Russell Brand wrote about a certain phone call one receives when one has a loved one who is an addict. It doesn’t matter how long it has been or how things were left, you know that at some point you will receive That Call, and the dread lingers in the background of every day, while you’re making sandwiches, while you’re dropping your kid off at school, while you’re off having a drink with a friend. It’s always there. One day you will hear a voice on the other end, and your stomach will drop.
On Saturday, while preparing lunch for my family, That Call came. I saw an unfamiliar Maryland cell number on my Caller ID and answered. It was my uncle, who owns no cell phone, and I knew before he told me. Well, sort of knew. My father lingers supported by machines, struck by a devastating heart attack, his third. During the three hour journey to Baltimore, I expected to be overwhelmed by regret and guilt. I had abandoned him, after all. Washed my hands thoroughly, and for the better of my family.
I expected the anger of my stepmother, and got it. She vented four years of pent-up rage and bitterness, and I took it without comment because I understood. Stared off into the middle distance when she told me he was big enough to accept my apologies. She was grieving and angry, and took it out on the first person she could. It wasn’t that I felt I deserved it or that I was unable to defend myself, but I was not going to do so over my sedated father.
Misguided but kind-hearted, she had resigned herself to the role of his caretaker, as he could not be relied upon to take care of himself. A grown man, he could only be cajoled into taking his medication, and even then would hide the pills under his tongue like a misbehaving cat and spit them into the couch. While she would buy healthy foods, he would go to the store on his own to buy the foods he wanted. As for his other activities, I can only guess. Perhaps he truly had been clean all these years. Perhaps not. At this point, it didn’t matter.
What I did not expect was that my visit would reinforce my faith in my decision to cut ties. I listened to the trials my stepmother had endured attempting to care for a man who refused to care for himself, of how she, a recovering alcoholic, had started to drink again “from time to time;” of how her body had deteriorated from the stress of looking after him. She explained how he had a new family among her friends and had no need of me or mine, how they would babysit the grandchildren of her friend, and how my six-year-old daughter had missed out on the experience of having him in her life. This final remark strengthened my resolve more than she could ever know, and she could never appreciate that irony. I mused upon the things he had taught me at my girl’s age, and realized that I had done the best for her by removing his influence.
My daughter knows no racial slurs.
My daughter knows no holocaust jokes, nor has she been encouraged to parrot these jokes to the horrified delight of her grandfather’s friends.
My daughter has never felt the need to parent anyone else (aside from her cat).
My daughter can tell when people are lying, has no problem calling bullshit on it, and does not fear the consequences of doing so.
My daughter has never wept, wondering why it was so difficult to awaken her grandfather.
My daughter has never questioned why her grandfather acts strangely, and has never been lied to because of it.
This last was the reason I decided to step away from him for good. The last time she had seen him, he was high, as usual playing it off as just being sleepy. I had given him three chances to redeem himself. I, believing that he was clean and sober for good, had left the most precious person in the world to me in his and my stepmother’s care. Most of my faith was in my stepmother, but I wanted my daughter to have a relationship with her grandfather who, despite everything, loved the innocent things in this world, namely animals and children. At his best moments he was funny and imaginative, and he could speak well on a youngster’s level, mainly because he had never really progressed past that point himself. I knew that I had not been enough for him to take care of himself, but surely he would for my baby girl. I had put my trust in him for one last time, and he failed us. The worst part was that my mind had begun to speed along a well-worn course, reflexively coming up with excuses for his behavior, the same I would use to fool myself when I was younger. No. Never her. My girl’s well-honed bullshit detector would remain in fine working order.
I am glad my father has my stepmother to care for him, and an extended family of people with similar struggles to support her. I’m glad he is not alone. When it comes down to it, he is not an evil man, just a broken one from a broken home. I, at least, had my mother as a rock to support me. He coped the only way he knew how. He is not a sociopath. He loves. He loved me in the fierce way a kid loves his first kitten before he has to feed it or clean its litter. My stepmother told me that the past is past and does not matter, to only dwell upon the happy memories, as if I had not spent most of my childhood doing so to blind myself to the painful truth. That I was never good enough for him to stop. That I was never worth the trouble to do so. All of my happy memories were closely warped and intertwined with the adult realization of what had really been going on around me. However, one memory did shine through.
One summer afternoon he had taken me to a popular freshwater quarry to swim. As I played in the water, I felt a dull pain in my big toe, and lifted it to find that it had been split open. My father launched into action, carrying my chunky nine-year-old self at least a quarter of a mile up a steep hill to the car. When I expressed worry that I was fatiguing him, he told me that he would carry me across deserts, across mountains. At that moment, without question, I believed him. I think he even believed it too.
My uncle confessed to me that earlier this week, before everything went down, that he realized for good that his brother would never change, never break out of his well-crafted world of denial, and he had said a prayer for him. For perspective, my uncle is a skeptic of the highest order, a man of logic and a former social worker who has seen it all. It just goes to show how that splinter of hope never really gets dislodged, despite all evidence to the contrary.
If I know one truth, it is that I can not both maintain a relationship with my father and my sanity at the same time. I could not take a front seat to the self-destruction of someone I love when I can do nothing about it. You cannot force an addict to reform. They must come to the realization themselves. Sometimes it never happens. The first heart attack did not change my father’s ways. Nor did the second. Nor did losing a lung to cancer, and if he somehow comes through this clinging to that shred of a ninth life, he will still be chainsmoking, still be avoiding natural food like poison, still tricking his loved ones to get what he feels he needs. He will still be blaming me for being a faithless daughter, blaming those around me for supposedly influencing my decision to excise him from my life, blaming everyone save himself.
I left feeling neither the guilt nor the regret I had been expecting when I had arrived, and that surprised me the most. I will not even qualify that with my usual “I guess I am a terrible daughter.” I’m not. It does not, however, lessen the horrible knowledge that there is nothing that will make this situation all better. Someone I love is dying, and there is nothing I can do about it. He’s been dying as long as I have known him. It’s complicated and toxic and excruciating, and there is no comfort to be had. There is no tearful reunion, there will be no magical transformation. There is only the sad acceptance of an awful situation.
I wasn’t going to overshare like this, but I know I’m not alone out there. For those of you still in there trying to fight the good fight, godspeed. I hope you get through. For those of you out there who have decided to step back from a loved one, to stop bashing your fists bloody trying to break down a concrete wall, you’re not wrong. For those of you trying to withstand the pull of fixing a person who who does not want to be fixed, stay strong. For those of you in the grip of addiction reading this: THIS IS YOUR SIGN. PLEASE GET HELP. Please. No matter what, you’re worth it.