Prayer for a drunk dad


Bourbon, Flickr image by Dan4thWell, here's a story I never told before, but it's been haunting me, so I think I have to tell it, because I'm pretty sure no one else will, and if a story doesn't get told, isn't that a door that never gets a chance to open, and isn't that a shame and a sin?

So then.

I was in college. This was in the middle of America 30 years ago. It was the last night I was ever in college. The next afternoon we graduated. But the night before we graduated there was a huge roaring tumultuous party in our hall. It was a very old hall with ironwork everywhere and vaulted ceilings and all the students who were not graduating were gone so the hall echoed with music and shouting and laughter and rueful chaos and merriment.

Of course almost every graduating student had family in for the weekend, so a few brothers and sisters and even a dad or two joined the party, the graduating students trying to ooze up the new girls, and then graduates from other halls who heard the roar from our hall wandered over, and soon it was midnight and the party was throbbing and even the shyest graduating students were dancing and giggling and shouting. It was a really great party.

At about one in the morning I noticed that the dad of a friend of mine was in the corner drinking hard and telling funny stories. He got drunker and drunker until at about three in the morning he started shouting and cursing and some glass smashed and finally he fell down.

Seeing a dad huddled in a moist heap on our linoleum floor was a great shock. I had never seen a drunken dad before. My dad liked to tell of the three times he had been drunk in his whole life: one time in the war, one time with the neighbors and one time in the city, but my brothers and I thought he was probably exaggerating a little to prove that he was like other dads, which he wasn't.

At the party that night my friend picked up his dad and held him in his arms like a fireman holding a child and then he slid along the wall to the door and popped the door open with his foot and carried his dad outside into the sea of the grass. I watched him do this but I didn't do anything to help. I just stood there. Not the first time and not the last that I will stand useless and frozen, merely a witness.

Over the next 30 years I never said a word about that night and neither did my friend.

Here and there he would leak a story about a moment when he was a kid and his dad would be carried home by the police, or about going downtown to get his dad out of the drunk tank, or about the summer morning his mom changed the locks on the house, or about how his sister went to live with their dad but came home sobbing a day later, or about how one of the brothers died in a car crash and the father didn't make the funeral, or about how when the dad died finally they put his ashes in a whiskey bottle, but I never said anything about that night.

But all the rest of my life I'll remember my friend's face as he carried his dad in his arms that night. I'll never forget that. You think we have words for this sort of thing but we do not. All we can do is witness and report and hope that somehow stories turn into prayers.

All we can do is drape words on experience, and hope the words give some hint of the shape of the moment, and pray that our attentiveness matters in a way we will never know. I believe that, with all my heart. What do you believe?

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of nine books of essays and poems, most recently Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, drunk dad, storytelling, college, graduation



submit a comment

Existing comments

A very touching and insightful view of the disease of alcoholism. It is the disease that infects victims and those connected with the victim. It is inter generational and the effects linger after the victim dies. The disease scars the memories of children and lovers and leaves emotional wreckage and emotional cripples long after the euphoria of the alcohol has disappeared.

Yet it seems to be a central feature of most societies. We blandly accept its presence among us with no recognition of the danger it poses to ordinary good people. This seems to parallel what happens in society when we turn away others. Like Brian Doyle who looked at his friend in need but didn't help. How do we reach out to those who suffer?

Lindsay G | 22 April 2009  

The story is now told Brian, and how moving it was.To move toward people in pain is difficult but the more you move,the easier it gets.Such a poignant story.

Russell | 22 April 2009  

I love the way Brian Doyle turns very average events, sad events into prayerful situations. I sometimes refer to his paperback, nominated above, it is most salutory, humbling even. Thanks a lot Mr Doyle.

helen m donnellan | 22 April 2009  

Not a redundant word, and it takes us right into the situation. I'm fascinated by the reflections about the way in which writing can be redemptive of a situation. Reminds me of Don DeLillo's Underground, where he thinks about this so deeply, and above all Anna Akhmatova's terrible/wonderful account of the queue of the cold and desperate outside one of Stalin's prisons and the hope gleaming on the old woman's face when she gets a positive answer to her question: Can anyone describe this ...

peter matheson | 23 April 2009  

I really would love to know what the boy's face showed? Acceptance? Embarrassment? Such a powerful piece about the observer.

Jo | 29 April 2009  

Similar Articles

A child's suffering for sainthood

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 23 April 2009

Within the cloistered world of Opus Dei, a young girl, Camino, is dying. The Church hierarchy and its emphasis upon a Father-God have displaced the nurturing instincts of Camino's mother, who urges her daughter along the path of suffering.


Pictures of Stalin

  • James Waller
  • 21 April 2009

'By the end of the 21st century, icons of Joseph Stalin will be in every Orthodox Church.'



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up