Warning: naughty language ahead!
There are so many goodbyes when you love an addict. Goodbye when they use. Goodbye to the person they were. A final goodbye when they die.
“Children bury their parents all the time. This is the circle of life,” a man told me today. Thanks, asshole. Just because no one makes it out of here alive, doesn’t mean the truth is easier to hear, easier to feel. Most of us must face a day when we say a final goodbye to someone we love.
My father’s a drug addict. “Shhh…” people say, as if I’ve just said he’s a murderer. He’s been on the brink of death so many times now, I wonder how many goodbyes I have left. How many goodbyes he has left. Every time the phone rings from a random number or my dad doesn’t reach out for period of time, there is a small and uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
Twelve days ago, I got a familiar call.
“Hi, is this Megan? Megan Mallow?” It’s an upbeat, yet serious voice.
“This is Montrose Memorial hospital. Your father, Steve, is here. In the ICU. We’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” I’ve heard these words before.
“We need to ask you a few questions.” I’ve had to answer a few questions before.
“Do you or any other family members live in the area?” I’ve had to say no to this before.
“Do you know who has power of attorney?” This is the first time I’ve gotten to say, “Yes, I do.” to this. I can decide to insert or pull a plug.
“Your father is currently in the ICU in critical condition suffering from pneumonia and an MRSA staph infection in his blood. He is heavily sedated and on life support.” The staph infection was a new one.
“It’s hard to say if you should come. Some families come when there’s a broken ankle. Some never come at all. But again, he is in critical condition.” They never tell you the odds of death. I’ve learned this too.
“My father abuses drugs and alcohol, has done so for decades. He is a diabetic type two and has hepatitis C. He had a drug overdose last summer and was in the ICU there for weeks.” Here we go again.
“Okay, thank you for that information, Megan.” I need to record my response so I can just replay it the next time they call.
Something feels different this time.
I feel a wave of peace fall over me. I feel stronger. I know I can handle this. But he is not okay. None of this is okay. That word does not apply here. My stomach—that uncomfortable feeling is expanding into my lungs, my head, escaping through quick breaths and salty tears.
The Insanity of Substance Abuse.
Addicts are all around us—in suits and ties, barefoot and ragged. There is no one face for addiction. Addiction doesn’t show up on your front door with roses. It sneaks in with shackles through the back door. The drugs are necessities, not luxuries, for addicts.
The last time I saw my dad sober, he was leaving a treatment center in Houston. He said, “Darlin’, listen. I got another chance to do drugs but I don’t got another recovery in me. I’m going to do my best.” It was another goodbye.
“Why do you still talk to him? He seems like he’s been a pretty shitty dad,” an ex-boyfriend once said to me. It felt impossible to explain to him and impossible for him to understand. Through my own therapy, I have learned it’s important to set boundaries and there is a difference between enabling my father’s addiction and loving the man he is.
“Drugs gave me wings but took away my sky,” I once heard a recovering drug addict say. My father has lived in a cage for quite some time now.
I fly out to Colorado. We are brave when we ask for help, not weak (I must remind myself of this over and over), and I don’t hide that I need support for the trip. My friend’s mom comes with me at first and my brothers join later. In their own ways, my brothers each remind me of my dad. They will be here when he lets go. I will see him in them.
The weight of facing this while balancing work and home responsibilities is too much to think about. I tell work what’s going on and that I need to be with my father. They are supportive. One day at a time. Sometimes one minute at a time. I don’t try to hide the pain. I don’t want to fake anything.
I know I can show up for my dad. I can be of service to those around me. I can hold his hand. I can kiss his forehead. I can whisper in his ear. It’s all we can do when we are truly powerless: hold tight onto acceptance of the present moment. It’s all that is keeping me sane.
I look at him. Can he hear me? “Hi dad! It’s me Megan!” I yelp. He is not responsive.
There’s a lot of down time, free time, and weird time when someone you love is unresponsive in the ICU. There’s only so much talking I can do before I start feeling loopy. No one told me how much I wouldn’t be able to sleep and how much I wouldn’t be able to be awake. That I would be in a walking dream. And at times a walking nightmare. My brothers and I escape to the mountains here and there. It’s more peaceful pretending he is not in that room.
But, he’s in that room.
And then they remove life support and my dad gets lucid. I think this is a good sign. He’s watching old movies starring Clint Eastwood. I play him some Chuck Berry. He says he wants a “Dr. Pepper, goddammit.” My brother suggests this is a perfect commercial for Dr. Pepper.
But, the doctor takes us outside. He wants to talk to us. The infection is raging inside of my dad. He’s not responding to the antibiotics. He’s still dying. But, now he’s awake. The doctor gives us options—life altering choices that we must make. Do we move him to a hospice since his chances are so low? Or, do we keep trying? We will make this decision soon. How can he ask me for a Dr. Pepper and be on his deathbed? This was easier when he was unresponsive.
We go back in the room. I look at my dad and say, “I love you,” trying to hide the tears so he thinks it’s okay. But, he sees them and his eyes fill. “I love you too,” he says, muffled.
Every time I walk out of his room I wonder if it is the last goodbye.
The paradoxes: watching our parents age, watching them die. The childlike state they can revert to, the role reversal. This young man is an old man. I have never thought of my daddy as old before, but in this unforgiving light, there is no denying it—his 67 years are that of a worn out man.
I fixate on the tiny, red tributaries sprinkled on his face, breaking off in every which way, connecting ears and chin, eyes and lips. He still has a full head of hair. Despite the broken capillaries, the skin on his face, for the most part, is youthful and tan. He’s sprouted a grey beard. His eyes are half open, giving a small glimpse of his irises. They say your eyeballs stay the same size throughout your life. I keep imagining his light blue eyes sitting in the face of a younger man, a different man. A man who didn’t have a tube down his throat. A man who wasn’t hooked up to a million machines. A man who was a present father. A man who got help.
My dad, Steve Mallow, is my Keith Richards—he’s done a lot of good and a lot of hard living. For a man who values the external beauty of everything—from the fabric of a piece of clothing to his long list of stunning exes—he taught me, his only daughter, to focus on my brain and laugh at, well, everything. All in one sitting, he can charm you to pieces and, equally, be a sharp-tongued asshole. He is partially deaf after falling off a horse or two. He will insult someone from a foot away, thinking he is whispering, and often leaving me in an apology tour to the innocent bystanders.
But, it is the man who, later in his life, gets quiet, somber and apologetic, and leaves me stunned. Those eyes would tear up and I could see a deep, twisted pain, regrets, desperation. The women, the drugs, the riches, the power, the religion and then losing it all to become a homeless man begging for money. He has been in a drug haze most of his life, sipping on vodka hopes and shooting up heroin dreams. But, my dad has always made me feel loved and special.
I have little doubt he would have died for me, but he has not been able to save himself. I am not a part of his internal emptiness, but I’d like to think I’m a bright part of his eternal journey.
Father’s Day comes. Photos and shout outs to dads throughout social media flood through as I scroll and scroll. The doctor asks if we want to call a chaplain. Sure? We stand near my father’s bed with the chaplain saying a prayer for a God, some God I don’t know if I believe in, to bring my father peace. “Happy Father’s Day, Dad.” I whisper. The world goes on.
What happens when someone we love no longer exists as a human?
My dad won’t text me in all caps, “MEGAN, IT’S YOUR DAD! JUST CALLING TO SAY HI!” He won’t ask me about work. He won’t wonder out loud about the guys I’m dating. He won’t crack any more jokes. He won’t walk me down the aisle. He won’t see his grand-kids. He won’t be around to laugh at this fairy tale life I’ve planned out for myself. He won’t call to just say “I love you.”
“I’m feeling pretty damn good for 67,” he texted me on his last birthday, not even four months ago.
Our parents can be beautiful, and they can be flawed. It feels especially true as my friends and I grow older and many of us start to have kids. My dad was someone’s little boy and I was his little girl. Now we’re both adults. I thought adults knew the answers. But, we are all trying to get through this life the best way we know how. My dad relied on the tools he knew and the tools that ultimately destroyed him: drugs. I love this man, but I hate the addiction. I hate all these goodbyes.
And, if this is the last goodbye, Dad, Daddy, I want you to know, I forgive you. I love you. And, you can go rest, surrounded by and full of the finest things.
My father and I connected despite his issues but this is not the case for many people. It will not say my dad died of drug abuse on his death certificate. But, be certain that will be the case. There is so much stigma involved with addiction and the open dialogue is so poor. People do not seek help for that reason alone. There is hope and there is help.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an issue related to an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the best thing you can do is to reach out for help by calling 1-888-978-3685 at any time of the day or night, seven days a week.
“Genuine love is friendship. Genuine love resides only in the present moment. Genuine love is everyday. Genuine love feels no need to entertain the space away. Genuine love is up, genuine love is down and yet genuine love never wavers.” ~ Waylon Lewis, Things I would like to do with you (get the just-released ebook with original illustrations and five new chapters)
Author: Megan Mallow
Image: Courtesy of Author
Editors: Catherine Monkman; Emily Bartran