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My father-in-law was an alcoholic.
Or so my husband was told.
He never really knew his father. Any memories he should have had lay covered in fog, burying remembrances he found too painful to expose to the light of day.
During the ten years of our marriage, my husband only shared one paternal remembrance with me … his only one, or so he said. Maybe he could recall it because the memory shrouded itself in darkness, something he didn’t have to see. Something only his ears knew. But hearing failed to safeguard that tender listening heart.
Many a night that small boy awakened to violent pounding, shattering, without warning, the stillness, the darkness, the safety of his sleep. Fists battering on a front door, locked against a father’s drunken stupor. The beating of flesh against wood reverberated through that little boy’s darkness, keeping rhythm with his father’s pleas. Angry, begging pleas. Pleas to leave the darkness, pleas to be let in. The door always remained closed. Maybe it was there an unseen door closed, tightly, allowing no admittance … the door to my husband’s heart.
When I met my husband, twenty years later, he was a stranger to alcohol. His tongue didn’t know its taste. But he knew its anger. He knew all too well that residue of a cup too overflowing with self’s own pain to offer even a sip of love to others. It had become his own.
I wish I’d understood that then. I didn’t. I saw only the pain, and its untrusty sidekick … anger. Hidden, so well, behind the most beautiful smile. But always, just below the surface, resided the anger, dressed, most frequently, in cold, steely silence. It erupted, when we were dating, from time to time, but always, it appeared, with just cause. And never toward me. I wouldn’t realize the truth until much later. In my naiveté, I failed to recognize it. I only knew this tugging at my heart to put joy where it was absent, happiness where emptiness dwelt.
Within a year of meeting, we were married.
Pandora’s Box sprung wide open eighteen months later, when I had difficulty nursing my first child. I failed to see it let loose, or hear its haunting laughter. The key to the lock stretched forth in a doctor’s prescription, to me. I was to have a small glass of kosher wine, shortly before nursing my baby in the evening.
My husband was skeptical, wanting nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with alcohol, or its presence in our life. However, though never in our presence, in my home growing up, we knew our parents to sip a glass of wine, a few times a year. So thinking nothing of it, I complied with the doctor’s directive.
Being unfamiliar with alcoholism’s venom, I didn’t hear the hissing serpent, or see its tightly coiled body … waiting, simply biding time.
A few months later, my husband received a phone call from his aunt, his father’s sister. He hadn’t seen her in close to twenty years. The call held an invitation to come up and visit her and her husband. It held an additional staggering invitation. An invitation, of all things, to see his stepmother, now confined to a nursing home. A woman he’d never met. Whose name he didn’t even remember.
The second invitation disturbed him.
It was at that point he shared a dark secret, something he hadn’t told me before. Something he hadn’t talked about, with anyone. His father had taken his own life, a dozen years ago, or more. Or so he’d heard years back, in conversations held behind closed doors. Taken his life by combining alcohol with medication, making certain failure didn’t play its own hand.
I can never forget that journey my husband, baby son, and I took. It held too much of the unexpected. What on the surface to me appeared blessings, in the heart of that little boy who had already drunk the dregs of an alcoholic’s bitter brew, it would prove to be too much … in the year’s to come.
The treasures my husband discovered on that trip ate away, and ate away, at his mind, at this heart. Feeding his anger. Perfecting the serpent’s aim. Bringing it within a heartbeat of striking.
The first treasure was the discovery, in visiting with his aunt, that throughout the younger years of my husband’s childhood, after his parents divorced, his father would park his car at the end of the block, watching his children at play, while he wept within the close confines of his own private sentencing … his utter undeservedness to be part of his children’s lives.
My husband couldn’t take this truth in, couldn’t bear loss’ pain, especially when he heard his father’s visits went on for several years. Reflecting back, he realized now he’d actually seen his father on a few of those occasions. At the time, he’d thought it only his deep, deep longing. He began to brood.
The serpent coiled tighter, rearing back its head.
The second treasure lay secreted in a sterile nursing home my husband finally agreed to visit. And a woman old, withered before her time, her own duel with alcohol wasting her away. Though we hadn’t understood that, yet.
My husband walked down the hall with trepidation, but his heart needed confirmation, not just of the first treasure, but the second. The need of knowing propelled his steps.
The diminutive woman, this unknown stepmother, lost in the wasteland of a hospital bed, told the same story … of a father who for several years watched his children at play from a car at the end of a quiet street. Then she confirmed the second treasure. Accidental death. Prescription medication, unwisely taken with alcohol, and a fall against the pointed corner of a bedside table. A father, alone, knocked unconscious, bleeding to death.
Something inside my husband, instead of mending, broke. The serpent, at last, struck.
What defines an alcoholic? I fear its true condition indefinable, mixed in a misty understanding of the human heart, and the desperate paths it travels, to hide. Too many tentacles, webbing their way in too many directions, into too many soils.
My husband never recovered from his father’s alcoholism, though those looking on would swear it never touched him. But alcoholism stole my husband’s childhood, gave direction to his own destiny.
Alcohol births many children, most of them secreted away, unclaimed … bastard children in a sense. But the wily serpent, at last, had struck. Within months of my husband’s visit to painful truth, one who’d abhorred drink, found it his bedtime companion. Eventually, it became his constant one.
Anger, no longer disguised or contained, drove my husband from his loving Father’s arms, a Father he’d promised to serve, with his life, a Father longing to take the pain into Himself, yearning to set a captive free.
Our story didn’t end with a prince and a princess discovering happily ever after. However, both of us, life-long children of the King, could have known that promise.
In writing these words, I’ve come to know my husband better. My grief over alcohol’s protégé deepens. My husband’s life ended … a haunting reflection of his father’s.
Cradled in his Heavenly Father’s bosom these past ten years, I pray my husband has come to know wholeness, at last.
Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee . . . . .
Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
1 Corinthians 10:13
© 2 September 2006
DeAnna L. Brooks
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How terrible it is to have memories of a father who became another person while drinking. Thanks for sharing your story. Thomas
I also had an alcoholic father so I completely understand what you say here, and what you didn't say. I take it that your husband also turned to alcohol? Did you know that alcoholism is genetic? I don't know how old your son, or other children may be, but I hope you have not hidden this truth from them. Even if they decide to experiment themselves, at least the seed will be planted in their minds that they may be playing with fire. God Bless you.