Blogging for Books: The unsent letter

(Note: there’s an update at the end of this post…)

I’m tossing my hat in the ring again for this month’s Blogging for Books.

The topic this month?

Write about a pivotal point in your life as a parent, OR write about a pivotal point in your relationship with one of your parents.

And as you’ll see, I’m mining a deeper vein for this entry. It’s actually a piece I wrote 15 years ago – an assignment for a writing workshop I was taking during the first summer after I moved away from Michigan.

I found it a few days ago, and edited it lightly out of deference for my 15-years-younger self. Sadly, the situation I describe has not improved over the years. Yes, I’ve made a conscious decision not to ever send the letter. No, an intervention isn’t possible, for a variety of reasons. And the decision to leave my hometown (for reasons that go beyond the ones described, of course) still stands as one of the best I’ve ever made.

August 8, 1990

Dear Dad,

I know this is an exercise in futility. I will never say this to you now, while you stumble through life. But once you finally crash through that wall you’ve been battering at for years, I will also breathe a guilty sigh of relief – at last. At last.

You’ll have worn yourself out – the booze and coke numbing your soul so much that it forgets how to hold onto the earth and finally bobs away, unfettered. I imagine different scenarios, different causes of death. I will deliver your eulogy at your funeral, I imagine.

But do I tell the truth about your life, or do I lie?

You and I have learned so well how to lie. I’d like to show off this proficiency to put on a smile, to dazzle the crowd. Your intellect, your eyebrows and this ability to gloss over the surface are the three gifts I inherited from you, after all.

I vaguely remember sitting on your beer-bloated stomach while you crooned “K-k-k-katie” to your little girl – the first born, the ‘preemie’ who arrived seven months after your wedding. You sang tenderly in a voice hoarsened already at 24 from filterless Pall-Malls and countless Drambuies -at 24. Years later, I realized my arrival had cemented a marriage you’d have wiggled free from years before you finally did. When you left, you donned a hair shirt of your own creation. Visitations dwindled off into nothingness over time – much like the crooning had disappeared years before, replaced by more and more time asleep on the couch or out playing (or drinking) with the guys (or the women.)

What made you decide to opt out? I’ll never know. You will not talk to me of substantive things, even now that I’m grown up and on my own. Instead, your voice has grown further clotted and choked over the years by all that is unsaid between us. My very name’s been replaced by the joking generic nickname – ‘dirtball’ – you use interchangeably for your three children, or the parade of women you date and then pull away from. And yet, I’m afraid to know of the desperation you hide as you sip yet another Irish Mist. As the fog settles further.

This is why I left Michigan, you know. I couldn’t stand yet another night of you zoned out at the end of the bar, my co-workers not daring to cut off Betsy’s father. I couldn’t stand the endless parade of 21 year old girls sucking up to you so you’d share your stash, the endless rounds of drinks you tried to buy for my friends – and the times you cornered one in the bathroom, spoon ready to dole out your kind of bliss.

Most of all, I couldn’t stand the looks of pity from new employees when they realized the sodden party boy killing himself at the end of the bar was my father. I never looked for that pity – instead, I shied away, or pretended I couldn’t see it. It would have punctured that fiction we’d all colluded to create around you, the paper-thin excuses we used to justify or overlook your behavior. And had I stayed? That pity – coupled with the effort required to sustain that fiction, or, alternately, to tear it down on my own – would have crushed me too.

My father. It was a role you’d never wanted for yourself. Felt trapped by, along with the knowledge that you’d abandoned your own dreams long, long ago. And twenty-seven years later? You?re still looking for the way out, still stumbling.

And I can’t help you. I don’t know if I ever can. Instead, I’m following your lead. I’m walking away.

It’s time for me to find my own way out instead.

Update: 12/2006. There’s more to this story. My father was jailed last December after his third DUI. It took losing his license and some mandatory rehab, but he’s been drink-free for close to a year now, from what I understand. We’re still not close – but that’s okay. I’ve never expected a miraculous relationship renaissance, even after hearing the good news that he’s now willingly, actively participating in his recovery.

I’m just happy that the nasty ending I foresaw 16 years ago is now more likely to be dramatic fiction than fact. And Dad – I’m proud of you and love you very much.


  1. That’s really powerful, Betsy.

    I’ve got something I’m playing with, too, but I don’t know if it will be finished by submission deadline.

  2. Oh, Betsy. So, so sorry, sweetie.

    I know how difficult it is to finally understand and surrender to the knowledge that sometimes the ones we love are so possessed by their own demons that they are incapable of loving.

    I applaud you for your courage in saying enough is enough and, as I’ve said to you before, not succumbing to the “cycle” and instead, loving your own children as beautifully as you do.

    Excellent writing… love you!

  3. Thanks, everyone, for the supportive comments.

    It’s interesting, though – instead of making me sad or upset, this makes me glad that I took the path (explicitly voiced or not) I did 15 years ago.

    It was the right thing to do.

  4. Blogging for Books #13: The List

    Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry for this month’s Blogging for Books contest. We had a whopping 31 entries this month, with bloggers falling all over themselves to dish about the parents they have and the parents they are. Please look over the…

  5. Blogging for Books #13: The List

    Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry for this month’s Blogging for Books contest. We had a whopping 31 32 entries this month, with bloggers falling all over themselves to dish about the parents they have and the parents they are. Please look over …

  6. Betsy- I read this when the first list went up and I’m back for the third or fourth time. This is a beautifully written piece and feels like one of those life changing resolutions-when you realize there’s nothing to grow on where you’re planted so you better up and leave. It’s a victory to find what you can make for yourself. I’m cheering for you on all fronts, including in B4B. Thanks.

  7. […] I am the daughter of an alcoholic who was arrested, jailed and then forcibly placed into rehab and counseling after getting his third DUI last Christmas Eve. I am the granddaughter of a man who died before I was born – while he died with a hole in his throat from esophegeal cancer, his corroded liver was listed as the actual cause of death. Alcoholism runs deep through both branches of my family tree, with dysfunction and abuse and collusion and silence their constant companions. […]

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