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A Drinking Life

A Drinking Life

Belt Senior Writer Daniel J. McGraw explored his own history of addiction, and the history of substance abuse and recovery in Northeast Ohio, in his latest feature, “Rust Belt Recovery.” This isn’t the first time McGraw has written about his drinking. In his memoir, First and Last Seasons (Doubleday 2000), McGraw wrote about the Cleveland Browns coming back to the city and his own return home. He came back to chronicle the first season of the hapless new Browns, but found himself helping his father die. Chapter 7 of the book, “A Drinking Life,” begins with McGraw’s realization that he drank more whenever he came back home to Cleveland, “because that’s all I know how to do here.” Reading it now for McGraw is very strange: “I look back on this chapter now, and I find that I was telling everyone who would listen I had a drinking problem, but I wasn’t listening to what I was writing myself. But as is usually the case, the one who is addicted is the last one to realize he may have a problem.”

I don’t remember my father being much of a drinker. The old stories were there, all right. He and his friends would recount their tales of going out to Geneva-on-the-Lake, a cottage resort with miniature golf and dance halls. There they would scam beers in the little resort saloons, find a way to crash in the state park or at someone’s guest cottage, make out with young women by the shores of Lake Erie in the days when you could actually swim in it. I once saw a snapshot of him standing on a picnic table in a Geneva-on-the-Lake dance hall chugging two beers at the same time.

But I never saw him drink very much. He might have a Scotch on the rocks every so often after work. He was funny about that bottle of Scotch. He bought a bottle of Chivas Regal, and when that was empty, he bought some cheap Scotch and refilled the Chivas bottle. When company came over, he didn’t want people to think he was serving cheap booze. But he was a cheapskate when it came to things like that. El Cheapo, he called himself.

Aside from the episode after my mom’s funeral, I don’t recall ever seeing my dad drunk.

I think he kept his drinking under wraps around his kids because of my mother. I don’t remember ever seeing beer in our refrigerator when I was a kid. I’m sure he drank some at family weddings or christenings or funerals, but I was always off with the other kids and never really noticed. Aside from the episode after my mom’s funeral, I don’t recall ever seeing him drunk. After my mom died and his kids were in college, he would drink beer more often. He said he enjoyed his children’s college years, as he never had to buy beer; there was always some left over in the fridge. He said it was his way of recouping tuition money.

I never knew him to hang out in bars. He wasn’t social in that way. As he got older, he would treat himself to a six-pack on Fri- day nights. He would drink his beer and read by himself, usually with some bad TV show like Dynasty or Dallas as background noise. His passion for great works of literature was only perhaps rivaled by his love of bad TV shows.

In one of our earlier conversations after I came back to Cleveland, I asked him if he had any regrets in life. He thought for a few seconds, stared off into space, and then shook his head. “I guess the only thing I regret is that I spent too much time hanging out in saloons,” he said. “At the time, we think that there are a great many wonderful things happening there. But in the end, all of it is a waste of time. The stories are all the same, the people get to be the same after a while, and everyone feels witty and important. It’s life’s great illusion.”

“But I don’t remember you spending much time in saloons or being drunk,” I answered.

“Drinking is a young man’s sport anyway.”

“I never let you kids see that at home. Your mother was strict about that. And I think I had gotten most of that out of my system by then. Drinking is a young man’s sport anyway. As we get older, we lose our wits more easily. There’s nothing worse than a witless old drunk.”

“How old is too old?”

“You are,” he said, looking right through me. “I hear things about you, and you better watch out. I came very close to ruining my life several times with booze. Don’t let it happen. You have too much talent to waste it.”

“Pete Hamill wrote that the art of writing is the art of remembering,” I said. “He quit drinking because he thought that his drinking was getting in the way of his remembering. I’m beginning to understand what he meant.”

“So why are you spending all of your time in saloons?” he asked.

The question was left dangling in the air. I had no answer for him. No earthly fucking idea.

+++

In 1796 Moses Cleaveland and his party of surveyors and explorers landed at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. Cleaveland and his party were Connecticut Yankees, and their arrival was part of a land speculation deal. The state of Connecticut had been given 3 million acres in Ohio as payment for fighting in the War of Independence, and Cleaveland and his investors bought the land for forty cents an acre. When they arrived, Cleaveland was put off by the swamplike mess and the stink of the Cuyahoga, and left after a few months. It was the first Cleveland joke: the founder of the town hated it so much he got out as quick as he could. They did name the town after him, however, even though he never returned. (The “a” was dropped early on when a newspaper editor shortened the name of the town so it would fit in a headline.)

It was the first Cleveland joke: the founder of the town hated it so much he got out as quick as he could.

One of the few men who stayed was Major Lorenzo Carter. One of the first orders of business for Carter was to set up a still and sell whiskey to the Indians who lived across the river. Soon Carter had a tavern and hotel, and his little outpost served as the courthouse, jail, and trading post. This Carter fellow was a wild sort, according to lore, outdrinking the local Indians and coming out unscathed when the nightly boozing turned into fighting. Carter served as the village’s unofficial mayor, police chief, bartender, and bouncer. He was a sort of Judge Roy Bean of the Midwest.

In 1812 an Indian named John O’Mic was arrested for murdering a couple of fur trappers. He was brought to Carter’s bar to be held, and the good major lashed him to some old beams in the attic while he awaited trial. During the next few weeks while the town waited for the traveling judge to arrive, O’Mic would taunt the drunks in Carter’s bar from above, claiming that he would die with honor from the end of the rope. He would show the white man what real courage was. Presumably the drunks were amused by O’Mic’s assertions of bravery, and bets were probably made as to whether O’Mic would be as brave as he let on.

The moral of this story: Without its bars, Cleveland can be a stinking and smelly swamp of a place.

They erected some gallows on Public Square, and on the fateful day in June, O’Mic was brought to meet his maker at the end of the rope. But as the rope was put over his head, O’Mic panicked and dove for one of the corner posts of the gallows. He hung on as the deputies tried to pull him away. Finally Major Carter was summoned, and after a long discussion with O’Mic, the prisoner agreed to gladly die at the end of the rope if Carter brought him a half pint of whiskey. The whiskey was produced, and O’Mic chugged it straight down. But when they tried to hang him the second time, O’Mic gave a repeat performance of his reluctance to participate in his own hanging. Major Carter climbed the stairs again, and O’Mic pointed to another half pint bottle of whiskey. After further negotiations, Carter decided to let O’Mic have the remainder of the bottle. O’Mic downed it and became a model prisoner. Seconds later, feeling no pain, O’Mic was swinging in a wide arc from the rope, filled with whiskey and death.

Just as his body stopped swinging, a thunderstorm blew in off the lake and scattered the crowd. O’Mic’s body just hung there by itself in the cold rain, while the townsfolk found shelter.

The moral of this story: (1) without its bars, Cleveland can be very much a stinking and smelly swamp of a place to live, (2) it is easier to face death with a pint of whiskey in your belly than without, and (3) the weather here really sucks.

+++

I tend to fall into bad habits when I visit Cleveland. For some reason this town turns me into something I am not, or more accurately, something I used to be. Down in Texas, I am Dan McGraw, senior editor for U.S. News & World Report, a very sober title for a very sober-sounding magazine. In Cleveland I become “Danny McGraw,” former cabdriver and bartender, a guy who in some weird stretch of luck, became a writer for some magazine. “Dan” is the successful writer; “Danny” is the confused and stuttering drunk who never leaves the bar.

When I am in Cleveland. I think of failure. And the more I think about that, the more I drink.

I don’t know why life works out this way. But I am always nervous and looking over my shoulder when I’m in Cleveland, never sure of myself, always looking for diversions. It’s probably a case of self-fulfilling prophesy going on here: I become what other people think I am. I become what I think my father thinks of me. And I know it’s not fair to him for me to think that way. He had become extremely proud of me in the last few years, following my career and being as supportive as possible. But in the back of my mind I wondered why he wasn’t proud of me before. I think I was the same guy. I never treated anyone poorly. I tried my best, even though I had little success. But to gain my father’s affection through the years, I felt I had to be worth something in a tangible way. What if I had stayed a cabdriver or a bartender?

Would my life have less worth? And that’s what I think of when I am in Cleveland. I think of failure. I think how horrible life used to be. And the more I think about those things, the more I drink. After all, there is no better mindless repetition than pounding down twelve beers at a sitting. And perhaps no better example of shallow happiness.

I remember the fights with him. I failed to clean my room one day, and he threw my clothes out of the upstairs window onto the front lawn. During dinner one night, I made some smart-ass remark to him, and he threw a baked potato at me and hit me in the head. One time he hit me in the head with a cast-iron skillet.

When my grades were Bs, they should have been As, and when I got As, it was expected, and besides, school was supposed to be easy for us. It was for him, wasn’t it?

My father was the source of great teasing in our family, teasing that bordered on savagery.

My father was the source of great teasing in our family, teasing that bordered on savagery. There was a time when he had a client named Rontony Daniels, and my father was duly impressed by such a hillbilly name. He started calling me Rontony as a joke and then shortened it to Tony. Soon he had all my brothers and sisters calling me Tony, and then the kids in the neighborhood joined in. This may seem to be a trivial matter, but when your father decides to change your name in the fifth grade, it becomes serious. My friend Ken Dorsch still calls me Tony to this day. He thinks it’s funny.

When my wife, Teresa, and I sat down with him to tell him we were getting married, he made a face and said to me in front of her, “Are you crazy?” And when he asked Teresa where her family was from, and she replied West Virginia, he said in a mocking tone, “And how many cars are up on blocks in your family’s front yard?” Welcome to the family. Get used to more where that came from.

I don’t mean to come off as whiny. But my father could be a real pain to live with. And as I became a teenager, with my mom suffering from her debilitating illness, I removed myself from the family. I found solace in drugs and alcohol. It’s been with me ever since. But it’s with me more in Cleveland, because that’s all I know how to do here.

+++

I remember the first time my friends and I got drunk. We were in the sixth grade at Holy Cross School and we planned for several weeks for a Friday night of drinking. Dorsch stole a bottle of vodka from his mother’s stash, Tom Monroe took a few bottles of his father’s homemade wine, and John Stack took a case of Old Dutch from his father’s garage. A half dozen of us drank our booze down at the beach around a bonfire, and then we did what male sixth graders do. We played basketball at Monroe’s house, which had spotlights in the driveway. I look at my fourth-grade daughter, Meredith, and am amazed at how young we were and how loaded we got that night.

We came to the church, snuck up the stairs, and got high in the choir loft while the priests said the mass below.

I started smoking pot in my freshman year in high school. My father sent us to the Jesuit high school, St. Ignatius, an all-male school with the best academic reputation in the city. Ignatius was in the middle of a marginal Puerto Rican neighborhood, and we soon found that the little markets in the neighborhood would sell us as much beer as we wanted, even before we started shaving. We smoked pot at lunch, and when they would herd us off to mass at St. Pat’s down the street, we would scatter in the alleys to get high while mass was going on. The priests decided that smoking dope while spiritual matters were going on was not the Jesuit way, and they devised a plan where we would have to get tickets at the church, later to be given to our homeroom teacher as proof that we had indeed attended church. But we were smart teenagers, the smartest in the city according to our test scores, and we found a way to accommodate the new rules. We came to the church, got our tickets at the door, then snuck up the stairs and got high in the choir loft while the priests said the mass below: Life was great in the old days, but your generation is totally screwed up. Let’s stand for the creed. And pass the doobie.

I did some research a few years ago about teenage drug use and found that the high school class of 1977, my graduating year, had the highest incidence of marijuana use in history, and the mark hasn’t been bettered since. I brought this up at my twentieth high school reunion and we were indeed proud. Something to hang our hats on. By the way, in the official history of St. Ignatius, the period when I graduated is referred to as “the troubled years.”

My classmate Brendan O’Leary (God rest his soul) had a grandmother who lived close to school in some projects for old people, and we used to go over to her apartment at lunch to drink beer. She was a tough, old Irish broad and had no problem with us drinking or smoking there. I can still hear her saying in her thick Irish brogue, “Times must be tough for you boys. I haven’t seen men share a cigarette like that since the Depression.”

My dormmates used to concoct various combinations of downs and speed and pot and acid and see what these would do to me if I took them all at once. I was glad to oblige.

I went to college at Loyola of Chicago (another Jesuit institution) and spent the money my father gave me for books on booze and drugs. I started using LSD quite regularly and experimented with anything I could find. My dormmates used to concoct various combinations of downs and speed and pot and acid and see what these would do to me if I took them all at once. I was glad to oblige. One night I smoked heroin in a bowling alley. I was kicked out of school when I got in a drunken fight in the cafeteria on St. Patrick’s Day.

I went back to Cleveland and moved into my father’s house. Soon thereafter, completely drunk from a night at the Euclid Tavern, I wrecked his car at three in the morning by hitting a tree on Liberty Boulevard, not far from the ball diamond where my father played baseball as a kid. By the time the cops had finished with me and the car towed, I walked in the house just in time for Saturday breakfast, covered with blood and suffering a concussion. I don’t remember my father being overly upset. Not picking up your room would cause him to go into a rage; wrecking the car at three in the morning while completely loaded would merely elicit a stern look.

I moved downtown into the Backhouse, and the real partying started. I worked at a fancy restaurant as a waiter, always had a hundred bucks in my pocket, and would start the night of drinking every day after work. I rarely got to bed before six in the morning and got kicked out of school again. One night I was sick with the flu, lying in my upstairs bedroom sleeping. Lance had several cocaine dealers at the house after the bars closed. They started playing around with a gun and someone shot a round into the ceiling. The bullet passed six inches from the edge of my bed and exited the house through the ceiling.

A friend said he wanted to repay me for a term paper I had written for him. He pulled out a bag of coke and shoveled out a heaping teaspoon.

I almost overdosed one day when a friend said he wanted to repay me for a term paper I had written for him. He pulled out a bag of coke and shoveled out a heaping teaspoon. He told me to open my mouth and poured the coke in. He then told me to let it melt slowly, not to swallow it all at once, for if I did my heart would stop. I did what I was told, but within a half hour I began convulsing on the floor, and the eyes rolled back in my head. My friend poured buckets of cold water on me. Somehow I survived.

During my first newspaper job, at the Lake County News-Herald, I would go out at lunch and have five or six beers before heading back to the paper and writing the day’s news. Mistakes began finding their way into my copy. I was writing an obituary one night after an afternoon out at the bar. Our obituary style was fairly boilerplate, as it is at most newspapers, and the part about visitation hours was to read, “Friends may call from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 P.M.” at a particular funeral home. The obit I wrote came out this way: “Friends may ball from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 P.M.” The spell check, of course, did not catch the error, and neither did any of the editors. I fielded a call from a crying widow about the embarrassment I caused. I thought it all to be very funny.

Sensing I was about to be fired from the paper, I started looking for a new job and ended up in Fort Worth, Texas. I still drank quite a bit in Texas, but I was married now and tried to hide it from my wife. I would make excuses to leave the house at night, usually saying I had to go to the post office to mail some materials, and would buy a six-pack of tallboys and drink them while driving around for an hour. My wife eventually had enough of my lying and drinking and moved out.

My wife eventually had enough of my lying and drinking and moved out.

Left alone and working as a freelance writer in Texas, I concentrated on my work. I still drank quite a bit, but never until I had finished my writing. I stayed home most nights with my daughter and would sit and read while watching TV, drinking a six-pack of beer before bed. In many ways I was becoming like my father. In his youth he was as wild as I was, but the times dictated a different type of intoxicant. But I knew what he was saying about spending all that time in saloons. It was a waste of time. I knew that, and had changed the way I lived.

And that’s what scared me coming back to Cleveland. Among the Irish, alcohol is the great equalizer. It is the conduit that allows the professional to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the factory worker. No man is allowed to get too high and mighty, and no drunk is considered to be too low-life. Alcohol drives everyone into the safe middle ground, where one’s ambition defers to the crowd. And there is no better equalizer, no better way of fitting in, than to be fucked-up with the rest.

In Cleveland, drinking seemed to be the natural state of affairs.

In my life I drank in celebration, I drank when I was depressed, I drank when I was bored. When my mom died, I recoiled into myself, comforting myself with getting outside my head. After writing a story, the only way to get the careening sentences out of your head was to wipe the inside of your brainpan clean with alcohol. And in Cleveland, drinking seemed to be the natural state of affairs. This was a town that could wear on you if you let it, too many ignos and hillbillies and days that needed diversion. And there might not be any greater diversion than facing death. John O’Mic proved that.

So here I was, my dad lying in a bed barely conscious, his legs and arms like matchsticks, his abdomen distended like a Biafran child, and what was I to do? I did what I knew best and felt most comfortable doing. I drank.

+++

There is a misconception around the country about why Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are certainly other cities more deserving—Memphis, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit—but none of those cities did what Cleveland did. Cleveland embodied the alienation and dark ruminations ofadolescence that rock music spoke to. We lived the life, and we lived the lyrics. When Bruce Springsteen sang “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win,” we pretty much knew what he was talking about.

The official version of how Cleveland got the Hall of Fame is that DJ Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll” during the early fifties and was the first to put on rock concerts, his celebrated “Moondog” balls. This is all very true. But it has little to do with why the Hall of Fame is located next to the new Browns Stadium in downtown Cleveland.

In the 1970s Cleveland was in the pits. The jobs were running out of town, and the people were leaving with them. So we partied more than our parents ever did.

In the 1970s Cleveland was in the pits. The jobs were running out of town, and the people were leaving with them. But a funny thing happened to all of those baby boomer kids just coming of age in the midst of all those Cleveland jokes and Rust Belt doldrums. We partied more than our parents ever did. And a big part of this citywide drinking binge was going to rock concerts. In larger cities, with a citizenry fully employed and a host of entertainment options available, rock concerts didn’t hold the importance they did here. It’s like football in Los Angeles these days. No one cares about having an NFL team because there is so much else in L.A. that can occupy your time. In Cleveland during the seventies, there was nothing that could occupy your time. People didn’t have jobs and they had few prospects. Rock and roll was a great diversion.

In the 1970s Clevelanders bought more albums per capita than any other market in the country. Radio station WMMS became famous around the country for breaking out new artists, like Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. What was happening was that the record companies began to view Cleveland as an ideal test market, a city that was neither hip nor completely hick, either. For the powers in the music business Cleveland was important, as rock music in the seventies wasn’t selling very well in other markets. So they sent their acts here, usually a few times on each tour, because they would always get a sellout in Cleveland.

WMMS began a promotional campaign that called Cleveland the Rock and Roll Capital of the World. The campaign was self-serving and without any truth to it. Cleveland was never important to any musical genres, nor did we have any homegrown bands of note—the O’Jays, Michael Stanley Band, and the Raspberries come to mind, but that was about it. What we were best at was watching bands when they came to town. Clevelanders were very good at being spectators. And the music industry liked that about us.

The “Rock-and-Roll Capital” schlock did have some lasting effects on the city. In the seventies and eighties, clubs like the Agora and Peabody’s Downunder began booking national acts and drawing people downtown. On Fridays after work, they began throwing “parties in the park” downtown for office workers, with beer trucks and bands and secretaries and young guys on the make mixing it up. Our parents were confused by their children’s socializing downtown. That was the place you ran away from when work was over. That was where all the black people were.

All of this rock music and drinking helped build up the Flats, which in turn made it cool to live downtown. And with more people downtown, new stadiums and skyscrapers started to be built, and writers from out of town started writing stories about the “Cleveland comeback.” It was very much economic development built on beer drinking and head-banging music.

Cleveland was in its usual mode of feeling inferior and desperate.

The record companies never wanted to put the hall in Cleveland, but a promotional push by WMMS forced the music moguls to choose this Midwest city with virtually no musical heritage. The message from Cleveland was clear: we bought all of your albums when business wasn’t very good, so you owe us one. The record industry decided to blackmail the city, demanding all sorts of public money and private donations to get the hall built. As Cleveland was in its usual mode of feeling inferior and desperate, it did everything the music guys wanted and built the damn thing.

And now attendance at the rock hall is declining, and the promoters are trying to figure out how to keep the hall from becoming a financial drain. The rock stars and the music industry snub the Hall of Fame, holding their induction ceremonies in New York. Imagine if the greats of the NFL decided not to show up every year at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Would the Hall of Fame in Canton mean anything? Of course not.

Imagine if the greats of the NFL decided not to show up every year at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

So Cleveland has this glass monstrosity on the lakefront, and it is becoming apparent that it will be a white elephant one day. The music scene in Cleveland is now geared toward classic rock, and original bands have a tough time finding bars that will let them play. And the music industry thinks of Cleveland as some country cousin they want nothing to do with. Still, every so often, some rock star cleans out his closet and sends a pair of old tennis shoes and a jumpsuit off to Cleveland, where the civic leaders find a very expensive glass case to display it in …

+++

My brother’s bar was now becoming my second home. The Time-Out Grille was only about a mile from the hospice, and it became a way station for me. It was a place that was always alive, full of inimitable and inane conversations and the din of twenty TVs. I could always find someone I knew in the place, cousins and friends from grade school, a neighbor I hadn’t seen in twenty years. And it was a great place to kill time.

The days were falling into an uncomfortable routine. Go to the hospice and sit by my father’s bed. Do that until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Run down to my brother’s bar for dinner. Blast down about five beers. Back to the hospice for another bedside vigil. Back to the Time-Out around ten. Drink there until 1 A.M. Back to the hospice for one last look. Back to my brother’s bar for last call. A six-pack to go in case I needed any more before bed when I got home.

Blast down about five beers. Back to the hospice for another bedside vigil.

My experience with him that night had lifted my soul and scared me at the same time. Having your dad tell you he is scared shitless can do that to a man. I also hated to think that he was struggling with seeing my mother. I tried telling him it wasn’t something to worry about. But I wasn’t the one lying in that bed. And I wondered what all that morphine was doing to him. They had jacked up the dosage level as time went on, and having had experiences with morphine in my life, I knew he was probably having some heavy-duty hallucinations.

It was now Thursday, and my father had been lying in that bed for four days. The nurses at the hospice were surprised that he lasted as long as he did. His vital signs were slowly deteriorating, but he had no history of heart disease, and the heart was the last organ to shut down. He was staying alive because he had a strong heart. I always suspected he did.

When my brother bought the bar, he got Crowley in the deal.

I made my way to my brother’s bar that night. The regular crowd was there, and I took my seat as usual next to Crowley. For some reason, I felt more comfortable talking to Crowley than to anyone else at the bar. He was an old drunk, but a friendly sort. He had been a drinking pal of my Uncle Jack’s back when Jack was really hitting the sauce, and through the years, Crowley had been a regular at just about every bar on 185th Street. When my brother bought the bar, he got Crowley in the deal, no different from the glassware on the beer taps and the jukebox. Crowley lived in the apartment above the bar, and my brother put him to work in exchange for his drinks. He had a small Social Security income, and my brother cashed his checks for him. He had been separated from his wife for more than twenty years, but being good Catholics, they never divorced. He had a couple of kids and grandkids and saw them on holidays.

Crowley had found a place where he fit perfectly, something men spend lifetimes searching for. He had access to booze and had a job—he was the only one in the bar who knew how to work the complex satellite TV system. He was old and weathered; drinking had definitely taken its toll on his body. His face was wrinkled and red, his nose the big Irish type, complete with a few broken blood vessels. He always wore a baseball cap, hiding the baldness on top of his head, but he compensated by growing his gray hair long in the back. The more he drank, the more irascible he became, yelling at the bartenders and poking fun at the customers. They would usually cut him off about eleven every night and shoo him out the door. Going home consisted of two left turns: one out the front door and the next into the side entrance to his apartment.

“You lose a little bit of yourself when you see a man die.”

There had been some do-gooders through the years who had thought that Crowley might be better off if he gave up the booze. But the consensus around the bar was that Crowley would probably die if he ever stopped drinking. You don’t do that kind of hard drinking for thirty years and just shut off the tap. And besides, this was the life he chose, and for the most part, he wasn’t hurting anyone but himself.

“Get Danny one, Sheila,” Crowley rasped. This was his usual greeting to me. Not Hi how are ya, or What’s new Dannyboy, but Get this man a drink.

“I hear he’s not doing very well,” he said to me.

“Yeah, well, there’s nothing more any of us can do about it,” I answered. “I just wish he would get it over with already.”

That sounded harsh and I regretted saying it as soon as it came out of my mouth. Crowley looked at me with his funny little grin and took a blast of his Canadian whisky.

“I mean, I don’t want him to die,” I explained. “I really don’t. But he’s just lying there, waiting for it to come, and I just feel so sorry for him.”

“I saw a lot of guys die in Korea,” Crowley said. “You lose a little bit of yourself when you see a man die. It’s something that you never get back. It comes out of here.” He pointed to his heart.

“How did you handle the war?” I asked him. “How did you keep your composure while watching those guys die?”

“You change yourself. You develop some insanity. It protects you from seeing what is truly in front of you. Over there we called it the Asian stare. It was the look we all had on our faces when we knew we only had six months to go. Your only thought was getting out of there alive.

“But it’s nothing special,” he continued. “This bad shit happens to everyone. I was one of the lucky ones. I made it out alive. But I still think about those guys every day.”

 “This bad shit happens to everyone.”

I bummed a Marlboro Light from him. I had now added smoking to my bad Cleveland habits. I had smoked in my twenties, and quit for more than ten years. But now, every time I had a beer, I craved a smoke. And given the amount of beer I was drinking, the smoking was becoming a full-blown habit.

“Are you mad at your dad?” he asked.

Now, there was a question out of left field. But Crowley knew. He could tell I was agitated and nervous, sorting things out in my head while I drank with him.

“I guess what makes me mad is how he never took care of himself,” I replied. “I mean after his first colon cancer surgery, I came over to his house one day and he was eating pork chops and mashed potatoes cooked in the pork grease. I got so mad. I told him that that was the absolutely worst thing a colon cancer patient could be eating. He told me to fuck off.”

“So you’re saying his cause of death is pork chops?” He paused for a second and let out a loud laugh, followed by a minute of hacking.

“I guess I’m just trying to figure out what to do. You feel so helpless. I keep telling myself that he had a good life and that we had mended our fences, and now is his time. But it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“So you’re saying his cause of death is pork chops?”

“Your dad was a good man,” Crowley replied. “I didn’t know him that well, but I know his kids. And all you kids are good people. A man has to be a good guy if he raised good kids like your family. As much as I fight with your brother Mark, I know he is a good man. I like your brother Brian. Your sisters have all been nice every time I’ve met them.

“Everyone in your family has treated me with respect. They could have looked down on me because I’m just an old drunk. But no one ever has. And I know you guys all got that from your father. I know you got it from him, because that was how he was.”

I guess I knew that about my dad. But somehow in the midst of all this shit and death, I had forgotten some things about him. He always told us not to be impressed by celebrity or money. If he was at a wedding reception, you would usually find him talking to one of the busboys. When he was still accepting visitors at his house, a few lawyers he worked with came by, but every single secretary who had worked with him made a point to see him.

He never used his position to run roughshod over people. He was a champion of the virtues he learned as a kid in that Irish neighborhood he grew up in. Don’t show you’re better than anyone else, even if you are. Treat everyone decently. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Take care of your family.

I was glad I talked to Crowley. Sometimes wisdom comes from the oddest places. Sometimes from an old drunk at the bar. From a man who has nothing to prove.

+++

I went back to the hospice. The lights were dark in the room. Just a sliver of light made its way from the hallway into the room. My sisters Mary Margaret and Kathleen were in the room, sitting in chairs next to his bed. Mary Margaret was holding his hand, sobbing softly. My baby sister was having a hard time with his death. She was the last to move out of the house and had become very close to him in the past few years, living close by and taking him out to run errands. She brought her new baby, Maura, to see him often. And because she was so young when my mom died, she and my father had developed a special bond.

I sat and sobbed for a few minutes, not knowing why, not knowing if this was real emotion or just a crying jag from the beer.

Mary Margaret gave up her seat so I could sit next to him. His eyes were stuck back in his head, and the gasping for air was making every breath a struggle. I held his hand, but there was no pressure back. I leaned over and told him I was there for him, and kissed him on his forehead. It was funny: I had never remembered kissing my father in my whole life, but now in the past few days I had kissed him half a dozen times. He didn’t react to my voice or my kiss. His hand was limp. I sat and sobbed for a few minutes, not knowing why, not knowing if this was real emotion or just a crying jag from the beer. I stayed there for about fifteen minutes, praying to whatever god there was to take this suffering from him. With every gasp, I thought it might be his last. I remembered that guy down in Huntsville, how he gave two last gasps before the poison jerked his heart to a stop. I really didn’t know ifone of these gasps might be the end. I couldn’t stand it anymore.

My brothers Brian and Mark were out on his patio. The mood was decidedly different. Mark had brought a couple of twelve-packs over from the bar, and my brothers were telling stories about my dad. Some might think it callous to be drinking beer while the old man was lying a few feet away on his deathbed, but in our family it was oddly appropriate. I grabbed a cold one and sat down with them. The three of us had become closer than ever this summer, and I could trust them now.

“Remember when he saw you with that beer bong, Mark?”

“Remember when he destroyed that Ping-Pong table?” Brian asked. We all started laughing. The story was epic in our family. My dad had bought a Ping-Pong table for our basement rec room, and we played with it for about two months before getting bored. During the next year or so, the ping-pong table became a place where we put our junk, and the cheap aluminum legs became bent. My father decided he was going to fix it, and he was not terribly gifted when it came to tools and handyman skills. At some point he snapped in his frustration and began flailing at the table with his hammer. In a matter of minutes the fiberboard tabletop was smashed to bits, pieces of aluminum flying around the room. “I remember getting hit with a piece of wood in the head,” I said.

“I remember running out of the house scared,” Brian said. “But when I got outside, I never laughed so hard in my life.”

“Remember when he saw you with that beer bong, Mark?” I asked. A beer bong is a large funnel with a piece of plastic hose taped to it. The way it worked was that the beer drinker would pour three or more beers into the funnel and suck the contents out through the smaller end. My dad was curious about the apparatus and asked Mark to show him how it worked. Mark grabbed three beers from the fridge, poured them into the funnel, and sucked them down in about fifteen seconds.

“He told me he had been drinking for thirty years and never saw anything like it,” Mark said. “You guys didn’t know how to impress him. I knew what would make him proud of me.”

I told them about our conversations from the night I spent with him. I told him about my theory that he was afraid to see our mother and that this might be one of the reasons he was hanging on so long. One of the social workers told me this was a common occurrence, that terminally ill patients have some things to work out before they die. She agreed that he might be working through those things now.

“He had a tough time back then,” Brian said. “A lot of people saw him as being this life of the party, but there was a certain sadness in his life. He kept that buried in him.”

“Do you ever wish he had handled things differently?” I asked Brian. “I mean about the grieving process.”

“He did his best. That’s all you can ask for.”

“I don’t know. Think of where he was in his life. He was forty-three years old, and he had six kids. He was probably just trying to make it through each day. I’m that age now. I don’t know what I’d do if Mary died and I had to raise my kids by myself. And I only have three.

“It’s easy for us to make judgments on that time, but you have to put yourself in his place. He had watched her deteriorate for so long that her death itself was probably a relief for him. I can’t imagine what he must have been going through.”

“He did his best. That’s all you can ask for,” added Mark.

I decided to go. It was about midnight, and Mark was going to take the night shift. I went in the room to say good-bye. I didn’t plan on coming back. l figured it was the last time I was going to see him. It was very anticlimactic.

+++

But l did come back. l couldn’t really stay away. I needed to see how this whole thing played out.

I was driving home past my brother’s bar and decided to stop in for a nightcap. I saw Mike Marcic at the bar and sat down next to him.

“How’s Papastein?” he asked. “Papastein” was the name my younger brothers and his friends had for the old man. I had no idea where it came from—maybe these guys were making some attempt at German philosophy—but my dad liked the moniker and referred to himself as Papastein at times.

“Just about checked-out,” I told him.

Marcic sold furniture for a living. His nickname was “Massive Head.” As a kid, his head was abnormally big for his body, and though his body eventually caught up, the name stuck. And I thought I had a bad nickname in “Tony.”

“It’s just too bad. He was a great guy.”

My father loved a captive audience like this, a kid who hadn’t heard his stories before.

Marcic then told me about how he and my father had bonded during a trip to the Bahamas a few years earlier. My brother Mark arranged a yearly trip to the Bahamas for his bar bowling league. It was always a wild drunken affair, and my father decided to go with the group one year. Marcic said he sat next to my dad by the pool every day, drinking beer together, while my dad told him stories about his childhood and his life as a lawyer. My father loved a captive audience like this, a kid who hadn’t heard his stories before. It was typical of my father to befriend some kid he had little in common with.

“I laughed so hard one day,” Marcic said. “He kept telling stories about circus geeks, and would go into great detail about the proper way to bite off the head of a chicken. He was almost scientific about it. That’s what I’ll remember about your dad. Circus geeks.”

“What about the hot tub?” I asked.

“Yeah, he kept asking me about the hot tub. Said he wouldn’t go in the hot tub again until it was drained and disinfected.”

Why shouldn’t a guy who had circus geeks and hot tub sex in common with my old man be allowed to see him?

The incident in question involved Marcic and some young woman he met on the trip. After a night of drinking, they repaired to the hot tub. Because they each had a roommate on the trip, the two of them decided to take care of business right there in the hot tub by the pool. My father apparently wandered by during the episode and spent the next few days asking Marcic very pointed questions about his liaison.

“He was funny about it,” Marcic said. “He was asking me if I used the bubbles to my advantage and he told me I had a moronic look on my face. Then he told me about a similar experience he had in a pool when he was younger. I felt embarrassed by the whole thing because we were really drunk. But your father had so much fun with it that I had to laugh.”

“Yeah, he loved to tell the hot tub story. You got more studly every time he told it.”

“I really wish I could see him before he dies,” Marcic said.

I thought about this for a minute. For the past few days, my stepmother had been limiting the people who could see him, and rightly so. There were so many relatives, so many lives he touched, old neighbors and friends, coworkers and childhood friends, that the hospice was becoming overrun with people. I knew there was no way my stepmother would want someone like Marcic to go see him. But she was home in bed, and I thought why not? Why shouldn’t a guy who had circus geeks and hot tub sex in common with my old man be allowed to see him?

“Let’s go,” I told him.

We made our way over to the hospice, and I warned Marcic about how my dad looked; that he was gaunt and probably weighed only 150 pound (he was about 220 before this latest bout), that his legs were bluish black and he was having trouble breathing. “Can you handle that?” I asked.

Marcic nodded.

We approached the room by way of the patio. My sisters had left, and Brian and Mark were still having a few beers in the cool night air, checking in on him every few minutes.

“Massive Head, what are you doing here?” Brian asked.

“Just came to pay my respects to Papastein,” Marcic said.

Of all the things to say to a man on his deathbed.

We led him inside, through the partially opened French doors. The four of us stood over his bed; he was till gasping for air, but he seemed more peaceful than before. A look of horror came over Marcic’s face. He hadn’t seen my dad in about a year and wasn’t prepared for the sight. I guess we had gotten used to how he looked over time, but for someone who hadn’t seen him in a while, the gruesome sight of a man in the throes of death can be unsettling.

“Just go up to him and hold his hand and tell him who you are,” I told Marcic.

Marcic approached the bed lowly, took my dad’s hand, and moved his mouth closer to my dad’s ear. “Hey, Papastein,” he started. “It’s Mike Marcic. Remember me? I was the guy who fucked that girl in the hot tub down in the Bahamas.”

We all cracked up. We were at various stages of drunkenness, but the whole scene was just too weird. Of all the things to say to a man on his deathbed.

But then something very strange happened. My dad gripped Marcic’s hand, turned his face to him, and let loose with his trademark smirk.

There was definitely some shallow happiness going on here.

A few seconds later it turned into a grin. There was definitely some shallow happiness going on here. And then he closed his eyes and the grin stayed on his face. We all looked at each other like we had seen a miracle. I wondered what my dad was thinking. He was probably picturing Marcic fucking that girl in the hot tub. What a way to go out.

We went back outside and Marcic started bawling. He was really torn up seeing my father that way. But we consoled him, telling Marcic that it was the first time my father had smiled in days. Marcic started laughing through his tears, and I gave him a beer. We toasted to my father and Massive Head and his hot tub escapades. And shit.

I decided to go in the room by myself. The smile was now gone from his face, and the two of us sat in the silent darkness. I decided that this was going to be it for me. It was late, two in the morning now, and I was exhausted. I didn’t want to come back. I decided to say my piece.

“Dad, it’s Danny,” I started. “I love you very much and you’ve taught me a lot. I’m very proud of you, how you’ve handled this, but now is the time. It’s okay to die.”

I don’t know if it was all the beer, but I raised my voice so I was almost shouting at him.

“Dad, it’s Danny … It’s okay to die.”

“My mother is going to welcome you. Don’t worry about her. You’re going to see everyone and it’s going to be great. Don’t worry about any of your kids. You’ve done a great job with us. Crowley told me so tonight. You know Crowley, the guy who cleans up at Mark’s bar. He said you were a great guy. Everyone says the same thing.”

I was starting to ramble.

“But Jesus Christ, Dad, there comes a time when you just have to do what you have to do. No one will think any less of you if you just let go. You’ve been so brave, but you’re not proving anything to anyone by keeping this going any longer. It’s okay. Mark’s going to spend the night, and he’ll take care of you. Don’t be afraid. You’ve done the hard part.”

I started crying. “I’m going to miss you terribly, but we had a few good months. Just remember how much I love you and how I always admired you. That’s it. I’m going now. I’ll see you on the other side.”

I got up, kissed him on the forehead. “Tell my mom I said hi. Tell her I miss her. Bye.”

And with that I left. I walked outside, had one more beer with my brothers and Marcic and drove home. I sat out on my porch, listened to the ore freighters on the river and watched the blue flames shoot from the steel mill . Everything in Tremont was quiet and peaceful. I felt a little hollow, but I was happy that I had said what I had to say. This thing with my father, our life together, was over as far as I was concerned. Time to move on.

+++

I was sleeping on the couch in my living room when the phone rang at about eight the next morning. I didn’t bother to answer. I knew what the message was going to be. I waited a few moments and then listened to the message from Mark on my answering service.

I was glad for him, happy that he was finally able to get through this hard part of life. But I felt lost.

My dad had died about six in the morning. Mark had fallen asleep in the room about four, and my dad checked out soon after that. It was just like him to do it that way, wait until no one was around and then sneak off on his own. His last moment of consciousness was smiling at Mike Marcic about the hot tub. Maybe that’s what he was thinking about when he died. Good for him.

I stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. Life would be different from now on. I felt an odd mixture of relief and trepidation. I was glad for him, happy that he was finally able to get through this hard part of his life. But I also felt lost. Almost everything I did, every decision I ever made, I would think of how he would react and what he would think of me. It was a blessing and a curse to be so connected to a parent like that. I didn’t know what to think anymore. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt

Photo by r.classen/Shutterstock

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1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 17, 2014

    I’ve heard a lot of drunk logs in my day. That wasn’t one. That was a ramble in the midst of a discovery. A narrative of battle, but pregnant with the assurance that we will emerge somehow. And well. Thank you.

    Reply

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