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My Fourth Angel

My father made a late appearance on the mantel shrine of dead family members this past summer. For the longest time it was only my sister. My father was the first to pass, though, when I was 22 and a sophomore in college. I visited intensive care for three weeks in a row. I was tending bar while trying to learn to be a better reader and writer in college. I would go to the late family time, around 2 am, after I got off work.

They really to take great care to support and nurture the families of the dying. And these last visiting hours were filled with loss, longing, and people struggling to let go. For the first week he didn’t recognize me or give any sign that he knew I was beside him. Mostly, I guess, he was sedated and dreaming of escape. I was dreaming of escape as well, a different kind though.

A nurse would come into the dimly lit ER waiting room and say quietly, “Visiting hour will begin in five minutes.” The room started rustling up for labored and terrified sleep. Ladies refreshed their hand lotion or perfume making the room somewhat inhospitable for the living. The kind nurse came in again and brought the lighting to full OR brightness, and the five or so groups of families would shuffle into their little caverns of lights and death. Not much hope in those rooms.

My dad was a happy dad. He was wildly successful at following his father into family medicine. He wanted to be an actor, like I did. Maybe that’s where I got my lust for Ali MacGraw, and my raging desire to be Steve McQueen. Then my dad was a sad dad. Even in his success and glory at helping children with their allergies in the allergy capital of the world, my father was wounded. His father had accidentally overdosed of cumidin a week after being ousted from his family practice by his angry son. I don’t think you ever get over shooting your first bird out of tree as a kid. I don’t think you ever ever get over killing your father in an act of spite and revenge. You won, but at what cost. My father carried a lot of rage to cover over the sadness. And alcohol made the storm inside a bit less recognizable.

So he drank. His mom drank, so he came by it naturally. Another early war, his dad was sober and trying to temper the slurring decline of his wife, my dad’s mom. As a successful physician, my dad knocked it out of the park. I started my infancy in Tarrytown, the old wealth in this town. As my dad’s empire grew, he build a house to beat his father’s house on the lake running through Austin. My dad delighted in weekends exploring the property and the new construction. He was so proud.

Under his strong and tanned chest he was screaming at his father. This is before his dad committed suicide. He was going to win. He was going to revitalize his mom, his marriage, and his four lovely kids. He was going to be the hero of all of our stories. He went the other direction. Down the path of social, good old boy, drinking after work. A tenant of his father’s building, a real estate man, named Charlie. Dad and Charlie loved to lounge between 4pm and 6pm in Charlies back room. Like some 50’s speakeasy, Charlie’s backroom as I remember it smelled of old cigars and various spilled drinks. Shades drawn. Dust motes floating in the streams of summer sun piercing in tiny needles of brightness. Soft and worn leather chairs. And my dad, sitting, laughing, slurring just a little, and “Hey buddy, come here, let me get a look at you,” dad.

Once my mom kicked him out of the mansion on the lake, my father took to drinking like a fury. I never got to visit Charlie’s backroom again. Things grew dark in the huge glass house. Dad moved to a high-rise tower near the university. We’d fly paper airplanes off the top balcony, trying to traverse the distance from the high castle to the bowl of the university’s football stadium. In my early memories of XX Towers, my dad would make great planes. He showed me how to make the hard edges for aerodynamic wing folds. Once, I had my best friend, also a John, over and we spent hours with a ream of paper, littering the campus with our best attempts at escape velocity.

I don’t think I ever consciously contemplated jumping from my dad’s high balcony, but I’m not sure how it comes to mind now, fifty-something years later. I’ve had suicidal ideation before. Not so much anymore. My dad’s histrionics got my young ass seated in an Al-Anon meeting in the fifth grade. I graduated to Adult Children of Alcoholics in college. And then back to Al-Anon as a church of people. All people trying to make their own lives better, even as their “alcoholic” was doing whatever they did.

The amazing truth about Al-Anon when you go to your first meeting, hoping for strategies and support to fix your alcoholic or addict partner or family member, is you learn, as all “newcomers” learn, that the meetings in “this room” are for you. Your feelings. Your support. The other’s drinking and drugging cannot be controlled or managed by you. Ever. You’re asked to connect with your higher power, regardless of what *god* you pray to. But the god in the room is the other people doing their best to get their lives straightened out.

It’s not about the alcoholic, I learned. I didn’t control it. I certainly didn’t cause it. And, most heart-breakingly of all, I can’t cure it. I understood the words, slogans, and serenity prayer. And I suffered. I struggled to allow my father to drink himself to death with his new drinking partner, SAM, his wife. He built another mansion, this one about a mile from the same lake, but on top of Mt. Larsen. A new kingdom of excess and pain soothed by Cutty Sark.

I tried to launch my escape pod in seventh grade, moving to New Hampshire to attend “the prep school” of America. I was unprepared for the academics, the onset of depression, and the record-breaking snowfall of ’78. Snow is so beautiful to a kid from Texas. Magical even. And while I battled to become a B or C student, I also became somewhat emotionally disorganized. Spanish was the killer. My brain didn’t compute a foreign language at all. Sure, I was from Texas, so Spanish should’ve been my second tongue. I failed my first class during my first semester away. And the snow piled into drifts so high we held king of the hill battles on the snow packs outside the dining hall. Using taped hockey sticks, we lanced and sabred at each other in the failing light of a New England November, before Merrill (need name of dining hall) Hall opened for early dinner.

New England had been a massive subversion of my father’s influence on me. The “visitations” once he moved in and married SAM became dangerous and unpleasant. So, my mom and I devised a plan. “Let’s go visit the prep schools up East and see what we learn. I fell in love with the idea of escape. Small-town rage, friends who’s families were still happily married sharing Christmas cheer for real. I got out. I got a fresh start. I was on my way.

And for Christmas that first year, I didn’t go home to Texas or my dad. Mom had gotten an apartment in New York City to pursue her fine art painting, and be near my oldest sister, already an established up-and-coming artist. They were like two excited kids in New York. My mom was never happier. She *had* escaped too.

But, we never escape, do we?

A few phonecalls to my dad over Christmas, filtered and audited by SAM, and I was ready for school to start again in January. The snow pack was reduced when I got back to school to find the Dorm Proctor had given my room, a double with my best friend Dwight, to a pair of jocks that wanted to be on the ground floor. My things had been moved to a single room on the top floor. A narrow hall of a room, with a tiny desk, a single bed, and a window with a large radiator that spit and hissed all the time, day and night.

I was crushed in my loneliness and misery on my unmade bed when someone knocked at my door. It was the tennis coach, Mr. Kinion. “There’s a message here for you. The headmaster wants to see you.”


“As soon as he returns, it says, so yeah.”

It was SAM on the phone. My dad had suffered a massive heart attack. He was in intensive care so I couldn’t talk to him. No, there was nothing I could do. No, I didn’t need to come home. But, maybe you should’ve thought of that before staying in New York for Christmas.

In one hour, my life reversed all goodness into a black pit of anger, sadness, and existential grief. I could not save my father. There was no rescue for him or for me up in my tiny stuffy, ticking dorm room. Dwight had been moved into a double with Donner a raging stoner. He was on a lower floor and probably hadn’t arrived back from his Jersey suburb break. I was more alone than I could comprehend. I tried the lord’s prayer. I tried getting on my knees. I tried asking my mom for support over the phone after dinner. I tried my adviser. I went to the school therapist. I smoked dope like a fiend on a mission. The self-destruct sequence had been activated and I was thrashing around trying to find the reset or off button.

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