Dead fathers make for stubborn ghosts.

— Eric Leigh


There is a bike path that zigzags from the east side of Portland, Oregon, down to the Willamette River, then along the austere black geometry of the Steel Bridge and onto the grassy esplanade that borders the west side. Several times a week, as I pedal along the path on my way to work, I glimpse a message spray-painted in purple block letters on the white pavement:


I wonder who painted this graffiti and why. Sometimes I imagine a father coming to this deserted path at midnight and scrawling a message to his estranged son. Other times I imagine a mother — one like mine, perhaps — writing this plea because she wants peace in the family and knows that her husband wants it too, even though he’s too proud to admit it.

This stretch of sidewalk isn’t visible from the highway. It’s not seen by many commuters, like a huge billboard or a sign by a busy train stop would be. This is a very particular path, traveled by a small cadre of bikers. Is there one rider who sees this message day after day and stubbornly refuses to call home? Or is this message for all of us who have suffered in the wake of a father’s disappearance?

I’m not sure whether my own father would qualify for that drum thump of a word: deadbeat. During my childhood he was a successful executive, working long hours and making good money for our family. He was handsome — blue eyes, square forehead, brown pompadour, dimples — and generous with his friends, who called him “Scottie.” He loved to go into a bar, my mother told me, and buy drinks for the house. But over time his alcoholism and gambling eroded his success. He began embezzling from his company to pay off his debts to bookies and spent more and more time away from home. Sometimes late at night, when he was too drunk to drive, my mother would have to fetch him from a bar.

When I was fourteen, my father left us. He simply didn’t come home one night. Instead of the discomfort of his drunken presence, we experienced the numb awareness of his absence: one less coffee cup in the sink each morning.

For two weeks no one knew where he had gone. Then he called to check on his three sons.

“Where are you?” I said, furious. I am the oldest.

“I can’t tell you,” he insisted. “But I’m all right. Don’t worry.”

After the call ended, my mother, my brothers, and I sat at the kitchen table without speaking. The clock on the wall ticked. How could he just leave us like this? My mother’s brow furrowed; she absently sipped her coffee.

When my father surfaced to get a divorce, we found out he had been having an affair with another woman. In spite of stern orders from various judges, my father refused to pay alimony or child support. Anytime my mother had his wages attached, he simply changed jobs. She spent most of my teenage years in and out of court, trying to compel my father to take responsibility for his children, but he was lost in his vices. I have few memories of him sober.

As a matter of principle, no matter what my father did, my mother never spoke ill of him to my brothers and me. We had regular visits with him as part of the divorce settlement. Once a week he took us to dinner at a restaurant, and we talked about television or movies but said nothing of the lives we were living in the aftermath of his disappearance. My brothers and I had taken part-time jobs to help pay the rent on our three-bedroom apartment in Baltimore; we were determined to keep up with the lifestyle of our more affluent peers. Our father didn’t talk about the life he was leading in a nearby city, in a sparsely furnished apartment we had been to only once. Often our dinner conversation drifted into silence, bound up in lies and secrets and the longing, in spite of everything, to be just three sons talking to their father.

Once, when I was sixteen, after we had climbed into the car for him to return us to our mother, I asked my father, “Can we get groceries on the way home?”

His jaw tightened, and he looked away. “That’s your mother’s job.”

I stared hard at the dashboard. My brothers, fourteen and eleven, were horsing around in the back. “There’s no milk or bread at home,” I said. I was lying, testing him. “You don’t want us to be hungry, do you?”

“Of course I don’t want that. Why are you talking this way? Did your mother make you say this?”

“No, it was my idea,” I said. My brothers were wrestling, their feet kicking the back of my seat. They didn’t want to hear this conversation. “If you really care about your kids, you’ll stop at the grocery store.”

“Jesus,” my father muttered.

We stopped at the store.

In my late teens and early twenties I put all my energy into trying to change my relationship with my father: I tried to change myself. I tried to change him. I went to meetings of Alateen, Al-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics. I talked with alcohol and drug specialists, psychotherapists, even tarot readers and mystics. One counselor told me that my expectations were too high, that I had no one to blame for my anger but myself. “You need to meet your father on his territory and try to accept him for who he is,” she said. “Who are you to judge?”

That winter, when I returned home from graduate school for the holidays, I visited my father and offered to go with him to his favorite neighborhood bar.

“Really?” he said, smiling. He was gray haired now and heavier, with deep crow’s-feet.

The bar was called the “Corner Stable,” and it was smoky and narrow and dark, with two pool tables in the back. The bartender greeted my father by name. “This is my son,” my father said, patting me on the shoulder. “He goes to graduate school in Chicago.”

“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked me, wiping the counter. The shelves behind him were filled with colored bottles, sparkling under amber light.

“A Coke.”

“Aw, come on!” my father urged. “What about a beer?”

I hardly ever drank alcohol, but I recalled the therapist’s words: You need to meet your father on his territory. “I don’t like the taste of beer,” I said. “Can I get a white Russian?” It was my mother’s favorite drink.

The bartender raised his eyebrows.

“He wants a white Russian,” my father said.

“I’ll see if we have any cream.”

“I’m so glad you’re here,” my father said to me. He had never been this attentive.

We sat together at the bar: the ruddy, hard-drinking father; the pale, lightweight son. The cigarette smoke was suffocating. When our drinks arrived, mine contained so much vodka that I winced and coughed. While I nursed it, my father had a third drink, then a fourth. I wished I had brought a book.

“Do you like to play darts?” he asked.

By now on my second drink, I felt incoherent. “Not really,” I answered. I wanted to go to bed. We had merely transported the disjointed rhythm of our relationship to a bar filled with smoke and loud voices and the clacking of pool balls. I had met him on his territory, and it made no difference.

Afterward, when I returned to Chicago, I stopped calling and visiting my father altogether. I thought perhaps he’d be so hurt that he’d admit he had problems and make amends. He didn’t. By my early thirties my father and I had settled into a polite, gentlemen’s estrangement: I refused to talk to him when he was drunk, and he was always drunk.

But I had hope. I sent cards and holiday letters. I thought that maybe the signs of my life going on, without him, might make him remorseful. Father’s Day was especially difficult. No store-bought card suited our relationship. I was forever buying blank ones and puzzling over what to say. Once, in a clumsy, regrettable fury, I wrote, “You have always been a disappointment to me.”

He never responded.

A year later my father called to tell me he had lung cancer. I was living in Portland. His voice sounded raspy and weak.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am.” I wished I could summon up more emotion, but I felt hollow.

He sounded alert and earnest. With a jolt I realized that he was sober. And there was something else I noticed in his lucid voice: fear. “I’m going to beat this thing,” he declared, as if to comfort me, not realizing that I wasn’t devastated. Not yet, at least.

One month later he died. He was fifty-nine, and I was thirty-four. When my brother showed me his death certificate, I expected to see something scientific, perhaps in Latin, listed as cause of death. Instead there were two simple words: “smoking” and “drinking.”

After the funeral service, in the back room of the parlor with my two brothers, I sobbed amid the cloying perfume of flower arrangements sent by people I didn’t know. “Take your time,” the funeral director said. “There’s no rush.” We watched the attendants prepare our father’s coffin to be taken to the grave site. They closed the lid. We were all three crying then.

How to understand this depth of grief for someone from whom I was so estranged? My father had never been cruel or unkind to me — at least, not directly. He just didn’t know how to have an honest relationship with his sons. From everything I could see, his life had been wasted. Now his death had sealed the deal. He would never change, never be a better father to me, to any of us.

A few weeks after his death I was offered a job running a treatment center for addicted men on probation. The center would be locked. Men who refused to participate could, at the discretion of the director (that would be me), be sent back to jail. After a lifetime of trying to compel my father to get treatment, I would be able to lock up addicts and force them into a recovery program.

The job was inspiring, and it wore me down. Hundreds of men passed through the program, each one leaving a trail of wounded family members. My office was beside the center’s lobby, where caseworkers sat with school-age children, toddlers, and sometimes even babies, all waiting to have their weekly “daddy time” with a father in treatment. Sometimes I visited clients in jail after they relapsed, sitting on the other side of a plexiglass pane, talking about what had gone wrong. Once, on the street, a homeless man begged me for money, too high to remember me from his days in treatment. Another time, at the local college where I sometimes teach social work, a former client on his way to class ran up and shook my hand. “You guys gave me a different life,” he said.

Call your deadbeat dad. He still loves you. I sometimes wonder whether — beneath all the pain and confusion, beneath the toughened exterior of the “deadbeat,” if indeed that’s what he was — maybe my father did love me. There were hints of it, subtle clues that become clearer as I age.

The first Christmas after my parents divorced, sitting by a tree glittering with tinsel and flashing lights, our father told my brothers and me that he was broke, and he presented each of us with a red-and-green-striped jar of homemade cookies. At the time I was skeptical. Was he really broke or just trying to fool my mother? Had he really baked the cookies, or had his girlfriend done it? Now I picture him mixing butter and flour and brown sugar and chips, spooning chunks of dough onto cookie sheets, putting them in the oven, taking them out, and waiting for them to cool before loading them into jars. Why did he do that for us, when he could so easily have done nothing?

Another time, when I was returning to college in Chicago after winter break, he surprised me at the airport. I had told him not to come see me off. At the time I had a boyfriend in Baltimore who would also be at the airport to say goodbye, and I wasn’t ready to come out to my father. When he arrived, he saw me in a tight, tearful embrace with David.

“Wayne?” my father said.

“Dad!” I pushed David away, then remembered my manners. “This is David. David, this is my dad.”

David smiled nervously and extended his hand, but my father backed away, mouth open. “I interrupted,” he said. “I’m really sorry.” Pretending he wasn’t there, I hugged David again and got on the plane.

When I arrived in my Chicago dormitory room, the phone rang. My father’s voice had that far-off, sleepy quality. “I wanted you to know it’s OK,” he said. I knew this was hard for him. He was a conventionally masculine man who’d dropped his share of slurs over the years. “I wanted you to know that I don’t mind.”

For once I did not wonder whether or not he had been drinking. For once I was not keeping tabs.