My father is 65 years old now, fully extricated from the city and mere weeks away from collecting his first Social Security check. His office is just five miles from his home, and in the past year, he has lost more than 100 pounds through a steady regimen of swimming, dieting, and Fox News–induced tirades. When he and I talk, sometimes as frequently as once a week and sometimes as little as once a month, he tells me that he’s never felt more content in his life and that our relationship has never been stronger (he even gave me his blessing to write this story). Still, he’d be the first person to say that he cannot promise he will never use cocaine again.
He used drugs when times were bad and he used them when times were good, and it was no more devastating for me to witness him in the throes of the ceaseless binges at the height of his addiction than to see him brought low by the isolated lapses of his later years. So what am I supposed to wish for now? What fate should I most want to befall him in what will surely be—let’s not kid ourselves here—his last years? Is it better that they should be tedious but free of temptation, or that they should be satisfying and riddled with risk? Should I continue to fantasize about what my own life might have been like if my father never acquired his drug habit, and thus never came to depend on me, or should I be thankful for the bond it established between us, even if it came at a cost no reasonable human being would ever agree to pay?
Even now, when my father calls to tell me about the new satellite radio he just installed in his car, the great John McCain biopic he saw on TV, or some accidental fragment of poetry that popped into his head, and maybe he forgets whether I’m at work or at home, even though he’s the one who dialed the number, there is a sophisticated and well-trained part of my brain that immediately goes to work, scanning the content of his speech, the cadence and inflection of his voice, and at every possible juncture tries to gather enough empirical evidence to answer the question, Am I talking to a sober man right now?
And pretty much every time, that part of my brain eventually sends up the all-clear signal, and another, less-developed portion of my consciousness, one ruled not by science but by superstition, goes to work. In spite of everything that has transpired between us, I start to think that I am free, finally and for all time: that if my father can make it to age 65 with his health, most of his sanity, and at least the intent to keep himself clean, he can easily keep this streak—and himself—alive just one more day, and the day after that, and the day after that. But then I thought the same thing when he was 60, when he was 55, when he was 50. Even as I pin all my hopes to this thin sliver of a belief, I have no idea what I predicate it on; it’s just a helpful fiction.
This is the part of the story where I run out of events to relate, but I don’t know that I can honestly call it the end.