Whether the sound is coming from the room next to mine, or hiding a few walls further away, it’s there — beer cans popping open at two, then three, then five in the morning.
I want to get mad, but all I feel is guilt.
I flash back to a night when my mom swore she was done. Done with the verbal fights. Done with being the only target. Done with hoping things would change.
Eleven-year-old me climbed into bed with her, cried and begged with a heavy heart, “Please don’t leave dad. I love him.” It was a painful plea. The kind that would make a mom do anything to make the pain go away.
My dad stayed. And as time went by, I disappeared.
I used school as an escape when I was a boy. Now I use work to distance myself from family. “I’m too busy.” It’s the best and most honest excuse I have.
The beginning of the pandemic, however, brought me back home to Laredo, Texas — more than 1,400 miles from Chicago.
I saw it as a blessing. I got to reconnect with my mom after being a stranger who had been gone for 10 years.
Most of our best talks happened over a hot dish of her delicious enchiladas. We laughed and loved as much as we could before 6 p.m., when the reality of living with an unpredictable drunk woke us up from our rose-colored fantasy of being a blessed family.
I don’t know if it was the stress of the pandemic or his addiction wanting more from him, but my dad had been drunk for months.
Inevitably, verbal fights became more frequent, and this time I wouldn’t get a recap of what happened last night over the phone. I was there. Angry and involved. His addiction was part of my life again.
I admit that some of the fights weren’t unprovoked. I began to challenge my dad and his toxic machismo beliefs on how a man should act and how women should be treated. I emptied his beers down the sink on nights that became unbearable, hoping it would bring back a version of the dad a younger me wanted to keep around.
Those efforts only enraged him further. Especially one night when a verbal fight between my dad and me became physical.
We began with aggressive pushing and shoving, and what followed was me having the arm of the man, who was strongly against hitting his children, around my neck.
The struggle started with frustration and anger but then, while trying to set myself free, I started to hear childish laughter. It wasn’t the lack of oxygen making me delusional; the alcohol in my dad made him believe it was all just a game. A game he was winning.
When I was growing up, games were how we bonded as a father and a son.
One of my favorite games was when my dad would pretend to be asleep in his bed while my siblings and I quietly sneaked into his room, trying not to wake the “monster.” We held our breath in anticipation. After a few seconds, my dad would pop out from under the sheets and roar while we ran away laughing and screaming with joy.
This time, the game was over. The monster was real.
My brother witnessed as this argument turned serious in a split second. He helped me, freeing me from my dad’s grip, when I looked at him and said, “I seriously can’t breathe.”
The fight stopped. There was only silence.
My dad went to his room. I sat on the couch. Both of us were trying to process what had just happened. He came out minutes later and stood in front of me, trying his best to see through his blurred sense of reality.
“I don’t know what came over me,” my dad told me. “I’m sorry I hurt you. Please forgive me.” I felt the sincereness behind his words. But I couldn’t accept his apology.
I experienced true fear that day.
I wasn’t just scared of him, I was scared of myself. Addiction had taken control of me, too, changing me into an angry and confrontational person. I was toxic, no matter what my motivation was.
My dad and I didn’t speak for more than a month. Since then, the sound of beer cans popping open in the middle of the night are less frequent. Days are becoming boring and predictable again.
I haven’t forgiven my dad yet. I’m still working on it, just like he’s working on beating his addiction. But I did invite him to the dinner table to eat tres leches cake when we celebrated my cat Monte’s 4th birthday.
I’m returning back to Chicago soon, and I don’t know how to feel.
I’d be lying if I said I have never imagined a future where my mom did leave my dad that night almost 20 years ago. It would also be a lie if I told you he wasn’t an amazing father.
If I could have a conversation with addiction, I’d say, “Please leave my dad. I still love him.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay was begun by Ismael Perez, a member of the Sun-Times editorial board, as an entry in his personal journal. As his relationship with his father improved, they agreed that he would write about this experience for publication. For help with addiction, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
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