The King and I

Elvis Presley, the noted King of Rock and Roll, was like a member of our family. Mom worshipped him and owned several of his albums and 45s that I wore out singing and dancing to when I was little. And we never missed his movies on TV. Both of us planted ourselves firmly in front of the set, Mom on the couch, twirling a single lock of her long blond hair, and I on the floor on my belly, not budging an inch lest we miss a glimpse of our sultry heartthrob. I melted as he crooned to one of his dewy-eyed ladyloves, envying the dazzling beauty while wondering what it was he saw in her. To me, they didn’t hold a candle to his gorgeous wife, Priscilla. I believed she was the luckiest woman on the planet, and I often daydreamed about her idyllic, fairy-tale life with the King. The birth of their little princess, Lisa Marie, completed the fairy tale.

The similarities between Dad and Elvis were eerie. With birth dates only one day apart—Dad’s on January 7 and Elvis’s on January 8—they were both Southern born and bred—Dad in Kentucky and Elvis in Mississippi. Both of them had jet-black, slicked-back hair, had a thin, wiry build in their youth, and stood close to the same height. Dad and Elvis adored and were adored by their mothers, doted on their daughters, and were divorced from the love of their lives within months of each other—Dad from Mom in June 1973 and Elvis from Priscilla in October 1973.

The similarities didn’t stop there. Gossip rags had it that Elvis suffered from severe depression after his divorce from Priscilla, as did Dad after his divorce from Mom.

“I can understand Elvis’s not wanting to go on anymore after losing his wife and daughter,” Dad said to me as we were driving in his car sometime in early 1974. He looked at me, his black eyes wide with panic. “I wouldn’t want to go on if I lost you!”

His desperation was palpable in the tiny, enclosed space. I stared back at him, wide-eyed, as my heart jackhammered in my chest. “Dad! Don’t say that!”

“I’m serious! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you! I couldn’t handle that!”

“Dad, stop it! I’m only thirteen years old!”

“Well, I can’t help it! I couldn’t handle it!”

“This is way too much pressure for me, Dad! You’re making me responsible for whether you live or die!” Now I was panicked. I felt the walls closing in, sucking all the oxygen out of the car. I grabbed the car door and breathed deeply, trying to get my bearings.

“Well, that’s how I feel! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you!”

In that moment, I realized in the most visceral sense that not only had I lost my mom a few short months earlier in the divorce, I had also lost the dad I had prior to it—stable, calm, and strong, the one I depended on for safety, security, and love. Now he was depending on me, his child, to be stable, calm, and strong for him, the one he depended on for safety, security, and love. At thirteen years old, I was now the parent to the only parent I had left. This was all too much to take in–all too much to bear.

Trying to make Dad’s life easier was one thing, but feeling responsible for whether he lived or died was another. Now I not only needed to fend for myself physically and emotionally, as Dad had escaped into working twelve- to thirteen-hour days, I also had to keep Dad afloat emotionally. I had to be okay so he would be okay. As I saw it, both of our lives depended on that. Such a heavy burden on my young shoulders.

Turns out, Priscilla’s life with the King wasn’t such an idyllic fairy tale after all. And four years after their divorce, their beloved Lisa Marie, only nine years old, lost her dad to a tragic heart attack after years of addiction to prescription drugs.

I recall in vivid detail where I was on August 16, 1977, when I heard the news. My friend Debi was at the helm of her dad’s pickup truck and I was riding shotgun. The afternoon sun was blazing through the windshield, cooking the cab, as we headed across the railroad tracks on Main Street of our small hometown in northern Illinois, the radio blaring. Suddenly, the music stopped mid-song, and a stunned male voice announced, “Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, died today at the age of 42.” Debi’s jaw dropped, and I shouted, “Noooo!” as I turned the volume higher, hanging onto every detail yet unable to process what I was hearing. There had to be some mistake.

But there wasn’t. Elvis Presley was dead. Time stood still as Debi and I inched down Main Street, mute from shock.

I shivered despite the August swelter. Lisa Marie had lost her doting, adoring dad, who reminded me so much of my own. My worst fear, losing Dad, was staring me square in the face in broad daylight as if in a spotlight. If Lisa Marie could lose her larger-than-life dad, I could lose mine too.

Not only was Dad clinging to me for dear life, I was clinging to him too. Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline.

That’s the nature of addiction. And ours was codependency.

“Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline. That’s the nature of addiction.”

A Lesson in Self-Defense: Lights! Camera! Action!

About one year after Mom and Dad’s divorce, during one of Stevie’s weekends with Dad and me, Dad set up his tripod, movie camera, and floodlights in the middle of the living room. Dad was a photography nut, and Stevie and I had grown up with a camera shoved in our faces, but this was the first time any of Dad’s cameras had seen daylight since the divorce.

“We’re going to make a movie about two kids being home alone at night and an intruder tries to break in,” Dad announced.

Whoa . . . this was way too close to the bone for me since I stayed home alone every night Dad was at work. But I recognized that creative glint in Dad’s eye and knew better than to argue. It was either play along or be cajoled senseless. Plus it was good having Dad somewhat back to himself again. He’d been but a shell of himself since Mom left with Stevie.

Dad slid open the utility closet door in the living room around the corner from the kitchen. “The scene will start with you two watching TV from the couch. Then you’re going to hear someone trying to break in the back door.” He paused for dramatic effect; his black eyes were round with suspense. “You then run in here to hide.” He pointed to the closet. “Close the door, leaving only a crack to peek through. Now—I’m the intruder, of course—I’m going to walk into the living room from the kitchen looking around for you kids, but I won’t notice the closet. When I get to this spot on the floor . . .” he walked to the center of the living room, “I want you, honey bun,” he pointed at me, “to run out and beat me over the head with a broom.”

“I can’t beat you over the head! Won’t that hurt?”

Dad waved dismissively. “Not the bristles.”

He walked over to the movie camera and peered into it again, making sure it was positioned and focused properly. Satisfied, he switched on the two floodlights. Instantly blinded, Stevie and I squinted until our eyes adjusted.

“Okay, honey bun. When I tap three times on the back door, turn the camera on.”

Having been Dad’s filming assistant over the years, I was familiar with the various buttons on his cameras as well as his stage cues. Dad raised his thick black eyebrows and fixed Stevie with a serious look.

“Now you listen to Diane, Son. Once she turns the camera on, we’re rolling, so you remember your part.”

Stevie giggled, nodding like a bobblehead.

Dad walked out the back door, shutting it tight behind him. Total silence filled the house. Then tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

I switched the camera on and checked to make sure the red light on the top was lit, indicating that the camera was rolling. I made eye contact with Stevie, held my finger to my lips, and we took our places on the couch.

We pretended to be engrossed in the TV show. Within a couple of minutes, we heard strange sounds coming from the back door.

“What was that?” Stevie’s green eyes were wide in mock fear but his lips twitched from stifled laughter.

“I don’t know!”

We both feigned seriousness as we strained to listen.

“It sounds like someone is trying to get in the back door!” I said. My heart stopped as a terrifying thought popped into my head. What if Stevie realizes that this could really happen? My maternal instinct to protect my four-year-old brother kicked in, but I pushed it aside and stayed in character. “We’ll hide in here.” I ushered Stevie into the closet, squeezed in next to him, and shut the door.

The searing floodlights baking the living room made the cramped, two-by-two foot compartment in the closet feel like a rotisserie. A nervous giggle escaped from Stevie as we anxiously waited for the “intruder” to appear. I held my finger to my lips again while holding the broom in my other hand. Stevie clamped his hand tight over his mouth, shoulders heaving with laughter.

I peeked out the door. Nothing.

Time stopped as we continued to wait. Dead silence and stillness enveloped the house; my heart hammered in my ears as I strained to hear any movement. Stevie wiggled impatiently in the cramped space but straightened up when I shot him a stern look.

I peered out again. A black-haired man in a long black trench coat with the collar pulled up around his face skulked past the closet, his head swiveling slowly from side to side, scanning the living room.

When the intruder reached the spot in the middle of the living room, something inside me snapped. I exploded out of the closet, brandishing the broom with every ounce of strength I had, Stevie hot on my heels whooping war calls.

Thwopp!! I slammed the broom down hard on top of the intruder’s head. He staggered, trying to catch his balance, as he tried fleeing from me.

“GET HIM, DIANE! GET HIM!” Stevie hollered.

I swung the broom again—thwack!—planting another wallop alongside the intruder’s head.

“OW!” he yelped, ducking his head into his shoulders as he fled toward the front door, his arms flailing to ward off the blows.

“HARDER, DIANE! HARDER!” Stevie yelled.

Adrenaline surging, I swung again. Thud!

“OW!! DIANE, STOP! STOP!!”

Hearing Dad’s voice saying my name snapped me back to my senses. I stopped in mid-swing, the broom poised over my head.

Dad ran to the camera and switched it off. Stevie and I looked at him, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What’s wrong?? You damned near killed me, that’s what’s wrong!”

“You told me to beat you over the head with the broom!”

“With the bristles, not the handle! Didn’t you hear me yell?”

“Yeah, but I thought that was part of the act. And I did not hit you with the handle!”

“Give me that.” Dad grabbed the broom out of my hands. “Here are the bristles.” He strummed his fingers through the straw. “You were hitting me with this!” He knocked on the wood where the bristles connected to the handle.

In my adrenaline rush, fanned by Stevie’s cheers, I’d forgotten that we were pretending. I was so in character and caught up in the scene—and the fact that this could really happen—all that mattered was protecting Stevie and myself. “Oh . . . sorry, Dad. I’ll remember next time.”

“There’s not going to be a next time.” Dad rubbed his head and turned to me, his black eyes wide. “I’ve got a goose egg on the top of my head! You damned near knocked me out! No more. That’s it.” He switched off the floodlights and started dismantling the camera from the tripod. “I don’t think we have to worry about you not being able to defend yourself!”

Nope, that was pretty clear. And poor Dad had the lumps to prove it.

But I still turned on the yard lights and triple-checked the locks every night, just in case.

The Sound of Silence

For a while, I felt secure and comforted nestled within the familiar four walls of our house, now quiet as a mausoleum. The shambles of my former life lay strewn around me, but at least now there was no more name-calling, backbiting, or seething, rage-laden tension.

But there was one thing I hadn’t anticipated: the silence made me aware of every creak and pop in my surroundings. Not a good thing with my Technicolor imagination.

As soon as dusk fell each night, I flipped on the outside lights that illuminated three sides of our house to discourage any would-be lurkers in our bushes. I made sure the doors were locked at least a hundred times every hour, and although I rarely used the gas stove, I checked and rechecked that the burners were off lest the house blow up. Only when Dad finally walked through the back door did I breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through one more night alone. If my instincts were accurate, Dad did too.

The silence also magnified the yammering inner fear that haunted me every waking second:  Dad leaving me too. I tried to drown it out with blasting the TV or stereo until the windows rattled and my obsessive focus on the door locks and stove burners and, in the winter, the thermostat. On top of that, I became the model daughter–agreeable, obedient, and sympathetic to Dad’s pain and problems (not a stretch since I had been Daddy’s girl from my first breath)–so as to not give him a reason to leave. Yet for all my efforts, my fear and anxiety deepened rather than waned.

Many nights I tossed and turned, terrorized by the thought of Dad leaving me and wondering, Who will take care of me if I can’t take care of myself? I racked my brain, but kept coming up empty. I certainly couldn’t get a job yet, as I was only twelve years old. I reasoned that even if Grandma and I managed to call a truce–as likely as hell freezing over–she was raising two daughters of her own and certainly didn’t need one more. Despite our animosity, I didn’t want to be a burden to Grandma. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.

And Mom wasn’t an option. I had never felt loved by Mom, and as a young child I often wondered why she hated me. Her leaving without a word to me convinced me that my perception was right. Dad had told me that he thought Mom left without saying goodbye to me because she couldn’t face me. My shattered heart told me that I didn’t matter to her and was easy to leave behind.

What will I do if Dad leaves too? Fear and panic were my constant companions.

I wasn’t yet aware that I was never alone, and that no matter what happened, I would always be loved and taken care of.