The Other Family

When I was a kid, my father had friends everywhere. No matter where we went–the mall, little league games, soccer tournaments–he was sure to run into someone he knew. They’d shake hands and trade energetic small talk I couldn’t understand. These friends covered a wide range of humanity, from well-dressed professionals to tattooed biker types.

This democratic taste in companions did not gel with his personality, as I knew it. To me, he was a master of sarcasm with snobbish pretensions. He did the New York Times Sunday crossword religiously, tracing block letters with a black pen, then filling in the interiors in red like panes of stained glass. He wouldn’t listen to any radio station but WQXR, the Times‘ classical music outpost. He owned one musical album, a doo-wop compilation. Everything else in his LP collection was comedy: George Carlin and Tom Lehrer, mostly.

He recoiled at his boys’ typically kid-like table manners. He’d storm away from the kitchen table muttering “Savages!” to himself when he could take it no more. (To this day, I find the word “savages” to be extremely funny.) If he came home from work and we were watching He-Man or G.I. Joe, he’d demand we “turn that drivel off”, in a silly voice that made it clear he was both joking and deadly serious. He preferred to watch PBS, which I found crushingly boring. I called every show he liked “Great Rocks of Our Time”.

And yet, in public I’d see him hanging out with total slobs, people I thought he wouldn’t be caught dead with. And not just talk with them, but joke and laugh like they were the best of buddies. My dad was a gifted storyteller, someone who could command a room with equal parts rhetorical skill and bullshit. But even so, it didn’t seem likely that he’d be swapping stories with many of the “friends” he ran into.

His friends had two things in common: (1) they were all men; (2) I had no idea who any of them were. They weren’t people he worked with, and he had no social life to speak of. If asked where he knew these people from, he’d say “around”. If pressed further, he’d change the subject.

My mother found this particularly infuriating. For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out the identities of these mystery people. After all, the man barely left the house, except to go to AA meetings…

My father made a few earnest but failed attempts to dry up when I was very little. He’d last a few weeks, then fall right off the wagon again. One year, he managed a whole six months of sobriety before hitting the bottle again just before Christmas. I found vodka bottles
hidden in a pair of cowboy boots he never wore. I dropped them out the window, onto our driveway, which did nothing to stop his drinking but did manage to infuriate my mother when she found the shattered glass the next morning.

He finally sobered up for good when I was in fifth grade, as a result of a severe illness. Actually, it wasn’t so much an illness as it was a full-body revolution. Each one of his
organs simultaneously protested their ill treatment and went on strike. He was told if he continued to drink, he’d die. So he stopped. It was as easy as that, apparently.

In the place of alcohol, he picked up AA as his new addiction. He went constantly, four or five days a week. I think this was due to a combination of quasi-religious fervor and fear of real life. Most alcoholics drink to escape reality. The most difficult part of sobriety is not avoiding booze per se; it’s dealing with the hassles of everyday existence without the crutch of alcohol.

Post-sober dad found the petty annoyances of life to be enormous roadblocks to his sanity. So the more time he spent at AA, the less time he had to spend not in AA.

My mother asked why he went so often, and he couldn’t say. No, really, why do you go so often? What do you do there? she’d ask, with a mix of morbid curiosity and jealousy. He’d respond, Don’t you understand the ‘anonymous’ part of Alcoholics Anonymous? He could tell us nothing.

She didn’t want to know what he was up to so much as she wanted him to spend more time with us. He shouldn’t be hanging out with other ex-drunks, she thought, when he still a lot of fence mending to do at home. My father assumed there was no real way to atone for what he’d done, so why pretend like there was?

At least that’s my assumption, because he didn’t say anything about it. All he could do was let us witness him say ‘hi’ to these mysterious strangers, and leave it to us to figure out what secret they shared.

Sometimes I’d see him talk to some random dude, and then discover later he was someone else’s father, someone I went to school with. Unfortunately, it was never someone I wished hardship on, never someone who was a jerk to me (unlike the time I discovered that a junior high bully was, just like me, getting reduced-price school lunch). It was always somebody I barely knew, who I now could not avoid making eye contact with in the school hallways. Like when you learn a new word, and suddenly you read it everywhere.

* * *

Years passed, and my dad continued to stay dry. He reached an important sobriety milestone, and he wanted me to go with him for the occasion. He never asked me to do anything. I had no idea why he wanted to go, but I couldn’t think of a good way to weasel out of it. I appealed to my mother, figuring she’d sympathize, considering her seeming resentment of the AA institution. But no dice–she demanded that I go.

The meeting was in a church basement, in the “weird” church in town (i.e., not Catholic). There were little kids’ drawings all over the wall, and cartoony cutouts of Jesus and angels. A long table held an enormous tureen of coffee, several dozen donuts, and a large cake with pink frosting that simply said CONGRATULATIONS. The room was filled with enough cigarette smoke to fuel an entire season of Mad Men.

My dad introduced me over and over again to his friends. Some of them I’d seen before, some were new faces. They all said some variation on, I’ve heard so much about you! Your father’s so proud of you! My dad gripped my shoulders every time. It was all too strange. The fact that my dad was talking about me to total strangers made me vaguely ill. I felt like a prop.

He gave a speech to mark his anniversary. He talked, in the broadest terms possible, about how drinking had ruined his life. How he could only conquer it once he admitted he was powerless to stop himself.

It was the most honest thing I’d ever heard him say, or would ever hear him say, and I hated it. I was only comfortable when joking. Just like him, or so I thought. He wasn’t the sarcastic, mocking dad I knew. This dad would never watch The Life of Brian or make fun of weird looking people he saw on TV. He was the dad that came out for his other family. As far as 12-year-old me was concerned, they could have him. I didn’t belong here.

I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of the cake, but dad brought some home. Later, I fished it out of our fridge, took one bite, and threw it out. From sitting in that church basement for all that time, it tasted like cigarettes.

* * *

Many mysterious strangers showed up at my father’s wake. They all sat together. A few stood to testify how he’d helped them win their own battles with alcoholism. He’d sponsored many members since becoming sober. He’d spoken to hundreds of people about his struggles, patients in hospitals, inmates at prisons (“Places that scared the hell outta me,” one particularly burly man told me.)

He’d never told me any of this. I don’t think he’d ever told anyone any of this. It had never occurred to me that, as much as he might have needed AA, maybe AA needed him, too.

After the wake, many of the “friends” said hi. They said my father was proud of me. I felt no less uncomfortable than when I was 12. The solemnity and platitudes of a funeral didn’t fit the dad I knew. It seemed like the proceedings were more for The Other Family than they were for me, or him.

A large man with tattoo sleeves and a Harley Davidson t-shirt asked me if my father ever told me to story about how he left work one day, intending to get historically drunk, and regained consciousness in Costa Rica. No, I would’ve remembered a story like that, I told him.

Too bad, he said, laughing as he left, before I could ask to hear the story. I was left to wonder how many insane tales he’d only unveiled for Them.

They left almost en masse. Before they did, a young man approached me. He bore an eerie resemblance to Owen Wilson, with the same mop of blond hair, the same oddly crooked nose. I was almost positive he was a good three years younger than me. His voice shook and he had tears in his eyes.

“Your father did so much for us,” he said. I couldn’t imagine what kind of hell this man put himself through in so short a life that he needed help from my dad. I wanted to know, but it seemed rude to ask.

“I know,” I said. It seemed like the response you would have heard from the dad he knew. And it was also the response the dad I knew would have given, because it was a total lie. I had no idea how much he did for Them, and I never will know. It burned to know he’d saved a good part of himself for other people. But at least I had some fleeting evidence that he’d done some good in this world.

I’ve been reading a lot about science lately, particularly about the mysterious subatomic universe, where the conventional laws of physics make no sense at all. Scientists are trying to figure out what holds quarks and mesons together, but since microscopes can’t penetrate that far down, the best they can do is smash particles together at enormous speeds in huge tubes and hope to catch the echoes of these building blocks as the pieces fly apart.

I feel like The Other Family is like that for my dad. They reflected off of him, and what little I know about his other life has to come from how they bounced my way.