It was time for his annual homage to awkwardness, otherwise known as Father's Day.
He'd been a father himself for nearly a quarter-century but, after almost 50 years, he still wasn't quite sure how to be his own father's son. Should he love his dad or loathe him? Or should he do both?
Was it possible to do both?
The man his father had become was not the man whose rage and addiction had so drastically altered the lives of those close to him. But, then again, he was the same man, just in a frailer body uninfluenced by alcohol for more than a decade.
He was the same man who, when the son was two years old, started hitting his wife. Twice, the mother fled with the son. But this was the 1960s. Both times, the mom's own mother sent her back to the husband. After all, a wife whose husband hits her must be doing something wrong. It was up to the wife to stop doing whatever it was that provoked her husband.
But this brand of rage was irrational. The violence was about as controllable as the winter storms that rolled off nearby Lake Erie.
On a cold night in February, not long after the son's third birthday, the father's anger fueled a full-fledged beating. The mother ran for her life, out the front door and through the dark streets of her blue-collar neighborhood in the Rustbelt city they called home. She caught a bus downtown, where she checked into a hotel with only the clothes on her back.
Two days later, the mom and her father retrieved her belongings, and the boy and his mother moved in with his grandparents. Threats from the father followed, but they were never carried out.
That April, mother and son moved into an apartment a couple miles from where the father still lived. At least for a while, a tense truce prevailed. The boy's mom looked to her church for guidance. The pastor was unequivocal: The boy's mom must become more subservient to her husband, the minister counseled. It was up to her to keep the attacks from happening.
The boy's mom continued her job teaching in a high school, where she found comfort from a male teacher — a married male teacher with children of his own. When she became pregnant with the teacher's child, the fragile family peace disintegrated. The father's rage reignited, and the threats resumed.
The mom's mother insisted she give up the baby for adoption, and the church seconded the edict. The mom filed for divorce from the boy's father, but the father countersued. He wanted custody of his son, and no amount of intimidation would be too much in his effort. He began spying on his wife. He also left threats on the male teacher's car.
The mom's second son was born in January, four years after her first. Under pressure from her mother and the church, she gave the baby up for adoption. A judge also granted the mom her divorce, but awarded custody of the boy to the father.
Within a matter of days, she'd lost her two sons.
The mother and teacher friend — who'd divorced his wife and lost custody of his own three children in the process — eventually married. The father eventually remarried, too. The boy's parents agreed that he would spend one weekend a month with his mother.
He didn't have a suitcase, so his stepmother would pack his clothes for the weekend in a brown paper grocery bag, which she'd place on the stairs that led from the living room to the upstairs bedroom in the family's turn-of-the-century house.
That rumpled bag might as well have been filled with dollar bills, or baseball cards, or his favorite orange-flavored, creme-filled cupcakes churned out a few blocks away at the Hostess factory. He was going to spend the weekend with his mother, and those would be the best days of the month.
It wasn't long, though, before the bitter stepmother discovered the cruel power of that simple brown bag. The boy had a brother and sister from his father's second marriage now, and the family would mysteriously be away when the mother showed up on the agreed-upon Friday to pick up her son.
On other Fridays, the stepmother would pack the paper bag knowing the mother wasn't coming and, more importantly, knowing the boy would be devastated. The father knew what was happening, of course, but did nothing to stop it. If he couldn't have his ex-wife, then his son shouldn't have her, either.
Alcohol-induced indifference also kept the father from stepping in to protect his son. That addiction would end up costing the father his second marriage, his career, the house the boy grew up in and, very nearly, the father's life.
Meanwhile, the mother and her new husband had two boys after they were married. But what about their first son, the one the mother had given up for adoption?
The oldest boy knew nothing about his mysterious brother until his stepmother delivered the news when he was seven years old, with the help of the business end of a black broom handle.
Whack. "You had brother!" Whack. "Your mother gave him away!" Whack. "Because she didn't love him, just like she didn't love you!"
Then she stopped and let the information bore silently into the boy's consciousness. What does a child do with information like that? In this case, it would stay buried for years, gnawing away slowly like a soul-eating virus.
It wasn't until the boy had grown up, married and had two children of his own that he mentioned to anyone else what he'd learned that day. Actually, it was his father who brought it up during one of his drunken long-distance phone calls to his son, who'd moved hundreds of miles away.
The brother who'd been given up for adoption had been trying for years to find his birth parents. All the brother had to go on in his search was a last name, which had led him to the boy's father. It would take years for the son to mention his lost brother's search to his mother, but once he did, it only took a matter of days to reconnect and, at age 37, the son met his brother for the first time.
Though he was not part of that reunion, the boy's father quit drinking at about the same time, and began the long process of healing his body and mind. Relationships lay dented and abandoned like the cars the father had wrecked over the years while driving drunk. While some of those relationships were beyond repair, the son finally came to realize that the bond with his father was, more than any other, the one that must endure.
No one would be haunted more by the father's past than the father himself, and he'd sought forgiveness for that past and turned away from the vices that fueled it.
For more than a decade, as this man's substance-abused body slowly failed, he displayed incomprehensible strength through his seemingly simple daily refusal to succumb to the addiction that nearly ruined and killed him. Along the way, he'd become an adoptive father, son or brother to hundreds of others just like him who found their strength in the accountability of daily Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.
Ultimately, it was the son who sought grace in his relationship with his father. After all, it was the son who'd once given up on his father, who'd disowned him, who'd uttered the awful condemnation that his father would be better off dead.
The son had loathed his father. Now, he simply loved him.
He couldn't do both.