Chapter 33 – If You Can’t Beat Him, Join Him
I think it was sometime in mid-July when we got a letter in the mail from Gift of Hope, the organ and tissue donation agency with whom we’d spoken right around the time of my dad’s death. At this point, I’d pretty much forgotten about the whole organ donor thing and wasn’t expecting to hear anything about it, which I guess is why this caught me so off-guard. One day after comin home from work, we were standin in the kitchen when my mom opened the letter and read to me that – in addition to some of his tissues bein used to help burn victims, which we figured that as a fireman he would’ve liked very much – my dad’s eyes were now inside somebody else’s head, helpin ‘em to see for the very first time. Now, the very last time I’d seen my dad’s eyes’d been when he was bein carried out of our house on a stair chair by a pair of paramedics while he was strokin out. I was holdin the gate open on the side of our house so they could carry him from the backyard out to the ambulance in the street. His frail body, covered by nothin but a blanket, sat perfectly still. His eyes were wide open and as blue as ever, but he didn’t notice me standin there. He stared straight ahead into the distance. It was clear to me that, although the lights were still on, there was no longer anyone at home. Doctors would soon confirm that he had very little remaining brain activity, and once removed from life support the following day, he died almost instantaneously. Hearing this news from my mom, I couldn’t decide if I was happy that Dad was helpin someone else to see, or if I was angry and disgusted and weirded-out that some fucking stranger was now quite literally seeing the world through my father’s eyes. I was overwhelmed by all that I was feeling, broke down and started weeping like a little bitch. My mom did the same.
I remember during the first fall after I’d graduated from college – so fall 2010, it would’ve been – how, every day after goin out and cleanin gutters with my dad, I’d then go back home and sit across the kitchen table from him while we did all the secretary work for the day. We added up the totals of what we made, we decided how we’d cut that money up between the workers, we’d listen to all the messages from people who called that day then call ‘em back, and we’d decide which gutter cleaning jobs we were gonna do the following day. And while doin all this stuff, we were always drinkin beer and smokin cigarettes. I mean, doin all the work stuff together was cool or whatever, but bein able to slug down Coronas and light up Marlboros with my dad at the kitchen table was like the ultimate for me as far as father-son bonding was concerned. Like, even as a 22-year-old guy, even though I hated him a lot of the time for bein a drunken asshole, I still worshipped my father. I remember one of those days in the kitchen I was startin to get pretty buzzed sittin there drinking with him on an empty stomach, and at one point I looked across the table at my dad in awe and said somethin super gay like, “Oh man, you have the most beautiful blue eyes I’ve ever seen.” It was a stupid and embarrassing thing to say, but Dad just brushed it off with a simple “thanks” and we kept on doin our work. That moment was actually one of the first things that came to mind when my mom was readin me that letter about my dad’s eyes bein in someone else’s head. Gay or not, what I said was the truth. The man did have magnificent sparkling blue eyes. The difficult part about havin any sort of relationship with my dad, though, was never lookin into those eyes, but rather tryin to find out what was goin on behind ‘em in that brain of his.
While I was growin up, my dad was always gettin drunk and smokin a buncha cigs and – although watchin him self-destruct like this was ultimately hurtful and confusing and took a huge toll on my emotional development – at the same time it seemed to be this glorious activity that took precedence over whatever else was goin on around the house, and at times it even felt more important than the lives of me, my siblings and my mom. Like, even though I got the feeling that deep down he really cared about me, with the constant drinking, my father always seemed distant and impenetrable, and would never open up to anyone about anything. Sure, he always told a buncha stories, but when it came to his feelings – aside from the rage which he’d regularly unleash on my mother – he’d do whatever he could to drown ‘em out, pretend they didn’t exist, and shut the people that cared about him the most out of his life. I mean, to his credit, Dad’d gotten me some nice “son” cards over the years for milestone birthdays and graduations that always had touching messages printed by the card company on the inside, as well as nice notes of his own about wishin me all the best in my future and how he couldn’t have asked for a better son scribbled in there, but he’s so insecure about his feelings that when givin these cards to me he’d look totally embarrassed and say somethin like, “I’m sorry for gettin you such a gay card.” And I’d be like, “It’s okay, Dad. It’s a nice card.” Like, “Thank you,” ya know? But aside from stuff like that on special occasions, on a day-to-day basis, our feelings were just somethin that me and my dad never talked about.
All that said, as a young man, I still hadn’t yet accepted that I’d never have anything more than that – I still kept hopin that one day I’d have some sorta deep, meaningful connection with my dad the way I’d always wanted. Like, I was mixed-up back then, ya know? I felt very lost after graduating from college so deeply in debt with a degree I didn’t want anything to do with. I was confused about my past havin grown up in a crazy alcoholic home and terrified of what the future might hold for me. What I wanted more than anything in the world was for my dad to open up to me about why he drank so much when I was a kid and why he had to be such an asshole to my mom in front of me. I knew that my grandpa’d been a mean alcoholic and I wanted to know if my dad’s childhood’d been similar to mine. I wanted to let him know that I understood what he went through, and make him realize that he’d repeated the cycle and done the same shit to me by makin our house feel like a scary and unstable place to grow up in. And then after that, after we’d discussed those things, I wanted him to let all that stuff go and to stop destroying himself so he could be there for me and could offer me some wise advice and let me know what he thinks it means to be a man and how to not let my past affect my future and all that feel-good, G-rated, father-son bonding typa shit you’d typically see between Andy Griffith and his boy Opie. And of course, as a mixed-up young man, the way I thought I could get these needs of mine met was by – you guessed it – drinkin with my dad as often as possible.
In March of 2011, we went on a family trip to Hawaii. Objectively, it was a nice trip. We saw Waimea Canyon, we saw some nice beaches, we saw some beautiful waterfalls, and I even went on a helicopter ride with my dad to see the Napali Coast – how’s that for some Tom Selleck and Roger E. Mosely Magnum, P.I. typa shit? I mean, that stuff was cool and all, I can’t dent that. It’s just…I just wasn’t getting what I really wanted out of those experiences, ya know what I mean? Like, honestly, the only thing I wanted to do the whole time we were in Hawaii was to bond with my dad through drinking. I mean, I don’t give a rat’s ass about college basketball, but I was willing to post up on a stool at the poolside bar and watch March Madness all afternoon if I had to if it meant I could be sittin there gettin hammered with my old man. Like, who knows – maybe if he saw I could drink just as good as him and was showin at least a half-assed interest in a sport he likes watchin, maybe he’d finally accept me enough to wanna open up to me about stuff. Like, it could happen, right?
Fuck, I dunno. Retrospectively, the desperation of this logic is so pathetic that it makes me cringe, but it really did seem like a great idea at the time. And so, a couple of the nights there in Hawaii I had a few drinks with him and my mom and it was fine or whatever, but it wasn’t the sorta manly, drinkin-all-night, gettin-disgustingly-blacked-out consumption I’d grown around that I wanted to show my dad I was fully capable of now after having gone to college – see, I did learn somethin while away at school after all. But then one night towards the end of the trip I did end up getting the opportunity to get totally blitzed alongside my old man, and instead of solving all my problems like I imagined it would – go figure – that memory ended up tainting this entire vacation for me and still remains the most painful representation of how, no matter what I tried, I was never able to connect with my dad the way I wanted.
Earlier that day – the day I ended up gettin trashed there in Hawaii – I’d bought two half-pints of booze, one rum and one tequila, from the liquor store where my mom’d been gettin her bottle of pinot grigio and my dad’d been gettin his twelver of Corona. After dinner, over the course of the next couple hours, I drank both those guys out on the balcony of the place we were stayin – it was this timeshare belonging to my mom’s older brother Al. Eventually everyone went to bed except for me and my dad. I was sippin on some of his beers now and we were both rippin through his pack of Marlboros. There were strict “no smoking” rules at this resort complex, but my dad didn’t give a fuck, so why should I? We were men doin what men do best and didn’t need any pussy-ass rules spoilin our good time, ya know what I mean?
So, anyway, gettin on with the story, since we were both drinking and smoking, and since I was pretty drunk at the time, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to finally talk to my dad about his childhood and his drinking during my childhood, and to tighten up our distant relationship. Keep in mind, this is before I’d ever written about any of this stuff. This is before I’d ever tried openly talking about or coming to terms with any of this stuff in any way, shape or form. And like, this is the sorta stuff that most people don’t ever attempt to face without the careful coaching of a psychologist to make sure everything doesn’t go horribly awry. So, yeah, this was uncharted waters for me, and I was so stupid and naïve that I didn’t see how it could possibly go wrong. I didn’t realize the immensity of the disappointment I was settin myself up for here.
So…I remember bein out on that balcony askin my dad questions about all that stuff and just bein totally shut down. It was like talkin to a brick wall. He would just say that his childhood was fine and completely normal, and that mine was too and that nothing bad ever happened in our house when I was a kid. I was confused because I was certain I’d seen some pretty fucked-up shit go down in my day, so I tried askin again, but got the same sorta responses. I felt really hurt that he didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge any of the incidents I was bringing up that’d left such an indelible mark on me during my most impressionable years. The more he denied, the more desperate I felt. I thought maybe I wasn’t tryin hard enough or somethin, so I started pushin harder, tryin to get some answers out of him, obviously to no avail.
So, I musta been gettin too loud out there doin all this talkin because at some point all the noise woke my mom up. She came out on the balcony and started bitchin at us to go to bed and called us assholes for smokin out there – she said that we were gonna get her brother kicked out of his timeshare for lettin guests who don’t respect the rules stay in his place. I looked at my dad and asked him to tell her to shut the fuck up how he always used to when she’d bitch at him around the house for bein so fuckin drunk all the time. I wanted him to tell her to go back to bed so we could keep talkin about all this important stuff. He did no such thing. In fact, he decided he was gonna do what she said and just go to bed. I wasn’t havin it. I tried convincing my dad to stay, and my mom to shut up and leave us alone. It wasn’t working. God, why wasn’t it working? Everything that I wanted – the way I imagined this conversation unfolding – it was all falling apart right in front of me. I felt so helpless. I started crying like a little fuckin cunt. My mom was grabbin me and pullin me inside at this point. She managed to get me back in the condo, but I was too upset to go to sleep. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I remember callin my college roommate from freshman and sophomore year – this guy named Tommy – and tellin him between drunken sobs that I was gonna kill myself. I had no idea what time it woulda been in Chicago – was it already the morning there? – but he stayed on the phone with me until I told him I could no longer keep my eyes open, then proceeded to fall into an intoxicated slumber.
For years, anytime any one of my family members has mentioned that trip, it’s made me shudder and I openly express how much I hated our time in Hawaii. And since it was a nice trip with nice memories for everyone else, hearin me say that always kinda pissed my mom off. She’d usually say somethin like, “Yeah, okay, whatever Tim. Yeah, the whole trip sucked just because I wouldn’t let you guys stay up all night drinkin and smokin cigarettes at my brother’s place. It’s all my fault. Blame me for everything like you always do.” And bein misunderstood like that – like, her not knowing what was at stake for me out on that balcony that night, her not knowing the rejection I felt, and her thinking I was upset for no other reason than her not letting me keep drinking – this was just salt bein dumped in same wounds all over again. I’d get so angry and yell at her to shut the fuck up, and then I’d feel guilty for yellin at her, and then get the urge to kill myself, and…it’s just all so god damn messy. It’s terrible. It really is.
Two things I never did though when my mom and I would be fighting about this Hawaii trip were number one: apologize to her for breaking the rules at her brother’s place, and number two: try to explain exactly why the memory of that night – and of that trip in general – are so painful for me. So, to my mom it must’ve seemed completely out of the blue when, a day or two after having received that letter in the mail from Gift of Hope about my dad’s eyes bein in someone else’s head – a day or two I spent thinkin and cryin about all the shit I just wrote about here – I told her how sorry I was for smokin cigarettes and bein an obnoxious asshole at her brother’s timeshare in Hawaii more than nine years beforehand. I then did my best to explain to her what happened to me that night, and what was goin on with the drinkin, and to tell her all about how shitty and insignificant it’s made me feel over the years knowin that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, my dad would never let me in. In response, Mom said that she had no idea that’s what I was goin through at the time, but that she completely understood. She said she’d spent the better part of the past forty years struggling with the exact same emotions. And as far as the drinking goes, when it came to my dad, she said that she and I were in the exact same boat. She too always felt insignificant compared with his need to get drunk all the time. And she said, “I always figured – if you can’t beat him, join him.”