Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Dad

Twenty-five years ago today, I climbed out of my friend's car after school to see my mother standing on the front porch. It was unusual for her to be home from work at that hour, and I was immediately nervous. Turns out, I had good reason to be.

"Sweetie," Mom said, "I'm afraid you won't be doing anything with your friends for spring break."

"What?!" I cried. "Why not?"

"It's your Dad," Mom said, fighting back tears. "He's checked himself into the chemical dependency unit at the hospital."

"I really don't understand," I said, "What does that have to do with me?"

"He's admitted he's an alcoholic, honey," Mom said, looking a bit unsure herself. "And we all need... Well, we need to support him."

A self-absorbed, resentful 17-year-old, this was a hell of a pill for me to swallow. I threw myself down on the porch swing, fuming. I didn't feel like my dad had supported me much, but suddenly I was being asked to give up my senior year spring break to do.. to do.. what, exactly?

To get to know my Dad.

That's what I began to do 25 years ago today.

Mom, my little brother and I attended an Al-Anon meeting that night, a support group for families of alcoholics. There, we learned the "twelve steps" -- the process Dad would go through on the arduous journey to sobriety. We heard stories much like -- and some much worse -- than our own. Mom fidgeted with the strap on her purse. My 13-year-old brother largely stared at the floor. I rocked off-rhythm in a chair that had one leg shorter than the others.

I have never wanted out of a place so badly as I did that night. I had never discussed my family problems with anyone, and I certainly didn't want to begin with strangers. Unfortunately, my make-myself-invisible trick didn't work, and the group leader asked me how I felt about my dad.

"I don't know," I told her.

"Just share with us how you feel about your father," she encouraged.

"I just told you," I said through clenched teeth. "I don't know."

It was true. I loved my Dad, but I didn't know him. Not really.

So it was with trepidation that I visited my Dad at rehab for "Family Nights." The man I saw was too close to me in that tiny hospital room, on that institutional twin bed. The setting was too intimate, and the conversations made me long to be home watching "The Cosby Show." I wasn't yet comfortable with the man in front of me, a man who was finally revealing himself as he really was. Gone was the bravado induced by alcohol. In its place was a father who wanted to reach out to me, but didn't seem to know how. Yet, I couldn't miss his message: he was trying.

For 25 years, my dad has tried. It's been a long and admirable quest, his life without crutches.

He has faced numerous moments when his mouth has watered for a swig of beer at the end of the day -- and he has endured incredibly long, hard days. Many times I have heard him say, "I need a drink."

Somehow, he has found the strength and courage to resist.

To his credit, he also has helped others resist. Dad has taken many calls in the middle of the night, nodding knowingly as he listens to whomever is on the other end of the line. Inevitably,  he pulls on his coat to meet the caller wherever they are, physically, but more importantly, emotionally.

If they need to hear his story, he will tell it. If they need to tell him their own, he will listen. And if they need him to sit with them simply to keep them from getting up to get a drink, he will sit.

He is a respected community leader; a loyal friend; a loving, supportive husband; and a doting father and grandfather.

On this silver anniversary, I celebrate my father. I celebrate his courage. I celebrate his conviction. I celebrate his life -- and how he has enriched mine by checking himself into the hospital that spring day many years ago.

As someone who understands now how challenging it is to walk into The Great Unknown, I realize how difficult it must have been for Dad that April day -- standing at that door, wondering if he had the strength to open it and close his old life behind him.

Thank you, Dad, for walking though that door.

Thank you for being brave for 9,125 one-day-at-a-times.

Thank you for forging a new path, and allowing us to walk it with you.

Thank you for having the serenity to accept the things you could not change; the courage to change the things you could; and the wisdom to know the difference.

I love you. And I'm incredibly proud of you today and every day.

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