Forgiving My Drunk Dad on Father's Day
My ailing father has been a great example for me—both in how to be a player and how not to live my life as a dissolute drunk.
My father was handsome and witty and charming and bright. He dressed well, and appreciated the finer things. He shaved and cologned and went out alone. He wore a green three-piece suit with green Florsheim loafers, which matched the forest-colored luxury car he spun around town in.
And he drank: at home, at family gatherings, and at bars he haunted until last call. Scotch on the rocks, chasing a dozen or so of these with an over-proof cordial of emerald hue.
Despite his weaknesses, my father did the right thing in one case, when his 20-year-old self married my pregnant 19-year-old mother. Thus, I came crashing into the world legitimately, through a maternity ward from which the man was several floors removed.
A generation before husbands were allowed anywhere near a delivery room, I imagine him pacing and chain-smoking as if he were being featured in some screwball comedy. The story goes that when he got the news, he ignored the hospital’s creaking elevators, bounding many flights of stairs in order to get a peek at his first-born son.
The flush of paternal pride wore off quickly, as his main interests—a sense of style and a dozen other superficial qualities that did little to bolster him as a husband—had nothing to do with children. My father indulged in his first extra-marital affair when my mother was pregnant with my sister.
In my first real memory of him, he is furious. It didn’t take much to set my father off, and when there was a genuine transgression—like the time I created an art installation out of rock salt and green paint in our garage—his rage was frightening. I watched from an upstairs window while he opened the door to the structure, thinking, uh-oh, as a roar emanated from outside the house. I might have been about four.
The first night my father didn’t come home turned into a dark, wintry morning. My mother was spinning the radio dial in search of news. But he was just drunk somewhere with some tramp.
My brother soon came along. That made three children in five years, and there were plans, I learned as an adult, for a fourth. But I believe my mother—a pretty, sheltered girl who was intelligent if a bit naïve—had wised up by then, and gained a full apprehension of the sort of man she had married.
The first night he didn’t bother coming home turned into a dark, wintry morning. Snow drifted under the eaves of our house. My frantic mother was spinning the radio dial in search of news of an unidentified man—her husband—lying unconscious in some snow bank. Her fear, and the anxiety she heaped on her children, were over nothing. My father was just drunk somewhere with some tramp.
I spent my teen years incubating my alcoholism while our family disintegrated. I (sometimes) attended a mediocre school where I performed poorly, and sought the approval of genuine hoodlums, many of whom went to jail and are now long dead.
I sloped home one night waxed on a handful of downers boosted from the back of a pharmacy, alarmed by the lights burning in the kitchen, my father’s green car parked in the driveway. He busted me right away. He slapped some lies out of my mouth and dealt me a beating that was so spirited, my mother had to intervene. It was like another kind of movie—no screwball comedy this time—but a British drama perhaps, via one of the Angry Young Men. When I passed out, he was still screaming. I slept through the entire next day.
I left school early one afternoon and as I made my way into the house I noticed a bottle of scotch with a big dent taken out of it on the table. Two ashtrays overflowed. I looked up to see a woman dash past me, holding her clothes against her body, her bare butt jiggling while she scooted into the bathroom and slammed the door. The old man definitely had a type. In her coloring and shape, the woman bore a strong resemblance to my mother. The room she bolted from was the bedroom he shared with her. I suppose it was cheaper than a hotel.