Joe Pisani (opinion): In dying sober, my dad proved it's never too late to change

Man next to bottles of alcohol
Man next to bottles of alcoholGetty Images

Someone recently emailed me and said that since I wrote a Mother’s Day column, I was obligated by journalistic ethics and the Roman law of paterfamilias to write a Father’s Day column.

I’m not so sure about that, but in the pursuit of fairness or equal-time or whatever that principle is, here I go. Otherwise I’d feel guilty.

My father’s story is a sad one, a tragic one but ultimately a triumphant one. Now, that I’ve given away the exciting climax, let me digress.

Whenever I wander through the caverns of Barnes & Noble, looking to spend money I don’t have on books I don’t need and won’t read, I inevitably end up staring in bewilderment at a ceiling-high stack of pretentious titles at the back of the store in the “Self-transformation” section.

It sounds almost magical if not mystical, doesn’t it? “Self-transformation.” Sort of like Harry Houdini and Gautama Buddha got together and conducted a self-help retreat. And when I see titles like “A Radical Awakening,” “What Happened to You” and “Activate Your Full Human Potential,” I think of my father.

Most of my life, I’ve believed that when people changed, it was for the worse. Angry people got angrier. Greedy people got greedier. Sad people got sadder. And, as William James observed long ago, lustful people fell into a pit of depravity. Tragically, it seemed, drunks and addicts despaired and died ... but that doesn’t have to be. Enter, my father.

One of nine children, raised by an Italian immigrant whose husband died at 40, he was a World War II veteran, a carpenter and a decent human being as long as he didn’t pick up that first drink.

My most enduring memory as a child was of him sitting in his Barcalounger with a water glass of Canadian Club whiskey in one hand and a 16-ounce can of Ballantine ale in the other.

When I got home from school, he already had that bleary-eyed look, and I knew he was headed for a drunk so I stepped cautiously past him because you never knew what might happen. Sober, he was the nicest guy in the world. Drunk, he was an angry, vindictive ogre.

There were beatings. There was emotional abuse. There were insults. Domestic disputes were part of our daily existence. For years, I thought every family lived like that. You learned to accept it because you didn’t believe there could be anything better, and before you knew it, you embraced what you despised.

Anyway, the day finally came when my father got sick and tired of being sick and tired. At 50 years old, his Higher Power stepped in and he had a miracle. He put the plug in the jug and entered recovery, and despite the many challenges he confronted, he lived the last 25 years of his life sober, a day at a time.

My father never took credit for his sobriety. To him it was the work of his Higher Power. (And this guy was certainly no church-goer.) Whenever something wonderful happened, such as a reconciliation between two family members who had been feuding or someone finally seeking help to overcome an addiction, my father would ask us, “Who do you think did that?” And before anyone could answer, he would point his finger toward heaven and smile.

He died sober, and to my thinking that’s a greater achievement than Community Leader of the Year, the Pulitzer Prize, the Academy Award, the Nobel Peace Prize or the Grammy because a victory over self is the greatest victory of all. His name will never be in a Hall of Fame or among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. In fact, his name will never be anywhere because it’s an anonymous program.

The end of his life was a lot different from the beginning. He changed. He made amends. He still sat in that old Barcalounger, but instead of Canadian Club and Ballantine, he had his “Twenty Four-Hour Book” in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. And when his grandchildren came over, they didn’t have to tip-toe past him. They rushed to see him and hug him and tell him they loved him.

To him, it wasn’t self-transformation. It was grace. And at 75, he died sober. It’s never too late.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. A day at a time.

Joe Pisani can be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.