Blogmas Day 23: Canned

Hello friends! Happy Tuesday! I had a really nice, very jolly day baking cookies with friends while listening to the perfect mix of 1989 and Christmas music. It was one of those days that made me thankful for the people in my hometown and how wonderful they are. Now it's time for Blogmas though, and I've been saving this one for a while. I wanted to share with you all a piece that I wrote for my creative nonfiction class I took this past semester. I'm really proud of the way this turned out, but I will admit I'm very wary to post it online, where information is readily available to whomever seeks it. This piece is incredibly personal to me and contains a large part of my soul, so needless to say it's taking a lot out of me to send it off into cyberspace. I think it's a good step though: this past year, one lesson I've really learned is being committed to the truth and allowing myself to be more in touch with the rougher parts of my past. I've come to the conclusion that being honest with people can show immense courage and encourages me to grow. As long as I remain truthful and transparent with what I say, then I shouldn't fault myself to bringing my story to the table. So with that vague introduction, I present to you...

My father has always been a drinker. To be exact, he’s always been a Natural Ice drinker. Five-year-old me waited in the parking lot of 7-Eleven countless times, buckled up in the front seat of his truck as he bought a twelve pack of the cheap beer and a gallon of whole milk. Sometimes if I was good, I got to come inside and pick out an ice cream sandwich from the fridge behind the register.
            “You can eat that now if you don’t tell Mom I let you have dessert before dinner,” he’d say, cracking open one of the beers he had just bought, positioning the can between his denim-clad knees for the drive home.
I didn’t think twice about this; I was ignorant to most of the questionable behavior my father exhibited when I was a child. When I got to see my dad (every Monday, Thursday, and every other weekend) I never sat in my car seat; he drank a beer on the ride home, and then had two or three more before he drove me to the designated “meeting spot,” where I would unbuckle myself from his car and immediately get into the backseat of my mom’s. My mom, stepdad, and every other adult I knew had a drink in the evening, so I didn’t see my father as any sort of exception to the rule. His constant shakiness and occasional temper were just personality quirks that accompanied his goofy smile and guitar collection. He was the cool dad who bought me new Barbie dolls for no reason and took me to my first concert; I held nothing against him because, as far as I was concerned, I had no reason to.
My perspective changed when he lost his job and the twelve-packs of beer in the fridge seemed to be disappearing quicker than usual. When I was twelve, I sat opposite him on one of his red Marlo loveseats, absentmindedly picking at the stuffing poking through the armrests. When I went to visit my dad, we generally spent a few hours together, watching TV and eating whatever he found in the fridge. That night he found a frozen chicken potpie, and while it warmed in the oven he nervously tried to initiate conversation.
Finally, taking a sharp breath, he said, “I want you to know I’m okay, but I’m going to be going away for a while.” In my middle school naivety, I thought he meant a vacation. He read the confusion on my face as he pulled a meticulously folded pamphlet from his back pocket. On it, an African-American woman in a pantsuit smiled under the heading “Northern Virginia Comprehensive Treatment Services: the Regional Leader in Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation.”
I stared dumbfounded at him, unable to compute what I was seeing. I had equated rehab with Hollywood starlets and crack addicts, not my dad, who just had a few beers a day. I never saw his behavior as anything other than adult; I never saw the copious amount of beer cans in the trash as a warning sign, and I certainly never saw him as an addict.
For the first time, I saw him as inherently flawed. My parents were my biggest role models, just shy of perfect all my life, and suddenly my dad was the model for what not to do. I had grown up memorizing the sound of my mother’s business-lady high heels and the clanking of my father’s fully equipped toolbox, equating both with the soundtrack of hard work and adulthood. Now all I could hear was the crushing blow of my dad’s failure, which sounded exactly like the dull crunch of a stepped-upon beer can.
I hugged him, because I didn’t exactly know what else one is supposed to do in that situation, and I felt my own tears forming tiny puddles on his wrinkled T-shirt. The mildew-drenched air was suddenly too thick, making it difficult for me to breathe as his jagged beard scratched against my cheek.
He told me I could ask him whatever I wanted to and I could visit him once he left, but that wasn’t the type of assurance I wanted. What I wanted was a way to take back all of the 7-Eleven visits, ice cream sandwiches, and beers drank on the car ride home. I didn’t want to bear this burden; above all I didn’t want my seventh-grade classmates finding out about the ordeal. There was a very selfish part of me that had no sympathy for the tears leaking from his heavy-lidded eyes. As far as I was concerned, him going away to rehab was not him bettering himself, but rather him purposefully hurting me.
As if to provide a moment of relief, the oven timer dinged, signaling an end to both the conversation and the cooking time of the chicken potpie. Too baffled to eat, I stayed put on the couch, silently damning the open beer on the coffee table two feet away. When I finally could speak, I didn’t offer condolences or well wishes. Instead I avoided eye contact and informed him that I wasn’t hungry and would prefer to go home early.
He didn’t offer a verbal response; instead the pink color drained from his face as he retched forward into the sink, his anxiety presenting itself in the form of vomit. I swiftly covered my ears, muffling the sound; other than this minute movement I stayed completely still, completely aghast. When he finished heaving, his watering eyes met mine, his expression pitiful.
“Okay, I’ll grab my coat if you’re ready to go now.”

That was the last time my dad and I spoke of his drinking for a while. You might think after someone admits they’ll be going to a rehab facility, the next logical step would be to actually go to said rehab facility. That never happened. For a while I didn’t say a word, pretending as though his tearful confession was a strange dream that faded from the foreground of my memory. He didn’t drink around me, but because I only saw him a few times a week, I couldn’t confirm if that meant he wasn’t drinking at all.
After a month or two of sweeping everything under the rug, he mentioned in casual conversation that he had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous. While not of the same extreme as in-patient sobriety treatment, it was a step in the right direction.
“I went to the rehab center for a consultation,” he told me, “and they said I wasn’t a good fit for them. I don’t need as much help as they give people, so AA is what I’m doing instead.” As a preteen I was of the belief that fathers never, ever lie to their daughters. Now I know he never made it to rehab because his cowardice got the best of him, but either way I was proud of any progress he was willing to make.
To his credit, my dad did attend AA religiously, which is fitting because his group congregated in the basement of a local church. I felt genuine pride as he showed me the plastic coins given to him from his group leader, each metallic chip representing another month sober. He must’ve accrued six or seven of those tokens when the cans started making guest appearances again. It started small: a crushed Natural Ice buried in the trash, an opened twenty-four pack in the backseat of his truck, the smell of alcohol on his breath as he leaned in for a hug. I turned away from the obvious problem in my lap as the pride I held for my dad crumbled.
His not-so-secret drinking continued for months; I never said a word for fear of unmasking his red-faced temper. It was only when I found a beer can in his shower--an unexpected companion for the limescale clinging to the tiles--that I was ready to enter that arena. I strode into the living room, my rage enveloping me like knight’s armor.
“So why is there a beer can in your shower?” I demanded.
My dad slowly blinked in response, his shame evident. But because he never learned to appropriately apologize or admit any wrongdoing, he instead furrowed his brow, preparing for battle.
“Why were you looking in the shower?”
“I was using the bathroom and the curtain was pulled back. If you’re trying to hide beer cans you’re not doing a great job.”
“I’m not trying to hide anything,” he spat, “I can have a beer if I want to; I don’t have a problem.”
I laughed loudly, my mocking tone communicating my disbelief.  Yes you do! People don’t just go to Alcoholics Anonymous if they don’t have a problem, actually.”
Though he knew I was right, he couldn’t bring himself to admit his defeat. I would imagine it’s humiliating to tell your child you fell off the wagon, but it’s less cowardly than lying to their face.
“I went to AA to learn how to better control my drinking. I was probably drinking too much before, but it’s fine now. I can have a beer or two without it being a big deal.”
Even at thirteen I knew the goal of AA was not to “better control drinking,” but I didn’t want to argue anymore, so instead I just nodded and changed the subject. I could feel a pain in my chest that I now know can be classified as heartbreak, but I told myself it was better to cry about it later than to yell about it now.

In the six—nearly seven—years since my dad told me he was going to rehab, not much has changed. It would be much easier for all involved if I could say “and then my dad got sober, the end!” but that’s just not the case. He drinks heavily, perhaps even more than he did when I was in middle school, and I’ve lost the will to talk to him. There’s a chance alcohol isn’t the hardest drug he’s into, but I’d rather not know. Especially being a hundred miles away from him, it’s easy to pretend like he doesn’t exist, which is what I do most days.

Every few months my guilt will erupt and lead me to dial his phone number, which always leaves me worse for wear. It will end in an awkward dinner, sat opposite him in a restaurant booth upholstered with cheap plastic, feeling extreme discomfort and biting the inside of my cheek. We don’t venture into tumultuous waters, instead keeping our conversations in chartered territory—nothing more controversial than the weather and how I’m enjoying my classes. I give empty answers as I stare back at him, noting the hue of his rapidly graying hair and the holes in the jeans he’s had longer than I’ve been alive. I never leave these meetings feeling absolved, but cry behind the steering wheel all the way home, collapsing into my mom’s arms like a toddler when I burst through the front door. No one more than me wishes this story could end like a movie: my dad, the underdog, rising up to defeat his demons and lead his best life. Rather, it ends in a depressingly un-cinematic manner: my dad sitting alone on that same Marlo couch, drinking cheap cans of Natural Ice to ease his shaking.

Thanks to all of you for reading this, if you made it this far. I hope you still know I want to keep this blog light and fun most of the time, but after nearly a month of us hanging out every day it's about time to open up to you a little bit. I didn't want to put a damper on your Christmases or Christmas Eves, so I thought today would be best to post this story as Blogmas comes to a close. Whether this is your first time reading this blog or you've been keeping up-to-date with every post, your support means the world to me. Thank you for your readership and for making me feel heard. I'll see you tomorrow!

"Children betrayed their parents by becoming their own people." -Leslye Walton



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