By the time our daughter, Katie,* was 18 months old, and our son, Joe, was 3, I knew that Cal was an alcoholic. I set boundaries: No drinking and driving; when the children were in his care, he had to promise me he wouldn't drink "too much." These guidelines now sound blind and desperate. At the time, they gave me some sense of control.
Events eroded my denial: One day Cal offered to take the children to the park. Though it was only nine in the morning, something about his demeanor alarmed me. I checked the mug in the cup holder of the minivan. One whiff told me it was vodka. I unbuckled the kids and led them back inside.
Another warning: One evening Cal phoned me during a meeting to say that Joe had cut his lip, and it might require stitches.
It was obvious that Cal was in no shape to drive to the hospital. After that I worried less about mincing words, and we fought all the time. The children heard almost every cruel thing we said to each other.
Meanwhile, his personality changed. He had little patience for Katie, and would send her to her room at the drop of a hat -- even if all she wanted was to be picked up. At 3, Joe reacted to our fighting and his father's frequent overzealous discipline by shutting us all out. I often had to call his name three times before he'd break his stare and respond.
But still, through it all, I believed we were best off together, as a family.
On the day I realized Cal was no longer a part of that family, he had been up since 2 a.m., watching TV and drinking. He was dozing on the couch when the kids and I awoke around 7.
I peered at the clear liquid in the mug on the coffee table in front of him. "I'm sick. I'm dying," he said.
Joe sat still, not looking at me or at his dad, his face passive, frozen. "I know you want me dead," Cal continued. "Don't worry. It won't take long."
It was instantly clear that my children shouldn't have to handle this.
I took the kids to preschool and called the sheriff, who removed Cal from the house and took him to detox. I got a restraining order (since withdrawn) and filed for divorce. In the year since our divorce, Cal's been through rehab twice.
The kids are growing accustomed to living in a house where asking to be held is a reasonable request. Joe, though, deals with it his own way.
"Do you remember Mommy and Daddy arguing?" I asked him once. "I didn't think that was you," he answered sweetly. "I thought it was a ghost."
I'm content to have him remember it that way.
*All names have been changed, including the author's.