Today I am going to take a break from our 31 day journey. This is a tough one for me. Seventeen years ago today, I stood beside a hospital bed and held my father’s hand for the last time while I said my good-byes. My life changed forever that day. God has been so faithful and has kept his promise to make all things work for good for those who love Him.
Below, I have retyped an article that first appeared in Women’s World Magazine and was then printed in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II. This article was written by Bill Holton after he interviewed me over the telephone in 1999.
For You, Dad
“Here we go!” Dad would say, and I’d climb on his back. “There! Look! See London Bridge?”
Lying on the floor with his arms outstretched, he was my Superman and together we were weaving our way around make believe clouds. But like those clouds, my moments with Dad always vanished too quickly — because there was something stronger than love in Daddy’s life, something that was stealing him away. It was an enemy I would end up fighting when he no longer could . . .
“He’s sick,” my mother would say when Dad passed out. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.”
I knew he did. He could make us laugh with his funny faces and cartoon drawings. I loved him, and I wanted to believe Mom still did, too. As my little brothers and I grew, she explained that Dad hadn’t always been “this way.” He was just a little wild when they’d met in high school. And with his wavy hair and wide smile, I could understand how he’d captured Mom’s heart.
But soon he must have been breaking it. Sometimes we didn’t see him for weeks. One day he called to say he wasn’t coming home again. “I’m not far. We’ll see each on weekends,” he said after he’d moved out. “I’ll swing by and get you on Saturday.”
Grabbing the phone, Mom said, “No, John, you have to visit them at the house. I won’t let them get into a car with you.”
I thought of the commercials I saw on TV — the ones with the twisted metal and chalk outlines. And the words Drunk driving kills. Could that happen to Daddy? Please God, I’d pray at night, help Daddy get well. But too often, when he pulled into the driveway, we could smell the booze.
“Daddy, don’t drive like that, ” I pleaded. Usually, he tried to shrug off my worries, but once he pulled me close, his eyes heavy with sadness. “I wish I wasn’t like this, ” he said. “I wish I was a good dad.”
I wished that, too. I hated alcohol for what it had done — to all of us.
At first, I was too embarrassed to tell my friends the truth about my dad. But as I started to see kids drinking, I couldn’t hold back. “That’s why my dad isn’t around,” I’d say, pointing to the bottles.
All Dad’s visit were brief. In between hugs and kisses, he drew pictures for us, and we crammed in stories about school and friends. “I’m getting help, ” he’d say. Maybe my brothers, Justin and Jordan, believed it — but I didn’t. And yet with all my heart I wanted to believe. I can still feel the rocking porch swing and my father’s arm around my shoulder.
“The day you turn sixteen,” he once said, “I’m going to buy you a car.” I nuzzled closer to him. I knew he’d give me the world if he could. But I understood that no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t.
Then one night during my senior year of high school, I got a call at the store where I worked part-time. “Heather?” Mom’s voice was strained. I knew what was coming. “There’s been an accident.”
I raced to the hospital; Dad’s motorcycle had been hit by a mini-van. Blood tests shower he’d been drinking and doing drugs that night. The other driver was fine, thank God.
“I love you, Daddy, “I sobbed, sitting by his bed. Though he was unconscious, his heart rate monitor quickened at the sound of my voice. He had found a way to let me know he heard me and he loved me. But there was something that I had to make sure he knew. “I forgive you,” I choked.
Moments later, he was gone. A crash killed my father, but his death was not sudden.
Everyone told me I needed to grieve, and for a while I did. But in a sense, I’d been grieving for my Dad all my life. Now I needed to do something that would help me feel less powerless against the enemy that had stolen him.
I went to the library to find what I could on substance abuse. Almost every family is affected . . . children may repeat the patterns, I read. My heart broke even more. My father’s life hadn’t amounted to very much. Maybe his death could.
Before I knew it, I was standing before a sea of young faces ready to speak, in a presentation called “Drug Free Me.”
“People who do drugs and alcohol aren’t bad,” I began. “They’ve just made the wrong choice.” Then I asked the kids to draw pictures of what they wanted to be. They drew firemen and doctors and astronauts.
“See all those pretty dreams? The can never come true if you turn to drugs and alcohol.” Their eyes grew wide.
I’m reaching them, I thought. But I knew it wasn’t that simple — I’d have to keep trying every day if I really wanted to make a difference.
Since then, I’ve used cartoon characters to get the message to younger kids. I’ve organized a tuxedo-stuffing program, sticking statistics on drunk driving into pockets of prom-goers. And I’ve joined Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and the National Commission on Drunk Driving.
Today, as a college junior, I do presentations at middle and high schools. I also speak at victim impact panels, sharing stories of loss with people convicted of driving under the influence. Most people on the panel have lost loved ones to people like my father. But I was a victim, too, and maybe my story hits harder.
“It’s hard to think of a faceless stranger out there you may kill, ” I tell the offenders. “So think about the people you are hurting now — like a child at home who will miss you forever if you die.”
I’d been missing my father long before he was taken for good. I remember once he said that we, his children, were the only things he’d ever done right in his life. Daddy, because of you, I’m doing something very right in mine.