We were a small group of seeds, winter-blown to Wisconsin, planted in cold soil among foreign greenery. Chilly, we grew unable to reach the heights and bloom into the flowers we would’ve in our native soil. We grew in strange ways.
My father grew tilted south, yearning for more light, vibrancy. In his heart, he was always reaching for Mexico. My mother grew tilted forward, yearning for more sight, scanning counters with her hands to make sure they were cleaned, spotless. My sister grew stargazing, stretching upward, unbound, even when she was thrown back into herself by rejecting winds. I grew in a spiral, around and around, seeking strength from the outside in, certain that I had to be the strongest one.
My grief story begins here, where my father was transferred after six months of my life. My sister was two years old at the time. Things were not easy: the unwelcoming gaze from neighbors aimed at my dark-skinned father and my ethnic-looking mother. The thick accents that made it hard for them to be understood. The bone-deep cold. My mother’s worsening blindness.
But there was hope, too. My parents rented a little duplex and practiced always being extra friendly to our chilliest neighbors. My father had a good job in accounting at a paper mill. His two little daughters were healthy and happy. He had a playful demeanor. He loved joking with his family, telling silly stories, and laughing. My mother, easily annoyed by his humor, always ended up making her own jokes and laughing with him.
My parents saved up money for a year to make the down payment on a subsidized house in Neenah, Wisconsin. The house was in a humble yet safe neighborhood. There were a few friendly neighbors among the chilly ones. My mother started cleaning houses to help with the mortgage payments.
My father was a smart and educated man, but his English was slow: slower than what was expected and needed at his job. He was demoted repeatedly over the course of three years, until he ended up in a janitorial position. After a year as a janitor, my father developed a strong sensitivity to the cleaning chemicals he had to use. They gave him horrible headaches and his vision became chronically blurry. He feared that his daughters would end up with two blind parents. He left the job.
“Papi, cuando vas a encontrar trabajo?” I asked this question frequently during the first two years. Each time I asked him when he would be finding work, he took a long pause.
“Pronto mijita. Ya apliqué para varios trabajos esta semana.” This was always his answer, that he had just applied for some new jobs—and for a while, it was true.
My father had always had a drinking problem, had always been moody when drunk. After he left his job and was unable to replace it, his alcoholism worsened, and he sank deeply. He became abusive, especially toward my mom. I remember laying on my bed in the bedroom I shared with my sister, clutching my pink comforter and white stuffed Dalmatian close as I heard him hurl objects and insults at her. Her crying and his slurred yelling created a sickening chorus. My sister and I cried quietly in the dark room.
Watching my father sink into his alcoholism and depression was like watching someone drown. We would beg him to find a job, to stop drinking. Instead, he gave up. He stopped applying for jobs. My father’s unmanaged grief created a thick blanket of gray in the house, darker than the Wisconsin winter sky. It could swallow us. It pushed us to the corners of the house, crowding us in our rooms.
I walk in the door after school. I am twelve. The house is silent. There are crumbs on the table, and dirty dishes in the stained porcelain sink. My sister isn’t home yet. My mom won’t be home until later. I breathe a sigh of relief because my dad is asleep. I might make it to my room without waking him up. But I’m hungry, so I look in the fridge for a snack.
“Nene, eres tú?”
“Yes.” I answer curtly. My dad has woken up from his nap. He shuffles out to the kitchen in his frayed bathrobe and broken slippers. He has a big smile on his face and his eyes are red. I can smell beer on his breath. He’s always so happy to see me, and it makes me sick. Last night, he was making my mother cry.
“Como estas nene? Como te fue en la escuela hoy?”
“Fine. It was fine.”
“Ah, que bien. Tienes hambrita?”
“Yeah, I’m hungry.”
“Quieres que te haga un sandwich?”
“No, I can make it myself.” I can’t stand how my dad makes sandwiches. He puts all kinds of things in them that I don’t like, like onion and tomato and too much mayonnaise.
“Okay. Cuando termines, quiero enseñarte una película que te va a gustar mucho.” He always wants to show me some movie he’s watching, usually a black-and-white film. I can’t stand his movies. I can’t stand his huge piles of books, or the Spanish bullfighting music that he loves to listen to when he drinks.
I can’t handle that he is home all day in his ragged plaid bathrobe. I remember how nicely he used to dress when he was working. He had the nicest suits, and always made certain his tie was perfect and his shoes were shined. He doesn’t bother to get dressed now, while my mom is out working and we are at school.
He goes to the living room to turn the television on. I stay in the kitchen, waiting for my sister. I know that when she gets home, he’ll come for both of us to watch his movie. As I get older, I become more vocal about telling him no, telling him what I think of him. Yelling at him.
It haunts me to think of what my mother endured. But, it also pains me to think of what my father endured. He grieved so many things: the leaving of his homeland, Mexico, and of his family there. The loss of his good work, and his employability. His inability to live out his creative dreams.
He grieved the racism he faced as a dark-skinned Mexican man in very white Wisconsin. He grieved the loss of his family’s smiles and laughter as he succumbed to dysfunction.
He also grieved the loss of his health. One organ after another slipped into disease: diabetes, heart problems, cancer, renal failure. He would grieve the loss of his kidneys, and the loss of freedom that came with grueling dialysis sessions, the most.
I grieve my father’s disembodiment. It is my grief inheritance.
I see now that he had an illness that went untreated. The harsh things I said to him and thought about him create echoes in my chest. I hear a voice whisper to me, You made it worse.
I contemplate all of this as I sit, nestled on my gray-blue couch, studying the small plants that line the front window. Some of them are doing so well. They are green and energetic. One of the plants can’t seem to keep up. Its leaves look splotchy with disease.
I try to think of the positive things in my dad’s life. How he became an ESL teacher later in life. How he tried to start a company that brought Mexican folkloric dance to the Fox Cities, where we lived. He only had one show and the business failed, but this show was the spark that turned into a bonfire: the most famous Mexican folkloric dance troupe in the world eventually came to perform in the Fox Cities. My father dressed up one last time to go to their performance, a few days before he died.
The hairs on my arms bristle. I hear footsteps behind me. I turn around. There is no one there. But I know that scent. Old Spice. My dad’s spirit is nearby.
“Hija. No estes tan triste.”
“I’m not sad, Papi. I’m tired.”
“I can’t rest now, Papi. I’m forty-seven. And there is still so much to do.”
“Descansa por hoy.”
I think about taking his advice. But I don’t trust rest. I have always preferred to be a worker bee, like my mother. I have always been afraid of sinking, like my father.
“No eres como yo,” my Dad says.
“What do you mean I’m not like you?”
“Aunque eres mi hija, no tienes la misma enfermedad que yo…”
Although I’m his daughter, I don’t have his same illness. He goes on to say that I am free, except in my mind and in my heart. I carry the weight of his and my mother’s misfortunes. But if I can heal this, I will be free, and my life will be illuminated.
“Papi, are you still in pain?”
“Sí, pero me estoy sanando, finalmente.”
“I am happy that you are finally healing, Papi.”
“Lo siento, hija, por todo.”
I look at the dying leaves on the plant again. I remember a time when I saw my father as the diseased plant of the family. I desperately wanted to cut him out. I thought that things would be better once he was gone.
But I know now that I cannot cut him out. He started our garden, along with my mother. He still grows within it. I learn from how he planted himself, the ways in which he grew and didn’t grow. I have things in common with him: how I thrive in the sun and lose myself in the winter. How much I value my creative life.
I turn around to say, “Lo siento, Papi,” but he has left. He is, no doubt, drifting towards Mexico.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.