September 28, 2012 | 12
I spend much of my time writing on homeless addicts in the Bronx. I’ve gotten encouragement on the work that I do, though for transparency’s sake, I have to detail the act of my own intellectual and lived ambiguity: I ignore the existence of a soon-to-be-homeless addict in my own life.
I collected rainbows of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) chips — growth markers for time spent sober — in my Aladdin coffee mug, the earliest memory I can knit of my dad. I’d lie on my stomach through stabs of shrubbery to see inside the church basement where AA meetings met, slouching to see the new color of chip awaiting my menagerie.
Before that, when I was four, my dad was arrested on felony cocaine charges and sent away to rehab. It was during a rare South Carolina blizzard, when my mom and I ate tuna fish out of tins and looked for a neighbor to split firewood. We lived at an angle to the marsh in the old part of town and the sky swirled. My dad returned some time later.
In middle school, my brother was born, and I became second parent at the age of 11. My mom worked always (we subsisted at poverty level) while my dad squandered much of what she brought in on indulgences — a Cadillac Escalade truck, Tommy Bahama silk slacks, 18 holes of golf.
When I was in high school, he stole my surgery medication. He shot a hole through the cab door of his pickup truck with a rifle while drunk. He drove high with my two-year-old brother in the car. He pretended that I was his wife.
He and my mom divorced at the end of my high school career, after 25 years and various stints in rehab and jail. The reasoning: his drinking and another woman.
One winter two years ago, after I had moved to New York, my phone buzzed on the Amtrak ride bearing me home from a business meeting in DC. My dad had cut four arteries with a filet knife and had written “I’m Sorry” in blood on the tile of his shower. He was found in the bathtub by his second wife (he had called her with his intent beforehand), and by the police.
I soothed my mom into the night as the train traveled North and away from her, whispered assurances against the window in deference to my train-side neighbor. Things would be okay. I would make sure. I began writing my dad a letter a day, feeling an all-abiding, nauseating guilt. Daughters’ guilt, perhaps. I had failed him, this person about whom I was obligated to care.
My dad was taken to an expensive rehab in the North Carolina mountains, treated for co-occurring disorders of addiction and depression. I alone of my family chose to visit, meandering a rental car through the windy roads, auto-piloting myself through scheduled cry sessions where I sat stiff with the wreckage of other people’s family members. There he lived with granite countertops and flat screen TVs, and wrote poems, and told me how I enabled his addiction by co-parenting my brother.
Before leaving, I took him out for lunch and, cringing, tailed him to the restaurant bar where his eyes stalked the serving of mixed drinks, against the strict direction from his program officer to avoid situational triggers. Something flickered. That was the last time I saw him.
In his last days of rehab, his second wife filed for divorce on grounds of domestic violence.
Suicide threats became commonplace after. I’d wake, 800 miles away, to 3 a.m. drunk calls with colorful descriptions of “checking out of this world.” Nights without the calls were worse. After three months of it, I began switching off my phone come nightfall and enfolding it within a stack of sweatshirts.
It’s been two years since I’ve communicated with my dad directly.
After rehab, he did a stint in a halfway house and moved back to our South Carolina town. His parents, having paid for the recent zen mountain therapy and multiple attempts before that, declared that to be their final aid at sobriety. Hundreds of thousands of dollars gone.
He drank, combined prescription meds and went to jail, in and out for over a year. His debt climbed the thousands. He was arrested with my, now, 13-year-old brother (who, after everything, I consider my son) in the car. He lost multiple entry-level jobs for appearing on drugs. He lost his rented room in a ’60s ranch-style house. His compact Chevy car was repossessed. Family members and friends faltered and slowly died off, rich with excuses, having lent too much money or time.
Last week, after another suicide threat, his sister called the police who committed him to a mental hospital against his will for 30 days.
What happens next, I don’t know. A 60-year-old man with no job, nor friends, nor family willing to help. We’ve been abused, frayed, tired. I know what it is to give up and lose my way in caring.
In his tales, I’ll be spun as the daughter who refuses to talk to him, poor lonely, misunderstood him. His family and friends, hostile enemies.
Over the past eight months in the Bronx, I’ve heard stories, stories about former careers, lovers, kids, the avenues by way those on the streets have been thrust out and slighted: a demon of an uptight ex-girlfriend; an egregiously judgmental family.
When I speak to addicts on the streets, I accept their truths. What they conceive, their means of handling a lifetime’s worth of neurochemical imbalance and pain, matters far more than whatever the fine print of fact may be. I am, by some irony, sharing stories of those like my father while ignoring his pain and in turn submitting to his reality.
On the Hunts Point streets, I hear, “you’re my girl,” “you’re my friend,” “you understand.” To my dad, I’m a deserter, a member of the disengaged abandonment troupe.
I live and concede to both.