Good Enough: Chelsea Bieker on Grieving Her Complicated Father
“I didn’t outwardly believe that my success in life would wake my father from his addiction, but my subconscious must have.”
If my novel was published, surely my father would stop drinking. If my short story collection was published after that, then miracles beyond my understanding would take flight. My father would straighten in his chair, he would lock eyes with me. There would be clarity, apology, light. My love for him, paired, of course, with my achievements, would finally build a bridge strong enough for us to cross into a different sort of world than we’d lived. A life ruled by my father’s addiction, unattended trauma from his own childhood, then Vietnam, and the indescribable terror he’d caused me as a child as he beat my mother in front of me, as he pushed me out of his path so he could get to her, and my back hit the wall. We had come through those things into a semblance of peace, his old age softening him, preventing such wild outbursts. We had come through those things the way anyone comes through anything: in order to survive.
Reader, I didn’t outwardly believe that my success in life would wake my father from his addiction, would erase the damage done, but my subconscious must have because when he died, I felt the weight of not only the deepest grief I’d ever known, but something unexpected—tremendous failure. I had not done enough. I was not enough. Surely my efforts had been in vain. He had never even had the strength to read that novel, a novel which in the great shadow of this loss felt small, felt meaningless, felt laughable even as I realized I had thought, somehow, that it would solve something.
My therapist used to ask, how old is this feeling? Meaning, how old is the version of you having this feeling? And so I ask myself the same now in the wake of his death—how old is the version of me that thought if I could be a published writer my father might rebound into another version of himself? That he would see me worthy of his fathering?
I’d guess that this version of me is anywhere from three to seventeen, a stage of my life I consider the hopeful years, when there was still time on the clock for my parents to change and make us a different life. When I reflect back to that version, an image comes forth of me swinging giants on the high bar at the dusty gym where I spent every day after school for hours. I see my torn and bloody hands that never had time to heal before another callous would rip off revealing a strip of stinging, raw skin. I swoop around once more, let go of the bar, let my body soar in the air, free for a moment of my parents and their dysfunction.
In the air I was anything I wanted to be: Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci. One of the Magnificent Seven. I land with a thud. Most people can’t do what I had just done. Most people can’t balance very well on one foot for very long but here I had just defied gravity. I had just done something miraculous.How old is the version of me that thought if I could be a published writer my father might rebound into another version of himself?
But upon landing I’d hear a slew of correctives from my coach. I piked down too much, I let go too soon, my back was arched coming over the bar, my cast handstand was shy of a full handstand. I’d do it again and again until I shook. I wonder then too if I thought if I was a good enough gymnast then my parents might wake up to me, might consider me worthy of a life together.
I am no dummy, though. I don’t need a review of Al Anon literature. I know my actions did not predict or cast a spell on my parents one way or another. Addicts use. Logic has no place. I had nothing to do with my parents afflictions that had rooted long before I’d ever arrived. But my heart beat faster at night in bed imagining that if I could be someone better, someone special, things would have to change. Either I would change by not needing them anymore, or they would change by finally needing me.
I’m a better writer than I was a gymnast. Competitive gymnastics was the perfect playground for me to solidify low self-worth, despite the bodily miracles I performed. I was too tall for a gymnast. No matter how much conditioning I did, endless sit ups and push ups and pull ups and laps around the gym in 100 degree heat, I never could form that bulk of powerful muscle that was needed to really shine. In fact, I often felt I struggled in the sport, each day a toil. But I loved it, and now I see that I loved something about the punishment of it, the way it confirmed over and over that there was always more work to be done .
Now as an adult and mother to two young children, I can’t take a nap if I tried. The guilt would subsume me. I would lay there imagining all I was not doing, the writing I was not executing and getting better at. My dad’s death made me feel for some months afterward, more exhausted than I knew possible, as if a lifetime of striving and coming up short had finally hit a wall, as if someone had finally pulled me off that gymnastics floor and said, at last, you’re done. Go home. There’s no medal here. After my father died, I hovered in a strange world where the smallest of actions seemed to be too much, an email overwhelming. Was this grief, I wondered, pressing play on episode 409 of Desperate Housewives. Was it giving up?
I did publish a novel and my dad did get to hold it in his hands. I didn’t get to see him do so because of a pandemic that prevented me from seeing him only one time in his last year of life, as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and his body diminished and his teeth were pulled out and he became so thin his body looked to be a part of the couch he slept on, fading away into the cushions. This too felt like a failure.
My sister and I often remarked how we had never seen cancer coming. We had been prepared for something like liver failure, or another heart attack, or a fall he couldn’t get up from. We had failed too, at imagining his death properly and there we were all three in separate states apart from one another, failing.
My sister and I talked every day on the phone as I walked through ice cold winds, the same loops of my tree-lined neighborhood, about plans to save him. It did seem finally that he was utterly diminished enough to comply with our wishes for him, for him to be closer to one of us in a Veteran’s home. I imagined him growing back strong again after the cancer had almost killed him and he wouldn’t be able to drink at long last and he would be around our children and he would be our dad, eating the fine pureed foods we would prepare, organic and free of toxins.
I had once dreamed of him watching me give my first book signing. I imagined him walking up to the table and I’d sign a book for him and somehow this would be some contractual agreement of magic. It would have to mean something. I know. It’s stupid.
My dad is dead is dead is dead. A few days after he died on New Years Eve in 2020, spirit unable to pull itself into a new year, I got the edits back from my editor for my short story collection, Heartbroke. I was also trying to write the pilot episode of a limited series pitch for my novel. The television was one of my father’s fiercest companions, he played it all night long. Wouldn’t he think it was cool my book could be made into a watchable form? I hoped. So I got those edits back and I typed back a response to this kind editor who asked if I wanted to hold off considering my loss, that we could move the schedule back. Or maybe it was the kind producer I was working with who said that, gently, do you need some more time? Either way my answer was the same: let’s work.
I toiled over each story again, these stories I’d been writing over the last ten years, my father all over them. I went deeper and was exasperated by the neverendingness that writing can be, that nothing is ever really done, that you could work on something for ten years and still there could be a better version out there waiting just out of reach. When would it be fine to just give up, say this is the best I’ve got. Is it good enough for you, Dad?
But when he was still able to read, my dad always loved my writing even when it was likely terrible. He always laughed as he read, saw himself in the characters at times, and shrugged with a grin. He liked that I had made something out of nothing, some conjuring just like those flips I once did. Wasn’t it always him who saw me for who I was and didn’t question it? I wanted though, something more. More impossible witchery. I wanted, simply, for my writing to resurrect. To bring life to the dead.
Now I see the book before me, dressed up in a cover all her own. This book is what it is, and this book is only what I could have produced at the time in which I wrote it and this book is my favorite thing I’ve ever written and I don’t really know why, other than I believe it came from somewhere totally unscripted, somewhere totally alive in me. This book was me becoming. This book is evidence of the ways I did not give up. It is a record of me letting go, of saying, okay, it’s done. It’s as good as I can get it. But it is not a book that saved my father, and it never will be.
A few weeks before my father died, I lay on the floor in some sort of meditation that had turned into an earnest prayer. I suppose I knew his death was looming but could only access it in that place of the subconscious, and I begged then out loud. I said can I have one more miracle, please? And the answer came quickly to me, and it was only this: you’ve had all the miracles.
And I wept because I knew it was true. The fact that my father had lived as long as he had, the fact that we were as close as we were considering the life we had lived, all of that, the fact that he had held my children and had been to my graduations, and that we’d sat together on the beach and sat together at the Olive Garden and wandered through the Gap and that he’d once purchased me The Artist’s Way without prompting just because he’d seen it on a shelf in a Barnes and Noble and wondered if I’d like it. That was all a miracle. It was disorienting to try to place it alongside all the bad I’d seen, all I’d endured at his hand, and I couldn’t understand how I could feel so deeply for him in two opposing directions—love and anger—but yet. We’d lived some miracles. It wasn’t nothing.
I am still in grief and will always be. Life moves on and, like the comic strip someone sent me shortly after his death, a sequence that showed grief as a ball that never shrank but the container of the ball got instead larger creating the sensation that the grief was more manageable, I am able to move through my life, though I wish I could wear a marking of mourning, so that people would just know, I am not really okay; I am not really able to answer your email that fast. I am still walking under the weight of what feels like epic failure, the weight of intellectual understanding that failure is not mine to feel, but yet I do, and what to do with that.
Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker is available now from Catapult.