Tag Archives: fatherhood

Dopefiend, a Recovery Memoir in Twelve Parts

Over twenty years ago, I moved to New York City to kick a heroin habit. I had less than twenty dollars in my pocket and was leaving behind my beautiful three-year-old boy, who had his mother’s straw colored hair and clear blue eyes, exactly the opposite of my own dark countenance. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper smiling face but couldn’t find much.

I lived in Steelton, a small-town in south central Pennsylvania. I had tried several times to stop using drugs there, but had found little success. There was a guy in Steelton who had been a heroin addict himself but had been clean for about five years: Scotty G. At the time, it seemed unimaginable to me that anyone who had once used heroin could go so long without the drug. Scotty was stocky with an open, friendly face. He wore his blond hair in a carefully greased crew cut, two slick curbs of hair rising on the receding hairline of his forehead like a McDonald’s sign. To ward off the coming winter, he wore a long pea coat. Scotty liked to wear black Wayfarer sunglasses, a host of gold rings on his fingers, and thick ropes of gold chain around his neck. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a busty redhead who smoked long brown cigarettes. Scotty always drove a new Ford sedan with dealer plates attached by magnets to the trunk. When dopefiends get sober, they invariably do one of two things to make a living: car sales or drug and alcohol counseling. Scotty worked at the big Ford dealership on Paxton and Cameron Streets, but he liked to show up to the 12-step meetings and do a little counseling on the side. We envied his jewelry, his shiny sedan, his pneumatic girlfriend. But his clean time held us in awe. Milling about Scotty during a smoke break at the meeting, we sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and listened to whatever he had to say.

“There are only two things you need to do to stay sober,” Scotty said.

We all raised our eyebrows. We knew there were at least twelve things required in the meetings, even if we couldn’t articulate exactly what those things were. Yet here was Scotty talking about doing only two. Seemed like a bargain. We all shuffled in a little bit closer.

“First,” Scotty said. “Don’t get high.”

This was an obvious first step and a little chuckle rose up from the seven or eight of us standing there. If you’re not an addict, it may seem like this solves the entire problem. It does not. The list of things that can impose a moratorium on drug use is endless. Someone gets busted somewhere along the distribution chain and suddenly there are no drugs available. You have to stop. Or one day you might not be able to get your money together. And: you can always get busted. Not getting high is as much a part of getting high as being able to poke a vein or get your money together. The trick isn’t to stop using drugs, but to remain abstinent for the long haul.

“Second,” Scotty said.

And here he paused for effect and held up two fingers. This was the money step: the crucial information we needed to stay clean. The signet ring on Scotty’s stubby pinky glittered in the afternoon sun. I didn’t want to seem too eager, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to hear something momentous. I leaned in a little closer.

Scotty had a little half smile on his lips as he sipped his coffee and adjusted his coat.

“Boys,” he said. He glanced to his left and then to the right. When he was sure he had our undivided attention, he said: “Change your whole fucking life around.”

He laughed heartily at his own little joke and stroked his tummy. The rest of us stood there in silence. Scotty crushed out his cigarette and grinned. “Come on,” he said, walking past us. “Let’s get back to the meeting.”

Fucking Scotty G.

He was just toying with us then, but I have come to realize that Scotty G.’s little joke wasn’t really all that far from the truth. To successfully stop using drugs, I had to change just about every aspect of my life: I needed a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual makeover of the most sweeping kind.

Of course, I didn’t understand any of this back then. None of us did.

We all groaned and smirked and scowled. Someone shook his head. Another person laughed good-naturedly and said, “Cocksucker.” We were a forlorn little group of recovering addicts, who thought we had stumbled upon a bargain. Instead we had the same old dusty twelve “To Dos” we started with.

We all turned together as one and headed back into the church basement. The only way to get where I wanted to go was to do all twelve.

And it was a good thing I did.

As it turns out, my son grew from a beautiful blonde boy to a strapping hulk of a young man. He towers over me, his eyes still blue, his hair still clipped short. Over the years, he has looked skeptically at my long tresses, my affinity to dress in faded black jeans and combat boots, or my deep and abiding loathing for athleticism of any kind. The one thing we have in common is a penchant for self destruction: This tendency of ours is the most recognizable piece of me that I have ever found in him. The only way I could hope to help him with it, was to first find my own way through the maze.

Here is my story in twelve parts: a part for each step, a step for each part.

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December is for Service

28-nov-09 059

November is for gratitude, but December is for service. If there is a better way to perform service than being a father, I can’t think what it might be.

Here is a picture of Tim and his daughter Jasmine, rolling around on the floor.

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Rick Bragg’s, The Prince of Frogtown

frogtown

I am a sucker for a good father story.

By that I mean an enjoyable story about the experience of fatherhood, whether its told from the point of view of the fathered or the father. Certainly I don’t mean the father has to be good. Terrible fathers are some of the most compelling portraits of fatherhood in literature today, from hopeless alcoholics (Angela’s Ashes) to clinging despots (This Boy’s Life). The Prince of Frogtown is about Rick Bragg’s father, Charles Bragg, a no good father for sure.

Right off the bat, Bragg tells us he has written about his father in two earlier memoirs (neither of which I have read). If he is candid about having previously dismissed his father as a drunken lout, his reasons for revisiting him in the current work are less clear. We learn that a 10 year-old stepson has come into the author’s life and he wants… what? Reconciliation? Redemption? To his credit, Bragg never absolves his father, but he does paint a complicated picture of the circumstances that contributed to his downfall.

What drives this story is Bragg’s relationship with his stepson. What a pleasure to watch it unfold: The demanding, macho Bragg tries hard to relate to a boy of the 90s, who isn’t as invested in the same boyhood ethos that Bragg has long held in such high esteem. Bragg inserts these short vignettes about himself and the boy between the longer chapters that document his own father’s circumstances. Those longer chapters suffer somewhat from coming to us second hand and from so long ago (the older Bragg died young in the 70s, the author hardly knew him).

Despite making up the bulk of the book, those longer chapters work best as context for the relationship between author and stepson. And the beauty of that relationship is how man and child move slowly toward one another: the boy picking up some of those old school boyhood values to impress the adult, who in turn ends up having to discard his reverence for some of those very same values to accept the boy.

A little bit of give, a little bit of take: That’s mostly what fatherhood is all about.

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Jasmine Olivia Elhajj!

Last night, June 13, 2009, at 2:23 A.M. (EST), Jasmine Olivia Elhajj arrived, weighing 6 lbs 15 oz.

This morning I woke up to a slew of messages on my cell phone, all of them from Timmy. In the messages from last night, he sounded giddy and excited; in this morning’s, he sounded sleepy but pleased.

We spoke a few hours ago and he filled me in on some of the details. Carrie is doing fine after a long and difficult labor, which she handled like a trouper. Tim found watching his child come into the world to be a very emotional experience. Jasmine sounds like a peaceful little girl. She’s pink, with little to no hair, and a cute little dimple under her chin.

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The Countdown Begins

junior

Timmy and Carrie went to the hospital last night. When we found out, there was much revelry here in Washington. But I called a few hours ago and it looks like they ended up getting sent back home. The due date is still a few weeks out, so I guess this is fine, except that I am excited and can’t wait for news of the birth.

When we got the call from Tim, we were all in a pizza parlor getting ready to eat after seeing Up (which is as fabulous as everyone is saying it is). This was Holly’s celebratory birthday dinner, even though her birthday was this past Friday. I thought we had an eventful weekend, with Holly’s birthday, a couple of Little League baseball games and a school production of the Wiz.

But think how eventful Timmy and Carrie’s weekend must have been, with a race up RT 1 to get to the hospital.

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The Littlest Elhajj of All

junior

Very soon now, my son, Timmy, is going to be a father all his own. Here is one of the first pictures of his little one.

And the tummy you’re looking into belongs to Carrie, who I have heard a lot about and can’t wait to meet. When I found out she was pregnant, I got so excited I made Timmy put her on the phone and chat with me, which was probably the wrong thing to do, because she sounded sleepy. But she was kind and sweet to me, and we made small talk. I can’t wait to meet her.

I can’t wait to hold this little baby.

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Wolf at the Table

I came to Augusten Burroughs work through Dry, a memoir about his struggle with alcoholism, which is somehow both heartfelt and funny. Then I read Running with Scissors, his quirky coming-of-age story. Wolf at the Table is completely different from the earlier works, exploring Mr. Burroughs’ relationship with his father, an emotionally distant alcoholic. It would be an understatement to say Mr. Burroughs finds his father lacking: His bitterness is so palpable, the book is hard to read.

I love memoirs that explore fatherhood. In the 50s and 60s, fathers were almost always depicted as good and wholesome. As I kid, I could see my old man didn’t add up. How could he? Those depictions had little to do with reality. Nothing bad about Dad was every explored. Now we get something like Wolf at the Table, but this father is so clearly and irredeemably bad, it’s almost like a throw back to thin view of fathers from the 50s and 60s (albeit the other side of the coin). Burroughs father is as bad as Father Knows Best is good. How’s the for coming full circle?

You have to feel bad for any adult lugging around so much resentment from childhood. One good thing about being a rebellious child: With my family, I always managed to keep the resentment ledgers pretty even. If you give as good as you get, you never have to feel bitter.

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Foreskin Tales

Shalom Auslander

Books I have read on how-to-write memoir occasionally suggest boiling down into the fewest words what your memoir is about. From Shalom Auslander’s new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, here are a few words that do just that:

I believe in God.

It’s been a real problem for me.

I have very little sympathy for veal.

I find Mr. Auslander inventive, irreverent, and incredibly funny to read. Most of his stories center on his experience growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in upstate New York. But his memoir is also an exploration of fatherhood: ambivalent memories of his father, feelings about his own role as a parent, but mostly he offers stories that feature the antagonistic relationship he has with his Heavenly Father. This is how to write memoir.

Earlier this year I read another memoir about fatherhood by Neal Pollack. For some reason, Jewish fathers who write memoir seem to fixate on the circumcision of their son’s penis. Everyone has a story. Even me! 

So what’s a nice Catholic boy like me doing with a circumcision story? No idea. Maybe I was adopted.

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My Favorite Father Story

For Father’s Day, here is an exerpt from the memoir I am working on. This is from a chapter called Save the Children.

The Gremlin

A FEW DAYS GO BY AND I have almost forgotten about the day Mom threatened to leave. Dad comes home unexpectedly one afternoon and asks me if I want to go for a ride.

“Where?” I ask.

“What do you care,” he says. “Come on. Go for a ride with your dad.”

I feel a little anxious about committing to something as visible as a trip with Dad, but I decide I don’t have much to lose. This summer I am spending most of my time at an apartment down on Front Street, smoking cigarettes and attempting to impress two young ladies who are somewhat older than me. My sister Terri, my primary ally in the house, is only now just beginning to shun my company for the company of our next door neighbor. Although Terri and I are not disdainful of one another yet, our relationship has devolved into constant pestering: I bum cigarettes from her while she chides me to help her clean. I hold a vague hope that I can hide my travel with Dad from the rest of the family, but especially from Terri.

Jumping into his Gremlin, I slink down into the passenger seat, furtively looking out the windows. How will Dad feel if I ask him to drop me off up the block when we get home?

As it turns out, none of that matters. This is the first of many car trips for me and Dad that summer. At the start of each trip, I am always a little hesitant to get in the car, but once we pull away from the curb, everything changes: I am on the road with Dad.

I get to operate the radio and the 8-track tape player. He teaches me how to read a road map. If we stop for gas, I watch as he jots down mileage and time in a little spiral notebook he keeps in the glove box. We always go to his brother or one of his sister’s houses, just like the whole family did when we were kids; only now, it’s just me and Dad.

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The Circumcision Decision

The last good memoir I read was Neal Pollack’s Alternadad.

It’s an amusing tale of fatherhood, told from the point of view of a slacker, Gen-X rocker who eventually comes to grips with the responsibilities of fatherhood. Since I know very little about music, I thought the slant toward alternative rock might alienate me. Instead I found plenty I could relate with about parenting. In particular was the family decision on whether to have their son circumcised.

When my son was born, my wife wanted to leave him uncut. Since I am cut, I felt mildly reluctant. I asked my wife for time to think about it. To help make up my mind, I solicited people’s opinions. I even called my mom, who raised us Catholic but then converted to fundamentalist Christian while I was in the Navy.

Talking to Mom decided it for me. This is pretty much how the conversation went:

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