My father told me he always loved to drink, ever since he tasted champagne when he was eight years old, a small glass of it that his father gave him on Christmas. When he was eleven, my father got drunk for the first time. He found wine bottles stored in a neighbor's garage. His friends took a few sips, but my father drank a bottle. He wandered around the neighborhood and came home in a police car.
At age nineteen, my father was drafted. He flew over Omaha Beach, dropping bombs on German submarines and watching the massacre.
Drinking was a way of life in the army, my father said. On Leave, the soldiers would get so drunk they could barely crawl back to the barracks.
When his brother, (age forty-six), died of a heart attack, my father stayed drunk for a week.
My grandfather and my uncle could put away the booze, but they weren't alcoholics. I learned the intricacies of alcoholism from watching my father. I understand now, but when I was younger, I was afraid, sad, and angry. I never wanted to have a family because of it and left home as soon as possible to get away from it.
When I was forty-one, I was finally able to live with another human being. I had to have years of therapy before this was possible. I would marry Kenneth, but not for another nine years.
One day--a Good Friday, ironically, and not long after I moved in with Kenneth--the phone rang. It was the police. My father's wife, Dorothy, was dead. Dorothy had been dead for three days, and my father hadn't noticed.
Dorothy dated my father when they were in high school. After my mother died in a car accident, Dorothy was suddenly right there. My father and Dorothy got married and started drinking themselves to death.
I drove over to my father's house in Castro Valley. The yard was roped off with yellow crime scene tape. My father sat on the couch, crying. In the family room was a bar, the bottles on a cart next to it. A lopsided sign on the wall proclaimed, "Bar Open."
I worried my father would be accused of murder, but it became clear that Dorothy had died of cirrhosis.
I went outside and talked to a policeman. He said I should call house cleaners. He gave me his cell phone. I stood on the lawn and called Merry Maids. When a Merry Maid arrived, she went into the house and came right back out. She told me to call the Crime Scene Cleaners.
An ice cream truck chimed happily down the street. Robins sang in my father's oak tree. I called the Crime Scene Cleaners as the coroner arrived.
I spent Easter weekend trying to get my father into a hospital, but hospitals aren't keen on drunks. He was allowed to stay for two days. The hospital needed the bed for people who were really sick. My father is really sick, I said.
I took my father home, along with brochures about rehab facilities.
My father went to rehab for a week. Then he started drinking again.
That June, on Father's Day, I was supposed to meet my father at a restaurant for brunch. He didn't show up, so I phoned him. No answer.
I drove to his house and knocked on the door, afraid of what I might find. I called out, "Dad?"
I opened the door and walked in. On the living room floor, an empty bottle of vodka.
I walked down the hall and glanced into the bathroom.
My father sat on the toilet, dressed in only his pajama bottoms. His face and neck were encrusted with dried blood. He looked like he had on a facial mask made from blood. His bright blue eyes stared vacantly out of the red. I wondered if he'd bashed his brains out and maybe he was dead but still able to sit up. That seemed impossible, but anything could happen in my family.
"Dad?" I took a step into the bathroom. "Dad!"
"I fell," he said.
In the living room, he sat on the couch while I called the police. I learned about fifty-one-fifty, a code term in the mental health field. A person can be held on a 5150 for a seventy-two hour observation at a psychiatric hospital to determine if he needs further treatment. If he does not consent to observation or treatment yet presents a clear and present danger to himself or others, he can be held against his will.
Good news. So I 5150'd my father. He would be in a hospital for three days, while I figured out what to do next.
An ambulance arrived. We drove to Emergency. My father stayed voluntarily in the psych ward for ten days. Then he started drinking again.
A few months later, we were back in Emergency.
That night, I waited five hours. My father had to be sober enough for the doctor to make his assessment of the case.
I read and graded my students' essays. I'd learned to get my work done while in Emergency.
Finally, at three in the morning, I was told I could talk to my father.
He lay on a gurney, his t-shirt on inside out. He stared at me, but not with his usual defiant look. I looked at him differently, too.
He had been a wonderful father to me when I was a child. But that was a long time ago. Did I love him anymore?
Love seemed exhausting, and rather useless, really. What kind of love was this?
I asked my father how he would feel if it were me lying there instead of him.
"Terrible," he said. His eyes were clear and sad.
I sat down in a chair. I felt light. Sad but light. The sadness was different from all the sadness of the past with my father and his drinking. I was done rescuing.
"I'm selfish," my father said.
"Yes," I said. He had never before admitted such a simple and true thing.
We looked at each other for a long moment in the dim Emergency cubicle, the green curtain pulled around us.
"I'm going to change," my father said.
I stood up. "I'm going home now, Dad." I took his hand and squeezed it. "Bye."
He didn't say good-bye, but we both knew it was over.
He was rescued, and so was I.
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