It doesn't matter how old you actually are when you lose one of your parents. Your gut reaction is going to mimic the stamp of a helpless child. I am almost 38 and yet, 26 years after the fact, I'm still very much the 11-year old my father abruptly left behind. I still grieve. You get better at processing the devastation as the years press forward, but the ache never goes away. I think about that sometimes when I ponder my own son, who is perilously close to the age I was when my Dad died. I can't even fathom Luke going through something like that.
Yet he almost did.
Two years ago in January, my doctor angrily threw my lab results down on the examining table with her fist, urging me to look at the results of my liver function tests. "You keep drinking like this and you'll be dead in two or three months." A full-blown alcoholic, my liver was close to acutely failing. I told no one. Instead, I continued to get drunk and proceeded to lash out at anyone and everyone who crossed my path as I edged closer to rock bottom. I couldn't muster the energy required to have hope that I could turn things around. Part of me was ready to go, regardless of the wake of consequence I would leave behind.
Then the anniversary of my father's death was once again upon me, and whilst regaling the story and history of it to my best friend, something finally clicked. Even with the secret knowledge that I, too, was most likely to succumb to alcoholism sooner rather than later. Historically, I'd latched onto not only the sadness of the situation, but also the regret that lingered because I believed that if I just had done something differently, just had stopped enabling, my father would still be alive. I'd made it all my responsibility, which in retrospect was completely unrealistic and unfair to have expected of an 11-year old little girl. I'd no sooner allow Luke to assume such a responsibility with regard to me and my alcoholism. No kid should have to bear the brunt of his parent's mistakes. My best friend remembers me saying aloud to myself, "Stop it. It doesn't have to be like this." And at that very moment, I began to forgive myself. Even as an active alcoholic and an unmedicated bipolar.
It most certainly didn't have to be like that. My life, that is. With a lot of help and guidance from those who loved me, I checked into rehab on February 21, 2008. I am now just on the cusp of being clean and sober for two years. My liver has regenerated to showroom-new. And I have hope.
After two failed interventions, my father finally decided to check into an in-patient rehab setting. My mother had bravely moved us out of our house the week or so before, in his presence, leaving only dozens of empty liquor bottles we'd found all over the house on the kitchen countertop, as if to tell my father it had to be us or them. For years, I was livid at my mother for taking us away from my father for what would turn out to be his final days. But now I see that as the most selfless move she could've made, not the most selfish. Whatever it was, it finally worked. Surely at that point, my father himself believed that it wasn't too late for him to start over.
My Dad was in rehab for less than 48 hours before suffering a massive heart attack brought on by delirium tremors from the alcohol withdrawl. Now, I have significant short and long-term memory problems from my own drinking, but my memories of 2/2/84 are as clear as day.
My brother and I were annoyed at my Dad. He incessantly called us on the phone from rehab, just to emphasize how much he loved us, and how sorry he was for what was happening. Over and over again. I remember Steven and I trying to watch the "WKRP" episode where all the Who fans got trampled at the concert in Cincinnati that afternoon. We'd trade who had to get on the phone with Dad, listen to him ballyhoo, placate him and hang up. Over and over again. Over and over again. It's plain spooky, though, that he died just a few hours later.
Part of my determination in rehab was to not repeat that situation with my own child. The hospital allowed Luke to visit with me while I was doped up on Librium in the loony bin warding off my own DT's. How scary and awkward that must have been for my son. Yet how important for me. And for Luke. Even if I didn't choose to recover to save myself, sitting beside me was a greater, more concrete reason to move forward. I owed that to myself. To Luke. To everyone who had a vested interest in loving me. And to my father as well.
I never go back to the cemetery where he's buried because I find it largely pointless. His bones are there, marked with a stone that bears his name. But *he's* not there. His soul's not there. His spirit is wherever I choose to reach out to it. He's beside me when I listen to Gene Krupa, when I watch reruns of "The Gong Show." When I play my drums. When I look at my son's remarkably similar clefted chin. He's there every time I have an alcohol craving and make the decision not to take a drink.
My father wasn't an intellectual. Kicked out of 3 high schools, he ran the gamut of civil service jobs--mail carrier, advanced firefighter/EMT and finally a sheriff's police officer. He was too nutso to make it in the Navy. He took risks and often failed. He had delusions of grandeur. He cheated on my mother and ran our family into deep debt. He slowly killed himself. He abandoned us.
But inside he was incredibly gentle and hilariously funny. Slapstick was his passion. He did a better Joe Cocker than Belushi and loved to entertain. He had the heartiest, high-frequency giggle, the meanest drum chops, the most gorgeous baritone, an unfailing sense of bravery towards his fellow man, the biggest blue eyes and ultimately loved his family more than he could ever have properly expressed.
I forgive my father all of his many sins and still manage to adore him for all of the good stuff.
Luke sometimes prefaces remarks or memories to me with, "Remember when you were drinking, and..." Most of the time I don't remember. But he does. I sense that he always will, even as time perhaps muddies those memories. I also sense that my son has emphatically already forgiven me for the pain and suffering I placed upon our own family. He is acutely aware of where I was, and how far I've come to change our lives for the better.
He asked me not long ago what my favorite hospital was. I said Resurrection, since that's both where I and Luke were born, and it's where I work now. His favorite? St. Joe's. "Because they saved your life, Mommy." I told him, "True, but *I* saved my life." I did what my father couldn't do. He and I are incredibly similar creatures, down to the way we walk, according to my mother. But I'm not him. I was determined not to become him. That, to me, is the finest tribute I could ever pay my Dad.