by Steve Clem on August 28, 2013

gmanandmeLet me pinpoint for you my darkest moment as a dad.

Writing about this moment may not be the most prudent thing I’ve done. But I’m not writing it for anyone but myself.

Tonight — over six years after the night that woke me up, figuratively and literally — it’s much easier for me to think about. And write about.

It was a few weeks after I had broken up with my first girlfriend since getting divorced. We were “on again/off again” for a year. I was feeling sorry for myself and decided to start drinking beer and skip dinner after feeding the boys.

I kept drinking. And started arguing on a Hawkeye message board. If you don’t know what a Hawkeye message board is, don’t even bother googling it. Unless you like arguing. With total strangers.

I tucked the boys into bed, and proceeded to drink even more. And argue more. About things I don’t even recall now, but at the time I’d have sworn on a case of Summit India Pale Ale that it was THE. MOST. IMPORTANT. FIGHT. EVER.

The fighting went on late into the evening. I may as well have been sporking myself in the face. It was idiotic. I was idiotic. For real.

Sometime around 3 a.m., I finally turned off my laptop and laid down on the couch. I was passing out, a drunken fool who lost a fight on the interwebz.

Right about that time, or shortly thereafter, my youngest son, GMan, was upstairs with a miniature war going on in his right ear. His older brother had much worse problems with his ears and was able to pronounce multiple antibiotic names before most kids could recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But this particular night, it was GMan’s turn. He had enough of the burning in his ear, and decided to come downstairs and see if I could help him at all.

But he couldn’t wake me up.

He probably thought his dad was dead.

So the scared little six-year-old boy ran upstairs, climbed to the top bunk, and woke up his big brother. N came downstairs and tried to see if I could help his little brother at all.

But he couldn’t wake me up.

He probably thought his dad was dead.

So he did what he should have done and called his mom.

This is where things got ugly. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice it to say the Police Department in Plymouth, Minnesota, doesn’t have much going on at 4 a.m., so theye weren’t afraid to push things as far as possible on this call to make something worse than it already was.

I was told that the FeBreeze air freshener spray I had on my kitchen counter could have been ingested by my sons. Except my sons knew better than to ingest FeBreeze.
They also questioned my child-proof lighter on the kitchen counter. “They could have burned your house down.” Except they know they’d die before the fire killed them if they touched my lighter, let alone figured out how to USE IT, because it’s CHILD-PROOF!

I was asked if I had to work that morning (in a mere four hours). I told them indeed I did. They told me they’d be waiting for me at the end of the block to give me a DUI charge. I called in sick to work and went nowhere all day.

My two-month-old kitten was kicked across the room by one of the officers because she had the audacity to sniff his shoe.

The boys were sitting in a squad car with lights on in front of the house when most of this happened. I wished they had just taken them away rather than have them see me, through the storm door, being interrogated and berated.

But in the end, I had done nothing illegal. The boys went home with their mother. And Child Protective Services was notified. I made it through that process, in the end, but it was the scariest thing ever, realizing that my role as a dad was now in the hands of total strangers.

But regardless, the damage was done. GMan didn’t want to come stay at my house. He reluctantly agreed to start coming over to my house on the nights he’d usually sleep over, but only if I drove him back to his mom’s house each night. And only if I could promise him I wasn’t drinking or going to be unwakeable.

So how did I get here? To tonight, when he chose to be with me when the law doesn’t require it. When my boy has decided to spend 11 of 13 nights with me for a vacation to the Black Hills that he declared he didn’t want to go on just 14 days ago?

There was no magic wand. There was no pill to fix me. It took a huge amount of work. I had to spend every day rebuilding his trust in me. I quit drinking for three months. I continued not drinking when he was around for another nine months. Was this difficult? Not so much in an “I have the shakes and can’t survive” way, but more in the “Wow, do I love the taste of a beer with my dinner” way. I did just fine.

Because my priority was clear. Him. And his brother. I’d be lying to myself and to you if I said I’ve never put another person in front of either of them since then. But it’s become fewer and further between.

But it wasn’t about beer. It was about bad priorities. It was about not realizing that you don’t get these days as a parent back. And they can be taken away. Thank God that didn’t happen to me.

Most nights — not all, because I’m humanly selfish — my last thought has been them. And their well-being. And making sure they know no matter what, I’m there for them.

It’s why I’m still living in Minnesota.

It’s why I’m still living.


Steve Clem is a divorced dad, a recovering Republican, and a Prisoner in the Tundra. He is in The Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the largest Hokey Pokey of all time. He was the founding editor of the Iowa City weekly The ICON and is a contributing editor of The Spleen.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

gina August 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I remember it all and I still get goosebumps reading this. We’ve come a long way, baby.


Rhonda Atwood August 31, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Steve, I have been thinking about your story with Gman all week. I so appreciate your honesty! I have a similar story with Scott. One night when Scott was still in high school, we had a family get together at our house. When Scott wanted to leave I was so upset. I thought he had been rude all night. I did not take in to consideration that he was a teenager and the last place he wanted to be was at home with family. I had some drinks, alright I had a lot of drinks. When he got home that night, I was there laying in wait to give him what for. Some of the language and things said were so horrible! The next morning I was so remorseful. It took a long time for Scott to forget and forgive. As parents we need to know that actions and words can be so hard and hurtful for children to forget, know matter how old they are. I am so glad that both of are children were able to forgive.

Rhonda Atwood


Steve Clem September 2, 2013 at 10:30 am

Yes, yes we have. Thank you for being there for me, G. 😀


Kelly September 5, 2013 at 3:07 am

My earliest, clear, memory from my childhood is being with my father when he was very, very drunk. We lived in a very small town. My mom was shopping the next town over with her sisters and he decided to drive me to get dinner and to pick up more liquor. He scared me so much at the restaurant that I was hysterically crying and I remember with so much detail how he asked me to hold his freshly-procured liquor bottled and how I held it against the door because I was so scared.
The next day, after my mom heard all about it from nearly everyone in town, my dad, of his own volition, sought help and has maintained sobriety since then. That was 1980 and I was 6. He raised a glass of champagne for my wedding in 2003, but apart from then, he hasn’t had a drop to drink.
I some ways, it is upsetting that that is my earliest memory. But I’m incredibly proud of my father for his sobriety. Your sons will remember this, but in the long run, they’ll learn from it and I would bet that they’ll also be proud of you.
Thank you for sharing, sorry to hijack, but it just hit home for me.


Steve Clem September 19, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Rhonda and Kelly,
Thank you both for sharing your stories. I’m so glad that my story could help you think about some things that occurred in your own lives. This wasn’t an easy blog post for me to write, but I sure felt great when I was done writing it.


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