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Been a Long Time Leaving

Rob Goldberg

Struggling to think of an apt high-school yearbook quote, I suggested Waylon Jennings’, “I’ve been a long-time leaving but I’ll be a long-time gone,” but my mother instead convinced me to use Dickens’, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”  At the time I said something like, “I guess that’s a better quote, Mom” and went on my way.  Now in the hindsight of 28 years of experience, my eyes involuntarily fill with tears every time I revisit this moment.  That one word “worst” covers a lot of ground.

In his late 60s, my father suddenly decided to stop drinking after having consumed obscene amounts of hard liquor on a daily basis for the previous 30 years or so. In short, he had been a hard-core alcoholic, although none of us in the family connected with that fact. As is usual in such situations, my mother went along for the ride. Looking back it was pretty obvious what was going on – the constant supply of jumbo jug-sized wine and booze bottles, my mom tripping coming out of the state store and breaking her ankle, the constant, general state of disinhibition and confusion.

People whose parents weren’t alcoholics, lucky folks, sometimes ask, “What was it like for you?” I usually answer that I have several “screen” memories of my early childhood, most of which focus on blissfully happy times contrasted with sudden outbursts of extreme violence perpetrated by my father.

In one episode when I was about six, my father advances on me in my bedroom as I cower on my bed which is against the corner of the room. My father, screaming invective, picks me up by my hair several feet into the air – mind you this is a six year-old body suspended from his hair -- and slaps me back and forth hard with a meaty hand. I can still feel the concussions and the sensation that “this can’t be good for my head.”   

In another, my father leans over the table to deliver a similar punishment to my brother (four years older) who cleverly raises his fork at the last moment, whereupon it sticks into my father’s stomach like some sort of weapon.

The happy moments revolve around camping trips in the Jersey Pine Barrens, where we car camped on a moment’s notice because my folks kept our VW Bus always loaded with all of our camping supplies. My father had even constructed a plywood, portable kitchen cabinet from plans from Popular Mechanics that kept everything organized. In pictures from these trips, my folks look so happy, like the neo-hippies they didn’t even know and would never acknowledge that they were.

Returning to my father’s sudden break with alcoholism, I should explain that he had just retired from many years of teaching engineering at Villanova University, a frustrating experience for an ambitious, extremely intelligent person. He had earned his undergraduate Engineering degree from NYU in the 40s and had been promptly sent out to Wright Air Force base to serve as a flight test engineer for several aircraft development programs, most notably refinements of the F4U Corsair, one of the planes that helped turn the tide in the Pacific theater of WWII. It seems his job often involved sitting in a tandem seat behind the pilot and recording measurements as the pilot put the plane through extreme maneuvers. This is said to have been traumatic, and in fact during my childhood we never saw my father in any vehicle except one controlled by himself – no zoo monorails, public transit of any kind, or other family’s car.  Now, he happily allows himself to be driven all over the place by his 24-hour aides, but that story comes later. 

The biggest frustration with teaching for my father was that he experienced his students as lazy grade grubbers. I have no idea if this was true or not, but he had obtained his Master’s degree from the nation’s leading aeronautical engineering program at Princeton University (he was one of the first Jews to break into that program), and I think he expected that same level of brilliance from his bright but ordinary students. 

I think he lacked a soft touch as a teacher. Once, when my car broke down coming home from college on Route 320 right at Villanova. I hoofed it over to the Engineering Building to borrow some cash to pay the tow truck. Waiting outside my Dad’s classroom, to head off an uncomfortable bitching session about him, I told a student waiting for his next class that Professor Goldberg was my father; the student offered his condolences, saying something like “Man, I feel sorry for you.”  The job seemed to drive my father crazy and he medicated himself with alcohol.

He had some family of origin issues too. His parents had been immigrant peasant types who had him when they were quite old; he describes an abusive childhood in which he would be left in a locked car for the better part of a day while his parents attended to their business as bar owners and landlords. “Slumlords!” my Mom would usually pitch in.

When my father retired in the late 1980s, he somehow came up for air and decided to stop drinking after having pickled his brain in alcohol for 30-some years.  Now, medical people will tell you that simply cannot do this – instead, you have to tail off under the brain-calming influence of valium. The brain’s activity, having been depressed in a way for so long by the alcohol, when released from this effect, flies away like a kite whose string has broken in a strong wind. The result is the DTs, just like the drunks who saw pink elephants in the cartoons we watched before the movies at the College Theater. My father became extremely agitated and, convinced he was having a heart attack, called an ambulance that took him to the local community hospital.

Once we assembled at the hospital, the neurologist there informed us that they were unsure exactly what was going on, but that my father seemed to be having a psychotic break. Why they were unable to diagnose something as simple and common as the DTs I will never understand.  To make a long medical story short, my father ended up in the locked psychiatric ward of Bryn Mawr hospital, which he tried to break out of by smashing a window with an iron IV stand. He said he wanted to buy pizza from the shop visible from his window. After that, for most of the time, they kept him in a straightjacket, until he suddenly came out of the DTs, looked around him in the common room, and said, “What the fuck am I doing in here, these people are crazy!”  Relieved, we just had to laugh.

An extended stay at an inpatient detox facility introduced my father to AA and the idea of the 12 steps. Now for committed atheists, this was difficult for my parents. They had grown up in religious Brooklyn neighborhoods (my father had been Bar Mitzvahed and his father was a cantor at a storefront shul), and they both had rejected religion as an absurdity out of step with modern life.  (You had to hide your bacon on the windowsill so busybodies wouldn’t give you shit for not keeping kosher, my Mom would say.) 

For atheists the step that causes a problem is of course the one about surrendering control to a higher power, and this language for Goldbergs conjures  up Monty Python-esque images of primitive people bowing down to a white man with a beard popping out of a cloud.  My father, however, crafted an approach to the 12 steps that let him take in the spirit of that step, maybe by substituting nature (think Gaia) for higher power, and soon he was leading therapy sessions even in detox. Once out on the street, he became a highly respected AA leader and even started his own meeting and ran meetings at a detox at a community hospital. He circulated the rounds of meetings in blue-collar Delaware County neighborhoods, and sponsored many struggling alcoholics. I can remember when he would take a call from a “slipping” alcoholic, and would kick into a nurturing, pro-active mode that I never would have thought possible just a few years earlier. To this day, when in restaurants, a tattooed giant or grizzled ex-junkie type will approach our table and unexpectedly hug my father and ask how we’re all doing.

What followed were ten happy years in which Alice and I palled around with my intact parents on their weekly expeditions to various wholesome artistic and historical sites. My mom, also a professor but of Spanish and folklore, had a massive intellect and a lot of get up and go.  Gradually over those 10 years, I forgave my father for his past unspeakable violence and began to even respect him.

My mother until her death from lung cancer just after 9/11 (her comment at the time: “I got my own problems right now dear”) clung to atheism and subtly ridiculed the low-brow aspects of AA.  My sisters, always more status conscious, sided with my mother on this issue, but my brother and I thought, “Hey it works, shut the hell up, why don’t you.”  Their inability to break with the past was most exemplified by their bizarre insistence that my father continue to live alone in our three-floor 16-room house after he suffered two major strokes. He cannot walk, has lost his short-term memory, and often cannot tell you what town he lives in. Yet my sisters insist that he would lose important orientation to life by moving from familiar surroundings. So the house stays museum-like in much the arrangement it was in when my mother breathed her last breath in Taylor Hospital – her computer, desk, books, closet of clothes all slowly molder like the inside of the castle of the nutty lady in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”  Unable to ever go upstairs, my father sleeps in the uninsulated sunporch, as the heater blasts out full force in compensation.

I visit once a week, occasionally rolling him outside in the wheelchair to try to connect him with nature in the way that he once so enjoyed. (My mom used to also ridicule his predilection for those public TV nature shows in which the lion was always stalking the wildebeest.) Repeatedly over the years, Alice and I have proffered up nursing home alternatives closer to me but again and again my sisters have insisted that he must stay in Swarthmore.

In the end, I decided his care is good enough; with the aides, it’s as if he’s in a third-rate nursing home rather than the cushy, top-notch ones his TIAA-CREF bounty could actually buy.  If I were to continue to fight and argue with sisters, that would make the battle to move him central to my life; I would be back in the pretzel logic of my family of origin, rather than a new one focused on building a new family with my lovely wife and two amazing daughters.  In my mind, I can hear my father offering a generous benediction, “Go ahead, do your own thing!”

The enormity of my father’s will to suddenly and voluntarily break with a lifetime of drinking (in contrast to the typical involuntary situation that causes the DTs such as unexpectedly entering the hospital for another illness) is the psychic equivalent of moving a house-sized boulder with your bare hands. I will always respect my father for this gutsy (if misguided) move, and I take some comfort in knowing that such grit is a part of our family’s heritage.   


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Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Rob Goldberg


mameen's picture

I couldn't help but think of

I couldn't help but think of this poem, "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Reothke, when I read this account.

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy. 

We romped until the pans 
Slid from the kitchen shelf; 
My mother's countenance 
Could not unfrown itself. 

The hand that held my wrist 
Was battered on one knuckle; 
At every step you missed 
My right ear scraped a buckle. 

You beat time on my head 
With a palm caked hard by dirt, 
Then waltzed me off to bed 
Still clinging to your shirt.