Saturday, September 29, 2007

Happy birthday

I'm here to report to you that I am not a very good daughter. Today is my dad's birthday and I waited to call him until I was pretty sure he wouldn't be home, just so that I could leave a message and I wouldn't have to talk to him. My awful plan didn't work though, and he ended up being home when I phoned. The joy in his voice when he heard it was me was palpable. It struck me right in the gut.

In order to understand why I was hoping he wasn't home, I guess I should explain some background. My mom and dad met when they were teenagers. I don't know a lot about their early years together but I do know he was something of a bad boy. Today, a rebel is the last kind of guy I imagine my mom would be attracted to, but back then I guess she was. He played drums in a band. He bought, did, and sold drugs. The police would drive him to the outskirts of the city and drop him off. I don't know if he was a thief, but I'm sure he could hook you up with whatever you would need. When they got married he tried to turn respectable. I'm not sure if it was because he wanted to or because my mom wanted him to. He got a job at his father's bakery and worked the awful hours of a night baker. He hated it but he figured it was only temporary.

After I was born his situation became less temporary, as he was now responsible for two lives. Even though my father loved me very much, I imagine he was deeply unhappy. He was the kind of guy who wanted to go drinking and tear up the town with his buddies. The details are fuzzy here - he may or may not have had an affair when I was about three - but I do know that he and my mom fought with each other more and more. They tried to keep me away from the tension, but I remember laying in my bed at night, silently crying because I could hear them yelling. I adored my dad and didn't want anything bad to happen. In the mornings when he would get off work, I would wait at the window for his big blue van to appear in the driveway. I would run to the door and greet him with squeals and hugs and giggles. Even though I was only 4 years old, the day my dad told me that I would be moving away with my mom and not him is etched in my memory as one of the saddest days of my life.

He tried the best he could to be a good weekend dad but Ward Cleaver he was not. He had no idea how to care for a young child so instead he spoiled me. When it was a Dad Weekend, I knew I could look forward to mountains of delicious junk food, television until my eyes dried out, and so many Atari games that I would dream about Pac-Man and Space Invaders. All of these forbidden pleasures distracted me from his almost constant drinking and his many and sundry "lady friends" that would spend the night. We'd go on outings to the neighbourhood beer parlour. (Is this a common term? I have no idea, but it's what he's always called the dank, dark pubs where he drinks.) He would order a triple rye and Coke, pour a drop or two of the cola ("just for colour") into his rye and give me the rest to drink. I would sit there, sick to my stomach with fear and discomfort, and sip my drink as my dad bought round after round for his scary drinking buddies.

Our relationship became more strained and distant after I moved to a city 500 kilometres away. I only saw him during holidays and over the summer, and it seemed like every time I'd talk to him on the phone he'd be drunk. Eventually, he married a pretty awesome woman with whom I had a good relationship. He straightened himself out for her, just as he had done with my mom all those years ago. He seemed happier and more content with his life. Sadly, this didn't last. Around the same time that the love of my life was dumping me, my stepmom left my dad. It destroyed him. He started calling me, crying, at three or four in the morning when he was done his shift at the bakery. At first I answered these calls because I thought there might be an emergency but after a while I just ignored them. I woke up to long, rambling, sobbing messages from him about how he still loves my mother and how my ex-stepmother is such a bitch and how I never visit him anymore. Through the wonders of caller i.d., I hardly ever had to talk to my dad. I also knew when he'd be at work, and that's when I'd return his calls. I'd leave message like, "Aw, too bad. I figured you'd be at work but thought I'd take a shot anyway. How're you doing?..."

Two years have passed since that tumultuous time. When my stepmom was around, my dad would drink one day a week instead of the seven days he does now. They would do things like go for dinner or see a movie. Without her around, all my dad does is drink and smoke and work and pick up women at the beer parlour. I don't enjoy talking to him on the phone and I try to limit my visits with him and all this makes me a terrible daughter and an awful human being. He loves me so much that the sound of my voice has the power to make his day brighter.

I should be nicer, more understanding. My dad has the kindest heart of anyone I know. He'll lend money he doesn't have to friends in need. He is constantly taking on renters who can't afford to pay him rent. I know that he drinks because he's unhappy. I accept that. I also know that he hooks up with so many skeevy women because he's lonely. I guess I accept that, too. In fact, now that I'm older, I can see a shockingly large amount of him in me. How is it that someone I lived with for 4 years - an mere eighth of my life - has had so much impact on who I am today? We posses the same lack of ambition, the same woefully inadequate grasp of all things related to money, the same revulsion to housework and attraction to food with zero nutrition, and the same tendency to be less than truthful at times. We also have the same need to be loved and accepted and the same loneliness in our hearts. Why couldn't I have inherited his skinny genes or his amazing woodworking talent? Why did I get the bad stuff? Maybe it's all of our similarities that scares me and makes me avoid my father.

Whatever it is, I'm going to try to be a better person. I'm sorry I didn't want to talk to you, Dad. I'm sorry I don't know who you are and you don't know who I am. I'm glad that you were home when I called and that you're having a good day. I hope your date tonight with your newest girlfriend goes well and that you have a truly happy birthday. I really do love you.


  1. If my father hadn't drank himself to death when I was 10 years old, I could very well be writing this exact entry.

    Also, I remember very vividly that same scene of lying in bed, listening to my parents scream at each other, and being so terrified that they were going to get divorced, like that was the worst possible thing that could have happened.

    Really, what would have been worse is living my entire childhood and adolescence in that environment.

  2. you are not a bad daughter.

    a bad daughter wouldn't have thought twice about dumping the drunk on the curb and carrying on.

    a bad daughter would not have called even knowing he was at work, so he would never have gotten that voicemail that nonetheless screams "i love you dad"

    a bad daughter wouldn't listen to the voices in her head and share them with the interwebbers.

    a bad daughter would never own that the things that make her most uncomfortable are the ways in which she is similar to her dad.

    it's hard to be a good daughter when your dad is sick and he has the only key for the cure, but won't put it in the lock to open the door.