Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Being Cliche

About twice a year I call my Aunt Karen. Karen was married to my father's brother, my Uncle Mike, who was an alcoholic and killed himself just over a dozen years ago. I call Karen and talk about twice a year to catch up on how my cousins are and generally just to talk about life. Karen's got a very dry, bitter sense of humor that not everyone gets, the kind of humor that annoys my mother but that I understand completely. Now that both my younger sisters are teenagers, I value her conversations immensely. My Uncle's alcoholism and death left her raising three boys alone in a rural factory town on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

There's a Great Southern Novel in Karen's story somewhere, but I won't write it. Drunk and dead daddies are cliche, every southern poverty tale seems to have them. I think that's why it's so difficult to write or talk about my father's alcoholism, even though it's been a big influence on my life the past couple of years. It is not that I am embarrassed by my father's addiction; it is simply that I am embarrassed to be affected by so common a problem.

I am embarrassed by my family's cliche reactions to alcoholism. We have all too neatly fallen into stereotypes: the oppressed and put-upon working mother, the oldest child who tries to fix everything, the problem teen, the angry little girl. We are everybody's working-class family of Irish descent. Worse, my father was in the music business, the Entertainment Industry, and every biography of an Entertainment Industry figure or family details their struggles with addiction of some kind in the family. We're not even afflicted to levels of horror that are noteworthy. We're just your average family, living in the southeast, that has crumbled against a problem so common that it's not even noteworthy. Every neighborhood in every town has a family like mine. That's part of what makes the pain so damn sharp sometimes; I don't even feel justified in complaining about so common a situation.

Talking to Karen every now and again helps. She understands teenagers, having raised three now, and I rely on her for insights into my own teenage sisters. Karen also understands living with an alcoholic on the edge of your life, a person who can come in at any point in the day and just introduce a problem so big and so unexpected and tiresome that you can barely deal with it. Even though her ex-husband has been gone for over a decade, she has been living with the results of alcoholism in her life every day for years. Like my family, she and her sons have been marked for life by the simple, common, and cliche destructive actions of someone else.

I haven't spoken to my father in over a year now, and I recently made the decision not to include him at all in the new baby's life. Karen understands my decision, and unlike other family members does not reproach me about attempting to excise my father from my life. She understands that my father is on a downward spiral, and that I have simply decided not to watch him as he continues down his path. The truth about alcoholics is far worse than you'd expect; my father may live another decade or two, or even three. He is killing himself in the smallest doses possible, in order to stretch out the pain. He wants witnesses to his grief and agony; he wants us to feel his slow suicide with him. I have simply refused to be in the audience for his last big show. I will not let his grandchildren watch this last performance, the twisted last years of an addict. The sad thing is, alcoholism is so common, I can't help but wonder if someone else will act out the play for my children - or if they'll end up as stock characters in the same story with someone else.

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