The first time my dad died, I was five. He was standing at the top of the staircase, proclaiming “the Chinaman kept giving me tequilas.” Then he fell flat on his face. The rest is haze: me in a room reading a Walt Disney activity book with “Kiki”, my Filipina nanny, while my Filipina mother, bawling, called the ambulance, and tall men in uniforms with stripes down their pant legs showed up to save the day.
My father didn’t actually die that night. In the end it was cancer, not directly alcohol-related, that brought him into the black. The years in-between are spotted with memories: him fighting with my mother on a night that she dumped out all of his expensive scotch; me, still a child, waking up to find out that he had driven our TransAm into a ditch. Our big alcoholic-and-son bonding moment was a night in Mexico. My mom took off after Dad refused to not drink x amounts of tequila. He ended up unable to walk, so I helped him back to the hotel room. It was Angela’s Ashes meets Wall Street, with Lionel Richie as the soundtrack. Luckily for all of us, Dad was a gentle drunk; our family didn’t have to deal with the trauma of physical abuse that so often haunts families with alcoholic parents.
My mother is Filipino, and her family doesn’t have much of a culture of drinking. On my mom’s side, alcohol and the foolish things it made you say and do was always a point of embarrassment or shame. (I’m sure there’s an Ilongo word for that, but I don’t know it.) This distinct difference was very apparent at my Dad’s wake. I had just turned fourteen, and the miserable summer was punctuated by a grievous day, exacerbated by the well stocked bar. My Canadian/Irish/white/whatever relatives shed tears jet-fueled by beer, and were comforted by my mostly sober Filipino relatives. This was the day I learned that getting shitfaced was a magic place, one where you could be numb while puking your emotions all over anyone in your proximity. The Irish way.
The drunken Irishman. The Fighting Irish. What came first: the colonization or the booze? A friend once said that the British learned their colonization techniques on the Irish and perfected them on First Nations. Despite the notable professional and artistic achievements of many, many, many members of these communities , the drunkenness and fighting can often drown the rest out.
Take James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, two canonical Irish writers whose well-known struggles with alcohol seem inseparable from their literary contributions. The fable of alcohol or substance dependency leading to great art isn’t propagated solely by Irish artists, but few cultural identities are as attached to alcohol. If there are any other Catholic saints (St. Patrick, not actually Irish) whose feast day is advertised by multinational booze supplier Diageo (owner of Bushmills and Guinness), I have yet to hear of them.
What if, instead of allowing the great works to stand as apology for the artist’s alcoholism, we mourned the great works that were never created, due to premature deaths and lives ended in squalor?
Total buzz kill.
A few nights ago, I called my mom to ask her about my dad, the time his heart stopped, and whether it was just because of drinking. She told me she had blocked most of that time out. We don’t talk much about Dad anymore. Time doesn’t necessarily heal, sometimes you just forget that you’re still hurting. Play through the pain.
I pushed a bit. “Was it cocaine?” I asked (it was the 80s after all, maybe my dad was like Jim Belushi).
“No, god no, I don’t remember, I only remember the time after chemo…his electrolytes were…”
“Yeah he…this was when…”
“Oh yeah…” It’s all fuzzy, I didn’t really remember. Kiki, the bedroom, Surrey.
“I think he was just so drunk and I couldn’t move him, I probably didn’t know what to do.”We don’t talk about this time. A new country, a young child, her husband on the floor immobile. Dead drunk.
For twenty plus years I’ve been carrying this idea around of my dad as my own Patron Saint of Reanimation, a fighter. But it turns out his resurrection was just another dead drunk Irish story.
Lucas Costello in an arts worker and activist living in Parkdale. He is the progeny of a Filipina beauty queen and a Vancouver disco king. He likes Toronto better, yes, really. Yes, really, he is half Filipino. He will eat all the lumpia.