My father's daughter

My dad used to make this macaroni and cheese growing up that was unparalleled. It was some kind of concoction he made with cheddar, mozzarella, broth and tomato sauce, and it was topped with crisp bacon. It was so good that I swear there were days that neighborhood kids would linger around playing in my front yard, hoping to get the invitation to join us. This week, with my mom in town, she attempted to recreate it (and came damn close!). Considering it’d probably been close to twenty years (if not more) since I last had it, tasting it brought back so many emotions. 

This January, it’ll be ten years since my father passed away. I don’t talk about my dad a lot, because it’s always a complicated conversation. My father, John, was an addict. I learned a long time ago that my soapbox speeches about how addiction is, at the very least, a mental illness, have not altered how most people perceive the affliction, just how they perceived me (and not in a positive way).

While I didn’t inherit that particular trait (thank God), I’ve become aware that he used those addictions to mask other issues. People have a lot of preconceived notions about what addicts look like, what their lives look like. They’re dumb kids who don’t know better, they’re overprivileged people with no consequences, they’re bums on the street looking for a fix. My Dad was none of those things; in fact, he looked just like everyone else. He was handsome, extremely likable and charismatic to the outside world. He was a Sergeant on the police force, a soccer coach, my brother’s hockey coach. We had a lovely colonial, in a lovely affluent town in NJ. It all looked so ideal.

The inside was a different story. He could be your best friend, or your worst enemy depending on what pill he’d taken that day. Tumultuous is probably the best word for it. He had a lot of great qualities (a fact, in and of itself I never thought I’d see myself say). He was a phenomenal cook, he could be extremely generous, and when he was in the right frame of mind, he loved very deeply. He could also be erratic. He was paranoid, if his lips were moving he was probably lying, and if you dared question him,  the penalty was steep. 

My father feared everything in this world. He feared rejection most of all; which branched out into fear of my brother and I having any kind of success, or minds of our own.  He treated us very differently, but in the end, he really screwed both of us. My brother was the golden child (which is no secret to anyone who ever knew us as a family).  He could do no wrong; however he was also never encouraged to think for himself, do for himself, or stand up for himself. When he got to college, my brother found it difficult to navigate life without my Dad’s shelter. I’m proud of him for overcoming all of that and being successful in his life anyway, but at the time, it was a big hill for him to climb. 

He vacillated between ignoring me completely, or seeing me as his arch nemesis. As a young child, I bore the brunt of his frustrations, or pill induced rages. Being the spitfire I was, I rarely backed down from a squabble. He’d throw some of the ugliest things you can say to a child at me, to which I usually puffed my chest up and doubled down on my gumption. On occasion, when he couldn’t win the argument by calling me whatever name he’d spout out, he’d let his leather belt finish the argument.  There was always a big apology gift, followed by some period of time where he was “happy go-lucky” dad, but it was never long. 

He never wanted me to go to college, but gratefully it was non-negotiable for my mother. She all but packed my bags for me, and made sure she got every nickel together to ensure I graduated. This was no easy feat…my father’s drinking had gotten so bad by that point, that he was stealing money from us all, pawning my mother’s jewelry, and he’d even taken out credit cards in my name (that I inevitably had to pay off). I remember telling my mother he wasn’t welcome at my graduation. I graduated in spite of him, and I didn’t want him there to celebrate. Yet there he was come graduation day, beaming and bragging about his daughter, the college graduate. Friends, it was genuine…he was genuinely proud that I graduated. I wanted to throttle him; I mean the kind of anger where I could have strangled him with my bare hands. I think I did consider it that morning, but I’d worked so hard to get there, and I didn’t want to end up in jail before I could get to my last mug night at the Stone Balloon (priorities, ya’ll!). That was my dad for you. He was a complicated man. 

I always swore I wasn’t going to be anything like him, not ever; not for a day, a minute, a second. I worked hard at not being like him. Yet, this year, as I was mid journey on “finding” myself after I lost Kenny, I had an epiphany.  My son, Benjamin, is practically my personality clone. He’s a “creative,”  a daydreamer, a storyteller. He’s stubborn, gets bored easily, and gets distracted by sparkly things (wait, thats me…he gets distracted by RC cars and monster trucks). Like me, he’s also exceptionally sensitive. He can sense a mood change on anyone at any time. He feels slighted by innocuous exchanges, and worries if people like him. He prefers science kits and “make believe” to football and wrestling, and is hyper aware that many other boys prefer a rougher form of play. I can tell he often feels like a fish out water. Just like me. Just like my father.

You’d think that ten years after someone is gone, you’d be done facing their demons. Yet here I was, this next phase of parenting, forcing me to look in the mirror. When we were younger, saying “you’re just like Dad” was an insult in my family; and now I had to face the idea that I am, in fact, like my dad.  I don’t mean the pill popping, drinking or the rages at my kids, I mean the fear, the pain, the constant, nagging feeling that I’m not good enough.  It was one of those things where I spent a few days mulling it over, and trying to figure out what it meant. We were/are so different, and yet so similar. The kind of people who, when we love, we love overwhelmingly, we are passionate and feel strongly about people and events. We feel so deeply, and yet are so afraid of letting those emotions show, so scared of not being accepted in return.

Aside from the angst at the thought I’d turn out like my father, my heart started to feel really sad for him. All that emotion masked as anger that shaped his life. All the years wasted, instead of enjoying the beautiful family he had. The resentment I’d harbored my whole life suddenly melting down, I had the heavyhearted realization that he’ll never know that I forgive him. And in forgiving him, I also freed myself from a lifetime of negative energy that was holding me down.

In the end I recognized that having similar personality traits as my dad is in no way indicative of my future. I can be this person without being someone who dies alone in an apartment in Florida, without a friend in the world. My father is my cautionary tale, my ghost of Christmas future should I continue on the path of denying my emotions. I can be like my dad without ending up like my dad. Better still, knowing what I know now, I can teach my son better. I can help him learn to be confident in the emotional little person that he is now, instead of waiting until he’s approaching forty. The only way I know to do that is to show him. So I will love deeply, I will feel strongly, I’ll be passionate about the things I enjoy, and I will make him the best damn macaroni and cheese this world has ever seen.

Megan Courtney