My dad detests the smell of cigarettes, but that didn’t stop him from standing in a line of smokers that was engulfed in a cloud of Marlboro and Newport waste. Dad was in town visiting from his vacation home in Arizona, and he wasn’t too excited about standing outside in 32-degree temperature on Christmas Eve. Yet there the former police officer was, waiting to hear his baby boy talk about his drug addiction and recovery at a detox facility. My pops didn’t seem to mind that he was rubbing shoulders with the same types of junkies, tweakers, and drunks that he used to lock up in the San Francisco Jail. I even heard him say, “Merry Christmas” to a man with a prison tattoo above his eyebrow. When the doors opened up, I ushered my dad to his seat.
I sat my dad in the front row, next to my girlfriend and a large, bearded man wearing hospital socks with grippy pads on the bottom. The convicts, the former prostitutes, the ex-dope dealers, and the gang bangers filled the seats around them. Uneasy in his seat, my dad was clearly having trouble getting comfortable in his surroundings. Evidently the stench of vomit lingering from the detox beds wasn’t sitting well with dear old dad. In the background, I noticed that the audience was at standing room only capacity. The tension was building in my shoulder blades, but I wasn’t going to let my dad or anyone else see me sweat.
Dressed in my signature black button up shirt, tie, and sweater vest, most would say that I was a tad overdressed for speaking to a bunch of dope fiends and boozers. But I did not see it that way because I was striving to give these addicted daughters, sons, mothers, brothers, sisters, and fathers my absolute best. This wasn’t just another meeting to me, and I didn’t hesitate to inform my audience that we had a special guest in the attendance. My opener broke the ice: “The first time that I drank, I wound up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. It was at this point that I realized that I couldn’t drink like other eight-year-olds.” My dad almost fell out of his seat and could barely compose himself after that zinger. Yup, his son had jokes, and he wasn’t afraid to mask his insecurities with self-deprecating humor.
To my left was sitting my roommate and guardian angel, the person who took a chance on me when I had about 30 days clean. Only a person with a big heart would risk getting ripped off so that they could give a newcomer a chance to get clean in a beautiful home. Tears began to roll down my cheeks the instant that I acknowledged her, my dad, and my girlfriend, who were all sitting within arm’s reach of me. Gratitude wasn’t a strong enough word to describe my sentiments towards these people. As I began warming up the ears of the listeners with catchy one-liners, I flashed my pops my meth-mouth smile to ease him into the darkness of my past. We collectively dove into the murkiness of my history and my chronically questionable choices. Without a hitch, I edited my life story on the fly because my dad didn’t need to hear the horrific specifics of me being molested and beaten on a regular basis in my childhood.
The massive teddy bear of a man who was detoxing from a combination of booze, pills, and weed next to my girlfriend was wailing uncontrollably as I was describing my low self-esteem induced suicidal ideations. As I broke my vocal stride to apologize to this overgrown man-child, I saw that my dad was bright red, his eyes were swollen up with tears, and he had snot dripping from his face. I scanned the room and noticed a stream of emotions rolling down almost everyone’s face. I hadn’t even gotten to the best part of my story yet.
One by one, I made eye contact with each person who had played a part in saving me from myself. The loving tone of my voice, the openness of my hand gestures, and the repetition of words like “gratitude, friends, and support” indicated that I was speaking about the last two years of my recovery. It was Christmas Eve, and I was giving the most polished performance of my life, in front of the people I value most. Remarkably, I managed to remain humble throughout my forty minutes on center stage.
I bowed out to a roaring applause, as if I had taken a standing ovation at an arena concert. I locked eyes with my aging, fragile father and he was weeping so hard that he was trembling. I gave him a look that said, “Sorry Dad, but this ride isn’t quite over.” The last part of the meeting was allotted to the folks in the audience. At least five or six people took their opportunity to provide examples of my growth and express how blessed they felt to watch me blossom in recovery.
Immediately after the meeting’s conclusion, I wrapped my arms around my dad’s thin body. His emotions were vibrating through his muscles and bones. He put both of his hands on my shoulders and shook me a bit as he uttered through his sobs, “I have been waiting your entire life for you to become the man that I heard tonight!” A dozen of my recovery friends introduced themselves to my visibly drained father. I overheard comments suggesting that my dad should be proud of me. More importantly, I heard my father explain, “I am very proud of my son and everything he is doing with his life.”
Neither one of us slept much on Christmas Eve night. We both instinctually knew that my dad would no longer wake to nightmares in the middle of the night about receiving a call that I was dead or in prison. On my starving student budget, I was unable to afford lavish Christmas gifts to give to my dad this year, but I did give him the gift that he’s always wanted – peace of mind