Part 14

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man, true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

– Ernest Hemingway

I was more skeptical than I’d like to admit, but my Dad seemed earnest in his newfound sobriety, and I wanted to support him. I felt like it was a scene out of a Planet Earth documentary: a rare animal slinks its way out and does something, and everyone around watching holds their breath to watch the gravity of the animal’s move. You don’t want to move for fear you will disturb it, so you do your best just to watch, and not interfere with its process. My Dad isn’t an animal, but this journey he was on was foreign territory for me. Sobriety? I didn’t know how to help or what to say, so it felt best to say little for fear I may knock this train off its tracks. At this point in my own life, I didn’t drink. Most of my friends did, but it scared me, and the only alcohol we had was Busch Light and siphoned liquor from my friend’s parents’ leftovers. I didn’t want alcohol to be a part of my life because I had seen how much it had rocked my entire family. I didn’t keep this attitude for much longer, but that’s for later in our story (wow, an alcoholic’s kid tries out alcohol? Who knew!).

My Dad tried out AA, and didn’t like it very much. “All they talked about was drinking. I wanted to be done drinking, and I was so tired of talking about all these old drinking stories, and about how hard it was to stop. I wanted to move on, and I didn’t want to be reminded every day that alcohol had a power over me.” Sobriety can be a touchy subject, especially in the realm of how a person came to be sober. Neither my Dad nor I think poorly of AA. I’ve seen AA and NA work for a lot of people. Anything that keeps you sober: a Higher Power (capital H, capital P), religion, meditation, prayer, AA, hypnosis; all of it is great. I think the problem lies in when some become overly zealous about their new-found sobriety, and it becomes a one-way highway of, this is the only way. We can share our experiences but in order to truly understand one another, it takes an open mind and an open heart. Coming to the table with a closed mind idea doesn’t help anyone, and I’ve found that makes it incredibly difficult to recruit others to your, “foolproof method” of sobriety or [insert belief here]. I digress. My Dad’s method of sobriety was quitting cold turkey.

Most people who are substance abusers are doing it to cover up feelings that all along the spectrum: from anxiety to depression to loneliness to sadness and back to anxiety. My Dad drank for many reasons. “It pissed me off I couldn’t be a part of my culture. I still had that pain even after I found out I was adopted, so I drank, excessively. I felt like I had missed out on being Native American: growing up in the southwest, being with my (biological) Mom, and no one told me. Even when I was drinking I could have been surrounded by 150 people in a bar and I’d still feel alone.” After my Dad stopped drinking, the pain he experienced as a child and throughout his adulthood was still there. Sports had salved it when he was a child, and alcohol had salved it when he was an adult. Now that he had neither, the pain was exposed; left raw and untended for many years. My Dad had to sit with this, and “I knew I had to do something to help myself after I quit drinking. I realized what I was doing to myself, my family, my grandkids, and how it was hurting everyone around me. That’s why I went. I knew I had to do something.” He sought the help from a clinical therapist. “I can’t remember who told me but a buddy of mine told me that the Catholic Diocese in downtown Toledo offered counseling. I had to go. I needed help. I ended up going to therapy for a year and a half.”

I didn’t take my Dad’s sobriety very seriously until he started going to counseling. It wasn’t an overnight change, but I could see he was putting effort in to repairing our relationship, and just as important repairing his relationship with himself. There was a shift in his demeanor: he was calmer, and one evening when we were eating dinner he asked if he could talk to us (me and Amber). We said sure. He apologized for, “all the things he did when he was drinking” and said he was sorry. I felt it was disingenuous. It was a blanket statement that didn’t make me feel better in that moment. The fear I felt growing up around him, and the anxiety I experienced did not cover a, “sorry for all the things” kind of statement. I was angry. The only response you can say to someone in that moment is, “okay” because I could see how painful it was for him to even say those words. But I felt my experience with him growing up was invalidated. He had seemed to be on a journey of self-forgiveness, but what about those he left in his wake of self-destruction? I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to say anything for fear it would change the trajectory of this journey.

Maybe it’s selfish I was angry that my Dad gave that apology. But that’s how I felt. In that moment and until my early 20s I was so angry. I was frustrated that he seemed to lack the ability to process the ripple effect his alcoholism had on me and my siblings. Or maybe he did, but he didn’t acknowledge it to me. How my nervous and emotional regulation systems are wired differently because I felt so unstable growing up. It felt like when he became sober it was the final step, and not the beginning of truly repairing a relationship, which is what I was expecting. Even after going to counseling, he seemed at peace with himself, but not necessarily his children. I had to learn to accept a (genuine) apology I never received. This may sound resentful, and harsh. But it’s hard to hold on to so much anger. It’s poisonous. I couldn’t do it any longer, and needed to figure out how I could let go of that, and maintain a relationship with my Dad (which I very much wanted) while not resenting him. Insert therapy here! It took a lot of talk-therapy, EMDR, meditation, and work to accept that my Dad was and is doing his best. We are all just doing our best. We are all just doing our best.

I talked to one of my siblings about this time period, when our Dad was getting sober. She said he would call her all the time to talk about how hard it was, and how desperate he was to be and stay sober. How he was sorry, and she said it was like he was drowning. My heart sank into my stomach, and I nearly threw up. I never saw that side of my Dad when he was in the early stages of sobriety. I didn’t see the physical toll sobriety was taking on him after 30 years of alcoholism. I didn’t see him wrestling with the demons of his past, raging against him and him working through his identity crisis he experienced at such a young age. I didn’t see that. I needed to trade anger for compassion if there was ever any hope of my Dad and I maintaining a relationship. I opened my arms to empathy, and had to focus on:

  1. My Dad was now sober, and didn’t drink himself to death
  2. He was in my life and someone I leaned on greatly
  3. He was working on himself, and taking care of himself
  4. I love my Dad
  5. I know he loves me

None of this is easy. There are missteps and awkwardness and feelings accidentally or purposely get hurt and we have different expectations and some uneasiness. But I would take all of that a hundred times over than go through one more day of watching my Dad take a drink. “No one warns you about the amount of mourning in growth” echoes through my head like a ticker tape when I reflect on this. It’s hard to grow, and even harder to change when we have habits so deeply ingrained in us. There is no greater impetus for change than the inner fire that burns inside of us, and we have to keep fanning the flames ourselves.

I find empathy to be a better road to take than anger. Empathy for the children my parents were, and their stories. Empathy for how they soothed themselves when they needed their loved ones. Empathy for myself when I get frustrated or hurt or a flashback of white, hot anger. Empathy for when they made mistakes, but knowing they are trying their best.


Part 13

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

– Mary Ann Radmacher

I could continue to give examples of how I felt anxious growing up around my parents’ drinking habits while also feeling loved and trying to connect with them. But, we’re not trying to clean ourselves in dirty water here. Their drinking habits were bad, and they did the best they could to cope with their own emotional traumas while raising children. There are a lot more nuances to it than that, but for simplicity’s sake in my mind, that is the bottom line. I’ve untangled the nuances of it and talked to enough therapists about it that I’ve reached the point where there’s nothing left to untangle or “discover.”

All 5 of my Dad’s girls: Erin, Allison, Amber, me, Andrea. 1996

I’ve been rereading David Sedaris books, because in a time of uncertainty I enjoy going back to my favorite authors. I just finished When You Are Engulfed In Flames, and a chapter is dedicated to David’s quest to stop smoking cigarettes. He discusses the habits engrained in him from smoking, and he has to find new hobbies to occupy his time to replace smoking. Him and his partner took a trip to Japan to distance himself from his old environment: his apartment where he would chain smoke while he wrote. When he finished his last *last* cigarette in the Charles DeGaulle Airport on his way to Japan, he thought of his friend Tini. “When it came to verb conjugation, she was beyond reproach, but every so often she’d get a word wrong. The effect was not a loss of meaning but a heightening of it. I once asked if her neighbor smoked, and she thought for a moment before saying, “Karl has . . . finished with his smoking.” She meant, of course, that he had quit, but I much preferred her mistaken version. “Finished” made it sound as if he’d been allotted a certain number of cigarettes, three hundred thousand, say, delivered at the time of his birth.”

I have finished with my grief over my childhood. Doesn’t that sound so powerful? As David said, it’s like we are allotted a certain amount of cigarettes (or grief), and now, I have finished. One essential component of being finished is the fact that my Dad stopped drinking when I was 14. I just completed my freshman year of high school, and was contemplating my goal of making the varsity soccer team that fall, and when I would hang out with my friends and boyfriend over the summer. It was a jam-packed schedule: I had soccer two-a-days and a big friend group. My Dad and my stepmom had gotten divorced that year, but he hadn’t said much about it. They had been married for 10 years at that point. He sat Amber and I down at the kitchen table one evening, told us he and Brenna were getting divorced, and that was that. I don’t know if we even had any questions, it just seemed like it was done, nothing to be said, we’re moving on. I don’t think I asked anything about it until a few years later.

Dad and I, 2013. Ferry ride in Seattle.

Soon after that (or how soon was it really? memories are funny like that), my Dad sat us down again. I noticed his drinking had increased since he and Brenna had gotten divorced. It wasn’t raise the alarm kind of drinking, just a slight uptick that I had noticed. I remember being worried, but told myself it was good to notice, I would continue to monitor if it steadily increased. He was still going to work, and although he seemed more distant than usual, he was still being our Dad. I had a rolodex of information in my head of his habits and demeanor that created different levels of “raising the alarm“, and I filed this away for later contemplation when he sat us down again. He had a very serious look on his face. I honestly thought our Grandma had died. I was preparing for this information to hit me, but instead, my Dad said, “I’m done drinking.” It wasn’t, “I’m quitting / I’m going to try to quit / I’m going to AA / I need to stop drinking” it was as if he had already completed the contemplation of not drinking, and he was done. He was finished with his drinking.

Dad and I at Kindergarten graduation, 1995

I didn’t know if he meant he was finished for today, or for the week, for the foreseeable future… He meant for the rest of his life. I think Amber and I sat there dumbfounded. Or at least I did. I was bowled over with skepticism. I don’t remember what I actually said, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “oh, good!” But I couldn’t help but think, “how long will this last?” I wish I could go back in time and offer my Dad empathy, and understanding, but I was 14 and confused. He said he was done. He just couldn’t do it anymore. I had mixed feelings of hope, and a bit of unsteadiness. Why now? Did something happen? What does this look like from now on? I was hopeful, but tempered my enthusiasm. Other people in my life had made the same promises in regard to substance abuse, starting when I was 6 years old and didn’t follow through. I knew alcohol had a powerful hold over people I loved, and I wasn’t sure how strong my Dad could be in the face of over thirty years of alcoholism. After a week or so, I wanted to trade my skepticism for hope. But a tempered version of hope. I wasn’t ready to jump into this new lifestyle change my Dad had seemingly taken overnight.


Part 12

“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

– Aldous Huxley

As I went through elementary school, I recognized my Dad had a drinking problem, but it felt like an unchangeable aspect of my life. I began to see it as a characteristic of who he was, and a part of my life I had no control over. I rarely saw him belligerently drunk, but mostly saw someone who would drink so much he seemingly disappeared from the world. I am cognizant that he was probably drinking more than I knew, only because of the limited window of time I saw him. Every other weekend is a short time, and seeing and spending time with my Dad in these small stints didn’t always provide ample enough time for me to get to know him. I wrestled with that anxiety of seeing him drinking but the feelings of longing to spend more time with him. I wanted to be on my best behavior when I saw him, and the reasoning was two fold: I wanted everything to go smoothly so he wouldn’t drink, and thus he would be happy and I would be happy. As I reflect back, it makes sense that I wrestled with the feelings of loving my Dad, wanting to see him, and at the same time, feeling uneasy about his potential actions.

Me and Amber in our Dad’s apartment, 1996

Around this same time I was acting out and “talking back” to my Mom, and there were times she would call my Dad and ask him to come over and have him talk to me about how I shouldn’t treat my Mom like that. I can feel myself sitting on the living room couch, staring at the carpet, and trying to call our dog Riley over to distract me from being chastised about the tone of voice I used with my Mom. The hot shame I felt when he would come over weighed like a ton of bricks. That he knew my Mom and I had these arguments, I was so embarrassed. I can feel my face get hot thinking about that even as I type this now. I would never think of talking to my Dad like I would my Mom, and my Mom noticed. We would have screaming matches about [insert any topic here] and somehow the conversation would drift into how I behave at my Dad’s house. A common refrain I heard at my Mom’s, “you put your father on a pedestal” still echoes in my ears today. At eight years old, I didn’t know what to do with the feelings I had inside. I spent the majority of my time at my Mom’s, so the likelihood that I was going to throw a tantrum was dramatically higher, and my Mom saw the brunt of it.

My Mom, Dad, and me, at my baptism, 1997.

Of course there was a difference in how I viewed my Mom and Dad, and thus how I behaved. I saw my Dad every other weekend, and a few times more each week for an hour or two when he began coaching my sports teams. I didn’t see him much, so if we’re going to place some religious intonation on how I viewed my Dad: it needs to be said that the time I spent with him I saw as sacred, and with such limited time, I wanted it to go well. At eight years old, I couldn’t articulate this to my Mom. I needed this time with my Dad to go well, because don’t you understand he may start to drink too much and get incredibly sad and disappear and then leave us and I’ll start to cry and Amber will hug me and I’ll grind my teeth and wander around the apartment looking for my Dad knowing he’s probably passed out? I didn’t know how to reconcile these feelings of worry, anxiety, and longing to know him better but also being afraid of him. Although he loved us then, and he loves us now, he kept us at an arm’s distance. To protect us? To protect himself? I just felt the distance.

Outside of my Dad’s apartment building, 1998, my Dad is reflected in the door.

I played a wide variety of sports in elementary school, beginning with an indoor soccer league when I was five. It opened up an entire world to me, and listening to my Dad talk about how sports gave him an outlet, and an escape… I can echo those same sentiments. My anxiety wasn’t just limited to my Dad’s house, as my Mom’s drinking increased erratically and in frequency. Alcohol can morph people into unrecognizable characters, and I never knew what version of my Mom was going to show up after five drinks. My Mom as I knew her was gone, but the anticipation of what was to come still makes me nauseous today. As an adult, I know my parents’ drinking was not because of me, but because it was a salve on their own wounds. Woulds that continued to fester because they were never healed by their own loved ones who were supposed to take care of them. I know this now. I didn’t know it then. I needed an escape from this tenuous relationship I had with both of my parents, and I found it through sports. Soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball, golf, you name it. I also found a way to bond with my Dad: him coaching my softball and basketball teams throughout elementary. Both him and my Mom were incredibly supportive of all my sports endeavors, and were at every game, match, or tournament they possibly could attend. The anxiety I had would dissipate when I was on a court or field, and my confidence rose as I continued to excel and gained more experience as I got older.

1999 City League Champions. Coach Mike and my Dad led us to victory.

It’s hard to articulate what it’s like to love someone unconditionally while they simultaneously are the main source of your anxiety, and you cannot leave them because you are a child. You are stuck. You suddenly find yourself having take care of the people who are supposed to take care of you. It manifested in me a cynicism, and a feeling that people usually are not to be trusted. In some ways, it manifested a loss of hope. I cannot count the number of times I would hope, pray, and even sometimes ask that my parents stop drinking. I do not remember when I finally lost hope. I couldn’t trust the very people who were supposed to take care of me, who could I trust? I am aware I am one of the fortunate ones: both my parents are now sober. I have (generally) pretty good relationships with both of my parents. I have a family and two dogs who love me. My parents’ sobriety has been instrumental in all of us healing from our wounds, but that’s the key word: instrumental. It’s one piece of the puzzle in this 100 piece jigsaw.

I was talking to my Dad on the phone last week, and we were talking about my experiences growing up. We were talking about how it’s fascinating that one event that is factual in every way, can be felt differently by every person involved. I admitted I probably would not be able to do this project had I decided to do it 5 years ago. I was not in the headspace where I had healed from my own trauma, and writing about this would have been like pouring salt in open wounds. I have arrived at the place where I can take out these old memories, and examine them without the white hot anger I once had. It has taken an immense amount of work to be able to accept the events that happened when I was a child. I recognize my parents have done immense work in making amends, and attempting to forgive themselves. This project is by no means a slander piece, but in some ways trying to normalize and empathize that we all have these things inside us we don’t want anyone to see. We do not have to be diminished by our previous actions. All we can do is try to be the better version of our previous self, and let our past experiences give us the hindsight of compassion and empathy.


Part 11

“As time goes on, you’ll understand. What lasts, lasts; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Time solves most things. And what time can’t solve, you have to solve yourself.”

– Haruki Murakami

“No one warns you about the amount of mourning in growth.”

– Té V. Smith
My Dad and I fishing, 1993.

My parents separated when I was five. My memories of us as a complete family unit are fuzzy and dreamlike. I remember small snapshots of events and then the remainder of the it fades away, forever elusive to me. I have no memory of being told my Dad wasn’t living with us, he suddenly just wasn’t. My oldest sister’s boyfriend had a truck, and I remember it being parked in the driveway and my Dad’s things were loaded into it. I didn’t make the connection that meant he was leaving, and I was confused on what was happening and why. It’s like there’s a black hole in my memory of that moment to suddenly I am thrusted into memories of when my Dad lived in an apartment building on the west side of Toledo. The custody arrangement was set so I’d see him on the same weekends Amber did. We had the same routine: get picked up at 7:30 on Friday evening, and be returned at 7:30 on Sunday evening, every other weekend.

My sister Erin’s high school graduation. From left: Me, my sister Andrea, Grandma Mary, my Dad, my sisters: Allison, Amber, Erin, and my Mom, 1994.
Christmas, 1992. My sister Allison is holding me, my Dad, my sister Erin, my Aunt Judy, my sister Andrea.

My Dad was a mystery to me. If I were to paint him in water colors today of what I saw in him then, it would start where his heart is; in shades of deep, dark, almost black like blues and swirl into a brighter sky blue as you progressed to the tips of his fingers, his toes, and the top of his head. Something was buried deep, and was covered by the lightness of charm and quick wit. There was something guarded about him, and the further you stood away the less you noticed it. I knew he liked baseball, Jimi Hendrix, cooking new recipes for us, and Micky Mantle. As I referenced before, we’d watch a Man Called Horse, and listen to Navajo flute music. I saw his silver and turquoise jewelry, and he would reference living in New Mexico. He has a gregarious laugh that is genuine and deep. But these traits coincided with traits I did not understand. I internalized this as “be afraid!” because I wasn’t sure which part of my Dad I would see. I was scared of him when I was a kid.

Reading to my dog Riley, 1993.

There was an aura of melancholy that trailed him. His mood wouldn’t be depressed per se, but it was as if there was always something surrounding him, trying to capture him and envelop him and drag him to the depths of despair. This monster of despair would wrap its arms around him with a warm blanket of alcohol, to only smother him with it later. Anyone with alcoholic parents can sense that exact moment when the alcohol consumption switches from “fun and relaxed!” to [insert your favorite alcoholic parent trait here that shows up after the 5th drink]. I have a working armchair expert opinion that children of alcoholics are more perceptive because of being cognizant of this *exact moment* when a parent’s personality changes because of alcohol and developing that skill when you’re brain is still forming. It’s in our wiring. I digress. When my Dad reached that tipping point, his mood seemed to drip into sadness, or what I understood as sadness. But this sadness was one that took him away, one that made him unaccessible to me and would render me feeling helpless. My Dad may have been sitting there but his mind had completely gone off into the depths of despair.

Amber and I, Easter, 1992.

When he would sit on the balcony and look off for what felt like hours (could it have been hours?) and I would go “check on him” every 20 minutes or so to ask him what he was doing and watch him take a drink and tell me he was, “just out here thinking” and wouldn’t look at me but kept looking at the sky and take a drink and look at the sky and ease back into the chair and I would keep standing there looking at him and being worried he was going to be gone forever and I was watching my Dad disappear before my eyes. I would go back in our room, wait another 20 minutes or so, and repeat the process. He would repeat his process. I remember being scared and worried and lonely and I’d cry in our bedroom and Amber would tell me “it’s okay” and we’d go to bed in the double bed we shared together and she’d keep telling me “it’s okay, it’s okay.”

The sun would rise as it always does and we’d wake up and my Dad would cook breakfast in the kitchen and we’d eat eggs with butter and toast and Jimi Hendrix would be playing and the sun would be shining through the glass windows and my Dad would sing and tell us we’re going to play baseball today and he was bright, shining, turquoise blue in the morning and you couldn’t see any dark blue at all and everything of the night before would be forgotten. Did it actually happen? Now we’re in the kitchen and everyone is happy and my Dad is singing to us and I want to go outside to play baseball. If it’s never spoken of, is there anything to be forgotten?

I regularly took it upon myself on Fridays to decide that there would be no need for my Dad to drink because we would be having so much fun or I would be talking so much about anything and everything. Then suddenly it would be Sunday and there would be no time for him to be taken by this monster and I wouldn’t have a pit of anxiety in my stomach and I wouldn’t count his drinks and wouldn’t worry and won’t gnash my teeth together and cry to Amber and even though things aren’t “normal” things can be our normal and everything would be fine. I wanted my Dad to be fine. I could tell my Dad wasn’t fine.

Me and Amber in Sante Fe, New Mexico, 1999.

By the time I was in second grade, I knew what alcoholism was and how it can affect your judgment and how many drinks it took to affect my parents’ judgment. I was regularly gnashing my teeth to self-soothe, a habit I still occasionally use and didn’t realize that is what we call it in 2020 until I went to too much enough therapy. I reflect back and look at my small self and see an overall happy child with a knot of anxiety that would constrict upon itself based on my parents’ moods (re: if they were drinking or not), that I felt I had to take upon myself to try to change.

It’s okay if you’re sad reading this! I get emotionally drained and sad writing it. But we don’t have to stay stuck in grief. Because of the aforementioned precarious amount of therapy, I am in a *better place* and I’m able to write and share this with you. Healing comes in many forms, and for me, writing and sharing this is akin to writing a letter when you’re mad, and putting it in a drawer. But I am a millennial, so all the letters, and bad short stories I’ve written in my head and compiled when I was angry were neatly tucked away “in a drawer” and have gotten pulled out in therapy and were attended to and untangled. This blog is the edited *I am in a better place* version of the letter. And maybe you had alcoholic parents too. Or maybe you didn’t. We can feel grief and sit with it and let it pour down on us and eventually it will trickle off of us in due time. We can look back and reflect on the gravity of the storm, but we will return to looking ahead while the sun warms our faces.


Part 10

“The trouble with letting people see you at your worst isn’t that they’ll remember; it’s that you’ll remember.”

– Sarah Mangos

My parents first date was an Eddie Money concert. They hit it off, and found compatibility though music, wanting to travel, socializing with friends, and both had been through tough relationships and had lost loved ones by suicide: my Dad’s brother and my Mom’s father (quick aside, there are some who believe it was not suicide but a murder – this story deserves its own set of essays). My Mom says they “gravitated towards each other.” They quickly became close, and moved in together. They traveled to Toronto, Europe, and carved out a life together. Enter another narrator in our story: My Mom. She has indulged me in helping piece together the stories and events when she met my Dad and when I was a baby.

My Mom and Dad in Toronto, 1989
My Dad in the center, at his 40th birthday party in a white tuxedo.

I was born July 24th, 1990 to Lori Kertesz and David Westfall. I came home to the duplex my parents rented on Drexel Drive in Toledo, Ohio. I obviously don’t have many memories of being a baby, but according to my Mom I was a happy child. My Grandma wanted me to be named Christine, but it didn’t fit in line with the first names of my older sisters: all beginning with an “E” or an “A”. My Mom and Dad were having trouble figuring out a “E” name for me late in my Mom’s pregnancy, and one day when she was at work, a set of twins were born: named Emma and Emerson. My Dad picked up my Mom from work that day, and when she got into his car, she turned to him and said, “I figured out a name.” My Dad turned to her and said, “So did I.” They looked at each other and both said, “Emma.”

My Mom and I, 1991
My Dad, 3 years old
My sister Amber, 2 years old

Shortly after I was born their lives became chaotic. I’ve talked to my Mom countless times about this transition period in her life. “Our landlords knew that David had his 3 older girls every other weekend, and that I was pregnant. But after you were born, you must have been a few months old, David sat me down in the dining room. He told me was getting sued for a paternity test, and subsequent child support. I didn’t really know what to think. He said he knew the woman, and it was a one-time thing. He said he was going to go in for the DNA test.” My parents went together to have my Dad take the DNA test, and “Amber was there. We took one look at Amber and I turned to your Dad and I was like, ‘David, that’s your kid.’ And so, we knew. She looked just like your Dad.” My Dad told me that he felt like he didn’t even need to take the paternity test, it was obvious by how much Amber looked like him. He said it was clear when he saw her dark eyes, he just knew Amber was his. “So, we wanted her in our life. But it was such a burden to try to get any time with her. Cindy, (Amber’s mom/names changed for privacy) didn’t want to share her, and we fought for her. You can’t want child support but not let your child see their father. There were times when we had to call the cops to meet us over at Cindy’s house to pick her up. She did not want to let us see her. It was a really difficult time for all of us.”

My sister Amber and I, 1993

To add to the chaos, shortly thereafter my Aunt was unable to take care of her two children: my cousins Kelley and Ryan. My Mom was anxiety ridden with the idea they may be placed into foster care, and wouldn’t be able to be returned to my aunt. She said she wanted to take them. I asked my Dad what he thought about this. “I was just so happy they would have a stable and safe home. I’m glad they were with us. I don’t really remember how we handled it, but somehow we got all you kids fed and taken care of. I felt good about Kelley and Ryan being with us, because they didn’t have to worry about anything else going on (re: my aunt’s abuse).” I think about this a lot: all of these pivots. Suddenly your house goes from one kid, to four kids every other weekend, now to five every other weekend, and then, three “full time” kids (me, and my two cousins) and four “part time” children (my sisters) all under the same roof and where does it end I feel a headache coming on. They lived in a two bedroom duplex.

My Mom was 28 years old (!!) There was a lot going on, and my Mom worked at the Toledo Hospital as a pharmacist. “I had to be to work by 7, so I got you, Ryan and Kelley up, and got you guys ready: fed you, dressed you, took Ryan to Aunt Norma’s to walk to school with Casandra, took Kelley to Head Start, dropped you off at daycare, and got to work by 7.” It makes my head spin. My parents’ landlords weren’t too happy with this arrangement, and bluntly told them it was time for them to move on. Both my parents laugh at this memory, as they were busting at the seams of a two-bedroom duplex.

We moved into a house on Foxcroft Road in the neighborhood of Orchard Hills when I was 1 and a half years old. “It was right before Christmas, and we had you, Kelley, Ryan, your Dad’s older girls, your Grandma Mary, all in that house. I can’t even remember where we put everybody. Can you imagine? We had my 30th birthday party in there and we had no furniture in the living room yet. Oh, it was wild.” My Dad planted a tree outside of my bedroom window, where it is still growing today. I spent my formative years in that house until we moved out after my Mom remarried when I was 16. I’m getting ahead of myself. Eventually, my aunt got custody of my cousins back, and it was me, my Mom and Dad in the house on Foxcroft. My Dad’s three oldest girls would come every other weekend, and my Mom and Dad fought to see Amber when they could.

My Mom, my sisters: Allison, Andrea, Erin, Amber, and me (not looking at the camera), 1993

There were a lot of fond memories for my parents on Drexel, and on Foxcroft. But my Mom remembers some darker times too. “I remember crying on the phone to my friend Julie when we lived on Drexel, asking her what the hell have I gotten myself into. The day we moved into Foxcroft, your Dad and his friends started drinking in the morning, and I eventually had to call Brenda and told her to come grab all five of you. It wasn’t a good situation.” I look back at photos from those years, and feel like I can remember those memories, but I know my mind is just bridging the gap between the photo and the stories I’ve heard associated with those photos. Whenever I’m home at my Mom’s house, I will spend hours poring over photos. I find evidence of happy memories, and photos of my parents together. I swipe these photos and squirrel them away in my own box in my own apartment because without some actual memories I feel like I need hard evidence we were a happy family. Mom, I have taken a bunch of your photos. But it’s not like you noticed them missing!

The tree my Dad planted outside my bedroom window, 1991. It is still there today.

My parents split up when I was 5, so the memories I do have of them together are scattered and snippets of larger contexts. I remember a lot of Queen blasting on the stereo in the living room. My Mom tells me I used to sit in my little kid chair in front of the stereo and just listen to the music, there seemed to always be music playing. I remember getting ice cream on hot summer days, and playing with my dog Riley. I can recall flighting between them as well. I don’t remember the words they said, but I remember the pit in my stomach when it happened. I’d usually skulk off in another room and clench my jaw as tight as I could, and focus on that. I asked my Mom when she thought the trouble began with my Dad, and when the future didn’t seem as bright. “Your Dad never really let on that he was struggling so much. Before I got pregnant, we drank a lot. But then I quit drinking (when I found out I was pregnant), but your Dad didn’t. There were some signs that things weren’t quite right. Your Dad would go out golfing all day when his kids were home, and I remember thinking, ‘why aren’t you here?’ He was about to have another child and I was worried.”


Part 9

“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrong-doing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

– Aldous Huxley

In the late 80s, my Dad started experiencing symptoms of panic attacks more frequently: dizziness, headaches, feeling like he was going to pass out, slight agoraphobia, and shallow breathing. “One time I was up on a (billboard) sign (while working for Root Outdoor) and I started having a panic attack. I had to radio down that I needed help getting down. I couldn’t get down. I was stuck up on a billboard.” My Dad eventually left Root Outdoor after he sustained a back injury while working and his panic attacks became more frequent. “I would wake up, and have my day of dread all planned out. I felt paralyzed.” He felt like he couldn’t even leave the house. He wasn’t sure what these symptoms meant, but he began to feel paralyzed by the thought of leaving his home. “Home was like my safe space. As long as I was there, I was okay. I was on disability from work, because of my injury, so I was rarely leaving the house. One day when it was really bad, Brenda was leaving for work, and she asked me if I could take Allison to get a haircut. I told her, ‘No way!’ but she said I could do it, and had to do it. So, I got Allison ready, and put her in the car. I drove her to the salon, and I sat in the chair just waiting and waiting for it to be over.”

My Dad in the late 1980s

While my Dad sat in the chair feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, he heard a commercial for the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety. After conquering her own personal battles with anxiety, agoraphobia and panic attacks, Lucinda Bassett found her calling helping others overcome stress, fear, anxiety and depression. With the help of her doctor, Philip Fisher, M.D., in Toledo, Ohio, they founded the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety in 1985. They started with small, local group sessions, and eventually the company grew into a multi-million dollar international success. More than a million people have used Lucinda’s tools and techniques to reclaim their lives. I digress, this was the late 80s, and Lucinda was just getting started: advertising her small group sessions on local TV in Toledo. A phone number came across the screen, and after listing the symptoms that Lucinda and Dr. Fisher hope to help people address, my Dad finally felt heard. He didn’t have a name for what he was experiencing, but seeing that commercial, he knew he needed help. He grabbed my sister Allison (we are still uncertain if her haircut was actually finished), and raced home and dialed the number.

My Dad called the number, and spoke to Lucinda Bassett. She told him about their group sessions, the cost, and how they would be able to help him. It was a lifeline for my Dad, and he grabbed onto it. He began the 15 week program, which was a combination of group therapy, individual sessions, and the use of relaxation and meditation tapes. There was one caveat: you were not to drink during the 15 weeks. My Dad took these guidelines seriously, and abstained from drinking to attempt to get his panic attacks under control, and try to take his life back.

My Dad didn’t have a regular exercise regime since he stopped playing baseball, and when your job is climbing up and down ladders all day and putting up billboards, I understand creating and sustaining an exercise routine is one of the last things you’d want to do. But during one group meeting at the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety, a suggested activity to relieve stress and excess energy during feelings of anxiety was running. “I gravitated towards that. I started to run all the time. That was one of the suggested activities at the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety, and another woman who was in my group got into it too. We didn’t live too far away from each other, so we would meet up and go for runs together. I loved it. The feeling of putting one foot in front of the other, and it was such a release for me to not worry about anything other than the route we were running. Sometimes we’d go shorter, and sometimes longer, we didn’t have a plan. It was a nice way for me to get out of the house, and feel the air in my lungs, and the burn in my legs. I hadn’t felt that in a long time.”

I have panic attacks. I have bipolar disorder which brings about insomnia and anxiety and back to insomnia and maybe we’ll make a stop over at a panic attack. It feels like a rollercoaster I really don’t want to be on but yet here I am strapped in ready for my 12th go around. These two intertwining aspects of my life always make me question, “but which came first: the anxiety, or the bipolar?” I don’t have an answer. I manage it to the best of my abilities, but I relate to my Dad’s sentiment on such a profound level: when everything is chaos, running is simple. I don’t have to think about anything else other than putting one foot in front of the other. When my symptoms are horrendous, I can count on knowing how to do at least something: running; short, long, hard, hill work, easy, whatever. It’s a way to get out of my own head, and for a period of time I’m not someone who is struggling, but I’m just a runner out for a run. I can feel the air on my face, and feel the muscles in my legs propel me forward. It’s all I need to think about. This is not to say exercise is a replacement for mental illness symptoms or treatment. I would be doing a major disservice if I said running (or any form of exercise) is a cure all. It’s not. It can be therapeutic in many ways, but there are also medical and psychiatric professionals assisting me in my care plan as well, just as my Dad did when he was in his 15 week program.

My Dad is happy to report he hasn’t had a full blown panic attack since the late 80s after completing the program. “I still occasionally get symptoms of them, but I had the tools to help myself through. I wish I could say I stopped drinking after that, but I started back up again shortly thereafter.” Despite a 15 week hiatus from drinking, my Dad began again. Things between him and Brenda began deteriorating, and ultimately they divorced. My Dad moved out, and moved in with a friend on the west side of Toledo. He started working some contracting jobs: carpet cleaning, painting, but found he enjoyed the process of painting. He started working with a friend doing interior work in the Toledo area “I was not getting up on a ladder at that point, there was still no way I was going to do that” (to do exterior work). His incident with a panic attack on top of a billboard stayed with him for a long time.

He frequented a bar called the Players Club, and he went there on an evening in November to watch the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. He began chatting with a woman, and they started talking about their work, and this woman revealed she was actually a brain surgeon. My Dad was impressed. She said, ‘you should meet my daughter, she’s a smart one too’ and brought over her daughter, a woman named Lori. It was my Mom. I am laughing as I write this because my Grandma was absolutely not a brain surgeon, but I love that she was out at bars telling men a fake profession just for the hell of it. My Grandma was an incredibly special lady, and she was the life of the party. I still laugh at this idea that she boldfaced lied to my Dad to introduce him to her daughter. It wasn’t until my Mom and Dad’s first or second date that it was revealed my Grandma was in fact, not a brain surgeon. Can I say, “the rest is history!” or is that too cliche?


Part 8: Death and Reconnection

“I like people and I like them to like me, but I wear my heart where God put it: on the inside.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald
My sister Erin, and Millie 1976

In 1983, my Dad’s adoptive mother Millie (O’Dell) passed away. “Millie always had health problems, I’m not quite sure what it was, she was diabetic, and didn’t really take care of herself. She had been to the ER a few times, and the last time we took her there she was really bad. She was in the hospital for three days, and then the doctor told us to come in and he wanted to talk to us, and he said there wasn’t much we could do for her anymore. Her body was giving out. I went in and saw her, but she was sedated, and after sitting with her for a while I was going to leave. But as I was leaving, her nurse called me back and told me they weren’t sure if she was going to make it through the night. So, I went back in the room, and she died that night. I went out in the hallway and sat in a chair and that was the first time I had a panic attack.”

My Dad only had a few conversations with Mary since they spoke on the phone when he was 18 years old, and they were sparse and few between. But, after Millie passed, this changed. “I remember I was talking to Mary, and I said, ‘how about we come out there and see you guys?’ Mary was happy, and said she’d love to have us, so we made plans to do it. We planned to go out there for a month.” I asked why my Dad reached out to Mary after Millie died. “I hadn’t seen her since I was a kid. And she was my biological mother, I wanted to connect to her. I thought it was time I got to know her. I actually didn’t really even know her. I wanted to let her get to know her granddaughters and my wife, Brenda. We didn’t have a relationship.”

Brenda, my Dad, and my sisters: Andrea and Erin, Mid 1970s

My Dad, Brenda, and my three older sisters packed up their Nissan Maxima and rented a trailer and drove out to Texas where my Grandma Mary was living. She was living and running a cattle ranch with her husband, Richard. If you remember: Richard, the man my Dad referenced as, “an asshole” when he moved in with Mary when he was in Junior High, that Richard. My grandma Mary and Richard got married, and moved to Post, Texas to tend to Richard’s family’s cattle business. My Dad wanted to attempt to establish a relationship with Mary, and introduce his family to her. “Going out to Texas was great. It was a lot of fun, and I really connected with Mary. She was telling me about her clan, and then I realized that’s my clan. I was learning all about this for the first time, my heritage, who I was. She was telling me about her history, which was my history, being Navajo Native American. She told me all these stories of her growing up with her brothers, and it was fascinating. I felt like we really had something going for us, and that I finally was understanding what my heritage was.”

My sisters: Erin, Allison, and Andrea en route to Post, Texas
Custer statue in Monroe, Michigan

After my Dad had more frequent conversations with my Grandma Mary, he wanted to bring her to Ohio to show her his life. Typically when you come to Toledo, Ohio, you can fly into Detroit, Michigan and then drive the 45 minutes to Toledo. When my Dad picked up my Grandma, they drove through Monroe, Michigan. In Monroe, there is a large statue of General George Custer. (He was originally from New Rumley, Ohio, but settled in Monroe, Michigan). A quick history lesson: George Custer fought in the Civil War, and I’m not going to go into great detail about his service record because I don’t care much for him and if that’s how you’d like to spend your afternoon, be my guest. After fighting in the Civil War, he spent some time getting married, traveling, and trying to command foreign troops in Mexico (he didn’t get to), and then was enticed by the idea of fighting in the American Indian Wars. He was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment, but he eventually went AWOL and served some time at Fort Leavenworth. He was released, and joined up with Major General Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne. He was on “frontier duty”, essentially scouting out Indian territories to plan attacks. I lay the blame for hundreds of Indian casualties (of many tribes, including but not limited to the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne) at the feet of General Custer, for he was a major part in the attempted, and successful eradication of Native Americans. He planned and carried out many attacks on Native Americans, and wrote about his endeavors in a grandiose style, making him a real asshole. His final battle was the Battle of Little Big Horn, where he was met with troops commanded by Crazy Horse and White Bull who had (the reports vary) about 3,500 warriors ready to take on Custer and his (again, varying numbers) 600 men. According to Lakota accounts, many of the panicking calvary threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. According to reports, Custer’s last words were, “Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.” The warriors closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer’s command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. I digress. There is a statue of Custer in the middle of a roundabout in Monroe, Michigan, honoring this great American war hero. As my Dad was driving my Grandma Mary home from the airport, the route takes them through Monroe, Michigan. My Dad drove around the roundabout, and suddenly my Grandma exclaimed, “Stop!” She asked him to stop the car, and please let her out in front of the statue. My Dad did, and my Grandma stepped out of the car, walked over to the Custer statue, and spit on it. She got back into the car, and told my Dad to keep on driving to Toledo.

My Grandma Mary and my Dad.

As my Dad got to know his mother better, his own home life was deteriorating. His drinking continued to worsen, and he was in the midst of full blown alcoholism. He was routinely having panic attacks, and there would be days when he would be unable to leave his home for fear of an oncoming panic attack. He felt like he was at the mercy of his panic attacks, and that there wasn’t a means of escaping this. He continued to work for Root Outdoor, but the labor could be difficult, and it was physical. He eventually hurt his back while working for Root Outdoor, and had to take a leave of absence from work to heal. The break from work worsened the cycle of drinking, and the panic attacks grew more frequent. My Dad felt there were few options for him in terms of getting help. He was adrift.


Part 7: Where is this going?

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.”

– Chuck Palahniuk 

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

– J.D. Salinger
My Dad in Fort Collins, Colorado while working for Root Outdoor, 1970s

During the course of writing this, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on how my Dad’s childhood has influenced his decisions, and thus, influenced my childhood and my own life decisions. My Dad’s adolescence was marred by trauma and transitions that could be described at best as surprising, and at worst, as upheavals. Listening to him tell his stories has shed more light on who my Dad is as a person, and given me a more holistic view of him as David, and not just Dad. I have written enough to foreshadow that my Dad turned to drinking as a means of escapism for his pain, and ultimately to attempt to escape his depression and anxiety. Alcohol is a depressant, so in trying to salve one’s depression with a depressant, well, it creates a vicious cycle that proves to only have two foolproof methods of escaping the cycle: death or quitting. I don’t believe my Dad had an outright death wish after finding out he was adopted, but I do believe he may have been passive about the possibility of drinking himself to death. The pain he carried with him was deep, and the only means of escapism for him was alcohol.

My Dad’s drinking began in earnest after Richard passed away. Him and Kay separated in 1973, and ultimately their divorce was finalized in 1976. I don’t mean to brush his divorce away, but after speaking with my Dad, and oddly enough meeting Kay when I was a teenager, I don’t think their marriage is a highlight for my Dad or her. They were married very young, and wanted different things by their early 20s. When my Dad was 25, he met Brenda. They were married, and they had three daughters: Erin, Andrea, and Allison, my older sisters.

I wrote the above passage about two and a half weeks ago. As I was writing, it didn’t feel authentic; the facts that are written are accurate, but it was lacking. I had to take a step back and evaluate what I was attempting to do with this project, and if it felt genuine. I realized I had started this project as a means to connect with my Dad and sort through my own personal trauma. Listening, then writing and reading about this bought up a lot of emotions for me. My Dad’s adolescence is a sad tale, but I felt the narrative of this story was turning into a cliche of, “man overcomes tough childhood, has redemption, happily ever after” and that’s not accurate. Well, not completely accurate. It’s more, “man has tough childhood, battles demons, loved ones are affected, battles more demons, takes care of himself, treats loved ones better, still a work in progress, happy and sad memories pepper our lives.” That tag line isn’t quite as peppy or simple. Most life stories don’t follow a neatly packaged narrative that can be gently unwrapped. If you have one of these lives, please contact me immediately, I would love to talk to you. Instead, it’s a tangle of events and memories, and when you pull on one you get about five more that are knotted together that need to be sorted. It can be a painful and yet cathartic process. The only way I’ve learned to set painful memories free is to carefully pull them out, sit with them, and if you’re lucky enough to get an explanation, great, but if not, try to accept them for what they were, and then let them go (for ultimate effectiveness). I am still working on this myself. I am still working on this myself. (If you say it enough it becomes true). I also recognized that my Dad was in the ideal place of telling his own narrative. While I was listening, there were some omissions to the stories that felt invalidating to me personally. I am not here to curate a list of “Terrible Things My Dad Has Done” which sounds like an awful book Urban Outfitters would sell(†), but to explore the impact of certain events that has left me with questions, confusion, and sadness throughout my childhood and adulthood. When we’ve spoken, there have been times when the conversation would occasionally give way to darker times, and I had an opportunity to ask for some clarification, or more specifically, “why?” and I didn’t take the opportunity. I let it slip by as the conversation continued to unfold, and felt the pang of invalidation, due to both my negligence in asking and my Dad’s negligence in telling. This was supposed to be the part where I sorted through my own trauma, and I wasn’t doing it.

Trauma reveals itself in different ways. Through a lot of too much enough therapy, I’ve learned it manifests differently in everyone, and it curates our methods of communication, impacts how we process decisions, form relationships, and how we treat ourselves. There are studies being conducted of trauma being inherited: that trauma can literally be passed through DNA. Although the studies are preliminary and there are a slew of factors that affect these outcomes, regardless, it is an interesting piece of trauma research and how we understand it. “There seems to be accumulating evidence to suggest the transgenerational transmission of DNA methylation changes from parents to children.” This is not where I get to write off all my bad decisions off on my Dad’s traumatic past. No, but it is further evidence that we need to take care of ourselves, and do it in a compassionate, and empathetic way so trauma does not become a generational characteristic.

I digress. I felt that through therapy, “letting go”, and meditating I was at peace with my own traumas, but when speaking with my Dad about his adolescence it reared its ugly head and reminded me that covering my feelings with meditation and people pleasing isn’t processing, but my own form of escapism. I had questions. I still have questions. What I needed was not necessarily answers, because there may not be one, but acknowledgement for the things that happened when I was younger and as an adult, and how they have shaped who I am today. I couldn’t continue on with this project without this conversation, and it continued to fester and slowly swallow me into a pit of despair.

So, I asked. Or, more accurately, asked why. I knew the answer that was coming: “It had nothing to do with you girls, but had everything to do with me and my drinking” and I know that. On a deeper level I know it had nothing to do with me, because I was a child. I also know my Dad loves us. But even if it’s not directly, pointedly, affecting someone, the ripples can reach great shores. I want to be able to process why this happened, and hear, “I know it hurt you.” A simple act of acknowledgement is so powerful, but getting to the point of being able to acknowledge your part in a painful past is not simple. So here we are. I am working, I am processing, I am writing. We are having conversations. I am listening to my Dad, and I am gently pulling apart our intertwined histories so I can tell myself, “I am okay” while honoring my Dad’s history, and acknowledging his role in all of this.

I can’t speak for my sisters growing up with my Dad and their mom Brenda, so I won’t. That’s not my story to share. I know my Dad continued to drink with a vengeance, and he has told me he was very wrapped up in what had happened to him as a child, and then it just became about the drinking. He spiraled into alcoholism. Throughout the mid to late 70s and early 80s, he worked for Root Outdoor, a local billboard company, where he put up billboards, and would be send out to Fort Collins, Colorado to put up signage throughout the Fort Collins and Boulder, Colorado regions. He enjoyed working outdoors, and a return to the mountains was a great respite from the flatlands of Ohio. It reminded him of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. He worked hard, took care of his family the best he could, and salved his emotional pain with alcohol and drugs. He was not a perfect man, but I know he was trying the best that he knew how. I know this is a painful part of my siblings history, and my Dad’s, and out of respect for their privacy I won’t speak for them. But, I wanted to share some personal photos of my Dad and my sisters when they were growing up, because they are an integral part of my life, and people whom I love dearly.

My sister Erin on the left, Dad in the middle, Andrea on the right, Varsity basketball 1994
Brenda, my sister Erin, and my Dad at Erin’s First Communion, 1984
Blurry, but my sisters Erin, Allison, and Andrea on a road trip to Texas, 1983.
Clockwise: Dad, Andrea, Allison, and Erin, early 1990s

† I reserve the right to use this book title if I find it ever to be fitting. I would sell out to Urban Outfitters for the right dollar amount but that is for a different blog.


Part 6: What happened to Richard?

“Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

—  Reinhold Niebuhr

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which they never show to anybody.”

— Mark Twain

In 1973, my Dad was 22 years old, working at Toledo Metal Furniture and bartending part time. My Dad and Kay lived on the northwest side of Toledo, Ohio, and he continued to fill his days with work, and socializing with his friends in the evening. He continued not speaking with anyone about finding out he was adopted. I asked my Dad if his relationship with Millie changed after she disclosed that he was adopted. “Yes, of course. After I found out I was adopted, I was like, ‘what the fuck?’ we left New Mexico, I didn’t want to, and it was a lot to go through. We didn’t have a great relationship when I was growing up, and then when I found this out, I just checked out. I felt like I didn’t really need to try to have a relationship with her. I would go over for family events, but that’s about it.”

My Dad steadily grew more dependent on alcohol to salve his feelings of disconnection. But, Richard was back. Richard had floated around in the early 70s, visiting their sister Judy in San Diego, and making intermittent trips back to Toledo. He seemed to be planning to stay in Toledo for the time being, and was a regular customer at Charlie’s Blind Pig, where my Dad tended bar.

Growing up, I knew very little of my Uncle Richard. I knew he had passed away when my Dad was 22, and they were very close before this happened. He had four young children when he died, and he had been drafted to go to Vietnam but didn’t go, and the details on that remained hazy. My Dad didn’t often speak of Richard growing up, and it felt like a subject that should be brought up with reverence. Whenever I did ask about Richard, I would frame it as an innocuous question, “Wait, so Richard was where when you were young?” although it was a question that may have been on my mind for days. I would wait with bated breath for the answer, thinking I would be receiving some revelatory information that would fit all the pieces of this puzzle together.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I asked what happened to Richard. “He shot himself.” That was the complete answer I received from my Dad. As a curious (read: occassionally nosy) person, this didn’t quite satiate my conscious. Why? What? So, one day, when I was 24 and painting with my Dad (My Dad has on and off hired me and my sisters to work part time for him as interior painting assistants. I would work for him if I was visiting home for extended periods of time.) and we were quietly working in a church’s lobby, I asked, “But why did Richard shoot himself?” My Dad was on a ladder, cutting in a corner, and he momentarily paused. I watched his back tense up for a split second as he held his paint brush in the air mid-stroke, and then continued to paint. “It’s complicated.” Recalling this interaction, I now imagine a flood of memories flowing through my Dad, rendering him catatonic for that moment. I carefully continued to roll the wall opposite of him, and waited a few beats, took a deep breath, and asked, “How…?” My Dad set down his paint brush, and got off his ladder. He sat down on a window ledge, and he inhaled deeply. “Him and this woman he was seeing were having some problems. I don’t really fully understand what happened. I didn’t even know he was seeing this woman, and then they both ended up dead.” My Dad switched out his paint brush, climbed back on his ladder, and continued to paint.

Richard Bolton my Dad’s brother, early 1970s

From what I have gathered through researching and reading newspaper articles, and talking to my Dad, this is what happened to my Uncle Richard in the last 2 years of his life. In 1971, him and his wife Sandy got divorced, and she was granted custody of their son: David Lee. Sandy moved back to Minnesota where she was originally from, taking David Lee with her. Richard married a woman named Nancy, and they had two young children: Nathan, and Natalie. By all accounts, Richard seemed to be living a fine life. “Richard would come in to Charlie’s and we’d chat, and he’d drink. I didn’t have a clue that anything was going on. I didn’t even know him and Nancy were having problems. I didn’t see any change in him.”

On the evening of August 10th, 1973, my Uncle Richard went to the house of Shirley Sibberson. Neighbors reported hearing arguing, and Sibberson’s two sons had been sent to a neighbor’s house to play when my Uncle arrived. Shortly after 7:10pm, neighbors reported hearing gunshots, and called police. When police arrived, they found my Uncle Richard and Mrs. Sibberson on the living room floor. Both were ruled dead at the scene. It was ruled a murder/suicide: my Uncle shot Mrs. Sibberson and then turned the gun on himself. “I found out that night. Millie called the bar (Charlie’s, where my Dad was working). She told me what happened. I was devastated. I left work, and Kay and I were in the process of splitting up. I remember going home. Of course I was drinking. Around 1 am, I went to the funeral home where they took him. I walked up there and I started knocking on the door. Just knocking and knocking. Some young guy came up and asked me what’s wrong. I told him, ‘I want to see my brother.’ He looked me up and down, and started shaking his head. And I said, ‘Look man, he’s dead.’ He let me in. He sat me down on a chair in the waiting area. I sat there for I don’t know how long. He told me I could go see him, but I just couldn’t. I walked out of there. I remember sitting on the steps of the funeral home until the sun came up. I remember thinking, ‘I’m out here. And Richard is dead in there.’ That was my person growing up. My person is dead. Even when we’re talking about it right now, I still feel myself sitting on those steps, the humid August air enveloping me, and feeling the sun touch my face.”

I’ve had many years to think about this incident. I found the Toledo Blade article about this when I was 25, and every time I read it I am left confused and distraught. Why did this happen? Why would my Uncle Richard do something like this? Just, why? What happened? I don’t have the answers. My Dad doesn’t have the answers. What my Uncle did was terrible. It was a reprehensible act. He left his small children fatherless, and rendered three other small children motherless. He destroyed not just his own family, but others as well. I am not here to defend his actions.

I know my Uncle Richard from my Dad’s point of view: Richard as a best friend, a Dad, a confidant, and someone who made an unforgivable choice in a matter of seconds. That we are capable of deep resentment and even hatred for a loved one – cursing them in one breath and weeping for them in the next is a testament to our capacity for empathy as humans. What Richard did was reprehensible. But yet when I see my Dad weep for the loss of his best friend and brother, I am reminded we are greater than our worst acts in moments of desperation.


Part 5: Moving On

“It may have been in pieces, but I gave you the best of me.”

– Jim Morrison

“You see, I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

When my Dad found out Mary Young was his mother, there wasn’t a feeling of relief. Instead, there was more anger. “When I found out Mary was my mother I was so pissed.  Everybody in my family knew but me.  It all started coming to me in waves: that’s why this family would treat me like shit.” My Dad always had a sense that he didn’t quite fit in with the Westfalls, and despite their adopting him, they didn’t see to it that he was treated as part of the family. Millie’s brother would call my dad “Little Arapahoe” and when my Dad found out he was adopted, the pieces of this puzzle began to come together. He realized that even extended family members knew he was adopted, and yet he was not told. The sense of disconnection was replaced by resentment. I asked my Dad if he wanted to speak to Mary about his adoption. “No. I just didn’t want to.  I was angry with her.  I was mad at Millie, I was mad at my entire family.” My Dad would sporadically speak with Mary between 1969 and 1983, but didn’t see her until 1983 after Millie passed away.

Vietnam physical notice, 1970

As most 18 year old men did in 1969, my Dad received his military physical exam notice for the Vietnam War. He took a bus to Cleveland to report for his physical, and then he would wait to see if he was drafted. His number was 352, thus he was not drafted for the war. But he was fueled by anger, and didn’t know who to turn to after he was told he was adopted. “I was fucking furious because the family I did know, was not actually my family, and they were actually lying to me.” In my armchair expert opinion, I believe my Dad’s next actions were motivated by a few factors. The first: Richard, one of his best friends and brother, turned out to not actually be his brother, and he kept that fact hidden from my Dad. “I was mad Judy lied to me, because she was 9 when I was adopted.  Richard was 5, so he gets a pass, but he found out later. He still didn’t tell me though.” At this time, Richard was also visiting their sister Judy in California, and my Dad was unable to speak to Richard about any of this. Second, the isolation my Dad experienced growing up suddenly became exasperated. His feelings of disconnection were proven true to him: he didn’t belong in his family, because he was adopted.

After not being drafted for Vietnam, my Dad considered enrolling at The University of Toledo for the fall semester in 1970. He thought this may provide a distraction, and a new avenue to take for the course of his life. But, he decided against it, “I didn’t think it would help how I was feeling. Even after finding out I was adopted, I still had this pain inside. It made a lot more sense that I connected with the Indian kids and Mary, but most of the time it went from the pain, to being pissed and angry, and back again. It wasn’t a good thing.” One afternoon when my Dad was feeling particularly angry about his situation, he decided to try to join the Marines. There was a Marine recruiting station on Summit Street in downtown Toledo, and my Dad went down there to talk to a recruiter. “I said fuck this I’m going to join the Marines. I’ll show everybody.” The recruiter ended up talking to my Dad about why he wanted to join, and the conversation ended with the recruiter telling my Dad to think it over some more. After the loss of a professional baseball opportunity, and the loss of his identity in his own family, my Dad was looking for a place to belong. He was searching for a purpose, and after not getting drafted for Vietnam, he thought that perhaps the Marines would provide purpose in his life. But joining the Marines because you’re angry and looking for fulfillment and dare I even say, in some regards a death wish, isn’t the mentality recruiters are looking for in possible recruits. My Dad didn’t go back to the Marine recruit.

Kay, my Dad’s new wife, My Dad, and my cousin Tommy (My Aunt Judy’s son) 1971.

Neither Millie nor Mary gave a reason for his adoption, and my Dad felt stuck. I asked if he spoke to anyone about how he was feeling. “No. I just drank. I talked to a lot of cases of Rolling Rock. I didn’t know what else to do anymore.  I just partied.  I drank, I worked. I tried to forget about these things that happened to me.” My Dad took a job at Toledo Metal Furniture, and married his high school girlfriend Kay. He repressed his feelings about his adoption and identity by working a lot, drinking, and hanging out with his friends, and Kay.  He was present, but emotionally floated through his day to day.  There wasn’t necessarily an acceptance of what had happened to my Dad, but I have come to believe he understood what happened to him, and that he needed to try to move past this.  “We had a group of about 9 guys, and we all hung out together.  I hadn’t thrown a ball in about a year.  I started going to The Golden Cue Room (in Toledo), and the old man that owned the place decided to sponsor a softball team for those of us who were regulars there. We played in a softball summer league with our team sponsored by The Golden Cue Room. Ha!”

I love listening to my Dad tell stories of him and his friends during this time period. Some of my favorites include when they would drive by Gladieux Meadows (a convention center in Toledo) and there would be a wedding reception going on. My Dad and his friends would drive home, throw on suit jackets, and come back to the reception and join the party. “One time we were drinking and decided we’d try to go over to UT (University of Toledo) and see if the court was open. We went over there, not real late at night, but we were just walking around pulling on doors and we pulled one door and it opened. We went up the stairs and played basketball on the University of Toledo’s court all night long.  We were nuts.” My Dad enjoyed his time with his friends, and eventually Richard came back from visiting Judy, and Richard and my Dad were close once again. I asked if he thought to speak to Richard about his adoption when he returned from California. “No. He was busy with his own family, his wife, and other things going on in his life. I didn’t want to bother him with my problems. I was just glad he was back.”


Part 4: Identity in the summer of 1969

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

—Oscar Wilde

“Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.” 

—F. Scott Fitzgerald
My Dad on graduation day, 1969

Despite the alcohol consumption, my Dad continued to play top level baseball for Tom Ziegler and the Churchill’s team in the summer of 1969. He continued to repress his feelings of disconnection from his family with two salves: baseball, and alcohol. I asked if Frank was ever discussed amongst my Dad’s family, if my Dad ever tried to contact him after he abandoned them, and after they had moved away from Albuquerque. At this point, to my Dad’s knowledge, his father had walked out on him, his mom, and his siblings without reason. His mom remarried a man named Forrest O’Dell, and they picked up and moved across the country to Toledo, Ohio. Shortly after my Dad graduated from DeVilbiss, his brother Richard left to visit their sister Judy in California, and didn’t give an explanation why. This is enough to make my head spin, and I am the one listening, not the one who lived through this. “No, we never discussed Frank leaving. At least Mom didn’t discuss it with me. He left us, it was obvious he didn’t want to be with us, or he wouldn’t have disappeared. It was almost taboo to even speak of it, and it was clear Mom had moved on, because she remarried Forrest. And Richard, well, Richard left because he was running away from his own problems.” Millie was trying to start over, and make a new life for her children in Toledo, Ohio. My Dad only knew of life with his mother Millie, and with Richard and Judy both starting their own lives, my Dad went where Millie went.

The second season with Tom Ziegler and the Churchill’s baseball team was successful, and my Dad was presented with an opportunity: to play on a team sponsored by The Catholic Club of Toledo in the NABF (National Amateur Baseball Federation) in a few tournaments in July and August of 1969. Freshly graduated from high school, my Dad just wanted to continue to play the sport he loved. He obliged, and committed to playing in the NABF for the foreseeable future. But, another opportunity came calling. That coach, Ken Powell from the Albuquerque Dukes who taught my Dad to pitch in little league in Albuquerque? He now was affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals as a scout. Ken Powell called The Toledo City Parks and Recreation Director Herman Kander to try to find out where my Dad was. Herman put Ken in contact with Tom Ziegler, and asked him what my Dad was up to.

“Well, Ken called me. I couldn’t believe he remembered me after all that time. We chatted, and he said he’d seen how I’d been doing in Toledo, and Tom had good things to say about me. He was a scout with the Cardinals now, and he wanted to work out a contract for one of their minor league teams that was in the Cardinals system for me. I was floored. I told him I had committed to playing in this tournament with The Catholic Club team, and I wanted to do it so I could keep playing. Ken said sure, that was fine, play the tournament and then they’d set up arrangements for me to meet him in Springfield, Missouri at the end of the summer. I saw this as my ticket out.” My Dad saw this as an opportunity to start over, and leave behind his sense of disconnection and pain.

“So I went to this tournament. Two games in I went in as a reliever, and after a few pitches I felt something in the back of my arm just snap. Jesus H Christ, I could barely hold my arm up.  I was pulled out, and told the coach, ‘I got a fucking pain in the back of my arm. I can’t lift up my arm.’  I never felt that pain before. After the tournament was over, I called Tom and told him something happened to my arm, and I need some help.  He sent me to a doctor, the doctor checked me out, and told me I ripped my tendon. I told him, ‘Okay great, well it’s gotta heal and there has to be a way to fix this.’ He looked at me, and said,  ‘You tore your bicep tendon. You won’t be able to pitch for quite a while.’ I was in disbelief. I said, ‘No way. No way…’  I called Ken.  He told me ‘Oh my god David…’  And that was it.  Just unbelievable.  It’s hard for me to tell you how I felt. It was like a knife went through my heart. For me, that contract was a better way for me to get out.  Just out.  A means of escape for my soul and my mind: I could play professional baseball and overcome the pain.  But then it got taken away.”

When reflecting on our lives, it doesn’t always seem like we remember specific dates or times that events commence, but we remember the emotions we felt when these “defining moments” happen. I’ve heard these referred to as emotional anniversaries because they are awash in either exuberant joy, or marred in sadness: the peak of our emotional spectrums. We don’t get to chose the order in which these events are received. Instead, we chose how we proceed after these events happen, and that is what I believe defines our lives: the path we chose after such a “defining moment” occurs.

At 18 years old, my Dad’s professional baseball prospects were over. With his arm in a sling, he was working at Churchill’s Grocery putting away stock one handed. He moved in with his friend John, and began drinking in earnest. He felt lost. He contemplated going to The University of Toledo, but instead he wanted a different kind of change. He started working at Schultz Homes in Toledo: a prefabricated housing company where his Uncle was a foreman, and was able to get him a job “helping them do whatever they needed. Then I became a nailer, and then a forklift driver.  We had a small crew that worked 4-midnight.  I made good money.  We’d hide beer in the lumber and drink on the job, our foreman didn’t care.  There were some hot heads there but whatever.  It was there that I started thinking.  I started thinking pretty intensely about who am I, and what am I doing.”

I don’t condone or recommend alcoholism as a means to solve your internal struggles. But, I can empathize with my Dad’s choices: as an 18 year old in 1969, he utilized the resources at hand to help himself cope with the identity loss and sense of disconnection he felt from his own family. He no longer had baseball to ease his pain, so he doubled down on the other salve he knew: alcohol.

“So I was thinking one night. I was thinking about Mary (the Westfall’s family friend who spent time with my Dad in Albuquerque), and I was thinking about my Mom, and Frank, and how I never felt like I belonged. I thought about the Indian kids I played with, and how Mary took me to the Indian school, and it was like I was trying to fit into this life and family that I didn’t belong in. It didn’t make sense. I remember telling my crew how I was feeling, and my foreman, Jim Stober, just said, ‘Just goddamn ask your mom about it!’ So, I told Jim I would. I would go over to Mom’s the next day and ask her.”

This is my Grandma. Mary Young. My Dad’s biological mother.
Millie O’Dell, my Dad’s adoptive mother, whom he knew as Mom

My Dad went over to his Mom (Millie) and Forrest’s home the next day. “I went over there, I sat down, and I said, ‘Mom, I gotta ask you something. Is Mary Young my mother?’  And the look on her face, Jesus.  She just started crying, just crying and crying.  I asked, ‘How could you not tell me?! I never felt like I belonged to our family but I felt like I belonged with Mary.  How could you not tell me?’  She was crying, apologizing, saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ I got Mary’s phone number from Mom. I called it.  I said, ‘ This is David. Mom (Millie) told me you’re my biological mom.’ She started crying.  I said, ‘Everybody knew but me. Why didn’t you tell me?’  And she said, ‘Millie told me if I told you I would never see you again.’ She started crying again. I hadn’t even heard from her since we left Albequerque.”  

This is who I know as Grandma: Mary Young. The Westfall’s family friend who babysat my Dad as a child, took him to the Indian School with her, and who Millie and my Dad moved in with when Frank left them. Mary spent holidays with the Westfalls, and was a close friend. My Dad never knew until this moment that he was adopted, or that Mary Young was his real mother. His connection with the Indian kids was not solely because they were playmates, but because he found himself surrounded by other children who looked like him, and was cared for by a woman in those moments who was his biological mother. The photo I referenced in Part 1? Mary is the woman on the right. Frank Westfall is crouched down, and my Aunt Judy is on the left.


Part 3: Toledo, Ohio

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

— Maya Angelou

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.” 

—Friedrich Nietzsche

In August of 1967, Forrest O’Dell drove Millie, and my Dad to Toledo, Ohio with Richard, his wife Sandy, and their new baby David Lee in tow. The six of them moved into a house in the Old West End on Chatham Court. My Dad was to enroll for his junior year of high school at Scott High School that September. With a month to explore Toledo before school started, he became close with his cousin Rick who lived down the street, and who lived in the DeVilbiss High School district. “We hung out, went fishing, and generally roamed around. Rick had a minibike so we would take that out, and just get into whatever we could. But I didn’t like riding that minibike, so I asked Millie and Forrest if I could buy a car. Forrest took me out to see a friend of his who sold cars and showed me a blue 1953 Chevy Belair. I paid $150.00 for it, and wasn’t riding the back of Rick’s minibike anymore. One night when I was over at Rick’s, my Uncle Bob (Millie’s brother) pulled me aside and told me I should go to DeVilbiss, and not Scott. He said I could use his address, and nobody would be any the wiser. And since I had a car, I was able to drive me and Rick to school everyday. That’s how I ended up going DeVilbiss.”

Senior year, 1969
Junior Year, 1968

On his first day at DeVilbiss, my Dad experienced culture shock. In Albuquerque, his classmates wore Levi’s jeans, white socks, and t-shirts. DeVilbiss was a far cry from the casual southwest style he was used to. “It was obvious a lot of rich kids went there. The parking lot was full of new cars, and the guys were wearing Haggar slacks, Arrow shirts, black socks, wing tip shoes, and penny loafers. But it didn’t intimidate me too much.  I had some money, because I worked at a furniture store downtown.  I mostly dusted the showroom but it was money in my pocket so I didn’t care.  Richard ended up getting a job there too, driving the delivery truck, and then our cousin Jim then got a job helping out Richard. Ha! It was a real family affair. When I saved up enough money, I bought a pair of wing tip shoes.” The incident with my Dad’s teacher at the thrift store back in Albuquerque left a lasting impact on him, and he didn’t want or need charity to assimilate into his new environment. If he couldn’t make his internal pain go away, he could at least try to feel a part of his new community by looking the part. He continued to feel the isolation from his own family. At this point, Richard and his wife Sandy had a new baby boy to look after, and they weren’t able to spend as much time with my Dad. In addition, his connection to Mary and the Indian School was severed when they moved to Toledo. He had not heard from Mary since they left Albuquerque.

Haggar slacks ad, circa 1967

Junior year of high school began, and my Dad played varsity basketball, and varsity baseball. At one of the first baseball practices, my Dad started calling his own pitches. Coach Kahler pulled him aside. “He came up to me and said, ‘Mex, what the hell are you doing?’ He called me Mex, because I was from New Mexico and looked Mexican (my Dad audibly sighs telling me this). I told him I’m letting my catcher Rusty know what pitch I’m going to throw so he’s ready for it. He said ‘That’s not how we do things around here.’ But you see, when I was in New Mexico, my old coach, Coach Dixon, let me take the reigns and call what I wanted. I didn’t know any different. So Kahler pulled me and Rusty, and we hashed it out. A few minutes later, I walked back to the mound, and he walked back to the plate, and Rusty said, ‘OK, Chief, let me have it.’ And from then on I was Chief, and I called my own pitches. Mex was no more.”

My Dad is the 6th man on the top row. DeVilbiss Varsity basketball team, 1968
My Dad is the 5th man from the left. DeVilbiss Varisty baseball team, 1969.

After a successful junior year baseball season where my Dad earned Toledo City League “All City” honors, he caught the attention of a summer league coach named Tom Ziegler. Tom coached a summer league team comprised of guys from all over the Toledo City League, specifically ones who had earned “All City” accolades. They were sponsored by a local grocery store called Churchill’s Supermarket.  “He took me to his house and showed me the trophies and photos of past championship teams, and asked if I wanted to play for him. My pitching caught his eye, and he asked where I learned to pitch, and I told him Ken Powell of the Albuquerque Dukes hung around our little league team and taught me.  Tom was a good guy.  His mom would cook us food, he’d feed us, and basically take care of us.  There was a bar in west Toledo called “The Meeting Room” and we’d have our team meetings there because that’s where Tom drank. The guys on the team who were 18 could drink 3-2 beer there too. Ha, things were a little different then.  He was a good guy, he was another father figure for me, just like my other coaches were.  That’s where I learned discipline, and how to do things Frank never taught me. I had the physical talent to pitch, but Tom taught me the mental skills to take my game to another level.”  

Dad in his Churchill’s Super Market uniform, 1968

After a successful summer ball campaign with Churchills, my Dad forewent basketball his senior year, and focused solely on baseball.  “I worked on my pitching whenever I could, and basketball got in the way of that. Kahler built a plywood mound for me to practice in the winter. I’d run laps in the gym, lift weights, work on my game.” It paid off. My Dad once again earned “All City League” honors for pitching, and earned a spot on Tom Ziegler’s Churchill’s summer ball team for a second season. “DeVilbiss baseball was over, and I had just graduated. I had a really hard time in between seasons, because I didn’t have a means to escape my feelings when baseball wasn’t going on. I knew summer ball was coming up, but I was feeling really down. I was thinking about killing myself at that point, because the emotional struggle of escaping the pain, coming back to it, and escaping it, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was too much for me. Even exercising and working on my pitching wasn’t always doing the trick anymore. I was tired of feeling this way. The only out I saw for stopping the pain was to kill myself.”

During one of my Dad’s off days, his teammate Doug Kennedy called him. “Doug called me Wes, and he was badgering me, ‘Come on, Wes just come over. Just come over and hang out for a bit.’ So I finally relented and I went over to his brother Bob’s house.  They were all drinking, and I had never had a drop of alcohol before.  They were watching baseball, and they offered me one.  I told those guys, I’ve never had a beer before and they were just saying shit like, ‘Come on Wes, come on, just try a beer’ and I was feeling like shit so I said fine, okay, I’ll try it.  It was either Stroh’s or Rolling Rock, I can’t even remember.  It was probably Rolling Rock because I really liked that later on.  I had that first beer and I remember feeling loose, and relaxed. They asked, ‘Chief, you want another one?’  I liked that feeling.  So I had another one.  I remember thinking that I don’t feel like shit anymore. I’m not experiencing the pain.  I think I drank 5 beers.  I remember sitting there watching the game and not feeling nothing, just completely numb.  Then I realized I had to drive home.”

“I somehow made it home. I drove straight up Central Avenue, and turned right on Scottwood, left on Strasburg, left on Parkwood, and ran into the house. Richard, Sandy, and Mom were there and I busted through the door. Mom immediately asked, ‘Whats wrong with him?!’ and Sandy yelled, ‘He’s drunk!’ and she started laughing. I puked immediately.  It was the first time I had alcohol and I was puking everywhere but it didn’t stop me from drinking.  Because I knew the pain was being taken away. I didn’t have to wait for baseball to start up again. I could drink and escape this pain I had. That first beer started my downward spiral. It was like pouring fucking gasoline on an already out of control fire.”


Part 2: Transitions

“Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or having everything happen all at once.”

Paulo Coelho

After Frank left, Millie was unable to keep the household afloat, and needed help.  She called Mary, the Westfall’s close family friend and asked if they could stay with her for a while.  Mary had a three-bedroom house on the west side of Albuquerque, beyond the McKinley Junior High school district where my Dad attended school. “Oh, I was pissed.  I said I’m not moving, I’m not leaving my friends.  But I did, because I had no choice.” My Dad and Millie moved in with Mary, and her new beau, a man named Richard Bird.  “Yeah, Richard was an asshole.”  My Dad was beside himself.  He didn’t want to leave his friends and teams, but had no other options.  He enrolled at John Adams Junior High, and threw himself into sports once again.  “I just didn’t want to think about it.  I didn’t want to think about Frank leaving, me moving schools, I just wanted to forget about it.”  

My Dad’s brother Richard and my Dad, 1958

They stayed with Mary for a few months, and eventually were able to move back into their own home, in the McKinley Junior High school district.  But they were still scrapping by.  One day at McKinley, one of my Dad’s teachers walked in and told him to come with her.  He immediately thought something happened to Millie, and was asking the teacher where they were going and if his Mom was alright.  She assured him that nothing happened to his Mom, and that they were going on a trip.  Mrs. Heitman took my Dad to the local thrift store, and told my Dad they were going to buy him some clothes, underwear, shoes, and socks.  “I stopped cold.  I knew right then and there we were poor.  This was more than just being on food stamps.  I was embarrassed.  I went out the next day and asked my neighbors if I could work for them doing yard work, and odd jobs, because I couldn’t stand that feeling.  I didn’t want that to happen again.”  

I’ve seen this work ethic in my Dad in a lot of ways throughout my life. I saw it when my sister was in a tight spot: she needed a new bedframe, and was stressed about the cost and logistics. My Dad responded with, “I’ll just build you one.”  I watched him build my sister a bedframe from reclaimed wood in his garage as he blasted Jimi Hendrix on vinyl.  My Dad is a retired painter (interior and exterior), he has accrued forty plus years of patience through literally watching paint dry. He’s instilled in me a mentality that if you’re going to do spend time doing something, take the time to do it right.  

He coached a lot of my sports teams growing up, and I have one specific memory when he was coaching my softball team.  I was pitching, and I was absolutely tanking.  I was upset, and wanted to be pulled.  I asked to be pulled and have a reliever come in for me. My Dad’s response? “No.” I was floored. I snappily reminded him how poorly I was doing out there, and close to tears, I said it was hard.  His response? “I know.  That’s why I’m not pulling you.  You have to learn to work through it.”  I was pissed, and basically stomped back out on the mound.  I managed to salvage some semblance of dignity and finished out the game.  I can’t remember who we were playing, or what summer it was, but I remember getting my first taste of playing the cards you are dealt, and working with what you have.

I digress. My Dad was elated to be back at McKinley Junior High. Although he didn’t really enjoy school, he missed his friends.  He reflects fondly on his baseball and football coaches when he was in junior high, and they left a lasting impact on him. Despite these connections, “the pain” still festered.  He began fighting in school, and he started by fighting the Mexican kids.  “I’d get pissed because the pachucos would kick the shit out of the Indians.  Oh, it would make me so mad.  Those Indian kids reminded me of the boys I would play with when Mary took me to the Indian School.  They accepted me, and then to see Indians get picked on and get the shit kicked out of them…”  

From left to right: Sandy (Richard’s wife), Richard, and My Dad, 1965.

During this time, Richard (my Dad’s brother) was drafted into the Vietnam War, and was told he needed to report to Fort Hood for basic training.  My Dad begged him not to go.  Richard had to leave, and the isolation my Dad experienced continue to grow.  He poured more energy into baseball, and got a part time job at A&W when he was a sophomore in high school.  I asked him how he handled all of this: the trauma, and how that affected him. Frank leaving, moving across town, moving back, Richard leaving… “You just keep going, I don’t know.  What else was I going to do?  I didn’t have any other choice but to just keep going.  I had baseball, I had Mom, I wasn’t living on the west side of Albuquerque anymore, I had my friends. I lived for baseball, and I really wasn’t home a lot.  I started at A&W and played sports, that was my life.” 

Then, at A&W, he met Sandy (Author’s note: this is not the Sandy featured in the above photograph).  “Sandy was so great.  We really hit it off when we first met.  I felt like I could actually really be myself around her.  She was amazing.”  Sandy was the first girl he had romantic feelings for, and my Dad’s first kiss.  They became close, and she was my Dad’s first girlfriend.  Sandy rode horses, and one day asked my Dad if he wanted to go riding with her after school.  My Dad declined, he had baseball practice that afternoon.  After practice, a friend of my Dad’s came up to him, and asked if he had heard what happened to Sandy.  My Dad carefully said, “No… and then he told me that she was in a horse-riding accident, and she died.  I don’t even remember what happened after that moment.  I just took off running.  I ran so hard up into the foothills.  I really don’t remember how long I was up there, or the days after. The funeral was horrible.  I don’t really remember a lot of the time after that. It’s… it’s completely blocked out for me.”  I didn’t push any further.  

Before my Dad’s junior year of high school, Millie told him they were moving.  Millie had been married to a man named Forrest O’Dell before meeting Frank Westfall, and he came to visit them in New Mexico.  Forrest had promised a better life for them in Toledo, Ohio. Millie accepted. My Dad was not having it.  My Dad was reluctant to move across the city, let alone move across the country to a state he had never stepped foot in.  Coach Dixon, my Dad’s baseball coach, asked Millie if she would consider letting my Dad live with him and his family, so my Dad could finish out his high school career in Albuquerque.  He offered to take care of him, make sure he kept his grades, and would provide a stable home for him.  Millie said no.  “Forrest came and got us with his truck, and loaded up our stuff, and we moved to Toledo.” 


Part 1: David Young

“The real challenge is not to survive. Hell, anyone can do that. It’s to survive as yourself, undiminished.”

Elia Kazan

My Dad was born on March 13th, 1951 in Gallup, New Mexico as David Young.  When he was just a few months old, his Navajo-Native American mother made an adoption plan with Frank and Mildred (Millie) Westfall, who resided in Gallup, New Mexico. Frank and Millie were white, and so my Dad grew up assuming he was white too.  They changed his name to David Westfall, and moved to Albuquerque soon thereafter.  Frank and Mille already had two children living with them: my Aunt Judy and Uncle Richard who were 9 and 5 years older than my father.  His adoptive father Frank Westfall was a cabinet maker, and made custom outfits for trailers.  Millie was a homemaker.

Clockwise: The Westfall Family: Frank, Mildred, Richard, Judy, and David (my Dad).

“Yeah, I guess you could call her a homemaker.  She would do some ironing for neighbors for extra money, because although Frank worked, we didn’t see any of his pay come into the house.”  When I asked my Dad what his relationship was like with Frank, “I really didn’t see Frank when I was a kid.  He was at work during the day, and then at night he would play with his country western band somewhere out near the Tijeras Canyon in the Sandia Mountains.  He drove a 1955 Cadillac but I couldn’t tell you a whole lot about the guy.” My Dad has told me when he was growing up he had a sense he didn’t quite belong in his family.  Even at 4 years old, he felt isolated, and a sense of disconnect.  “Yeah, I knew Mom loved me but there wasn’t a sense of real connection, I knew she would take care of me but I wouldn’t say we were close. I was closest with Richard.  I loved Richard.  He was five years older than me and he was my guy.  But outside of that, Judy was doing her own thing by then and I didn’t blame her, I didn’t really feel like I belonged in my family.” My Aunt Judy was 9 years older than my Dad. She eventually married when she was 18 years old, and quickly left New Mexico shortly after.  But Richard being only 5 years older than my Dad, they became close. Richard was a mentor, and someone my Dad looked to in guiding him through life.  

My Aunt Judy and Dad, 1952

Despite this connection with Richard, my Dad describes this time period as his experience with “the pain.”  He would talk to his dog Tippy about it when he was very young, and found her to be an immense source of comfort.  But he soon found another salve: A close friend of the family who babysat my Dad, and spent holidays with the Westfalls worked at the Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her name was Mary Bird.  She would take him there with her, to play with the Indian children, and to be exposed to the Navajo culture. My Dad said he felt, “right at home, and began questioning why I didn’t feel like that at my actual home.”  He reflects on these days fondly, and connected with the Indian children in ways he was unable to with the Westfalls.

Clockwise: A Westfall cousin Jim Loveday, The Westfall’s close friend Mary, Frank Westfall, and (my Aunt) Judy Westfall

The Westfalls moved around a lot, because money was tight and Frank had difficulty paying the bills.  “I didn’t actually know we were poor growing up, because we always had food, Mom was always making dinner, I had clothes, and a bed to sleep in.  It wasn’t until I was at one of my buddy’s house that I realized their food containers and boxes looked just like ours: white with black print, and I thought, why do we have the exact same foods? That’s weird.  And it dawned on me right then: oh, this is government issued food. We’re on welfare.”  My Dad attended Belair Elementary School, and spent a lot of his childhood playing in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.  There, he felt a sense of peace, and a connection with nature. “The wind would blow through the pine trees, and I would sit there, listen, and it calmed me.  I would spend hours up there, roaming the foothills and listening to the wind.” 

 He soon found another way to get rid of “the pain”: sports.  Specifically, baseball, where he was a part of a team with his friends, with common goals and a sense of familial comradery he was missing at home.  He threw himself into sports.  “When I was pitching, I thought of nothing else but the game.  Everything else in my mind was blocked out, and all I had to think of was the next pitch.  I didn’t worry about why I was different.  I loved the game, I used baseball to get rid of the pain.  Baseball kept me going.”  

As he got more serious about baseball, he saved up bottle caps (My Dad can’t remember the name of the company, but remembers collecting bottle caps to send to them) to send away for his own mitt. When it finally arrived at the house, he yelled for Richard, and they opened it together. When retelling this story, my Dad sighed, and then started laughing, “Emma, we opened it, and it was a right-handed mitt.”  My Dad was left handed.  “Richard told me right then that if I wanted to be good at sports I needed to be right-handed, and since I had the glove for it, I switched.  Richard wasn’t very athletic but he was smart about sports, and I only had the one glove so I was going to use it.”  I received my first left-handed mitt from my Dad when I was 3 years old.  The significance this moment must have had for my Dad is not lost on me.  

When my Dad was in the 7thgrade, Frank came to one of his little league games.  “I thought that was so strange, because he never came, and after the game he told me how well I played and I didn’t know what to make of it. It was just so out of character for him.  I knew something was up.”  A few days later, Frank said he was going on a business trip to Sante Fe, and he would be back soon.  He hugged my Dad tightly, told him he loved him, and walked out the door.  “Yeah, after he left, Mom called one of her friends over and they went in the bedroom and Mom just started saying how all of his things were gone.  Just gone. And I didn’t know what we were going to do.  I couldn’t believe it.  He was just gone.” My Dad never saw Frank Westfall again.

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