So this guy walks into a bar. Orders a shot. Slams it back. Orders another one. Slams that one back. Keeps drinking until the bartender cuts him off. He goes home and repeatedly drinks himself into oblivion. He passes out, wakes, lashes out in drunken stupors, loses job after job, loses his family and everything he holds dear then spends the rest of his life alone until he dies of natural causes by himself at the age of 61 in a small cluttered bedroom in the tiny apartment he shares with a roommate nobody knows.
This is the least funny joke I have ever told. It's not funny cause it's true.
My Dad died last Saturday. He was an alcoholic. I had ended my relationship with him eight years ago in a conversation without malice on my part. My last words to him then were spoken with love and grace. I had reached my own rock bottom with his addiction and in order to preserve my emotional wellness, I needed to sever all ties with him. I felt at peace in doing so. And I knew this day would come. But I had no idea it would rock me to my core.
Garry Law was technically my Step-Dad but because I grew up having had no contact with my absentee biological father, I knew Garry only as my Dad. He married my Mom when they were both very young. They had my brother when my Mother was twenty years old, my Dad was twenty-one, and I was a toddler. They divorced not long afterward and my Dad moved to Alberta to be with another woman. He went through that marriage in short order and before I was a teenager he married my Step-Mom, Sue, who remains in my life to this day.
My Dad was a musician all his adult life. In the '80s, when I was a kid, he belonged to an Edmonton band called Darkroom. They released a single called Pressure. It never took off but I thought it was the best song ever written. As a kid, I told all my friends about it. I showed them pictures of the band and pointed out my Dad who was adorned in tight leather pants, his eyes smudged with black liner. Stylistically, he was the Ewan McGregor of the Edmonton music scene. I never missed an opportunity to nonchalantly point out to my friends that my Dad was a "rock and roll star". I tried to be a cool character when describing him to my friends but my preteen attempts at fashionable aloofness failed, my massive pride in him poorly concealed, simmering just below the surface.
I might not have fully understood his issues as a kid. I loved him so much. But looking back through time and space through the lens of my life now, I can see how early things went off the rails back then. My earliest memories are ones of violence. My Dad was shockingly physical with my Mom and I witnessed that as a very small person. Witnessing those kinds of outbursts as a tiny being colors the way you view the world as you grow up into it. To this day, there is a small part of me that expects to be smacked around and, as a grown woman, I can become quickly filled with rage at the injustice, toward the act itself and my expectation of it. I think my parents' divorce was a blessing because it gave my Mom a chance to hold her ground in safety as they fought long distance over the phone.
After my Mom died, nearly sixteen years ago, my Dad apologized to me for those early assaults. And he meant it. He had made peace with my Mom in later years and he very much wished he had done things differently as a young man. And while I cannot rewrite history here (the truth is my Mom did all the heavy lifting), my Dad loved my brother and me dearly. He brought us out to Edmonton for visits, introduced us to his second wife, her family and the culinary delights of the Spanish rice he made for us which we gobbled up while watching Family Ties on TV. There was talk for a time of having us go and live with him for a while. The pressures of being an impoverished single parent were wearing so thoroughly on my Mom that she needed a break to mourn through the agonies of her life in order to get herself back on solid footing again. But that was not to be. We did not go live with my Dad and his new wife. They divorced and for a time, it seemed, my Dad dropped off the face of the earth. When we finally heard from him again, it was with the news that he had married someone else. A lady named Sue. I was eleven. My brother was eight. We hadn't been invited to the wedding. My Dad thought we would be too angry with him for having disappeared, I guess. So he waited until after the wedding to introduce us to his new bride.
I could tell right from the minute I laid eyes on her, that this one was a keeper. She was so profoundly kind, loving and even keeled. Even as a kid, I could see that she would be very good for my Dad. And for a long time, I think they were happy together. I remember them being a constant presence in my and my brother's life, even from two provinces away. There were no more disappearing acts. There were trips out west, phone calls and letters, fatherly embraces of consolation - in person - when my boyfriend broke my heart as a teenager. My Dad was at my high school graduation and partied with me at the dry grad and the boozed filled festivities that followed. I even lived with my Dad and Step-Mom during my first year in college in Calgary when their son, my little brother, was just over a year old. I saw them regularly after the birth of my baby sister when my second semester was wrapping up.
We were a family. A big, messy, motley convoluted crew with lots of parents and siblings. Once, after my Mom and younger sister moved to Calgary from Manitoba, we all enjoyed a Christmas together which was weird and wonderful at the same time. There were camping trips and fishing trips and backyard BBQs. My Dad was a cook by trade. He worked in the kitchen of the local juvenile penitentiary for years. His culinary skills extended to his own kitchen and I watched him whip up some of the most delicious dishes I had ever tasted. There were times my Mom enjoyed the remnants of his feasts when I was sent home with leftovers for her and my sister from the dinners at my Dad and Sue's table.
It's hard to remember exactly when the drinking took hold. My Dad could always hold his own with a bottle of whiskey. But his spiral began at some point in the late '90s. At least, that's when I noticed it. I would be over for dinner and remember thinking it strange that as soon as he got home from work, he would slam back a couple shots of whiskey before he started cooking. I rarely drank in my 20s. The thought of drinking alcohol straight like that seemed to me like pouring turpentine down your throat. Since it wasn't my thing, I chalked his shot consumption up to the equivalent of maybe having a cocktail after work.
But his battle with the bottle soon began to wreak havoc. The abuses my Dad suffered as a child became demons for him as an adult and he drank to keep them at bay. He proceeded down a precarious path upon which he drank his life away. He was charged with a DUI (or more), fell into drunken comas, lost job after job, neglected his children and sent his family into financial ruin. It was agonizing watching him destroy his marriage to a woman who deserved only the best in life. He stole money, failed to pay child support and disappeared relentlessly on all of us. Sometimes, we didn't know if he was dead or alive. There were many, many times we tried to reach out. I've lost track of the amount of conversations I've had with my Dad about his drinking, his sadness, his failures, his low opinion of himself and my belief that if he went to AA and counseling that he could get better and save his family. But he could not right himself. And, with the exception of a single family member, one by one, we all ended contact with him.
A few years before my last conversation with my Dad, in an attempt to connect with him, I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. It was his instrument and I thought it was the perfect way to bond with him. It was so much fun shopping with my Dad for that guitar. He seemed sober then. And proud of me too, I think. Up until then, my Dad's musical influence played out only in the world of my imagination. I was the rock star in my mind that I thought my Dad was when I was a kid. When I clean the kitchen, it is not uncommon to tuck my iPod nano into my apron, like a badass, and blast into my ear the deliciously strident tones of Axl Rose. I am Slash playing the shit out of the guitar solo in November Rain to a stadium filled with thousands. Sometimes (read: most times) when I drive my super-fly base model Toyota Corolla, I crank Led Zeppelin and at 5:35 into Stairway to Heaven, when Jimmy Page is about to take off, I step into his place on my imaginary stage in my tight leather pants and I think of my Dad as I wow the crowd with my musical stylings.
In real life, I took lessons for maybe half a year and learned the beginnings of some of my favorite songs but before too long, my enthusiasm for playing lessened as did my Dad's brief spurts with sobriety. I can't remember a single chord I learned back then. Not even music with all its infinite, melodious power could keep my Dad and me together. Like a kid bored with a new instrument, I relegated the thing in its case somewhere to the back of my closet where it has remained ever since with its broken strings, covered in a blanket of dust.
For me, the final straw came when my first son was a few months old. My Dad had just hit a spectacular low of squandering a windfall on booze, engaging in theft and abandonment. As a result, he missed the birth of my first child entirely. I knew I didn't want for my son the rocky road I had travelled with my father. When he finally did call, with as much love and kindness as I could muster, I told him I couldn't do this anymore; that I wished him well but that our relationship was over. And I never spoke to him again.
When my Mom died, we were all there at her bedside, including my Dad who was getting sober that very week after yet another drunken coma from a few days before. Alongside all of us, he held her hand before she passed. He white knuckled his way through her death and made dinner for my friends that weekend when they came to console me. He even poured out the mickey of vodka he had stashed in his jacket pocket in the parking lot on the way into the funeral. He was determined to be there for us and he tried his very best to give all his kids his sobriety at a time when we were falling apart and needed it most.
But when my Dad died, no one was there for him. He was alone, surrounded by his pictures, his vinyl and the dust that blanketed the evidence of a life that passed him by. If I could go back and change it, I would. I would find a way to protect my sanity in the face of his alcoholism and tell him that he was loved. I didn't know until the day he died that was even an option. I thought it was all or nothing. I used to think I understood addiction. But it turns out I don't understand it all. I used to think, well, he did X, Y and Z, he'll never change and now I must do 1, 2 and 3 - plunking in a permanent consequence to this sad sequence as if my relationship with my Dad was some sort of mathematical equation. But there's no math that adds up to a world in which I let my father die alone. I denied him the sacred ending he rightly deserved in spite of his misery. At the time of this writing, I haven't even told a single friend that he died. Not because I'm ashamed of my father. But because of the remorse I feel at not picking up the phone at least one more time to say, "I love you Dad."
My Dad did so many things wrong. But my greatest failing was that I couldn't see the man through the disease. They became intertwined for me. I bore him no ill will but my will, nevertheless, was impenetrable. I was so certain about my choice to cut my Dad out of my life. But I can tell you my absolutes bring me very little comfort today. Conversely, in spite of all the heartache he caused, he was unwavering in his love for us. When they charged his cell phone after he died, they didn't find a picture of an empty bottle of vodka as his screensaver. They found a picture of his family instead.
If you have an addict in your life and you can exercise your boundaries while sending a note of love, I encourage you to do so. I didn't do that for my father and that contributed to a reality where he had no one to hold his hand and ease him sacredly through his exit from this life.
Now I am left with the confusion and comfort of serendipities. Three days after he died, I auditioned for a character in a movie - a therapist - who tells her adult patient to end all contact with her father. She actually says, "Your father will never change." The day after that, I auditioned for a character who consoles another character on the death of a family member, offering compassion and sympathies in the face of strange circumstances. But perhaps the most poignant serendipity since Saturday came the day after my Dad's death. Bryce and I had been lazy in our grocery shopping and had nothing planned for dinner that night. My husband is a much better cook than me and has made many a meal in our time together. Out of the blue that day, he suggested he make beef stroganoff. He killed it, as per usual. The smell wafted through the house and we were all salivating by the time it was served. It's worth noting that he has never made this dish for me, not once in our ten years together. I was looking forward to it, immensely. As we sat down and I tasted my first delicious mouthful, a memory came flooding back to me and it stilled the energy of the room. It was of the first meal my Dad and Sue made for me after they were married. Beef stroganoff. I put my fork down. I couldn't eat for a while. It felt like my Dad was somehow there with me. And it brought me a measure of peace. I may be uncertain about so much regarding my Dad's disease. But I do know that in that moment, for the first time in a long time, I pulled out a chair and I set a place for my father at my table.
In a few hours, I'll board a plane and go to Calgary to be with my family. We'll assist each other through our remorse, each of us swimming in a sea of our own regrets and we will pull together to figure out what comes next. In all the confusion and complicated feelings, what we know for certain is that one of the things our Dad did right was that, many years ago, he brought this remarkable family together. And together, we will journey to his favorite fishing spot, scatter his ashes and release his agony from this world. In spite of my own failing, that's one thing I know I can do right.
When I get back, I think I'll dust off the guitar I bought with my Dad all those years ago and learn to play again. See if I can bring the best part of him back to life. The first song I (sort of) learned back then was probably a bit of a clichéd choice for new students but I don't care. I loved it. I still do. It's a song that reminds me so much of my Dad right now; Of his demons, his struggles, his anguish and my hope that all of those things have somehow been liberated from this earth with his passing. To me, it's a song that speaks to light and letting go. And when I hear it, I am filled with hope.
I hope more than anything that my Dad knows I loved him. And that wherever he is, he's free.
The Happiness Detective
"Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Into the light of the dark black night..."
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