My dad is almost exactly 30 years older than I am. His birthday is July 9, mine is July 7. As a newborn, I came home from the hospital on his 30th birthday. Tonight, though, we celebrated another kind of birthday, much more sacred and important. Today, May 6, 2014, is the day marking my dad’s sobriety for 30 years. Yes, 30 years. That’s a long time of taking it one day at a time. He was almost exactly my age today when he became sober.
Tonight, we celebrated with dinner for four: my dad, my stepmother, my younger sister, and I. A simple dinner to commemorate a huge accomplishment. He’s been in my thoughts all day long.
The year of 1984 was a big one in our family. My dad, finally, became sober. It was also the year that my parents separated to be divorced. Alcoholism and divorce are parts of lots of families’ histories, but for us it became the landmark that led to recovery and new life, even healing.
When one encounters the term alcoholism, it is not always understood. Is it a physical disease? Is it a mental disease? Is it hereditary? Can it be cured? What causes it? It can be a physical and mental disease. It can be hereditary and often alcoholism runs through generations of a family, but not always. The cure is not a shot or a vaccine. No one really knows exactly what causes it, but there are lots of theories.
The best way I can think of describing alcoholism involves a scene from the first season of The West Wing. (It was written by Aaron Sorkin, himself a recovering addict, and played by John Spencer, also a recovering alcoholic.) Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff and recovering alcoholic, when it is revealed that his father was an alcoholic and committed suicide, answers the seemingly simple question, “Is that why you drank?” Leo replies, “The reason I drank is I am an alcoholic. I will never be cured. . . but I can be clean and sober, in recovery. It is day to day.” Anytime I think of that scene, I want to cry, and it makes me think of my dad.
My dad has often counseled me when I am impatient or upset about work or life or money or any number of issues. His biggest recommendation is to take one day at a time. This is advice that he has been living quietly and graciously for the last 30 years.
My dad and I have often talked of addiction, alcoholism, and recovery. From the age of eight through today, I have asked questions, pointed and direct. I ask what it felt like to have an unquenchable thirst. I ask him what he remembers from some scenes before he became sober. I ask him what made that time stick, after shorter periods of sobriety. He always likes to point out that sobriety is more than just not drinking. To be in recovery is to take responsibility and to try to heal. It’s a lifelong process, one day at a time.
My dad is still my dad. He drives me crazy at times. He reads like a fiend and watches lots of movies. Retired a year, he is trying to find his place in the world, something familiar to his middle daughter. Throughout most of my childhood and even into adulthood, we share what we are reading and watching. We talk politics. We argue. He is my dad.
I had a mostly beautiful childhood, no visible or invisible scars. Of course, there were incidents. Maybe it’s selective memory or the blessing to be able to forget bad dreams. No matter, when my dad became sober, we all began to heal. My parents divorced and then became good friends. Most of the important events in my life with family: holidays, birthdays, my track meets, graduations from high school and college, have included my mom, my dad, and my stepmom, who joined our family in 1990.
My favorite time with my dad is when it’s just the two of us. I tend to like to be with people in one-on-one scenarios. It’s my chance to talk and soak up someone’s company. This past Saturday, we spent part of the day together. He’s recovering from a health scare that occurred in early March and is not allowed to drive. I picked him up and we drove to Boulder. I showed him my office and then we went to a bookstore and sat in the corner coffee shop over steaming mugs. We talked about everything and nothing. Sometimes we talked past each other, but then we slowed down and remembered to listen. When I get frustrated with him, particularly in conversations, I have to remember that in some ways I am just like him. It helps to stop and take a breath. Take it one moment at a time.
One of my favorite memories with my dad was in the fall of 2002 or 2003. I was really down in the dumps and out-of-sorts with the world, even though nothing on the surface looked like it was wrong. I was living in Saint Paul and feeling isolated. My mom got on the phone with my dad and they talked about me. The next day my dad called and said he was flying to see me. He came at the exact right time. We spent three days with each other. We read books, we ate breakfast, we watched movies, we talked for hours about everything and nothing. We did not really talk about what was bothering me. Sometimes the most emotional conversations can be bridged with politics and world events and movies and discussions of books. Sometimes it’s the presence of the person across the table, much more than what they say. I remember when he left for the airport we hugged and said no words. That weekend with him was just what I needed.
Ten years ago, I was ready to move back to the West. We were on the phone, catching up with one of our semi-weekly conversations. While I never said a word about wanting to move from Saint Paul to Colorado or New Mexico, he said quietly, “You should move. You can stay with us until you get settled.” Four months later, I moved to Colorado and stayed in his basement for nine months. It was one of the best gifts I have ever been given. He gave me the space and the privacy to stumble and falter and find my place, personally and professionally.
On Saturday, he showed me his 29th year medallion. He will get his 30th year medallion on Thursday night at his regular weekly meeting. I can remember the blue plastic chip with “three months” etched on one side, one that he gave me and that I hung on my childhood bulletin board over my bed. The medallion is always in his front pocket. I swear I can hear that metal, it jangles differently than coins or keys. It is the most beautiful sound in the world.
It is recovery. It is a vow. It is a pause. It is living. It is pain. It is healing. It is the heart. It is the soul. It is the mind. It is love. It is Dad.