By Mark E. Smith
Maybe it’s what literature or movies have bred into our culture, that people are either good or bad, but one week after Paul’s death, I can tell you that it’s possible – and more common than we’d like to think – for people to be both. And, for me, Paul was both, for 35 years, which might be why I’ve always called him Dad or Paul, based on the circumstance.
Paul entered my life as Paul, a 34-year-old bachelor attorney when I was eight. My biological father had left, and my mom met Paul during some legal matter. My mom was an alcoholic and an addict, but was exceptionally attractive, and that caught Paul’s eye. Yet, as I would watch unfold till both of their deaths, Mom and Paul were a toxic mix that led to circumstances that my brother, sister and I can’t believe any of us survived – and Mom and Paul ultimately didn’t.
Paul started life as a military brat, son of a full-bird colonel who flew with Charles Lindbergh, no less, and was a highly-decorated WWII fighter pilot. Grandpa Jim, as I knew him, was never a touchy-feely kind of guy. He was a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking man’s man, with a tall stature and broad chest to match. And, he expected Paul and his brother to be in line all the time. Both boys ended up at military academies, and Paul graduated from King’s Point, embarking on an officer’s career navigating commercial ships around the globe, pulling in an astounding $10,000 per month in the 1970s. Paul put the money to good use, paying his way through law school and buying a farmhouse on some land. And, that’s when my mom began dating him, a relationship that through my eight-year-old eyes had all the promise in the world.
Yet, there was more to it than that for me. Not only did Paul seem a knight in shining armor to pull us out of poverty, but he genuinely took to me. My own father didn’t just drink and walk out on us, but till the day of his death in my 30s, there’s no doubt he was ashamed that I had a disability. Yes, it was my father’s issues, and I always tried to have some empathy because he was so troubled, but I couldn’t help but carry the burden of that shame. However, Paul demonstrated the opposite, genuinely loving and embracing of me. He took me hunting and fishing, sometimes carrying me on his back for miles. And, after my mother and he married, he took me almost everywhere he went, always referring to me as his son. It was a different world, where for the first time I felt a sense of acceptance. And, it was then that Paul became Dad to me.
But, it all was a tale of two cities. Dad was a loving, generous father, who showed me a world I never knew existed, from the great outdoors to socialite parties. However, there were the other sides of him that were horrific – Paul’s sides. He was a drinker, too, and I lay in bed every night hearing the liquor cabinet open and close countless times. My mother and he drank and argued nightly, where eventually he became physically abusive toward her, and they crashed around the house, keeping me constantly on edge. Paul could be a happy, docile drunk, or an enraged monster. Among the low points was on my 10th birthday when I came home from school to find my mom having slit her wrists in a suicide attempt, and as Paul rushed home, he’d been drinking since lunch and slammed his truck into a tree. It’s how life was.
By 1983, my younger sister was born, and Dad was a great father to her, too, loving her to no end. And his law practice thrived, complete with a beautiful old Victorian office right across the street from the courthouse. I remember people in our community being impressed by our family’s status at that point, with Dad running both a private practice and serving in the Public Defender’s office. It was round that time that Dad even took us on vacation to Maui.
But, it was all a facade. My mom was drunk around the clock, Paul started drinking at lunch, they were mired in debt, and the nights were so violent that it’s amazing no one died during those years, albeit from domestic violence, overdose, or suicide. Meanwhile, the three of us kids fended for ourselves. It’s a chaos that haunts me to this day, where loud noises at night in my home – my daughter slamming a cabinet door – triggers immediate fear in me, taking me right back in an instant. Some trauma just never grows out of us.
By 1988, my mom and Paul divorced, and both began an even sharper decline. My mom was a full-blown Skid Row kind of drunk, but Paul remained somewhat functional. And, it would be the next 10 years that truly taught me the fallacy of the term functional alcoholic.
After the divorce, I was 18 and on my own, taking care of my then 6-year-old sister when I could, and while my mom was a disaster, Paul tried to keep his life together and we remained very close. But, he drank daily, and I watched him throughout the 1990s lose everything. His house was foreclosed on, he lost his law practice, and ended up homeless, couch hopping at wealthy friends’ homes, wearing out his welcome. Meanwhile, I grew into my late 20s, with a wife, daughter, house, career, and graduate school, when Paul landed on our couch – and never left. By that point, he was a dishwasher at a friend’s restaurant and might have had two pairs of clothes as his sole possessions. True to form, by day he was great, an amazing grandfather to my daughter, and I could count on him for anything. However, while washing dishes at night, he just drank, coming home late and passing out on our family room couch. Eventually, I moved across the country, letting him live in that house till I sold it, at which time he moved to a camp ground. And, the entire decade demonstrated what happens to functional alcoholics: they slowly lose everything.
By his death, a week ago at this writing, Paul’s life had even more crazy twists and turns. While living at the campground, he met a woman half his age, with profound mental issues, and for the coming years, they lived a volatile life of poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.
The last time I saw Dad was this past summer when he came east for Grandpa Jim’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He was in such poor health and still drinking that I loaned him a mobility scooter. During that visit, my sister and I checked him into my local VA hospital, where he spent several weeks detoxing and getting a grim diagnosis that after decades of alcoholism, his organs were failing. After getting in good enough health to fly home from Pennsylvania to California, he took his next drink upon landing. He would never be without a drink again, even dying with alcohol in his system.
The King’s Point graduate who traveled the globe, became a successful attorney and a loving father died at 2:06 pm on December 31, 2013. However, the obituaries that tell that one-dimensional portrait, as obituaries do, rob Paul’s life of ultimate meaning. Rather, all should look at the entirety of such loved ones’ lives and not dismiss the entirety of the individual, but truly learn from his or her paths. Dad was a great main, Paul was a troubled man, and both teach us invaluable lessons in life. For me, some of those lessons are beautiful and some are haunting, but they’re lessons that ultimately gave Dad’s life a larger purpose, where when I look at the sober lives of my siblings and me, and the promising future of our combined seven children, Paul’s alcoholism and life descent wasn’t without reason, but a profound lesson for us to learn.