good nite & i love u

By Brian Michael Riley 01/17/18

It was time to live the amends. I would be predictable and dependable, dispelling any fear my son had of running into that awful side of me again.

A father and son sit at a picnic table, talking
The kid could have all the time in the world if he needed it.

According to the clock on the dashboard I was going to be seriously late to a meeting at the office. Still, I didn’t turn the ignition for fear of my son hearing it through the phone and cutting our call short. This was important stuff. The kid could have all the time in the world if he needed it. Quietly stretching into my seat belt and snapping it into place, I watched another minute blink by as Ian described with eloquent, enthusiastic detail the zigzag plot and character arches of his new favorite TV series. Not for a second did I wonder what my excuse would be for being tardy that morning. This was an emergency involving my teenaged son. Though the subject matter could hardly be considered life-or-death, the conversation itself was exactly that. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that my son had threatened to never talk to me again - and for damn good reason.

Ian was three years old when his mother and I divorced. My alcoholism had taken its toll on the marriage. Thankfully I embraced sobriety rather quickly and have been in recovery through most of my son’s life. I have always taken pride in the relationship I have with my son, especially as a single dad. Even though my parents stayed together throughout my own childhood and I grew up in a relatively happy home, the bond between my father and me had never been a strong one. A reserved Irish Catholic with a frighteningly short fuse, Dad showed love the only way he knew how: lots of hard labor and a shipshape home. From an early age I vowed that I’d be a different kind of father. I’d be loving and warm and the proverbial doors of communication would remain forever open. This was the case, too, even after the divorce.

But then I relapsed. 

In the opening statement of every AA meeting it is read that alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. I’d say that’s putting it lightly. After seven solid years of sobriety, a drink was the furthest thing from my mind—especially a cold one—when an abscessed molar had to come out and I was sent home with a handful of Percocet. Coinciding with a dangerously light meeting schedule, the prescription rendered me defenseless and within a month I was feeding a full fledged habit. When I couldn’t score pills, I drank. Before long my life was completely unmanageable. A cruel, self-centered disease, alcoholism had me convinced I was making the destructive descent to rock bottom alone. That tight bond I shared with my son, though, meant that he was taking some of that painful ride with me.

What was most damaging wasn’t the afternoon Ian walked into his kitchen to find me elbows deep in the cupboard of his mother’s medicine, helping myself to whatever painkillers I could find. Nor was it the night he watched me stumbling around outside his apartment complex with an armload of crushed groceries. What hurt my son most was a phone conversation that I have no recollection of to this day. Even if I had been aware of what was said, I knew that no amount of remorse or apology would have spared me the sharp and distinct line my son drew between us. He would not speak to me again unless I checked myself into rehab. As it turned out, even talking after that would be questionable.

Ten days in detox and twenty-eight in rehab and I might as well have fallen off the face of the planet. The few phone calls I was allowed to make went unanswered. Same with the messages I left on my son’s voicemail. Not until rehab’s second month, when I was finally given online privileges, was I able to open a series of devastating messages from my ex-wife - weeks old emails notifying me of her and my son’s decision to move out of state (a decision not prompted solely by my recent behavior, but certainly not helped by it). Any future contact with me would be at their discretion. Only time would allow the necessary healing to take place. This was in July. I have never shivered so violently.

While I continued treatment for substance abuse, I felt the rehabilitation I truly needed was for having lost a limb. With my son gone I could hardly function. The sting of his absence was profound and was only intensified by a silence that stretched on for days and then weeks. Eventually I went numb, my mind exhausted from running the hamster wheel of guilt and shame over what I had done, especially that disastrous phone screw-up. All I needed was one more call. At least then I could start repairing the damage, but the phone refused to ring. Then finally it did, on the day after Christmas.

It was impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into that first phone call with my son. I didn’t even know where to begin. Thankfully, though brutally, the talk was superficial and brief, our focus diverted by Christmas gifts and New Year’s plans. Was I crazy or had his voice changed? Our relationship certainly had. We circled around one another with almost unbearable trepidation, awkward pauses in the conversation filled with the imaginary crackling of egg shells. I knew I wouldn’t make it another day if I failed to smooth things over or at least attempt to. Again, where would I begin? The real question, though, was when would I stop?

Over the following months not only did Ian get sick of listening to my apology, I grew tired of saying it. We agreed to move on but there was still a significant rift between us. Even though my son insisted all was forgiven, he rarely reached out to me. Before our fallout we had spoken at least twice a day, now I was lucky to have a call or text answered within a week. I knew the reconciliation would happen in baby steps but this was infuriating. When I finally confronted him on his behavior, he blamed the recent move. A hectic school schedule combined with a budding social life left him little time to keep in touch.

“I’m doing the best I can, Dad,” he insisted.

On more than a few occasions I tried to convey how important these phone calls were for us now. They were all we had left. Ian was quick to agree, vowing to put more effort into our relationship. Then it would take one and a half weeks to hear back instead of one. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how heartfelt the plea, contact with my son remained sporadic at best. When I tried turning the tables, ceasing to call or text altogether, the result was even longer stretches of dark, torturous silence. It was maddening. Add to this my struggles with newfound sobriety and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was checking back into rehab. Thinking along those lines, I raced to my sponsor for help.

A father to two teenagers himself, Mike A. was no stranger to my dilemma. The course of action he suggested was painfully simple and would come to be one of my life’s greatest challenges. His advice was that I do nothing. That is, nothing more than what I had been doing all along, only now I was to be consistent. Regardless of whether or not I heard back from my son, I was to tell him via voicemail or text that I loved him every day. So what if he didn’t want to hear it. So what if it annoyed him. So what if he was still angry with me.

“Good night and I love you.”

Chances were it would go unanswered for days. Maybe weeks. Still every night I would text.

“good night & i love u.”

More likely than not our relationship would never return to what it once was.

“good night & i love u.”

It was time to live the amends. I would be predictable and dependable, dispelling any fear my son had of running into that awful side of me again. Truth be told I had scared the hell out of him and he had every right to keep me at arm’s length for however long he needed. Most important was that I be there for him when he was ready. Until then, at least he would know every day that he was loved.

The fact of the matter is that time flies. This was never more evident than when the minutes kept blinking away on my dashboard, Ian insisting I catch that new TV series of his as soon as I was able. Awkward silences and unanswered texts long behind us, we had come to discover this and many more mutual interests. If it wasn’t the latest graphic novel adaptation or controversial Tarantino flick, we were comparing college psychology courses or planning our next weekend visit. And if we ran out of time there was always tomorrow. That being the case, I hit the ignition, finally giving in to the morning commute.

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photo me.jpg

Brian Michael Riley is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction whose work has most recently appeared in the likes of Every Day Fiction, Page & Spine, Gay Flash Fiction and Deadman's Tome. Also an illustrator, cartoonist, director, and educator, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his girlfriend and their many, many pets.

A grateful recovering addict and alcoholic, Brian considers his articles with The Fix to be part of his Step 12 work, conveying a message of hope to his fellows in recovery as well as those that support them. You can connect with Brian at and find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest