I just read, with a kind of horror, a piece by Scott Russell Sanders called, “Under the Influence” in Writers on the Edge: 22 writers speak about addiction and dependency. He’s a powerful writer and conveys pretty clearly the anguish of growing up with an alcoholic father:
My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food–compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living. That is how the story ends for my father, age sixty-four, heart bursting, body cooling and forsaken on the linoleum of my brother’s trailer. The story continues for my brother, my sister, my mother, and me, and it will continue so long as memory holds.
His father’s drinking becomes the family secret nobody talks about–his rages, weepiness, disappearances for days or weeks, his bottles hidden in every part of the house and yard. No one must know; the family must act normal. The boy Scott believes his father’s drinking is his fault:
I tell myself he drinks to ease an ache that gnaws at his belly, an ache I must have caused by disappointing him somehow, a murderous ache I should be able to relieve by doing all my chores, earning A’s in school, winning baseball games, fixing the broken washer and the burst pipes, bringing in money to fill his empty wallet. He would not hide the green bottles in his tool box, would not sneak off to the barn with a lump under his coat, would not fall asleep in the daytime, would not roar and fume, would not drink himself to death, if only I were perfect.
Sanders’ father had long periods of sobriety before he succumbed–10 years around his children’s births, 15 years after a long and horrible hospitalization for damage caused by alcohol when the docs told him another binge would kill him. But when he retired and moved with his wife back to the land of hard drinkers he’d grown up in, he began again. By that time his son Scott was an adult with a family of his own:
I was able now to press the cold statistics about alcoholism against the ache of memory: ten million victims, fifteen million, twenty. And yet, in spite of my age, I reacted in the same blind way as I had in childhood, ignoring biology, forgetting numbers, vainly seeking to erase through my efforts whatever drove him to drink.
His father drank himself to death in a few years.
Drinking has consequences we can’t always foresee. For Sanders and so many others with alcoholic parents, they’re life-long. I shudder to think about my own kids.
My Papa’s Waltz
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.