The first memory I can recall from my childhood is of the ambulance. My second is of the police, and then the nice couple with government ID badges and colourful sweaters who asked a lot of questions.
Dad was at work. My little sister had somehow climbed on top of the kitchen counter and couldn’t get down, so I ran into my parent’s bedroom to wake our mother up from a nap. Mom took a lot of naps in those days, it seemed to me.
The plan was simple: Wake Mom up, Mom can help sister get down. Problem solved. Except Mom didn’t wake up.
At least, not right then. I called 911, the ambulance came with some IV fluids, the police came, Dad came, and eventually Mom woke up. She had gotten sick, we were told. But it was all right, because she had gotten better. Crisis averted! My sister and I breathed a sigh of relief. Presumably my baby brother would have too, if he had understood what was going on.
At some point, Mom and Dad had some hard conversations. Dad was too busy at work to see everything that was going on, but it was obvious that Mom had a problem.
The Alcoholics Anonymous approach to curing addiction is basically to heap attention, rationalization and Hamsterbation on anyone who shows up. As long as you’re drinking, you’re the warm little center of the AA universe, and everyone tells you how special and brave you are. It’s not your fault. Alcoholism is a disease, like cancer or strep throat. Lots of acceptance, forgiveness, and deflection of responsibility. Very little judgement and honest attempts to change behaviour. Mom, I gather, greatly enjoyed AA.
I have a few stories I could tell about my life from age four to eight, but almost everything I know, I’ve learned from my father and sister. In brief: My mother’s drinking got worse, and she abandoned any pretense of responsibility for it all. The drinking, you see, was a disease beyond her control, and in any case, it was only a coping mechanism to handle the ‘emotional abuse’ she was subjected to by my father.
Sometime after my ninth birthday, everything changed.
The police came and took my father away. I went with my mother, sister, and brother to live with my mother’s parents. We moved away from all of our friends. We changed schools.
We asked: Where did Dad go?
And we got the same answer from everybody.
“Mommy, where did daddy go? Why doesn’t he live here with us.”
And we were told, softly: “I’m sorry kids but we can’t live with daddy. I know this is hard, but daddy is a bad person, and it’s dangerous for us to be around him.”
We asked: “Grandma, Grandpa, can our daddy come live here with us too?”
And we got awkward deflections.
We asked our teachers. We asked the therapist we had started seeing. We asked anyone who would listen: Why can’t we see our daddy? Why can’t he come back and live with us? Why can’t we call him?
And we always received the same answer: Daddy is bad, scary, dangerous. It would be dangerous to call him. It would be dangerous to go see him.
At first it didn’t sit well with us – we know daddy! He’s good! – but eventually, the message sank in. Our father was a bad man, and he was gone. Life became somewhat normal for the three of us, as we adjusted to a new school, new neighborhood, and a new life with Mom, Grandma and Grandpa, but no Dad. We all got lots of really nice presents for Christmas that year.
Perhaps you’re wondering: During those six months, what was my bad, scary, dangerous father up to? Well…
First, he was collecting bail from his friends and family, after being arrested on a domestic violence charge, for restraining my mother while she punched and kicked him.
Then, he learned that our mother had filed for divorce, and was seeking full custody of us.
Then, he learned that he wasn’t allowed to contact us.
Then, he learned that he had been cut out of the business he was running with my mother’s father.
Then, he learned that his bank accounts and credit cards had been frozen and he wasn’t allowed anywhere near his house or car.
After a year, he finally won the right to see us – every second weekend. One day and one night, twice a month. And while everyone was telling us that Dad was ‘trying to change’ even though he had done bad things, the effects of being told to fear and despise our father by every authority figure in our lives still lingered.
But, so too did our memories of who our father was and how well he had treated us when we were young. We settled into yet another new routine, with the majority of our lives in a downtown apartment with our mother, and an occasional weekend trip to our father’s suburban semi-detached tract house.
Our mother was fine for a while, but no more than a year at the most.
She started drinking again. She got a boyfriend. She found and lost a few jobs.
Eventually, there was another ambulance. Eventually, there was a police call from a neighbour after a loud fight with her boyfriend. Eventually, after a small fortune in legal fees, patience, and the excruciating pain and helplessness of knowing that his three children were completely at the mercy of an alcoholic (and now, drug-addicted) mother and her unstable boyfriend, in a tiny apartment in a sketchy area of town – my Dad won a hearing to have the custody agreement re-evaluated.
The judge puzzled and puzzled until his puzzler was sore: Should he award custody to our father, the hard-working owner of a now semi-thriving business, which he ran out of the basement of a safe, stable house in a nice suburb? Or to our mother, a drunk and a drug addict, unemployed save for the cashing of her welfare and alimony cheques, and her abusive live-in boyfriend.
Somewhat miraculously, my father won custody of us on – wait for it! – every weekend. And Wednesdays! Truly a great blow for truth, justice, and the American way. Because he was roughly one thousand times as responsible as our mother, he was granted the right to take care of us almost half the time.
I joke, but this really was a turning point for the three of us – myself, my brother, and my sister. Our father became a dominant presence in our lives, rather than just the man who took us somewhere fun every few weeks. We started to understand what ‘normal’ was, and that our mother’s apartment wasn’t it. At that point – around the age of ten – I started to understand what had actually happened between my parents, and that I had been lied to for most of my life.
Once the three of us were old enough to understand, it wasn’t long before our father had full custody. In the end, my mother imploded spectacularly and went into rehab. When she got out, she tried once more for partial custody. She threatened to bankrupt my father out of spite, because she knew she could rely on various legal defense funds (paid for by your tax dollars, no doubt) that would be happy to bankroll her attempts to destroy our family.
Eventually she yielded to my adolescent insistence that we were happy living with our Dad. From the ages of 13, 12 and 10 onward, me, my sister and my brother lived safely, easily, happily and peacefully at our father’s house.
Easily, that is, for us.
My Dad was still working in his basement office every waking hour of the day. He popped upstairs whenever he needed to start dinner, clean up, or yell at us to stop fighting and be nice to each other. After a decade of non-existent parenting and discipline, we fought and yelled, never even thought of cleaning up after ourselves, and generally were a pain in the ass to supervise. Raising us should have been someone’s full-time job. Instead, it was something that our father had to do over his shoulder while running a company that required his constant attention.
During our teenage years, we each played hockey three times a week. My brother and I had weekly football games. My sister played basketball. I played rugby. Our father rarely missed a game. We also played baseball, practiced gymnastics, took swimming lessons, ran track, and went camping together. Looking back, I don’t know how or when my father slept. Which makes sense, because his bedroom was the smallest in the house (my brother and I shared the master), and it had nothing but an old mattress, a table, and an alarm clock.
(Although one thing he definitely did find time to do was bang every cute single mom of the kids I played hockey with. So maybe there was a bit of an angle to all those sports…)
Once when I was fourteen, my Dad and I were fighting. In the heat of the moment, I yelled that he was a bad father, and that we would have been better off if he had never come back. I saw an expression on his face then that I have never seen at any other time, before or since. We stood facing each other in silence for a few moments. Then he looked away and asked: “Is that really what you think?”
I didn’t say anything.
I knew on some level that my father was a good man. But I had also spent the better part of my life being indoctrinated to fear and despise him. That kind of programming doesn’t go away overnight. We had a lot of good times together, as a family, after my father won custody. But my siblings and I also had the ability to be ungrateful, disrespectful little shits.
Our mother went through a few cycles of drinking and rehabbing over the next decade. Occasionally, she kept it together for months at a time before quietly slipping off. Once I went over a year without hearing from her, except for the otherwise inexplicable appearance of a shopping bag with a Calvin And Hobbes collection hanging off of our mailbox on my birthday.
Whenever she had things moderately under control, the three of us visited her once a week, with the encouragement of our father who, despite everything that happened, wanted us to have a mother in our lives. I was just happy to have one night a week, in my mid-teens, to stay out as late as I wanted, and come home smelling like whatever I had been drinking and smoking all night, without having to answer any difficult questions.
But I was always happy for my mother when she seemed to be getting her shit together. Maybe I was even really happy the first couple of times. After a while though, I’d seen the movie enough times to know how it ended. I started caring less and less about the semi-regular announcements that she was Turning Over A New Leaf, until one day, I made a decision.
I do not have a mother.
This being the 21st century though, I do indeed have my mother on Facebook. She appears to be working in a mid-sized city on the other side of the country with some of her extended family. She enjoys Reddit, I gather, and thinking up witty status updates.
With those observation, I wish her all the best in her twilight years, and return to the subject of my father.
Because today’s story (remember?) is for the fathers. Above all, it is for my father, the man to whom I owe everything. The man who dedicated his life to fighting for me and the two people I love the most in the world.
Perhaps it seems like my Dad has had a rough life.
But here’s what he has now.
His three grown children always have time to come over for dinner, breakfast, a long walk with the dog, or just to hang out.
Aside from his oldest son, who is apparently a self-styled “professional blogger” with an annual income that would embarrass a Rwandan McDonald’s cashier, all three are happy, healthy, and on the cusp of what appear to be successful and interesting lives.
His business has been successful enough for him to move into a nice house, work part-time, and save enough for a comfortable retirement.
Most importantly: The three of us – my brother, my sister, and myself – will never forget the sacrifices he made for us. He will grow old surrounded by our families. He will never doubt how grateful we are, and how much we love him. In his later years, when he needs help gardening, cleaning, painting, fixing, building, or anything else, we will help him. If he ever needs home medical care, he will get it in one of our homes, not some cold, grey filing cabinet for old folks. If he ever needs someone to hand-feed him, give him sponge baths, and wipe his ass for him…
Well, I’ll hire a nurse. But I will hire the hottest fucking nurse I can find.
* * *
To all the good father’s out there who can’t be with their children today, this post is for you. Stay strong. It gets better. Happy Father’s Day.