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Cocaine’s Kid

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As I walked aimlessly along the streets of the Upper East Side, in the approximate direction of my apartment, a sense of displacement came over me, one that would be eerily familiar to me a month later. A tragedy had transpired, but having learned of it secondhand and hours after the fact, I had no time to feel saddened by it. My father had very nearly lost his life to drugs, just as I’d spent the last fifteen years anticipating that he would—only now that he hadn’t, there was no opportunity to grieve at the thought of life without him, and no chance to feel relief in the instant that dreadful image was dispelled. Having been cut off completely from the experience, I felt only hot, molten anger.

I tried to cling to these feelings when I confronted my father for the first time, several weeks later, while he recuperated in his hospital bed, but the emotions eluded my grasp the same way that plastic eating utensils now slipped through his. He was still so fragile that he could not feed or clean himself without the aid of my mother or a nurse, and all that stood between him and total, abject nakedness was a thin, paperlike blanket that kept peeling off his body at inopportune moments. His hair was unkempt and his eyes were sallow, and he was just too pathetic to hate. But I still tried.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep doing this,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”

“David,” he said, genuinely taken aback, “do you think this happened because I was using cocaine?” My father told me that he had recently begun taking Dalmane, a prescription sleeping aid given to insomniacs and manic-depressives; the hypnotic side effects of the drug caused him to believe that with his second, third, fourth, and even fifth ingestion, he was still taking his first dose. My mother and sister never doubted for a moment that cocaine had somehow been involved, and my father seemed to understand that I wasn’t immediately sold on his interpretation of events. “You have to believe me,” he said, his eyes so wide I could see every blood vessel in them. “Do you believe me?”

The scene was like a sad parody of so many moments when he’d been high—a declaration of sincere intent, a demand for understanding and acceptance—only now that he was sober, his desperation was even more palpable. If I rejected his defense, I would be endorsing the possibility that, for the first time in almost a decade, he was taking cocaine again—maybe even the outside chance that he had done this to himself on purpose. But if I embraced his account, that it had all been an accident, caused by prescription pills, everything could go back to normal. So I believed him. If I didn’t, who would?

Though my father did eventually get out of that bed and return home, our family continued to slumber. The event—whether cocaine-related or not—was treated as a singular aberration in my father’s life, rather than part of a larger pattern of behavior; no lifestyle changes were suggested and no strategies were implemented to keep it from happening again. We never so much as sat down as a family and discussed what had happened; it became, simply, “The Incident,” as if the word overdose had been expunged from our collective vocabulary. My father was now focused on relocating his furrier business to the Catskills, and the rest of us simply assumed that his mind was too preoccupied with other matters to even think about taking drugs.

Beyond the traumatic events and the lexicon of sardonic shorthand that bind us together, my family is sometimes more happily reminded of our union by the fact that my mother’s and father’s birthdays both occur within ten days of my own. As these dates arrived in the early spring of 2003, my sister and I persuaded our parents to travel to Manhattan one Saturday for a celebratory lunch. But when she and I arrived at the appointed restaurant, we discovered only our mother waiting for us. We asked where our father was, and she answered, “He’s gone crazy.” Another family euphemism: What she meant was, He was already somewhere in the city, and he was getting high. We silently ate our lunch and kissed our mother good-bye.

The next day, before I had even risen for my usual Sunday-morning routine of half a joint and The McLaughlin Group, I was awakened by the ringing of my telephone. With some concentration, I was able to recognize the jittery, ethereal voice on the other end as my father’s. “I need your help,” he said. “I need you to get me home.” I briefly thought about hanging up, then reconsidered. “Just tell me where you are, Dad,” I said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He told me the street name, and to look for a red door, and then his voice faded into silence.


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