We cruise along in his shiny white pickup truck. Dad and I are traveling on a road that takes us both back to our childhoods.
“Here’s a camp road,” I say.
There used to be a sign nailed to the tall pine tree on the corner – a sign bearing our family name pointing the way to the camp my grandparents built when my Dad was just a boy. I love these excursions to Watchic Lake. In the fall we crisscrossed its perimeter. His eyes would sparkle and sometimes mist up as he gazed across the water.
“Your uncle swam out to that island one summer,” he told me proudly. “I hauled rocks from that end of the lake to our camp. Your mother and I spent our honeymoon here. You kids would always argue about who saw the lake first whenever we came up.”
I treasure these moments and memories because for many years, decades even, I didn’t know my father very well. His work often kept him away, and when he was home, he usually had a drink in his hand. I could tell when he’d been drinking because his eyes would glaze over and he had trouble walking and talking.
Looking back, I’m grateful he didn’t hurt us when he had too much too drink, at least not intentionally. Sometimes he would try to play with us or tease us, but we would be afraid of him and would want him to just go away.
I am the oldest of eight children and left home first. It was harder for my mother and brothers and sisters because Dad’s drinking got worse as the years passed. When we were both adults, my sister came to me and said we should do something, because Dad was clearly an alcoholic. I disagreed, saying he just liked to drink. Today, it amazes me to realize how easy it is to deny the truth even when it’s been staring you in the face forever. About a year after my sister spoke to me, I couldn’t deny the truth any longer.
In preparation for an interview I was doing for my work, I read a book about adult children of alcoholics. The reaction I had was visceral. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt as if I was being punched in the belly. I was so rattled I had to go into the bathroom and throw cold water on my face. The book could have been written about my family.
I shared what I learned with my mother and siblings and we all decided to work with an alcoholism counselor to learn more about the disease and how to do an intervention on Dad. After several weeks of counseling, she helped us each write letters describing, with love and respect, two times that we knew he had been drinking and how we were affected by his behavior.
Dad was not involved until the actual day of the intervention, when my sister asked him to join us for a family meeting. When they arrived, we were all seated in a circle with our counselor. We invited him in and briefly explained what we were doing. One by one we read our letters, told him we loved him, and asked him to please get help for his drinking problem.
We had already made arrangements for him to be admitted to an alcoholism treatment program. He balked at first, even told us he didn’t have a problem and had actually quit drinking several weeks before. He finally relented.
Now, my dad and I spend countless hours bouncing along dusty camp roads. If he had continued drinking, I have no doubt that it would have killed him years ago. Instead, not only can we trade stories about the past and recall happy memories of camp, we can talk about the future and the family being together on the lake for a reunion.
He parks the car, reaches for his cane and eases himself out of the truck. We are on the far shore of the lake, squinting across the water at the family camp. We’ve explored roads he never knew existed and even discovered a small camp that as a boy he was convinced was a mansion. And I have discovered my father, and I am grateful for this time we have together.
With his permission and his blessing, I wrote this story about my father, Bob Swett, in 2002. He had been sober 17 years, since the day we did the intervention. He remained sober until he died in December 2009, surrounded by my mother and all eight of us kids. This summer, as we do every year, we will go to the lake, albeit not Watchic, for our annual summer reunion. We know that Dad will be there too. He always is.
This story ran in the March issue of Current Publishing’s “My Generation” magazine.