Mackenzie Mays’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.
In my panty drawer you will find my father’s ID, his social security card, and a photograph of a cat I’ve never met. The cat is fat, with Goosebumps-green eyes, and sprawled out like a starfish. Stuck to a screen door, only her own claws keep her from falling to the concrete below. The back of the photo reads, “This is Gracie. She is meaner than hell, but I like her. Sorry about the toothpaste – it’s how we hang photos up in here.”
My dad is in jail.
But that’s not usually how I start, when asked about him. I say things like, “He lives in Ohio.” “He’s an engineer.” “Super smart.” “Great taste in music.”
All of those things are true. But there are other truths that are harder to say.
I don’t say that the strange collection of items in my drawer are likely his only possessions. Or that he didn’t have an address of his own to send them to when he was arrested, so he sent them to me for safekeeping. I don’t talk about how I used to practice walking straight lines when I was little, in case the cops ever made me. I don’t talk about how I could never get my fingers to dial 911 even when my mom begged me to, or how I learned how to play catch not with a ball, but with my father’s car keys – him stumbling back and forth between my mother and me, trying to snatch them.
Why exactly he’s in jail is not important, especially since he says he did not do it and I believe him. The real reason – the simplest answer – is that he’s in jail because he’s an alcoholic.
The term “alcoholic” gets thrown around a lot, like when your friends self-diagnose themselves because they drank wine three days in a row. But when people say the word around me, I get a very familiar pit in my stomach – the panicky kind that used to kick in when I’d try to spend the night at a friend’s house, but always asked to go home before sunrise.
I don’t like to talk about my dad for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I don’t want people to think of him as an alcoholic and nothing else. In situations like these, there is Jekyll and there is Hyde, and people tend to say goodbye to both because of the one. I can tell you that he was a successful businessman, that he married his high school sweetheart and put everything on my and my brothers’ Christmas lists under the tree, but then you’d notice that I talk about him using the past tense. And then I’d have to explain that he’s not dead.
For people with a parent who’s an addict, you hit a certain age and everything changes colors. You’re 24, and all of a sudden you’re watching the movie of your own life play out and the character you’re wishing would do something – the one you wish would spare some kindness – is yourself. Self- pity turns to apathy turns to anger turns to shame turns to guilt; you will cycle through these emotions more times than you can count.
Anger is always the best – the comfiest hole to crawl into. The guilt is always the worst. You see him for the first time in years and he’s limping and says it’s from a frostbite incident and that turns everything you thought you knew about his situation on its head. But then you think about the time you watched him twist a wet towel up and slap your mother across the face with it, and your hole gets cozy again.
With age comes wisdom, and because I am one of the lucky ones – because my mother found a way out and took me with her, because I’ve always had troops of people there to explain that “your dad has a disease” and “he’s a great man, he’s just sick” – the story of my father has changed the way I see the world and everyone in it. I know that things are not what they seem and that people often don’t have a story – they have several.
My dad hasn’t been an active, healthy father in more than a decade. But that doesn’t change the fact that he used to volunteer at our library, or that he let me sing the “bitch” part of that Hall and Oates song.
Even though he has to check “yes” on the part of the job application that asks if you’re a felon, even though I watched him wrap his hands around the neck of the person I love most in the world and squeeze, there is kindness, still. I won’t ever forget the ways that he hurt my mother, but I can live most days without replaying one of those scenes. That gift — that ability to let it go and carry on — comes only through the grace of my mother, whose strength has allowed her a new life and me the same.
She has allowed me to stop hurting for her but she can’t make me stop hurting for him.
Even though the short phone calls from a county jail 2,400 miles away are the first sober conversations I’ve had with my dad since I was 12, these things remain true:
My dad woke me up in the middle of the night so that I could see Hale-Bopp soar across the sky. He let me stand on the roof of his car because I thought that I could see it better that way.
Once, the neighbor kids tattled on me for being a brat and he made a big show of sending me to my room in front of them. In that room, he asked me not to tell anyone about my punishment, and proceeded to play “Don’t Worry Be Happy” on repeat.
He cried during A Walk To Remember, and I keep his love letters to my mother from when they were young in the same place I keep his letters to me. My letters have a more complicated return address, with a cell number and numeric ID, like he’s a dog that has been micro-chipped in case he gets lost. My letters are a lot more complicated in general.
And in these letters, I am reminded that among his many titles, he is still a dad.
“Don’t wash the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher like your mom did. At least wait and see if you’ve got a couple that actually need it.”
“Don’t move to California. You will get kidnapped. And don’t go anywhere ISIS is.”
“Do you have a 401k plan? If it’s offered, get it! Even if you start out with a very small amount it will add up.”
“Don’t get mad but I think Beyonce is overrated.”
“Does your boyfriend still hate Glenn Beck?”
“If you ever need a rose made of toilet paper, I’m your man.”
These letters are proof that he still tries to be a father, no matter the circumstances — no matter the limitations. He has never failed to find a phone and call me on my birthday or Christmas. I have seen him prove to be a better dad than dads who are free, who aren’t sick. Better than dads who are considered upright citizens.
So I won’t pretend that he is something that he isn’t, but I also won’t pretend that he is wholly defined by his sickness. I don’t know what will happen once his sentence is up – once his forced sobriety is over. I don’t know what most would consider “freedom” will mean for him.
It’s not easy. Memories are bad and good and confusing and pop up when you least expect them. Sometimes I go on with my life without thinking about him at all – sometimes it’s too hard to write back. Sometimes I feel guilty for how good my life is, and other times I feel angry because it’s not as good as it could be.
But I do know this: love and hate can exist in the same heart. And the people who made you will continue to be a part of who you are, but you can decide how.
The meaning of family will evolve and teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know. It will make you realize that you’re allowed to condemn your loved ones, but no one else is. It will offer you a chance to accept the good qualities of your parents as your own and use their faults as a chance to grow and overcome. It will help you to relate to people in general. You can learn to appreciate what you’ve become because of your family, and despite them.
On my right hand, there is a dainty marquis diamond. My mom took it from the engagement ring my dad bought for her when he was my age and put it in a setting that was more “me.” The diamond is loose and if you flick it with your finger, it will wiggle up and down in-between the silver prongs. I took it to a jeweler in college to be repaired, but they said it was unfixable.
The jeweler told me not to wear it – that eventually it will fall off and be gone forever. I should just put it somewhere for safekeeping, she said.
I wear it every day knowing that one day I’ll look down and it won’t be there. But wearing it is better than pretending that it doesn’t exist. The ring is mine, beautiful and broken at the same time.
Mackenzie Mays is a journalist from West Virginia pursuing her MFA in California. She enjoys sharing a string cheese with her dog, Norah, and blaming things on her "southern roots."