My father died last month at the too-young age of sixty-eight. As an addict. Alone.
My father was born to a woman who didn’t want him and never loved him, a woman who threw him away at the tender age of four. Oddly enough, I use her name as my writing pseudonym. I remember the day I asked my father if it would be okay to use her name. He was tickled! He said, “She may not have wanted me, but she was still my mother.”
I asked him specifically why she hadn’t wanted him. I’m not sure he truly knew, but his belief was that she only wanted one child, a daughter. And she’d already had one, his older sister. My dad, was a “whoops.”
His father died when he was one year old. After that, my dad became a target for his mother’s abuse. Even before his father’s death, she didn’t care for him the way a mother should.
After his mother abandoned both he and his wanted sister, his uncle adopted both of them. He wasn’t rushed off into therapy the way folks might, rightfully, do now. Worse, I’m sure what had transpired, the abuse my father suffered, was never discussed.
After the adoption, he grew up in Manhattan with money and privilege. He lacked nothing. He was given everything and had access to anything he wanted, but not what he needed. Therapy and a mother’s love weren’t available. Did you know that the recipe for a sociopath in the making is what my father experienced? Some people are born that way, with a defect in their brain. But, some sociopaths are made. My father, a diagnosed sociopath and drug addict, was made.
The damage had been done.
As an adolescent he was constantly in trouble. As an adult he’d go on to be incarcerated multiple times. He was a con man, a criminal, a drug addict, a sociopath, and, at times very physically and emotionally abusive to those around him, including my mother, my siblings and me. Yet he was a lot of other things, too. Normal, amazing things.
As a young man, he missed qualifying for the USA Olympic swim team by barely a second. He trained racehorses. He taught the wealthy and a few celebrities how to ride horses back in the sixties. He had a fantastic sense of humor. He had impeccable taste in things we could never afford. He always took pride in his appearance. He was a little vain, but wore it well. At times, he was a loving and affectionate father. At other times, he was also a loving husband.
He was one hell of a truck driver; by 2006 he’d driven five million accident-free miles. He could drive an 18-wheeler in any weather condition, on any road and haul any type of load, including swinging beef. It takes balls to be a swinging-beef truck driver! It’s like hauling live animals, all that weight moves around while you’re driving a huge bullet of steel down the interstate. My father was a badass in so many ways.
He’d been a trucker my entire life. Most of my summers were spent on the road with him. I’ve seen all parts of the U.S.. I’ve been in nearly every truck stop across the country.
He used to let me sit on his lap and steer that big rig. Which now I realize was crazy, but he did it anyway. He’d slide his seat back and prop me on his lap and away we’d go, down the interstate. He’d have me change lanes, pass other rigs, honk the air horn… I have to say those are some of my fondest memories.
My father lived a double life. One he showed the outside world and one the unlucky ones experienced. In my home, growing up, I got to see both. The good and bad. He was wonderful; he was also a son of a bitch. Quite literally.
All of his drug use was done on the road, away from our home. When he got clean and sober the first time, in the early eighties, I learned about his demons and their cause. At that time, he entered a 12-step program. Although he had many relapses, he eventually cleaned up. Until the last few years of his life. He never went back to his drug of choice, freebasing cocaine, instead lost himself in the madness of huffing chemicals.
Do you know what huffing addiction is? Here is the Wiki page about it. By the way, it’s legal, and not part of regular drug screening.
About five years ago, his ex-girlfriend informed me that she had caught him huffing. Their relationship was at its end and she felt the need to tell me. At the time, all I could do was suggest she seek out and attend Al-Anon meetings. A little while later, she sent me a letter. I never read it. I didn’t want to know these things.
I had made a decision to not confront him about the huffing for two reasons. One, I was concerned that with his history of violence, he’d go after his ex-girlfriend because she had told me. Two, it was none of my business. My father was a grown man. I had learned, due to my own recovery in Al-Anon, there was nothing I could do. He would have most likely lied to me and/or he would have refused to discuss it. So, I let it go. I gave it to God. Or, maybe I tucked it away and purposely forgot about it.
About once a year, my dad would tell me he went and took his sobriety anniversary chip. I would listen and know in the back of my mind that he wasn’t being honest. I didn’t know if he was using currently, but I knew, at the very least, that he had recently.
Fast forward to the present, the day a police officer showed up at my door with a message for me.
My father’s body was found in his room. In his bed. In his pajamas.
The cause of death was unknown.
It appeared he’d been dead for at least forty-eight hours.
His room was littered with huffing paraphernalia and pornography.
I was shocked to find out my father, my father! …was dead. Was I shocked to find out he was still using? Yes. Was I surprised? No.
I had talked to my father once a week on Sunday; he would call without fail. I’d only seen him once a year, over the last few years, and only for a few hours each time. He had health issues that were being overseen by his doctor. And he worked consistently. He had been living his life just fine from my perspective. I truly thought he’d stopped huffing, because I had neither seen nor heard any evidence of it.
But a sociopath is a master of disguise.
I had to go to New York to pack up his belongings. My husband wasn’t able to come, so my twenty-one year-old son came instead. We had to clean out his one room efficiency. It was a slum apartment. I didn’t know it was a slum until I got there. Nothing could have prepared me for what I would find in that small room.
Have you seen what it looks like inside the home, the inner sanctum, of someone that lives with the disease of alcoholism and/or drug addiction?
When you walk into the home where an addict has lived alone, it’s one thing. If that person lived and died there, alone, it’s an entirely different thing. When you walk into a room where your own father, who was that addict, lived alone and died, so very alone, it goes beyond the boundaries of an emotional storm. It’s an emotional apocalypse.
I walked into that horrible space and looked the disease, my father’s disease, in the face. It shattered me.
The room was littered with small silver cans of huffing chemicals, small bottles of another chemical and pornography. I was prepared for those things. The police had told me. But I wasn’t prepared for how he was living.
My father, the man I knew and loved, the man that kept the interior of his truck immaculate, was living like a junky. The room was filled with trash, stacks of old paperwork, dirty clothes, empty medication bottles and dirty towels. The bed had no sheets.
There were holes in the mattress. There were cans all over the bed, next to it, and inside it. There had to be at least a thousand cans in the room.
There was pornography everywhere. And it wasn’t normal pornography. It was the kind of porn I would never have expected to find. There were other items I didn’t expect, either.
Old plastic beverage bottles, which were filled with urine; probably because he was too high to get up and make it to the bathroom. There were dirty socks he sprayed the chemicals onto, and the broken elastic bands he used to keep them over his nose and mouth.
His old computer lay on the floor around an old broken desk. There were several television sets that no longer worked just sitting there. Black mold had grown beneath an old box full of paperwork from his AC unit leaking.
There was so much in that room; I cannot list it all. I could have gone my whole life without ever seeing these things. I would have preferred that.
How could he have lived like this? How was he this sick and I didn’t know? My heart broke. It broke for him. It broke for me. And I was angry. All I could do was put on a pair of yellow rubber gloves and start cleaning with the help of my son.
I refused to let anyone else besides my son in that room with me. I didn’t want his friends to see this side of him. Especially if they hadn’t known. This act, this covering up, went against everything that I have embraced in recovery. I don’t keep secrets like this anymore, but I couldn’t let this one out. I couldn’t let all the people that were currently in his life, know what he had struggled with. His coworkers and friends loved him. His current girlfriend and her family loved him. He was respected and looked up to.
I absolutely had to protect his dignity. I needed to give him that. And so, I kept the secret. I didn’t tell anyone. There were only three people that knew of the condition of the room and they hadn’t heard it from me.
I packed up what was left of my father’s life. Something around nineteen boxes, including two suitcases full of clothing. Most of the boxes were filled with paperwork. I packed it up and left that room.
I organized his funeral, but was unable to take care of him the way he had wished. He wanted to be buried in his family plot. He wanted to be near his father. However, he was estranged from his sister and she very politely told me to screw off and to never contact her again. Yes, you read that right. The sins of my father, even in death, are apparently also mine.
I had an open casket wake, which are still very common back East. His friends, coworkers and his girlfriend’s family all came. Some of my family came, including my mother, who he’d been married to for twenty years. My close friends that lived in the area also came. He had an amazing turn out, which sounds odd but it’s true. This man had made as many enemies in his life as he had friends; either you loved him or you hated him. The unlucky ones loved him first and hated him second. That was my father.
When I told my friends about the drugs and the room, it gushed out of me like a flood. They, my son, my husband and my friends back home, were the ones that kept me from being swallowed in the tornado of emotions. I wouldn’t have gotten through without them.
I had to cremate him, which is something he never wanted. I had to do so many things I didn’t want to do, but had to. I did the best I could.
When I returned home, I was numb. I went about my daily life, dealing with kids, family, work. When it was quiet, I would sink into a dark place inside my mind and the questions would rise, screaming: How? How can this be? How can my father be dead? He’s missed it all! He’s missed my babies growing up! Now he’ll never spend time with them! He’ll never know how smart they are, or how naughty they can be. He’ll never see it. He’s missing it all, damn it! How could he do this to me? Didn’t he realize that I would be the one to clean this up? Didn’t he know how hard it would be? Didn’t he know I wasn’t prepared for him to die? Mommy was supposed to go first. She’s the sick one. She’s so sick that she’s not really here anymore, not the mother I knew. I felt orphaned! I felt like I’d lost them both.
Damn this fucking disease!
Two weeks ago my moment of clarity finally came. I was talking online to a friend, another writer, and I was telling him about the situation. He said something to me that made my head spin. When the spinning stopped, my whole perspective had changed. He said,
“I know the horrors of having to go through rooms like that and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. All I can say is that you will get over it. It will fuck you up a bit, but you’ll come out better on the other side of that ‘room’. Trust me. I think it’s good though that he had you to do this. I know it’s little comfort, but it shows what kind of person you are and I think he would be proud.”
Whoa! There I was, feeling quite sorry for myself, and my friend goes and springs this on me. But, you know what? He was right. My father knew that I would be the one to clean this up if he were to die. I’m sure he would have preferred that I not have to deal with any of this, but he knew that I, of all people, could do it. He knew, I am quite sure, that I would take care of it and I would take care of him.
You see, I loved my father. Despite his demons, despite what a violent son of a bitch he was when I was a child, despite the fact that he was a user of people and a taker of things, he was my father, and I loved him unconditionally.
I’m forty and he still called me “Puppy,” his childhood nickname for me. I had laughed and joked with him a lot. I’d read him some of my short stories. I cried to him about troubles with friends. I told him my secrets and he never once judged me.
I am proud to be his daughter. I am proud of him and how wonderful he could be. I’m proud that I had such a good relationship with him.
He died knowing I loved him.
The cause of his death is unknown. I’m still waiting for the final toxicology report. I don’t think he died from the huffing, although I’m certain it contributed to his death, along with the other abuses he’d heaped on his body over the years.
My father was tired. He’d driven a truck for forty years. He was too old, in my opinion, to be on the road anymore. I told him many times, “You’re too old for this, ya bastard! Retire already and move to Arizona so you can rest and play with your grandchildren.” He would laugh at me and tell me to shut it!
Well, Daddy, I finally got your old ass to Arizona. I wish you could play with your grandchildren, though. You would have enjoyed that. I know you’re at peace now. Your demons are no longer chasing you and you are free from your disease. It was a long, hard road, but now you can rest.
Rest easy, Daddy. You’ve earned it.
I love you.