When I was a little girl, I would watch sitcoms like Growing Pains and Family Ties and wonder why sitcom fathers were always at the center of so many laughtrack-padded punchlines. I didn’t really understand why the kids on TV would tease their dads for being nerds, for sounding uncool or being, you know, involved in their lives in a caring way. I would have loved a nerd dad in a muted cardigan. Instead, I had a drunk dad who was largely absent. After the divorce, I only saw him every other weekend. Then, only every month or so.
As a very young child, when my parents still lived together, I knew to go looking for my dad in the hallway on weekend mornings if he wasn’t in the bedroom with mom or on the couch. We lived next door to a bar, and it was not unusual for him to close it out, or continue to drink with the owners afterhours. In the morning, his buddies would carry him home, dumping him in the apartment stairwell if our door was locked and he didn’t have his keys.
Finding him splayed out on the hall stairs with sunlight flowing through his dark wavy shoulder-length hair, head tossed back, bearded mouth agape, I thought he looked like that man I saw in those pictures at church. Jesus on the cross. Suffering.
My mother says he used to not drink heavily. “He was a nice guy when I met him. Worked hard and went out only on the weekends. But, I don’t know what happened to the man I met. He turned into someone else.” Pa kept drinking after the marriage too, harder each passing year. I am sure he is drunk somewhere right this minute.
When my parents divorced, Pa would come visit on the weekends. Or, rather, he was supposed to come visit. I used to wait by the window for him. Sometimes I would wait all day when he forgot to show up. Later at night, tucked into my bed, beyond heartbroken, I would hear my mother yelling on the phone. She usually tracked him down and cussed him out over his piss-poor parenting. Not that it helped much, although it may have made her feel better. On occasion, though, after these calls, he would show up in the middle of the night or in the middle of the next afternoon, either drunk or hungover. Of course, it was only a matter of time before I stopped being disappointed over his no-call/no-shows–because I didn’t want to see him at all. I started to hate him.
At around the same age I was starting to hate my father, the boy who would grow up to be my dad probably already hated his father. Ah, the cycle of life. Pa was 11 years old when he came to the US. His cousins who had crossed told him the streets here were lined with gold. But, he wasn’t looking for gold–he was looking for shoes. Tired of being barefoot–and with hardened farmer parents who practiced excessively harsh corporal punishment and had no loving one-on-one time to give to any of their nine children–Pa took off to the US in search of a better life, and some shoes he could call his own. (After I found this out, his love of loud, expensive cowboy boots made a lot more sense. He wears really pimped out boots today. Ostrich. Snake. Alligator. All this time I thought he was eccentric and flashy. But now I know he was just keeping a promise to himself, providing himself with something his parents could not: security and dignity in handcrafted leather boot form.)
Peaking during my teenage years and subsiding when I became an adult, my hatred for my dad eventually dwindled down into a more manageable mix of pity and acceptance. Today, after much introspection and the steady forwarding of time, what I feel for my dad is back to love–albeit a strange, tepid form of love, not nearly as powerful or useful as some of the other love in my life. You don’t get to miss what you never had, and as I transitioned into adulthood, my parents became less and less important. That’s the beauty of a less-than-idyllic childhood; you grow out of it. All the years of my parents fighting, yelling, breaking things, police visits, my father’s gaping absences from important periods of my life, all the drunkenness and disappointment gets reduced to a single descriptive phrase capable of being uttered in less than a few seconds: my dad’s alcoholism had a somewhat negative influence on my childhood–but I came out alright overall.
I was able to forgive my dad for never straightening up to keep our family together when I eventually realized no one is perfect—not me nor my parents. Like what drove my dad here, there are things I would have to provide for myself, as well. One of those things was an understanding of the world, a way to be at peace with myself and those around me. I know now my father is a broken man and will never be fixed.
Today, I make an effort to talk to him every few weeks. Just to check in. We have lunch maybe once every three months. It works for us.
One day recently, in a short car ride after we had a friendly Saturday morning meal, during what would normally be considered an awkward silence if I were alone in the car with anyone I’d care to have a meaningful conversation with, my Pa, most likely prompted by the sight of passerby families walking together down a bustling West 47th Street, drunkenly mumbled, “You know, I’ve tried to be good.”
I kept my eyes on the road, let him trail off in his tequila and Budweiser-fueled soliloquy, knowing the less I engaged, the less likely he would be to make an ass of himself. He then asked, “Am I a bad person?”
“Do you think I am a bad person?” he repeated sadly, turning his head to look at me.
Eyes still on the road. More silence.
I exhaled. “No, Pa, I don’t think you are a bad person.”
“I’m a good person. I, I -try to be a good person,” he whimpered, slurred.
“You’ve done bad things, but you’re not a bad person. No one is a bad person, but a lot of people do bad things,” I said, adding under my breath “some more than others.”
Even more silence.
“I’m sorry-,” he said, voice cracking.
“I know,” I replied immediately, looking to end the conversation. Like so many other conversations, he probably wouldn’t remember any of this the next day.
Before he could blubber out any more of what was on his mind, we arrived where he asked me to drop him off: the bar.
I am still searching for a Father’s Day card that summarizes my sentiments. Something along the lines of “I’m sorry you failed at the whole parenting thing. Thanks for trying” or “It’s okay. I’m doing just fine today despite your mistakes.” Maybe even a “The first step is admitting you have a problem” card would work, too. Each year, I flip through what seems like every single card in the holiday card aisle at Walgreen’s, measuring the accuracy of their messages against recollections of my childhood. Until I find the card that can truly reflect my relationship with my Pa, more traditional wishes will have to do.
“Happy Father’s Day.”