Sunday, June 16, 2019

Meeting My Dad for the First Time

Growing up, I avoided my dad whenever I could. I'd slink around corners and sit quietly in rooms wanting nothing more than to stay undetected. I'd avoid looking him in the eyes or speaking directly to him, preferring someone else to do the talking while I observed from a safe distance.

I was scared of my dad. Deathly afraid at whatever outburst was about to erupt. My dad was impatient, short-tempered, angry. He saved his best self for his friends. I got the just stay out of his way and don't make him mad. 

The most common words from my Dad were shut up, be quiet, and don't make me come up there. I could relax when my Dad wasn't home. My stomach would turn into a tight ball of nerves the second I heard the sound of gravel crunching under tires coming up the drive.

I was fourteen years old when I learned my father was an alcoholic. I knew he always had a can of beer in his hand while mowing the lawn, but alcohol was not kept in our home. (Except for a bottle of peach schnapps hidden away in the back of a tall cabinet in the kitchen that my older sister made my brother drink after he got lost in a blizzard walking up to the house when the school bus dropped him off, but that's a different story.)

Suddenly kids at school were laughing about how they saw my dad stop at an intersection downtown and get out of his car to grab a couple cans of beer from the trunk. I realized the impulsive decision to buy a horse (with pygmy goat companion) wasn't because he was artistic and saw the world in a different light, it was because he was drunk and made stupid decisions without consulting his spouse. His rantings about politics and government were not informed, they were paranoid. When he told me I was stupid and wouldn't amount to anything it wasn't because he was just too tired from working all those long hours, it was because he was mean when he drank.

My father was what one would consider a functioning alcoholic. He went to work and worked hard. He paid his bills, made sure his family ate. He kept the yard looking nice and had gardens others were jealous of. He washed and waxed the cars by hand, making sure each tire held the right pressure and the oil was regularly changed.

My Dad mowed the yard after he got home from his job at the local factory, would watch some television and fall asleep on the calico print furniture in the living room. I never understood how he was capable of startling awake the second I tried to turn the channel, yelling I was watching that! When things got really stressful, and my mom took on a second shift job leaving my dad in charge, I hung out in the laundry room. It was as far opposite from the living room as possible.

He took us kids to the driving range so he could hit shag balls while we walked up and down ditch lines trying to see who could find the most golf balls. Some people were lousy shots. Not my dad. He won trophies and people asked his advice on how to improve their swing.

But then he'd have a few.

There are far too many stories of what happened when Dad had a few. I can laugh now but I couldn't then. To be honest, I couldn't for a whole lot of years after I moved out. Like I said, he saved his best for others. We got the worst of him.

One hundred and thirty-three days ago, my Dad almost died. He started bleeding out - the result of years of drinking, ulcers, and a previous stroke which required blood thinners... the bleeding wouldn't stop. Three transfusions later and a wicked bout with withdrawal, I watched as he relearned how to sit up, stand, and eventually walk again. His vision is permanently destroyed.

But something new bloomed.

I was meeting my Dad for the first time. I was meeting the real him. The sober him. The one with focus. The one who remembers. The one who can hold a conversation, rather than repeating the same thing over and over.

I've learned that his sister Rhonda makes the best lemon meringue pie ever and that he thinks there's something wrong with people who don't like lemon meringue pie.

I've learned that he tried so hard to get his dad to stop smoking. He actually tried smoking once. Never again.

I've learned that in his early twenties he worked on a bridge construction crew, traveling about Australia fixing bridges. He told me that's why he never wanted to go camping. After having to live it, who would want to do that for fun? His favorite jobs were ones where they could reach running water in a creek or river below. Those made the best showers.

I've learned that when he was about 17-years old (he guesses) he was driving a tractor down the road and saw lightning strike a tree about 200-yards in front of him. It filled him with a powerful fear and reverence for lightning. You won't catch him outside in a storm. Nope. He's too scared of lightning because he's seen first-hand what it can do.

I've learned that when he was about 9 or 10 years old he desperately wanted a bicycle but knew they could never afford it. He went to the garbage dump scavaging for bits and pieces of thrown away bikes, took them all apart and created a new bike. He painted it blue. He loved that bike.

I've learned about people who have hurt him. A teacher. An in-law. A guy at work. All reiterating the same message... that he would never amount to anything. He wants to find that old teacher, pull up in a spot free, paid-off car and say you were wrong.

I've learned that he was the first one of all his friends to buy a car. A Datsun. Up and down the coast they'd fly! But he always asked his friends to pay for gas. That was the deal. They used his car; he used their gas.

I've learned that times got tough. Too tough. He had to park the Datsun, cover her up, and ride his bike to and from work because he couldn't afford the gas. But he did it because that's what you do... you find a way to keep going.

I've learned more about him in these past 133 days than I have in the past 45 years. And I could be angry about that.

I could stomp and pout and rail against him: it's too late! Do you even know what it was like living with you? Never able to make you happy? Or proud? 

I could hold a grudge: no. You don't get to come in at the end and expect me to clap and cheer because you're finally doing something you should've done forty years ago.

I could choose to be stubborn and refuse a relationship with him -- but I'd be the one missing out. I've been wishing and wanting my dad to stop drinking since I figured it out when I was fourteen and now that time is here. Only self-centered, spoiled people choose bitterness because they got the gift they asked for... but aren't happy with when they got it.

I finally get a chance to meet my sober dad. My children finally get a chance to meet their sober Papa. We finally get a chance to care and encourage and find happiness with each other and I am not going to squander the time I have been given just because I don't think this happened soon enough for me. And I am certainly not going to be the one who shows the world that I'm holding a grudge at someone who is finally trying to do things right.

We most definitely still do not share the same views politically or religiously, and sometimes he just gets on my nerves like any other person might, but that's okay because he's my father. And I'm learning that I actually like who he is. I don't avoid him anymore.

Avery absolutely loved her Papa. 

I don't think my Dad knew what to do with Avery...
but I know Avery knew exactly how to love my Dad.

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