Today is my dad’s 81st birthday. Not so unusual these days (what is 80 now anyway, the new 40?) except in this case my dad is a raging alcoholic who has spent the best part of the last 35 years of his life in prison. No small miracle, then, that he gets to celebrate this day.
My dear dad, he could have done so much with his life. Once upon a time, we were a happy little family, he, my mum and my brother. Well, my mum may not have been so happy, especially when Dad started drinking more heavily and more often as the years went by . It all got too much and when I was 10 years old, she left him.
After that, Dad’s drinking took over, which led him down a path of whiskey-addled crime – i.e. holding up banks pretending he had a weapon (he never did) to make sure that he could return to the only home he had left – prison.
My dad has been inside more prisons that I’ve had hot dinners – and at least he gets plenty of those inside unlike when he was homeless, prowling (or staggering along more like) the streets, unkempt, talking to himself and lost in a haze of alcoholic oblivion, seen by many but ignored by all.
My brother and I once joked with him that he should write a book and call it ‘The Good Prison Guide’. He could rate it according to the food, the accommodation, how comfortable the bed is, the surroundings etc. Well, you have to keep your sense of humour don’t you?
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Dad’s birthday this year falls one day after the 50th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery. August 8, 1963. My dad is the same age as most of the men who took part in that robbery, his ‘peers’ if you like. I think he would have secretly liked to have been one of them truth be told. Dad never did conform to the ‘rules’.
Back in the 90s, Dad was doing a stint at Ford Open Prison in West Sussex and I visited him there. We sat and chatted over a cup of tea, as you do, and I always remember him suddenly lowering his voice (he is softly spoken at the best of times, so I had to really lean in to hear) as he told me to look just over his shoulder at the table behind us. He told me that one of the men sitting there was one of the Great Train Robbers. I don’t know who it was but Dad was proud to be in the same room as him, telling me what a good and decent man he was.
Something Dad told me during our telephone conversation last Sunday shed light on an aspect of his character. It’s always so interesting what you can glean from a conversation if you really listen.
He was looking forward to watching the cricket that night and he went on to tell me that he had once played for a Surrey cricket team. He had a bit of a reputation for being a good bowler, as he tells the story, but he was getting frustrated that they wouldn’t let him bowl. So one day he asked if could bowl but he was told that he would have to wait.
Well, Dad couldn’t wait so he told to them to stuff it and he walked away. I detected a tinge of regret in his voice as he told me this, mixed in with a little bit of the old ‘que sera sera’
Life never could hold my dad, or he couldn’t hold life, which ever way you look at it.
Remember those wooden cricket sets for children? When we were growing up I can remember Dad taking us outside and trying to teach us how to play. Come to think of it, he always bowled, that really was his forte. I remember him showing me the shiny, red ball and how to hold it and trying to teach me to do the same but I don’t think I was very good.
It is with a sigh that I write this post. I think of my dad, the man he was and could have been.
In the 50s he won salesman of the year while working for Austin Reed in London and won a trip on the Queen Mary to New York. Dad was a boxer once and was thrilled, while on his trip to New York, to have met (in a bar, of course!) and chatted to Sugar Ray Robinson.
Dad always looked so dapper in his Trilby hats and overcoats, the silver cigarette case placed neatly inside the breast pocket – think Don Draper in Mad Men. He also met Elizabeth Taylor once and I always remember him telling me that she ‘looked great from the waist up’! He also met – shhhh, don’t tell – Joan Collins at a party and ‘had a little smooch’ with her. Bet she will be thrilled to hear that!
Funny how my dad seemed to live on the fringe of this almost celebrity kind of lifestyle, how he was the epitome of the 60s culture. I also find it all strangely ironic, thinking back to the Great Train Robbery of 1963 that my dad is in a lot better condition now than poor old Ronnie Biggs .
So here we are, back to today, my dad’s 81st birthday. My dilemma is always the same, every Father’s Day and his birthday – what kind of card can I send him? Have you ever tried looking for a card to send your dad who just happens to be an alcoholic prisoner? It’s not easy, I can assure you.
For instance, this is what you usually find on a typical ‘Dad’ card:
- A bottle of wine and a wine glass
- A shiny sports car
- A set of golf clubs
- A drunk man holding a pint of beer, frothing over the glass
- A garden shed
- A football
- A fishing rod
- A boat or yacht
- A fat, smiling man, wearing slippers, lounging on a recliner
Then, even if the illustration on the front is fairly innocuous, there is the message inside to contend with:
- It’s your birthday Dad, relax and put your feet up!
- Happy Birthday Dad! Have a pint on me
- Enjoy the party Dad, it’s your special day!
- Thanks for being a great Dad, for always being there for me, have a great day!
You can see my dilemma. For starters, all alcohol related cards are obviously out of the question. So far as sports cars, well, he had a few in his time. I remember a beautiful red Jaguar, with leather seats, and a British Racing Green MG Sports Car. I remember once we (his new wife, brother and me, and our massive German Shepherd called Bilbo Baggins) all crammed into it for a day trip to Chessington Zoo but he later went on to crash it, like all the rest.
He has never golfed, and although he used to love to fish, has sailed a few times, played football and may even have been spotted pottering about in a garden shed once or twice, reminders of these are just too redundant now.
Perhaps I should start my own range of ‘Jailbird Dad’ cards. It could have a picture on the front of a man in his prison gear sewing up mail bags or working in the laundry room and you could pop a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Monopoly card inside just for the laughs. Ahh, I jest, of course.
What kind of card then, dear old Dad, should I send you? Well, I hope you like the one I decided on. It is quite simple really. On the front is a cartoon of a big, cuddly and yes, smiling, bear holding out a pot of honey in its big hairy paw.
The message inside simply reads, ‘ Happy Birthday Daddy, I love you’.
Now what could be more perfect than that?
- Frail Ronnie Biggs, 84, marks anniversary of Great Train Robbery at memorial service for mastermind Bruce Reynolds (dailymail.co.uk)
- In pictures: 50th anniversary of the Great Train robbery (dailyrecord.co.uk)
- VIDEO: Great Train Robbery 50 years on (bbc.co.uk)
Your best posting yet – funny, shocking and poignant in equal measure but totally enthralling! This will stay with me. You need to write a book!!
Well, you know what lies behind all this, that’s for sure, and I hope you checked out the interesting links! Thank you honey-bunches 🙂 xxx
Think of all the families that suffer the same dilemma…..I say create those cards AND write that book. You have a gift!! xo
Hi Lyn, so great to see you here and thanks so much for sharing my blog link on your Facebook, that’s really kind of you to do that! Hmmm, maybe I should create those cards, you never know. And as for that book, well, I’m heading that way I hope…I really appreciate your support 🙂 xxx
So many lasting images. After all that, it still seems to come down to that simple truth on the honey bear birthday card.
Thanks so much Jennifer, coming from such a great writer such as you are, it is so good to know that you can see through even just this tiny part of a big story and all that remains unwritten here, that it really does come down to those few simple words 🙂
I had a similar problem with a member of my family, so I understand your dilemma. See, those jailbird cards would be a money-maker!! You write beautifully and from the heart. I always enjoy your posts. BTW: I think you bought the perfect card for him considering the circumstances.
I’m very sorry to hear that Bev, so you know only too well about this specific dilemma. I do really thank you for your heart-felt compliments about my writing, sometimes I wonder what I’m really doing but you always encourage me greatly! Maybe I should really think about those ‘jailbird cards’ 🙂
Sherri, I so enjoyed reading this post. You have lovely memories of your dad … maybe tinged with regret, but it’s obvious that you love him no matter what. Your sense of humour shines through and I think the ‘Jailbird Dad’ cards is a fab idea. I think you could be on to something there. 😀 I loved the ‘get out of jail free’ quip – laughter really is the best medicine. 🙂
Lesley, thank you so much for your great comment and sharing your thoughts. Obviously it has been one heck of a roller coast ride with my dad over the years and you are right, I do love him no matter what, even though at times I’ve wanted to disown him, believe me!
I really appreciate that you mentioned the ‘get out of jail free’ quip, as sometimes I wonder if people think I’m being too trite and dismissive of the glaring fact that when you take everything else away, my dad is a criminal! Without a sense of humour about it all however I think I would have given up long ago. Laughter really is indeed the best medicine 🙂
However, I am at a point in my life where I can write about these things from my heart as I want to say it from my perspective and with my family’s blessing, so I can’t ask for more than that.
I’m beginning to think I should pursue this idea about ‘jailbird cards’ but have no idea how to go about it! Any suggestions? 🙂
No,it’s not being trite, Sherri. Humour is necessary in stressful situations as a coping mechanism. Here’s a link that might be helpful: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-gallows-humor.htm
Now, the jailbird cards … have a brainstorm about a game you could come up with that is similar to Monopoly, but with a prison theme, e.g. think of what prisoners would like to buy … maybe 10 cigarettes (wouldn’t mention anything illegal!), a magazine, etc. I’m not sure what else – here’s where your dad can come up with the answers. 😀 Then when you’ve got your design on paper, consult some kind of enterprise agency that could help you with advice on whether it would be a plausible idea and how to go about the production. I think it’s a good idea and, as far as I know, there isn’t a game like it.
Lesly, this is a fab idea, you have really given me food for thought here! Also, thank you for the great link. Gallows humour is definitely the way to go 🙂 I will keep you posted on this subject and may will be picking your very creative brains again!
Very moving and poignient. A lovely post .
Thank you Dylan, I really appreciate this.
Oh Sherri – so interesting, so intriguing – I want to know more! Your father was a handsome young man but obviously a rogue – don’t we always fall for those! This read like an episode of the BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’
You should definitely expand this memoir of your Dad – your love for him, in spite of his flaws, shines through. Go for it!
Oh yes Jenny, isn’t that so very true? My dad was/is the quintessential loveable rogue alright! He is half Irish, was always the life and soul of every party and could charm the birds from the trees. This is how he has lived his entire life. Funnily enough, my very first full-length article which was published in Prima magazine back in April was about my relationship with my dad, although at the time I first wrote it he had gone ‘AWOL’ (broken parole by drinking). Nobody can believe that he is still alive and nobody knows what to do with him when he is released. He won’t go into an old people’s home because he says that by doing so he would have ‘one foot in the grave’!
You are right, I do really need to write more about all this, so thanks so much Jenny for the encouragement, I will indeed ‘go for it’ 🙂
I’d love to read that Prima article – is it available on line?
Hi Jenny, I did ask this question of Prima when I was in article discussions with them and I seem to remember them saying that you can upload the magazine (April edition) if you have an Ipad? I don’t have one so I don’t really know about that, but I do have the final copy of the article as an attachment to an email so I can email it to you if you like? x
That would be great, if you don’t mind – as I don’t have an ipad, either. Email firstname.lastname@example.org …thank you x
Will do x
A very personal post. I’m not sure what to say. I think children of alcoholics have a different view than the spouse. I was a spouse.
Oh Jude, I ‘m so sorry that you had to experience this as a spouse. You are absolutely right, it is completely different from a child’s point of view. My mother ‘got out’ before my dad’s drinking took over and I know that my dad isn’t a ‘nice drunk’, I have seen him in action many times, Mum wanted to protect us. But I always knew that Dad loved me.
Dad was a ‘functioning alcoholic’ for some years before he descended into the full blown, homeless, lost-everything-alcoholic he was to become. I am grateful for the intervening, albeit crazy, years I had with him before that but for a long time (and especially when I lived in California for almost 20 years) the only time I ever heard from him was when he was sober, which meant he was in prison when he would write regularly. Then he would be released and disappear again I wouldn’t hear from him for a long time. He has put me through hell and back and many times I’ve wanted to give up on him, and it is only very recently that I have been able to come to a place of complete forgiveness of him and realised that I always have, and always will, love him unconditionally as my dad.
Jude, as someone who understands the pain in your few words, and also understanding that not everyone will agree with my take on my dad’s ‘lifestyle’, I want you to know that I really thank you for sharing, as I don’t take that lightly, it means alot. xx
Humor and pathos combined in this, both needed to survive.
This is so very true, thank you Theresa for sharing your thoughts here.
you must write a book Sherri – I first met you thanks to your story being in Prima and I found it fascinating reading, you have a great writing style and I honestly think you would write an excellent book.
Ahh, thank you so much Anne, you have always been so supportive of my writing, ever since you read my very first article in Prima! I have wanted to write a book about my life with my dad and although I feel that there is another book I have to write first (about a series of tumultous events that took place in my young life over the course of 3 years between 1979 – 1981 and which profoundly affected me) I am thinking, after so much positive response about my dad, that perhaps I should have a rethink! Either way, your support means so much. Keep in touch 🙂 x
There are the stories we have to write through to come to terms with our past, and the stories that makes a good read for the public; sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. Usually, the author cannot know which is which, and that doesn’t matter, because her job is to write all of it. Trying to decide what and when to publish (and knowing what our goals are, for publishing) takes almost as much energy and effort as the writing. That’s where feedback from writing groups and trusted writer-friends is especially valuable.
The story about your dad and your relationship to him is absolutely fascinating. I can see its potential to connect with a wider audience of readers.
Actually, any story can connect, but a story of heartbreak and trauma usually only works to connect with me (as a reader) when I sense the author has worked through it and found some objectivity by looking at the situation from the more distant perspectives of forgiveness and lessons learned. I sense that you’ve done some of that work in your relationship with your dad.
Tracy, I can’t say enough how much I value your insight here and about the publishing side of things in general.
Because I’ve grown up with my dad in this way I never really thought that people would be interested to hear about it. I was stunned when Prima accepted my article and how interested they were in my story as well as everyone’s feedback and interest here when I did this post. Now I read what you say and yes, I think it is only because I was able to a place of forgiveness and acceptance of the way he was/is that I was able to at last tell my own story about it all. The totally unexpected result was that I had to track my dad down before I could publish my article as I wanted his full permission but he gave me that and his blessing too. I have come full circle in my relationship with my dad and so I have peace. The only thing I worry about now is when he is let out of prison as the first thing he does is drink to oblivion and he is getting just a little too old for this sort of thing, don’t you think? 😉
The question is, why does he immediately drink when he gets out? Perhaps he cannot imagine his life or his life’s purpose outside of prison? Perhaps his self-loathing and guilt is so overwhelming that he wants to annihilate his consciousness?
Yes, he is getting too old. Maybe there’s someone he can talk to (counsel with and plan with) about what he’s going to do, when he gets out, to protect himself from going on a binge.
But, of course, if he does, that’s his business and his problem, although it will be heartbreaking for you. Maybe you’ll want to tell him up front that it will be heartbreaking for you, and you wish that he could find it in himself to finally put your need for him to stay sober ahead of his need to soothe himself with alcohol.
The problem with my dad is this: He has had all the help in the world. People love my dad. He is charming and a lovely man. Proper counsellors etc. help him plan his accommodation, support, financial help, every kind of support. My brother and I tell him over and over that we will pick him up when he gets out of prison, drive him to his half way house, make sure he has all he needs etc.
Because he knows that I will help him he doesn’t contact me now when he gets out and gets a taxi straight to the pub.
When he was a younger man he would then get involved in brawling and arrested for disturbing the peace or GBH (Grevious Bodily Harm) as he would drink whiskey which changed him in to a violet man. I have always said that he is like Jeckel and HIde.
Now, he just gets picked up for loitering aimlessly. Or he ends up in hospital and I get a call from the nurse telling me that they don’t know where to send him. That’s how I find out he has been kicked out of his half way house for drinking and is once again homeless.
Rather than come to me or my brother he runs out of money and robs a post offfice or a bank so that he will be rearrested and put back in prison, the only place where he feels safe and familiar. He has said he will never live with us as he would never want us to have the responsibility. He won’t go into an old people’s home as he says that it would mean ‘one foot in the grave’!
So you can see my dilemma! This has gone on for decades. It is not until I wrote my article for Prima about my relationship with him and when he gave me his blessing that I was at last able to come full circle. My dad gave me the one thing that I ever asked him for , the gift of being able to share his story, our story, with others. Ultimately, I found my redemption in my relationship with my dad. I have always known that he loves me and I have always loved him. I am grateful for the time we now have in his twilight years. Perhaps this is why I would not have been able to write this story until now. It just wouldn’t have been the right time.
I have many, many stories to share about my experiences of trying to help my dad over the years, the times I’ve had to find him. He has been at death’s door a few times. It is a miracle he is still alive. He has never really spoken to me about his young life, but he has obvsiously suffered deep hurt. However, when around him he is upbeat, he laughs, a lot, and never takes things too seriously. He was always like that, even when I was a child.
Tracy, I don’t mean to keep pushing my articles on you and others, but since you’ve shown such interest in this and also since you have had painful experiences with alcoholism with your dad, you might be interested in reading a little more. Under my category ‘My Dad’s Alcoholic Prison’ you will find a couple more articles I’ve written about my dad which expands upon what I’ve share here.
Wow, sorry to make this so long!! That will teach you for asking me about my dad!! x
There does come a point at which we have to accept that we cannot help those who do not want help, who don’t want to change. It’s a hard truth, but in a way it’s bittersweet, because it also liberates us when we understand that we are not responsible for anyone else’s choices. Everyone is free to choose hope or despair. But it’s a dreadful thing to bear when the people we desperately love choose despair, and self-destruction.
I suppose it isn’t much comfort that it your experience with your dad makes for a great story. It’s strange, but we writers do tend to make “material” out of our lives.
And I don’t at all mind you sharing links and categories with me. It’s how we get to know each other… Here’s a link to a poem I wrote a long time ago about how/why we need to “make” something out of our tragedies… http://tracyleekarner.com/2013/04/19/after-grief-make-something/
Thanks Tracy, I’ll take a look right now.
Yes, I came to that point of knowing that I couldn’t fix my dad any more than I could expect my own children to fix me or be responsible for me. At that point I was liberated and able to love my dad without always hoping beyond hope the he would stop drinking.
That’s quite an accomplishment, and hard work, to love someone even while they’re broken and unfixed, even when we don’t expect them to change.
You ought to write that book, I think.
I think that fact that he is now older made me sit up and realise that I needed to come to a place of peace about it all. Believe me, there have been many times in my life when I’ve raged against him, hated him, wanted to disown him. But always, always, I forgave him, time and time again. I love him that’s all. Either that or I’ve got Shmuck written on my forehead for all the world to see 😉
Thanks again Tracy for the encouragement to write this book. Maybe I really should…
Have really enjoyed ‘chatting’ with you this afternoon, it’s been great 🙂
Comments are closed on your post Tracy, so I’ll comment here just to say that your poem touched me in a raw way, especially when I read ‘the howl that can never be voiced worked its way through her blood to her fingers’. Then she created. She made something out of her untold tragedy. There is the material. Something tangible, something that can be felt, worn, wrapped up in, used again and again.
Thank you, Sherri. It’s always nice to know when someone connects to our writing. It’s one of the few poems of mine that was ever published in a literary journal. It’s such a lot of work to submit, and even for the most popular of poets it entails an incredible amount of rejection, that I gave up, years and years ago, submitting. Perhaps someday I’ll get back into the rhythm of that work, but write now I’m just not focussed on writing/publishing poetry.
And now that I have a blog, I can just publish my favorite poems on that!
Absolutely, that’s the great thing about having a blog isn’t it? I had heard that getting poems published was very difficult, I’ve never tried, so I think it’s wonderful that you have had this particular poem published, as it deserves to be 🙂
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