‘Hey Sweetheart, how ya doing?’ No one had to tell me, I knew what killed him.’: Woman’s dad loses battle with addiction, ‘He was so much more than an addict to me’

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“My father was an addict. As a child his drug of choice was alcohol. When he drank, he took his life’s frustrations out on my mom. There are many nights I can recall waking up to their fights and crying in hopes they would stop. One night I was sleeping in bed with my mom because he hadn’t come home but when he finally arrived in the middle of the night, he announced his arrival by ripping her out of bed and throwing her to the floor. His addiction destroyed our family and when she found a chance to get us out, she took it. She moved us from South Carolina to New York when I was ten-years-old. She married the man who would take over my father’s role, the man I would eventually refer to as my dad.

When I was a teenager my father’s drug of choice was crack. During this time, he disappeared from our lives. He chose the high over his children. This is difficult for a young girl to comprehend so I decided I would claim I hated him. The words were easy to say but my heart wouldn’t allow this hate to fester or even exist. After all, he was my dad. He was the man who would take me on Saturday mornings to get a doughnut. He was the one who told me repeatedly I would have a college degree before I ever had a husband, something that ended up being true. I couldn’t hate him; even though I wanted to. Then one day a doctor prescribed him OxyContin and that became his drug of choice. When the prescription ran out the addiction stayed and led him to make many poor decisions. He lost the house my uncle left for my brothers and me. He went as far as selling the porch on that house to get money for drugs. He lost everything which led him to a bank, gun in hand, ready to rob it. He was sentenced to four years in prison in South Carolina. During that time our relationship started over, yet again. We started writing to each other, telling each other our stories. Filling in the gaps where he had been absent. I was in my early twenties, single, a college student, and I made a decision that would shift the course of our lives.

Woman smiles at sporting event in selfie with father who is an addict
Rebecca Rath

Forgiveness. I chose to forgive my dad and offer him a home in New York with me. I knew if I didn’t, he would die. He had no one else. He had hurt my brothers far beyond repair. I was his only hope. So, I forgave him. Even knowing he would hurt me again, I forgave him. Even when some of my family warned me not to, I forgave him. Even when I angered those I loved by allowing him back in my life, I forgave my dad. In doing so, he did hurt me again at times, but memories were made. Precious memories. It became our ritual to go grocery shopping every Saturday. He would get in my car and say, ‘Hey Sweetheart, how ya doing?’ He would text me during the Cowboys’ games to complain about a call or rejoice in a play. When I became pregnant with my first son, I was warned not to let my dad too close. My response never changed, ‘the more people that love my child the better.’ And boy did he love that child. When he walked through my door all of his energy went to playing with my son.

Man who is an addict stands outside with his grandson
Rebecca Rath

My dad told me once he knew he was a terrible dad but he would make up for it by being the best grandpa in the world. And that was one promise he kept. I remember watching as he pulled Nolan around the yard in the middle of winter on a sled. I remember Nolan sitting on his lap while they played a dinosaur game on my dad’s phone. Nolan loved him and he loved Nolan. My dad lived within fifteen minutes of me for five and a half years. Then, in January of 2018 he decided to move closer to my brother so he could help him with his home remodeling business. He would live an hour away from me now which meant no more Saturday morning shopping trips. No more sporadic trips to the zoo. I felt like he was abandoning me again. I was angry and hurt but it didn’t last long. I adjusted like I had learned long ago.

Little boy sits on grandfather's lap who is an addict playing on phone
Rebecca Rath

He came to visit in early May. We worked in my yard, he watched my kids so my husband and I could go out for his birthday and we went grocery shopping one last time. On May 30th at around 10:30 in the morning my husband called me from my school’s parking lot. He was there to pick me up. My dad died. I collapsed in front of my students and wept. Two fourteen-year-old girls picked me up off the floor and walked me out of my school. My dad was dead. I couldn’t comprehend it. Even now I can’t. I laid on my bathroom floor sobbing. I knew what killed him, no one had to tell me. It didn’t matter how he died all that mattered to me was that he was gone. Our society is quick to call people like my dad ‘junkies’ or say ‘it was their choice to do drugs and they don’t deserve to be saved.’ It was my dad’s choice but he was more than an addict like so many are. He was loved. He was wanted. He was needed. I needed him.

I forgave him for that small part of who he was and opened my heart to everything else I knew was there. I had six years with him from the time he was released from prison to the time heroin took him from me. Six years of grocery store trips, long talks about life, politics, and his childhood memories. Six years of watching him transform from a felon to a grandfather. Six years but it wasn’t enough. I still long to hear him say ‘hey sweetheart how ya doing.’ I would relive all the hurt again for one more day with him. I am thankful every day for those six years and angry every day there were only six. I am thankful my heart chose forgiveness because it opened a door that gave my brothers and me our dad back. We buried him on a Wednesday in June to the song ‘Fishing in the Sky.’ I haven’t been able to listen to that song since. The cemetery is a mile from my house and every time we drive by Nolan says, ‘That’s where Pops is in the blue box.’ For the first several months, whenever we would drive by, Nolan would tell me to show him my eyes because he knew I would be crying.

Brother and sister stand smiling with their addict father who has since passed away
Rebecca Rath

The emotions come in waves now. There are moments when my brain allows me to forget he’s gone and in those spilt seconds I will think about something I need to say to him. But reality is harsh and won’t let me linger. One second I am whole again and the next my heart returns to its new version, the version that is broken. I miss my dad every day. He has been gone less than a year and he has already missed so much. Nolan had open-heart surgery and recovered quickly. My youngest, Caleb, will sometimes pick-up my dad’s picture and say ‘Papa Papa.’ My dad couldn’t wait for Caleb to be big enough to play with him and Nolan. On his calendar he had written on June 21st he was going to take Caleb for a walk in our woods. June 21st I turned 34. He missed the Cowboys making the playoffs. He would have been so excited about that. He has missed so much and he is missed so much. My dad was an addict but he was so much more than that to me.”

Woman smiles in selfie with son and father who has since passed away from addiction
Rebecca Rath

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