My son was 7 when I told him about my father. He’s 11 now. We were unloading dirt from my pickup truck, and he was complaining about it. I got frustrated and said, “My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid. I’d have loved to help him unload dirt.”
He looked up at me with big, blue curious eyes and said, “What do you mean your dad wasn’t around?”
He never heard me mention my real father because I was ashamed of him. I never told him my mother’s new husband, Grandpa Kent, was my father, either; he just assumed it. And to be honest, for a long time I encouraged that. I had no intentions of telling him. Much like my father hid his opioid addiction, I hid my father from my children. It was my way of maintaining control of a situation I had no control over as a child.
He didn’t look up at me with shock. He didn’t ask me a million questions. He didn’t look confused or frustrated or lost like I assumed he would.
I’d played this moment in my mind a dozen times, but when it actually happened, my son looked at me matter-of-factly. He asked a few questions. I explained a few things that seemed very adult for a young boy to understand (cheating, addiction, illness, death … ).
I told him about how I often looked at other fathers and wished they were mine. I told him I loved him.
He told me he didn’t really understand.
I laughed a little under my breath because I didn’t know what else to do. Then I said, “Well … it’s a lot to take in.”
I paused for a moment. Then I said, “To be honest, I don’t know if I fully understand it all.”
Then he said, “I’m glad he’s not sick anymore.”
For a moment, we were both silent.
Then he hugged me as though my past — everything I’d hidden, all those years of pain — was nothing. And at first, I didn’t know what to make of it. But now, when I think back on that moment with my son, I think of the last time I visited my father in jail.
We were on opposite sides of bullet-proof glass, talking through county jail telephones attached to heavy steel cables. Me in high school, and he, once again, faced with a string of charges ranging from driving while intoxicated to forging prescriptions slips. This was a year before he died.
He didn’t have any teeth. They had been pulled a few years earlier, and I always assumed it had something to do with his addiction to Vicodin. He smiled and I could see black pockmarks in his gums — cavities that used to hold teeth, but now held particles of food and other grime. His skin had the moist chalky tone of long drug addiction, his black hair was streaked with gray and matted with grease, and his eyes sunk deep into their sockets, pupils blue-green and surrounded by nicotine-yellow and white. He couldn’t have weighed more than 100 lbs.
“I don’t want to see you in here. Ever,” he told me. “You don’t have to … You know that. You’re the good one. Better than me.”
In that moment, I felt terrified that I’d one day grow up to be him. I felt pissed off that he’d become an addict. I hated him for the way he avoided me, and for the way he only called me when he needed me to bail him out, and when he was meeting a new woman.
To be honest, I viewed him as nothing more than a junky.
But in the past few years, I’ve been learning more and more about the opioid epidemic, and I’m starting wonder how many of his decisions he had control over, and how many were the result of an opioid addiction he stumbled into at the hands of our family doctor.
Because the thing is, I was 8 when my father was hit with a string of mishaps while working construction, and I was 19 when he died. During those 11 years, I watched him go from a supportive husband, father, and business owner to a sickly and easily confused drug addict. All of it happened when no one gave a second thought to what a doctor prescribed, and nearly 15 years before I ever heard the term opioid epidemic.
And now, I’ve given my son a childhood that is so different from my own that he didn’t even give my father’s drug addiction a second thought. He simply assumed my dad was sick, and now that he’s dead, he’s free of his pain.
I’d never thought of it that way, but to be honest, there is something about that simple response from my son that helped me put all of it — his addictions, the tragedy of them, and all the pain I’d harbored for so many years — into prospective. It finally helped me find some closure. To accept that although my father made my childhood incredibly difficult — to the point that I didn’t even want my own children to know about him — he was, in fact, sick. And now, my life is much better, and I am living the life he wanted me to that time we spoke in jail.
But I suppose this is what it looks like to be a father who lost his father to the opioid epidemic. It looks like finding some closure in the sweet, simple words of your young son.
I crouched down next to my son in the back of our pickup, both of us standing in a pile of dirt. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Yeah. He’s not sick anymore. It’s a good thing.”
Tristan smiled. I gave him a hug, and we went back to shoveling dirt.More On