I've never seen my dad in an actual tie.
When he had an event that necessitated formal attire, he would always wear his prized bolo tie. If you don't know what a bolo tie, it is a tie made up of a shoestring or leather with decorative tips that's looped through an ornamental clasp. It is the tie of choice for cowboys and free-thinkers, people who can't be hemmed in and to hell with your rules. Think Mike Milligan in season two of Fargo, think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, think Macklemore.
My dad's tie specifically is composed of a brown string ending in two bone tears. The clasp is a soft-ridged and polished deer bone brooch. It is artifact from his days in Alberta, where he would spend his free time away from oil rigs and other generic labour jobs, riding horses with a few friends and camping on the prairies—unburdened from the weights of marriage and family that I don't think he was ever suited for.
I used to love watching my dad at social events. He was charming and sly. It could've been the god-worship bias of a young boy watching his dad, but when he slapped on the bolo tie, I swore he was the coolest guy in the world. It was this cool guy who would sometimes play road hockey with my friends and I. Here he'd be the classic ham, slipping on the road and dramatically dragging down an opposing team member with him, yelling nonsensical French gibberish when you got a breakaway. My friends loved him. This was a man who could give and receive love, who had his life under control, who could inspire his sons.
But the appearance of this version of my dad was special. The more common memory I have is coming home from school and finding him asleep on the couch and, based on the dirty dishes, crumbs, and roaches in his ashtray, knowing that he'd probably been there for hours. He was constantly between jobs and the betweens kept getting longer, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. His clothes (often long johns and T-shirt) were stained and shabby, the room less like a living room and more like a gruddy one-bedroom apartment dropped inside of a family's home. My brothers and I would creep around, drowning in a terrible, repressive silence, attempting to feel young and normal while terrified of waking my dad and unleashing his crud-encrusted wrath.
My dad's anger shattered me every time I witnessed it. I lived in fear of it and shook at the slightest tremor of its appearance. It was loud and sharp and hypocritical. Once awoken, he would find a target, be it one of my younger brothers, me, my mom, and violently berate them for any slight aggravation or slight affront to his constant shifting code of ethics. The rules were always changing in the house because they weren't the point. The point was to have a reason to attack, to reduce any of us to the insignificance that he felt that he was. It was abusive—thankfully not physical, but destructive and cruel nonetheless.
Growing up, I didn't know why this was. It was just the routine of my life—every day, my happiness held hostage by the erratic whims and moods of my dad. Instability like this is jarring when you're young. There is no proper behaviour, there is no control or safety, there is only the life of the rodent, staying small, unnoticed and quiet.
I had no idea that my dad's behaviour was the result of a drug problem, an addiction to injecting cocaine that was eroding his life and marriage and bankrupting our family. I had no idea that the pain and confusion I experienced was a common description of life under an addict. His wild mood swings and my resulting internal confusion was caused by the taking and waiting for the drug. Perhaps that's the most significant way an addict betrays their family: the pain being inflicted on you isn't even the main drama, it's just an effect, a symptom of a deeper, more consuming love affair.
Even more destructive was the silence. We would be so quiet in our house—a thick silence that felt stuffed into our mouths. It was an aggressive silence, the partner in crime to the vitriolic explosions of anger. My own silence was born out of my own pissed offness, anger blocked and turned inward, hurtling back down my throat into my guts. The crushing desire to wake him up and confront him twisted into constant self-admonishments about my own cowardice.
The goal of any family suffering through an addiction is to make things seem normal. To keep the surface of the lake calm and serene, and the worse the chaos becomes the more you grit your teeth and ignore, laugh it off and plunge all the resentment and confusion you feel beneath its placid surface.
It is this self-censorship that makes talking with my father so painful and difficult. In terms of repressing things and not bringing up uncomfortable subject matter, I am a perfect soldier, the Jason Bourne of pretending everything is fine. This silence, this complicity is what the addict counts on. It's why they can shove their addiction right in front of your face, they know that the agreement to not make waves in the water will hold.
This Christmas, I saw my dad and barely recognized him. Him and my mom have split up. He has become gaunt and brittle looking. The drugs have etched themselves into his face. My brother, who still lives at home, told me that he's begun viewing our dad as already dead, which is fitting because he already resembles a ghost. Like with a ghost, communication is impossible. We talk but it's just noise covering up the questions of "'Why?" and "What happened?"
My dad was never great with gifts. From broken dirt-bikes, to gift certificates to Zellers, he was always stretching the phrase "it's the thought that counts." The previous Christmas was no exception. For my brand new nephew, my dad gave him a bag of too-small girl clothes and a deflated rubber ball with Disney characters on it that he claimed was an antique. I've never seen an antique that had a barcode on it, but what do I know? For myself, I was given a dented up secondhand box of Brut cologne and aftershave, which I promptly left at home. For me it was just another example of his half-assed parenting. The gifts were just a ghost rattling his chains.
But I recently went back home, and when I got there my mom told me that she had tossed out the box of Christmas cologne that I had left. Before she did though, she had looked through it and found something.
She handed me my dad's bolo tie. He had left it for me in the bottom of the box.
It felt like finding a message a bottle. My dad, the one I idolized, the one who played hockey with me and my friends, was speaking to me. He had found a tiny hole in the fortress of silence his drugs and my pain built, and he had slipped a note through. And I could peek through the hole and see him, the sensitive, intelligent cowboy the little boy in me idolized, still on horseback, still riding wherever the wind took him. And for brief moment, untarnished love filled me.
I'm going to add the tie to my wardrobe. To honour a man who tried to do his best, but could not and the life and love between us that could've been.
Photo via Flickr user eric molina
Jordan Foisy is a comedian based out of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.