A 56 year old father sat nervously in a corner booth, looking at his watch, alternating sips of black coffee and drags of a cigarette. A cold rain fell on the sidewalk outside. He liked October, but he did not like it very much today.
The last conversation he had with his daughter, a university student, had not gone well. He asked her to get help, to go to meetings, therapy — he told her she was sick, and that her relationship with the bottle — too many bottles — was overtaking her. She wasn’t angry, he remembered, “just so damn matter of fact.” He would have preferred her to be angry, to get some feeling back from her.
“I don’t want to talk about this daddy,” he remembers her saying. “I’m a grown woman, I’m doing fine in school. I’m fine.” He had bumped up many times against his daughter’s dismissive exterior. She always had it, but he could make her laugh when she was a little girl, laugh until she cried sometimes. He remembered how much thicker and tougher his daughter’s exterior became after her mother died suddenly when his daughter was 17. His wife collapsed in the kitchen one Friday morning; she had not been sick. His daughter was home at the time, just waking up, and she was the one who found his wife, slumped and lifeless, her back against a cabinet, beside a dishtowel and a broken coffee mug. His daughter’s exterior was like plate armor after that day, he remembered.
His daughter was 23 now. They had grown apart during the first year or so after her mother died — they grieved differently. He wanted to check in with her and talk about it frequently that first year, because he felt that’s what the father of a 17 year old girl should do after that girl found her mother, lifeless and dead, on the kitchen floor when he was out of town on business. How could he be so stupid to be out of town, he wondered.
She hated what she resentfully called her father’s “grief checkups.” It was all she could do to keep the cold grey image of her mother out of her mind, she thought, and she resented her father’s trying to bring it up. The image and memory of the red and white checked dish towel and the fragments of black mug she found next to her mother on the floor were as sickening to her as the images of her mother, or the courteous coroner, even the zippered body bag. She thought it was odd that all of those things carried the same sickening weight. Anyway, she saw no point in reliving any of it. She grieved differently than her father did.
The relationship thawed, and improved a little in the years following, but it had taken a bad turn after her father remarried. She hated herself for that, because she wanted her father to be happy and to have somebody again, but she couldn’t accept that it would actually ever happen. It tore her right down the middle; and she wanted to numb herself against that wound. Her father took a sip of coffee, thinking of all kinds of people, family and friends, who also seemed to love the idea of him remarrying in the abstract, only to find it somehow repugnant after it happened. He caught himself, and turned his attention back.
He had prepared better for today’s conversation, he thought. He vowed to stay calm, stand firm, and to tell his daughter that while he would always love her, her refusal to get help for herself was taking a toll on their relationship. She would not recognize it as a relationship at all, he worried. He was going to have to distance himself if she did not want to help get herself better. Alanon playbook stuff, he thought. It made sense to him, but pained him to have to give his daughter even the inkling he would abandon her after what had happened. How could he be so stupid to be out of town, he wondered.
He had grown tired of the lies addicts tell, the manipulation, and he felt a mix of humiliation and anger well up inside of himself. He was tired of the lies but somehow blamed himself. He looked at the rain, then turned his attention back again.
She was already 45 minutes late, and his heart and his stomach, both began to sink. He knew that sinking feeling; he felt it as a kid growing up on a tree-lined street in suburban Chicago in the 60’s and 70’s. He also remembered the fear: his father would come home, well after 3 in the morning, begin yelling at his mother, and throw things around in the kitchen. He remembered how when this happened he would bolt awake immediately, and how he could hear the sound of his own heart beating with fear, his breath hot against his pillow. He remembered the start of a cold sweat, hoping the door he was now staring at would stay shut, and the sound and rage would stay on the other side of it, and die down soon.
He thought meeting her at a coffee shop near campus would increase the chances of success. “Dumb,” he thought to himself now, catching himself, realizing that hope was a bad bet to place on an addict. He remembered all of the hope he had wagered on his father, but how his father died, drinking and breaking promises right until the end.
“Do you want me to warm that up for you, hon?” the waitress asked.
“No, thank you though…..,” his voice trailing off, never taking his eyes of of his watch, never looking up. He pinched the spoon handle tightly between his thumb and index finger. The caffeine and the nicotine gave the sinking feeling a bed of nausea at the bottom of it.
She had managed to stay in school for three years, he rationalized. But he also remembered the phone calls in the middle of the night, how he could barely make out what she was saying between the sobs and the slurred words. The weeks when she would disappear from regular communication, leaving him to wonder how bad the relapse had been, and whether she would be able to fight it off and regain herself. He remembered the promises, the broken promises, the disappointment. He couldn’t help also think of his father again, the anger and nausea doubling back on itself.
He also thought about the well-meaning phone calls and texts he would get from her friends and his two sisters who lived in Indiana. He hated those the most, and as he thought of it his stomach tightened harder around the nausea. He took every call as an indictment of his ability as a widowed father. His sisters may have meant well, he thought, but they were so condescending. He reminded himself maybe he was insecure over the whole thing, and embarrassed to have an alcoholic daughter, unable to fix it.
He worried about all of the promise she showed as she was growing up, how he had pictured her married and successful many times in his mind’s eye. He saw his grandchildren, and he wondered what their names would be. He worried that her drinking was going to take all of that away from her, and it all away from him. How could she not see how weak and wasteful she was, he asked himself. He put his cup back on the saucer. The volume of the clank surprised him, and drew a quick look from the waitress.
He picked his cell phone up, dialing her number, vowing to keep the anger and resentment down inside of himself , and to sound compassionate, but not too attached or worried. The phone rang and the sinking inside him went deeper with each ring.
“Hi Sweetheart it’s Dad,” he began to talk into her voicemail. “I, uh, thought we were meeting at noon over here.” There was a pause as he shoved the anger back down again, muffling it. “Um, give me a call when you get this Sweetheart. Love you.” As he ended the call he tried to recollect how many of these voice messages he had left on his daughter’s phone in the six years since her mother died.
He pulled a five dollar bill from his pocket, left it on the table, and thanked the waitress as he walked past her, already looking outside. The rain had stopped. And as he walked to his car he thought about when he might try to get his daughter to sit down and talk with him. He hoped they would get together the next time.