A Toast to My Alcoholic Father

"You would never know if I relapsed," he said to me. "I was very good at being an addict." 
No, honey, you weren't. None of us are. We think we are cleverly hiding it. We think we have it under control. We think we are getting benefit from it. We think we are the exception to the rule. We think we will be able to prevent it from consuming us. 
A Facebook Status Post
I have taken out the garbage in my home (eldest son always gets that job, ditto with husbands)  for my entire life. Consequently I know what people throw away in the house. I know who recycles and who doesn't. I know who is doing what based on what garbage appears in their waste cans. It is extraordinarily hard to disguise behaviors that create garbage, behaviors that leave behind evidence which must be destroyed if you want that behavior to be secret.

My dad went through an astronomical amount of Canadian Club, Black Velvet, etc. At least a fifth every, single, day, without fail. I must have hauled several tons of discarded glassware to the ashcan over the course of the years I lived at home with my parents. We kids knew the drill. Ice (this much) bourbon (that much) water (a much smaller amount) He always drank, all the time. It wasn't until the drunk driving laws started appearing that he knew he was heading for trouble, because he couldn't be without his glass of bourbon and a cigarette (Pall Mall's) at any point in any day. Couldn't do without it (them) until the cancer started.

When the cancer started it became imperative that he stop smoking and drinking, and he still couldn't do it. He just didn't know how to stop. He switched to low-tar cigarettes first. No more filterless Pall Mall's, it was Carlton's or whatever else he was trying that week. He insisted the low-tars were filled with cabbage leaves, but he had to have a smoke. The bourbon took longer for him to give up. He switched to cheap beer when it finally became clear he was going to have to stop his addictions, not understanding that he was going to have to actually stop the behaviors entirely. He smoked and drank until they stopped allowing him to eat because of throat cancer. In the end the addictions killed him by causing the cancer, and that is what I remind myself of mentally every time someone offers me a cigar or I pour myself a drink.

I stopped smoking cigarettes ages ago because I could feel the drag they were putting on my lung capacity, and that process took years. One of my sisters now runs a cigar shop and I have to decline offers of cigars every time she comes to town or we meet with relatives who have seen her recently. I can feel the itch of a lifetime nicotine addiction in the corner of my mind just thinking about picking up a coffin nail. The air in the Steele household was blue with tobacco smoke for my entire childhood. Nicotine was in the air I breathed every day until I left home and had to infuse the drug by smoking it myself. Kicking that habit was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and it took years of mentally associating the desire to smoke with the smell of a the bars I worked in as a young adult, reminding myself of the stale smell of smoke, sweat, alcohol and vomit that permeates the air of a bar before all the people show up and renew the smells with life.

My dad loved to tell a story about me when I would drink with him. One thing my dad was really good at was spinning yarns, and he could talk all day and night if you let him. He was a certified master of bullshit and I could sit and listen to him talk for as long as anyone would let him talk. I was fascinated by his ability to just make stuff up on the fly. The bare bones of the story went like this; The first time my parents took me along for a fine dining experience, one that included courses of meals and an after-dinner drink, I cried for the glass of cognac they sat in front of my father. My father, being the indulgent person that he really was, wanted to see what I would think of the cognac. Would I hate it? Would I reject it because of the alcohol taste? He didn't know. So he handed me the snifter and as he told it "You drank it right down. Sat there for a few seconds. Then you cried for more!" It always got a laugh and I laughed right along with him.

I am reminded of that story every time I crack open a new bottle of brandy or cognac, which is about the only thing I will drink these days; and I will drink a quiet toast to my father on those days. It is because of him that I am not an alcoholic, and that is probably the best lesson I learned from him. I have often wondered what he would have made of the efforts to end addiction these days? Would any of them have helped him? Would he have wanted help?

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