Love Is Also One of the Things That’s True

Friday, February 14, 2020

Fifteen years ago this winter my dad drove me up to Madison for the third and final surgery on my right collarbone, which I had shattered earlier that year. (I had front-flipped onto blacktop, accomplishing a football injury while playing basketball. It’s a whole sad, dumb story.) We left home early in the morning and he treated me to several creature comforts along the way, the dearest of which was waking me to hear the three-song Clash mini-marathon playing on the radio. (This was the height of my Clash fanaticism, when playing cuts off of London Calling was always the right choice to make and Joe Strummer was my patron saint of the unwritten future.) My dad knew I was nervous about this latest operation: I don’t handle anesthesia very well, and it was also a more invasive procedure this time, as I would be getting a graft from my hip to reinforce the plate in my collarbone. He took really good care of me that day.

Prior to and subsequent to that, my dad has struggled with addiction. I’m not throwing him under the bus in saying this — it’s just the truth, albeit a painful one for us both. I won’t catalogue all his wrongdoing; I wouldn’t want that done for me, either. Suffice it to say, for longer than I’ve been alive he’s had a predilection towards self-medication through substances that momentarily take away his pain but only hurt him and those around him all the more. It’s contributed to he and my mom divorcing; anymore, it’s almost stranger to imagine them married than it is to recall the way things have been these past thirty years. I’ve had to visit him in jail at various points while I was in elementary, middle, and high school. He missed my confirmation when I was fourteen. There have been incidents with money borrowed but not repaid and money otherwise illegitimately gained, all to score the things his addiction compelled him to believe he needed. If you add them all together, there are cumulative years in which I have been angry with my dad, even borderline hated him. And I hated myself: always afraid of becoming him, always despising the smallest overtone of likeness I might find between us, any similarity of behavior or need. And I never knew who I could entrust this to.

In families rent by addiction it’s hard to be vulnerable, because it’s hard to be truthful. Everyone is so hurt that they amass scores of defense mechanisms and coping strategies to try to survive. But in this fight to survive, we frequently end up harming ourselves. We feel like we can’t name what’s wrong — we don’t want to shame our loved one, and we fear the revelation reflecting something about us. As a result, many of us feel like we can’t be honest about how we feel. Others, who also struggle with the addict’s behaviors and choices, will often rationalize that behavior, or resort to denial (“He’s getting better!”) or silence any attempt to bring hurt and confusion to speech. “But he’s your dad, Ian, and he loves you — is that any way to talk about your dad?”

The pain is too pervasive and cavernous to fully acknowledge, even to our own selves: it feels like it will spill over and absorb the universe if another’s pain confirms the truth of what we try to keep out of sight. And if you’re a child, you internalize the addict’s behavior and torment yourself with questions and possible solutions: What if I was a better son? Would the drinking stop then? What if I got better grades? What if I did more around the house? What if I laugh at all his jokes? Defer to him on everything? What if I sign off on everything he says, even when I disagree? Surely that will satisfy the need the drinking promises to fulfill. Maybe?

All these things are factual. Together they paint a sad picture. And yet they’re not the whole story.

That fifteen-year-old memory washed over me as I prepared to drive my dad up to Madison for surgery on his right shoulder last week — a constant point of pain for him for most of his adult life. We checked into the VA hospital before the winter sun had thrown off even a teasing hint of rising, and he began prepping for a major operation to have his rotator cuff repaired. A sign in the west wing of our floor notified of a “respiratory illness outbreak” and directed us to don masks as a safety measure. Disconcerting? Um…yes. 

After preliminary matters were completed and I signed off as his next of kin, my day at the hospital consisted of a tremendous deal of waiting. I encamped in the waiting room a floor above the pre-surgery unit, read some Robert Aickman stories, and slept.

I dreamt of abstract flurries of waiting rooms past, of the blasts of warm air that greet residents and visitors upon entering the hospital’s foyer, of having someone waiting for my procedure to be completed. Not of any specific instance, I don’t think — it was more the feeling of knowing I’m not here alone. That however alone I sometimes feel, this time at least I have someone physically awaiting me down the hall. 

And I continually returned to that memory of Dad comforting me, going to such great lengths to allay my anxieties. My fear is that by savoring that memory I’m whitewashing all the negative things that have happened, that have painfully impacted me and shaped me into who I am now. That I’m returning to the easy route of denial and enablement that twists the truth, that turns on a dime with rejoinders like, “But he’s getting better!” when…he isn’t. Whether he (or she, whoever it is we’re talking about at any given time) is or isn’t getting better, that’s the wrong answer if someone’s telling you they’ve been hurt and are hurting. If it’s true this person is coming to grips with their character flaws and working to overcome them, or making strides towards recovery, then praise God but don’t redact history to fashion an ideal version of the present with that fact so as to drown out the past.

But what I remember happening happened. I’m not conjuring a false memory to concoct a more ideal dad. And to enjoy that memory and draw comfort from the love he so patently displayed that day in no way minimizes the other things that have transpired between us. I’m not lying about anything by recalling that morning with fondness. The other elements of our relationship that have fallen short of ideal — they’re real. They have lastingly molded my outlook, how I respond to stimuli in the world, how I try to protect myself, the fears that characterize me and corrupt how I take in what is happening around me. But what’s also real is that at least on one morning a decade and a half ago he took so many extra measures to ensure I could face something I feared with a stout heart.

All of these things are true. I’m not lying by confessing that yes, in addition to everything else, my dad could demonstrate self-giving love. And so I returned the favor last week. He was so grateful that I accompanied him, helped him with his sling, grabbed a drink for him, did all the driving while the anesthetics made things foggy. But above all, I think, that I was there. That I wasn’t writing him off; that I was open to a future where he was fighting his demons and genuinely getting better, in body, mind, and soul. That I didn’t leave it to someone else to take care of him, but that despite the hurts that have been inflicted on me, I was by his side. Because I love him.

And that’s one of the ways I know I’m getting better. To be able to remember — without old wounds serrating that memory and tempting me to consign the entire sweep of that shared history to oblivion — is unprecedented. I know that it took nothing short of God insinuating an openness in my frightened, defensive heart not to disown the past but to sew compassion into the present for this imperfect man. To accept that sin has shaped my past, my present, and my future with its gouges and dreads and doubts but that this is not the whole truth; to be able to acknowledge the good, understanding at long last that the bad doesn’t negate it, that I’m not concocting falsehoods or alternative stories of what life has been like if I cup that memory in the chambers of my heart and draw life and grateful tears from it. Because contrary to what you may have heard, truth isn’t located solely in the dark and the awful and the vicious. Love is also one of the things that’s true.