My father died in 1996, but that was just the physical culmination of decades of slow suicide. My father drank himself to death, starting before I was even born, but escalating into high gear when I hit my teens, right about the time my sister went off to college. As he had to focus more and more energy on drinking, and managing to hold down a job while drinking, he had less and less of himself to use for anything else. When he was a child, he was a boy scout. By the time I was walking, he didn’t want to be anywhere wilder than a restaurant’s outdoor seating. Growing up I remember him throwing pizza parties for his university students. By the time I could cook, he claimed to be unable to understand how ovens worked. He earned numerous commendations and awards early in his career as an economist. In his last years, the university let him take early retirement out of pity since he hadn’t written anything in a decade, and could no longer face grading papers or talking to students.
My father taught me to play checkers, then chess, then go just as soon as I could move the pieces. Then he took me with him to the local bar, and watched over me as I played with other alcoholics in late summer evenings, after my mother had gone to bed. It was the only way I got much time with him, at that point. By the time I had to learn to shave, he was either unwilling or unable to teach me. My friend Marc Curlee did, instead.
He pulled pranks in college, and once tried to build the world’s largest hookah. By the time I came along, his need for solitude was so great my family literally had to add an addition on to the back of our house, so he’d be far enough away from my bedroom and able to have a space of his own even away from his wife, my mother. He taught me a lot about honor and honestly, but broke many vows and promises. He taught me to value work and savings, but hated his job and wanted to splurge money on luxuries he couldn’t possibly afford. He was an economics professor who loved gambling, though thankfully never to excess.
My father and mother made plans to take my wife and me out for dinner on our first wedding anniversary. My mother had to call me and tell me she was going to do it alone, because my father had moved out of the house weeks earlier, and the night of my anniversary he was so drunk he couldn’t stand or answer his own phone.
Somewhat later, through sheer willpower, he was sober for 6 months solid because someone at a treatment center told him he was an alcoholic, and it was impossible for him to go 6 months without a drink. Right after hitting the 6 month mark, he drank himself into such a stupor he fell and bloodied his head on his apartment wall. But he’d gone the 6 months, so clearly he didn’t have a problem.
A few weeks before he died, I sat in his living room, and told him if he didn’t get help and stop drinking, he’d die. He told me he knew. I gave up. Of course after that when he ended up in the hospital and the doctor told him he was dying, my father indignantly replied “No I’m not!”
I loved my father very much. I love him still. But I have come to realize that his greatest service to me is as a bad example. Many of my failings – my dislike of being told what to do, my craving for a lifestyle I haven’t earned, my fear of the unknown or uncomfortable, my hated of asking for help, my fear of failure – are very much like my father. And I saw what giving in to those less noble traits did to him. So I fight mine. Not always very well, and not without failures and setbacks. But I fight them. Because I have seen what the alternative is.
I have never been sure what first cracked my father, but I saw how his method of dealing with it shattered him. All I can do is try to learn from his failings.
I know my father loved me. I hope he is at peace now. Despite everything, I deeply honor the good he did for me, the care he gave me, and the fact he did his best to protect me, and teach me.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.