When I was young, I never kept track of how much my father had to drink on any particular night. Unintentionally, or perhaps even subconsciously, I carefully trained myself to look the other way when the liquor began to stain the corners of his mouth. I learned to keep my distance from him then, as the smell of alcohol stung the shallows of my little corneas and prompted recoil in a combination of sorrow and disgust. I remember one Sunday night in particular. My father’s bloodshot eyes swept over only the lows of his sight. His eyelids hung like curtains so that only pale crescents were visible to others. They wore a stained yellow tint and moved slowly as they scanned the room. His eyes were always somnolent and yellow when he had too much to drink. That evening, my father and brothers were seated around the television, watching football in my oldest brother’s garage. As I watched the light from the TV move across each of their faces, I wondered when the men in my life had grown so old. Their beards were bestrewn with silver hairs, their faces were lined with scars that were no longer fresh, and, most telling of all, their eyes sunk inward, surrounded by valleys of purple and blue. I looked down at the bottles and cans that littered the floor and grew jealous of the little girl I had grown out of; the child that was oblivious to the desolation and feelings of helplessness that come when you bear witness to addiction.
When my father was drunk, he enjoyed competition, and even more so, confrontation. His insults and his sleepy wandering eyes were commonplace. Even when he was sober he tended to be critical. When he drank, he found victims for his rage. He used his intoxication as an excuse to be belligerent rather than sarcastic, which was his usual language. He’d often turn biting words to even more biting actions. One particular night, he yelled “Get your fat ass out of the way!” with a smile on his face. He then turned his head to his audience, always ensuring this degradation was applauded by others. My father found validation in the laughter or attention that came from his cruelty, and for that, I was always prepared. I looked to my brothers for comfort. They reassured me with soft expressions and gentle approaches. Their offered apologies and words of comfort when my father was drunk: “it was only the alcohol talking,” they would tell me. “He didn’t mean it,” they’d say. They told me my father didn’t mean what he was saying and that I was not the sum of my father’s assessment of me. I was young and naive, so I hung on to their consolations and tried to believe their words as the truth.
I peered down at my feet, each one landing precisely in the middle of every red stone that led to the side of my brother’s house. I went to grab another blue can from the cooler when I heard my father insult my brother’s favorite football team. As I turned the corner of the house, I watched my brother respond by playfully punching him on the arm. I felt my chest cave in as I tried to make sense of what was happening in front of me. I saw in my father’s eyes what could only be described as hunger. He had a hunger for masculine retribution against a perceived act of insolence, even if it was meant with no ill intent. His temples throbbed as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. He turned his head toward the street and moved his eyes in pacing movements, seemingly figuring out what he would do next.
If you knew my family, you’d know that my mother’s sons were not violent people. My father was not their father. They were children from a different relationship, a different marriage. My brothers respected my dad, but it was a respect born mostly of fear. They knew what he was capable of. When he was drinking, my father insisted on his status as a man. He became obsessed with a multitude of masculine displays of power, whether that meant speaking in the loudest voice, being recognized for supporting the best team, having the most to drink, or being the cruelest. When he was drinking, the last word always belonged to him. Not one of my brothers would make the mistake of disagreeing with my father when he had been drinking, let alone challenge him.
My oldest brother, James, who had been the one to be playful with my father that night, went on to have a good time. To my surprise, my father didn’t react. I left them eventually as if something were to happen. I was never one to want to watch. Part of me still trusts that my brother will always know how to diffuse my father’s temper, mainly because he always took the wrath in private, absorbing it before it could reach the rest of us. In opposition to my father, when James (Jimmy) was drunk, love radiated from every part of his body. He’d hug you for longer than ten seconds, disregarding any position he caught you in. He’d compliment your outfit, and glorify even the most minuscule of your accomplishments. Jimmy would paint his daughters’ toenails bubblegum pink, and ensure that they got their turn at painting his. He grew up without a father, so he only tolerated mine because he wanted to please my mom. It wouldn’t be until later that I recognized my brothers were the ones who taught me about love and parenthood. They provided me with the stability I had always attributed to my parents.
Later that night, I was called back to the garage. There my father slurred his words as he demanded that I get in the car with him. As he walked toward his vehicle, his feet were unstable, and he swayed back and forth like an infant learning to stand. I never questioned his authority. I couldn’t count the number of times that I had gotten into the car with a drunk driver, but I can declare that all of them were with my father. When we would merge on the highway, he would speed up so as to challenge other vehicles to a kind of improvisational drag race, although our ‘96 Ford Explorer wasn’t equipped for the job. Drivers who had the misfortune of being on the road with him during these episodes would usually back off when they saw me in the passenger seat, with tears in my eyes, a look of abject terror across my face, and no seatbelt. That seatbelt broke in 2009. Once I even heard the engine scream as we approached 140 miles per hour on Highway 290. Ironically, this was on Easter Sunday. In moments like these, I lost my respect for figures of authority and became irate. Learning how imperfect the adults in my life could be felt like a betrayal. There was a war brewing inside of me. I didn’t know if my relationship with my father was becoming more important than my own principles; I could not go against my father, but I knew, definitively, that what was happening was wrong. I didn’t know at the time that I could have died at the hands of my own father. It never occurred to me that my dad could hurt me. These moments, reckless driving, rage, physical and mental abuse, all felt like the work of a third party. I refused to believe that it was my own father putting me in danger. He would never choose something so trivial over my safety. Rather, I believed that there was something else to blame for all of the damage that he would cause.
On this particular ride, however, my father was uninterested in racing. He instead asked me about my brother. I knew his query was a rhetorical question. Just after the words left his mouth, he began to scream. He asked if I thought it was okay to hit people, even in a non-violent way, and I laughed aloud at the hypocrisy behind the question. He asked if I thought my brother was worth something or if he had any right to even try to compare himself to a man like he was. I remained silent.
We passed the McDonalds in the neighborhood parallel to ours. I flinched every time I saw my dad look in my direction in the reflection of the window, afraid he would catch my eye and redirect his anger toward me. As our truck barreled down the street, his yelling consumed everything that surrounded me. With his indignation, he narrowed in on my world, leaving it as just a minute ecosystem in an old truck––father, daughter, and rage. The screaming had pulled at my hair, smacked me across the face, and told me that I didn’t matter, the same way that my father had done before. I remember the anger swallowing any logic or reason. My father never made sense when he was drunk. I know now that he was never really bothered by the situation at hand. My father held lots of pain that he later displaced in an effort to rid of it. When he was drunk, he found places to unleash his anger, which was usually onto my mother and sometimes onto us. As he pounded on the steering wheel, we passed by a police officer and I wondered if he might save me. Every passerby, I hoped, would be the one to save me from the screaming, from the rampage, from my father.
When we got to our house, I hesitated before leaving the truck. I remained in the vehicle, unharmed and untouched. I knew confrontation was coming and I knew my mother would be left to deal with the aftermath when she got home from work. I worked up the nerve to walk inside. I turned and saw my father still sitting in the driver’s seat, stone still. His knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel and his face was red. I hadn’t heard him exhale the whole ride home.
From my room, I heard screaming and collision. I was never good at deciphering meaning when it came to loud noises. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that the cacophony I heard was my father screaming outside, breaking something. I hoped it was only something. My father had a low, raspy voice, but when he screamed, his voice was youthful and high-pitched. The screams pierced the summer air and felt guttural and untamed. I went outside and saw my father tearing down our backyard fence with his bare hands. He cursed while sending blows careening toward the fence. His fists were covered in blood. As I turned the corner around the side of the house, I saw my mother weeping. It wasn’t until I got closer that I could hear her small pleading voice. She implored him, “please just tell me what happened” and “what made you so angry?” I realized then that my parents’ marriage was a series of unanswered questions and unwarranted violence. The latter was always at the hands of my father.
My mother saw me. In the moments that I became visible, her demeanor shifted. She stopped pleading and begging. She snapped and assertively addressed my father by his name. He turned to face her, and the blows that the fence had taken seemed like they were now heading straight for my mother. Her eyes peered over at me, then at my father. I knew that she was more fearful of me seeing than she was of being hit. My father screamed, “I will kill him!” before lowering his fists, less than an inch from my mother’s face.
I don’t remember what happened for the rest of the night. I believe I went to sleep, as children often do. I was still filled with hope. I hoped that after 14 years, it would be over. None of it made sense to me––the alcoholism, the violence, the addiction to alcohol, the addiction to violence. This instance wasn’t the worst of the countless nights where alcohol stimulated my father’s rage, but it was one of the easiest to remember. It was a playful punch on the arm that almost killed me, and possibly my mother. Now, years later, I look back at who my father was and who he continues to be, and realize that it was never anyone or anything else that set him off. My father was a “broken man” as my mother once called him, dealing with his own demons in a way we couldn’t understand. The alcohol removed his inhibitions so that he could let out all that still pained him as a father.
My father had PTSD after leaving the military before I was even born, and spent a good portion of my childhood in jail for domestic violence against my mother. However, there were nights when, instead of the rage, we would find him weeping to old country music that he listened to as a soldier. He would keep his head down and speak about the war, about the people he’d lost, and about those outside of the war that he lost as well. His eyes were lost in the blackened shadows of the night, but we watched the tears as they glistened while falling from his face. He would apologize for what he had done to us, and told us how we wouldn’t believe the things that had been done to him. I’ll never forget the night when he played “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” by Chris Stapleton. Sobbing, he asked my sister and me if we would play it for him at his funeral. Ironically, he was the most vulnerable on the nights he had the most to drink. Those nights were when we had felt the most loved, and the most connected to the man that we came from. The alcohol was the only way he knew how to release what he had for so long been keeping inside. Later on down the line, it would do the same for me.
When I started to drink, addiction made even less sense to me. I knew I wasn’t my father. I kept telling myself that when, at the age of 14, I began to drink more and more. The weekends started to blur together, and then so did the school nights, and then pretty soon the whole week. After I got sober, addiction made the least sense of all. July of 2018, almost a year after I had gained my sobriety, my brother Ed overdosed on heroin. I hadn’t seen Ed in almost a year. He was living in a different city at the time. Ed had been sober for a long time, unlike my father who never attempted to live in sobriety. When they found Ed, it had been a week since his heart stopped. His body was left alone in a friend’s apartment. When we found our father on countless occasions, he usually had a stronger pulse when drunk than he did when sober.
The rage I saw in my father never seemed to manifest in my siblings, my mother, or me. After that night, I stopped giving into rage. I stopped encouraging addiction and danger. I hated loud noises and got nervous around commotion. I stopped enjoying the restlessness of the ocean and the sandcastles that it encompassed. I hated loud music, even when my favorite songs were playing. Fun was no longer where I usually found it. Every fond memory I had about my father had turned into something too loud, too angry, too tampered with. Every ounce of fight, every inaudible noise that I could produce, I silenced. When silence devours the air around me, there are minute details found in the sounds of joints popping, gum chewing, and page turning. Since my father, I believe that there is no quiet to be accomplished. Everything is noise that I cannot address, just as I couldn’t with my father.
Alternatively, there are nights when I miss his company. Even the Sundays that were made for the quiet used to be disrupted by the sounds of pans clanking against one another and oil popping atop bacon strips. After he left, I thought the pain would leave my heart, but it was replaced by a longing that I still haven’t managed to tame. Loudness was what I was raised on. Loud music, loud feelings, loud voices, and loud actions all promised to make their way into my day and I’ve often found myself hushing them. I long to be content with the noise and with the quiet simultaneously. I wish my father hadn’t taken my favorite things from me, but I wish even more that I could stop silencing those that he left me. Since he left, life has been too quiet, but then again, that is what I had always wanted.