Today I was reading an article in Esquire magazine where fifty prominent men were asked, “Who made you the man you are today?” It was a great read and I recommend you give it a look http://mentoring.esquire.com/who-made-you-the-man-you-are-today/gallery/. Halfway through the interviews I started to think about what my answer would be. A lot of the guys mentioned their dads and right away I knew that was the one person I wouldn’t have mentioned. My father may not have been a serial killer but trust me when I say he never earned one of those World’s Greatest Dad coffee mugs.
This was a man who, when I was 4 years old, and less than a year after my mother’s death, brought home and married a stripper he’d known for 3 months. A delightful woman who, once when I was upset over losing a toy, “washed my mouth out” with a bar of soap because my crying was disturbing the party she was having with her friends. This was a man who, less then a year later when that marriage ended, began a relationship with my mother’s 16 year old sister. Of course I’m thankful to have my aunt in my life, and we love each other like mother and son, but it was hard to deny the sleaze factor in him at that point.
This was a man who, during my years playing organized soccer as a kid, could be found during every game sitting on the couch watching TV instead of sitting on the sidelines watching me play. When I got promoted to the travelling team I had to ride to the games with my coach, not because my dad was busy but because, in his words, “If I take him once he’ll expect me to take him to every game.”
This was a man who, when I was 10, laughed as he purposely held a lit cigarette to my arm for 30 seconds. He made a bet with me that I couldn’t hold my arm still with a fifty dollar bill wrapped around it long enough for the cigarette to burn a hole through the bill. If I was able to withstand it I’d get the fifty dollars. What I didn’t know, and what he did know, was that it was impossible to burn the bill. If it’s held firmly against the arm the heat is transferred through the bill to the arm and only the skin will burn. Eventually, after holding still and enduring the pain for as long as I could I pulled my arm away, and he celebrated his inevitable victory while I walked away with no money and a burn that ended up leaving a nice little scar on my arm.
This was a man who had Playboy centerfolds tacked up on his bedroom wall for me to see, and in what I can only assume was a bizarre attempt at some sort of male bonding with his son, decided to surprise me by putting those posters up on my wall while I was at school. Why he thought that was appropriate bedroom décor for someone in kindergarten I’ll never know. This was a man who, during the height of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fame, when I punched what I thought was a rotted piece of board trying to impress my friends, refused to take me to the hospital. Despite the bruising and swelling and the pain I insisted I was in, it took three days before he finally relented and brought me in to the ER, where it was determined I’d broken my hand and was fitted with a cast that went up to my elbow.
This was a man who, for as far back as I can remember, put alcohol above his family. One year my aunt, who was still young, took on the challenge of making her first Christmas dinner by herself. While she spent the day handling the dinner preparations, my dad spent the day handling beer after beer. So when we all sat down and my aunt proudly unveiled her successful dinner, he passed out in his potatoes. That is not an expression or an exaggeration; he literally fell asleep at the table with his face planted firmly in the mashed potatoes on his plate. Later that night, still passed out in his bed after he was somehow coaxed out of his potato pillow, he was oblivious when our drunken next door neighbour helped himself into our house and tried to assault my aunt in front of me. Terrified and knowing there was no counting on my dad to protect us I ran to the basement and called 911.
After years of breakups and make-ups, I told myself the next time they broke up I was going to stay with my aunt, and when I was 13 they finally separated for good. This seemed to be a wake-up call for my dad, and the next ten years or so were mostly filled with him going in and out of rehabs and detoxes, emerging sober and happy each time. The contrast of who he was when he’d come out with who he was when had he gone in was so stark that it would always inspire hope in all of us that he’d finally recovered and that alcohol was no longer going to be the ever-present wedge that kept him from the people he loved. But it never was. There’s no deeper feeling of disappointment I can imagine than when, after weeks of sobriety, I’d catch him stumbling through the door at night and realize that he’d relapsed and we’d be starting the cycle all over again.
Eventually my tipping point was reached one day in early January. When looking at December’s credit card bill I found that my dad had snuck into my house while I was sleeping, stolen my Visa and took himself on an alcohol and cigarette Christmas shopping spree. Furious, I immediately went to his house, walked in, disconnected the DVD player I’d given him just a few weeks earlier, tucked it under my arm and walked back to the door. I told him this was the end of our relationship and that I wanted nothing to do with him anymore. I remember being surprised at the time that during all of the commotion he remained calm and never once got up from his seat, as if he’d long been expecting this day to come. When his girlfriend, confused and excited, shouted to my dad “Why is he doing this?” his response was simply, “Because his father’s a drunk.” I can still hear the shame and the hopeless acceptance in his voice as he spoke those words as if he’d just spoken them now. And just like that I walked out of his door and out of his life. I was tired of forcing myself to be optimistic that he’d get sober and tired of feeling like a fool when he didn’t, but mostly I was tired of being hurt knowing that I had never been and was never going to be as important to him as what was in those bottles. So I decided on a new approach. “Tough love” had to work, right? After a while he’d realize what he’d lost and it would motivate him to get sober once and for all, right? Wrong.
Two years went by without a word being spoken between us. I’d see him at family events and get togethers and just act like I didn’t know him. It was so much easier living as if he didn’t exist than constantly being let down that I’d become numb to the idea of him at all. So when on my 25th birthday he showed up with a beautiful framed photo of my mom as a teenager and a handwritten card apologizing for everything he’d done wrong over the years, asking for forgiveness and to start our relationship over, it was easy for me to coldly and with no emotion tell him no and not to contact me again until he got his life together. That was it. This time he walked out of my door and out of my life forever.
Three weeks later I was woken up with the news that my dad was dead. There is no period big enough, no silence long enough to capture the finality of the word “dead” when the person who’s died is somebody you’ve spent the last two years actively ignoring, expecting that eventually it would lead to them turning their life around. So I went back to his house for the first time in two years and saw his body lying still on the living room floor where he’d passed out drunk the night before. I sat in silence, just watching him, thinking about how he’d thrown his life away for alcohol at 42. I thought about what a mindfuck it was the day I realized I’d reached an age my mother never saw, and what a mindfuck it would be when I turned 43 and already outlived both of them. I watched as his body was turned over, like a mannequin, lifeless and without movement, and I watched as his face was seen for the last time as it disappeared behind the zipper of the body bag. I wasn’t sure why I stayed to witness this ritual. Everyone else had left the room, but I felt like I needed to see this. Looking back now I think I felt like I needed to see him through to the end of his existence because I knew I wasn’t there for the end of his life.
To this day, nine years after his death, I’ve still not completely sorted out my feelings towards my father. When my sisters talk about missing him and express their love for him I sit back and wonder how they could possibly feel that way. It honestly baffles me but I can’t speak to their experiences. All I know is what I lived. This was a man who was so uninvolved as a dad, I have no memories of him up until I was 6 years old. As I said, my mom passed away when I was 3 and I have memories of her long before my dad enters my memory bank. Even after thinking about all these stories I realize I don’t have a single good memory of him at all. Part of me wishes I could say “I forgive you Dad for being an addict”. Part of me wishes I could say, “Fuck you, your addiction didn’t make you an asshole. You made you an asshole.” And part of me just doesn’t care. But all of me wishes I could go back to that day he showed up looking for forgiveness and just give him a hug because, regardless of what he was to me, this was a man, just a man who needed love and support. And I’ll always live with the guilt of knowing that instead of giving him what he needed I pushed him away and he never recovered. I’m sorry.
So, who made me the man I am today? A man who tries to be there to help pick up those who’ve fallen down, a man who believes everyone has the power to turn their lives around no matter the obstacles, as long as they’re supported and empowered, and a man who loves his family and his friends as if they are family? I guess in his own way it was my dad after all.