It was a cold December evening in Connecticut with snow in the forecast. For the family holiday festivities, my mother had dressed my two younger brothers and me in cute, look-alike suits. We were off to an annual Christmas party at Uncle Johnny’s house. This was the night the word “drunk” became part of my permanent vocabulary. I was almost six years old.
Uncle Johnny was my father’s uncle, a retired jovial grey-haired man. He had made a comfortable living and owned a big house on a hill. He exuded holiday cheer and welcoming humor. I always liked going to Uncle Johnny’s Christmas party. To a little boy, this family party symbolized all the good things Christmas was supposed to be.
Uncle Johnny knew how to make everyone feel included. His house was a fun place where I felt safe. The treasure of the night was Aunt Mildred’s fudge brownies, which were legendary treats enjoyed at every family gathering. I thought there would be good times like this for many years to come, but my father’s alcoholism would reshape my view of the world.
Unlike Uncle Johnny’s house, when visiting other relatives I would immediately be subject to a lecture about all the does and don’ts of the house. Don’t touch anything in this room. Don’t eat in that room. Don’t put a glass on the table. Don’t turn the television on; or you can watch it, but don’t turn the volume higher than this. Do you understand, Thomas?
There were relatives I dreaded visiting on holidays and some I couldn’t wait to see. Half the fun of going to Uncle Johnny’s house was hanging out with my older cousins. Being the oldest of three brothers was lonely at times. When you are the oldest kid, you don’t really have anyone to talk to. What do you do at age six, ask your three-year-old brother for advice? When I was with my older cousins, I felt connected and important.
Trouble started when it was time to go home. By this time it was dark and cold and the snow was falling. My mother made sure my two brothers and I were belted into the backseat. I watched out the window as my parents began to squabble. They argued over who was going to drive us home. My parents’ fighting was nothing new, but it was the first time I registered that drinking was the cause for the conflict – “Why are my parents fighting about who will drive the car?”
Mother blasted my father, “Howard, you have been drinking Scotch all evening, and you’re drunk.” The words my parents exchanged were full of anger. My mother let her words fly with a venomous and ruthless aim. She was out to wound. “Howard, you are drunk. You’re too drunk to drive the car. You’re a disgrace. You’re not getting behind that wheel. You’ll kill us all. I am driving us home.”
The ride home took an hour – crossing each town line, then negotiating the snow-filled city streets of New Haven and finally creeping onto the black and icy highway. Our old Ford station wagon strained to find its grip in the slush-filled streets. We were halfway home when we stopped at a streetlight on a four-lane road with traffic going in all directions. Big snowflakes were drifting down slowly, like mini-paratroopers landing on the windshield.
My mother continued to berate my father about being drunk, thereby forcing her to take responsibility for driving us home in the midst of a snowstorm. That Christmas holiday night was the first time I was frightened by my father’s actions.
From the front seat, my mother let out a series of noises and shrieks. My father had stepped out of the car at a busy intersection and began to urinate in the road. It didn’t matter what my mother hollered. “Get in the car, Howard.” “Howard! What are you doing?” “The traffic, Howard!”
My father was not getting back in the car until he relieved himself. I looked out my window from the backseat with a sick curiosity and a deep feeling of horror. The passenger’s door was wide open; as my father continued pissing, sounds of the street poured in – wheels splashing the street slush, horns honking and cars swinging by us.
My mother was coming unglued. She tried to reach across the front seat and grab my father’s winter coat, so he would not stumble into the passing traffic. I could see him out the side window. He could barely balance on the slick, snowy road. He was wearing black rubber boots over his dress shoes. My eyes were fixated on his feet, hoping he wouldn’t fall into the path of a passing automobile. When he finished, he zipped up his fly and flopped back into the front seat with a drunkard’s smile, satisfied that his bladder was now empty.
While my father was pleased with himself, my mother was in a full-blown emotional frenzy. She was seeing red, and the words flying out of her mouth were nasty and demeaning. Let the heavyweight battle begin! Their screaming at each other was so irrational – at one point, I thought one might hit the other. I just wanted to get home.
Christmas was never innocent for me again. My father’s drinking would always be the central theme of my worry. From a young age I learned to live with anxiety and fear. At the time, I didn’t understand just how damaging those long-lasting feelings were. No one did back then. And I was just a kid.
The holidays continued to be stressful, unhappy times. But Christmas was always the worst. If he wasn’t off in rehab or a hospital drying-out – yet again – my father was always in some stage of an alcoholic binge.
Every few years my father would be sober on Christmas. In my mid-twenties, there was even a stretch of five or six years in a row when I got the only present I wanted – a sober father. But I learned to do without. All the red fire trucks in the world could never make up for my father not being with us – sober.
Once I was an adult and married with children, I never wanted any of my three daughters to have Christmas memories like mine. Not one. I wanted their childhood Christmas Eve dreams to be filled with Santa Claus and wonder – with memories of stockings hung from the mantel, Christmas songs being sung and presents under the tree. I wanted my girls to have the gift of a sober father.
Yes, my father did teach me an important lesson that night so long ago. It’s a lesson that has stayed with me through my 31 years of recovery and has kept me sober when I was vulnerable to a holiday drink. My girls have been raised in a safe and loving home where they are free to discover the beautiful life they have before them, with never a worry like those I had through my childhood.
Howard Thomas Gillis Jr. is the oldest of three boys. His father was a Yale graduate, an attorney and an alcoholic. His mother became an alcoholic a decade behind his father. Gillis’s recovery began at the age of 23. For the next ten years he struggled with his sobriety. He has been married to a beautiful, but impossible woman for 22 years. They have three lovely daughters ranging in age from junior high to college.