I knew my father best from the times I spent with him in our basement, watching sports on the television.
The alcoholic's world is a strange one, you should understand. I guess different people react to the disease in different ways; my father's method was to stake out one small corner of our estate as "The Bunker" (we even made him a sign for it, "enabling" his behavior as the textbooks would tell you family members might), a dimlylit dungeon in which he hoarded his emotions like a dragon might guard his treasure.
It was always freezing cold down there--he kept the windows open, even in the deepest months of winter. Under his blanket he would lie on a forest green, spartanly cushioned sofa, tilting his body perpetually side-ways to face the television set. And although he had a yen for the shows of his younger days--"Hogan's Heroes," and "Quincy," and "The Streets of San Francisco," oh, and John Wayne movies of every make and description--they would be bumped aside quite often for ESPN, when the spirit moved him.
And frequently, I too would escape the high-school, let's-at-least-pretend-to-be-grown-ups world in which I normally functioned to descend to his cavern, trying to understand the man. Or at least to spend time with him--as if he were a child of my own divorced marriage and I had been granted only the most infrequent of visitation rights.
So I'd creak down the thirteen or fourteen steps of the basement staircase, and he'd recognize "Thunderfoot" from the size-eleven heaviness of my movements, calling out that nickname to reintroduce me again to his world. I'd grab my own blanket from the closet at the back of the room, and he'd make sure I had socks on my feet before he'd allow me to stay; after that, I was free to plop myself into one of the upholstered chairs nearer the television, or perhaps settle for the carpeting in front of the coffee table.
And maybe this time he would use the remote control as a divining rod for sports, paging all channels in search of something mutually agreeable. The Braves on TBS, the NHL on Sportschannel America, college basketball everywhere...these were the mainstream diversions, but if the World Nine-Ball championships came on ESPN late at night, we might have watched that too, at least for a while.
The routine was familiar on most days: we'd talk about the game at hand or sports in general for a while, and then silence would rejoin our conversation as he slowly faded to sleep--it mattered not what hour of day it was. The ever-present pall of cigarette smoke in the room portended that his sleep would only come in short bursts; and how fitful it would be, a loud, methodical hacking cough spoiling both his rest and my conscience. Could I not somehow find a way to stop him poisoning himself? The distillery-sized cup of gin or vodka on the table also contributed to my unease, of course, but what could I do?
On Saturday afternoons in the fall, the routine would change slightly. Notre Dame football was an all-consuming passion in The Bunker, and heaven help he who transgressed against its commandant on third down in the fourth quarter with the Irish in trouble. Was a television ever broken? I'm not sure, although I know glass shards of some sort were known to find the carpet (even before halftime) during the tense ones. In little time, I became a passionate Notre Dame fan, although my reasons were more defensive and selfish than those of the average Golden Domer, I suppose.
Well, I grew older, and Dad got worse--although at one point he got on the AA wagon for about a year, long enough for us to see colorings of the lion he once was--and then he left. Got sick of interventions, intrusions into his personal space. Just up the road, fifteen minutes away, but the peculiarity of the basement--that appropriate mixture of darkness, cold and smoke--was gone forever.
I would use it myself as an escape, from time to time. Sit on the floor and watch one of the war movies he got me hooked on, maybe, just to "wake up the echoes," if you will. Or bring a girlfriend down to evade the brothers and mother which would love to keep tabs on such events were they held closer to the rest of the world, although I knew full well that the sofa upon which we might frolic was Dad's and Dad's alone in spirit.
Another woman came into his picture, came to live with him, eventually married him. We had to sell our house; problems with the child support payments, that sort of thing. (Does it matter now why?) What mattered to me were the memories left behind in that house, especially that basement, and especially those times spent with Dad. Yeah, they were dreadful...but they were all I had, really, by which to remember him in the last years of his life.
He is truly gone now, forever, with no reconciliation of our tensions forthcoming. He stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger two weekends ago, although our family theory favors the explanation that he actually deigned to kill himself in a friend's pickup truck, but the friend drove it away before he awoke that morning. The truck happened to be decked in blue and gold, with a huge "ND" insignia painted on the flatbed--had he done it his way, he would have gone down with his ship, we suppose...did the Fiesta Bowl blowout contribute to that decision? I doubt it, but one never knows.
Still, I love the world of sports, enough to possibly devote my life to them; and I know deep down that I'll always owe this character flaw to my father. The world of The Bunker helped him to escape reality; self-psychoanalysis tells me that I wanted to escape with him, and here I am, still trying, having chosen the sports medium as my favorite. There are enough people like me who use the sports world as a daily escape to justify full-color covers of sports sections in newspapers all over the country; if I'm lucky, I'll never have to leave it.
Why wish for such a fate? Call it my own peculiar disease. But somehow, memories being memories, I don't think that's all bad.
Thanks, Dad, for the times we did spend together, no matter how they turned out--and know that every time I sit down at the word processor or the typewriter, I'm thinking of you.
After undergoing such an experience myself, it pains me to hear news of today's suicide of Dominic J. Armije '95, a housemate of mine over in Kirkland. I didn't know Dominic at all, but for all of you who did and care about him, know also that my heartfelt sympathies and prayers are with you all.
As for myself, I'm out of here. I'm off to intern for Golf Digest magazine next semester, and I don't know if or when I'll be back writing for THC. Hope somehow our loyal readers can find a way is cope with that fact (ha!)--to all of those whom I covered and/or wrote to in the past two-and-a-half years, especially those involved with the men's hockey program, it's been real. Take care of yourselves.