When I was a little girl my father treated me like a princess.
He brought me dolls and built me a big toy chest to display them. We watched favorite TV shows and he always sat with his arm around me protectively. He’d take me to fancy restaurants for daddy-daughter lunches. He’d soothe me when I feared monsters under the bed and healed me when I hurt. He told me, all the time, that I was special, beautiful and smart.
He’d lost his own father when he was young and went out of his way to let me know he loved me. When I was 8, it all changed.
His business partner died and my maternal grandfather followed; both were like fathers to him. I was too young to understand that he was bereft and lost, but I couldn’t help but notice that he was acting strangely. And he and my mom were always fighting.
He had begun to drink, heavily, to soothe his pain. He also found people to drink with.
A popular group of New York businessmen known for their charitable acts, and their drinking hijinks, embraced him as one of their own. It was the “Mad Men” era, when booze flowed like water, and relatively little was known about alcoholism.
My dad started coming home late from work, acting incoherent or mean, and ending each night passed out in the living room in his underwear. It was terrifying and confusing. From that point on, when we had our lunches, they were in a hotel bar near LaGuardia Airport where he knew all the bartenders by name.
He’d order me a Shirley Temple. He drank Jack Daniels and joked with people at the bar. I don’t even know how he drove us home.
Pretending Nothing Was Wrong
My mother was a very controlling individual, and tried to intervene with his drinking and his ensuing affair with his secretary. When he was late from work, she’d make me call him and beg him to come home and forced me to write letters to guilt him back into family life. Needless to say, with my empowering parent lost to alcohol and my controlling parent trying to get him back, I was stuck in a toxic triangle. Add to the mix his girlfriend, who publically started a fight with my mother in front of me. I was a child and the adults were acting insane. But my mother made me swear I would not tell a soul about what was happening in our house. I learned rule No. 1 of living in an alcoholic household: Pretend nothing is wrong.
Eventually, my mother became a devotee of Al-Anon and dragged me to Alateen meetings. But she could not get my father to get help. My family was devastated. One big sister married and the other fled to California.
It was just me and my parents. Eventually we moved to a house in Queens, where my mother thought she’d win him away from alcohol and his office romance by providing a place for him to entertain. She let him craft a bar in the basement and stocked it well. They had parties with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. My dad forced everyone to imbibe but he drank the most. Whether I would get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, I never knew.
My teens were marked by an emotional tug-of-war between my parents, who were miserable with each other. Then, in my last year of high school, my dad left the house one morning and never came back. Gone.
Abandoned, without knowing why and with no way to reach him, I searched for him in the bars he used to take me to. He finally called, but refused to see me. And so it was, for years, barely any contact, except an occasional call to say, “I’m sorry, baby. I just can’t see you now.”
I went to college just a few blocks from his business, but found it shuttered. I’d later learn he was in ruins, with insurmountable debt. He drank it all away. He then went to the one place where he could keep drinking: The home of his mistress-turned-life-companion in Connecticut. He would live there for the rest of his life.
I had to focus on building my own life. I went to college, became a reporter and worked hard. In my 20s, my father started a campaign of asking me to visit him and sent me train tickets and money to get there. I refused. I couldn’t deal with his drinking and I was too hurt, angry, and torn between my parents. One step into his new home would be a betrayal to my mother. He was still actively in his addiction so I had good reason to shield myself.
‘Daddy, You Have to Stop Drinking’
Over the years I got several calls from his doctors telling me, “You’d better get to the hospital.” After two heart attacks, a stroke and pneumonia, I ran to him. One day, sitting on his patio while he was recovering, I finally found the nerve to say, “Daddy, you have to stop drinking.”
He looked at me like I had two heads. “What are you talking about?” He rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a drink.” He held up the glass and the ice clinked. I could smell the whiskey. But I had no idea how to help someone so deeply in denial. And frankly, I didn’t think it was my place back then.
Finally, a wise therapist said: “Just tell your dad he can drink all he wants but not when you are around — or you won’t visit.” I did that and the next visit was alcohol-free. Soon after, a health condition led to the end of his drinking days.
In the last few years of his life, he was sober but broken. He tried to make amends in his own way by being there when my son was born. He visited us in the neonatal unit. He sent toys and presents. He’d write me letters, and sometimes include a $20 and tell me how proud he was of my articles and books, or my strength as a mother. I let him back into my life because he loved my son and I wanted my son to have a grandfather.
But I’d missed so many years with my dad that we could never go back. He had alienated himself from the rest of the family, so there was pressure not to see him. But I remembered the father he used to be and tried to accept who he is rather than remain bitterly disappointed about who he was not.
I was with him the day he discovered he had an aortic aneurysm that was like a time bomb within. He elected to have surgery to repair it at age 77. It didn’t go well and he died three months later. But for those months in the hospital, I was his health proxy.
In the end, I was responsible for his life. And responsible for bringing him home to his fractured family in death so that he could be buried with love. Despite what he did during his illness, I did not want him to be abandoned.
There was no Recovery Ranch back then, where he could have communed with nature and gotten professional care. Recovery is truly at our fingertips now. My dad has been gone for 20 years but if I knew then what I know now, I would have packed him up and taken him to get help. He was such a wonderful guy before the disease of alcoholism stole him away. I just hope that other fathers and daughters can be spared the pain of separation and loss, especially since help is just around the corner.