Death of an Alcoholic Father
January 5, 2012
When you wake up in the morning the first few days after someone has died, it takes a few minutes to remember that they’re gone. Other things snap into place first.
Where am I? Click. Who am I? Click. Your life story and the continuous timeline of your awareness of your life snap into place (unless you’ve had too much to drink the night before; then there may be holes). But the first few days after someone’s died, you might be awake for a few minutes before that segment of reality clicks into place. Oh yes – they’re gone. It’s a new part of your story that you have to unconsciously remind yourself of – that person is no longer breathing somewhere on this planet.
My father died a few days ago. To be honest, it was a relief. After I’d gotten the call I spent a few hours grieving, but I think it was more for myself than for him. Well, now that I write that, it seems obvious that grieving is never really for the other person. They’re dead. It’s for you, or it’s a show for those around you.
There was no one around. I made a playlist of the Motown, Soul and Pop music that he’d played throughout my life and was the soundtrack of the time we spent together, and like I did when I was young, I lied on the floor by the stereo, and I cried.
I grieved for the little girl who was subjected to her father’s drunkenness and manic rages, to his threats to kill her mother and threats to leave her an orphan who would live on Skid Row. I grieved for the girl who witnessed a man crippled by his fears and addictions and inability to express true feelings or be vulnerable; I grieved for the little girl who learned from his example, internalized it, and has lived the painful lesson:
Being invulnerable doesn’t protect you – it destroys your chance of having the thing that humans long for most deeply: real, true intimacy with others, and the ability to love and be loved.
And I did grieve a little for that baby boy who was born at an orphanage, bastard son of an unwed Catholic servant girl in Ireland in the 1940s – a time when sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by priests and nuns was an epidemic more insidious and incapacitating than any communicable disease. That little boy was adopted at age four by Americans who I’m sure had no idea how to manage the emotional scarring that a little Irish redheaded orphan had endured, regardless of whether he’d escaped the odds of abuse. Being abandoned by a mother, whether she had a choice or not, sets the stage for life-long and profoundly painful questions of self-worthiness and lack thereof.
I felt relieved when I got the news that death had freed him from his suffering; relieved for him, and relieved for me. Since the age of 13 or so I’d wished he would die so I wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. Over the last three years, since he fled the state of California to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a student, he lived in motels and steadily drank himself towards his grave, as have many of his Irish ancestors. So by the time he died physically, I’d already let him go, and let myself off the hook for being an ‘unworthy’ daughter.
He may have believed that his mother abandoned him because she didn’t love him enough; but his daughter abandoned him because she loved herself too much to continue to allow the choices he made for his life to affect her in negative ways.
I find it poetic that my alcoholic father passed away a few days after I’d made the decision to give up drinking for good. The synchronistic timing of his death will give me the impetus to stay sober, present, and conscious for the rest of my life. I don’t want to lose another moment of awareness to alcohol, and I don’t want to continue believing that having a drink somehow makes my life better.
I don’t want to live my life like my father did, tormented by fears, controlled by cravings and aversions. Unlike my father, I’m not going to wait for death to arrive to free me.
I choose to be free while I’m still alive. I choose to live.