10:35 pm, Boston, MA
December 24, 2014
“We can’t stay here much longer, the cops are going to ask us to move,” Derrick tells me. “It’s a busy international airport, we can’t just wait around…”
“I know, I know,” I cut him off.
“Look, I know that you’re stressed out, but you should be happy. You haven’t seen your dad in – what, two years?”
I shrug, “We’ll see how it goes.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asks.
I had spared him most of the stories from my childhood, but I knew that my father had a way to turn any normal, healthy situation into something malicious, or even violent. I don’t want to be unfair to Derrick, because I’ve neglected to give him enough information. From Derrick’s perspective, he was meeting a member of my family for the first time and the onus ought to be on me to be encouraging him, not vice versa.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I say, grabbing his hand from the steering wheel.
He smiles sympathetically, “Well, I love you.” He says it like it was a question.
“Love you,” switching my phone light on to see if I have any missed texts.
I shake my head. My father had arranged this visit three weeks prior; since then we only spoke about his visit once. We didn’t speak on the phone. We communicated occasionally through text, but that was it.
“Why didn’t you message him this morning?” he asks. I breathe in and out, hoping to release the unwarranted irritability that is building in me.
“I don’t know, we just don’t do that.”
“You don’t check in with someone when they’re flying over 3,000 miles to see you?”
I shake my head again. No, that’s not how we do things. I could have told him, but there was too much to unpack when my father could leave the terminal at any moment.
That morning while I showered, ate, and brushed out the knots in my damp hair, I wondered if my dad would show up at all. He had a history of making plans, even extravagant plans, and cancelling last minute. Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for him to awaken the entire household in the middle of the night to bring my brother and I downstairs to the living room, where my mother would be sitting sobbing on the sofa, unable to speak. My dad would ensure that we were all sitting down, fixated on him. We would sit silently, staring at the red-faced man who swayed drunkenly in the living room as he spoke. He would tell us first that he was sorry that he had to do this. At this point, my palms would begin to sweat.
Then he would say that we were ungrateful. We still said nothing. I never challenged this argument. Throughout my childhood I felt that I must have been ungrateful. It was something that was said enough in a serious enough tone. Maybe I just didn’t know how to express my gratitude appropriately? Maybe I didn’t deserve the things I had in my life? Why did I have these things and so many children, like my father, didn’t?
He was setting the stage to tell us that he had decided that he wanted to move to a new state and that he couldn’t see a feasible reason to keep in touch with us.
At this point, my brother would ask him to please stay. I would say nothing, only nod in agreement, yes, I wanted him to stay.
He would then look very sad, his anger from only moments ago apparently gone, saying, “if only I could.” He often said this through tears, as he gathers his bag and walks out the door.
The next morning, he sat at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee, eating an omelet my mom had made for him.
My mom’s eyes would still be red from lack of sleep, or dehydration from excessive crying. I sat down and ate my cereal, and I said nothing. I had learned that you can never speak about the past, even if the past was just the night before.
Once I did “challenge” (as it was put) my dad over his decision to leave and asked what happened to his plan when he did not leave.
“Oh, you wanted me to go. Because I can go.”
“No, I didn’t I just…” I felt flustered, lightheaded. I had let my guard down and broke an unspoken rule.
“Sometimes you need a little scare so that you know what you should be grateful for. You kids have everything. I had nothing growing up, but I had gratitude that I don’t see coming from either of you.” He pointed his finger to me and my brother Adam, becoming more and more angry as he went on.
I learned two things very quickly: 1. The fights could only end once everyone in the family was red in the face with tears and 2. After my father decided it was over, we could never talk about it again.
11:02 PM, Boston
December 24, 2014
Derrick and I loop the car around after a cop taps our window demanding that we “keep moving.”
Derrick spits out an “ah fuck,” while he cranes his neck to check for oncoming vehicles.
When we get back to arrivals, my dad is walking towards our car.
I open my door, pausing with my right foot hanging out the door, wondering if my dad was going to become emotional. His text messages were lengthy, often very emotionally draining and self-pitying. I always made myself available to comfort him from the supposed cruelties and injustice that others had inflicted upon him. A special pain and humiliation always followed these conversations, when you comfort someone who has broken you again and again, but I carried his emotional baggage whenever it was put in my hands.
As he walks towards us, I notice how thin he looks and unkept. I wonder when he last showered or got a haircut.
“Hello, my Rosie,” he said, putting his arms around me.
“Welcome home,” I tell him. “How was the flight?”
“Oh, it was fantastic— couldn’t’ve asked for a better flight. And I’m so blessed to be here with you both today.” He gestures to Derrick and takes him into a hug. “And for Christmas!” he adds.
My dad started talking this way a few months after his arrest, everything was a ‘blessing’ suddenly, or ‘precious,’ or ‘amazing’.
He was arrested for drunk driving. But it was more than that. After crashing his Honda Civic into the car in front of him on the highway, in his intoxicated state, he thought it was best to walk away from the car, going into the woods until the alcohol and whatever else was in his system had worn off.
His at the time girlfriend called, confused as to why he would drive intoxicated. As much as I hated speaking to the woman my dad had left my mother for, I listened to her process this. “But why would he do that? Why would he walk away from a car crash?” she wondered, her voice sounded soft and confused. I pretended to be just as confused as she was.
My dad is speaking to me from the backseat, but I don’t turn around. I nod, knowing that he can see the side of my head bob up and down.
“I’m just so grateful for this opportunity to spend time with you two. I have been watching you two on Facebook; I’m so happy to see you two experiencing the beauty of nature and the realization of the divine creator in each moment.”
I had read the Facebook posts by my father and the text messages that carried a strong religious tone. In his posts he referred to the “divine creator” as Jesus Christ. He knew that Derrick and I were, at the very least, agnostics, so “Jesus” or “Heavenly Father” were not dropped quite as often around us. To hear him speak this way in real life made me shake slightly and my stomach starts to bubble. I generally always knew what to say to my dad, but this linguistic change or spiritual awakening is too new, too foreign, to know how to properly respond.
“Look at this,” he places something on the arm rest between Derrick and me.
I look down and saw a small flat, green marble that had “10m” written on it in gold paint.
“What’s this?” I ask, picking it up to examine it closer.
“10 months sober, not a drop of booze in ten months,” he tells us. “Each month they give this to us.”
“Wow, that’s great,” and I mean it. “Who gives you these?”
“I’m in a sobriety group for alcoholics,” he tells me.
I wonder about his prescription pills momentarily but dismiss the thought.
“I feel so much better, so much more in touch with the divine. I have been going to these meetings for a year now with my girlfriend. She’s been such a rock for me.”
I listen, picking the skin around my thumb nail. I glance at Derrick to see if he looks uncomfortable, but Derrick’s face is rosy with joy. From where he was sitting, this was a Christmas miracle and he surely felt immense joy for both me and my father.
“Oh, that’s great Mr. Burke,” Derrick says. “Does your son know about this?”
Derrick doesn’t know that we don’t talk about “the son,” not around dad. Derrick doesn’t know about the rules.
“No,” he says. “They don’t want to have anything to do with me. He said he wouldn’t speak to me until I,” he uses air quotations, “talk to a crazy person doctor.”
This is a lie, but I don’t say anything. Derrick looks appalled that my brother, a seemingly smart and education person would use a term such as “crazy person doctor.” I start fiddling with the dry ends of my hair to try to stop my hands from noticeably shaking.
“They just have their own reality of me. In their reality, I am a mean and violent father. I cheated on their mother, lost our house and money. I cannot change their reality.”
Derrick considers this, and before he can open his mouth, my dad continues.
“But what did I ever do to them? What did I do? Rose, you would know. Was I a bad father to you? To Adam? Did I ever hit you? Did I ever beat your mom?”
I shook my head, “No, you didn’t beat anyone.”
He spread out his hands as if to say, see, exactly my point.
12:03 AM, Lowell
December 25, 2014
Derrick pulls into a parking space outside of my apartment. I turn to him and ask if he would like to come up.
“Sure,” he mouths back to me. I can tell from how aggressively he wrestles his seatbelt off that he desperately needs to piss.
“This place must have grown on you, since you never left after college,” my dad says, letting his duffel bag drag behind him as we walk up the stairs. My apartment is a one-bedroom apartment, about three streets away from what you might consider a more “modern” portion of Lowell.
“Well, I stayed because of Derrick mostly,” I say, craning my neck to see if he was within ear shot, but he was already in the bathroom.
“Why doesn’t he move in with you?” he asks.
“He just hasn’t been able to leave Woburn I guess, with his whole family living there and all.”
“That’s nice that he’s close with his family. I hope our family will be that way again.”
I’m glad that Derrick is taking his time in the bathroom.
“Well, we’ll see what happens in the future,” I say, trying to sound neutral but also positive. I pick up his duffel bag and move it on top of the pull-out couch, as if to tell him this will be where you sleep the next few days.
“There he is,” my dad says when Derrick reenters the room.
Derrick looks slightly flushed, drying his hands off on his pants, and gives a little smile to my dad.
I turn to my dad, “Let me get some more pillows and blankets from my bedroom.”
I motion with my eyes for Derrick to help me.
“Seems like things are going well,” he tells me after the door is closed.
“Don’t be stupid, Derrick, you saw him for 40 minutes and you think you know all about him.”
Derrick put his hands up defensively. My response was too hostile for such a small comment.
“Sorry, I don’t think I buy any of it,” I tell him. Derrick crosses his arms, then uncrosses them to put his hands in his pockets.
“You know what, you’re being really unfair,” he begins. “You and your brother are both being unfair. He’s worked so hard on himself, spent time in jail, and you’re all acting like he has some sort of disease.”
I pull the spare blankets out from under my bed, bottles of whiskey and wine clank together as I do so. I knew that I didn’t want to have booze in the fridge with my father staying over for the holidays, but I couldn’t bring myself to dump them either. A winter in Massachusetts without whiskey was not something I would even consider.
The hidden bottles under my bed were very reminiscent of the days when I would find bottles of hidden whiskey around our house. Anywhere from behind a curtain, in a desk, behind some books on the bookshelf or in the backyard shed. But I’m not like that, I tell myself, dismissing this unsound parallel.
“Well maybe I’m just a mean, ungrateful person,” I shoot back, not looking at him.
“I fucking hate it when you get like this,” his arms are crossed again.
I shrug, and make my eyes meet his, “then leave. You have a long drive back to Woburn anyway, and the roads aren’t getting any better.”
As he leaves, he lets me kiss him on the cheek. Not because he wants me to but for the sake of letting my dad know that everything is okay between us.
“Have a goodnight Mr. Burke, I’ll be seeing you Christmas.”
“Thanks Derrick, I’ll pray that you have a safe drive home,” my dad pats his back.
Derrick falls in love with father figures too quickly. I couldn’t fault him for that. His father was, what his mom called, a ‘real piece of shit.’
9:00am, Lowell, MA
December 25, 2014
I want to take my father to Christmas mass at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, but he informs me that he’s no longer Catholic, that he actually realized that god is everywhere, and he doesn’t need to go to a church.
“God is in us,” he begins “and what better guidance can we get than that?”
I tell him that even though I’m a jaded atheist, I still make it to Christmas mass.
With that, we prepare ourselves for the cold, wrapping ourselves in scarves and thick down jackets.
“I’m so happy to hear that you’ve taken an interest in the spiritual world,” he tells me as we walk.
“Hardly, just during Christmas,” I tell him.
This wasn’t entirely true. The past several weeks I had been attending mass, sometimes daily. I didn’t take Communion. I didn’t socialize. I sat in the back and left after the sermon. The priest spoke about numerous topics: love, charity, and sin. I felt better after these sermons because each sermon ended on a note of hope, that no matter how dirty or bad a person could get, they could be changed. You can’t have a normal conversation about these types of things. The thought of having a drink with a friend and talking about redemption and becoming a better person seems laughable to me.
I never attended mass with my father in mind, even when topics of forgiveness are addressed. Other than the times I received text messages from my dad or when my therapist asked about the history of my childhood, I rarely considered my father.
What kind of person did I think he was, really? I don’t know. I do know that my father treated my mother poorly, something that my mother often talked about.
“But that’s between them,” Derrick told me once after I had opened up a bit on the topic after a glass of wine.
Maybe he was right.
When my mother cut off all contact with my father, it was months after she had filed for divorce. Shortly after, my brother also stopped all communication with him. Once they cut off communication, I began to limit my communication as well. In response, my father threatened us, saying that he would go to our friends, our spouse (in my brother’s case), our place of work, and let them know what kind of people we are really. This was sent in a group text that I was unable to read until after I had left work. I had 116 missed text messages when I turned on my phone.
I closed my eyes and took several deep breathes in and out, in and out. I considered what my father had said, he was going to let them all know what I was really like.
I racked my brain for bad things I had done in my life that my father was aware of. I couldn’t think of many things.
Four hours had passed and no one had responded to my father’s threat. I sat at home, phone in the charger so that it wouldn’t die. It was 9pm by then. I was drinking a bottle of overly sweet, bubbly wine. It went down easily and gave me a quick and welcomed buzz.
A new message popped up every 2-8 minutes. Each message varied in length and the tone changed from hour to hour.
At first, we received warnings that the truth would come out about us. Then he moved on to some personal insults, calling our career choices ridiculous, him wondering how he could have such mediocre children that were incapable of original thought.
At this point, I called my brother. His phone was off.
Fair enough, I figured.
My eyes stayed glued to the screen while every horror was thrown at me, my sibling, and mother. I had to know what was going to happen next. Once I had finished the bottle of wine, my body was no longer shaking, but I still felt a great unease.
That week I slept very little. I called out of work for two days, saying I was too ill. Of course, I wasn’t ill, but it felt like an illness. I couldn’t leave my bed, and I felt as if heavy textbooks were piled on my chest. I had a hard time breathing. I wondered if I was having an allergic reaction at one point as my breathing became more restrictive. I wondered if I was going to die. And if I did die, how would the mourning process for my family work? During my wake would one parent come in and mourn my death, then the next would be invited in? Trying to figure out the logistics of my funeral services oddly calmed my nerves.
During this time, my brother had responded.
“Just ignore him, Rose” he texted. “He’s unwell.”
“I think I’m unwell…” I started to type, looked at the message and deleted it and instead responded with, “If you say so.”
The pews at the church were fuller than usual, but I still got my usual seat in the back. I grab a hymn book as if I were actually going to sing and flip through to see the hymn numbers, only recognizing one: Faith of our Fathers.
“Classic,” my dad says seeing the page. “Every year when you were kids, mom and I would play Bing Crosby’s Christmas album. This was always one of my favorites.”
I nod in agreement, “Mine too.” I close the hymn book, knowing that I could sing most of the song without any help.
“Did you hear from your mother today?” he asks, looking at me intensely, as if he’s forgotten how I look. For all I know, maybe he has. It has been two years after all.
“No, I’ll probably call her tonight,” I say, “and I’ll call Adam.”
“I hope they’re well, they’re always in my prayers,” he says. “Can you tell them that for me?”
“Tell them what exactly?”
“That I pray for them.”
I think about this for a moment, “sure, I’ll tell them.” I could almost see Adam rolling his eyes and my mother telling me to tell him where he can shove those prayers.
“I appreciate you, Rosie, I hope you know that,” he says while touching my arm.
I feel a tingle in my eyes. With his sobriety, my father was suddenly saying things that I believe he regret not saying when I was younger. The effects of these words twist my insides. I wanted to hear this so much as a teenager, but hearing it now felt somehow too heavy.
“I know that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, and a part of me coming to see you is to apologize for that, and I hope someday Adam will let me apologize to him. Perhaps mom too.”
I want to ask, “What mistakes?” Wanting to hear him point out specific mistakes, something that he had never done.
“Thank you,” I say.
“But you and I both know, I’m not an alcoholic,” he tells me, a smile on his face as if this whole thing is a joke.
I look at his face then, saying nothing.
“When everyone thinks they have you figured out, sometimes you just have to play the role to get them off your back,” he tells me, shaking his head. “We have so many small-minded people in this world, who are quick to define you. A label that worked for them was alcoholic.”
The inside of my head starts going blank, but I manage to get out an “Oh?”
“I never drank as much as everyone said, and I can still drink without any problem,” he occasionally taps my shoulder as he talks with the back of his hand, like he and I were like-minded college friends, laughing at the world as we kept our secret from them. The secret being that everyone is stupid and makes miscalculations all the time and that we have to play pretend to keep the peace.
I knew I was being privy to this secret because I understand rule two, and in accordance to rule two, tonight when I see Derrick, I will boast to him and his family about how proud I am of my father and his sobriety. My dad will tear up and say that he couldn’t have done it without my love and support.
The priest and the altar servers enter and we stand.
“We’ll leave before the Eucharist,” I whisper to him.
“Perfect,” he mouths back.
Liz Başok is a lecturer at The Ohio State University. She finished her Bachelor’s in Philosophy and English at The University of Massachusetts at Lowell. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband. You can follow her on Instagram at @lizbasok