On July 10, 1927, my father, James Larkin O’Connor, came into this world. Shortly after giving birth to him, his mother, Madeline O’Connor, left this world.
The O’Connors had immigrated to Syracuse, New York, in the late 1800s from County Kerry, Ireland. They were a hard-working, hard-drinking bunch. Through the generations, they became authors, doctors and educators – all except my dad, who was a sailor in the U.S. Navy.
My grandfather, Lloyd James O’Connor, blamed my dad for the death of his wife during my father’s birth. Throughout his childhood, Lloyd gave his son food and shelter, but little else. My dad remarked that one day his dad actually gave him a ride to school, a very special day in his mind. Lloyd was a successful dentist, but unsuccessful at grace.
This loveless relationship created a rebel in my father, who while smart and handsome, began to look for ways to fill the holes in his heart, and this affected the rest of his life.
By the time my dad met my mom, he was an off-screen James Dean, the wild child. Mom, from a somewhat normal, loving family, fell in love with the rebel, and they were married.
Filling the emotional void with alcohol
When you have holes in your heart and soul, no one can fill them. It didn’t take long for the marriage to suffer. Dad spent hours in the bars off the Navy base, drinking to fill those voids. Anger from his youth spilled into his marriage.
My sister, Gail, came along in 1947. The first indication of my father’s rage came when Gail was a toddler: He broke her arm when he couldn’t get her little nightgown on.
Dad’s anger continued to grow, and during mom’s second pregnancy he would beat her after stumbling home drunk from another attempt to ease his inner pain. The assaults damaged my sister’s brain and when she was born in 1949, she was placed in a state institution in Rome, New York. Her name was Patricia. Gail and I were never told we had a sister.
I came along in 1951, born at the U.S. Navy hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. Dad used to joke that it only cost him $4. Little did I know what his birth cost him.
Throughout history, the Irish have been known for a keen sense of humor. Much of this has been attributed to the terrible conditions they suffered under the heels of the British, and still others credit it to the Catholic Church.
So many members of alcoholic and dysfunctional families have used humor as a survival or defense mechanism. My dad had a great sense of humor, no doubt as a result of a most painful childhood. My sister Gail and I can provide pretty good comic relief too.
Secrets and shame
Since dad was in the Navy, he wasn’t around very much which, looking back, was not all that bad. You never knew what you were going to get when he came through the front door. Step out of line and you were hit by a hand that smelled of Old Spice. When he was roaring drunk, he would affectionately call me “Puke,” no doubt a Navy term of endearment that cut me like a rusted hack saw blade.
I can barely remember times of having fun with my dad. If it didn’t involve alcohol, he was very quiet and shy. Back then, a visit to a state park on a weekend day was a big deal.
One of my best memories of my dad was when I was about 9 years old and was attending a YMCA day camp for a week. There was a fishing event the next day, and we were to bring worms for bait. I didn’t find any at home so I had none. When I woke up the next morning, there was a white paper tub of fat worms crawling around in the moist soil. Somehow dad found some the night before as I slept. I felt very special that day.
In 1961, when I was 10 years old and at the dentist with mom and Gail, an urgent phone call arrived. We all had to hurry home, and mom was very upset. We quickly changed into dress clothes and drove to the institution where my sister Patricia was. We were quietly told that we had a sister who’d been “away,” and had just died.
It was all very confusing to me. My dad was there, which was rare. I couldn’t bring myself to go into the room at the funeral home. My parents wanted me to view my dead sister, who I knew nothing about until a few minutes earlier. I could tell from a distance that she was pretty and had long dark hair. That’s the only memory I have of her.
Families with alcoholics keep secrets. It’s all about survival. We had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy long before the army did. I didn’t know until many years later that my father visited Patricia every weekend he was home, and yet my mom never could. I’m sure his grief added to his pain and self-loathing.
I grew up always feeling different. All of my aunts and uncles had good marriages, and my uncles didn’t embarrass my cousins. Whenever dad attended a family event, he was drunk, and Gail and I felt much shame.
My parents separated many times, with mom being the eternal optimist, but dad was mostly absent, sailing the seas. He would always mail me postcards, maps and tales of the countries he visited. He was quiet and aloof when sober, but could be most communicative thousands of miles away. Dad couldn’t be intimate or show emotion unless he got courage from a bottle.
As I got older, the phone would sometimes ring in the middle of the night and his voice slurred on about how proud he was of me, “Puke.” He would ramble on singing Navy tunes as I laid the phone on the floor and went back to a sleep laced with anger.
Following in the footsteps of an alcoholic role model
I went to college carrying a lot of anger towards my father. Unknowingly, I repeated many of the same behaviors my dad did. After college I got a job, but continued in party mode. In 1976, I accepted a sales position with Oscar Mayer, and the partying continued.
I got married in 1978, but still felt different, never good enough, especially at work. My first marriage lasted seven years and produced my own son, Christopher Dennis O’Connor. I was thrilled to have a son. I was also determined to be the best father on earth. I promised myself that I would never embarrass him, only make him proud, and always be there for him.
In 1981, when Chris was only 6 months old, dad passed away. He only got to see a photo of his grandson. Dad died of chronic alcoholism in a run-down apartment in a seedy part of Norfolk, Virginia. The Navy had enough of his drinking, and he had retired after 26 years. He was 58.
Gail and I flew to Norfolk to make the arrangements. We drove to the address we had seen on the back of envelopes for years. As we drove up to the apartment, all of his belongings were piled up on the curb. Cheap furniture, tattered clothing, smatterings of papers, and piles of books and newspapers. His whole life was in a heap of junk at the curb. For us it was one last time to be embarrassed by our father.
Many Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs) struggle with self-worth, trust, intimacy, and more. It’s been said that in an alcoholic home, no one escapes, not even the dog. I had no idea of the family dynamics involved in being in such an environment. I was the classic overachiever, the responsible one. My sister Gail was the comedian. Because she was older, she saw more and was hurt more. She struggles today from those formative years, never healing.
Healing the wounds
When my marriage failed, I sought professional help. I knew something was wrong. My counselor helped me see my past clearly, and I learned that I was NOT my father.
I spent much time in an ACOA group and realized that I wasn’t alone. All of us suffered from the effects of an alcoholic parent, and we shared the same experiences and inadequacies.
Part of my healing was to go back to Syracuse to visit my dad’s grave. It was a bitterly cold and snowy day, and my emotions were burning like a wildfire. I found his grave, and ironically he was buried next to his father, who wanted nothing to do with him.
I had to let the anger within me go; otherwise I’d end up like him. For over an hour I vented: cursing, screaming, crying, and letting the sadness and resentment flow from me like a raging river. Next, I forgave him. I forgave my father for all the embarrassment and shame he caused me. I forgave him for the times he took me to bars at a young age and ordered me not to tell my mother and be a co-conspirator in his drinking. I forgave him for not being there for me as a father. When he was there, at graduations and my wedding, he was drunk. I forgave him for creating holes in my heart and soul that I tried to fill with alcohol, just as he did. I forgave him for his brutality towards our family that hurt so many. Finally, I told him I loved him. A weight had been lifted, but I still wasn’t whole.
In 1990, I fell in love, and this time it was real. I found my soul mate, Fran. Despite this love I was still guarded, and it actually took me two years to introduce Fran to my son, Chris. We dated for six years, and I was afraid of both Chris and I getting hurt, so I was holding back. We married in 1996, but something was still missing inside.
I attended a church retreat for four days in 2001. During that long weekend, I found myself at the foot of the cross. It wasn’t until I totally surrendered myself to God that I was free. I surrendered to Him the control of my life that I thought I so desperately needed. Alcoholic homes are out of control, so we cling to control to make things safe.
I was free from the past, free from fear and pain. For the first time in my life, I felt complete and unconditional love. We have few moments in our lives when we can look back and see that our lives have been changed. This was one of those moments.
When I see the suffering caused by alcoholism, and how close I came to that path, I thank God for the will to persevere for a better life. Much of that strength came from my mom, who raised two kids as a single parent in a time when most women just accepted their lot in life. Mom always insisted on us doing our best and she was a great role model for working hard to better yourself. She never gave up.
Looking back, my dad did give me some gifts. He was a voracious reader, as am I. He loved to travel, and with the help of the Navy visited over 40 countries. I inherited the gift of wanderlust and have been blessed to travel all over the world. Perhaps his greatest gift was knowing that I didn’t want his life or his torment. I only wanted to be a good dad.
The gifts of reading, travel and my frugality have been passed on to my son. At 9 years of age, Chris and I traveled to Ireland, where it all began. At age 12, Chris went with me to Barcelona, Spain, for the 1992 Olympics, and to London in 2002. We swap history books and coupons, and share a love of hockey. My son and I share a strong faith as well as an intimacy and trust for each other.
The greatest joy I have is looking at my grandson and granddaughter, and to know that while their lives won’t be without challenges, they won’t have the burden that my dad carried with him, and that I almost passed along. The chain of alcoholism is broken.