A Different Kind of Birthday

My dad taught my sisters and I to ride a bike earlier than most kids. So early, in fact, that I have no memory of learning how to balance on those two wheels and pedal fast enough to keep myself from falling over. Going on bike rides with my dad was one of  our favorite summertime activities so as soon as we got bored of the Burley it was on to the bicycle.

I remember struggling to bike up hills and how my dad would slow down, align himself next to me, and hold on to my handlebars, pulling my bike along as he continued to pedal his own. When we biked along a boardwalk through the marshes, and there was a gap in the planks, he would stop and set his bike down, then lift me over the minuscule gap, knowing I was too afraid to bike across.

And when we inevitably did fall down, or crash as we sped down the steepest hill in the park, he was always right behind us. He would make sure we were okay, wipe away our tears, but then most important of all, he would make sure we got back on that bike. Maybe not in the minutes that followed, but by the end of the week you could be sure to see us pedaling up and down the driveway once again.

My sisters and I were not the only ones to be cheered on as we took our first wobbly rides on a bike. There were several kids in our neighborhood who reached elementary school without having learned. Their parents were either often absent, or not bike-riders themselves. When my dad found out these kids could multiple and divide but not ride a two-wheeler, he enthusiastically took it upon himself to ensure that they could follow along with the rest of us on summer bike rides through the woods.

Today is my dad’s 2-year sobriety anniversary. Two years since he “fell off that bike” having ridden down the biggest hill in the woods. This was not his first crash but it was certainly the scariest and the most life-changing. It may have taken him some time and a whole lot of hard work but he eventually started pedaling again. And I could not be prouder.

I feel like alcoholism is something our society still struggles to be frank about. It is either the butt of a joke or a family secret stepped around in conversation. I will be honest, there were times when I hesitated to give the real reason why dad was not present for this or that, or why I suddenly needed to go home and miss a day or two of classes. Every now and then I crack a sarcastic joke about my “alcoholic father” to avoid the subject. But when it comes down to it, I do want to talk about it. I want you to ask me questions. I want to be open and honest, and to tell you that my dad is a recovering alcoholic but he is also the best damn bike-riding teacher I have ever met.

Substance abuse is a really terrifying illness. I can only speak about it from the perspective of someone who has watched a loved one battle this disease, but if it was scary for me than I can only imagine what it is like for the person in the middle of it all. From 2010-2016 my family watched as dad slowly crumbled beneath the weight of alcoholism’s wrath and the guilt and shame that followed in relentless waves. There were moments of clarity, when we hesitantly hoped that the worst was over. But there were also the incoherent phone calls, the breathalyzers, the absences. But through it all I knew my dad was still in there somewhere, and he would eventually recover and get back on that bike. I prepared myself for the worse, but I never gave up.

One of the hardest parts of watching from the sidelines is that eventually it is just that, you can only watch. You can tell the person that you love them, that you want the best for them, and that you know they can do it, but they will only be able to heal when it comes from within. When it gets bad enough, you even have to distance yourself to save yourself. Throwing your faith out, out to the person, out to the wind, maybe out to a deity, you release your hope and cross you fingers that it will find its way back to you, carrying your loved one along with it. You live your life, and wait.

It has been two years now since my hope came whistling back across the Atlantic to me, carried on sighs of relief and wrapped in warmth, carrying my dad back to me. Two years ago he chose treatment. Two years ago he chose God. He chose love and family and faith. He chose to get back on that bike. He chose us. Happy 2nd Sobriety Birthday Dad. I love you.

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2 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Birthday

  1. Oh, Ashley, what a great post about your dad, and my nephew. We can thank and praise God for all He has done in your dad’s life. The relationship he has with Jesus is very real.

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  2. I have been meaning to comment since you posted this. It is such a beautiful tribute to both your relationship and all the work that your Dad has done – and that you have done as the child of an alcoholic. It’s not easy, and you are so right about the stigma and reluctance of people to talk about it. I think you know that Grandma Joyce is also a recovering alcoholic so I know first hand how difficult it is for them and for those who love them. Happy, happy belated birthday and love from your Great Aunt Susan.

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