This is the second attempt to write about my father for this Father's Day post. I thought of writing about how imperfect he was and how I had not estranged him. I started to write and talk about the negative things. I wrote two paragraphs and had to stop and delete them. I couldn't do it.
His imperfections aren't important to me. I loved him anyway. His imperfections were not him. They had taken him over but they were not him. In my mind they don't identify him. If they did, I would not have loved him. Although I admit that he was not the easiest father to love but he was ill and he did things because of his illness that took him away from other people.
(Note: He is the tallest one in the photo which is from several years before I was born.)
It wouldn't be honest to write about my father without mentioning his illnesses. When I started to write about him yesterday, my writing felt too critical as though I was blaming him for how he was but that wasn't my intent. So I am writing again today and hope that you can see that my intent is not to blame and point a finger but to talk about my father who was human and imperfect and who I loved. Some of us are very fortunate not to have serious illnesses. My father was not fortunate.
My father was ill. He suffered from several illnesses which were illnesses of the spirit but illnesses just the same. He suffered from alcoholism, a gambling addiction, and a nicotine addiction which probably was the major contributor to his death but was the least serious of his addictions in terms of the damage to relationships that he had or might have had.
When my father died in 1988, he lived in a small apartment that was up several flights of stairs that he struggled to negotiate with his bad legs and his emphysema. All of the walls of his apartment were browned from the smoke of his cigars and cigarettes. His kitchen drawers contained slips of paper from the horse track and small books on gambling tips. The apartment smelled of tobacco.
He had a few pots and pans that he used to make his meals. In the bedroom I found the new shirts and scarves that I had given him for past Father's Days and birthdays and Christmases still folded, new, never worn. The mattress on his bed was filthy. The mahogany bedroom set was the same one that he had shared with my mother for the twenty-five years of their marriage that had ended in 1968. His apartment was a lonely place. He never joined any groups for seniors. He never went any place other than the horse track or out to do his errands like shop for groceries. Any time I suggested that he join AA, he would reply, "What do you think I am? A bum?"
But I was never able to hate my father or even to drum up any dislike for him. At heart he had a sweetness that most people who met him when he was sober would recognize. Most people who knew him when he was sober liked him. He could be warm and charming and even a bit funny. It makes me sad to write about him and talk about him now. Yet he was extraordinarily self centered in his commitment to doing what he wanted to do without any regard for anyone else and its impact on anyone else. His top priorities in life were to drink alcohol, to gamble, and to smoke and to do all three of these things as much and as often as possible.
He never put relationships with people first. He wanted to be loved but he didn't put any of himself into relationships. His closest relationships were with his brother who was also an alcoholic and his friend, Melvin, who was his buddy with whom he went to the horse track. What my father wanted from women was for someone to do his laundry, to cook and to keep quiet about his bad habits. My mother was the only woman whom he found to do those things for him and after twenty-five years she left him. He was always put out that he couldn't get someone else to do those things after my mother divorced him.
Why do we love someone? Sometimes I don't know. I loved my father. This may not make sense to others. Yes, he was abusive to me. He would call me while he was drunk and be insulting, hostile, angry, aggressive, profane, and obnoxious.. One time he showed up at our apartment and tried to get my then husband to fight with him. That was back when my mother had left him and he was distraught and angry. Back in that same period of time which was when I was in my early twenties, I invited him for Sunday dinner four different Sundays and he stood me up every time. He never called. Never apologized for not coming. Never gave a reason.
I had two different sets of feelings regarding him. One set was hopeful that he would just be a nice dad and that we could do dad and daughter things like have a Sunday dinner together. That side of me was the one that asked him to come for Sunday dinner. The other set of feelings were of fear that he would show up at my house drunk and create a scene and I'd be frightened and embarrassed and ashamed. That side of me was the one that lived in fear and looked out the window several times a day watching for my father's car.
(Note: The photo on the left is of my parents when they were first married. She was seventeen when they married. She lied so that they could get a marriage license as she was underage. He was twenty-seven.)
I took my parents' imperfections very personally back then. I felt as though their imperfections were my own imperfections. That I was less of a person because my parents were so very very imperfect and they did such embarrassing outrageous socially unacceptable things. I can remember one time when I was out in public and with people I respected and then there was one of my parents and I had to introduce them and I turned red with shame. It is not good to feel ashamed of your parents. Not good at all!
Back in that same time frame I went to my first Al Anon meeting. Somehow, until going to that meeting, I had felt obligated to tolerate anything that either of my parents did with no complaint. Until that meeting I took it all on my shoulders and I never said, "Enough!" I never put my foot down. I never thought of myself as having any rights. I went to an Al Anon meeting and they said that I didn't have to put myself through that. That I could say, "No." That I could say, "You cannot call me when you are drinking." That I could say, "If you keep doing that, I will not talk to you." No, I had never thought of that. I cried for hours after going to the meeting. I felt as though I had been given permission and I had never felt as though it was okay before to stand up for myself. It was such an enormous relief! I was in my early twenties.
So I did. I put my foot down with my father and told him that he could not call me any more when he was drinking or I would stop talking to him. And he did stop. For quite a long time. I recall that he cried when I said that to him. Years later he did it again but not as much as he had and he was not as abusive. Although I can recall things that he said that were still abusive. Later when sober, he would usually apologize. But often he had no memory of what he had said or done.
I accepted that he had an illness. He never did recover from it. He never tried to get any treatment. He ruined his health. He had no close relationships other than with his brother and his friend, Melvin. He drank and gambled and smoked until it all caught up with him and killed him. Considering how badly he treated his body, it is amazing that he made it to age seventy-five.
He did some good things in his life. He was a gardener back when I was a child. He must have enjoyed the smell of tomato plants, the freshly dug earth, watching the ears of corn grow thick and round, the taste of new potatoes. He was a steelworkers' union president for 9 years. He was always a guys' kind of guy. He was more comfortable in the company of guys doing seriously (stereotypically) guy things like sports, smoking, gambling, drinking, working hard.
His major reading material were the forms from the horse track. He didn't understand why I needed to go to college and didn't give me any money towards my tuition. Earlier, when I was fourteen, I wanted to buy clothes like the other kids did. I wanted to fit in. I remember madras was the in fabric to wear when I was in high school. Madras shorts. Madras shirts. I had no money. I went to work at fourteen so I could buy clothes. He sequestered any money that he earned from his job so that he always had money to gamble. My mother never knew what his paycheck was.
He died alone and lonely and I know that he felt sorry for himself. I felt sorry for him too for different reasons. It wasn't that he was alone because he had been abandoned. He had not ever put relationships with me or anyone else as a priority at any time in his life. He had set his priorities and then he paid the price.
I am guessing that my father did have pleasures in life. The joy of the horse race, the excitement of holding winning tickets, the bonding with his gambling buddy, the buzz of being high on alcohol, whatever pleasure he had out of his cigarettes and cigars, the satisfaction of analyzing the potential winners of races, the anticipation of a win, the pride in his having been the president of a union. I know he had these pleasures. Which is something. It isn't as though he saw his life as being miserable. He was probably quite happy with it. I doubt that he would have changed a thing if given a choice.
His major annoyance in life was that he never found anyone after my mother left who was willing to do his laundry and his cooking. So for him, he may have lived a satisfying life.
My father was ill. I accepted this long ago. I loved him and still remember him with love. It might be easier for you to imagine me feeling angry at him for all what he did and did not do. But I don't feel angry. I have wondered what he might have been if he hadn't suffered from those addictions. After all he had been a union president for nine years despite his alcoholism. What else might he have accomplished? But his illnesses took him over as much as any alien space predator in any science fiction movie took over its human prey. My father was taken over and he never fought it. There had been glimpses of who he was inside and those glimpses were enough for me. I had no choice. They had to be enough for me. So I loved him regardless and I mourned the loss of him to things that I never understood.
The horse Big Brown competed for the Triple Crown yesterday. My father, if he were still alive, would have been excited! He would have placed a bid on the race. Absolutely! He would have watched every second of it that he could watch. He would have had a cigarette or cigar in his hand and a drink by his side. He would have had so much fun! Probably alone in his apartment of course but fun just the same.
Maybe up there in Heaven, my father watched that horse race and placed his bets and maybe God even lets him win! I hope so!
My father did have a Triple Crown Winner on which he placed a bet. The horse's name was Addiction and my father bet his life. Unfortunately, Addiction won.
The only horse race I ever went to was one that my father took me to when I was a little kid. I never felt the appeal for it that it had for my father. The one image that stands out in my mind from that day is of a man with no legs who wheeled himself around and to the windows to make bets. I'm not sure if that memory has much significance other than my thought that when people want to gamble, they will overcome anything to gamble.
They will get to the track or the casino or the card game no matter what their physical condition or what it does to their relationships or the circumstances of their life. They will do almost anything to have that opportunity to gamble. And the same goes for what they will do so that they can continue to drink or smoke or whatever else that they feel they need to do to get through the day. The horse named Addiction wins far too many races.
Happy Father's Day, Dad! I still love you. I don't know why but I do.