I was eleven years old when I lost my mom, and my dad all but went with her. Sometimes I thought he was really trying to. Occasionally I wonder if it had been a gradual death, if it might have been better. Not to make light of cancer or anything, but at least with terminal illnesses you have time to mentally prepare yourself for the inevitable. It’s depressing time and might actually be more psychologically damaging, but it’s still a kind of time that car crashes just don’t permit.
Given that it was a drunk driver who did it, it was pretty ironic when my dad immediately reached for the bottle. Of course I understood it, we were all grieving in our own ways. Sometimes I wished I could follow his example, but I still had my mom’s voice nagging in the back of my head about it. I was only eleven after all, and I was still fairly concerned about the law. Plus, I wasn’t about to make my mom roll over in her grave. Dad didn’t show so much consideration for the dead.
The first two weeks we grieved together. I didn’t mind the smell of alcohol that clung to him, or his sloppy words. He was the only person in the whole world who knew what I was going through. Together we sat in her favorite chair and held each other. We did nothing but cry.
After those two weeks, I had to go back to school, and dad had to go back to work. Both of those responsibilities seemed equally pointless to us. I ended up getting a lot of sick notes from my dad, and he, in turn, missed a lot of work. It wasn’t every day, at least, it didn’t seem like nearly enough to us, so it couldn’t have been every day. In hindsight, though, it was probably a little too often…
That’s how dad got laid off. I remember one night about two months after her death, he came home really late. I had actually started going to school regularly again, so I was working on some makeup work in the kitchen when he came home. I would’ve gone to bed already, but there was no way I could sleep without knowing where he was. He hadn’t even called, that wasn’t like him. I couldn’t focus on the math problems or the history texts or even the English books. All I could do was sit and stare at the pages and wonder where on earth my dad could be.
I heard his car in the driveway just before 3am, and then his keys fumbling for the lock in the door. As soon as I saw him stumble through the door, I let go of all the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. He was home. He was okay. He was drunk. He was so, so drunk.
I was angry. We had an agreement. I told him the very first week after her death, he could drink all he wanted, just as long as he didn’t drive, and, until this point, he had honored that rule. He’d always taken a cab home or gotten a ride from a friend. How stupid could he be, to drive home drunk like that after what happened?
I’m not sure whose face was redder, mine or his. Rage aside, I had become familiar in recent months with this state of him, so I tried to approach him cautiously.
“Dad, where were you?”
He looked up. He had been so busy trying to figure out how to take off his shoes, I don’t think he’d noticed me yet. “Oh, you’re still up?” The words came out without any separation between.
“Yeah, I’m just doing some homework.” I didn’t really want to tell him that I stayed up for him. For some reason I didn’t think he’d respond to that information well. He gave me a nod, nothing else. Then he stumbled off to bed.
He didn’t tell me then, but I realized later that that was the day he lost his job.
I actually didn’t think much about that night in the weeks to come. It just seemed to be a night that he had needed, for reasons I didn’t at the time know.
It was six months later that we lost our house.
My dad hadn’t told me about his job, nor did he tell me money was tight. Money was always a little bit of an issue in our house, but now mom wasn’t around to keep it under control. I trusted him to take care of things, and to tell me if there was anything wrong. As it turned out, there weren’t any adults in the house anymore.
While he didn’t tell me, I did find out about the house before it was taken from us. I always got the mail when I came home from school, and I noticed a lot of urgently marked notices kept coming, and that it didn’t look good. I didn’t want to open it without telling my dad and get him upset – he did still check the mail after all, but I had to know what was in it. That day, I watched him open the mail, glance at it, and toss it onto a pile of papers he had stacked on a coffee table. I stayed up late in my room, listening for the sound of his snoring. He almost never made it to the bedroom anymore. Then, when I was sure he was out like a light, I quietly made my way into the living room and picked up the envelope.
I was angry, hurt, scared, but, most of all, disappointed. The strange thing was, I wasn’t just disappointed in him, but in myself, too. Somehow, at the ripe old age of twelve, I felt partially responsible for us losing our house. After mom died, the two of us were supposed to take care of each other, but he was failing me, because I had failed him. I hadn’t really tried to keep him sober, or to get him going to work regularly. I had barely managed to go back to school myself, and I had just trusted that he would handle everything else himself. It wasn’t fair of me.
Placing the paper back on the table, I made it back to my room, and suddenly everything hit me at once. All of the guilt and anger and fear washed over my heart while tears poured down my face. I had failed him. I had failed mom.
After that, I tried to support him a little more, to encourage him, but I was always coming up empty for ideas as to how I could do that, which in turn made me feel more guilty by the second. On top of the overwhelming guilt that I began to take with me to school every day, I also felt a great sense of urgency. I didn’t feel like I had enough time to find a way to save our house, or enough time to do anything.
I barely slept those days. I was constantly trying to come up with plans to get enough money for the bank, but we needed more money than I could ever make at a bake sale. I wasn’t even sure why he wasn’t making the payments. It was at this point that I figured out he must have lost his job, but then I didn’t know where he was going during the day…
In order to save money, I started to eat one meal a day and get some snacks from friends at school when I could. I quickly realized that this was largely pointless if my dad was going to keep drinking like he was, so I tried to bring up the subject to him as best as I could. I didn’t talk about money, just his health. How much I wanted to keep him around. Unfortunately, I tried to have this little discussion just before he went to bed, and in the morning he was no different.
One day I tried hiding the alcohol, but when he still came home just as drunk that night as ever. It made me mad that he didn’t seem to care about what was happening to our house, to mom’s house, but I was too scared to talk to him about it. I was too scared to talk to anyone about it. Maybe if I didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t really happen.
I was twelve years old when I lost my house, the only home I’d ever known. That night, my dad was the most sober I’d seen him since the funeral. I think it was because he had to drive me to the motel.
I had been ruminating over what I would do on this day, what I would say, but now that the day had come, the words seemed to have vanished. We sat in silence the whole way to the motel. It was only after we’d taken the few items we had out of the car and closed the door to the one room that I managed to speak at all.
“So, what do we do now?” It was all I could think to say, and it was the only thing that really mattered. A look of confusion swept across his face and then changed to recognition. Maybe he was finally realizing that he wasn’t alone. Maybe he was finally realizing that we had lost our house. Maybe he was finally realizing that I was only twelve.
“We do our best.” It was all he said about it, but it was enough.
A week later he had a new job and we were able to move into an apartment. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t my mom’s, but it was ours, and that was enough. I never saw him drink again.