Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Things I Can’t Change

A while back, while I was visiting my father Mohammed in hospice, I went downstairs to get a cup of requisitely stale coffee. While drinking it in a requisitely depressing communal area, I looked up and saw a poster for alcoholism treatment. Naturally, I thought of my once-robust father, lying shriveled and vulnerable in a bed upstairs.

Now, if you’re wondering, with a name like Mohammed, if he is Muslim you’d be right. If you’re also thinking, “Well, that’s strange. I thought Muslims didn’t drink.” you’d also be right.

I have no reasonable explanation for this. But the facts are that my father Mohammed is a Muslim and he was an inveterate, unrepentant, raging alcoholic throughout my entire life.

Staring up at the hollow hope of the poster above me (“If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, you are not alone.”), suddenly Christina and a certain fateful day popped into my head.

On the day in question, fifth grader Christina, the class Cool Tough Kid who’d once brought in not only cigarettes and a bottle of peppermint schnapps but also a half-used packet of birth control pills, was holding court in the playground, surrounded by her usual gaggle of awed ten-year-old groupies.

“My mom is in AAA,” she informed us with the preternatural weariness of a young kid who already knew what Alcoholics Anonymous was at age ten, regardless of the incorrect acronym she was using.

“What's AAA?” I asked, repeating the triple A’s.

“It's when you admit you are powerless over alcohol and that your life is unmanaged,” she parroted, not really nailing the organization’s credo but coming admirably close for a fifth grader.

I nodded.

“She’s a slut too,” Christina continued, sanguinely enough to assume that she didn’t really know what “slut” actually meant. “She has sex a lot because she’s powerless over addiction. That’s why she’s in AAA.”

AAA was a course I hadn't yet taken at the School of Sad, Disturbing Childhoods but I was quite the assiduous student of much of its other varied and intensive curriculum: Vicious and Dehumanizing Verbal Abuse 101; a rigorous master class in Moderate to Severe Physical Abuse and Are They Bipolar; Manic-Depressive or Just Indescribably Nuts: An Intensive Case Study. This AAA of which she spoke was an extremely intriguing prospect, seeing as I was already fluent in many, many other aspects of alcohol “unmanagement.”

Also, I understood her decided air of boastfulness. If you had a crappy childhood, you better believe you were going to try to get some tough kid cred from it. Years later in college and even beyond, kids from “normal” homes with "normal" parents studied disaffection, nihilism and tortured malcontent like American tourists in Ho Chi Minh City, with an outdated map. We were the real deal.

But whereas Christina trumpeted it, I hid it. In my family, secrecy, silence and shame were terms of the contract into which every member of my family had long ago wordlessly entered. Incidentally, Secrets, Silence and Shame must be the name of a nineties-era Lifetime movie.

After the bell ending recess had rung, I approached Christina. Haltingly, I told her my problem. My father was indeed Powerless over alcohol and his life was “unmanaged” to the point where he knew every variety of gin but couldn’t seem to remember any of his three children’s birthdays. And he was most certainly a slut. My mother said so although she also said that he’d step over a hundred naked women to get to a drink.

“If he goes to AAA, he'll be all better,” Christina assured me. Probably more for herself and her own Powerlessness Over a Mother given to her by the entirely capricious, often cruel genetic lottery that chooses for us our parents. In her case, she was given a mother who once left her in a freezing car for four hours in the middle of winter while she “sobered up” at a bar.

Soon after, I secretly began gathering as much information on AAA as I could. Pre-Internet, this proved very difficult. As much as the Internet is responsible for the now irreparable lack of understanding the difference between an antecedent and a possessive and people who can't eat meals without taking pictures of them first, it really could have helped me back then. Not only in the sense that I could have found community online and not have felt so alone, I could have easily discovered what, exactly, AAA was.

Still, I managed to collect a sizable amount of information, mostly in the form of pamphlets. These, I hid surreptitiously under my mattress. In our house, Secrets, Silence and Shame went hand in hand with Denial of Glaringly Obvious Dysfunction and when any contractual rules were broken, punitive measures were taken.

About three months after my AAA recon mission had begun, I was in a car driven by Mrs. Newfield, my most “normal” friend Jenny’s “normal” mother. We were on our way to walk aimlessly around the mall, try on clothes both of us were too chubby to fit into and then head to the food court to eat our feelings while Mrs. Newfield shopped. Suddenly, the car thumped into a flat tire.

As we pulled to the side of the road, Mrs. Newfield turned to Jenny.

“Go into my purse, honey,” she said. “And get my Triple A card.”

As Jenny pulled the card out of her mother’s purse, I glimpsed the letters: A-A-A.

I was stunned.

The Newfield family was normal, perfect, in fact in my estimation back then and they had someone in AAA?

As we waited for AAA to come, I sat in the back seat of the car, utterly elated and filled with a warm glow of relief. My father could go to AAA. Everything was going to be okay.

About a half hour later, a dirty tow truck pulled alongside the Newfield’s car. A heavy-set man in a blue windbreaker and jeans ambled over to the car.

“You got a spare in the back?” he called, looking at the tire. “Won’t take long. I just need your Triple A card.”

A funny feeling was beginning deep in my belly but I ignored it.

“Does dad have a Triple A card?” I asked my mother when I was home that night.

She looked at me oddly.

“Everyone has Triple A,” she replied. “Everyone with a car. Especially him. God knows he’ll need it when he wraps himself around a pole next time he’s blind drunk.”

My heart sank. It sank in my chest. It really did.

AAA couldn’t help my father. He was never going to stop drinking. He was never going to come back and he was never going to be a father to me or to my brothers. Not in any way at all, not ever. We were all alone in the world with a mother who, to say wasn’t handling his departure and our new normal in a “healthy” way, would have been quite the understatement.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked. I almost never asked this because I didn’t want to know the answer and besides, none of us ever knew anyway because he always lied about where he was.

“I don’t know where that drunken whore-master is,” she said crisply. “And I could care less. Frankly, I'm shocked he's still even alive. You'd think cirrhosis of the liver would’ve gotten him by now. Or syphilis.”

These terms I did know, along with Bastard, which was another of my mother's most oft-used invectives. Accusing our father of having children flung far and wide across the globe was a favorite past time of hers, besides opera, historical biographies and tracing her Mayflower-descended family tree, something that became more and more important to her as our lives and possibilities both narrowed and unraveled more and more every year; emotionally, physically, financially; in every way possible, really.

Upstairs, I threw out the pamphlets I’d gathered so that my mother would never find them. As she did of therapy, lap band surgery and feminist-themed book clubs, she would think that AA was for Weak, Whiny Losers.

To be sure, I’d been surprised that most of the pamphlets were kept in gas stations and featured diagrams of auto malfunctions. What can I say? At that age, I was incredibly wise to the ways of the world but not the brightest bulb when it came to connecting the dots that an auto assistance service may not be the same thing as a recovery fellowship for boozers.

I'd like to be able to say that, in my adult life, I found an amazing therapist, just like in the movies: rumpled, brilliant yet real and he told me that none of it was my fault and slowly, his patient determination led me to a profound, Hollywood Breakthrough Moment that left me thawed, cured and in healing tears.

Instead, like most people who had difficult childhoods fraught with abuse and neglect, it would take me the rest of my life, and still does, to feel even the most basic sense of normalcy, safety and the courage to expect anything decent and good from life.

In any case, as I ripped up the AAA pamphlets, I didn't cry. I had two choices, I guess. Anger or acceptance and for me at the time, even as a little kid, the latter wasn’t the peaceful kind every self-help book foists on you as a means of  “closure.”

For me, it would have been “accepting” the very abuse and neglect I’d endured and would still endure in the ever-worsening years to come. Implicit in “acceptance” was that I was okay with it; that I wasn’t angry at the world for giving me the kind of father I’d later input into my phone as “Sperm Donor” and joke was the poster child for forced sterilization while other kids got “good” ones. I wasn’t okay with it and it wasn’t fair even as I also understood that so many, many other people had it infinitely, indescribably worse than I did.

That was the first time I chose anger over acceptance. It wasn’t ideal. But it gave me some fight.

Yet there is another Hollywood Moment I will never have: the one where estranged parent and child grab one another and clutch one another, crying for what could have been; what might have been and what never will be.

I know this because as I sat staring up at that poster in the hospice, my father was upstairs dying of Alzheimer’s.

On that day, too, I didn’t cry. Instead, I thought of the memoir manuscript I can’t bring myself to pass in to my agent. I haven’t been able to for years and I’m not sure I ever will. My best guess is that it’s the old, perennial favorite, Secrets, Silence and Shame rearing its ugly, familiar, yet sickeningly comfortable head.

It is what it is, I reminded myself that day at the hospice. Even as a kid, I’d known what was what. Some people win the parent lottery and some lose and there was no use crying about it. It is what it is. Which is now a cliché but one I’ve lived by since that day I threw those pamphlets and the hope they contained into the trash.

Still. I have to admit. To this day, the sight of a tow truck really, really bums me out.