Erik Proulx never hated his father, “a wonderful person with a terrible sickness”: heroin addiction.
This Sunday, kids around America will serve breakfast to their fathers in bed. They will bring them boxes stuffed with ties and power tools and fairway woods. Fathers and sons and daughters will watch golf together as a man in a red shirt tries to win the U.S. Open. And dads will read the words Hallmark scribed because children don’t have the capacity yet to form them themselves.
As a father, it’s an honor for me to be the recipient of all this honoring. But as a son, I never had the opportunity give it. My dad was gone before I was three and died when I was 12, ultimately succumbing to the heroin addiction that forced my mom to kick him out of our third-floor apartment in Lawrence, MA.
I never “hated” my father, mostly because my mom was always very careful to speak kindly of him. “A wonderful person with a terrible sickness” was how I came to understand him. I never felt much of anything, really. There was just an emptiness where all the memories should have been.
But despite not knowing him, I’d like to honor my father, Wayne Stephen Proulx, with the words it’s taken me 40 years to say. Words I’d like to believe aren’t that different from what other imperfect sons are writing, thinking, and saying to other imperfect fathers
I know you’ve been waiting a long time for a father’s day present from me. To be completely honest, I never really knew what to get the man who gave up everything. But I have come to realize lately that I’ve been so wrapped up in my own wounds that I neglected to acknowledge yours.
From being abused when you were a child, to having alcoholic, addicted parents, to having a baby at 18 years old, to growing up in the 60s where drugs of every size and strength were both accessible and acceptable—I can now say, I understand why you weren’t around.
It’s taken me 40 years to realize something very powerful, dad. By not being in my life, you were the best father you could be. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t. The illness of addiction is contagious, and your presence would have made me sick, too. You shielded me from your demons, and kept them as your own. And that act took courage.
I know you kept my baby pictures. I know you wanted to come and see me over the 10 years before you died. I’ve heard stories of how you couldn’t wait to take me out on my 18th birthday when we could finally talk man to man.
And I know that every time the thought crossed your mind, you had another thought:
“Not yet. Not until I’m clean.”
Instead, you have given me the very best parts of you. Like you, I’m six feet tall, dark-haired, and handsome. Like you, I have a warm and generous heart. Like you, I am sensitive to the feelings and emotions of those around me. Like (or because of) you, I love the Beatles, and can even play a mean Rocky Raccoon. Like you, I sang “Blackbird” to my kids as they fell asleep in their cribs.
People like to compliment me on the life I’ve lived. They like tell me I’ve broken the chain of addiction. But who’s to say, given similar circumstances, I would have acted any differently? Who’s to say any of us would? If I broke any chains, it’s only because you gave me the bolt cutters.
I get it now. I get how impossible it was. I understand the depths of your own pain. Your cup was full. And your greatest gift to me was to fight the urge to have me in your life. Because by doing so, you gave me mine.
Your grandchildren try so hard to honor me. They want to make me laugh. They want to make me proud. And I want to make you proud too, dad. I want you to know that I’m okay. That in your own way—the only way you could—you raised a great son.
So my gift to you this Father’s Day is to say the thing I’ve never said. Not to you directly. Not even in my head.
I love you, dad.
Happy Father’s Day,
Photo courtesy of Erik Proulx