Loving And Grieving A Complicated Person, 8 Years Later
“You looked at me long enough to see something mysterioso under all the gruff and bluster. Thanks. Sometimes you get so close to someone you end up on the other side of them.”
— Richard Siken
8 years ago today, I unexpectedly lost my father.
The further we get from the anniversary, the less people ask or talk about him. My dad was my best friend. He was whip smart and had a sense of humor that puts mine to shame. He was warm, cultured, athletic, and artistic. I feel so incredibly lucky that I got to have him as a dad.
He was also incredibly complicated, temperamental, and kind of an asshole when he wanted to be. People feel less comfortable talking about that now — but it’s okay to say it because it’s true. It’s also important to me that you know that because I want you to understand just how hard my dad fought to be better in the last year of his life.
If you have the time and energy, I’d like to tell you a story about my dad. It’s not always a pretty story. It’s not always a bad story. But he forever changed my life and I’d like to share him with you, if you’d like to hear it.
When I was 15,
My dad came home drunk.
I had been sitting on the couch watching Comedy Central, the same channel that had been on since he left to go to the bar around 4:30 or 5 p.m. It was late by the time he got home. Maybe I had missed a party or a sleepover that was scheduled for that night. Whatever the reason was, I was annoyed and didn’t make much of an effort to hide it.
Every other week, my 13 year old brother and I would make the two hour journey from my mom’s house in Delaware to my dad’s house in Maryland. I knew the routine by that point. He’d hang out for an hour, hand me his credit card to order a pizza, and leave for the bar until 2 or 3 am. Then he’d come home plastered and angry.
When my dad drank, the parts of him I loved disappeared. He wasn’t the charming, witty guy I knew that liked to watch Jeopardy or Saturday Night Live with me. Instead, he had a habit of yelling or picking fights when he got like this.
So I kissed him goodnight and sulked up to my room, not wanting to roll dice with which version of my dad I was going to get that night. It took maybe 3 minutes of me laying in bed before I heard it.
“GEORGIA. GET YOUR ASS DOWNSTAIRS.”
I walked downstairs and stood at the foot of the railing.
“Where the fuck is the remote?”
I tried to explain that I didn’t have it. That the channel had been left exactly where he had left it, hours earlier. He didn’t believe me — told me he was going to watch me turn over every cushion, every rug, until I personally handed it back to him.
I searched for an hour, maybe two, before I got fed up and started yelling back. I don’t know why I did or what made that time different. We got into it, for God knows how long. At one point, I was so angry that I almost cursed back. I never cursed at him, so when I curtly cut off a sentence with a distinctly ffffffff sound, he raised an eyebrow.
“What was that?”
“No, you wanted to say ‘fuck you’ to me. Just say it.”
“Fine. Fuck you.” I snapped, exhausted. “I’m sick of this. I come here every two weeks and you’re never even here. You’re drunk. You make a massive deal about me coming and then you leave us here so you can go to the bar and get wasted.”
“God, you’re just like your mother.” He rolled his eyes.
He said it to hurt me. It worked. I called someone to come pick me up. I told my dad to call me when he decided to stop drinking. He got up to open the door for me.
The remote had been under his ass the entire time.
Several months passed and his multiple pleas for me to come back to the house went unanswered. It’s not that I didn’t want to. I did. He had made promises to stop drinking in the past and never did. It felt like nothing was ever going to change unless something major was done. I’d never put my foot down like this before and the guilt was unbearable.
My brother continued going without me. He’d come back from those trips without much to say. My brother was the hide-in-his-room-and-play-video-games type. I’d slink into his room whenever he’d return and ask if Dad had been drinking.
“I-unno.” He’d shrug. “Not around me.”
In some regards, I felt relieved from the duty of being my father’s keeper. I got to see my friends more. I stressed less about if I’d get yelled at over minor things. But I sorely missed my dad. Despite all our issues, he was my favorite person.
Around Christmas time, I hoped enough time had passed and deemed my brother’s reports satisfactory. I’d test it out and go see him for the holiday. I’ll never forget the joy in his voice when I called and said I’d be coming.
My grandmother picked us up from my moms and dropped us off at his place. I sat in my room, pacing around, awaiting his arrival. When I heard the front door open, I raced down to see him.
We hugged each other for what felt like a very long time and he teared up.
“Missed you Peach.”
“Missed you Dad.”
When I was 16,
Things did a 180 — he was himself again. I don’t know if my dad ever stopped drinking but he stopped around me.
He was the kind of funny that would make me wheeze. I get my love of comedy from him and he always encouraged me to pursue it. We’d spend hours talking about stand up and movies and reciting our favorite jokes. He never missed a Saturday without calling to ask for my thoughts on SNL or to tell me if a movie I liked was coming on TV.
I took a big step by inviting him to one of my school plays — it was the first one I had invited him to in years. I was the lead and he was so proud of me. He had framed pictures of me in costume in every room of the house. Even if he had no interest in my hobbies whatsoever, he never showed it.
He introduced me to his new girlfriend who was really kind and fun to be around. She was different than the women he usually went for and we all loved her. She brought out the best in him and really seemed to brighten his whole demeanor. He lit up when he talked about her and vice versa when she talked about him.
2012 was a perfect year where I got to experience my dad at his absolute best. For a while, it really seemed like things were going to be okay.
The holidays came and went without any flaws. I made sure to take off for his birthday on January 24th so I could spend the entire weekend with him. I remember the day he drove us back so vividly. He made me a “virgin mimosa” and we ate all his favorite snacks in the car ride home.
On February 7th, I called like usual to check in. There was a bad case of the flu going around at the time, so when he told me he wasn’t feeling well I didn’t bat an eye. I asked him to go to the doctor if he didn’t feel better soon. He promised he would. We exchanged “I love you’s”. He said goodbye.
On February 8th, I went with one of my best friends to the movies to celebrate her birthday.
On February 9th, I woke up in my bed next to some stale popcorn and a box of nerds. I shoved a handful in my mouth, dreading my shift at work in a couple hours. It was a normal weekend, until it wasn’t.
“Georgia, I need you upstairs.” My mom called downstairs into my room in an uneasy, urgent tone. “Now.”
I don’t know how else to explain this other than that I could from her voice tell someone was dead. My thoughts went to grandparents or great grandparents.
I racked my brain through options as I sat down on the couch, next to my brother.
My mom sat on the coffee table facing us. She took a deep breath in and on the exhale she said, “Your dad died this morning.”
Most of that day is a blur. I don’t remember the rest of what she said. I don’t even remember if I asked how it happened.
Other details are vivid, like photographs. For example, I can tell you I was sitting on the righthand side of the couch when I found out. I can tell you I kept repeating the word ‘no’ over and over again. I can tell you my mom had me sit in the bath to calm down until the water ran cold.
I begged my mom to let my best friend come over and stay the night. Her dad spared me the “I’m so sorry for your loss” speech, which I’m eternally thankful for. I think he was the first person who I told a dead dad joke to that laughed — if you read this Matt Stanton, you’re a legend. My best friend held me on the living room couch for god knows how long. She let me cry as I blasted the last scene of Les Miserables until I fell asleep.
I didn’t go back to school for two or three weeks. My mom took me in to Walmart while she ran some errands a day or two after we got the news. I looked as miserable as I felt — my skin was patchy and red, my eyes were swollen, and a sullen frown was cemented on. An old man rolled his eyes when he saw me and laughed playfully at my mom — “Teenage girls are the worst, huh. Why don’t you smile, sweetie?”
I ran out in tears.
When I was 17,
We got back the autopsy report. I asked my mom to tell me what happened and she told me I didn’t want to know. I insisted that I did and begrudgingly she told me. My dad died abruptly from esophageal varices brought on by cirrhosis of the liver.
In layman’s terms, he died from his alcohol addiction.
I think when they told me, they expected me to be ashamed or angry but I wasn’t. Addiction of any kind is a terrible disease that no one should be embarrassed of. All of the stereotypes you think of when you hear the word alcoholic couldn’t be further from the person my dad was. If you talk to any person who loves an addict in their life, most will probably tell you the same.
When I think about the last year I got to spend with him, I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel cheated. I don’t want you to feel scared to talk about all of his facets. I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry for my loss. Instead, I want you to know this: I am so proud of my dad because of his last year.
Knowing how hard my dad fought his illness to afford me one perfect year makes me appreciate him so much more. I’ll never know if he ever truly quit but I’m so thankful that he did his best. I’m thankful for the dad I got to have because of it — he was creative, he was generous, he was vibrant, he was thoughtful, he was fun.
Every year since, I have tried to honor his memory by being the kind of person he would be proud of. I try to be kinder. I try to be more patient. I work my ass off for the things I want and search for a silver lining in things that don’t work out. I keep fighting through the pain, even when it feels like its gonna kill me, because he taught me that giving up wasn’t an option.
I don’t know if I believe that grief gets easier with time. Maybe one day it will. What I know for now is that as long as I keep his memory alive, he’s never really gone.
I love you and miss you Dad. Until next time.