“Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me.”
My dad died 50 years ago today, January 15, 1971. I was nine years old. I remember walking home from Macarthur elementary school on that cold snowy afternoon in South Holland, Illinois. I was about half a block away from our house when my mom passed me in my dad’s red Chevy Malibu. She slowed the car and waved to me. I’ll never forget her face. She smiled but her eyes were sad.
As I came through the front door I could see my Nana in the family room, crying while she mopped the tiled floor. She paused when she saw me, still holding onto the mop, her cheeks stained with tears. My Papa milled about behind her, hands in his trouser pockets. He was crying too.
I made my way to the kitchen, where my mom and older sister had already gathered. My mom asked my sister and I to have a seat at the kitchen table. She sat across from us and said, “Your dad went to heaven today.” She’d obviously been crying but at this moment she was composed. She delivered the news gently but matter-of-factly. More than anything, she looked exhausted.
Learning of my dad’s death was not a surprise to me. He’d been in and out of hospitals for months, battling alcoholism the last several years of his life—a battle that had most likely begun before I was even born. In the years leading up to his death the battle that raged within our house and within his body was intense, violent, and bloody. Only after I became an adult did I understand my dad was just as much a victim of his addiction as my mom, sister, and I were.
Anyone who has lived with and loved an addict knows the particular, slow-motion horror of watching helplessly as the person you love is destroyed from within. It’s an epic battle that is sometimes won, and oftentimes lost. Thirty years after our dad’s death, as my sister and I took care of our mom while she was dying of cancer, I had the same feeling of watching someone being eaten alive from the inside. The difference between cancer and addiction is that most people find it easier to empathize with the person dying from cancer. It’s harder to empathize when the person suffering from addiction leaves behind a trail of arrest records, restraining orders, DUIs, totaled cars, gambling debts, barroom brawls, damaged careers, lost friendships, broken marriages, domestic violence, traumatized children.
It wasn’t until a therapist explained it to me in my early 30s that I came to realize I had grown up in a war zone. Looking at my childhood through that lens explained a lot of the things I experienced as a young adult—the sleepless nights, the nightmares, the anger that seemed to come out of nowhere, the feeling of not being able to trust my own happiness because I was in a perpetual state of high alert, bracing myself for the inevitable crisis that was most assuredly lurking around the next corner and would rear its ugly head the moment I allowed myself to relax.
The irony that I married a man who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, who deployed to geographic war zones while I continued to work to overcome the fallout of growing up in a familial war zone, has not escaped me. Of the two of us, I’m the one who startles easily, who needs to sit facing the exit in a restaurant, who remains vigilant when I have every reason to sit back and relax. On the upside, I tend to be extraordinarily calm in crisis situations. The ability to focus on practical matters during life’s various emergencies can be handy at times, yet that sense of calm in the eye of the storm also comes at a cost—unlike my husband, who’s very much in touch with his emotions in the moment, it often takes me days, weeks, months, or even years to come to terms with the normal range of emotions stemming from various life events.
Nowadays, when I look back on that day my dad died 50 years ago, what strikes me the most is not the memory of my own sadness, but the faces of the people who cared for me. In their eyes I saw concern, love, grief—not for themselves, but for the two little girls who just lost their dad. Remembering their faces is the thing that makes me cry. I imagine how difficult it must have been for them as parents and grandparents, the worry and responsibility they felt for the impact this day, and the years leading up to this day, would have on the lives of two little girls. Through them, I learned one of the most valuable emotions in life—after hope—is empathy. When bad things happen, it’s hope that propels us to keep getting out of bed every morning when our instinct is to stay burrowed underneath the covers, and empathy that allows us to close our eyes every night to slumber in peace, knowing we are not alone.
I’m 59 now, and still reminding myself to take that deep breath, live in the moment, embrace my own happiness. Because I have a lot to be happy for. Life continues to present us with challenges at every turn, as it does for all of us. And that’s another gift that cold snowy day in 1971 gave me—the knowledge in my bones that each of us is fighting an epic battle, that nothing is permanent, that hope and empathy sustain us.
July 25, 1931 — January 15, 1971