My Dad, the Drunk

My dad was a drunk. These are words I’ve become capable of saying only in the past few years. He was sometimes mean and rarely violent but he was loud. He was so loud. My mom and I spoke in whispers and he could be heard through walls and doors and, if the windows were open, down the street. If the windows weren’t open you could still hear him as you approached the front door. He was tall, he was muscular, he demanded to be heard and commanded attention and people gladly gave it to him because he was different out in the world than he was at home. He was funny. My friends loved him and didn’t understand why I never wanted anyone to come to my place.

My dad was a drunk, but that didn’t define him. There were drinking years and sober years and sometime what we thought were sober years were actually drinking years and vice versa. My dad was kind. He would go out of his way to help someone. He loved fiercely, he was loyal. He was the only one to ever tell me I could be anything and actually mean it. When I wanted to be on Broadway he told me he’d get me into Julliard. When I wanted to be a rock writer he played me music and talked about bands and read my Rolling Stone magazines. He hated any music produced after 1990 but he kept an open mind for my sake. “Green Day isn’t terrible,” he said once. When I said I wanted to be a writer he teared up and told me I was so talented. When I said I wanted to study abroad he was the only one who said we’d find a way to make it happen. He was gone before he could. My dad was the only one who asked me things about my life. About my friends, about school, about boys. He was so proud when I made honors society and he waited impatiently for my mom to get home so we could go to the ceremony. He was excited and she was annoyed to go out again. He was drinking, but we didn’t know yet. I didn’t make honors society the next year.

My dad could play the guitar like a rockstar but I preferred when he played the piano. There’s a difference between playing the piano and making music and my dad made music. He had Keith Richards dreams in a lower-middle class suburban life. He had talent but no way out.

He was bipolar with ADHD before anyone even knew what those things were. When he was low he was so low. There were days I’d come home from school worried I’d find a body instead of him. Other times I’d come home to find all of the furniture rearranged, the house spotless, meticulously cleaned. All but my bedroom, which he’d tear apart in order to force me to clean. He looked through my stuff, he read my journal. When I was staying out until 4am with my boyfriend, he was the only one to suggest I should have a curfew.

He’d forget to pick me up when he said he would, would forget about doctors and dentist appointments. He couldn’t hold down a job. Sometimes when he did pick me up he’d do his best to embarrass me if I was standing with a boy. He’d pull away as I reached for the handle. He’d yell my embarrassing nickname out the window. The boy would laugh, think how fun my dad was. He’d tell me that the next day and then I’d avoid the boy so he’d never know the truth.

We used to go the beach every summer with his parents and those were the only two weeks I could be absolutely certain he’d be fine. If he drank he hid it. He lowered his voice because my grandmother would yell at him, concerned he was disturbing the neighbors. He was a swimmer, had been a lifeguard, would take me out in the water, out to the sandbar. He’d tell “under” or “over” when waves came and if I started to drift away he’d grab my hand and pull me back.

We moved a lot because he punched holes in walls. Something happened when I was nine, something huge, life-changing, something I needed my dad to handle, but he was passed out. Not long later my mom and I were under police protection while he was being sent off to rehab for the first time. The rehab would happen again, the police knew our names, were familiar with us.

He was my stepdad. He stepped in when I was four, when my real dad walked out and never looked back. He would take me to the mall for tiny hotdogsand he’d read to me and he sometimes told me it was me who made him fall in love with my mom.

He never missed a birthday when I was growing up. He always made it special, always made sure that even if I got nothing else for Christmas I’d get the one thing o wanted most. Then one year he missed my birthday. But he called on the next one and that was the last time I spoke to him.

I’m writing this in the past tense, but my dad is still alive. I haven’t seen him in ten years, haven’t spoken to him in seven. He’d been in and out over the course of a decade until my mom kicked him out for good. Three years ago I wrote him a letter. I explained that there are only so many times you can listen to broken promises, only so many times you can forgive someone before it becomes detrimental to both of you. I said I was sorry. I said I loved him. But it was too much at the time and I backed away. He wrote back, he didn’t call. He respected my boundaries. He sent me Christmas cards and birthday cards until he realized that the letter for me was closure and he gave up.

He sent me another letter this year on my birthday so I’ve been thinking about him a lot. The good and the bad, how for so long I only remembered the bad but only recently allowed myself to remember the good. Today is Father’s Day and I’m writing this on my phone at Starbucks after scrolling Twitter and reading stories of amazing dads and fearless dads and dads who didn’t disappear into bottles of Jack Daniels or even Listerine, in the most desperate times. I’m writing a book about the ways people disappear. Into water, into things, into each other and it was a long time before I made the connection. The island is our island. This is the story of my life.

I might delete this later or I might not. But it’s Father’s Day, a day I normally despise and this year I feel okay about it. I don’t hate it. My dad was a drunk but he was also so many other things.

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