I returned to Billings in February of 2004. After spending the holidays with my dad and stepmother, I saw they needed help. My stepmother has highly progressive Multiple Sclerosis and, at the time, was buckling under a barrage of new and diabolical symptoms. It was a scary and uncertain time for her: would she be able to walk? How bad is her vision getting? Why isn't her digestive system working correctly? How long will her hands be clamped shut? MS is an evil, relentless disease and Sonjah was getting bitchslapped.
My father was a red-hot mess as well. He almost died from an aneurysm in 1993 and was never quite the same after that. He broke his ankle, which led to his 6'3" frame lumbering unevenly on his hips. Eventually, hip replacements were necessary. To spice it up, he acquired a staff infection in the hospital that required intravenous antibiotics. He also had heart disease and hypertension. Because this was more stress than any one human can handle--and dad was not great at handling stress to begin with--he also suffered from horrible anxiety. In the middle of the night, I would hear him vomiting into the kitchen sink. The inability to relieve Sonjah's pain; the fear that his own health was critical; and just the general worry he carried at any given time would catch up with him, and he would, quite literally, expel the emotions the only way his body knew how. He would stand over the kitchen sink for 30-45 minutes vomiting bile when there was no food left in his stomach. One night, it got so bad I drove him to the emergency room. I sat next to him in a fluorescent room and held a pink basin under his chin. Nurses administered medication that didn't help. Even when his body was weak from continuous vomiting, his internal worry and turmoil continued to rack his guts. I was helpless; he was powerless. I read almost all of The DaVinci Code in that hospital room. Doctors scolded and pleaded with him to care for himself and learn to manage his stress. But his job, and caring for Sonjah in any way he could left little time to--ya know, meditate and find inner peace.
So he found his peace with alcohol.
Dad struggled with drinking since his days as a musician. There were times he struggled longer and harder with it, each time snowballing from the previous. That summer, he was a reclusive drunk. He would drink in his office when no one else was there, or, he would pour a glass and sequester himself in the bedroom. Normally chatty and animated, he preferred silence or the white noise of television. We could look at his face and know that the "DON'T POKE THE INEBRIATED BEAR" sign had been turned on above his head. Sonjah and I kept our distance unless absolutely necessary, because there was a real possibility of him telling us exactly what he thought about his life and/or us. And trust me, when he was in pain, he could level pride and self-esteem in one biting verbal punch. It's this contradiction that continues to be the hardest aspect of his death. Anyone that met him talked of his charming and likable ways. He was a storyteller, a bit of a philosopher, and he could play the hell out of any Gordon Lightfoot song ever written. He was loving, insightful, and could say the perfect thing to lift me out of sadness or defeat. When people tell me I remind them of him, it's a compliment. How could someone so awesome have this destructive and tragic flaw?
In between working, playing at the local theater, and having a secret fling with one Mr. D.R. Edmonds ("Oh, it's nothing really. We adore each other, but he's moving to Los Angeles and I'm moving to Chicago. We don't really have a shot."), I got to know my father better--the good, the bad and the ugly. On my 24th birthday, I asked him what he was doing when he was 24. Amanda and I had not yet rocked his world, so I knew there were some good stories. He was a little fuzzy on the details, but he told me he was traveling with some buddies in a van to Washington in pursuit of a woman named Ruth. It's possible there may have been some mind-altering substances in said van. His eyes sparkled and he chuckled at the old memory. I smiled, grateful for the new memory. It was those moments and exchanges--learning about him as a man, and not just as my father--that built a connection that only comes in adulthood, and only comes through the realization that I am more like him than unlike him.
Before I left for Chicago in September, one of dad's oldest and best friends, Grant Sears, came to Billings. Grant knew, through recent conversations, that dad was hanging on by some very thin sanity threads, so he came on a sort of rescue mission. He arrived on a very large, very shiny motorcycle and my father was immediately seventeen years old. He circled the bike, stroking his chin and rubbing his head, conjuring ways to lovingly swindle Grant out of this gorgeous machine. Grant offered a ride and dad couldn't get on the bike fast enough. I am grateful that the last image I have is my father holding onto his best friend, riding a few moments in a dream to forget his wounds and his worry.
Dad continued drinking after I left. I would call to tell him of my latest adventures in Chicago, and, while enthusiastic and proud, there were long pauses and slurred words. Finally, Sonjah--having had one too many encounters with him in addition to her already delicate health--called a friend who was in AA. I was absolutely supportive of him joining, but I had my reservations. Previous attempts to get him help had been unsuccessful, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. We all were.
One Sunday, in December, I was putzing around my apartment when he called . . . to apologize. He sobbed as he acknowledged for the first time that he had been wrong and hurtful at times, and that I was on the receiving end of those episodes more times than he wanted to admit. I was so stunned and emotional, all I could say was, "It's okay." We bawled together and promised that we would revisit and rebuild what had been broken between us--between all of us. We would have conversations and be honest about feelings and circumstances. No more of this sweep-it-under-the-rug-and-ignore-the-pain--a cornerstone of the Dunn-family mission statement. He told me he would call me next week to update his progress. As always, when we hung up, he told me how proud he was of me and that he loved me. He sounded renewed. He sounded committed.
I did get a call the following Sunday. It was the call to tell me that he had died in the night due to heart disease complicated by chronic alcohol abuse. I remember Sonjah begging to have the "chronic alcohol abuse" removed from his death certificate. It wasn't that she wanted to deny and ignore it. She wanted, as a final gesture to her husband, the certifiable acknowledgment that he was taking the steps to value his own life even though his body gave out. Unfortunately, an autopsy is an autopsy, and the truth is written in 10pt capital letters.
Almost seven years have passed since that devastating day, and my grief changes. It began as a constant weight with no respect for time and place. Break down over the cantaloupes in the produce aisle? You betcha. It was heavy and hard to carry, but I adjusted my stride, and carry it I did. For the past few years it's been certain moments or memories that get me: the way his ankles cracked when he walked up stairs; how he scraped every jar of JIF peanut butter clean; how he struggled to sing sad songs because he was so emotional about music.
But, today--Father's Day--I realize I miss him differently than ever before. Today, I miss the man he was going to be. I picture what he would look like now: almost 65 years old, clear eyes and a strong, settled heart. I picture him and Sonjah finding peace and comfort in their life together. I picture him holding Isla, his only grandchild, who looks so much like him it's eerie. I picture him and me sitting on a sunny porch, drinking iced tea and tinkering on guitars. We would play "Early Morning Rain" for the 107th time (and cry for the 107th time), then I would say, "Dad, let me introduce to you 'Mumford & Sons'." He'd be impressed and intrigued by the guitar arrangements. He would still have the uncanny ability to say the exact sentiment that Amanda and I need to hear when our lives get overwhelming. He would give us the insight that can only come from a man that has walked that road and come out the other side.
Because I believe he did come out the other side. He is proud and confident that the souls left down here will carry his life and his memories. And he is calm and joyful somewhere in the heavenly whirls.