Good Drunk, Bad Drunk
Family lore has it my uncle was a notorious and vicious drunk when he was young. Lore has it he was drunk every night and at work and would come home after work, drunk, and beat the hell out of my aunt and my cousins.
Then, as family lore has it, he came home one night, late and drunk, and turned on the TV. It was on some televangelist thing, so he sat there and left it on, being too drunk to get back up and change it.
Well, that program on that night spoke to him and family folklore has it he never picked up a bottle after that. Family folklore says after that night he dropped the bottle and picked up God.
My father, his brother, was an abusive drunk too. But he never saw the light. He never put down the bottle, but finally quit beating us once my oldest brother got big enough to defend us.
My father was always jealous of his brother that quit drinking. He shouldn’t have been cause he died with a lot more money than his teetotaling brother. And had graduated from college, unlike his brother that barely graduated high school. He’d done a few things to try to prove to himself he was just as good as his brother and anybody else. But he could never prove it to himself, so, at any and every opportunity he tried squeezing reassurances from anybody who’d listen that he was just as good as his brother who’d turned to the Lord. But he never got there because most people are more interested in anything other than a sly style of self-aggrandizing, babbling nonsense on a Sunday afternoon. But what got his goat most of all was the love and respect his brother got from his wife and children. The love and respect that, until the end, my father never got from us. And it ended up eating him alive worse and for longer than the cancer that finally did him in.
As I see it now, those brothers’ drinking and their evil beatings were like stains on their souls. Or ugly birthmarks on their faces. My uncle, in accepting God, was able to accept that ugly stain on his face. But my father never could.
So, instead of accepting it, he spent the larger part of his life trying to convince us, like the 8 and 10 year-olds who thought Daddy was terrible for being a drunk and beating us and Mom – he tried keeping us in that infantile state so he could as easily handwave it all away to us as adults just as he had when we were scared and naïve kids. Brushing it off to us as kids like saying how we didn’t understand the pressures of being an adult. We didn’t understand how we really deserved the beatings we got for not giving Daddy what he needed, which he said was a lot of peace and quiet. Explaining how mom wasn’t necessarily the gentle and pious women we thought her to be.
In our later dealings with him, he stubbornly tried keeping us as those same children, easily manipulated by the throwaway excuses of an adult and father we’d been conditioned to love and respect. To his dying day he kept up that charade, while his brother had let it go long ago, allowing his own children to be the adults that they needed to be. And second to his abstinence from the bottle, my uncle’s permission for a relatively smooth transition from childhood to real, full adulthood was one of the most beautiful gifts he ever gave to his children.
See, my uncle owned his shame, then let it go. But my father remained forever shamed by his sins. My uncle accepted that big ugly stain on his face, accepting that everybody has imperfections somewhere, whether visible and so obvious or not. But my father never did. He kept trying to conceal it with reminders to us and himself of petty virtues drug out from 30 years prior. Or some petty, decent deed from a week ago. Or by explaining that, just like his brother, they both were and had always been far from perfect people. And reminding us that our Christmases and birthdays were always just as nice as our cousins’. And how it always could have been worse, since my cousins got beaten more often and usually more severely than we did.
Feeling shamed and uncertain, so much of my father’s life was spent trying to conceal his blemish that he never actually lived. He spent so much of his life unsure if he was a good man that, instead of just living, he spent most of his life trying to convince others of what he wanted to be. And it was through convincing them, and only them, that he might finally be vindicated as a good man.
When we called him on his bullshit, my father always insisted he was a good man. He always insisted, just cause he hadn’t turned to God, didn’t mean he wasn’t every bit as good as his brother. He even admitted how he was far from proud about the way he beat us back then. And he argued it was all a long time ago. It was water under the bridge. Now he deserved some understanding and forgiveness. And if we’d just offer that up, we’d finally come to understand what a good man he really was.
My father died eternally jealous and envious of his brother who laughed with his children and grandchildren at ballgames and movies and picnics and holidays. He died envious and oblivious to the reasons things turned out different was because, while his brother was busy laughing and enjoying things, including his family, my father only knew how to spend that time defending and promoting himself. Defending himself from the nagging suspicion he might not be as good a man as his brother. And then spending his life promoting himself as the good and decent and fun-loving and charismatic man he wanted to be.
I once told my uncle he was a good man for quitting his drinking.
My uncle told me, “When I quit drinking and quit beating my wife and kids, it didn’t make me a good man. It just made me a man.”
I said, “You were a good man for trying to become a better man, and then becoming one. You might not want to accept that you were good, but it’s undeniable you became better.”
I think that was the main difference, for the whole of their lives, between my father and his brother – the difference between wanting and actually becoming. The difference between promoting and simply being.
Or, as my uncle said, when he quit drinking and abusing, that’s when he became a man. Sometimes I’m not so sure my father ever truly became a man. And that being the case, it made sense he’d try keeping us at a similar stage of development in our relations with him. That way he’d always have somebody to relate to.
And sometime I imagine, in needing our forgiveness and all the love he imagined would follow, somehow my father was way off track with that notion. Somehow it makes sense to me that it was God’s – not our – forgiveness that he needed first. Or maybe his own forgiveness. But first, a love and forgiveness other than ours. And then and only then, ours might follow as a postscript. He may have been far better off and it may have been a lot easier allowing God or Jesus or himself to absolve his sins. And any probably would have forgiven him even without all the bullshit he spent a lifetime peddling to us in his quest for absolution.
I’m not – and may never be – a man of God myself. But I can admit when a little bit of God has done a whole lot of good.