The Wheat From the Chaff – V.E. Willis

V.E. Willis

My father is an alcoholic who never joined AA. He never tried to quit drinking on his own. He never admitted he had a problem, much less a drinking problem. When I became my father’s legal guardian, I found out his doctor had advised him to quit drinking more than 20 years before. Instead, he continued to drink, in increasing amounts, until he developed Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: alcoholic dementia and brain damage from long-term alcohol abuse. His short-term memory is spotty on good days. Delusions plague him like flies. No longer self-sufficient, he lives in an assisted living facility where he is prone to irrational and spectacular violent outbursts. He pushed an 80-year-old blind woman out of an elevator. He overturned a medicine cart in a rage. He threatened to shoot the nurse who came into his room.

But at the same time, he’s always been this way. When I was eight, he pushed me to the ground. He hit me with a chair when I was seventeen. He trashed my bedroom, broke my belongings, called me names, and threatened me. I have a picture of myself, as a toddler, with a black eye, and no one seems to remember how I got it. Growing up, I didn’t fear the bogey man. I feared my dad.

I know a lot about alcoholism. I’ve gone to Al-Anon meetings. I’m friends with several people in AA. I’ve read dozens of books (including, of course, the Big Book). So much of my father is described in the pages and accounts of alcoholism and addiction. Whenever I tell the story of my father, alcoholics and addicts nod. They know. Everyone knows him, this man who once took barbiturates prescribed for his dog. Everyone, except my family, and me.

My father is a mystery. He once nursed a baby bird back to health and released it into the wild when no one else was home. When one of our dogs was terminally ill, he moved the kitchen table to set up a hospice area for him. One winter he helped me and my brother build the largest snow slide in the world, at least five feet tall, in the front yard. He built us a swing set in the backyard, a giant rectangular contraption he constructed in a weekend. He made display boards for each of my karate belts but he refused to display my writing awards. He named the garden snake that lived in the front yard Ralph, and whenever he mowed the lawn and saw him, he would stop the lawn mower and move Ralph to a safe location before proceeding. He made up stories about apple trolls who lived in the woods. Whenever a cake was baking, he would laugh and slam the oven door to make the cake fall because he said it tasted better. He loved to play practical jokes, and sometimes we would find fake plastic worms in our bathwater. He took home videos of every possible occasion, every loose tooth, every Christmas, every Easter egg hunt, even when it meant lugging home recording equipment on a trolley through the yard.

Bur his anger was explosive. He knocked me off a chair when I couldn’t understand my math homework. He threw my telephone across the room and shattered it because he didn’t want me talking to my friends. He commanded the rest of my family to shun me for an entire day because I didn’t dust the windowsills. He called me stupid when I brought home Bs and threw my report cards on the floor. He told me I was fat and lazy when I didn’t vacuum or wash the dishes before being asked.

Crying was not allowed. Once, when I had a wart on the bottom of my foot, he held my foot on his lap, gripped my ankle tight in his left hand, and cut out the wart with a pocket knife. Silence was toughness. He never spoke about fighting in Vietnam. He never let me sleep late. He never came on family vacations to the beach. He would dismiss people frpm his life on a whim. After his second divorce, and his retirement, he spent his time sitting alone at the kitchen table, watching TV, and drinking. He only left the house to go grocery shopping.

Alcoholism is a terribly misunderstood disease. Alcoholics lie, but they believe their own lies. My father believes he never did anything wrong in his life. He says he doesn’t deserve to live in a nursing home. He insists he knows what day it is, even when he doesn’t. He denies that he drinks, then argues he has permission to drink wine from his doctor. He says he is in perfect health, and he wants to know when he’ll be allowed to drive again.

For most of his life, I have no idea how much he drank. How often he was drunk. Whether he was drunk or sober when he yelled at me. He was rarely an obvious drunk. He never drank at bars. He always drank beer or gin or bourbon at the kitchen table. If he wasn’t drinking something alcoholic, he drank Tab or Diet Coke. I saw him drink milk once, after eating a raw habanero pepper from his garden to see how hot it would be. When he recovered, he mixed himself a gin and tonic. One year, when I was in town for the holidays, and he poured me a Pyrex measuring cup half full of bourbon because no other glasses were clean.

My father is more than this disease. But I don’t know who he is apart from this disease. Because he never quit drinking, I never knew him sober. It’s easy to say “My father was abusive.” But was it my father who was abusive, or was his abusiveness a byproduct of his alcoholism? If my father was not his disease, who was he? Was he the saver of baby birds? The protector of garden snakes? How could the same man who rescued animals bruise his children? I never knew how to reconcile my father with himself.

My father drank enough to be hospitalized on several occasions. He was put through detox and released more than once. He walked around his house, drunk, with a loaded gun. He left a half-eaten roast beef sandwich on my brother’s doorstep. He threatened to kill me, to kill my brother, and to stab my fiancé in the eye. He burst into tears and threatened suicide. He fell on his face and broke his nose and his ribs. When his dog died, he said he lost everything he ever truly loved and he consoled himself with bourbon. Nothing we said or did could convince him to stop drinking.

He drank himself into several severe health issues before he eventually drank enough to give himself brain damage. Now, he doesn’t always know who he is, either. Sometimes he thinks he lives in his childhood home. Sometimes he tells me he’s prepared my old room for me, and he asks me when I’m planning to move back home. Sometimes he’s worried he’s going to fail his chemistry test. And sometimes he spends ten minutes discussing the ice cream he hopes will come after dinner.

My father isn’t a weak man and he isn’t a strong man. He wasn’t a good man, by almost any definition, but he wasn’t always a bad man, either. He’s complicated and in-between, and addiction muddies those already grey waters. We never really know our fathers. And we know them even less when our fathers don’t even know themselves.

I sent him a card for Father’s Day this year, and he lost it before he opened it. “I just don’t know what happened to it,” he told me over the phone, “but it had a green envelope. I got it. But I just don’t know where it went.”

“It’s okay,” I told him, speaking loudly into my cell phone to make sure he could hear me, “It was a Father’s Day card. It said thanks for being my dad.” I lied. The card contained a general, bland, Happy Father’s Day greeting. I read every card in the supermarket before finding the most innocuous card I could. But did it really matter now? Did any of it matter? How much of the past matters when you’re talking to someone who can’t remember it? My dad saved a baby bird. He hit me with a chair. He drank his life away, slowly, one can, one bottle, one glass at a time, for reasons I can’t fathom. Maybe all these things are contained in this moment on the phone. Maybe none of them are. And maybe he’s already forgotten who’s on the other end of the line.

He snorted. “Well, that was very nice,” he said, “but I really don’t think either of us had much choice in the matter.” He paused. “Oh, look, they’re bringing ice cream for dessert. Vanilla, I think. Oh well. Time to go.” I was left holding a silent phone to my ear.

Addiction has nothing to do with strength. Or morality. Or good or evil. It has nothing to do with self-control or restraint. Addiction isn’t a choice. My father didn’t choose to be an addict. He didn’t choose to have me as his daughter. And I didn’t choose him, either.

It hurts that my father is my father. It’s painful, and hard, and sad. As his memory worsens, it gets both harder and easier. Sometimes he tells me it’s my fault he lives in a nursing home and he hates me for it. And sometimes he tells me the woman down the hall convinced the staff members to steal all of his clothes. His mind is as jumbled as my heart, and I, too, can’t always separate the past from the present. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m speaking to my father, or my memories of my father. I don’t hate my father, but I don’t always like him much, either. And I’ve never been sure if he likes me. I’ll probably never know. It’s difficult and confusing every time we talk. When he talks about being held hostage, I can’t always tell if he’s exhibiting dementia as part of his illness, if he’s drunk, or if he’s both. I can’t find my father beneath the alcohol and brain damage, and most of the time I’m not even sure who I’m looking for. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t have to know. Maybe I don’t have to know who he is, or what he feels. Maybe he doesn’t have to know, either. Maybe it’s enough to know that he’s my father, and I’m his daughter, and every so often we can manage to talk about ice cream, and which flavors we like best.

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  1. Oh, my … reading this breaks my heart, for what could have been, but could never have been.

    You are a brilliant writer.

  2. Powerful. Raw. Real. Vulnerable. Brilliant. You have a gift. Thanks for sharing a piece of you.


    I often work with people with Korsakoff’s. I work with people with other forms of dementia too. It’s so easy (and probably patronising) to assume all such people were “lovely” and “sweet” before the illness took hold. Maybe such thoughts make it easy to deal with some of the very un-lovely and in-sweet things they do now they’re unwell. But life is so much more complicated. I think this piece of writing, which gripped me from the first line, was beautiful, honest and intelligent. Thank you.

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