Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Graduation Night

This morning I posted on my Facebook that I'd attended the graduation of a young friend last night. A marvelous, brilliant, beautiful girl I'd known since she was two, so I was honored to go cheer her on. But it made me nervous. I'd never been to a graduation before, and am fighting shy of large gatherings in general. It was good practice; next year it will be our oldest son walking across the stage, so I'd best get comfortable with the idea.

It wasn't comfortable last night. It brought back lots of memories and buried thoughts about why I didn't go to graduation all those years ago. There were logical reasons: I was an atheist and offended by a white Christian guy saying benediction at a school with a multi-ethnic, foreign-born, multi-creed population. I was a rebel, and couldn't bear the idea of towing the line, standing in a row, and going through a tradition, especially when I wouldn't be graduating with friends because I was graduating a year early. But the biggest obstacle was my father.

He was supposed to meet us at my mother's house, where she and my boyfriend (known appropriately as "Wild Man Bill", a long-haired electric guitarist with an anger management problem and an epinephrine addiction) waited for him to show up so we could drive to wherever the ceremony was being held, together. My dad was taking the bus to get to my mother's house; he'd given up his license as part of his dependency on the state. As time went on, I became more nervous and certain that this would be "one of those times." My gut ached, my radar was going off, and something told me "don't go," so we went out for Chinese dinner instead and blew off graduation.

About a week later, I ran into my father riding the bus. I didn't drive either, even though I'd turned sixteen nine months earlier, because I knew I was too irresponsible to get behind a thousand pounds of metal, and besides, there was no one to teach me, or money to pay for insurance or vehicles. My job at the pet store was for the college fund only.

My father looked like hell. I could tell that he'd been on a bender, just by looking at him, and by the smell. I had virtually no sense of smell at the time, sixteen years of allergies left me without much olfactory function, but I could smell when he was drunk, had been drunk, or was about to go on a bender. Before he'd finally walked out when I was thirteen, I could walk in the house, take a sniff, and tell my sister whether it was safe to go into the house, or not. The smell of booze still makes me angry and afraid.

We spoke, tensely, on the bus, and graduation came up. Somehow, in a rambling manner, it came out that he had gone on his own, forgetting that he was supposed to meet us, and searched for me through the crowd, feeling like he'd seen me get my diploma, his memories vague. My skin crawled at the thought of what that confrontation would have been like, in front of three hundred graduates and their parents. I was enough of a freak without that.

This Father's Day, it will be twenty years since he literally drank himself to death, the day before his sixtieth birthday. There is a chapter in my memoir about how after he died, I suddenly knew I wanted to have children, and that I'd never considered it a possibility while he was alive. But recently, I've had compassion for him, as I understand more about the factors that drove him to self-medicate with drink, to declaring himself unfit due to mental illness and thereby dependent on the state, to committing scarring acts against his wife and children, frightening us so much that there was a machete under my pillow, a deadbolt on my sister's door and a cast-iron frying pan under my mother's side of the bed, should he show up again.

Ironically, my mother let him in again once we'd returned to the United States from Canada, following him to Seattle and renting a house in Wallingford, where I started high school. We didn't see him at first when we came down; the terms of their divorce were that she wouldn't ask him for any support as long as he didn't ask for any custody or visitation, to which they both agreed. But eventually he showed up bruised, bloodied, beat up and down on his luck, rolled for his money (it was then that I learned about "rolling drunks", people pulling drunk guys into cars, getting anything of value off them and throwing them out of the moving car). He'd pawned his guitars, his banjos, his coin collection, and was temporarily homeless.

It was my shrill irrational voice that made my mother invite him to live in our basement. She didn't understand why it was so important to me, nor did I, at the time. I didn't get that I'd been his caretaker and companion so long, both of us home while my sister and mother were working, that it was ingrained deep in me to take care of him first, me later, no matter the cost.

He lived there for about a year and a half, even moving with us into the basement of the house my mother bought with her boyfriend when I was fifteen. It was weird. Eventually, he started drinking again, and I was given the scary task of going into the dark basement to evict him, my sister already at college and not back again for years.

After the graduation incident, I went away to college, broke up with anger-management boy before he managed to kill me, came back to Seattle sophomore year and began the process of breaking away from my father bit by bit over the next three years: changing addresses, changing phone numbers, changing my name.

When he died, I settled his debts, cleaned out the garbage, debris, pickup truck load of bottles and few remnants of his life from the apartment he was being evicted from when he was found dying of liver and kidney failure on his floor. There was one box of records, two suitcases, a few music books from his youth and a banjo, all that was left of someone his brother told me was literally "a rocket scientist" with the military, worked with the first computers at Lawrence Livermore Labs, and once upon a time played music with the Lost City Ramblers during the folk music movement. There is a photograph of him in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down; The illustrated story of the Cambridge folk years b Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney.

The suitcases are in my attic, awaiting the day I can bear to look in them without ruining my mood for a week, to solve more of the puzzle that, like it or not, is part of me. He is with me when I see an old drunk guy on the street or a gray-haired guy hunched over in a fast-food restaurant drinking cheap coffee, he is with me when a wave of chemicals passes through my brain, dragging me into a deep depression and he is with me at graduations or other celebrations, when I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder for the shadow to show up and poison the day.

But most of the time, I'm free.

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