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.”

Confessions of a Recovering Runner

I ran every day of my life since July 1973, just two months short of my twelfth birthday. And I didn’t stop running until September 2016, when I was 55. For 43 years I ran–and I was good at it. So good that had I not stopped running when I did, it would have destroyed me.

I’m not referring to marathon running or even daily jogging. My body is simply not wired for that, which I discovered after graduating from high school. The thud-thud-thud of each jarring footfall on the pavement rattled rather than soothed my already jangled psyche, and I suffered from horrendous shin splints no matter how much I stretched or paced myself or what kind of shoes I wore. But my running was just as debilitating, even more so, except the effects weren’t obvious for four decades, which made it potentially more lethal.

You see, I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.

On a steamy summer night in July 1973, at 2:00 a.m., my mom, recently divorced from my dad, showed up to get my two-year-old brother, Stevie, of whom she was granted custody. Peeking around the corner, I saw her pick up the sleeping bundle from his crib. Clutching his beloved “ToTo,” a drooled-on, puked-on, gnawed-on, now fur-less stuffed Tony the Tiger, Stevie’s heavy head bobbed on Mom’s shoulder as she strode past Dad, who stood frozen and mute, to the front door. From my bedroom, I heard my little brother’s sleepy voice.

“Bye, Daddy.”

“Bye, Son,” Dad said, his voice cracking.

I crept down the hall and peered around the corner as the storm door swung shut. Dad, still as stone, watched Mom and Stevie drive away until the red taillights disappeared around the corner. Closing the front door, he turned the latch and locked it. I tiptoed back to my bedroom, slipped into bed, and pulled the covers up to my nose.

The hall light, which had served as Stevie’s night-light, switched off, and Dad’s shadowy figure drifted past my door into his bedroom. Seconds later, I heard his bed squeak as he crawled into it.

The silent stillness echoed like a death knell. Unable to breathe or swallow, my heart hammering in my chest and ears, I stared into the darkness, clutching my pillow, as I listened to Dad cry himself to sleep. To this day, 47 years later, Elvis Presley’s song “Don’t Cry Daddy” takes me back to that night. Only within the past few years can I get through that song without sobbing. But my eyes still fill with tears and lodge like a grapefruit in the back of my throat.

In shock over what I had witnessed and overwhelmed by my own pain and Dad’s that was palpable through the walls and the thick darkness, I vowed that I would not burden Dad with my pain and problems. With Mom now gone, I would take care of him, and Stevie, too, when he came to visit on the weekends. It never occurred to me to wonder who would take care of me.

My running had begun.

“I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.”