Dad, seldom present,
rarely capable, yet he
did the best he could.
My aunt has a framed needlepoint on her wall that says “Anyone can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a Dad.” It’s a sad thing to admit, but I have no memory of celebrating Father’s Day when I was growing up.
I am part of the baby boomer generation, the oldest of five children, all girls. We were raised in a traditional Catholic family, went to Catholic school. Mom would fix us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on toast for breakfast, which were carried in our lunch boxes and eaten at our desks after Mass and before class. That Zorro lunch box, complete with thermos filled with Campbell’s tomato soup, still brings back happy memories. Wherever it may be. Probably on Ebay.
Dad went to work, or we thought he did. Mom stayed at home to raise the children, at least until it became painfully obvious that he was not employable. We ate dinner together each night. No television, books or cell phones, — thank God– were allowed at the table. We learned how to have conversations, and how to interact with family on a daily basis. With mixed results. Being of Irish and German extraction, generally one could expect lots of hard-headed arguing and certainly some shouting. In the long term, I think eating dinner together, having that simple routine in our lives, was one of the few things that kept us from becoming totally uncivilized. We were also blessed with the gift of receiving a good education and to have come from a family that valued it.
My Dad was not home much, but he did join us at the table for dinner upon occasion, which usually left all of us stiff with apprehension. We tiptoed through the nightmares of holidays. Dad was an active alcoholic, in and out of AA, still doing things his way, and one of the brightest people I’ve ever met.
Rages were always anticipated, we were always hypervigilant, and knew nothing different. Loads of drama and chaos came with him, but my Mom gave as good as she got and all five of us were stuck either watching the show or becoming bit players on the stage. My point being, Dad was so smart, he was too smart to get the fact that he was dying a slow and painful death and his disease was affecting everyone else around him. That’s not really true. He just wasn’t ready to admit defeat, to say he couldn’t do something and he did what he wanted until the bitter, lonely end.
It was very painful to even think of him for a very long time. I was scared to death of him for years, but was also the only one of my siblings fortunate to have spent time with him as a child when he wasn’t drinking. Misty, mixed-up memories. Dad had nicknames for us, mine was ‘Peanut’ since I was a preemie. He had no son so I filled that role. Dad taught me how to shoot and to have respect for firearms. He took me to riding lessons just to aggravate my Mom. He had hunting dogs and I participated in that. Somewhat. At least in terms of caring for them which I now know was convenient for him. No instruction involved, yet lots of criticism when I didn’t do it right. Repeating an old pattern, because he simply didn’t know how to teach, how to be a Dad.
But there is one particular memory. A cold, grey, snowy Thanksgiving morning. Hearing Dad getting ready to leave and talking him into taking me along. Rarely do I experience a Thanksgiving anymore without the memory of that morning years ago, the air cold and crisp, our breath like quicksilver mare’s tails. Feet crunching in snow now sparkling like crystal when the sun finally appears. The dog running happily in front of us, ever hopeful, anxious to flush out that first pheasant. It is a positive memory, something to focus on, being outside with nature, the dogs. Being with my dad. The dogs are still my link with him today.
And the apples didn’t fall far from the tree. For alcoholism is a family disease. We certainly learned how to contribute our share of drama as children. I asked my Dad on more than one occasion when were ‘moving to the ranch.’ He must have thought I’d been hatched or that the milkman was responsible. Then again, probably not since he knew who my parents were. What he didn’t know was that Zorro, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, even Pancho and Cisco, had replaced him at some level as father figures. Doing good, catching the bad guys. So sad. Of course, there were the horses. I am still horse mad.
Several of us in the family, including myself, are members of AA. We know today that life is tough, but drinking doesn’t help a thing and makes any problem worse. We know today that we have something bigger than us that sustains us, teaches us faith, friends that lend us their support. We have regained hope that was lost. Today we are blessed by the Grace of God that we don’t have to live the way we used to. In misery, in fear. My sister told me she asked Dad one time when he was in a period of not drinking, why he could’t stay sober. He apparently had a moment of clarity and told her the truth. “It was my thinking, honey.”
Just as simple as that. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for myself that I have wasted countless energy and time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, that I have worried about things that have never happened, that I have let to many people, places and things rent too much space in my head. And that rent is not worth the price of my serenity much less my sobriety anymore.
Coming to terms with my Dad took a very long time. The anger and fear slowly dissapated as I got sober and realized why he struggled. Not a thing I could do. He was my point man, showed me I had a choice, to continue on with my life as is, or make the changes necessary to move forward. To learn how to live. I did get to tell him I loved him before he died and he told me the same. It helped both of us find peace. I was not there when he went into the hospital and I was told he asked for me. I had made the decision to go out of town that weekend. No one knew he wasn’t coming back out. I still sometimes feel bad about that, but know today that he understood.