When I was a kid, my Dad drank a lot. He and I did the grocery shopping on Sunday nights because that was when the grocery store wasn’t crowded. Pro tip, that is still true and still when I shop. He would buy 2 cases of Utica Club each week. The big ones, I think it had 24 bottles. It seemed normal because he would never be drunk as I have always experienced drunkenness. He would just be chill. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
I remember one week, he didn’t buy the Utica Club. That seemed weird. It wasn’t until the next week when I asked him why he didn’t buy beer. It was the last thing he would load into the car, heaving the big cardboard boxes off the under part of the shopping cart.
“I don’t drink beer anymore” he said matter of factly.
“I just decided to stop”
He had this ability to just flip a switch. On or off. No in between. Just like that, he stopped drinking his Utica Club. I didn’t notice anything different in terms of behavior, except that his nightly beer glass was gone, and instead he would have a glass measuring cup of Jello Instant Pudding each night.
When I was diagnosed with my eating disorder (Bulimia), I remember going to the bookstore and the library with him. We would sit in the big chairs and he would read about eating disorders while I looked at fashion magazines. I actually didn’t realize what he was reading, until he told me later. He attended parent support groups and introduced me to therapy. He taught me that if we had a broken arm we would see a doctor, same thing with our brains. In the early 90’s that was some forward thinking!
He didn’t understand why I couldn’t just stop, likely because he had the ability to just stop things, like drinking. What I realize now, is that instead of him projecting his abilities and tendencies onto me, or ridicule me for not being able to “just stop”, he actually took the time to understand what my eating disorder was all about. I realize now how important that was. Most people would put their own horror of what you were doing to yourself onto you, causing you to feel deeper shame and guilt for this THING you were grappling with. But Dad…. he admitted that he didn’t get it…. but he learned about it… and that’s how he was able to help me. He could just stop drinking and he didn’t expect that I could just stop.
I endured horrific physical and emotional (never sexual) abuse at the hands of my older brother. He was a major player in the development of my eating disorder. It was so horrific. So horrific. There was a point where my Dad finally realized what was going on, and through learning about what I was going through, he did put a stop to it. At the same time my brother went to college. Things instantly got better for me and I recovered for a good two years. It was during this time that a definite bond, that was already pretty strong, became even stronger between Dad and I. Three weeks before he died, Dad apologized for the abuse that went on right under his nose. He acknowledged it, what it did to me, and he hoped that I could forgive him for that.
While I did have that period of recovery, I had a massive relapse during my second year of college. I slammed face first into rock bottom. Face. Freaking. FIRST. In addition to that relapse, I had a failed suicide attempt, I can only describe that whole experience as the lowest I could ever go, and the lowest I could ever feel. If I had to illustrate it I was at the bottom of a pit, and it was dark, and rocky and everything hurt and I was face down. I could feel a faint light above me and all I could think or feel was…. God I can’t even die. I failed at dying. I just so badly wanted all of that pain to stop. I was 20. Not only did I not see a way out, I had no energy to try to get up.
There was one hand extended to me from the top of that very deep hole. Dad’s. He was the only one. In fairness to the rest of the people in my life at the time, they had tried. I refused every single outreach from friends, family, everyone. There comes a point when you refuse help so many times, that people give up on you and walk away. I understand it. I have done that to a friend (regrettably) but I understand it.
But Dad…. he never gave up on me. He essentially grabbed me, because I was so low and so broken that I couldn’t even reach up to take his hand. He physically put me on my feet. He got me back into treatment. He put me in a career path (as a nurse) that changed my entire life, and he steered me towards multisport (I think he saw great potential in me for turning to drugs and or alcohol and knew he needed to help me avoid that).
Had I lost him when I was 20, I can not imagine where I would be right now. He gave me such a stable foundation for recovery that I was able to achieve it. I am still recovered today.
The first 8 weeks of his sudden illness were tough on him because he quickly lost some of his independence. He did regain it. He was actually totally independent and planning to return to work at the time of his death.
When your Dad loses the ability to control his bowels and you are the one cleaning him up, it’s a moment. I am a nurse so I was able to make it feel less horrifying. I used a lot of his wisdom. “Dad if cleaning up your diarrhea is our worst problem today, it’s a good day” . He laughed at that. If I had a penny for the amount of times he had said that phrase (change the diarrhea to whatever it was that day), I’d own an island.
During our last conversations he was so strangely reflective. “You have this ability to take something so embarrassing like not being able to wipe myself, and make it really seem like no big deal. That is amazing.” I remember chuckling and saying “I got that from you”.
I wonder if he realized that everything that he thought was amazing within me…. was a direct lesson from him. Everything.
My Dad did a lot of things for a lot of people. In this world when we do something for people it’s common for us to think…. what did they do for me in return? I don’t think anyone ever did anything for my Dad in return for what he gave. But that truly did not even cross his mind.
Winning races is a blast. Standing on the top step of a podium comes with such a special feeling. For my Dad…. that feeling…. was when you were on the top step. His top of the podium, was standing back and seeing you on yours. Your success…. was honestly his success. He was truly one of those people who didn’t need the accolades, or even a thank you.
He secretly paid for several of my students’ nursing boards. He once paid one of my student’s mortgages for a month (anonymously). He bought a computer for another (always in secret). “But what if they want to thank you?” I would ask. “Them becoming nurses is the thank you.”
I have a lot of pictures of Dad, all over my house. In my office, I have photos placed so that when I need to make a decision or reflect, he’s within eyesight. In many ways he is my north star, my moral compass.
He reminds me that true success isn’t the top of the podium, or income, or status. True success is what you can do, to help someone else, and I mean truly help them.
I often wonder how he was the way he was. Who wired him like that? Where did he learn it? Where did it come from? Why did he have this giant ability to give and truly need nothing in return. We say we can never give from an empty cup, exactly what filled his cup?
I don’t have his ability to flip the switch. What I learned from him though, was that it’s important to take the time to learn about people and experiences that we don’t understand, rather than judge and ridicule them. It’s important to give when you can give, without the expectation of receiving, and that, is not necessarily pouring from an empty cup. I learned that another person’s success, is truly what helping and giving is about.
I know what it feels like to have no hope, no will, no ability to see beyond the disaster that life can be. I also know how powerful it is when someone takes you by the hand and walks next to you. They may not understand what you are going through but they walk with you. You might not be able to see the light but they can see it for you and they don’t let go of you until you see it.
I also know that now…. I might not have Dad physically to walk with me…. but he is still here. It’s his strength that gave me mine, and it’s my strength than can help someone else.
I also know that Utica Club is a god awful tasting beer. And I don’t even drink.