My dad was a great man. He was a hard worker, gone long before we woke up and home after the rest of the family had eaten dinner together. He was funny and witty and charming. He loved to watch movies, Cocoon, La Bamba and Grumpy Old Men were among his favorites at different times. He loved Elvis and country music and horses and his family. And beer.
My dad was an alcoholic for my entire life. He loved beer, and chose it over our family much of the time. But even in his drunkenness, he loved me and I loved him. He was my daddy and I was his little girl.
As a kid, I didn’t know the word alcoholic. I had never heard of it and would have denied that my dad was one even if I had. Because my dad was my hero and even now, it’s hard for me to admit this. Especially publicly. And especially because he’s not here any longer and I would much rather remember just the good things, those are easy and don’t make me feel tense and sweaty and embarrassed. Sharing the good things doesn’t make me feel like I’m secretly betraying the first man I ever loved.
I really don’t think that most people in my life knew about my dad’s drinking problem. He was highly functional when drunk. He had to be, he was drunk all the time. He would go through times where he would try to quit and he would be a totally different person. A miserable man. As an older teenager, I would scream at him “I hate you! Why don’t you just go get drunk so we all don’t have to suffer being around you!” But as a little girl, I was quick to rush to his defense when my mom would get mad at him.
One time, I was very young, and my dad was sleeping out in the backyard of our apartment building. He was face down on the ground under the clothesline. I had been waiting and watching for him to come home, and when I looked out the window of our garden level door and saw his beige t-shirt, I was so excited. I ran to my mom and she rushed to the door, she slid open the curtain on the little window in the door and quickly pulled it shut. Her face had changed from soft and beautiful to tense and angry. “That’s not your dad, it’s a laundry basket.” “No! It’s not! It’s daddy! I know it is!” I cried and cried. But my mom told me it was past my bedtime and daddy must have had to work late again. She hugged me while I cried, tucked me into bed and promised that she would have daddy come in and kiss me goodnight when he got in.
The next day came and we didn’t talk about it. We pretended that things were fine and that it wasn’t my dad passed out, face first on the ground beneath the clothesline. We spent decades doing this and we got really good at pretending.
I’m not sure if my dad just enjoyed having me around or if my mom forced it on him, but either way he took me with him to a lot of places when l was young. When he made beer runs to the party store, I would go and he’d get me a Vernors and some taffy. He tell me to go back out to the car and a few minutes later he’d come strolling out. I’d keep my eyes focused on my taffy, looking down to pretend that I didn’t see the case of beer he was putting in the trunk.
I don’t think he spent much time at the bar, he did most of his drinking at home, alone. But he did take me with him to the bar a couple of times and I would sit and drink Shirley Temples while he got drunk with his friends. One time, we were at a bar in Denver and some of the guys were so drunk they could barely stand. This particular time my friend was with us, her dad was friends with mine. I don’t know how it happened that my dad ended up driving some of the guys home. They piled in the cab of his pickup truck. My friend and I stood there next to what would have been the bed of the truck if there had been one. My dad came around and told me that he had a really fun thing for us to do this night. We were going to get to sit on the tail pipes of the truck all the way home. It was important to hold on tight, but he knew I could do it because I was his big girl. He sat us on the pipes as we tried to balance between them, making sure to hold on so we didn’t fall onto the pavement below as he drove home drunk, with two little girls behind the cab of the truck. We might have been 5 years old then.
Another time, we were driving home from my uncle’s house and my dad was drunk and maybe high. He was swerving and I was old enough to know that it was scary. I begged him to stop. I wanted to get out and call my mom. He pulled over but convinced me that if I told my mom, she would get mad at him and I didn’t want that, did I? So instead, he told me I could drive. He was sure I could handle it. I remember him telling me that since I was so good at riding horses, I would be great at driving a car. I believed him because he was my dad. But we couldn’t get out of the parking lot because I couldn’t see over the steering wheel. I ended up sitting on his lap, steering us home and giving the directions “gas” and “brake”. I heard my mom yelling and crying that night, but I put a pillow over my head and went to sleep, waiting for the morning to come so we could pretend it never happened.
As I got older, my times going out with my dad got more limited. My mom wouldn’t allow it, and although I knew that meant he would be drinking, we acted like it was because I had homework, or she needed my help around the house.
I recently, very painfully tried recalling a time that my dad showed up for a concert, a conference, an event or any activity that I participated in. There are none. In middle school, I sang a duet with Nicole Blakely at our choir concert. He promised me he’d be there. I begged him to come with us but he didn’t want to ride with us because we had to be there early. I watched for him to come through doors the entire concert. I remember trying to smile at my mom afterwards, but I just couldn’t. As a mom now, I can’t imagine the strength it took for her to smile at me that night. Or how much anger she swallowed when she hugged me and reminded me that my dad had to be up very early for work and probably fell asleep on accident and how sad he would be that he missed it. I went home, not mad at him for missing it, but at her for lying to me. I hated her that night.
I was always a daddy’s girl. My dad was a great man. He was also an alcoholic and no matter how strong a family is, addiction is stronger.
A few years ago, my dad got sick and came to live with me and I had the chance to ask him about these memories and many more. He would shrug them off and ask instead if I remembered the time we went to Niagra Falls or all the picnics we took in the Rocky Mountains. I could see the logic in this because our good times far outnumbered the bad. My mom did an incredible job of covering up our family secret. And without ever saying a word, she taught her daughters to do the same. Because we never talked about it, it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realized the lengths my mom went to in order to let me believe that my childhood was perfect. She never said a single bad word about my dad. She loved him fiercely.
As my dad got sicker we spent more time at the hospital than at home. One time we had been there for days and as I was drifting to sleep in the chair next to his bed he grabbed my hand. I journaled this entry that night.
October 8, 2015
Tonight when I was with my dad he said,
“You know I’ve always loved you, right?”
“Of course I know that, Dad. I’m your favorite.”
“Well, I want you to know that I have a lot of regrets in how I raised you. You were a good girl and you deserved a way better dad than me.”
“That’s impossible Dad, there is no one better for me than you.”
He just closed his eyes and cried. And I almost told him how true it was but I knew he already knew it. So instead I just sat there holding his hand and wishing I could have an entire lifetime to live over with this man. A lifetime with with no beer, no alcoholism. Where he was never too drunk to come to concerts and birthday parties and he always paid attention to me. But I won’t ever get that because he’s dying. My dad is about to die and way too soon, all that I will have are memories of a man that I loved. Who was great in a million ways. And who was also an alcoholic.”
My father was in and out of prison for the majority of my childhood. He’d be gone for years at a time before he would randomly show up one day acting as though nothing had happened. Acting as if years hadn’t gone by since the last time I saw him. I remember always getting this nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach when I would see him walk through the front door. But he was my daddy and I was his little girl so regardless of the fear and confusion that I felt I would still run up to him, jump into his lap and stare at him while asking him a million questions.
The earliest clear memory that I have of my father was when I was maybe 3 years old. It was me and my dad and mom and my aunt and her friend who was some man who I didn’t know. It was nighttime and we were driving in a car. I had my nighty on, the radio was loud and it felt like we were going really fast. I remember the smell of cigarette smoke surrounding me. We pulled off the highway and into a parking lot with a U-shaped driveway and we parked right in front of a party store door. I remember my dad and the man jumping out of the car while my aunt and mom were yelling at them. I remember my aunt saying that the store didn’t look open and she kept telling them to get back in the car. What seemed like forever had passed before they finally jumped back in the car. My dad had a bunch of stuff in his hands that he threw in the backseat before we sped off. If we weren’t going fast before surely we were now, and now my heart was beating just as fast too. There was a lot of fighting in the car, my mom screaming at my dad, my aunt screaming at the man. It was chaos but I was silent and the car was going so fast. I think that was my first taste of adrenaline and although I may not have liked it then, that feeling became comforting to me. It became familiar and I gravitated towards that lifestyle later on in my life.
Not long after this incident, my father was charged and convicted for multiple robberies and sentenced to prison time once again. Years went by and things seemed normal for a while, at least as normal as things got in my world. But then my dad was released from prison and my parents were in and out of my life just like they were before. Nothing was ever consistent, nothing except the chaos and confusion that would soon become my life.
Years went by and my sisters and brother were born but none of us were together. Except for holidays which is something I always had to look forward to. I was the big sister and they looked up to me, I knew that I was loved.
When I was about 13 my parents got divorced. I lived with my grandma at the time, my father’s mother. After the divorce I started seeing my dad a lot more. He would pick me up for the weekends and he would take me out. We would go together to hang out with my friends. He’d take me out drinking and it was weird and it felt gross, but he was my dad and I was still his little girl so I’d take any time with him that I could get.
It was only a matter of months before the drinking wasn’t enough for him, he wanted something more. That was when he decided to introduce me to a very dark world, a world of his that our family tried to hide for him for so long. He picked me up one Friday, we grabbed our liquor and started to drive. I asked where we were going and he said “I have a surprise for you, I want to show you something.” I had no idea of the hell that was ahead. We drove for a while and I began to feel scared. I looked out the van window and all I saw were dark streets, abandoned houses and graffiti everywhere. There were not many cars on the road, it felt like nobody was around but us. He turned down a side street and parked the van in front of a boarded up house. Within minutes a girl ran out and jumped in. My father pulled out his money and handed some to her. She placed a little white baggy in his hand. He began taking out the little white rocks and placing them in a glass tube. Smoke filled the van, it was the most awful smell I had ever smelled. My dad kept asking me to try it as he showed me how it was done. I kept saying no I didn’t want any and that I just wanted to go home. I remember wanting to crawl into bed with my grandma and have her tell me a story like she did when I was a little girl, when this terrible place was still very far away.
My dad was persistent in trying to get me to smoke this stuff with him but I was just as persistent in saying no. He blew the crack smoke in my face and I started to cry. I started to shake and I knew then that I had gotten a contact high from all the smoke. I was so scared, afraid that I would die. We sat in the same spot on this dark corner street for what seemed like hours. The girl had gotten out a long time ago, but I couldn’t remember her leaving, at some point I just realized she was no longer there. My dad asked me to get in the drivers seat and drive. I was so worried that I would get pulled over and go to jail since I was only 13 years old, but the fear of jail wasn’t anything in comparison to the fear of staying there, so I just drove around for hours. Up and down these streets, back and forth, just driving while he smoked his drugs. Soon the drugs had completely taken him over and a man emerged that I’d never seen before. His eyes were red and he had this smirk on his face and I knew this was a side of my dad that I had never seen, never until now.
My dad began to say things to me that no father should ever say to his child. I have a little girl of my own now and I just think if it had been her. I remember him telling me over and over how much he loved me. He was leaning closer and closer as he’d say these things that made my skin crawl. My hands were gripping the wheel so tight and sweat was dripping down my chest. I felt shaky and tense all over. He began to tell me that he was in love with me and that you show true love to one another by sleeping with each other. He said if we wanted to be as close as a father and daughter could get than that’s what we should do. He told me that God created sex so that our souls could be connected, that it was a way that we could merge our souls and it would allow us to take a piece of each other with us wherever we go. Although there is truth in those statements, I knew his claims were lies. Yes our souls become connected, but it’s not intended for father and daughter, it’s sacred for a husband and wife. Thankfully the one weapon that I was equipped with as a child is the word of God. My grandma raised me in the church, and Sunday school was a day I always loved and looked forward to. I must have payed more attention in those classes than I had realized, because scripture was the weapon I used to fight my father that night, scripture that I had hid in my heart when I was just a little girl. But I was so naive at the time that I felt sorry for my dad, I felt as if he didn’t know the truth, I thought he really believed these lies that he was telling me. Not until years later did I realize he was just trying to trick me because the drugs were tricking him. He was trying to hurt his little girl. By the grace of God the devil didn’t win that night but really neither did I. He may have never touched me but he shattered my heart into pieces, I was broken from just his words alone.
We finally made it back to grandmas but after that night I was never the same. A part of me died and what innocence I had left was gone, it was taken by the one who was suppose to protect me the most, my dad.
I told my grandma what had happened that night, in hopes that it would stop but we did what our family did best we pretended the problem didn’t exist. Every weekend was still the same. My dad would pull up in that van every Friday night and in his van I would get, unsure of what would happen or the evil that lied ahead. But the fear I once had was gone. I was numb.
I saw things down those streets that nobody should ever see and I felt things that nobody should ever feel. I had guns held to my head by strangers and I had many lies engraved in my head. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around my father intentionally hurting me so I started to believe some of the things he said must be true. He would tell me how much he loved me and what a beautiful girl I was. He told me that I’d make a great stripper if only I kept my head on straight. He said our family couldn’t afford college but my looks could get me there if I played my cards right. By 15 I had gotten a fake ID and became a dancer, because I took his words to heart. But college was not in my future, a lot of broken dreams and disappointment were there in its place.
I never used drugs with my father down those long lonely streets during those nights, our drug abuse together didn’t come until later on. But I did take his demon with me and before long he’s who I became. The monster in him that I hated was the same monster I saw when I looked in the mirror. It was no longer him that I despised, now it was me.
It wasn’t long after this all began that my father got caught breaking the law again and went back to jail. During his incarceration none of my siblings visited him or wrote him a single letter.
I’m the only one that went to see him and the only letters he had gotten were from me. I guess even after all of that, I still just wanted to be my daddy’s little girl.