His friends called him ‘Port’.
He stood a big man, massive in comparison to us as children. Calves, the size of footballs, carried the load of his muscular frame and well hydrated beer belly, hidden underneath a thick mane of wavy grey hair, worn long, beneath a greasy, frayed ball cap. For spring, summer and fall he sported cut off blue jean shorts, paper thin, button down shirts and bare feet; for winter, he broke out a pair of black engineer boots, worn hemmed jeans and flannel shirts. He loved football, fishing, the outdoors and Old Milwaukee beer, an image of toughness and strength that came to life when he drank, and kept him safe from the world when he was sober.
When he entered our lives, I was four and Eric only 11 months younger. Having no memory of our biological father, Port was the only dad we ever knew. Most of my earliest memories of him are good ones: Games of hide and seek with Eric and me (games that he seemingly enjoyed as much as we did, as I recall those big black engineer boots sticking out from behind a trembling curtain, with him giggling behind it); long walks through fully grown corn fields, always careful not to damage the farmers’ crops; our first BB guns that he taught us how to shoot, taunting Eric for letting a girl out shoot him; our rides to the canal, sometimes letting us drive, stopping alongside the dirt roads to feast upon briar berries as we went; bicycle rides around the neighborhood on sunny weekends; walking over to the convenience store after they closed for a whatchamacallit candy bar out of the vending machine was always a special treat.
Like every little girl, I wanted to be ‘Daddy’s little girl’.
I never recall a time when he didn’t drink. From the beginning, I identified his drinking as a problem, because it was obviously a bother to Mama. She threw a fit one evening when we came home to find Port and several of his buddies around our kitchen table, surrounded by pillows of cigarette smoke and pyramids of empty beer cans. There he sat, sporting a red polka dot cap, ignorant of his wrongdoing. After laying the law down, and getting her point across, belittled by his refusal to come home at a decent hour, in the middle of many nights, Mama would load Eric and me into the back seat of her car, with pillows and blankets, and set out to prowl the neighborhood bars looking for him. Eventually, she stopped fighting it, she accepted his drinking, sentenced him to sleep on the sofa, and in doing so, taught us that his behavior was tolerable.
Black and white became grey.
Our baby sister was born, six years younger than us, during those tender years. Her arrival displaced Eric and me, winning Port’s fullest attention. Some days, as I watched him riding her on the bicycle and taking her for walks, I felt like an old worn out toy thrown on the trash heap.
His drinking progressed, along with the effects of long term alcohol abuse, and our attentiveness to dangers it presented. Gradually, his unobtrusive, and sometimes comical, personality degenerated into that of a belligerent bully, when the liquid poison hit his veins. Many nights he arrived home spoiling for a fight, waking the entire household, demanding to know where his dinner was. To avoid his antics, Mama barricaded her bedroom door on nights when he was out late drinking. We children weren’t allowed to lock our bedroom doors. I still shudder envisioning the door creaked open as he spied to make sure we were asleep as we should have been at those wee hours. We were always awake, of course, due to the commotion of his entering the house, but we laid as still as humanly possible, hiding under the covers, scared to death.
Overall, Eric and I struggled to dodge him at all costs, a difficult task given we were under his care every day after school and he constantly zeroed in on us to nitpick about one thing or another. We were actually lectured one day, with a demonstration, on how many sheets of toilet tissue to use in the restroom, for pooping and peeing. He felt we were being wasteful, causing him to spend too much of his beer money on toilet tissue. When Eric started pooping his pants and masking the stench with Old Brut, rather than going to the restroom, Mama was at her wits end trying to figure out why.
Reaching our pre-teen years, both Eric and I lost respect for Port, as we were made to feel a nuisance, thorns in his side.
We were maturing mentally, realizing he was an alcoholic beginning to resent him for it.
Our resentments wallowed in delight when Port hid in the bedroom for days on end, until black eyes and busted lips healed from his bar brawling weekends; delighted because we thought he deserved an ass kicking and because we had a short reprieve from his harassment. Evidently, he heard our sneers through those paper thin walls, coming after Eric with a vengeance when he reemerged.
A huge laundry room lay in the center of our house, providing ample space for Eric to run circles around Port, who held death’s grip of his arm while flogging with a leather belt. Eventually, Eric refused to cry under these attacks, prolonging their extent and intensity. Abhorred by the violence, I shriveled behind my bedroom door, until Eric was released and I felt safe to console him.
He took whippings for both of us, bravely.
Stumbling onto Port’s porn magazine stash, hanging out of the bathroom closet, triggered the apex of awkwardness in our home. Any hopes I ever had of being crowned ‘Daddy’s little girl’ were quickly derailed by the discovery, replaced with a resignation that we were living with a vile, perverted monster.
When I attempted suicide at age 14, some spectators speculated it was due to our circumstances at home, and they were partly right. My intuitions, undeveloped as they were at that age, were blaring, asserting how detrimental our home life was. Yet, our parents were training us to accept our circumstances as normal. Compounded with moving to a new school, the result was as miserable and confused as a 14 year old could be. Undoubtedly, Port secretly assumed some responsibility, letting me fly off his radar from that point on. Eric, on the other hand, growing into his manhood, stepped directly into Port’s sights.
Growing in age, we also grew in rebellion, seeking every outlet we could find to dismiss ourselves from the absurdity within the walls of our home. At 17, I quit high school and moved out with a boyfriend. When Eric and Port’s testosterone reached explosive levels soon thereafter, Eric moved in with our grandparents to escape as well.
Years later, after my first divorce, I moved back home, bringing my first born son with me. Port was still drinking, but he bonded with my toddler son, just as he had with Eric and me and Felicia when we were little ones. My short stay allowed me to see Port in a somewhat different way.
He enjoyed ‘little people’ because they didn’t intimidate him with their judgments.
I moved on again to a second, decade long marriage and the birth of a second son. Amid that decade, our family faced the tragedy of Eric’s mental illness which ultimately led to his suicide attempt, leaving him in a persistent vegetative state, taking up residence at a local nursing home. Mama, still the breadwinner, continued working 40 plus hours a week, as she also took on the role overseeing Eric’s care.
Port’s drinking did not subside until he began experiencing fainting spells, for no apparent reason. He almost fell off of a roof one day, and woke up lying in the backyard another. As the episodes grew more frequent and severe, Mama launched into action taking up his medical regime. After extensive testing, he was diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a terminal degenerative brain disease that would require 24 hour a day care as it progressed.
At the onset of Port’s illness, I often found myself wishing Eric could take a ringside seat and watch alongside me. It’s an evil thing to admit, I know, but I assumed Eric and I might gain gratification from witnessing the total annihilation of Port’s tyranny. I imagined we might enjoy it, just like we did as kids, when he hid in embarrassment licking his wounds.
The bully was finally bested, and this time, there was no where to hide.