There Is No Right Way to Cope after Alcoholism Kills Your Dad

back of bride walking away

My paternal grandfather died young and wasn’t there when his second daughter got married. My Aunt Lori asked my dad, her oldest brother, to walk her down the aisle. She’s always said that was one of her favorite pictures from her wedding, taken just before they entered the church.

I’d never envisioned my dad walking me down the aisle. When I was ten and “secretly” checking out copies of Brides magazine from the library, being “given away” was just something that happened but not something seeped in meaning of any kind. When I was a teenager, I sort of objected to the “giving away” part of it, but I loved being with my dad. I remember being shocked when a friend commented on how cute it was that a seventeen-year-old would still take her dad to the batting cages daily—it was just what we did and I loved it.

Although the walk down the aisle wasn’t imbued with a ton of significance for me, I did, however, imagine our father-daughter dance. Growing up, my family would often eat dinner and then retire to our living room for “performances” (my sister and I dancing around in dress up clothes to music) or for family dance evenings in our living room. I had the run of their collection of vinyl but we mostly stuck to a few favorites (some Statler Brothers, George Strait, and Mickey Mouse Disco). My mom and dad would dance while my sister and I waited our turns to dance on Dad’s feet.

Just as his own dad wasn’t around to walk his daughter down the aisle, as fate or circumstance or life or whatever you want to call it would have it, my dad died just after Forrest and I announced our engagement. Although never much of a traveler, while I was in college, he and my mom traveled to Florida (to watch me play softball) and to Maine (to watch me graduate). After each trip he would talk incessantly for at least two months after about how much fun it was to go somewhere for an event and get to enjoy the place. The dad I remember always had sort of a soft spot for geology (as I learned during some of our late night talks when I was in high school)—no one would have appreciated a jeep ride to see some dinosaur tracks as much as or been as excited as him

Instead of picking out our first dance song, he died last August. He’d been struggling with alcoholism for several years, and I didn’t really know how to feel. What was hard to communicate to my mom, my dad’s siblings, and the rest of my family was that I was actually sort of relieved. When asked how I felt about the strong likelihood he wouldn’t be able to travel to our wedding, I told a friend, “I’d rather plan on his not being there rather than him not showing up,” and quietly I added, “At this rate I’m not sure he’ll make it to next September.” His death meant that even though things were hard, they were less complicated. I didn’t have to dread a drunken phone call, or worse, a call that he’d hurt someone else while driving drunk. I had a very quiet cry on the stoop of our cabin with Forrest’s arms wrapped around me, but I was busier trying to arrange a memorial with a lot of moving parts (a sister in boot camp, a mother in denial, a group of lapsed-Catholic siblings reconciling a lack of Mass, and me living five hundred miles away).

Just the other day, my mom mentioned having a picture of my dad around at the wedding. I told her that wasn’t something I was really comfortable with but that I’d do some thinking to see if there was something I could be okay with. She seemed to accept that but said, “But he does need to be there though.” Part of the difficulty in the wake of his death was the vastly different ways everyone has dealt with it. I saw this statement from my mom as a real positive step in the right direction (Mom and Dad would have been married forty years this November; she loved him tons but as a result of his addiction they were on their way to divorcing when he died) just to talk about it at all. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how much I could give her.

A couple of days later, in the Montana wilderness, with a twenty-five-pound pack on my back, I sank to the trail in tears. My dog parked his butt on my feet and just sat patiently while I sobbed my way around a tangle of anger, sadness, and confusion. I had no idea how I could, or even if I could, honor my dad (and thus my mom’s wishes). Buried deep down inside was the fact that I was a) still mad at him for not getting better, b) relieved he was dead and not just skipping out like he did at my sister’s reception, c) resolved that I, personally, couldn’t do much to acknowledge him on my wedding day, but that d) my mom needed something.

Three months after he died, in October, when all the necessary family members could assemble, we held a memorial. I really struggled with the memorial and honestly had trouble sitting through it. The next day, however, my mom, all of my dad’s siblings, my mom’s sister and her husband, and one of my cousins and I made the long drive into the mountains to scatter his ashes. The mood was much lighter than the day before. As we hiked the two miles out to his elk stand, every now and then someone would pipe up with a story. As we scattered his ashes, I smiled through my tears, this is where I’m supposed to remember dad.

I’ve printed a small picture of him to add to my mom’s corsage so he can “be there” without me thinking about it; she deserves probably more than that, but that’s all I can give her. My moment of remembering my dad might come just before I walk down the aisle, it might come while dancing, I’m not really sure. I don’t really want to talk about him because it still makes me sad, but in a quiet moment, surrounded by the very different type of wilderness of the red rock canyon walls, I hope I can think of him and smile.

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