This is the very last place on Earth I want to be right now. Like, the absolute dead last. But here I am with a bottle of Yuengling in my hand. 4 years sober. I haven’t tasted it yet, but I can smell it. And feel the weight of it in my hand and the smooth cold glass of it. Even the way my fingers curve around the bottle sets me off, and I can feel my heart beat up in my throat. And my teeth are grinding. And my knees are bouncing. This. This feeling. Tree limbs clashing in the wind, dropping their leaves like blood. A deep red sea of leaves on the ground and the tops of our cars. And red waves of wind everywhere you look. A single red leaf spirals in under the overhang and crackles along the floor of the deck before slipping between the cracks.
My Dad is dying. He just told us. Dez and me. At the old hunting cabin. His time’s up. Like he could go any day.
“One last drink with your old man,” he tells us. I had no idea he was even sick. Hadn’t spoken in almost four years. But here he is in a wheelchair, coughing up a red mist on his blanket. He’s shivering, but he’d never admit that he’s cold. Never a sign of weakness.
I can feel the tears welling up inside my skull. Like when you uncap a Mountain Dew and all the fizz starts running up along the insides of the bottle.
“Don’t you dare waste your tears on me,” he says to me, his eyes shining in the half dark. “Drink up, son. It’ll dry you out. We can talk like men. Like we used to.” He raises his bottle. Takes a long gulp. I can hear the drink draining from the bottle and down his throat. See his Adam’s apple bobbing. Two circles of afterlight where his eyes just were a second ago slowly fade. I gotta look away.
Drink was never really my problem. I come from a long line of functional drunks like my Dad. Most do out here in the Adirondacks. It’s a way of life. My problem was the pills. After I messed up my back playing hockey, the pills, I thought, were my Savior. Gave me two more years back at the end of my career, but then they took everything from me. And let me tell you, if you don’t see the connection between the booze and the pills then you’re sticking your foot in a trap. I did that almost two years. Thought I could give up one without the other. Damn near lost my family. Had to fight for them with every last drop of fight I had left in me.
Dad would never understand the sacrifices I’ve made. He never did anything but exactly what he wanted to do in his whole life. Dez understands a little better. He was there. He saw. But he’s just lounging there in his Adirondack chair, drinking his beer without a care in the world.
You know, when we were kids, I was the one with all the talent, the charisma. The one everybody loved. And Dez was in my shadow. Now look at him. Some kind of corporate law whiz in NYC with a fancy penthouse apartment, a new suit every day, and a shiny new Mercedes over there beside my rusted-out pickup. And I’m a recovering drug addict.
“Come on! Drink with me, goddammit,” Dad roars, slapping his hand on my shoulder. “I never asked any of you for a goddamn thing. I wiped your ass when you were in diapers. I paid for all your goalie gear and drove you all over God’s green earth to every blasted hockey rink on the eastern seaboard. And this is all I’m asking. One last drink with me.”
The bottle starts twisting in my fingers like it’s alive. And I see my wife right there in front of me sort of floating in the leaves like a ghost. That look on her face – the same look when she left me and took our kids, little Malachi on her hip. He was just a baby then. That look on her face like she finally gave up on me. That look that shattered my life into a thousand pieces.
But I got it all back. Fought like hell for it. For her. For them. For my family. I still fight for it every day.
But Dad was fighting his whole life too. He came up from nothing and worked hard his whole life. Gave us a nice home. His dad beat him and his mom and sister senseless when he was growing up. He never laid a finger on any of us. He’d yell like the blazes. But I was never afraid of him. I mean I was afraid like all kids are afraid of their Dad, but I never felt like he would hurt me. I think he loved me his whole life in his own way. In the ways he knows how to love. I see that now.
“You little bitch,” he barks at me. He backs up his wheelchair in a huff and heads inside, the wheels rumbling over the floorboards.
“Wait,” I shout. “Dad. One last drink.” I tilt the bottle to my lips, and it’s like I’m kissing an old girlfriend. I’d forgotten how good it was, but I clearly remember how badly it ended. The booze rolls around my tongue and teeth like a creek bubbling through the rocks. And it burns down my throat. I nearly gag. The wind kicks up and whistles the leaves in all around us.
I pull out my phone and text my wife: “Dad is dying. One last drink.”
She texts back, immediately. “Ok. I love you.”