Long before my father died just over a year ago, I had already lost him – to time, to distance, to alcohol. He lived on the streets of the same town as me, but I couldn’t see him and I could count the times I squeezed him on one finger. But even though he was gone, I loved him. I still do.
For years I tried to write about my estranged father. Once so strong and loving. Always hardworking and courageous. But I couldn’t because there was no happy ending yet, one in which he recovered from alcoholism and returned home.
He never came home.
After more than a decade battling his illness in and out of rehab centers — mostly with the help of strangers — he died on a Tuesday morning in June 2021, in an old white truck he had never owned. only dreamed of repairing and driving.
I hope he knows he was loved. I reminded him every time he answered the phone. Although he tried to recover, he couldn’t. The shame in his eyes every time I put down food or clean clothes helped me realize, over time, that he wasn’t avoiding me because he didn’t like me – he loved so much that he preferred to remain distant to avoid hurting me or my siblings.
His substance abuse and mental health issues were stronger than his will to recover, return home, or settle down. This is something that we tend to misunderstand in people struggling with alcoholism or other addiction issues who end up letting it take over their lives. Their story and their trauma are very particular; often painful, even distressing, I would say.
Some are quick to judge those who find themselves on the streets, begging for money and completely lost. My father, even though he was homeless, was dearly loved. He always had a home in me.
His illness and absence from my life taught me to extend grace to those like him who are lost. When he died, I promised to make a home for the other parents I meet on the street by listening to them, accepting them for who they are, and connecting them with resources if they choose to follow this way. I hope other children of alcoholics will learn to accept their reality, and that of their parents, forgive them and forgive themselves and give themselves some grace.
Instead of shame, we need lots of love and support as we navigate life with a parent who is physically alive but not a part of our lives. I never told anyone about my father. It was a deep pain that I tried to ignore, maybe because I was too scared to face it. Or because I didn’t want to explain it and all the complexities to others for fear people wouldn’t understand. But over time, I’ve learned that it’s not necessary for anyone to understand your story.
The process of acceptance and the strength to embrace the situation has shown me who is willing to hold my hand as I cling to the memory of my father. Because addictions, like love, know no borders, race or gender.
With us, there was once laughter and hugs. There was hope. Growing up, I prayed and begged him to seek help. “Don’t you love us enough to stop?” I will ask him. I thought not. When my mother decided to leave him in 2009, he had been drinking nonstop for months. He stopped working and we lost our house. He was always drunk on my birthdays and didn’t go to any of my graduations.
Several times I tried to hold her hand. I wanted to let her know that I loved her and that I was going to be by her side no matter what. But I needed him to try. He did not do it. Although he participated in rehabilitation programs many times throughout his life, he relapsed each time. His addiction stemmed from childhood trauma. His mother died shortly after he was born and his father passed away a few years later, leaving him to grow up alone.
Growing up, I was angry with him for not trying hard enough to seek help. Then I saw him try for the first time. It was difficult to find resources in the low-cost Chicago area or at rehab centers where the facilitators spoke Spanish. When I enrolled him in a rehab program in 2016, he persevered and attended Alcoholics Anonymous for months. He prayed for strength and seemed optimistic about the future. My siblings and I got it back on its feet with the help of beautiful strangers.
Maria, an older lady he met while wandering the streets and who sometimes fed him, treated him as if he were her son. When he got out of the rehab program, she gave him housing and a permanent job at her churro shop. I bought him clothes and food and made sure to visit and call him.
Within a few months, he started drinking again. That’s when he left Maria’s house and stopped calling. I lost track of his whereabouts for nearly three years. I was devastated. Every birthday, Christmas and other holidays, behind my smile, the memory of my estranged father resurfaces in my mind.
I asked myself: how can I write so many stories and help so many people, but I can’t help my own father?
During the last years of his life, we mostly talked on the phone. He lived in shelters, churches and basements of friends. Most of the time, I only knew he was alive if I called and his phone service was connected, or if he answered.
He would call sometimes and say “mañana te habloa promise I knew he would break. He never called.
I feared I would find him dead any day, then I realized that over the last decade of my life, I had watched him slowly die. Vanish. To abandon.
But I also recognized how strong he made me and how much he taught me to love unconditionally. Have an open heart and work hard despite the pain. He taught me that love never ends, it only transforms. It is transformed into strength, empathy, love of life and of others.
Thanks to my alcoholic father, I am the woman I am today. Sometimes broken, but always strong and eager to learn from life. To those who have an alcoholic relative, a distant relative or a homeless friend: don’t be ashamed, ask others for help.
One in five adults lived with an alcoholic parent growing up. Children of alcoholics tend to face more likely to have emotional problems that children whose parents are not alcoholics, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
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Here are some resources I wish I had growing up.
Local Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings offer recovery programs for families and friends of alcoholics. These meetings often take place in churches or other community spaces and can connect families to other resources, including referrals to rehabilitation centers, financial assistance and mental health services.
Latin treatment center is a non-profit institution that offers bilingual services for addiction treatment, family treatment, and individual and group counselling.
Haymarket Center provides addiction treatment for a variety of people struggling with a range of addictions.
gateway foundation is a non-profit organization that provides affordable drug and alcohol addiction treatment in the Chicago area.