What Christmas Means After the Loss of My Alcoholic Father
A few months back, my brother was returning from a trip to visit his wife’s family in Florida when he drove through what he texted was “the crappiest part of South Carolina.” I knew what he meant: the uneven pavement and abandoned car dealerships, low-slung houses struggling along highways and old men smoking on porch steps, shaggy weeds breaking through forgotten sidewalks. I know that deserted South so well, where everything you pass is draped in a threadbare cloak of what it once was.
Our parents had been raised near there, and when we visited as children, all four of us would sit on Granny’s couch watching TV, long fingers of cigarette smoke slipping into our nostrils and throats. A saucepan of water simmered on the the hallway heater at night to soothe our dry coughs, and we put our shoes on top of the back fridge to keep out Palmetto bugs. Pa, our father’s father, had been an angry alcoholic before a stroke made him our docile old Pa, and his oldest brother had died at 40. There was a sadness about their tiny home, though Granny’s fried hamburgers were delicious and the Pepsi was always ice cold.
When out of sight, it was out of mind, a place we could forget. But we have to assume that there was something about that town our father never could.
“I kinda felt like Dad could run from his destiny for only so long,” my brother texted, a rare moment of tenderness from the towering man just 16 months younger than me. “I don’t believe in destiny,” he wrote, “but that family life must have been hard to escape.”
“He must have felt like he could never get away from it, like he didn’t believe he was any better than it,” I wrote, hovering over my little brother, giving him time, leaving the door open as long as he would stay. If you thought to bring up Dad and say his name, it meant you were sad about him. Sad for him.
“That’s rough, but true,” texted my brother.
And it was done. The infrequent, always brief, sad mention of Dad. Every once in a while one of us will reach out from our interconnected web of sadness to call him up. We’ve lived in that web so long, we don’t even know it’s there.
As Christmas comes, he moves to the surface. There’s an annual shedding of what we’ve held back in the year, the things we’d have wanted to tell him or the things that we know would have driven him nuts. When there is a storm, he would have checked in, barking at us to be safe, as fussing was his most comfortable method of care. Christmas photos resurface: Dad in a robe, Dad opening a gift, Dad assembling a toy. We pull out his beloved Santa collection, delicate carved Santas painted in many colors, cloaked in tiny garments. He purchased many of them on trips to Christmas craft fairs with our mother, and many of them we purchased for him because we could think of nothing else that brought so much joy.
Christmas had always been the star upon which our father reliably rose. His shiny shoes clicked across the bank lobby as he pushed his customers toward tables of homemade food and sherbet punch at what he called, “Eat Day.” Our mother would bring us, just a few days into our Christmas breaks, as he shook hands and clasped shoulders, cheered “How the hell are ya?” into these waiting, wanting faces. One by one, customers dropped gifts by the house as they do in a small town — a shoulder of pork, a bottle of Crown, a smoked turkey breast, a mason jar of homemade blackberry liquor. He filled bags with toys for the poorer children in our mother’s classroom, the ones who’d never even been inside our town’s tiny Walmart. When illness left a family we knew with no money for gifts, he asked his richer friends to pony up and wordlessly handed the mother an envelope fat with cash. Tears flowed over those smooth brown eyes when he thought of anyone struggling at Christmas. He bought us presents we couldn’t afford up until Christmas Eve, and then we’d go to Mass and to neighbors’ homes to celebrate well past our bedtimes. You could tell where he was by his laughter.
Before bed, he’d read to us, and to hear the warmth in his gentle country voice was such a treat. (One day, I worry, I won’t be able to hear it anymore, I won’t be able to imagine his voice, his laughter.) Like us, he’d be too excited to sleep. The next morning, he’d march up and down the foyer until we’d come tumbling down the hardwood stairs. We’d tear through more gifts than we could imagine while our mother turned out pigs-in-blanket and Swedish tea rings from the kitchen. He’d pass out in his recliner once all the presents were open and the paper was crunched into balls and stuffed in the trash.
I didn’t realize as a child that I loved this season so much because of how easily it transformed him, just as it does an entire town. As the garlands climbed the light posts of the historic downtown street where he worked, he became different — open, hopeful — and so we could be, too.
By New Years Eve, he’d be back to narrowing his eyes at us from behind his newspaper, ordering us to turn down the television or pick up sticks so he could mow or get out of his chair or go upstairs, just out of his way, out of his way. No good grade, no first-place finish, no perfectly executed joke moved him.
But, Christmas moved him. So, for Christmas, we’d wait.
My dad was a public genius. At his best, he ruled every space he graced. He had no college degree, but he was a talented small-town banker, a benevolent boss and the mayor of every social gathering he attended. His eyes were clear and brown, sparkling like sweet tea over crushed ice. His credibility was instant; his charm a soft hook.
At his worst, he drank and drank, pouring warm beer into the black hole of his stomach in the carport, trying to flush the unnamed pain of his past. In private — and all too privately — he was broken. I didn’t know he was broken at the time; I just thought he was mean. Whatever ailed him, he never shared with us, but I can’t be the only one of us whose first real beer came from the warm stack of Coors Light he kept not-so-hidden under a blue camping tarp in the garage. He often escaped at night to guzzle them, hiding behind our minivan. He was unfailing smooth to others, but often so gruff to us, out golfing all weekend or fussing at and ignoring us at home. He ruined years of our mother’s life and so many of our childhood days, but we didn’t talk about it. As we became teenagers, we began to realize an entire world outside us got a person we did not. When I saw my friends with their doting, interested fathers, I felt so much shame — why didn’t I get that?
We confronted him in tearful, defeating battles we’d all wish we’d never started. We all have separate, spotty memories of those years, dots we’ve only connected in adult conversation. By the time we were all gone, starting to marry and make our own homes, Dad was drinking constantly, until his esophagus sprung leaks, until his pulpy gums released his crumbling teeth, until he lost our mother and, eventually, everything he’d ever had.
It’s been seven years since his last Christmas, which was just three weeks before he lost his life to alcohol. Though our mother had moved to be closer to us and recently filed for divorce, we all spent that Christmas Eve together at my house and the next morning at my oldest sister’s house. In between, Dad was up all night serving cookies and coffee at his AA meeting, where he shook hands, smoking cigarettes with newcomers, comforting the loneliest on the worst day to be lonely. We sent with him our leftover food. For a moment, I imagined there was purpose and momentum, he’d again found meaning. He could do this, I remember thinking. He’d never met a stranger. His love for people was endless and equal. This could be his thing, his new room to work as the knowledgeable gatekeeper, if he could only embrace it.
Earlier that summer, he’d confided in my sisters’ husbands that he was totally broke. Our banker father, the man I called as I did my taxes, had nothing. Our mother, who’d remained married to him after quietly leaving town, was stuck with the bill. It was unfathomable and embarrassing. We learned he was skipping work, sometimes ambling drunk around the downtown where he’d once walked with a kind, gentle power. In my university office, I took a phone call from the town manager for whom I’d worked as a teenager, as she’d just picked him up and carried him back to the house. Now she knew the secret that we could barely even acknowledge to ourselves. A counselor would later tell me, when I wondered how we could have had this strange reality, a story so different from how others had seen our family, and somehow rarely talked about it. She said, “A family secret is only a secret if everyone silently agrees to keep it.”
Fearing for his reputation in the hometown he cared about so much, we tried to hide how he had devolved. We helped him disappear quickly and quietly, slipping him from view like a place setting for a canceled guest. My middle sister took him in, and after the oldest discovered him passed out behind the wheel of his car in her driveway, we sought help. We did the sobriety-relapse-ER-sobriety-relapse-ER merry-go-round, finding any system for treatment impossible to navigate. My sister confiscated his keys so her family could go on a July 4 vacation, but us three girls ended that holiday night by committing him to a psychiatric facility after he had a rental car delivered to him so he could go on a (possibly final) bender. We buckled him into our passenger seat and rushed to a place we thought would take him. Raleigh citizens lined the roadsides with lawn chairs as we sped past, the fireworks already spitting colors into the darkening sky. The booms would shake the sky for hours, a sound that to this day makes me sick.
It’s only fair to mention that we laughed with him that night, a lot. We told jokes and stories. A woman who’d been brought in by a magistrate that night later told him how she could hear us laughing through her post-overdose stupor. He was very proud of that. This was us, is us. We are not one single corner of one sad story. We are a family, and even on that day, even on the worst day, we always were.
Around 4 a.m., dawns early light, they took his shoe laces and belt as tears poked his long, brown eyelashes. When he smiled, only half his face moved. He said, “Thanks girls!”
They only held him three days, barely enough time to get our breath. He called us, agitated because the Coke machine was empty and they wouldn’t let him have his book. They released him because we were, as they said, “a good family.”
They told us to hold on and pray for bottom. Not one of them told us that the worst part is not when you hit bottom, but when bottom starts flying up at you from the floor.
Through that fall we rode the ups and downs of his very old addiction, though dealing with it was so new to us. We drove him to AA, we joined him in counseling. Eventually a counselor asked my sister to no longer offer a roof over his head. As she was in the eye of the hurricane during those months, the damage hit her hard. We didn’t know where he would stay, such a fragmenting thought for such a seemingly put-together family, but he returned to us at Christmas, back at AA, sober and trying to place himself in it.
That he’d pulled it together for Christmas was typical of him. His star had risen again as it always had, as I thought it always would. It was proof that, as the writer Wendell Berry said, “it gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” What if he could stay sober and we could fix his teeth, I asked my husband, unable to sleep and climbing to his side of the bed. I knew people at the university dental school who would help us. With teeth, he could find a job. His brain would regenerate, awaken, spark and light from one end to the other, like the Christmas lights on the well-kept houses in the neighborhood where we grew up.
A few weeks after that Christmas, our parents were together when my father began to get sick. She took him in to her Raleigh apartment for a few nights, feeding him hot soup on her couch. Why were they together that night? I don’t remember. Their divorce was nearly final, but they’d been together their whole lives. She told us he was sleeping in his car, not a hotel, and our lives started to spin. One week later, he turned up at my young niece’s birthday party intoxicated beyond recognition, his body hanging from his bones like a soaked rag. We gave him a plate of pizza, which he chewed with his remaining teeth.
It was January 21, 2011. We huddled by the stairs to deliberate.
“Is he . . .?” “Of course he is!” “What do we do?”
A group of 7-year-olds played Just Dance, just feet away. My mother, heartbroken, left. Relapse isn’t quiet. It’s like a window that bursts from the fire inside. You get hit by the glass.
He shuffled from foot to foot, repeating himself, the rat-chewed goo of his alcoholic brain no longer able to properly traffic information. He tried to leave, but didn’t get down the street, stalled face down on his steering wheel. I took my turn, walking into the cold without a coat, gripping my arms in the bitter wind.
“Dad, you’ve had a stroke,” I told him, knocking on his window, improvising a way to get him to the hospital where maybe, just maybe, he’d be ferried to help. Part of me was praying for a stroke, a real one, so he could be a docile old man with flannel pajamas and Louis L’amour books like our long-gone Pa. “Let me take you to the hospital.”
He rolled down the window. “I have. Yeah, you’re right, I think. I had a stroke,” he managed. “Don’t worry. You’re about to not have to worry about me anymore.”
I told him that wasn’t fair, he couldn’t say that to us. We wanted to help.
“Don’t worry,” he offered. “This is about to be over.”
My husband and I followed his car to a nearby bar and watched him trudge through the parking lot, bouncing off cars like a pinball as he went inside to get, somehow, even drunker. He’d told me not to confront him again, so I didn’t. It was the last time any of us would see him alive, and my mind still grips the details of that image — his duck walk, his ball cap, the breath still in his body.
He’d come that night to say goodbye.
His body had arrived at the medical examiner in the college town where I worked hours before my sister would call to ask if I was driving and to tell me to pull over, pull over now. We had just stepped away from that Christmas of hope and walked together through a door that would lock behind us forever. Our lives with him, all the questions and concerns, the unexpressed trauma, was just beyond our reach. We stood in line at the funeral home, shaking hands of those whom he loved so very much, and with each big smile that carried a big story of Dad’s generosity or humor, I thought, “They don’t know. Still, we can’t let them know.”
It is like he was just here yesterday and somehow, never here at all. And somehow, each year, Christmas still comes.
It took me a few passing holidays, our season of the empty seat, to realize the magic of Christmas had vanished with him. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’d unpack his Santa collection and wrap tiny colored lights around them on my mantel. I’d bake for my coworkers as he had always done for “Eat Day,” wrap tinsel on the tree and only feel the hole widen, the green and red and gold swallowed in the dark.
This Christmas, like any other, the memory of his greatness pokes at the periphery of that sadness. I now have a toddler for whom Christmas is so new. She points at lights and shiny paper, offering, “Oooooh, Christmas!” She has his eyes sometimes, light brown and threaded with gold.
Time does heal wounds, but grief is complicated. It is an egg that never stops cracking. We bravely bring him up more, this phenomenon of our father, this Christmas star. The holidays are just a short season in what is one long season of our loss, more quickly becoming his loss with each baby, each birthday, each milestone that he didn’t stay to see. We know now that he could not stay, that sobriety was working against the grain of his sick body, so sick for so long. The secrecy that breeds and then fuels addiction has poisoned us all into believing that we can’t be publicly imperfect people, that our need to make people good or bad secures so many ends. He thought we’d be better off deboarding the train of constant loss and letdown than we’d have ever been climbing through the shadow of his disease. He knew the power of ruin, but not rebirth, and the fault there belongs to so many other things and people on this earth than him.
Christmas is coming. And for a moment, he’s here again, as he always was each Christmas, when our lives could be lit with his joy and we could pretend that we’d ever really have him that way for long.
And like all this tinsel, the shiny wrapped candy canes, the bulbs of tiny lights through windows, he’ll be gone again soon, swept out with the scentless brown trees, and we will spend another year awaiting his return.
Follow this journey here.
If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
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Getty image via g_muradin