Your birthday has snuck up quickly. I can’t believe a year has gone by since I last wrote you. So much happens in just a year, yet it feels like it was yesterday. Your grandchildren have grown and are now 2 and 4. We visited Mom at the house last summer, and we made a special trip to see you. We also said “hello” to Grandpa and Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa while we were there. We took pictures with your headstone, and there’s even a burst of light in some of the pictures which I take as a sign you were there with us. The very next day, a cloud appeared in the sky in the afternoon, when we took the kids swimming at the beach. Mom said it was you, telling us you were there. I took a picture to remember that moment and day.
It’s been more than a decade Dad, since you left this world. I was really young, too young. I wish I could have known then what I know now. See Dad, if I’m to be entirely honest, this letter is not about counting all the ways I miss you or the things I missed out on because you aren’t here. This letter is about the road of personal growth I’ve driven which has ended with me feeling robbed of a big opportunity for healing.
I never meant to become an addictions counselor. In fact, you know I set out in life to become a criminal psychologist. But life changed, and adolescents became my focus. And things changed some more, and before I knew it, I’d completed five years as a therapist at a rehab for adolescents. I really don’t know how it happened because I had no interest in addiction work. And moving forward, I now find myself working with a different breed of addiction. Sure, it’s behaviors rather than substances (and often, it’s both), but the treatment is the same. I have somehow found myself to be an expert on addiction. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t pursue this, and this was an area of so much disinterest for me, I’m surprised I got here. Maybe things aligned the way they did because you wanted to create a pathway of understanding between us. I wholeheartedly believe everything happens for a reason. I wholeheartedly believe you look out for me.
Things are so different now. At 23 years old, I couldn’t comprehend what war does to someone. I did not have the ability to empathize with a Vietnam War veteran. I did not know the secrets you kept, the pain you endured. I still do not know your story. I don’t know if you ever had the chance to truly tell and own your story or if instead, your story owned you. I only know the aftermath of your experience: a man, like many others, who learned how to drink in the military.
It’s hard to look back into my childhood and forget the drinking. So I don’t forget. There’s a sense of guilt that arises from remembering. My mind says I’m only supposed to remember the good times, I need to forgive and forget, I should avoid thinking about that which I cannot change. But that’s not right. I am who I am because of the past, both the good and bad memories. So I let myself remember, and I know what it means to be a child in a home of alcoholism.
Alcoholics get a bad rap. In fact, anyone with any addiction experiences judgment, criticism, and disapproval. What I know now, that I couldn’t have possibly understood when I was young, is that addiction is a disease. When you got diagnosed with heart disease and had a heart transplant, no one judged you. No one criticized you. No one disapproved. But when it came to your drinking, we were secretive. There was shame. There was embarrassment. There was denial. I’m sorry you had this experience. I’m sorry I couldn’t understand.
I get it now. I see how you acquired this disease. I see how we lived in an environment and a society which did not support you in getting help. I don’t think it could have been easy and can only imagine the guilt and shame you harbored. Because when you didn’t drink Dad, you were a good man. You were caring, you were non-judgmental, and you were funny. You were there, and you listened, and we could talk. How much you must have wished you could always be that man for me. And how much self-loathing you must have felt when you experienced my disappointment as you drank again after promising each time would be “the last time”.
The hardest part about losing you is that I can’t tell you that I forgive you, that I don’t blame you, that I understand. I’ve learned so much as a therapist and as a mother and have so much compassion and empathy to give you. It’s not fair. In this life, I will never have the chance to tell you that none of it mattered. I will never be able to tell you that this disease was not your fault. We will never have that closure. At the very core, of all of the thoughts and memories I have of you, this is my greatest heart ache.
Dad, it’s taken a long time to understand how this path became my path. It all makes sense now. Thank you for helping me down a path which has cultivated compassion, understanding, and kindness within me. I suspect you are indeed working with the angels now. I love you. Happy birthday!