Through the Dam


When I was a child, my father used to take me to the beach every summer. He’d be sure to get us there while the tide was out, so we could build dams and sand castles. We’d flip a coin to see who got to build what. The game was, once the tide closed in on us, to defend the castle from the flood once you broke the dam. If the person who released the dam couldn’t demolish the castle, he lost and the defender of the castle won.  

I remember never being able to shake some spooky feeling while shoveling the sand and picking up handfuls, shaping and taking care in the building of the castle. It got worse when you cared less about the competition and more about making the castle beautiful, giving it a signature of some kind, like, say, putting up little ornate towers with wet sand. After all, whether or not the burst dam’s flood took you out, the tide certainly would soon after. The loser had to collect a “feast” of blueberries from the forest next to the beach to serve to the victor. But what was the real point behind our game? At first it seemed like a gentleman’s battle, but I knew early on it was something else important, too.

I don’t think I really got it until I heard about the orchestra continuing to play on the Titanic after it was clear the so-called “unsinkable” ship was going down. While I always wondered what they played, I always had, because of my father, a fair idea how they might have. His life always seemed to hum a similar kind of haunting melody.


For decades my father had smoked at least a couple of packs of cigarettes each and every day, but always refused to own a lighter. He stuck to matches. Smokers used lighters. Having a lighter would have been too formal a declaration of marriage to his addiction. My father resisted formality, most of all with narcotic substances. With matches, it was as if he never had to abandon the crush stage with cigarettes. That way you never had to get around to the big talk about commitment. You never had to waste time worrying about consequences.

Of course there was a beautifully harmonious tease with his drinking, too. A lot of things between my father and I hide in plain sight. How much does the line between privacy and secrets really matter if the only secrets you kept from people were the ones everybody already knew? After 25 years, clearly he was never going to stop drinking. A tricky, lawyerly-issue with that was how he had never officially started drinking. To him, there was never even a real problem in the first place. His drinking was always treated as a kind of inspired tourism of the place where broken-down alcoholics lived anyway. Was there any evidence to the contrary? In 25 years had you ever seen him order a drink anywhere? Even once? No, I hadn’t. Had you witnessed any hangovers? Never. Any of the stuff they warned you about alcoholics in school or some goofy public service advisory on TV? Nope. He had a paint kit all his own. Had he ever missed a day of work at the office? Nope, he worked harder than anybody. Smoker’s cough? Maybe. He’d brush it off with something like, “Just a tickle in my throat.”

That’s why for so long it was okay when we went to get “fruit” and he ducked off at the liquor store while leaving me a twenty to pay for the groceries. We both pretended to ignore the brown bag inserted into the plastic grocery bags. We ignored my role as witness to this process. We ignored how his shame of my witnessing spiked the punch bowl of his process. We couldn’t ignore how much fruit went rotten by neglect, but we didn’t launch any inquiries or investigations as to why. It could be spun into something fun, “Ah well, could you ever have enough blueberries available?”



By the time I reached 20 and he reached 50, some of it caught up to him. Which of course meant it caught up to my family. I’d left the country and my mother called to say that my father might be leaving the earth plain.

Might?” I repeated.

“Darrr-ling,” she said. “It’s just he might be ready to leave.”

Translation: he was dying. All scary things for my mother were spun into a positively reinforced excuse to discuss how loving the universe truly was. My father, a child protection lawyer by profession, married a Hungarian gypsy refugee who looked into crystal balls and probed into lives via channeling spirits in the spiritual plane. She had two children living in the projects when he met her. I came into the picture four years later.

When she left him, he mentioned a couple times driving me to school that he’d really raised three children from that household and that of course children rebel from their parents. “It’s perfectly natural,” he smiled reassuringly. So I asked why he’d married a woman he considered a child in the first place. The car stopped, he reached over and opened the passenger door and calmly explained, “I think you can walk the rest of the way to school on your own.”


 “What’s wrong with my father?” I asked my mother over the phone.

“Bwinny, we don’t know what it eez.” While Count Chocula’s accent sounds exotic to you, it’s a scaled back, tranquilized version of how my mother actually speaks.

“What did the doctor say?”

“Zat is zee zing,” she snorted. “He won’ zee a doctor.”

“He lives across the fucking street from the hospital.”

“You know your father.”

It was as though knowing someone meant tolerating everything that might kill them. She said he’d fall and complain that it felt like an elephant was on his chest, said he wouldn’t “let them” call an ambulance. He told them he wanted to leave the earth plain. And my mother thought he had the right to leave when he wanted to.

“Maybe you should come back to see him.”

And I did, though I first had to swear an oath not to tell him to cross the fucking street and go to the hospital. An hour later he suffered the same mysterious “attack,” collapsing and complaining of the elephant on his chest. Then more every hour or so. Each time I had no idea whether I was witnessing a dress rehearsal of his actual death or the real thing. Each time he asked for my hand and I held it until whatever it was gradually subsided. We tried to pretend everything was normal until the next attack. After a half dozen attacks my father suggested we do an inventory of the possible culprits. Cigarettes triggered it, walking up the stairs, masturbation (especially enjoyed that disclosure and immensely looked forward to holding his hand next time), then miscellaneous-spontaneous variety. “Don’t worry, Brinny, I think I have a remedy to lick this thing.” The “remedy” consisted of two frozen towels, one for his forehead and the other for his chest, that he had stored in the freezer.

I don’t remember how long this went on, but it was the longest day of my life. Obviously nobody could live in a constant state of emergency, so at some point the following morning, he announced we required groceries. Always in control, even in the event of possible death, he insisted we drive twelve miles past the pricey corner store to Costco, and insisted on being the one at the wheel.

When we got there my father handed me a shopping list, announcing his intention to get the eggs. Order in the universe was established. He was getting eggs. I had a list. Things were going to turn out okay. I started walking but discovered I had enormous trouble making out the first item on the list. Even before I realized I was crying, a woman working in Costco offering samples asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t answer. I turned around to point toward my father, by way of explanation, but instead saw an avalanche of Lucky Charms on the ground, beneath a massive “sale” banner. Buried beneath them was half my father’s torso and more boxes were tipping over onto him. Obviously he’d collapsed into it. He was still conscious and trying to communicate something to me as he warded off more stray boxes of Lucky Charms. I ran to him.

“Go!” he gasped, like a soldier dropped at D-Day. “Don’t worry about me! Go back. Get the milk.The milk! Keep going. Milk is the priority!” Then came my breaking point and his life’s moment of triumph. “Not the regular bullshit––get the 2% milk!”

“I’m sorry,” I said, when I got to him. “I tried. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this.”

“Okay,” he said, glaring at the new marshmallows Lucky was offering in the cereal. “Help me up and we can go to the hospital.”

It turned out one of his arties was almost entirely clogged. I refused to stay with him in the hospital, even though the rest of my family was there. After I took him to the emergency room, I went back to his house and slept for two days. While I slept, doctors opened his chest and catheterized his artery, saving his life.

When he got out, no drinking or smoking for nearly a year. The most perverse truth my family discovered about him during that period of him living clean, about which none of us spoke openly, was just how much easier he was to deal with loaded up with all the things that were killing him.

Then one morning everything started up again, same pace as before, and everything went back to normal.



Five years later, during a walk––out of the blue––an admission. Indeed, as I may have noticed, there (not he) was a problem. It was time this problem was addressed. We both recognized the formality of the language suggested a certain smell to what was being dealt with. “It’s time I take this damn drinking thing on.” Hook, line, and sinker––I bought into this as a really big deal. He cried inventorying his shame about drinking. He asked if I was ashamed of him and I laughed for a minute turning that one over. I told him the big thing about him drinking had nothing to do with why anyone would turn to drinking, but why anyone wouldn’t. He enjoyed that and we hugged each other and motioned that we keep on walking. I wanted to change the subject for a while. He interrupted me, almost absent-mindedly, reminding himself and me that we had run out of peaches and that we had better head in the direction of the fruit store before it closed.

Then it sunk in what the importance of this day really meant. His unquestionable high-water mark of honesty breakthrough required some real celebration! You know, the kind of event that naturally deserves a national holiday or something so nobody can forget about it. Let’s remember where we all were when it happened. Maybe even––I mean wasn’t this a momentous occasion after all?––a kind of perpetual holiday commemorating the achievement? Finally drinking was something we could all feel good about now! Prohibition was repealed! All that sneaking around and deceit and shame––now we’re out in the open. Phew. Free at last. By all means, why not have the remainder of his life be spent drinking as a just reward for the enormous stretch of honesty and courage it took in acknowledging his weakness and defenselessness against, well, drinking. How could you argue with that? Why would ever want to? These kinds of frameworks for serious matters in life were what made me want to be a lawyer like him in the first place.

Everything leading up to the confession was just a set up for the punch line. The joke was on me. Not only was he never going to seek help, he didn’t want help. He didn’t need help. He wasn’t failing at quitting anything! On the contrary, he was succeeding. “With people,” my father once explained, “always work backwards from the result. Forget what they say. From the result you’ll always know what they really wanted in the first place. People are much better at succeeding at what they want than at failing.” And obviously I’d never wanted to look at what he was succeeding at: suicide in slow motion. Paper bags full of carefully managed lethal increments to prolong the process.

So, no, he never needed any help with his drinking. I, on the other hand, needed all kinds of help with his drinking. The choice that I’d never been willing to admit, let alone make, was no longer avoidable: love the man for who he was or hate him for who he wasn’t. That meant pretending there was a choice in the first place, like the tide coming in on my father’s sandcastle even if my dam’s flood wasn’t enough to destroy his kingdom. “A thousand apologies, young knave,” my father would announce, chin raised, “But it appears thy labor lies ahead of thee. Off to the bushes with you to fetch my feast of berries!”

Eventually, it was too much. Something had to change, so I suggested we get drunk together. My father had never seen me touch alcohol (which I hardly ever had) and I’d never seen him drink with anybody. We shared a bottle and by the end of the ensuing argument, I made the choice. The last words I spoke to him were to request the phone number of his ex-lover, who was a shrink.

“Listen Brin,” he warned, gently. “I thought you were clear about something. I told you I’m not willing to see anybody about this. I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“Oh, I know you’re not going to see anybody about this. But if you’re not willing to, I’m pretty sure I need to.”

It never happened all that often––and certainly without sabotaging his moats and walls––but every blue moon I took down my old man’s kingdom and washed it all to hell. All my father had to say, as the last of his castle washed away, was, “I suppose you want my head to hang from your gate?”

No, I just wanted him to live forever.



The shrink and my dad had been together for five years just before my father hooked up with my mom, back when he was the same age as me. Though my father had spoken of her on many occasions, I’d never met her before. My parents separated when I was six, but he’d never been with anybody after my mother. Unless you count the addictions, I guess. I figured if people gained wisdom from seeking out a stranger for advice about their problems, I’d seek out a stranger who had lived with my problem for five years.


I knocked on the door of this 69-year-old woman, who resembled a parrot, and sat across from her while she began to cry. Everything about her decency and warmth spoke well of my father. I wasn’t sure how to break the ice. I’m clumsy with this stuff. As I learned from a master, it’s much easier to hide in plain view by disclosing everything (nearly everything) and letting the listener stick with what they want to. I told her my father’s secrets. The ones I knew. From her face I tried to unriddle if she already knew them. I told her I still loved him. I wasn’t sure if I felt any better or different up to that point. I couldn’t escape talking about him without it feeling like an audit, crunching numbers, or maybe some perverse kind of taxidermy. I tried to sum up things about his life with words like, “Nobody who had offered so much kindness could ever be defined by a handful of misdeeds.”

I think I was more interested in coming across as compassionate than actually being compassionate. She cried again, but it had nothing to do with the answer I was giving to her question about something else. I felt numb. She told me her hunch about my pain lay in the fact I was playing a father’s role trying to protect my dad from himself. I nodded, but I was pretty sure the only person I was protecting was myself. I was terrified of losing him. Then she cried again until, for some reason, we both started laughing. Which was really nice. Violating little unspoken social prohibitions is very pleasurable. When we calmed down I told her I agreed with her while trying to think up different facial expressions to express some kind of internal emotional evolution. I thought about Hemingway’s father’s suicide, then Hemingway’s own. I read once that Hemingway had made a pact with one of his sons that they’d each never commit suicide. I’d made the same deal with my own father when I was eleven. I remember how much he enjoyed my pointing out that at least suicide was the biggest decision you could ever make in your life that you couldn’t regret. While he enjoyed it, I also remember it was the last time he was willing to discuss the topic.

For a second I wondered whether or not she was going to charge me for the session. If we were keeping score, she was working through a lot more emotional baggage than I seemed to be. But then that was my fault. I wondered for a second if a john ever begrudged a prostitute for having more orgasms than them during a fuck. Probably didn’t happen all that often.

So I changed the subject:

“You know, I’ve never met you before, but I know you were with my dad for five years. I know he loved you. I also know you were married while he was with you. What I don’t know is why didn’t you leave your husband if you ever really loved my dad.”

She smiled for a good two minutes before saying anything.

“I’m 69 years old. Over the course of my life, I was married to someone for 35 years. I had two children from that marriage. But your dad was the love of my life. I pushed him out of my life when he was the exact same age that you are now. I noticed how much you look like him when you walked through my door. I would say, unequivocally, ending my relationship with your father was the hardest choice of my life.”

“So why did you do it then?”

“Because, when your dad was the same age you are now, I saw something for the first time that I couldn’t give him.”

“What was that?”

“After I gave birth to my second child there were complications. I wasn’t going to be able to have any further children. Your father didn’t and doesn’t know about any of that. But one day, out of nowhere, suddenly I saw it in his eyes. He’d changed. In a way, I saw you. And I couldn’t give him you so I knew, for me, if I really loved him, I had to step out of the way. Your father was the kind of man who would have stayed with me anyway. He loved me that much. But I wasn’t able to live with that. But living without him hasn’t been all that easy either. ”


After that meeting with her, I never saw her again. But a year or so later, before I left for New York, I did reach out to my dad. After two silent years, we went for a long walk in Stanley Park. I told him about visiting his ex-lover and why this woman had never left her husband when he was with her. She was right, too: my father had never known the true reason.

Not long ago, my father called me in New York, his voice shaky, letting me know that his dear friend—the therapist I had visited—had died, slouching off a cushion in her living room while she was meditating one morning. When I stopped talking to my father, she had taken my place on the long walks he enjoyed. They renewed their friendship right around the time I’d met up with her.

I don’t remember how far he walked turning that news over, but it was a good while. We wound through and exited a forest trail and arrived at the seawall, overlooking the distant opposite shore where we used to build the sandcastles and dams with the tide out at Spanish Banks.

“Do you want to come back to the house after this?” he asked me.

“Sure. We should bring back some blueberries if you don’t have any.”

Rumpus original art by Patrick Sean Gibson

Brin-Jonathan Butler has written for Men's Health, ESPN Magazine, Deadspin, Salon, and Vice. Picador USA is publishing two books from Butler in 2014: "Split Decision," which examines Cuba and the United States through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with the decision to remain despite the lure of millions, or chase the American Dream from a smuggler's boat; and "The Domino Diaries," a memoir of Butler's time living and training as an amateur boxer in Cuba under the tutelage of Olympic champions. More from this author →