My Dad is dying, slowly, in a living room on an island in Maine. He dies slowly of an ebb and flow disease: diabetes. His version of the Big D is complicated by the Big A: alcoholism. It turns out that alcoholism can cause diabetes, and once your body has been hijacked by this syndrome, continuing to drink just turns the dial up on its destructiveness.
My mother really wanted me to come to Christmas this year because, as she said, “he isn’t doing well and it won’t really get any better”. I stopped going home for Christmas three Christmases ago, when I went to Enchanted Rock with Cody, instead. I camped with lots of other families under a giant, cold full moon, and thought about what making new traditions might mean. Cody and I have spent Christmas together ever since. Christmas, to me, is a holiday fraught with expectations (mine and others), disaster (real and imaginary) and has never held the beauty of the holiday that I see displayed in films and songs.
I think my mother really tried to create that Christmas magic, and she probably still does. I just remember the harshness of being told a plate was worth more than I was when I placed cookies on it one year. I remember one year receiving boxes and boxes and boxes of presents, including piles of strange clothes that I thought someone should know I would never wear, under an LL Bean Christmas tree that was delivered by the postman on my birthday. That same year, my mom bought a first edition of the Canterbury Tales illustrated by her favorite Arthur Rackham (she has told me the story of how she once could have bought a first edition of the Lord of the Rings from a bookstore in London for 5 pounds, but didn’t have the 5 pounds to spare), and set it on a table behind a sofa in the formal living room, specially curated by her friend Oona the interior decorator. I remember the room curved at the front, framed with beautiful, tall windows, perfect for that giant Christmas tree. The rub is that we only spent one Christmas in that house: the year after, my Dad lost his job in the oil crash of the early 1990s, had a nervous breakdown, and we had to sell the house, the cars, and that 1st edition of the Canterbury Tales. He never recovered from the fact that we had to move into a rental house: I remember him disappearing for awhile I think, and after that, never coming out of the large master bedroom in that dark 1970s house with a duck in stained glass on the door. I suppose he never really did emerge again.
I have this memory of my dad and myself. I must have been very small: about 6 perhaps. I have a nephew-in-law now named Peter, who is 6, and it must have been when I was about his size. My dad and I were climbing on rocks on the beaches of Maine, over by The Ovens in Salisbury Cove. We climbed onto a big rock that slowly became engulfed by a rising tide; I don’t exactly know how that happened, because now, as an adult, I understand how long it takes for the water to rise. Nevertheless, the memory remains; stuck on the rock we were, and my father had to carry me to shore.
My Dad is a big, barrel-chested man who used to be 6′-2″. He is a lone wolf and a person who doesn’t fit in: two ways that we are similar. I was chatting with a friend a while ago about how our self-identification as people who don’t belong, who are special or unique, reinforces some pretty unhealthy patterns that contribute to all sorts of ills: like codependency, seeking out bad boyfriends to “help” or “fix”, a lack of self-awareness, self-love and feeling like success is an option. My dad never spent time looking in Life’s mirror: perhaps it was too frightening. He ran away and into anger, reckless spending, and the bottoms of gin bottles.
It took me a long time to let go of the anger I had toward him: I would ask for years: why isn’t he like other fathers? Why does he seem to love everything but his family? Why does he do these crazy things all the time? Why does he throw stuff? Why does he crash cars? Why does he spend money he doesn’t have? Doesn’t he understand how much it hurts all of us? It took me years, really until this past year, to realize that he is locked in a prison of his own making and it’s almost as if there is no one else in that prison: like a man locked in a cell on an island with nothing but his thoughts and a shovel, he just digs that cell deeper and deeper into the mountainside, when the choice to escape is his to make. Even last year, at the age of 77, he somehow managed to open a series of credit card accounts and spend $10,000. When we asked him what he had bought for that amount of money, he really didn’t know.
I have been on holiday break from school for 2 weeks now and, honestly, haven’t done much except cooking and organizing, helping Cody clear our land for our wedding, and watch movies. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized that all the films have had one common thread: fathers. Fathers who are good, fathers who are bad: fathers who are confused and don’t know what to do. Fathers who are trying, and fathers who are useless at trying. Fathers who are drunk, and fathers who are teetotalers. None are perfect, although a few match what I would have liked to have had. But, in some ways, like I said to my brother earlier today, perhaps we are just here to listen to these two crazy people who are our parents. After all, do any of us truly actually make sense? Probably not: but I do like to think that I try to be happy, to think of others, and I am trying very hard to be a good partner to a very sweet man who, as I type this, is drilling holes in a concrete wall so that I can hang up a mirror. That sweet man lost his father almost 11 years ago to brain cancer. His father, just as imperfect as any of them, is gone and he doesn’t even have a way to talk to him and become frustrated at his inadequacies and nonsense. All he has is memories of an imperfect man: the same that I will, one day, have.