Letting it Go

Andrew+Atkins.

Andrew Atkins.

Andrew Atkins

Author’s note:

My dad was an alcoholic. He died in November. I’ve always experienced a maelstrom of emotions. This isn’t easy to write about, to share, to read. But by sharing the trauma and pain I’ve felt, I hope you can learn something — not about me, but yourselves. 

Part 3: Letting it Go

When I said goodbye to my dad, I had no idea it would be at least 11 years before I saw him again. 

I talked to him on the phone twice in those eleven years. He sent me a card for my 16th birthday and got my age wrong.

He wasn’t homeless at first. But eventually he valued the bottle more than a roof and he ended up on the streets.

A 2009 document from the National Coalition for Homeless indicates that a common misconception is that more often than not, substance abuse is the reason for homelessness. While this is certainly a trend, many turn to substance abuse as a result of homelessness. My dad did nothing to help these preconceived notions; he was one of the 38 percent of homeless people abusing alcohol and was homeless because of his addiction. 

On a summer vacation to Phoenix, I decided it was time to see my dad. 

I called the autobody shop my dad spent his time hanging around. He was friendly with the owners. They were generous and kind and certainly one of the main reasons my dad managed to live as long as he did.

Prior to that call, I had grappled with the reality of the emotions I had been ignoring for months: I resented my dad. I didn’t want to be hateful, but on some level, it was nearly impossible to swallow reality’s bitter pill. I’m even hard pressed to say I was okay with it when I decided to see him. After years of ignoring the pain he had caused me, I could hold it back no longer. I was angry. 

So I called. 

“Do you…know?” the owner’s wife asked me. The way she posed the question reminded me of someone trying to build a house of cards. Breathe too hard or move too quick and everything falls apart. 

They got my dad showered and made sure he was at the shop for the time we were set to meet. 

I walked in with my aunt. I felt the resentment and anger evaporate. I knew the moment I saw him that no amount of anger or resentment or pain would restore the person he used to be. 

My dad was hobbled over a walker. He stood up to hug me.

Wow. 

My dad was a quarterback on his high school football team. He stood over 6 feet tall. He worked out regularly and got into more fights than I’m sure he could even remember. 

This was some twisted iteration of that same person. His time on the street had done him no favors. His skin was dark and leathery. His posture was crooked and hunched. He’d been mugged and robbed and beaten so many times that he actually had brain damage, though that only created a preponderance to tell the same story ad infinitum.

I was terrified to hug my own father, scared that if I squeezed too hard this house of cards would collapse in on itself. 

He sat back down and pulled a plastic bottle out of his bag. It was full of beer. 

This is who he was now. Nobody could change that.

Next time: Losing a parent after you’ve lost them.

Andrew Atkins is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected]