Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rattlesnakes, Amends, and Endings

I apologize in advance if this blog is a bit too long or not so filled with slapstick. Blogs should be short. But it may be tough to bring the threads together in this final blog about my Dad.

BAGMAN: “Even tougher if you waste time talking about it instead of writing it!”

BUTLER: “Of if you keep interrupting, Brother Baggie.”

Okay. First of all, a short introductory fact that seems trivial but will be important later. Although the blogs I have written this week would seem to indicate that I spent lots of time on Panther and Dismal Key, the fact is that most of the two decades my father was there, I visited a few times but mostly communicated through letters. Snail-mail, although the terms hadn’t been invented then. The important thing to remember is: It took three days for a letter to go from Massachusetts to Florida, and vice versa.

Second, short introductory background – Two years before the end of my Dad’s hermiting, E. Foster Atkinson passed away and my Dad moved up in rank to the bigger shack on Dismal Key.

Rattlesnakes – The Panther on Panther Key was elusive but rattlesnakes were plentiful throughout the area. On times when I visited, Dad would always give me an extra walking stick which we used, not for walking, but to regularly beat the brush ahead of us and around us, to give these fellows time to slink away. I saw a couple but never got a good shot. My Dad saw them regularly.

One quick digression –

BAGMAN: “And you wonder why this is going to be too long?!!!!”

There was a tree house on Panther Key that my father had never investigated. But I really wanted to see if it might contain some treasure and was determined to climb up and poke my head in the small entrance hole in the floor. Of course, we were both concerned because it was an ideal place for snakes. So before I climbed up, he and I bounded it unmercifully with our sticks. Then, finally deciding it was safe, I carefully climbed the tree, prepared myself, and stuck my head up through the hole.

Six inches from my eyeballs was a huge coil of scaly diamonds aimed at my nose. I slammed my head back so violently, I put a gash on the back of my neck from the rough wood of the entry hole. But even as one part of my consciousness was preparing my introductory mea culpas to St. Peter, the adrenalin was catching up and I was identifying it as a large rattlesnake skin, shed some time in the past by a large but thankfully now absent reptile.

Enough about snakes, for now.

Amends. Alcoholics Anonymous is built around 12 steps of recovery. The 8th and 9th steps have to do with clearing up the wreckage of our past behaviors, making amends to people we had hurt. I had done this, at least, to the best of my ability. I had written friends, returned money, and in those cases where a simple apology would be meaningless, demonstrated changed (amended) behaviors.

But I had never done one with my father. And why should I, for Pete’s sake? His drinking caused him to leave me with my grandparents. Of course, that turned out to be great for me in the long run (another story) but my alcoholism had done nothing to him. Why would I owe him an amend? I owed him nothing.

But it nagged at me and getting free of guilt is survival for an alcoholic. One day, I had to admit that I had almost always been self-righteous with my father during visits and in letters. I knew we were both alcoholics but I was sober! I had found A.A.! He had tried a thousand times and failed. I preached at him. I refused to give him money. Actually, probably a good decision when dealing with an active alcoholic, but I had done it with an attitude. “You know, Dad, I’d love to help but I think you’ll just drink it up like always.” My tone was such I could have just as easily have added, “You dumb sot!”

I was successful despite him, not because of him. I had become a respected professional and he was a bum. A colorful bum, but still a bum. I told funny stories about panthers, and such, but at a certain level, that was how I felt. I had to get some humility and change that.

So I wrote him a letter expressing regret and love and understanding. I was humble. I took responsibility for my attitudes. I mailed it.

Three days later, I got a letter back from him. It was his amends letter to me.

I hadn't known it, because we didn’t always write that often, but during the last several months, his eyesight had been failing. He could no longer see rattlesnakes and one time a large rattler crawled across his shoe before he noticed it. He finally had to give up hermiting and had moved back to a small camper in Goodland, Florida.

Being back in civilization meant he was within walking distance of a liquor store. In no time he had drunk himself into yet another detox center. But then…you never know when it will click in…he actually got seriously into the A.A. program and got sober and started working the steps. He never drank again.

I know it has been a long blog, but if you remember in the beginning I mentioned that it took three days for a letter to travel the East Coast. Three days. Each way.

Months later when we were visiting and having the pleasure of actually attending an A.A. meeting together, we compared notes and on the exact same day at roughly the same time in the afternoon, we were, without knowing it, simultaneously writing amends letters to each other. I think that God works in very mysterious ways. Of course, some might say it could also be coincidence and I’m not into debating it.

Either way it was pretty cool.

So, bringing it to a close, he lived in Goodland for about five more years, attending A.A. meetings regularly, helping other alcoholics find sobriety, playing the accordion, painting pictures. He had a chance to meet Karen before he died.

And when he finally died, not of cirrhosis, but of a heart attack, I drove down for his funeral. It was attended by a huge crowd, incredible for someone who had been a hermit. And people got up and spoke of what he had meant in their lives. Men talked about how he had helped them stop drinking and it was because of him that they had their children back. One after another, people spoke about what he had done. I felt they were all looking at me.

Finally, it was my turn. I couldn’t control my voice. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember it was pretty much like this:

“I’m an alcoholic. My Dad was an alcoholic. He left me when I was six and although we stayed in touch, we really didn’t have much time together on this world. In some ways you all know him better than I did. And I just want to thank you, today, for sharing what he meant to you. Because now, for the first time in my life, I can say without any reservations, that I am proud to be Al Seely’s son.”


  1. Oh, thankyou. Maybe one day, I can get to that place with my mum.

  2. THAT WAS FANTASTIC! Wow! I am so happy that you got to appreciate the man that your father really was!What a gift!
    I really like the 12 steps and the 12 traditions - I think that they are an excellent framework for how we should all live our lives. I think that I mentioned to you before that I want to do a blog on the 12 steps and cancer groups. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  3. I'm glad that you and your dad managed to make peace with each other before he died and that he also became a man of whom you could be proud. I hope that my children are able to achieve that with their father some day. Thank you for your story.

  4. My dear friend,
    That is a touching and beautiful tribute to your father. I'm so glad that you two had a chance to make peace before he died and what an hor it must have been to be able to speak a word or two albeit in a tear choked voice. That's amazing that all of those people showed up to his funeral and spoke of the help that he had so gladly and freely given.
    I never got the chance to make peace with my mother, as she died in 1977. It took me many years, and my own struggle with the bottle, to understand her sorrowful life and make peace with her in my heart. I rejoice in the fact that I know that I will see her and my dear father again one day and the fact that she is finally happy and not tormented.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful part of your life and your father's life with us.
    God bless you and.......

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  5. Aw, that was great and touching, especially your last paragraph! I am seriously touched! :')

  6. Very sad and moving. Many of us do not see the opportunity or our lives are so mundane we neglect the opportunity when it is there. My husband was touched by alcoholism in his family and that does haunt him to this day.

  7. wow- what a beautifully written story. How wonderful that the two of you did make amends before it was too late. You gave me goosebumps when you said both letters were written almost at the same exact time- perhaps a sixth sense connection. And yes, most definitely God working magic. Great story!

  8. I am living my amends to my mum. The past just doesn't seem to matter anymore.

    Funny how life happens isn't it BB...this is and has been a wonderful story.

    Hasn't given me a headache at all :)

  9. And all your comments touch me as well. One of the wonderful things about our blogging community...and we are just a small part of the millions of people doing that it provides an alternative to the 6:00 news. Despite wars and economic meltdown, it is good to know that we are living on this planet together. I love you all.

    (And so does Bagman, although probably in a different way. LOL.)

  10. I left you a pressie over at my place :)

  11. Well, now you have me crying instead of laughing. But it is a good cry.

    Glad it all had a happy ending.

    Both photos are great!

  12. yes.
    my dear michelle told me you were a good egg and so here i am , sharing the love......will wait till i have time to just SIT to go back through your posts.......blessings to you though on seeking and accepting peace xx

  13. I'm glad that you ended up with a happy ending because if not, I was supposedly bound to tell you that you're lucky to have met your father in flesh.. I never met mine, he died before I was born and actually, he was not trully mine (long story).

    Anyway, this is such an emotional-laden post and I admire you. You jotted down the exact feeling of hatred, longing and lost.. and definitely the love that conquers all the negativity of it all..

    nice to have met you via Patty's site.. i hope to see your house shoot-out later.. see ya!

  14. Thanks for sharing your story of your father with us. You are fortunate that you were able to spend some time with him.
    Happy Days

  15. Oh my, I went and read the ending without reading the story. No matter, I will catch up. I am glad there is a peaceful ending, dare I say almost happy?

    I found your blog through Patty's Crisfield blog, and am so glad I did.

    Ok, I am off to take photos for today's shoot out. :)


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