My dad pulled onto the shoulder of the highway for the fourth time. I couldn’t get out of the car this time. I just hung my head out of the open door and retched streams of yellow bile. We were trying, desperately, to get me to the counselor I’d been seeing for a few weeks, but it wasn’t going to work. I was too sick to make my appointment.
I closed the door and slumped back into the passenger seat, burying my face in my hands. When you’re caught in the throes of addiction withdrawals, you feel like a piece of tracing paper that’s been aggressively crumpled by the fists of a colossus. If I could have folded into myself even more, I would have.
On the other side of the car, I heard sniffling. My father — who I always called “Papi” — never sniffled. When he got a runny nose, he would do this forceful snort that I’d long ago deemed the most valiant way to clear a nasal cavity. I peeled my hands away from my face and looked at him. He was crying.
I’d never seen my father cry before. It was a shock to the system, like if Bigfoot sauntered out of the woods wearing a hat and shook my hand. My father was Bigfoot to me — not scary, but mythological. Even when I was younger, and he was going through his own battles with addiction, he remained omnipotent in my eyes. I could never lie to him, and when I’d try, I would inevitably discover that he already had the truth nailed down. He read books voraciously, and was a geyser of information on a vast array of topics. UFOs, Puerto Rican history, financial management, holistic nutrition…my Papi knew shit.
He was strong, intelligent, charming, handsome, and incredibly funny. And sitting on the side of the road with his drug-addicted, alcoholic son, he was less than a year from death.
“I don’t want you to go through what my mama went through,” he said through his tears.
My dad had a rough childhood. His father abandoned the family and moved to the States. His mom was left adrift, caring for my dad and his sister. To cope with her anguish, my grandmother turned to alcohol. She found comfort in a new man, also a drinker (of course), and the two of them set about destroying their lives. My dad watched his mom’s perpetual cycle of vomiting, sweating, more vomiting, and eventual unconsciousness. Rinse and repeat. At the tender age of 36, she drank herself to death. Her new man would later do the same.
You can’t blame my abandoned dad for not wanting to lose me the same way. You can’t blame him for crying.
I wish I could tell him I’m sorry that my mistakes dredged those emotions up. I wish I could apologize and let him know I’ve made something of myself, especially today, on his birthday. The fact is, my dad never got to see me sober before he died. He left this world still terrified that I might go the same route his mom did.
In recovery, you learn not to live in the past — that kind of thinking will have you licking the lid of a prescription pill bottle. It’s easier said than done, though. After Papi’s death, I couldn’t forgive myself for the words I never said to him: “I’m sorry.”
That is, until one early morning, after my father visited me in my dreams. I sat on the edge of my bed. The sun hadn’t risen yet. The world was still. I’d woken up with one clear message: “Everything will be alright.”
For weeks and then months after his death, he would visit me while I slept, always saying the same thing, and every time I would wake with tears streaming down my cheeks. But this time, I sat still in the darkness. My mind skittered off to my dad’s old house on Benson Street, and the small bedroom I’d stay in when I visited him on the weekends as a kid. There was a tiny color television along with a Betamax player, and he had a few tapes to watch. Along with The Goonies, and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, there were a few taped episodes of Sesame Street. On that morning, all those years later, with his image still fresh and the faint chirps of awakening birds pinging against the window pane, one of those episodes came to mind: The Death of Mr. Hooper.
I hadn’t remembered the episode very well, but I did recall that one haunting scene. When Big Bird hands out drawings to the other cast members, he plans to also give one to Mr. Hooper. Unfortunately, Mr. Hooper had passed away (the show decided to take on this loss when Will Lee, who played the beloved shop owner, died). Big Bird — more childlike than ever in this scene — has trouble understanding that he would never return. I revisited the video through the magic of YouTube, hoping that the nostalgia of the moment would transfer me back to my dad’s old place on Benson Street. Instead, I received a powerful message.
It’s not the loss you should focus on, but rather the time you had while he was alive.
It was simple, and anyone who watches that clip can glean the same snippet of wisdom. It translated into something different for me, though: Don’t focus on what you didn’t say and instead remember what you did.
I told my Papi that I loved him. Always. When I saw him at the beginning and end of each visit, on the phone, on his death bed — I always said, “I love you.” He didn’t get to see me sober, and he didn’t get to see my baby girl (born several weeks after his passing), but I can honor his legacy by raising his granddaughter without a f*cking gallon of Kasser’s Vodka in my stomach. My hope is that by staying sober every single day, I can still manage to make him proud.