I couldn’t imagine a future where I’d break up with a guy, or go on a job interview, or get married without consulting Stoffer first. But his response to his illness made it plain: he was choosing alcohol over us. He goofed around with the nurses at doctor’s appointments. He seemed incapable of or uninterested in doing the most basic things for himself, like eating proper meals or bathing twice a day to heal his raw skin. We were supposed to stick together and look out for each other—I would never let him down like this.
I decided it was my responsibility to bring Stoffer to his senses and save his life. I started to harangue him about his drinking. I cried to him on the phone. I tried to appeal to his softer side, weeping about all the grandchildren he’d never get to meet. I tried to scare him by listing the unpleasant physical ramifications of his illness, like renal failure and stomach infections. I even tried to bribe him with numbers for weed dealers, thinking pot could be a replacement for the booze. Nothing worked. He’d act irritated by my concern and hang up on me or storm out of the room, or he’d try to reassure me by flippantly saying, “I’m not going anywhere, I have the constitution of an ox,” which only told me that he was so blinded by his need for alcohol that he had ceased to accept reality. It was completely exhausting. I also felt very alone. I tried to recruit my mother and brother on my crusade to Save Stoffer, but they both told me quite plainly that they were OK letting him make his own decisions about how to live his life—what little he had left of it. They were willing to help take him to doctor’s appointments and fill prescriptions, but I was the one nagging him to eat and rubbing lotion on back sores that he couldn’t reach.
I worried about him constantly—every time he didn’t pick up the phone or was late to meet me, I was sure he’d suddenly keeled over in the middle of the street, breakfast of champions still in hand. Anxiety permeated my entire life: I skipped classes to take him to hospital appointments. I’d spontaneously start crying during conversations with friends. I called Stoffer obsessively several times a night just to make sure he was OK. I agonized about going on trips and vacations in case I never saw him again. It was as if I’d been saddled with a huge baby, one who was dependent on me, but too heavy to lift and impossible to care for.
After months of beating my head against a brick wall, I realized something would have to change. My mum repeatedly reminded me that alcoholism is a disease (I’ve since learned that Stoffer’s great-grandfather was a bad drunk), and that Stoffer was so blinkered by it that the idea of an alternative lifestyle was completely unfathomable to him. Worse, it was completely unappealing. “Never you mind all of that,” he’d tell me as I sobbed. “I’m having the time of my life.” I had no choice but to accept the reality: he had decided to keep drinking until it killed him, and I was acting as though he had already died. If I didn’t come to terms with what he was doing to himself, I would waste whatever time he had left, and I didn’t want to live with that regret. My change of heart was neither sudden nor gradual nor even really conscious: I just understood one day that Stoffer’s alcoholism transcended his role as a father or a friend, and if I wanted to keep him on as either of those things, I would have to move forward.
I started to treat the alcoholism as a curse that had taken hold of my dad decades before I was even a twinkle in his eye, and this made me understand two crucial points: first, it was beyond anyone else’s control, and more important, it had absolutely nothing to do with me. In a way, it helped me see Stoffer as his own person. We often think of our parents as existing for us, to please and help and take care of us. But Stoffer had his own needs and his own agenda and it was his right to do what he wanted. Growing up, I almost deified my dad, and when he got sick I spent a lot of time hating him for being a selfish bastard. Now I’ve come to see him as just a human.
People still don’t really get it. Family members continue to deride my father for his selfishness, or laud me for my “strength” in dealing with “a shit-kicking drunk,” as Stoffer cheerfully calls himself. I don’t think of it as strength. Any strength I might have had was used up trying to solve a problem that wasn’t mine to solve. I just did what I had to. I’m not making excuses for him when I try to explain that he can’t help being the way he is. In a perfect world, my dad wouldn’t do anything I’d have to defend. But addiction is its own animal, and imagining Stoffer as helpless against it was the first step in forgiving him.
It’s been almost two years since Stoffer got sick, and he still drinks as much as he ever did. I try to ignore it. I pretend that it isn’t an issue. I’ve grown accustomed to his frail appearance, though I catch myself checking for signs of further deterioration. He’s mostly given up on going to the doctor—there isn’t anything they can tell him that he hasn’t already heard and ignored—but if he ever does need to be accompanied to an appointment, he goes with my brother or my mum. When he talks about his illness, I urge him to “do the right thing,” just like he used to tell me when we said goodbye at my school gates.
Sometimes when we’re sitting around, laughing and joking and trading stories, it makes me sad to think about how badly I’m going to miss him, whether that’s in three months or three years. But most of all, I feel lucky to have been able to sit around and laugh and tell stories with him at all. ♦