Pauline Campos | Longreads | June 2017 | 9 minutes (2,131 words)
By the time I was eight, I knew how to pour the contents of a beer can into a travel mug without foam. I used to joke that this is why I later became a kickass bartender and waitress in my college days, a side-benefit of being the daughter of an alcoholic.
My father was a high-functioning alcoholic. He never missed a day of work due to drinking, and gave it up every Lenten season as easily and selflessly as Jesus himself had given his body and his blood for the sins of every Catholic.
No one ever questioned why he kept going back to it, if he obviously had the willpower to stay dry for 40 days and 40 nights. It would only have been considered staying “dry” if he were officially an alcoholic trying to not drink, and that was not something he or anyone around him ever acknowledged. When he was alive, those words were never spoken. No one was in denial, I don’t think. They knew he was an alcoholic, but they didn’t see it as quite a problem, and he did his best not to make it one. They probably figured, why try to fix what wasn’t exactly broken?
My father was larger than life to me, even after I hit my adult height of 5’6’’ and we stood eye to eye. He was stocky and strong; he was built like a bulldog and walked with the cocky self-assurance that is the birthright of every Latino male. I’ve been told I walk like him, and when I hear these words, comparing my stride and carriage to that of my father’s, I beam with a ridiculous level of pride. His astrological sign was the lion, the Leo; king of the jungle and his world, just like his father, just like the man I married, though I’d sworn I would marry someone who didn’t remind me so much of my father. Although I married another Leo, my husband is a man who rarely drinks. Still, I’ve never judged my father for his drinking. My dad was the strongest man I have ever known; the craving for beer was just his achilles heel. Every superhero has a weakness.
My father was the glue that connected me to my entire family, and every member of my family to one another. Every Sunday, no matter how tired he was from working 80 hours a week between a full-time job and a side job, he drove us the 45 minutes to his sister’s and brother-in-law’s house, my tia and tio, for the afternoon. The amounts of food cooked and served, and sheer number of mouths to feed at each Sunday production rivaled those at most of my friends’ Thanksgivings. Sitting in the middle of the Spanglish chaos, my Guelo, my dad’s dad, held court at the kitchen table with my father at his side — my dad with the beer he poured himself, because his hands weren’t busy holding on to a steering wheel in a moving vehicle. My grandfather with the instant coffee one of my tias served him because it was safer that way. He liked his coffee hot, and I wasn’t steady enough on my feet to be trusted to carry a steaming hot mug of potentially scalding liquid from the microwave to the table without spilling any. When I was finally deemed old enough to serve Guelo his coffee, too, I was just as careful and attentive with his coffee as I had been for years with my dad’s beer.
In my memory, we were always safe with my father. Drunk or sober, he watched over and protected us; behind the wheel, he projected the very definition of a safe driver, signaling for every lane change, coming to a complete stop at every stop sign, and waiting just a beat after a traffic light turned green to gently ease the car forward.
I vaguely remember just a few instances in which my mother, who never got her driver’s license, argued with him about having drunk too much — and how sick of this shit she really was — on the drive home from spending time with family or friends. My sisters and I sat in the back seat, silently looking at nothing in particular. I remember being mad at her in my mind for speaking the words that could make bad things happen. What if we got into a car accident? They did their arguing about his drinking at home more often because it was safer there. we didn’t have to worry about him coming home if he already was… Sure, my father might have been drunk, but if it was a Saturday night, he could sleep late the next day. I know my mother asked him again and again why he kept drinking, but I was too young at the time to remember a specific response. Just a lot of yelling, her crying, him sighing, like he was tired of hearing it but couldn’t really defend himself. I do know he never promised her he was going to stop. My father didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep.
In my memory, we were always safe with my father. Drunk or sober, he watched over and protected us.
Looking back, I’m sure his hyper-awareness while drinking and driving was his way of not calling attention to himself. He was a man of honor and providing for his family was his job. Landing behind bars for that beer I’d poured him, or finding himself out of a job for showing up to the factory hungover for his early morning shift, would have been the ultimate failure. My father didn’t fail.
Because failure wasn’t in his vocabulary, maybe he saw his clinging to drinking, despite clear signs of alcoholism, as a choice he made. He loved my mother and worked two jobs for twenty years to support me and my four younger sisters, but family life provided no escape for him, no place for him to be his former self, free of family responsibilities like too many bills to pay and mouths to feed.
I have always hated beer. The taste makes me gag, and has since I was 3. That’s when either my father or one of his friends put some beer in my bottle, laughing when I cried because my bottle tasted like my father smelled when he drank. Wine is okay, but only if it’s not too dry. Hard apple cider is okay. But not beer. Any time I’ve tried to drink it, as the beer taste lingered on my tongue, I wondered how many of those my father had to drink when he was younger to get to the point that it started to taste good to him.
At 15, I started working with my dad at his second job at a family-owned Mexican place about 45 minutes away from our home in the suburbs. I worked Friday and Saturday nights as a busser while he waited tables, most of which were filled with regulars who waited up to an hour just to be seated in my dad’s section. We always hung around after hours with the owners. The adults drank and laughed while I sat in a booth away from the bar, eating my first hot meal in hours, prepared by my father’s compadre, the head cook in the back. It was always perfect, no matter what he made me. While they drank and laughed, I ate and did my homework. When it was time to go home, my father climbed into the passenger seat, cracked open a 40, and I proudly handled the long drive home with my learner’s permit tucked into my back pocket.
This was my time with my dad, one on one. No Mom complaining to him about everything I now realize I’d complain about if my life were built around the concept of putting everyone else’s needs before my own, because that’s what a good Mexican wife does, dammit. No chatter from four younger sisters competing to get a word in edgewise with the man whose only day of rest was Sunday — the day we always drove to his sister’s for the weekly extended family dinner.
On these rides we talked about everything and nothing, while he drank and I drove. We laughed while trading lines from John Leguizamo’s “Freak,” one of our favorites. There’s a part in the show were Leguizamo, as a little boy, asks his father why he doesn’t stop drinking. His father gruffly replies, “Because I’m not a quitter.” The audience laughs and claps because this is a truth they relate to. We laughed because it was funny and sad and true. I loved him for trusting me enough to shed the bravado and machismo that comes with being a Mexican male in a culture that expected him to protect and provide, even when he was tired.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he used to tell me, the left corner of his mouth curling into a wry smile, his chocolate brown eyes twinkling as he laughed.
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That day came sooner than he or I could have expected, even though there were decades between our last drive home from the restaurant before I left for college and his funeral halfway into his 50th year. By that time I’d gotten married and had a daughter. He’d “retired” from the second job at the restaurant and started taking my sisters to places like Cedar Point and The Detroit Zoo, because life was slowing down and allowing him to enjoy the time no one realized would be so limited for him. He still gave up beer for Lent, then cracked open a 40 on Easter-Eve, drinking through the night and sleeping until mid-afternoon while my mother and sisters and I celebrated the resurrection of the God whose unconditional love my father believed in so strongly that he never felt guilty about celebrating his faith in his own way.
After my father died, I remember frantically digging through the tall box we stored our returnable cans and bottles in, my husband standing behind me, probably thinking that in my grief, I’d lost my mind. He nodded, understanding, when I pulled out the last can of Miller Lite my father had drunk at our house two weeks before he died, the day before Thanksgiving and my mother’s 49th birthday. My daughter was not even six months old yet, and I would turn 30 just four weeks later.
I loved him for trusting me enough to shed the bravado and machismo that comes with being a Mexican male in a culture that expected him to protect and provide, even when he was tired.
My dad was 20 years older than me; this is how I’d always framed my chronological progression through this world. Thirty wasn’t supposed to be just 30, it was supposed to be 50 minus 20. Without his age as a yardstick, it was a few years before I had to stop asking my husband how old I was.
Jesus’ blood was the wine we drank in communion at my father’s funeral, and Jesus’ body the dry communion wafers no one ever admitted out loud to hating because that’s not how we were raised. Think what you want, we were taught, but everything you say and do reflects on your entire family. So be respectful if you don’t want to catch hell from the tias.
It wasn’t the beer that killed him; he had survived rheumatic fever as a child in Mexico and, as a result, needed the valves in his heart replaced when he was 23; the resulting click-click-click each time his valves opened and closed made me think he’d swallowed a clock, like the Tic Tock Crock in Peter Pan. He was 50 when he went under the knife again. That time, he never came home.
At the funeral, I watched him as he lay in his casket, sleeping that final sleep. Now he’d never have to wake up and be everything to everybody, lacking enough energy or time left to be himself.
Clinging tightly to the beer can tab that had somehow appeared in in the pocket of the brand new fancy dress pants I’d bought to wear to the funeral, I silently sent a prayer to the heavens for his safe passage, and for an eternity in which he could just relax and be himself. Every year, I build my Day of the Dead altar around that empty Miller Lite can that had been his last, and I remember the conspiratorial pride I felt when I poured the first perfect beer under that dash as a little girl. He never liked the foam in his travel cup to be like the head you see on beers poured in television commercials, and I’d gotten it right.
Somewhere along the line, I lost that tab I’d held onto as I said goodbye at the funeral home. But the beer can remains on my dresser, a touchstone that always reminds me, fondly, of my father.
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Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of Babyfat: Adventures in Motherhood, Muffin Tops, & Trying to Stay Sane.
Editor: Sari Botton