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Even the most debonair heroin addict will occasionally projectile vomit. The really talented ones can do it mid-stride. My dad was one of those. He would politely turn his head to one side, let it fly, and then continue to expound on his latest discovery or observation without ever missing a beat. There was no interruption of thought, just a nearly undetectable wipe of his mouth with a handkerchief.
His home for the majority of my childhood was the Ringling. Bros. circus train. I spent every summer traveling with him in his 10×10 stateroom, filled with records, books, his camera and a telescope. Above the record player was where all he hung his tuxedos, and an array of dress shirts in various colors and styles. He was their celebrated drummer, and a spokesperson for Ludwig.
Summers with him were my own utopia. I ran around backstage in coliseums all over the nation, played with kids that didn’t speak English, and collected enough sequins and rhinestones to fill the Costume Institute. The consistency of circus life was beyond a welcome relief from what was happening at home. I could plan my whole day around the ringmaster’s whistle blows, the animals staged at the backdoor, and what the showgirls were wearing. It was peaceful and safe.
His addiction hadn’t taken over yet. While traveling between towns he took me camping in Bryce and Zion national parks, we rented boats on Lake Meade, studied the Hoover Dam, and visited the Grand Canyon. He taught me how to use his 35mm, how to read road maps and understand the basics of the national highway system. We laid on our backs in the middle of the desert at night and painted the lens of his flashlight with my favorite nail polish so he could show me the constellations on the map and then point them out in the sky. We went to beaches, ate oysters in New Orleans, visited every aviation installation within 100 miles, and grilled big steaks beside the train. I had no idea he had been using drugs since he was a teenager. I never saw it.
He was my invincible role model until I was in college. That’s when his mother’s multiple ailments morphed into one perfect storm they deemed terminal. She finally got her wish: he left the circus and returned home for good. When she died a year later, there was no career for my dad to return to. He was divorced. He was an only child, and my grandfather had long since passed. The wheels came off. The man I idolized for his sense of adventure, his intelligence, and sense of humor became just like every other addict. He stopped showing up, or left town early because he was so physically ill from withdrawal. He lost my grandmother’s house and was unemployable for the first time in his life. I spent my senior year of college checking him in and out of VA hospitals and rehabs, earning the “Guest-Appearance” award at my graduation banquet.
I tried to save him for two years before I finally gave up. I packed my bags, and drove from Myrtle Beach to Los Angeles to start a new life.
Shortly thereafter, my dad got himself sober long enough to follow the only dream he had left: to live in San Francisco. He moved to California ready to make a clean start, and sought help through a half-way house for veterans that focused on addictions.
I went to visit him six months later, and met a man I had never known before. Someone with the same wit and charm, but vulnerable and open. Without his career and status, he became a man among men. He became honest and willing to accept his depression, his addiction, and responsibility for his choices. He met with his counselors, did the steps and took his medication. He let go of what he’d always known and done, and agreed to do it differently. He was hopeful again. He was free.
A year later he called and politely told me he had liver cancer and less than 24 months to live. I held in my sob so I could hear him clinically explain there was nothing that could be done. The only solution was a new liver, which he would never be eligible for because of his history of drug use. There was also a real likelihood of him dying on the table, which didn’t appeal to him. He was going to live as long as he could, and that would be that. He didn’t say it, but I could hear it in his voice. He had given up.
But I hadn’t. I spent months doing everything I could to get him on the liver transplant list. For the first time in my life no matter what I did, how resourceful I was, how many letters I wrote, how many messages I left, or doors I knocked on, no one cared. He was a drug addict, and an unemployed veteran living on a musician’s pension. He was on the bottom of a list that was transferred to another list, where he quickly plummeted to the bottom again. I sat in his room with him powerless, terrified and defeated. We talked about everything except the fact that he was dying and we couldn’t stop it.
Fifty years of drug use means regular medicine doesn’t work on cancer pain. He went back home to North Carolina, and back to heroin.
A few months later, I went home to spend his 64th birthday with him. He was high, painfully thin, scratching, drooling and nodding out. The great thing about love and acceptance is that it didn’t matter. I hugged him, kissed his scabby face and told him how happy I was to see him. I handed him the memory jar I made for him, and he held it for a while before he realized there were notes inside about all my favorite experiences with him. He made some coffee, and slowly added his own. We read them to each other and laughed until we had tears in our eyes. When the real ones came, I hid in the bathroom and cried into the bath towels. Then we played a final game of Monopoly, our favorite pastime for long trips together on the circus train.
Three weeks later I got the call to come home. He was unconscious when I arrived at his bedside. A tiny Indian doctor compassionately said to me, “jore fahder eez a betty seeck mahn.” Then her regular-sized counterpart flatly added, “expect him to go any time; you should stay close by.”
My dad never regained consciousness. Hours turned into days. I watched his chest rise and fall, wondering on every long exhale if that would be the last one. Days turned into a week, and I was still trudging back and forth across the hospital lawn to a disgusting hotel that preyed on people who needed “to stay close by.” I swabbed the sickness out of his eyes, said my good-byes, begged him to live, then said my good-byes again. Blood pooled in his hands and feet. His skeleton was almost visible beneath his yellow skin. I was grateful for the chance to love him when his body was so utterly failing him. And more than anything, I was relieved he was going to die in a hospital, not face down in a ditch with a needle in his arm.
On the tenth day, my need for clean underwear broke what was left of my spirit. Before I could get to the counter to pay for them, my mom clicked her cell phone shut and said, “Molly your dad just died.”
I felt like a gull trapped in my dad’s final oil spill. I looked at her without blinking, trying to decide if I should panic and flap around, or quietly sink into the abyss of my greatest sadness. She put her arm around me and sighed the way southern women do when no words are remotely good enough.
The doctor unceremoniously told us it was cancer and sepsis that took him. It was also loss of purpose, depression, loneliness, and addiction. It wouldn’t have mattered what they said anyway. No words from a stranger in a white coat could have stopped the ringing in my ears when I knew my dad was gone forever.
It took 50 years to take my dad down, but heroin always wins. Toward the end, he became just like every other addict who ruins relationships and loses everything while slowing killing themselves. On the other hand, when I was a girl and it mattered most, he gave me the love and stability I needed, and the best childhood anyone could dream of.
When I remember my dad now, I don’t think of the horrible years when his addiction ate his liver. I remember that he was battling a debilitating illness his entire life, and I marvel at all he accomplished in spite of it. He earned a BS and masters degree in music in record time, had an extremely successful career, read three books a week, traveled the world, remained dedicated to his only child, and lit up every room he entered.
I remember him like this.
To me, he’ll always be a superhero.