I am the oldest son of an oldest son. I have six younger siblings. My dad had seven. I have been typing and erasing for an hour because it’s hard to understand this tenuous relationship between my dad and me without all of the context. He is the chaotic presence I blame for the lack of structure and security growing up. My life has been plagued by poverty and housing insecurity with waves of religious trauma and addiction. I want to write about how he went to jail when I was in kindergarten and how my twenty-something mom moved her four kids into a homeless shelter. I want to write about how in my memories, there was a chunk of time when my dad was not there, and then he was. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned he had actually come home at some point after getting out of jail and chose to leave us again. I want to write about the various bouts of homelessness or him getting fired from jobs for stupid mistakes and thinking he was above any kind of rules or regulations. But I guess the story of a son wanting to grow up into anything but his father is not so unique.
Yesterday we went to a party my uncle threw for his daughter who just graduated med school. The contrast of how my dad’s brother has built his life fills me with regret and envy. Moments after arriving and taking in the scene of the giant back yard with tables and chairs and tents and coolers, the fire pit, the gravel bocce court, the cornhole setup, the trees, the grass, the in-ground pool, the crowd of people laughing and drinking and smoking, one of my brothers arrived. It must have been bothering him, (or maybe he just thought I’d want to know,) because soon after our hellos, he was telling me how my dad almost got arrested this week. My mom’s car has been acting up, (the latest in a history of transportation-related insecurities to go along with the homelessness,) and my dad took his car to go get a part for hers. Except he was driving on a spare tire and apparently ended up getting stranded when another tire went flat. The details are foggy but this somehow turned into him getting drunk and getting himself home somehow, where he said he’d had enough of “this life” and left again. Evidently, the local police called my mother the next day to tell her he’d been found passed out in someone’s yard. He is 64 years old. I can’t help think of a serious talk I had with my boyfriend the last time I got drunk and lost control. “You’re almost 40 years old!” he said, like there is a certain age where drinking to black out might actually be appropriate. I felt intense shame in that moment and it’s a second-hand feeling of shame when I think of my father, a few months from 65, drinking himself unconscious in a stranger’s back yard.
Then it was maybe 20 minutes later that my mom and dad arrived at the party. I didn’t even want to look at him. But I watched him. I wish I could know what everyone was thinking. I see my dad, the oldest brother, laughing and playing around and I just feel embarrassed because I don’t see anyone laughing and playing around with him. I have this craving for belonging, for community, that swallows me up sometimes and makes me feel like I cannot exist without the validation of a group. I’ve grown up feeling like I ought to feel like I belong in this giant family, this crowd of people who all look like me, but always feeling excluded. When I was young and my family was homeless, did we get help from my grandparents or my aunts and uncle? I know when I was older and my dad’s sister was struggling with substance abuse, the rest of the siblings swooped in to take care of the children. My uncle and a few of my aunts just flew out to see my cousin graduate. From the outside, it feels like my father’s siblings think of him as the disabled sibling that they don’t want to deal with. “He’s special so we just let him do his thing.” He doesn’t get invited to things and he doesn’t have the means to contribute to things financially like they do. Where we’ve struggled so much over the last 30+ years and continue to struggle, I see other parts of my family caring for each other, building relationships and taking care of one another. They know each other. But no one knows me.
Maybe this is all in my head.