So, here is a bit of the cut material from the dark year. Keep in mind we’re jumping backward in time to 1981 or so. Dad is still drinking, I’m still on drugs, Mom is single, and nobody is a Christian:
My dad visits from time to time. He lives mostly in Greensboro North Carolina, but once in a while he makes the trip to Pennsylvania. He'll visit us half a dozen times before vanishing again for a couple of years. He likes to visit us around Christmas. He tries to give us gifts, but the clothes he buys us are always too small. I assume this is because he got the gifts for us two years earlier and is only giving them to us now. (Much later, I'll realize he did this because he simply couldn't grasp how ridiculously fast kids grow.)
Just after the new year we get word that Dad is in the hospital, and he's been there for at least a couple of weeks. His legs and his right arm were broken. Only his left arm â€" the one that's paralyzed â€" was spared. His condition is serious enough that he needed to be sent to the more advanced hospital in Pittsburgh. We visit him, and I'm terrified when I see his condition. Much of his body is encased in plaster.
Dad is a man who loves coffee, enjoys smoking, and (as I'll discover later) craves alcohol. Here in the hospital, denied the use of his limbs, he is denied access to all of this. Someday he will find the strength to give up on the booze, and use the other two to soothe himself. Right now, he is without all three. He is a man tormented, and I can tell.
I don't really know him very well, but Mom comments now and again how much I look like him, or talk like him, or laugh like him. I know I'm patterned after him in some way, that there is some relationship between who he is and who I am. Or perhaps, who I will be. I don't understand it, but I know this connection exists. Seeing him broken and ruined is like seeing myself broken and ruined. I feel very small, and helpless, and aware of my mortality.
He explains to Mom how the injury took place: He was leaving our house after his Christmas visit, when he was hit by a truck. He doesn't know who hit him. The driver took off.
It will be years before I learn the other half of this story.
Patrick and I are still visiting Dad on Sunday afternoons. He moves roughly once a year, from one tired old apartment to another. Most of his places are one-room “efficiency” apartments. A single room serves as a bedroom, kitchen, and living room, which is inevitably connected to a tiny, under-lit bathroom.
His apartment is strewn with open books, which are lying face down on almost every horizontal surface. He’s got an overflowing ashtray beside every place one might sit or sleep. He brings the same four or five items of furniture with him each time he moves. It takes him about two months of living someplace to infuse the walls and carpet with the indelible smell of cigarette smoke, coffee, and Old Spice. There’s always a haze of dust and smoke in the room, and no amount of fresh air can dislodge it.
Our visits have a familiar rhythm to them. We arrive, make small talk, and have some food. Sometimes Pat and I cook a vat of Macaroni & Cheese, and other times – if he has a little extra money – Dad takes us out for lunch. After that, we play some chess and he’ll tell us stories. He tells us (selected) bits about his years in North Carolina. He shares anecdotes about how he met Mom. He talks about his time in the Marine Corps.
Once he’s out of stories and we’ve exhausted our repertoire of in-jokes (Coffee matter! Ha!) the conversation dies. At that point we call Mom, and she comes to get us. Dad doesn’t own a car, and hasn’t driven since the stroke.
Here are a few of his stories:
Long before I was born, before he even met Mom, Dad was in the Marines. He got in a fight a couple of days before boot camp, and wound up with a black eye. This was bad because it made him stand out, and standing out in boot camp is dangerous. His drill sergeant nicknamed him “Badass”. Dad was also a bit heavy when he went in, and so he was obliged to do all of the calisthenics while wearing a heavy rain poncho. It’s murderously hot and humid in Parris Island in the summer, and he was running around in that environment while encased in the equivalent of a heavy rubber coat. Years later Dad saw the movie Full Metal Jacket, and the depiction of boot camp was apparently so realistic that he was hyperventilating at suddenly reliving the experience.
In 1980, he attended an anti-inaugural hippie party where they hung newly-elected President Reagan in effigy. They were up on a second-floor balcony where they had erected the gallows, but the number of people overwhelmed the aging structure and it partially collapsed. Reagan was hung, but they had to vacate the balcony instead of gloating over him, or else risk having it fall off the front of the house entirely. That same evening, a woman pulled a knife on Dad when he made one too many drunken passes at her.
His entire worldview changed when he sobered up, and today Dad has a picture of President Reagan on his wall. I wonder if this is just part of the recovery process: Do alcoholic Republicans become liberals when they stop drinking?
At one point Dad had a couple of roommates, Alan and Terrance. Alan was a drinker like my Dad: They drank to get drunk. If anything fun happened while that was taking place, so much the better. But the goal was to be, and hopefully remain, drunk. Terrance was a wine snob. One day Dad and Alan were sitting around, frustrated. They were broke, and so no booze. Terrance showed up with a bottle of wine, and decided to impart some culture on these two cretins by introducing them to fine wine. He showed them how to open the bottle properly, how to let it breathe, explained the importance of using glasses with the right shape, and generally irritated Dad and Alan by putting a bunch of ceremony into the process of having alcohol in their bloodstream.
The bottle was two-thirds of the way gone when Terrance decided to go to bed. He was a little disappointed at how much of the wine was consumed. After all, wine is there to be savored and enjoyed, not guzzled. He told Dad not to drink the rest of it, and taught him how to lay the cork on top of the bottle to keep it from going bad. Then in a move of epic, foolhardy optimism, Terrance left a tipsy alcoholic alone with an open bottle.
Dad destroyed the rest of the bottle in a couple of minutes, and then the anger set in. He was out of booze, the wine tasted like grape syrup, and it had barely given him any buzz at all. Terrance was a douche, and Dad knew there would be bitching tomorrow when it was discovered that the wine was gone.
Frustrated and more sober than he would like, Dad decided to go to bed. He pissed in the wine bottle and then placed the cork on it, just as Terrance instructed.
The next day Terrance complained that something had happened, and the wine had gone bad.
Today Dad has another story for us. This one is more serious. He doesn’t get out the chessboard, and he doesn’t tell it to us over a meal. He sits us down at the table and makes sure he has our attention.
During the Dark Year, well before he sobered up, Dad was visiting us near Christmas. He was flat broke and sober. After Pat and I went to bed, he hung around and talked to Mom for a while. Maybe he was hoping she would offer him a drink. She didn’t. Even if she had booze in the house, she would have known better than to let him near it. He tried to borrow some money, but she didn’t have any to spare. Finally she said goodnight, and left him to see himself out. Dad got up to leave, and thought about the grim prospect of ambling home sober. Then he noticed the stockings that had been hung over the crappy space heater that more or less failed to keep the place warm. There were two of them, one for each of his sons. He reached inside, and found two dollars at the bottom of each. There were no other presents, which meant that the money had been overlooked at Christmas.
He took the money and left, planning to drop by Martin’s Inn, which was just around the corner from us. Four dollars wasn’t going to get him drunk, but it might take the edge off of sobriety. As he crossed the street he was hit by the truck, which resulted in his lengthy hospitalization.
Dad takes four dollars out of his pocket, and gives us each a pair of bills. He asks us if we understand. We do. He isn’t really giving us back our stolen Christmas money. This gesture is symbolic. The two dollars represent all the other things he took from us when he left all those years ago. He’s showing us what sort of man he was when he was drinking, and he’s apologizing for not being there for us.
Years from now, I’ll identify this as step nine of the typical twelve-step program:
9. Make direct amends to all persons we have harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Of course, Dad can’t really make amends. He can’t repair the damage he’s inflicted, or give us back the childhood we might have had. He can’t be our father now. He’s a disabled man living on his veteran benefits, so he can’t even give us financial support.
He needs us to forgive him. This is a revelation to me, since I didn’t understand until now that he’d done anything that required my forgiveness. I’ve never connected any of my trials with his actions, or understood how his alcoholism affected me. I just saw him as a guy who was dealt a bad hand and played it poorly.
What would have happened if Dad had died in 1971? The stroke nearly took his life, and it was only blind luck that he happened to live near a hospital capable of attempting the procedure that saved him. Pat and I would have been left with the photographs of youthful Jim Young, the vibrant, well-liked, handsome, former Marine and dedicated scholar, the quick-thinking guy with a sharp wit and a radio voice. Instead he survived, and we came to know the limping, divorced, recovering alcoholic Jim Young, the heavy-breathing guy with the gravel voice and no income. We could have mourned him as a hero, but instead we’re with him as a broken man.
There is no good or bad luck, only the steady unrolling of random fortune, which is a heady mix of heartache and mercy.
I take the two bucks and blow it on candy, which is how I would have spent it when I was ten. Seems fitting.
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