I used to have a house with a big kitchen island that had a thick granite countertop slab and a sink so big you could wash a miniature horse in it. When my kids were young, my dad used to come over after he finished up with his early morning AA meetings. He’d hang out and drink a cup off coffee at the kitchen island while I loaded the dishwasher and handed food to my kids toddling around.

At that point, my dad had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for most of my life. He went into treatment when I was six years old, the same day my mom sat me and my sister down one afternoon just after school. She told us my dad was going to be gone for a few weeks and something about him having a problem with alcohol. He was gone for thirty days, sobered up, made amends, and took responsibility for his life. I knew nothing about that then. I only understood my mom was relieved my dad would be gone, and then things were supposed to get better. Whatever that meant. Children live in the only reality they know.

Now, I hardly remember when my dad drank. There were a couple of times in my early years where he was laid out on the bathroom floor moaning over a toilet bowl. I wanted to help him, but my mom wouldn’t let me. She spoke in a disdainful voice, one I didn’t quite understand. “Your dad is fine. Let him be.”

“Mom, he’s sick.”

“He’s fine, Tina.” She put me to bed.

Other than that, my dad’s drinking seemed like a non-issue for me. He quit before real poignant memories took hold. That said, the after effect of his drinking remains a constant companion. In alcoholic families, dry or drunk, alcohol is almost another member of the family. Most of what we know is defined by it, orbits around it, even if we don’t actually understand or remember it.

* * *

I was born in Seattle during the summer of 1977, right in the middle of August, a record setting month for heat. My mom shares stories of riding down the Snoqualmie river in an inner tube with her belly popping out, laughing with my aunt. They were both pregnant doing anything to cool off.

Astrologers tell me I’m a Leo. A child born under the sun. Apparently, we’re bold and audacious. Brave and daring. Leo’s have every intention to take the world on with all the gusto of lions. There’s a lot of truth in that description. I am bold and daring and there was a time when I wanted to take the world on with great gusto. My love for life and my unflinching nature have served me well.

Historically, in the Northern Hemisphere, children born in August go into kindergarten right after they turn five. Some parents wait a year. It really depends on the child. After living through years of change and learning to understand myself, I can say with quite a bit of authority, it’s usually best for me to wait. I’m one of those people who does better with a good season to soak. Give me a few years, a few months with something – let it steep, simmer – the flavors come out better. Ready or not, my mom wanted me to go to school. She had a baby at home and everyone else was enrolling their children. They put me in kindergarten a few weeks after I turned five.

Toward the end of first grade my teacher approached my parents. She explained that I was struggling academically and couldn’t gain my footing. Socially, I could hold my own with the all the weight of an elephant, but academically, I was floundering like a tiny fish out of water. I needed more time.

My parents approached me about it one afternoon, just after school. My dad brought me up onto his lap. He’s six feet three inches tall, and worked in construction most of his life. I can still smell the dirt and hot summer sun against his skin if I close my eyes. When I’d pat his jeans after he got home dust would rise. They explained I was small and that I was struggling in school. If I’d repeat first grade, everything would be better.

I’d become an average student. Average. If I didn’t do first grade again, I’d flounder.

Whether it was the authority my mom used to communicate my academic ability, or the severity of the conversation, I’m not really sure. Whatever it was, I believed her. I started first grade again the next year, puffed up my chest, and proceeded to become one of the most average students ever to walk the halls of the American school system.

Except, is anyone average? Aren’t we all unique in some particular way? But in a family trying to survive the overwhelming ramifications of alcoholism and financial stress, my parents weren’t all that concerned about helping me know I was special. They were trying to live through the day. Not to mention, this was during the era when parents weren’t overly worried about their parenting, anyways. They drove us around in cars without seat belts, let us play outside for hours on end without ever checking in with us. We’d walk to 7-Eleven and buy candy and they hardly even knew it. They let us experience hardship without buffering us from our own human condition. We complain about it now, but who’s to say they were wrong? We’re damn tough and resilient as a result.

So years later, standing in my kitchen, hanging out with my dad, I had no inkling he even remembered I did first grade twice. I assumed that what had been monumental to me, was a mere blip on his life screen.

“There’s some things I regret,” he said, running his fingers down the edge of the counter top. “Things I wish I could change.”

As a daughter of an alcoholic, I realized if we began talking about his regrets, they could potentially go anywhere. We could end up talking about things I didn’t want to know about. However, sometimes the risk is worth it, and I was honestly curious about my dad’s regrets. What does one regret in their fifties? I was a young mother with the whole world before me. My life was exactly how I wanted it to be at that moment. I thought it might be kind of me to listen to my dad and hear the lonesome confessions of a recovering alcoholic. I wondered if I could help him.

He stared at the coffee mug, ran his fingers across the granite some more. He was thinking, gathering his thoughts. His voice came out soft, tender, and overwhelmingly vulnerable. “Do you remember when you had to do first grade over again?”

I was setting a dish in the dishwasher and paused. His regrets weren’t supposed to be about me. “Of course I remember doing first grade twice. It was probably the singular most formative event in all of my childhood.”

“That shouldn’t have happened.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

He shook his head, stared at his hands. He shrugged. “We should have worked with you.”

“Dad, I was behind. The teacher said I needed to repreat the first grade.”

“Your teacher said if we took some time to work with you, you could have caught up.” He paused, grappling with the words. His voice grew even more quiet. “I don’t know. I was working, trying to make ends meet. But, I should have made the time.”

My mind fragmented, splintered off into various places. “The teacher said I needed to repeat first grade. That I’d be average.”

“You weren’t average. You’ve never been average.”

“Dad, the teacher said I’d be average. I’ve always thought I wasn’t very smart.” My voice broke. I took hold of the granite and braced myself, needing something to hold onto. The smooth, cold rock felt good to my trembling fingers.

“I wasn’t smart,” I repeated.

My dad, a big carpenter, a horse-trainer, the man who took up space in every room he ever entered, stepped toward me and held the space for me, let me grapple with his regret. My hands shook as I wiped the tears that sprang into my eyes. “I’ve always thought it was my fault. That I just wasn’t very smart.”

He patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. “You’re real smart, honey. I knew that, then. The teacher said you needed more. I should have worked with you. I really regret that.”

His voice invaded my past. Fragments in a story. Times when I refused to try new things, when I decided to stay on the edges of life because I didn’t think I was capable. Average people don’t do such things. Once, a professor told me I should consider applying to Harvard law school and I laughed at him. His words fell off me like water off a duck. I wasn’t smart enough. I was average. Average people don’t go to places like Harvard.

Average people are well … average.

Maybe it was his voice: his authoritative, life-giving voice—the voice I’ve heard all my life. Maybe it was the timing. Who knows? But those words: You. Are. Smart. They quenched me the way a cold glass of water runs down your throat on a hot summer day.

And then, like the clearing on an overcast morning, when the sun pushes through a thick fog, my whole life changed.