There’s a fine and excruciating line between dreams and nightmares.
When I was 12 years old, I went to New York City for the first time. My Uncle Joe and his bride-to-be were deeply in love, and the whole family was coming from New Orleans to celebrate a joyful affair.
For weeks, I awaited the day when I would put down the compost bucket, board the plane solo, and arrive in the big city to reunite with my dad.
The trip was everything I dreamed of: the girl from the commune suddenly felt like a Princess at the fancy Helmsley Palace hotel, on the arm of her Prince, staring up at the big buildings that seemed to touch the sky.
The day before the wedding, Dad bought me a red Ralph Lauren dress and patent leather shoes – a much better choice than the thrift-store-special Gunne Sax I packed, that doubled occasionally as a nightgown.
The night before the wedding, a group of us ate at Patsy’s Italian restaurant, a family favorite, and saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on Broadway. Afterwards, we hopped into a horse and buggy, and sang The Sound of Music, while Dad and Uncle Joe walked back to the hotel.
We arrived at The Palace still singing and excitedly anticipating the next day. Then Joe, along with his two daughters, his younger brother Mark and his new wife, all left for Joe’s house in Jersey.
The next thing I remember in the middle of the night was a pounding on the hotel room door and my dad, usually a heavy sleeper, jumping abruptly to answer the frantic voice on the other side, then slamming the door behind him.
Silence enveloped the room, except for the thumping of my heartbeat. Aunt Melanie eventually appeared and brought me into her room, where I slept through the night.
When I woke up, I found her sitting on the edge of my bed. She told me that Joe and my Uncle Mark’s newlywed wife took Joe’s Corvette out for a late night spin and never made it home. They were found hours later in the car, wrapped around a telephone poll. Mark’s wife was behind the wheel and killed on impact. Joe died later that night at the hospital.
Melanie soon excused herself to throw up in the bathroom, while I paced the hallway to avoid doing the same.
The only thing that calmed me was the thought of my dad soon returning with open arms to assure us all. I could hear him saying, “Sometimes terrible things happen in life…but we got to pull ourselves together and go see Dream Girls tonight.”
Of course my twelve-year-old interpretation of such a tragedy was naïve at best.
When the door was flung open, he stood there, red and wet, with an expression I hadn’t seen. He stumbled toward me, tackled me to the floor and wept.
Hours before, we were touring monuments, flying high above the city in a helicopter…and now I felt the heavy weight of my father’s body, crushing and crashing as it landed.
In that moment, I was initiated into the underworld of adult suffering, a world I would become evermore intimate with in the years to follow.
We came to New York for a wedding, and left for two funerals.
Following the accident, Dad hit a brick wall of depression. Soon after, his best friend died in a motorcycle accident and another friend drowned in a bathtub.
Night after night, I stayed up late with Dad as he played sad songs and talked in between:
“I saw his brains come out of his nose Deli…. Uncle Joe was more of a dad to me than Honey.”
“Ya’ know, Honey used play this game with Joe and me when we were kids. He’d poke us with needles in the butt, and he’d say the first one to say ‘Ouch’, didn’t love him. Before Honey even touched Joe, Joe would scream, ‘OUCH’!”
Taking a deep drag of his cigarette and another sip of scotch, he said, “But when he got to me, I would grind my teeth and take that needle in all the way.”
Then, looking deeply into my eyes, he said, “Last night I almost took a right hand turn off the Causeway bridge, but I didn’t…because of you.”
Another slow drag.
“Ya’ gonna’ miss me when I’m gone,” he said.
“Dad, please don’t say that. If you died, I would die,” I said through tears.
“Stop that,” he said softly. “You rememba’ to look at my example of what not to do.”
“Dad, we have so much to look forward to. Think about Fountainhead!” I’d say trying muster hope.
Despite my efforts, Dad soon turned to harder drugs and began ‘poking’ himself with needles. While he got his fix, I tried fixing the situation. I became his personal cheerleader, for if I could make him happy, even for a moment, maybe I’d get a glimpse of the soul I once knew.
He started to look skinny and began covering his arms, where he once rolled his sleeves above big biceps.
When I confronted him about the blood on his shirts, he told me he “cut” himself. I didn’t believe him…but I also didn’t believe he’d lie to me with such sincerity. I knew my dad had a tendency to lie, yet I tried ignoring the alarms sounding within me. Maybe he did cut himself…maybe I was seeing things.
I became better at distracting myself. By the time I reached my early twenties and traveled to Asia as an under-sized model, I hoped to forget about him and his problems.
One night, between trips to Tokyo, I went with some friends to a Seal concert in Berkeley. It was the first time I drank a martini (Dad’s favorite drink). At the end of the night, we went to a bar, where I sneaked outside to make a phone call.
“Dad! I just saw the most amazing concert and I thought of you the whole time. It was at the Greek Theater, you would LOVE this place! The sky was so clear, you could see all the stars and Seal was awesome Dad! I really wished you were there. Remember that time we saw Prince in Dallas and I jumped up and down the whole time? We should go to some concerts this summer! We have so much to look forward to…”
Slowing down to take a breath…
“I know I’ve been on your case a lot…”
My voice cracked open as I sank to the ground.
“If you died, I would die.”
If he had tried to speak then, I could hear nothing but heaving and howling echoes. Eventually I heard him say something about rehab, and that this time he would go.
I froze, listened, barely breathed…
“You promise? You really promise? Oh God Dad, that would mean the world! You really mean it? Dad, on my life do you promise?”
Then, with a big exhale, I said, “I’ll call you in the morning. Thank you Dad. Thank you so much! I love you too.”
In two days, he would’ve turned 45. But the next day he was found in his bed. The autopsy revealed “an acute mixed drug intoxication”.
Ever since I was a little girl, my biggest fear was losing him. But somehow, I didn’t believe it would really happen – even when I saw the track marks on his ankles, watched him hallucinate, and heard his promises over and over. The last thing he said to me on the phone was, “I’m going to be ok.” I believed him. I didn’t want to believe he’d ever leave.
All my life I had believed in him, and suddenly there was nothing left but grief and a recognition that I didn’t know how to believe in myself.
I felt as though I had lost the love of my life, and was suddenly out of a job. Where would I put my energy if not into him?
My wise Grandmother once said to me, “The only person you can save is yourself.”
The high-speed roller coaster ride left many scars in its wake and didn’t stop with his death.
The love I once felt turned to rage and resentment. What lies, what waste, what a selfish asshole!
My father, the “junkie”, is only part of the picture that makes a whole man. His mystery and dimensionality can’t be summed up, cleaned up or even understood – but he can be forgiven. He did the best he could with the hands he was dealt.
Despite his limitations, there will always be a little girl who sees him larger than life. Despite the scars left, I will always be wild with love and grateful until my end for the magic he brought.
He was right: I would miss him. Thankfully, I was wrong: I didn’t die with him. I’m still alive, waking up everyday to the truth of what I tried to instill in him: Life is a gift and peace is possible.
He’s not the only soul who has lost touch with the sun and made a bitter descent into the dark night. I have also joined him there.
Though my path is different from his, I will continue the brutal work required to heal a broken legacy, so that I may LIVE that which I asked and pleaded of him.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
-Elizabeth Kubler Ross