My father and I were never very close. I resented him and his influence in my life for many years; he was abusive and an alcoholic who died 20 years ago today. It wasn’t until I became a father that I began to see him differently and, over time, forgave him enough to recognize the things he’d taught me through his own bad example. Even if only unintentionally, he is partially the reason I’m who I am today — as person, a man and a father.
It’s also because of him that I understand and appreciate the difference between the three.
What follows is something I wrote a couple of years ago for the now defunct blog “Black Box Warnings.” Given that the 20th anniversary of my father’s death falls on Father’s Day this year, I felt the need to share it again — for him as much as for myself…
I come from a long line of alcoholics. Truth be told, the roots of my family tree are probably located in a beer garden. For this reason, I was determined to break the cycle and be the first member of my family to remember most of his 20s and 30s, not develop a beer gut and actually know who all of my kids are. I was genuinely frightened of carrying a gene I assumed had its own alcohol content — which is why I didn’t crack open my first beer until I was 20; in a moment of weakness; working under the blistering Texas sun; because there was no water or soda; and I had just read about spontaneous human combustion.
The second drink of my life came a year later when I was given a shot of peach Schnapps on my 21st birthday. It was quick, painless and not noticeable on my breath when I left for my second job. It was also the last drink I had until I was 30, when a friend started making strawberry lemonade spiked with Absolute. It was the third drink of my life, and the first time I had more than one in single night. I went from sitting to crawling, and eventually lying on my back laughing before falling asleep. Looking at the big picture of my life, I can only hope that’s the way things eventually play out for me: Sit, crawl, lie on my back laughing, then just fall asleep.
It wasn’t until my 30s that I began to understand how, in spite of my efforts to the contrary, alcohol had still become a factor in defining me — through my nearly obsessive efforts to avoid it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I feel like I missed out on something by not becoming an alcoholic. But I’m well aware there is an entire right-of-passage experience I was not a part of and can’t really relate to because of the fear I had of opening Pandora’s six pack. The drunken parties, crazy nights waking up with someone else’s pants on, singles bars and dance clubs, as well as the bonds created through those experiences — I have no frame of reference. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t seen The Hangover and American Pie, but I’m still left with a certain level of naiveté when it comes to conversations of “the old days” among friends, not to mention what to anticipate from my teenaged kids.
God help me.
Or them; I’m not really sure which.
What I do know is that I can hear the “phssst” of a bottled beverage from 50 yards away. So kids: good luck sneaking a Dos Equies out of the fridge. That’s right. I eventually overcame my fear of drinking, right about the time my oldest daughter became a teenager. By then, I had been divorced and a single father for two years; if I hadn’t become an alcoholic by then, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to. I also recognized that other fears I had carried with me — based on the mistakes of my father — weren’t coming to pass. I don’t smoke or do drugs; I’ve never been to jail; and I’ve never struck my wife or children. It’s with no small sense of irony that, after 47 years, I am becoming the person I hoped to be by following my father’s example… to the contrary.
I honestly can’t say whether my father did things with absolute purpose or recklessness. I can tell you he was a heavy smoker, yet I credit him for being the reason I never picked up the habit. Not because he preached against it, but because he started telling me light his cigarettes for him when I was 11. Admittedly, I thought that was pretty cool at first. And by “at first” I mean the first time I lit one up, inhaled, and then threw up what seemed like everything I’d eaten since graduating to solid foods. He had me light him a few more that day, just for good measure.
I wouldn’t even touch candy cigarettes after that. The illusion of coolness associated with smoking had effectively been snuffed.
Was that his intent… with everything?
I’ll never know for sure; he passed away long before I had the courage to pose the question.
While I spent a long time resenting him, I’ve begun to realize — like my fearful and obsessive avoidance of alcohol — the end result is a two-dimensional life that only offers a reflection of what you don’t want to be. To live three-dimensionally, you have to be more than a reflection: you have to cast your own image.
My dad taught me that.
Whether he wanted to or not.