Monthly Archives: March 2016

Teach Him How to Drink


My dad was a plumber with an eighth-grade education, but his street-smarts far surpassed anything I would ever garner from years in college and graduate school.

My dad was also a player. He worked hard, and he played equally hard all of his life. Sadly, the only real sobriety he would ever know as an adult came as a consequence rather than a gift. At the age of sixty, he was initially diagnosed with colon cancer only to discover after surgery that the cancer had already spread to his liver … or vice versa. Doctors gave him 3 to 6 months at best; self-described “stubborn Polack” that he was, however, he lived for nearly two more years.

In the summer of 1977, four years before his diagnosis and at the age of 56—the age I am today—he boarded a plane and accompanied me to my freshman orientation at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was a dyed-in-the wool, first-generation Easterner, and the Midwest held absolutely no allure for him, as it did me. The weakened beer served in bars, the suffocating heat and humidity, and the absurd absence of casinos (tribal reservations were still just that back then … reservations), dog tracks, horse tracks, OTB parlors, or professional sports teams in Des Moines left him shaking his head as to why anyone would submit themselves to life in such a desert of entertainment. Worse, he couldn’t understand why his only son had chosen to apply to colleges a minimum of 1,000 miles away from the “real world back East.” (Four years later, when cancer forced sobriety on his waning hours, I believe he came to understand that, as much as I loved him, it was the disease of alcoholism itself—the disease that would eventually consume me as it had consumed him—that drove me as far away from him as I could manage to get, even if that meant living in a veritable desert of entertainment for four years.)

Nonetheless, he did accompany me, and we would both learn a great deal from that trip. I would learn what I needed to learn to successfully transition to college life, and he would learn a bit about what my life at Drake would be like.

The evening after the first day of orientation (and after doing a little underage bar-hopping with other incoming freshman I’d met that day), I stopped in to visit my dad in his dorm room. I wasn’t surprised to find him sitting in the room’s bay window with a 12-pack of beer by his side as he read all the information he’d gathered that day during the parents-of-incoming-students orientation.

“Learn anything,” I said.

“Yeah, in fact, I did … sit down.” I sat on the empty bed. It didn’t take him long to notice I was eyeing his stash. “They’re getting warm,” he said.

“Not a problem,” I said, and reached over to grab one.

“That’s what I’m afraid of …” he said, and then he went on to tell me what he had learned. During the parent’s session, the parents were asked to write down and then share the one thing they wanted most for their children to learn while they were at Drake. Apparently one woman spoke up and said, “I hope my son learns how to drink while he’s here.”

“I heard that and I about fell out of my chair,” my father said. “I need to send my son 1200 miles away to learn how to drink?” Of course, the woman went on to say that she hoped her son would learn how to drink responsibly, that somehow during his four years at Drake, he would learn that drinking alcohol was a privilege—and not a right to be abused.

This was, of course, a novel concept to my Polish-American, Catholic, working class father, and, at the time, a pathetically silly concept to me. It would, of course, prove to be a moment of hyperbolic genius and a lesson neither of us would learn soon enough.

Four years later, and only four days after my graduation from Drake, I returned to Connecticut, only to learn that on his 60th birthday my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he was not expected to live long, and that for all intents and purposes, it appeared his work-hard-play-hard approach to life had come at a non-refundable price.

In the days and weeks that followed that summer, my father and I would play golf almost every day that the chemotherapy he submitted to reluctantly didn’t nail him to his bed. Sometimes, after our round, we’d stop in the clubhouse where he’d order a Coke and I’d blindly order a beer—or two or three. Almost every chance we had, we would argue about whether I was actually going to leave Connecticut for Arizona and graduate school that fall—me insisting I would NOT … him insisting, of course, that I would. “We’ll come visit you there. At least you can drive to Vegas from Tucson,” he’d quip. But his favorite thing to say that summer in his gruffest foreman’s tone, was, “What are you gonna learn hanging around here waiting for me to die anyway … how to drink? If you didn’t learn the right way in college, you sure as hell aren’t gonna learn here. Not in this family.” Sadly, he would sometimes add, “The only regret I have in this life, Son, is all the nights I can’t remember.”

And then he would reminisce about our god-awful trip to the Midwest together and the night he realized the woman at the orientation had it right: College should be a place where I would learn a lot of things, including how to drink responsibly. But what is and what should be for an alcoholic and his son are two entirely different things. I wonder what our conversation would have been like if either of us had even remotely understood that we were powerless over alcohol and that without a solution, our lives, as well as our drinking, would always be unmanageable.

Seventeen years later, at nine months of sobriety, I would return to visit my father’s grave and not only make amends to him for all the pain and worry my own drinking had caused him in his final years, but also to forgive him for being one of the unfortunate alcoholics who hit bottom too late and consequently never came to understand the nature of his condition. Eight years after that, and two short months after the birth of my only son, I would visit his grave again, this time to ask him to pray with me that this child be the one to break the chain of disease and addiction that had for so many years both plagued and informed almost every biography in our family.

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I Hope There’s A Heaven


The day my son was born I drove my daughter, who was just shy of 3 years old at the time, to the hospital to meet him. Upon arrival, she hopped into the hospital bed with her mother and the newborn and seemed thrilled beyond description to meet her new-found, life-long friend and sibling.

Later, while driving along the freeway in the early evening twilight on the way home from the hospital, my daughter seemed unusually quiet. I asked if everything was Okay. She just stared out the car window from her car seat and mumbled, “Tired.” Exactly what a father who has been up all night and running all day after the birth of his son—especially a 45-year-old father—wants to hear: That his nearly 3-year-old daughter is as tired as he is and ready to sleep.

But not so fast. As we pulled into the garage and I got out of the car to release my daughter from her car seat, I noticed her eyes were red and her cheeks were moist—clear evidence of sobbing.

“What’s wrong, Sweetheart,” I asked as I lifted her out of the car and gently set her on the floor, directly under the glow of the garage door light.

And then she uttered that sentence I will never forget nor the matter-of-fact tone in which it was spoken: “I think I lost my Mommy.”

STUMPED!

By all means, you should laugh at the spectacle of the 45-year-old man down on one knee—the editor, writer, former teacher who is never without something “more” to say—fumbling for a way to respond besides, “Oh … No, Sweetheart, no, that’s not true at all … I mean … No … why would you ever think …”

This situation was NOT described or even remotely foreshadowed in ANY of the many how-to-be-a-father books I had read nor did my fading memory recall any episodes of Father Knows Best in which the know-it-all father offered up anything like a remedy to this type of dilemma. Hell no.

But it did prepare me somewhat for the situation I faced tonight, 10 years later, with my now 10-year-old son. That night 10 years ago, I learned the value of being prepared to Dodge and Question rather than always try to Answer.

Tonight, as we drove to the church where his now 13-year-old sister was attending her usual Wednesday night church group with a bunch of middle school friends and their mentors, the ominous clouds of an impending thunderstorm set my son’s mind to thinking a series of what if’s …

“Dad, if we go on vacation, what kind of plane will we fly?” he asked, staring out the window sullenly, much as his sister had done that fateful night 10 years earlier.

“I don’t know … the usual, I guess. MD-80, 737, commuter planes, whatever they put us on. Why?” (Always end with a question.)

“Can those planes fly through clouds like those?” he asked and pointed out at the enormous black square of cloud and rainfall rising up from the earth to the heavens in his side view mirror.

“Yeah, sure, or fly around it. What are you worried about?” (Notice the “kind-of-an-answer” quickly corrected by a question.)

“I hope there’s a heaven,” he said, making the logical leap only a 10-year-old mind is nimble enough to make.

“You’re afraid there isn’t?” (Notice the repetition of a question here, ANY question.)

“I figured out there isn’t a Santa Claus because you did such a bad job of hiding the gifts under the bed this year, and I know the tooth fairy wouldn’t leave all my teeth in your sock drawer, and I figured out last year that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t leave the price tag on the Easter basket, but I don’t know how to figure out if there’s a heaven.”

“You don’t figure it out,” I said, proud of myself momentarily for being so direct and honest. “You believe it to be true. We talked about the difference between knowing and believing, right? You know I’m here because you have evidence, right? You can see me. You believe your sister is inside the church because you trust what she said is true, right? But you won’t know it for sure until she comes out, right?”

“Yeah, I know, and I believe in God because I feel like he protects me.”

“That’s what I believe, Buddy. That’s what my experience has led me to believe over a whole lotta years.”

“Did you read it somewhere, too?”

“Nope. I didn’t learn it in books, and I don’t believe it because of all the people who told me I should?”

“You said you believe it because of what you feel in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“Exactly.” I was somewhat shocked he had actually listened to me whenever it was I had said that—a minor parental victory that threw me off momentarily.

“I feel God in here, too” he said, pointing again to his chest.

“Well … Good.”

“But I don’t know about Heaven. I don’t exactly feel Heaven in here. I don’t even know what Heaven is supposed to be like.”

And at that very moment, I went academic. I made 4 years of college, the last two as a philosophy major, and 3 years of graduate school all pay off. Rather than engage in a discussion about the existence of Heaven and Hell, I jumped on the prime opportunity to beg the question and leapfrog directly to, “Well, what do you think Heaven would be like?”

“Good … I guess. I don’t know.”

“Yeah, good is good. But what about specifics? What do you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know. Is it a place? What do you think it’s like?”

He had learned the Dodge and Question strategy all too well. He’s smart that way. A natural born Con Artist … or Politician.

“I don’t know if it’s a place, Buddy. I don’t think of it that way. I try to think more about what it must feel like.”

“So what does it feel like then?”

“You know how you feel when you don’t have any homework to worry about?”

“Yeah.”

“And how you feel when a ballgame is over and you had fun but you’re not overly excited about it anymore and your kind of glad it’s over because you’re tired.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Calm, right? Not worried about anything, not too excited about anything. Just kind of peaceful and calm. After that, I honestly don’t know what to think, Buddy. I just think it’s peaceful and calm and I leave it at that.”

“So if our plane crashes on the way home from vacation, we’ll end up being peaceful and calm …?”

Thank God for cell phones, and those critical moments when they ring … or vibrate. “Hang on, Buddy. It’s your sister … . No, it’s not raining or lightening. Just run out the front door. We’re in the usual spot,” I muttered in my usual grumpy dad voice.

“I don’t think it’s going to rain anymore tonight, Dad. I think those clouds are gone.”

And so, as his sister and her BFF appeared and my son complained about how slowly they walked because they were teenagers now, I turned to him and said, “You all good now?”

“Yeah, Dad,” he said. “It’s all good.”

Good is good, I thought. And for the first time in a long time, I looked right at him, and I wasn’t embarrassed to say out loud, “God is good, Buddy. That’s all you need to believe right now. And all you have to do is be one of the good guys.”

“Right,” he smiled. “We’re the good guys.” Something we’ve been saying to each other for years apropos of nothing, except that good is good … and we’re the good guys.