Forgiving My Drunk Dad on Father's Day

By Harry Healy 06/13/13

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.

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Father knows best? Photo via

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.

Cards and horses satisfied the old man’s jones for action, but his favorite thing to bet on was football, and I spent countless Sundays deep into the autumn and early winter squeezing mightily for teams I had no interest in, strata of smoke from his cigarettes and mine stacked to the ceiling, watching while his wagers got crushed. My God, how I wanted him to win. He did construct some improbable victories, but, being a true gambler, these were profits he parlayed into future losses.

He was around the house less and less, and when he was there, he’d slump from bed to couch, burning off a hangover that would shroud an entire weekend. My mother finally divorced him, the smartest move she ever made, but that didn’t prevent him from appearing at gatherings hosted by her side of the family. I have some snapshots taken on a long-ago Christmas Eve, fraught like so many others with either his absence or presence, one of the women he left my mother for in tow. His image comes back angry and drunk.

It’s not as if I’ve inherited nothing from my old man. I consider his entire life a cautionary tale.

The old man screeched to a hard break while trying to take “the lifestyle” (boozing, gambling, chasing broads) into his 50s. General dissolution and risky habits conspired with his blood pressure—always high—to cause an aortic aneurysm, a burst blood vessel in his heart. He cheated death. I went to visit him during the first days of a recuperation that included a medically induced coma. There he lay, at the center of a tangle of tubes and wires—Casanova, luxury automobile aficionado, green shoe-wearer—rendered inert by a universe that had decided to push back. Who could hate this man? I could not.

I limped into Alcoholics Anonymous about a year after that. A kindly sponsor helped me sort through a Fourth Step, the catalogue of failure that was my life until then. I found the exercise excruciating, but while I was articulating the bitterness I held against my father, I was able to discern that he was acting, and acting badly, in his own life. I could no longer view him exclusively through the lens of how his behavior affected me. He was misguided and selfish, yes, but he was brilliant in many ways, too, and frustrated and confused. His father was a harsh man and his mother's outlook was singed by deprivation and a severity that belonged to the old world. And then, as it must have seemed to him, he woke up one morning, father of three children he had no inkling how to care for.

I did a great deal of writing about him, and I put his name at the top of my Eighth Step list. When I completed my personal amends, his name lingered. I planned on having a conversation with him one morning while he drove me to the airport. We dissected some football game instead.

So I wrote him a letter, a brief one outlining three of my failings and zero of his. I’m confident he received it, and that he must have read it, but if he knew what to make of the things I had written, I cannot say. He never mentioned it and I didn’t, either.

Our connection as father and son has continued to evolve. I mustered as much forgiveness as I could to complete that Ninth Step, but I have been inexplicably disgusted with him a dozen times since, over humiliations long ago relegated to dark, faded memory. I started to understand that an amended relationship required more than a one-and-done drive-by, and that forgiving, if it was going to be real, was something I’d be called on to do again and again. "Seventy times seven," somebody once said.

Twenty years have gone by since my father suffered that aneurysm. His decline, clearly linked to his initial heart trauma, has been long and steady. He’s less and less able to work, and in one recent year he generated zero income. His failing health has featured further coronary complications and a cancer bout that required surgery. His initial recovery complete, he was discharged from the hospital, minus a third of one kidney, and could have gone home. The only problem was, he had no home to go to.

It’s not as if I’ve inherited nothing from my old man. His facility for and his love of language, for example. And I consider his entire life a cautionary tale. He was stymied by the conundrum that stumped plenty of the swingers of his era: They figured it didn’t matter how they lived, because they’d be dead before paying any real-world price for “the lifestyle.” Modern medicine has had a different say.

My drinking days appear to be finished. And, although I could take better care of my own health, I’ve been married 14 years, I haven’t had any girlfriends, and although it’s not my call to make, I think I’m a good father. I struggle to pay my taxes. I may look sharp, but I’m no player. I’m a square.

I talk to my father all the time. He is medicated to the max, and, on bad days, he can’t keep track of what he said five minutes ago. On good days he’s lucid and funny. During a recent conversation, I remarked that he sounded good, and he did. He said, “If you took as many pills as I do, you’d sound good, too.”

If I haven’t already spelled this out, my father is not a guy who is tight with a lot of people. But, in his world, he and I are close. The swirling past looms large in my mind, I’m sorry to say, but it does not have the hold on me it once did. Still, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t wish things had been different.

And so I approach this upcoming holiday, if that’s what it is, with much ambivalence. I’ll buy a card and stick it in the mail, and sign it in the way that I usually do: Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Much Love Always, Harry.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about being a sober bartender.

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