I made Dad my bad guy. I was wrong.
I found his handwritten autobiography
Dad and his drinking are the problems. We are his victims. I must remove this cloak of shame.
That’s the simple, screwed-up narrative I learned as a young boy in my dysfunctional family. Take it from me. It’s a heavy load trying to be your father’s redeemer before you enter first grade.
It took years of counseling and the discovery of Dad’s autobiography to see the liberating truth. Unfortunately, I believed and lived that false story line.
No one explicitly told me Dad’s reputation needed my redemption. But my maternal grandfather, among others, sowed the seeds. He cursed Dad’s career instability as laziness, portrayed his love of sports as frivolity and dismissed his Catholic faith as hypocrisy.
He blamed the alcoholism on moral weakness. Dad had no spine.
“Good-for-nothing, lazy Irish drunk,” is an example of what he called my father.
The assault had its effect on a sensitive, confused and increasingly pissed off prepubescent. Let’s consider the allegation.
Drunk? Yes, especially on Saturdays.
Irish? Check. Born that way, just like me.
Lazy? Tough one. He expended effort, but couldn’t sustain it.
Good-for-nothing? Now that’s going too far. No boy wants to think of his dad as worthless. Even grown men with the grey hair I have today long to find evidence of the heroic in their fathers.
Mom’s master’s degree in worry
Long before she became a Master Gardener, Mom got a Master’s Degree in Worry and a Ph.D. in Blame. She considered these virtues to be rewarded one day, like longsuffering and courageously speaking truth.
When circumstances were at their best, Mom was at the top of her worry game. Let’s say Dad had been “on the wagon,” as he called it, and the checks started to come in more regularly.
That was a bad sign for Mom. The next catastrophe is just around the corner.
“He’s going to lose his job again and this time we’re going to lose the house.”
“That man is going to give me a nervous breakdown. One day, I’m just going to walk out of here and never come back.”
“The problem with your Dad is his parents praised him too much, and he believed it.”
According to this logic, telling your kids they suck is the secret to success. Affirmation is the cause of alcoholism.
Our 1968 World Book encyclopedia didn’t include “nervous breakdown,” but I could surmise this malady would leave me motherless and homeless.
Years later, I learned a harsh term for a mother dumping unfiltered fears and anxieties on a young son: “emotional incest.” I don’t think she meant to do it, but she did. I was an ever-present listening ear.
Reading invisible cue cards
In fairness, Mom had good reasons to worry.
Maurice “Morey” O’Keefe was a smart guy who always seemed to find a way to sabotage success. Wanted to be a priest but got kicked out of Holy Cross Seminary for mysterious reasons (quipped I could still call him “Father” and go to Confession, which is perhaps what I’m doing now). He taught high school Latin and won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study the classics in Rome. It wasn’t so much “studying abroad,” he said, but “studying the broads.” Hah.
But the drinking made him unreliable, explosive and verbally abusive at times, especially toward Mom. Dad must have had 20 jobs by the time I was a teenager, including store-to-store knitting needle salesman, ironworker balancing the high beams of Chicago’s skyscrapers and independent trucker taking his old rig down county roads so he could dodge the highway scales on long hauls.
They taught me to hate him for that and hundreds of other reasons. But I always loved him. He taught me not to let the facts get in the way of a good Irish story (advice I had to ignore as a journalist), how to use an interlocking grip in golf and how to shoot a reverse layup with the right amount of English, so it spins off the backboard and through the net. I never doubted his love.
In the 1960s and 1970s, we played our family roles from invisible cue cards. Dad was the villain you couldn’t help liking. Mom won an Oscar for Best Enabling Actress in a Dysfunctional Family Feature. Me? I was the “hero.” Under that skinny, sickly frame was a boys’ t-shirt with an “S” on it, or so I thought.
In the classic basketball movie, “Hoosiers,” the kid from the small town hits the game-winning shot to win the state tournament. The alcoholic father smiles. The community cheers. Redemption. When I saw that movie for the first time, I realized I had dreamt it 1,000 times, but never lived it.
Struggling in new roles
A funny thing happened on Mom’s way to martyrdom and my path to enshrinement in the Hall of NoShame. Dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
He attended his first AA meeting on my 10th birthday, confessed he was “powerless” over alcohol, that his life had become unmanageable and “only a Power greater than himself could restore him to sanity.” He rarely missed a Tuesday night.
Mom didn’t know what to do with herself when Dad stopped drinking. She seemed depressed. Her life seemed to lose much of its purpose. Her mid-life crisis was not knowing who she was with a sober husband.
I was grateful for Dad’s new life of sobriety. But I struggled to heal from the damage done during those formative years. I still felt victimized. I prayed dozens of times to forgive him, but couldn’t stop blaming him.
In my 20s, I learned I was something labeled an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA). I attended counseling sessions, read books, attended retreats, wrote venting letters to Dad that I never sent, realized alcoholism is a family disease and made the mistake of passionately making that point on a family vacation. Dad’s looked as if a boulder of blame had lifted from his shoulders. Mom stood up, grabbed her purse and her Salems, and walked out the door. We found her holed up in a cheap motel the next day.
I got married, had three kids, and enjoyed some of the successes Dad predicted, as well as some failures he did not.
There never seemed to be time for just the two of us. I suggested we go on a cruise to the Bahamas, with only one catch. “Dad, you have to pay for it! I’m broke.”
He did so gladly. We ate meals with strangers, laughed at the stories I had memorized and some I didn’t, discussed my unsuccessful job interview at The New York Times, played Blackjack and drank gin and tonics — without the gin.
A few months after the cruise, I got a call from Mom: “Your Dad is dead.”
He keeled over from a blood clot on June 7, 1997, at age 63, with no alcohol in his system.
When Mom died years later, I had boxes of stuff shipped to my house on a UPS pallet, at considerable expense.
They kept everything. I couldn’t bear pitching it without a look. Rummaging through a dusty box in my basement, I spotted a college-ruled spiral notebook with a blue cover.
I thumbed through it like a deck of cards, stopping when I saw this:
Dad went on for six pages, mixing funny anecdotes with stories about his life history growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. He titled it “My Autobiography.” It started this way:
“The year was 1933. Prohibition was over. I was born, and I started to drink. First milk, then water, then booze.
It is January 1, 1997, and I’m thinking and planning the cruise my son and I are going on the end of this month. Mark will be 37 in 1997.
When I was teaching I aimed to age 37, and my goal was to have it made, be-on-the-top-successful, and put life on cruise control.
My drinking, from age 12, progressed and it was at age 37 I started my life in AA.”
Hot tears streamed down my cheeks, dripping on the notebook. Reading his narrative in his own words did something counseling sessions could not. It altered my point of view. I saw his life in a fresh, illuminating light. Call it an epiphany.
For once, I was glad Mom was a hoarder. Good thing I opened that notebook before putting it in the garbage bag.
A nationally known writing coach once taught me that every successful narrative has the same simple formula. A protagonist encounters a challenge and finds a resolution. When the outcome is sad, the Greeks called it a tragedy, when happy, a comedy.
Even after he stopped drinking, and even after his death, I saw Dad’s life as a tragedy of unfulfilled promise, a Fulbright Scholar turned unemployed truck driver.
I was wrong.
Dad’s life story was a comedy. He ended well, in triumph, breaking the chains of addiction and creating a legacy of redemption that has trickled down to me, my sons and my new grandson, with generations to come.