When I was a little girl, my dad was more fun than anyone I knew.
He’d pick me up from grade school on his chopper and let me start up the growling beast all by myself — and rev it — as my friends watched in awe. Then he’d talk like Donald Duck and take me for ice cream right before dinner.
He loved roller coasters and food fights and making me laugh. He penned a ditty called “Turdballs on Parade,” and we’d wail it in public places, or break into a scripted repartee (“May I have a tissue?” “Kiss you?! I hardly know you!”). If I asked to wear his hat, he’d hoist me onto his shoulders and flip his black Stetson onto my noggin.
Dad was not what you’d call “a responsible adult.” I was the grown-up in our relationship—the one always saying, “Come on, cut it out. You’re gonna get hurt. We’re gonna get in trouble.” But that was okay; one of us had to be the parent, and I liked him as the lunatic.
At least—until I didn’t. “More fun than anyone” usually comes at a price; my dad’s was alcoholism. As a gag, he taught me to call the corner liquor store and order his Jack Daniels for delivery. When I had to take cough medicine, he’d volunteer to take a swig with me. Once, when the cops pulled us over on the way home from Disneyland for swerving, he shoved a near-empty bottle at me and barked, “Hide this.” I did. But they carted him off in the squad car anyway when he failed to walk the line.
That wasn’t the bottom. His work suffered. His friendships strained. His body shook when he wasn’t sauced. He could be scary and unpredictable, even to me. Then, one early morning, he fell from a four-story building while high on something and broke a mess of bones.
The grown-up voice was bellowing now. He had gotten hurt. He had gotten in trouble. He had to get sober. He didn’t want to die.
The year or two that followed were dark. My goofy, anything-for-a-laugh playmate became sedate and joyless, even dour as he grappled with addiction, admission, and amends. There was pain on his face, frustration in his voice, exhaustion in his posture. There was no laughter.
I had to wonder: If this is sober Dad … then had it been the booze all along that made him fun? If taking away whiskey had taken away the things I loved most about my Dad — the songs, the indulgences, the cackling — then had I ever really known this sad stranger at all?
I won’t pretend it was easy, or pretty. I won’t sugarcoat the fact that, as an adult now, I sometimes reflect on my best Dad memories and wonder if he was drunk that time — wonder if he even remembers that time. But I will tell you this: With a resolve I didn’t know he had at his disposal, and through some pretty spectacular “responsible adulting,” that sad stranger slowly metamorphosed back into a liquor-less version of the mirthful, mischievous, exquisitely inappropriate jester that conferred upon me the delights of childhood, before he modeled for me the realities of adulthood.
Last week, I watched my dad celebrate 30 years of clean living surrounded by a community of sober alcoholics. One by one, as he wiped away tears, they stood and thanked him for bringing laughter and levity to their recovery program — a place that can be joyless and dour for newcomers.
They’re not kidding, either. I’ve been to 12-step meetings with him as he mutters the Lord’s Prayer: “… lead us not into Penn Station, but deliver us a pizza, for thine is the singing, in the shower ….” I guess you couldn’t say he walks a straight line. But even three decades dry, my dad is more fun than anyone I know.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.