The River's Badge

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Dad


Dad died in 2001, but he was gone long before. I'd moved 600 miles away when things turned bad; when he became someone else; someone elemental -- a newborn who lived a life deep inside. It was so gradual, so gentle. Dad had always been eccentric. That's what fascinated me about him. He was a constant surprise. As a little girl, I worshiped him. If I have any sense of imagination, it's because of Dad. Maybe he taught me to be a daydreamer; maybe it was genetic. I'd follow him around the farmyard as he tended to his chores and repairs, and he'd make up a silly song or a goofy phrase that I found captivating. Often I didn't understand what he was saying, but it didn't matter, because it spawned a wondrous life of its own.

As the years passed, I disdained him. He descended into alcoholism; falling-down drunkenness. He drove my mom crazy, which drove my life crazy. A switch flipped on for me around age twelve, and it didn't flick off until I was old enough to acquire a modicum of wisdom about the vagaries of life. (It took a long time.)

My mom committed him to the State Hospital For The Insane, which in the sixties also claimed to treat alcoholics, but actually didn't. It warehoused those who couldn't handle life. Then she did it once again nine months later. The "cure" never took. What it did, though, was break him. The whimsical oddball Dad had always been evaporated. He turned docile; subdued. On our infrequent visits, he was tentative. He traversed the stone walkway with us as if his bones would shatter if he made an untoward move. I mentally distanced myself from the whole imbroglio, resolved to X off the days on the calendar until I was old enough to get the hell out and away.

Once I made my escape at almost nineteen, I dispensed with the whole mess, but home was a ghost that whipped the curtains. I was gone but never gone. Early in 1976 Mom informed me that Dad was back to drinking again. By then she was resigned. The years had become an endless stabbing needle of Dad's meek compliance interspersed with bursts of defiance. Mom told me that he had checked himself into a rehab center; one more in a long string of healings that had never once taken.

This time it did.

I don't know what Heartview had that the other places didn't, or if he just surrendered. After Dad's six-week stint in Heartview, he never again took another drink.

I never once told my dad how proud I was of him. We didn't say things like that in our family. We actually never said much of anything to one another.

Instead I did what I knew how to do -- I wrote him a song:




When Dad was in Heartview, I learned that I was pregnant. Thus, two lives began. My little boy celebrated his first birthday at Mom and Dad's home, but it wouldn't be long before my parents decided to start a new life. They sold the business that had turned into a bargain with the devil, and moved to a real house, where Mom baked banana bread and Dad chased the rabbits out of his garden. In more than thirty years of marriage, this was the first calm existence they enjoyed. Dad carried his white coffee mug with him everywhere, attended AA meetings every week; stubbed out his cigarettes in a sand-filled coffee can in the garage. He became Dad again; goofy, amused by stupid seventies TV commercials.

In 1978 my second baby boy came along. He had dark hair and dark eyes; a genetic generation-skipper. He looked just like Dad. My boys spent many a Fourth of July sunset shooting off fireworks in the street in front of Mom and Dad's house, alongside their cousins and kid-like uncles.

The last time I visited my dad he existed in a world all his own. Mom said she had to set an extra place at the dining room table for Dad's "friend". He talked to his friend late into the night as he rested in his blue corduroy recliner. I went to bed in my little sister's old bedroom and fell asleep listening to Dad talk late into the night. His voice was so gentle, I felt like a little girl again, snuggling on Daddy's lap.

I wasn't there for the end. I prefer the memory of my dad's soothing tones as I drifted off to sleep. That's how I want to remember him -- the same beginning; the same end.

It's been seventeen years and I still miss him.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. My heart aches from missing you.






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