The year my dad died, I was taking writing classes at University of Chicago. I was twenty-two and I wanted to be a writer. But let me clarify. I didn’t want to write. Writing was hard. Writing meant sitting alone in my apartment, something I already did more than I wanted to. But being a writer — being responsible for the pages clasped in the hand of readers as they run off to catch the bus or to find a quiet nook where they can thumb through the pages and pick back up on listening to this new intimate, this writer, this voice in their heads. I wanted someone to take in my words with the same longing and satisfaction that I felt when I read Hemingway or Austen or Tim O’Brien. I wanted to be one of them, only I wanted to do as little as possible of the actual writing. Every time I wrote something in those beginning years, it felt like the most dramatic triumph. Up to that point, not writing was what I knew. I didn’t know anything else.
My dad wasn’t much of a reader. A year before he died, I bought him The Fight by Norman Mailer — a story about the rumble in the jungle between George Foreman and Mohammed Ali that was so beautifully, honestly, captivatingly done that it even made writing look fun. I mean, here was Mailer, one of the first literary journalists, running alongside Mohammed Ali, tape recorder in hand, living the moment that he would write about and letting the world into not just the mind and life of this amazing athlete, but the reality of that pocked jungle road and the muddy water that splashed each of their shins as they ran.
Maybe I loved the book all the more because it was about a sport (not usually my interest) and it made me feel connected to my dad, a man who watched sports near constantly. Bookies needed to know the scores, and this was at a time before Google or cell phones. Dad didn’t watch games as much as watch scores, except when it came to boxing. We would sit together on the narrow blue couch in front of the TV, both of our feet up on the marble coffee table, and watch as the announcer reached up for the hanging microphone.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” he said into the chrome mic head. Behind him was an antsy Vegas crowd, standing up, swiveling their heads to check all four entrances, waiting for one of the doors to open. The announcer’s voice rung out over those done up and hardened faces to slowly shout it out, letting each syllable build to the next, “Myyyyyykkkkkeee Tyyyyyysohhhhhn!”
Dad would nudge me and I looked over at him, but we didn’t need to say anything. We just smiled at each other excitedly, as if to say, This is it. This is the big moment. This is the best boxer in the world!
I dreamt of going to Vegas with Dad someday and seeing a fight in person, seeing the beads of sweat and blood jump up off the opponent’s cheek and hang in the air as he fell backward, Tyson’s glove print still on his chin. Several times a month, elaborate casino invitations arrived in the mail for Dad. They promised limos and free hotel rooms and free tickets to Tyson fights.
“Can I go? Please!” I’d say.
“When you’re older, I’ll take you,” he’d say. “It’s not a place for kids.”
But as I grew older, I wanted to go less. I understood that the invitations weren’t a gift. They were the result of how much money Dad lost in Vegas every time he went. And Vegas wasn’t a place for families, and Dad wasn’t a family man. It was his place to bet, to count cards, to dream of beating the system, and to lose again and again.
By the time Dad died, no one could deny his drinking problem. Fifty-two-year-olds don’t die of liver failure for no reason. And by that time, we’d sat across from each other in the family room of a rehab facility more than once, and I’d begged him to listen when the doctors warned that if he didn’t change his life, he wouldn’t have a life to ruin anymore. I told him that I needed him. I told him he could change. But I was wrong. He couldn’t.
“I don’t know anything else,” he said. I held his hand across a table and told him how scared I was. His liver hadn’t failed yet. His skin hadn’t turned sickly yellow. He was still more alive than dead.
“I don’t know anything else.”
I knew then more than ever that asking him to quit drinking meant asking him to lead an entirely different life, to be an entirely different man.
After Dad died, I wrote a story about him in one of my writing classes. In it, a man drives himself deep into a secluded forest. He then pushes his truck down a gulley so that he is stranded. He has no food, no way to communicate and, most importantly, no alcohol. He sits up against a tree trunk and watches the autumn leaves float to the ground beside the first snow of winter and waits for the death of either his addiction or his body, content to accept either. He has decided never to drink again, one way or another.
Being in grad school at U of C, I felt let loose on the world for the first time. I was determined to be a writer and to face the daunting effort that writing required. But above all else, I think I wanted to be a writer right then so I could change Dad’s story. So I wrote a man who found his will power, whatever it took. A man who would do anything to beat his addiction. I wrote this man that had done what Dad couldn’t do. And even though they both died, Dad and the character, in my story at least, I had made it into a triumph.