People always say they’re sorry when I tell them Paul is dead. That’s nice, thank you, but I wasn’t ever really sorry about it. I was just about to turn three when it happened, so I barely knew him. And based on everything my mom and her side of the family told me, it was better that way.
He was an addict.
He was abusive.
He was a monster.
He was my dad.
One day, my step-dad had grown exhausted of all the “YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD!”s I would verbally smack him with, so he made me sit with him in his truck while he told me the things my “real dad” did to my mom, things with steel-tipped boots that would require her to have pictures taken of her face at the police station. I should feel “lucky” he had died so that he wouldn’t have abused me, too.
I spent a lot of time as a teenager wondering if my mom regretted me, if every time she looked at me I reminded her of the traumatic years she spent married to some guy she was terrified of. I wondered if she wished he had died before I “happened.” When I was diagnosed as bi-polar with explosive anger disorder, my mom spat, “You got this from your DAD.” The way she looked at me that day is an image I will take to my grave, like I was a monster that simultaneously disgusted and horrified her.
I have four pictures of Paul. It’s surprising they even still exist, considering how my family doesn’t like me to have anything. Looking at these now doesn’t exactly trigger any memories for me, but for some reason, “Eye in the Sky” by Alan Parsons Project brings back a vague recollection of being in a restaurant with him. There were also these visions I’d have that I always felt were flashbacks. It was the same scene over and over, from a third person’s point of view, looking up at the steps in the house I grew up in. It’s night time, and suddenly my mom appears at the top of the steps, holding me as a baby, and she’s running from Paul.
The subject of Paul was pretty taboo in my household, but one day when I was in middle school, I had the balls to tell my mom about this flashback.
She laughed bitterly.
“Things like that happened all the time when your dad was alive, so it’s probably real,” she said, telling me about a time when he chased us out of the house and then followed my mom as she drove us to his mother’s house, where he proceeded to hurl a glass pitcher at us in the kitchen.
“It missed your head by this much,” my mom said, her thumb and forefinger almost touching.
Paul died in 1982 because he was drunk driving and crashed into a tree in South Park. He was in a coma. I don’t know for how long, or if my mom pulled the plug. I just know that it wasn’t a dinner table conversation. The few times the topic was broached, it was always quickly silenced with a sympathetic “You’re better off for it.”
My childhood didn’t necessarily feel affected by his death. My mom married my step-dad when I was 4 and to me, that was the real start of my life. My step-dad even legally adopted me when I was in fourth grade, at which point I officially began to call him “Daddy.” Sure, we didn’t have the greatest relationship at times, but it was alright.
Better than if Paul had survived, everyone would remind me.
However, the only real father figure I ever had in my life was my Pappap. He was honestly my hero and the only person who loved me unconditionally. He always made me feel like I wasn’t the product of my mom’s horrific marriage, but maybe I was—GASP!—the silver lining. I don’t remember him ever saying a bad thing about Paul to me, and I feel like if it weren’t for him, I would have grown up with a(n even bigger) chip on my shoulder, that maybe I would have let Paul’s death define me.
My Pappap gave me normalcy in an otherwise emotionless vacuum. I couldn’t get that kind of stability from my mom and I was never close enough with my current dad to go to him if I needed to talk.
So, I guess you can thank (or hate) them for my constant need to put out all of my thoughts and feelings for public consumption.
My mom was pretty damaged from her time with Paul. I couldn’t see that then, obviously, but the pieces started falling into place as I got older. It was like she had emotionally shut down after that, and she was never really present in her marriage with my new dad. I mean, they had two kids together, but looking back on it, I can’t recall a time when I caught them laughing together or talking to each other about things that didn’t involve work, finances or what to do with their crazy ass daughter who was skipping school and doing all of the drugs.
(I wasn’t actually doing drugs but they were convinced. Also, that I was trying to commit suicide every time I shut my bedroom door.)
They ended up divorcing years later, but he is still the only man that I have called Dad. His name is on my birth certificate, after all.
My mom sprung the news on me right before I turned 20. It was summer and I was living in my second apartment when she came over to tell me that I have an older brother from one of Paul’s previous relationships. His name is Shawn and she wanted me to meet him immediately rather than risk me “accidentally meeting him in a bar and going home with him” someday.
That might have been one of the grossest things she had ever said to me. She’s always been so great at making awkward situations even more uncomfortable.
So I met Shawn. He apparently always knew I existed and had been in touch with my mom for quite awhile. He told me that he would sometimes go to her office just to talk, which blew my mind because I couldn’t imagine ever going to my mom “just to talk.”
Shawn didn’t really have much to say about Paul, but he went on and on about how wonderful that side of the family is, how Paul’s mom Lois practically raised him, and how sweet our aunt Charmaine is. I had this whole family that I had been kept from and I was starting to get pissed.
After Paul died, my mom extracted herself from his family. She told me once that it was because they were all Jehovah’s Witnesses and she just didn’t want to deal with that. I can remember shopping with her at Hills, sometime in the mid-80s, and having her practically toss me into a rack of clothes because she saw people she knew and she didn’t want them to see us. Once we were safe in the car a few minutes later, she told me that it was my aunt and grandma we were hiding from.
This was normal to me: hiding from relatives in department stores, running up to the attic window to see who was ringing the doorbell, answering the phone for my mom because it might be Donna Thomas calling with PTA bullshit.
No wonder I get such anxiety when the pizza guy knocks on my fucking door.
I grew up thinking my family consisted of my mom, my current dad and my two younger brothers, Ryan and Corey. I had two sets of grandparents: one on my mom’s side and one on my dad’s side. That was my normal. That was all I needed.
But now I had this older brother, and he really wanted me to meet our Grandma Lois. Shawn and I didn’t talk or see each other all that often, but when we did, the subject always came up. He gave me her number, but I didn’t call. I was so weirded out by all of this, because while this was going on, my mom was also reuniting with her daughter she had put up for adoption pre-Paul.
I started to have a major identity crisis.
But finally, after about a year of persuading, I went to meet my Grandma Lois and Aunt Charmaine. I can tell you that it was 2001 and I was wearing an autographed Nickelback shirt because I was clearly going through a really awful (yet thankfully SHORT) phase. It was just an all-around really bad time for me, you guys.
Lois and Charmaine pulled out photo albums and spoke glowingly of Paul. “You look so much like him!” they kept saying, and well, I wouldn’t know because my four photos of him weren’t exactly professional head shots.
I learned that he was funny and smart but just never applied himself. That he loved my mom but they were volatile. That they were actually separated when the accident happened, but that things had been getting better. That my mom was an absolute basket case in the hospital after the accident.
They told me that when he met my mom, he wanted to marry her so much that he would say things like, “I’d marry you in Alaska in a snow storm if you wanted.”
But….drugs and alcohol, you guys.
This was the first time I wasn’t barraged with anti-superlatives about him. I started to see a different version of Paul after that. He was someone’s son. Someone’s nephew. Someone’s friend. People loved him in spite of his addiction.
And, for the first time, I saw the accident as a tragedy and not just a Thing that had Happened. I began to feel angry that everyone had told me my whole life how I should feel about it. How I was better off. How did they know? I came down with a case of the Dreaded What Ifs.
What if he had gotten clean?
What if he and my mom just weren’t meant to be with each other but it turned out he was a fucking fantastic father?
What if my family was exaggerating?
I left Charmaine’s house and went straight to Jefferson Memorial, where I sat next to Paul’s grave and cried about him for the first time in 21 years.