I read an article in the NY Post by David Sedaris and here is the link if you want to read it. It is a lot funnier than what I have to say. Anyone who had an alcoholic or dysfunctional family can relate to part of it. And isn’t that about everyone?
Being the baby of seven, I wonder if I was oblivious to much of the negative aspects of growing up with an alcoholic dad. On the other hand, as his disease progressed, and he gave into it, the older kids flew the coop, some still living in the same city, others in other states or even countries. I was there, living at home, til the day he died.
My mom said he struggled his whole adult life with alcohol but when he was younger, he could handle it better. The reason for his self medication? To numb out? Low self esteem, the burdens of responsibility, unfulfilled creativity. Who knows? Maybe it was more genetics than anything. Of his seven kids, four are alcoholics, but unlike him, all are in recovery and have been for many years.
But in those days, AA was about the only place you could go to for help, and he went some of the time. He tried antabuse. I wonder which was more difficult. The struggle to stay sober, or dealing with the internal dialogue of self indictment.
Mom told me he always drank heavy but he would sweat it off playing tennis or racket ball. When he was in his early 40’s, he played tennis on a cooler than usual day, and the sweat and the cold got to him. He got sick, pneumonia set in, and the doctors said it damaged his heart. I don’t have any recollection of this, even though I was about 11. From that point on, it was a downward spiral.
He was not a happy drunk. He preferred to be by himself and generally, it was a good idea to avoid him when he was drinking. We learned to walk lightly, talk little, and find other things to do when he was hitting the bottle. He would try of course. He would even take individually or maybe two of the kids at a time to go with him to the Wonder Bar. It was surreal. Sitting in a bar, at the age of 10, with half dozen other older men, just sitting. Drinking. Not much talk going on either. Just the usually, “Hi Bob, good looking kid you got there.” Or some nicety the break the silence. But I knew I was there, watching him drink his poison, and knowing it would not end well.
Surviving in a dysfunctional family takes some coping skills. Siblings didn’t really talk about what was going on. It was pretty secretive, other than a couple of phrases. 1. Dad’s hitting the sauce, or 2. Dad’s on the wagon. And eventually, “Dad fell off the wagon.” For me, surviving meant numbing out, keeping quiet, don’t draw any attention to myself, as there was plenty of drama going around in the family anyway. Don’t get your hopes up, and wait. Wait til what. Wait til I graduate from high school, and then get out? Those last few years, it was waiting til his physical health took such a toll that he would be released from this earth, and we, our family would be released as well, and could get on with our lives.
His death came as no surprise. He had been in and out of the hospital for a year, more in than out it seemed. The doctors said he was failing and the kids that could, came home to say good bye to him in the hospital. All but one, who was overseas in the military. Much to our surprise, he rallied and came home a week or two later. In that week, he started drinking again, taking on fluids, and by day three, he no longer went upstairs to sleep, or even changed out of his pajamas. By day seven, pills were the only solution to ease the pain searing across his chest. The doctors said there was nothing else they could do. According to mom, his final prayer, and a rare one at that, was something like “God, I know I’m a bastard but throw me a few crumbs.” And he said it many times before he finally slipped away. Congestive heart failure was the cause of death according to the coroner’s report. A broken heart is more likely.
He was 47, and died on Ground Hog’s Day in 1971. Our home at 1494 Clarence Avenue was open to visitors for two days. Folks came over, brought food, told stories, and expressed their condolences. I was mostly relieved he was gone. I played ping-pong in the basement with a few friends. Yes, it was tragic. A talented man, creative, funny, responsible to his family in many ways, just couldn’t win the battle. I’m told in his good days, he loved fiercely. He loved my mom, his kids, and life in general. But love wasn’t enough. His genetics, and emotional battle fatigue won out in the end.
Robert E. Tidyman, Sr. was not a bastard. He was the product of the times, his genes and his environment. He was a soldier in WW2, a musician, a writer, an athlete, a loving husband and devoted father. Not perfect in any way. His disease and maybe some errors in judgement restricted him from being the full of life person he might have been.
I hold no grudge or resentment, though I am sad for all that he missed. If there is life after death, and I think there is, I want to sit with him and tell him I love him and respect and honor his struggle. I couldn’t do any better in the same circumstances. I will listen to him tell his story, and remind him he has plenty of reasons to be proud; proud of himself, and proud of his children and now grandchildren, and oh yes, great grandchildren. See you on the other said Daddio.