the balcony. Our room was one of the few with a solid, three-foot-tall, concrete and plaster railing, rather than the metal slats with three-inch gaps leaving nothing to the imagination of anyone peering up from the pool or hot tub below. “We could have sex out here, and no one would know,” I thought, but was smart enough to not say out loud. I’ve come a long way in my sobriety, and the associated adolescent immaturity shedding.