As I do every August 21, I was thinking about my father today. I wrote this reflection three years ago, on what would have been his 90th.
My father, rest his turbulent soul, would be 90 today. I’m having a bit of trouble with this fact, mostly because if I could have a 90-year-old parent, I must be old myself, and surely that can’t be.
My father died at 74, alone in a V.A. Hospital in Kentucky. He’d had a stroke a week earlier, but seemed to be recovering. I’d flown to Lexington when I got the call, stood awkwardly by his bedside, and tried to communicate. The stroke had impaired his ability to speak, but I could make out a garbled “blow my brains out” when I pinned up a picture of my brother and me on the cork board beside his bed. I flew back to California, thinking he would recover and worrying about who was going to take care of him when he got out of the hospital. I didn’t want any part of it, but I knew I’d have to step up.
A few days later on Christmas Eve, I came home from a party where I’d been laughing and drinking Champagne. The light on my answering machine was blinking, and when I played the message, a voice from the VA hospital told me he had died. The news came without warning, because he’d been getting better, not worse. Stunned and guilty, I sank to my couch and had to put my head between my knees. It wasn’t the Champagne—it was the ambushing realization that his life, so much of it wasted, was over. Now there really was no hope that he’d ever recover. It’s a horrible, bitter irony that he decided in one final burst of alcoholic fervor to foul up one last Christmas by dying.
At his wake, some of his boyhood friends shook their heads dolefully. “He was so brilliant,” more than one of them said regretfully. I shook their hands, tried to be gracious, although I sensed their vague disapproval since I had kept my distance from him for years. I was the only family member at the funeral: my sister Mary had died of cancer four years earlier, my brother struggled with his own demons and couldn’t bear to see or talk to my father, and mother had finally divorced him after nearly three decades of a marriage that was one long sorrow.
One of my father’s childhood friends told me that he and my father had gone to the Latin School together where, as the name implies, everything was taught in Latin. This wasn’t high school, either, but elementary school. They used to walk together every day, he said, starting in about third grade. I pictured them, two 8-year-olds, laughing and throwing sticks like all boys, before heading into the classroom for the day’s lessons in Latin. My father had a prodigious brain, but he chose to pickle it.
My father was among those intractable alcoholics who never get sober, never take any responsibility for the wreckage they’ve created, and in fact never concede they have a problem. Everything was always everyone else’s fault. But on this, what would have been his 90th birthday, I still wish he were here. I wish he were a lovable, crusty old fellow who would blow out 90 candles and have a wife, kids, grandkids, and friends with him to congratulate him and tell him how much they love him.
The truth is, he was never easy, not at 45, or 55, or 65, and I’m sure he’d be awful at 90, mean and negative and drunk. Lately, though, I’ve wondered a lot whether he would have been helped by antidepressants, had they been as widely available when he was unsuccessfully battling the demons that drove him to drink day in and day out.
In spite of all the pain he caused, I like to maintain a somewhat cheerful outlook about life as his daughter. I say breezily that my father was a garden variety alcoholic who lost jobs, humiliated us by showing up drunk at school events, fell down on the front lawn, forged checks, bounced checks, crashed a whole series of cars, developed a raving case of DTs (on another delightful Christmas, by the way), burned through precious money in several stints at rehab and got drunk the day he got out, and on and on, in the whole dreary alcoholic saga. I was relatively lucky. I wasn’t beaten or molested, unlike many children are who grow up in alcoholic homes.
If I could rewrite the script and create a different childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I certainly would, because it was hell growing up with the fear, uncertainty, and embarrassment of having such a dad. Yet in an odd way, I’m not sorry, either. Having him as a miserable father made me very strong and independent, physically and emotionally. I learned to rely on no one but myself. I built up an incredible physical strength, walking vast distances because I didn’t dare have him pick me up after school events, Girl Scout meetings, or anywhere for that matter. At 51, I’m still strong as an ox and I attribute a lot of that to all those solitary marches when I was a kid.
I bought Eskimo pies at the grocery today. I didn’t realize it until hours afterward, but the choice was no accident. I never buy them and haven’t eaten one in decades. But for some reason I grabbed the box out of the grocery freezer today. They aren’t “pies” anymore, but miserable, skinny little things on a stick.
Suddenly I remembered the story my father used to tell about buying Eskimo pies as a kid during the late 1920s or early 1930s. That’s when they were a thick, square brick, and probably cost all of a nickel. According to my dad, if you bought an Eskimo pie with pink ice cream in the middle instead of the customary vanilla, you got another one, free. With great satisfaction, he claimed he had figured out the ice cream man’s pattern for placing the pink ones on the truck, and picked a pink one every single time, always scoring two for the price of one.
As I ate my skinny Eskimo pie, no pink inside, I silently wished my dad a happy 90th. I wish that any of us could have done something to release him from all the suffering he endured—and caused—during his life. If only something simple, like a free Eskimo pie, could have been enough.
Richard J. Colbert
August 21, 1918-December 24, 1992