“Don’t work too hard, kitten,” was my father’s usual response to every long, dramatic monologue I delivered on the phone when facing yet another of life’s arduous challenges. I, in a state of fire and self-pity, would have called to bitch and yell about something that happened at work, a new relentless project with seemingly no end, a board meeting that took a sharp left turn, or some other superficial battle that I was detached to and my father’s only advice was not to work too hard.
And its not because he didn’t. My father worked his whole life, starting off as an auto mechanic when he was young, the eldest of five in his family, all the way up to the GS 15 for the Federal Government. He volunteered time in church and with his family, an all-around martyr who did believe in hard work, when you were working, but he also believed that life was so much more than just working. And he often reminded me of that, sometimes falling on deaf ears.
My dad preferred the simple things in life that kept him happy. For instance, every Sunday dad would prepare himself the ultimate burger and chips platter complete with a soda and usually ice cream or hard candy as he prepared to watch an afternoon and evening of football. It was a ritual when I was young. And I remember when at seven years old I asked, “Dad, what’s a 10-yard penalty,” his eyes lit up. He didn’t have a son but a tomboy daughter who wanted to learn about football at the age of seven was just as good. That next Sunday, while preparing his traditional Sunday afternoon football meal, he also heated up some spaghetti o’s topped with grilled hotdogs, applesauce with cinnamon, and a cream soda, my absolute favorite, placing it in front of me on a TV table and boosting me up on pillows so I could see the game over my meal. Every Sunday from then on was the same.
There were plenty of times when I was young, and especially into my teenage years, were my connection with my father wavered. He was battling a severe alcohol addiction and on days that he wasn’t an embarrassment to me when I tried to entertain friends, he was in such a deep, dark introverted space that it became hard for me to be in the same room as him. I began making plans on Sundays, not being able to bear the sight of him drinking himself into a coma while we watched football. Then one day I was asked by my family to do the hardest thing ever – to confront him. “He’ll listen to you – you are the only one he’ll listen to. You are Daddy’s Little Girl,” family members urged on as I came to grips with the reality that my father would die if I didn’t say something to him about his drinking. I woke up early one morning and waited for him by the coffeemaker, knowing that I had to get to him before he got to the liquor cabinet. We sat on the couch and I told him that I wouldn’t be coming home that Christmas from college if he was still drinking. That he would never walk me down the aisle if he was still drinking. That he would never hold my children if he was drinking. I was honest, stern and never wavered from what needed to be said. I still remember balling my eyes out after he walked away, stunned and hurt by the truthful words that echoed in his ears.
On Sunday, August 19, 2012 my father would have been celebrating his sixteenth year of sobriety and at his funeral just a few days prior, his sponsor handed me his sixteenth anniversary coin. “Your father would have wanted you to have this. Sixteen years ago, you saved your father’s life and ever since then, he’s been saving all of ours”, he said, surrounded by over 30 people from the program who my father had befriended and helped guide back to living their lives. And the truth of it is, my father saved my life as well. The last sixteen years of his life, we talked, opened up honestly, shared adventures and stories. He became this new version of himself that was infectious to be around. He traveled to visit me in Montana, North Carolina and New Hampshire, enjoying the scenic tours and sites, joking and laughing with us the whole way. He even went to Hawaii with mom and I, something that was always on his bucket list but never quite obtainable until he decided to put down the botte. The last year of his life, I had taken a terrible turn and was in such a state of depression, guilt, and denial that I could barely speak to him on the phone. I couldn’t let my father know just how bad things were, just how unhappy and sad his Little Girl was with the choices she had made, the mistakes that haunted her daily. Yet, he knew. He knew something was wrong and he couldn’t “fix it.” He very begrudgedly went along with the idea that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail alone for several weeks to “get my head on straight” and according to my mother, he was extremely anxious for my return.
On Tuesday, August 14, 2012, I called him from my friend’s house in Massachusetts to let him know I was safely off the trail and heading back up to New Hampshire. There was a long sigh and a quiver in his voice. “I’m so glad you are safe. And honey, I don’t know what is going on in your life. I know you haven’t been honest with me over the past year. And I don’t know what I can do to help you begin to live your life again. Just know that whatever you decide, I just want you to be happy and I support you 100%.”
My father died alone that night, sitting in front of the TV, a soda and snacks close by. A cat on his lap.
Today I am filled with overwhelming gratitude to the man who reminded me every day not to work so hard, to embrace the simple things in life, to be happy and content. A man who showed me that no matter how hard the challenge, no matter how defeated you may feel, you always have a choice to heal, change, and live your life to the fullest. I love you dad.
(Picture: Photos of my dad enjoying his life on the Canopy Tour at Bretton Woods and kayaking with me in Hawaii)