Daddy on drugs

On the eve of becoming a new dad, Christopher Shulgan returned to an old habit: crack cocaine. In his shocking new memoir, Superdad, the award-winning journalist reveals his struggle to give up a misguided notion of manhood and give in to the pull of parenthood. Here is an excerpt

Warning: Language may be offensive to some readers.

No one has ever provided me with a gift like the one my wife, Natalie, gave me when she returned to her nursing job after her maternity leave. When my one-year-old boy woke in the night, apoplectic to an extent I hadn’t seen since the colic days, it was me who rocked him in bed, and then, when that didn’t work, paced from the back of the house to the front and finally calmed him down with a warmed-up bottle of milk. It was me he nudged in the morning with the request to go downstairs, and me who convinced him to sleep another half-hour, at least until six. I learned what he liked for breakfast; I learned what he didn’t like for lunch.

I don’t think he thought of me as his dad — or perhaps “Dad” was a concept that meant something different to him than it does to you and me. Rather than disciplinarian or parent, rather than influencer or consigliere, I was instead a friend, a companion, an accomplice and a partner-in-crime. Our relationship was more Bert and Ernie than parent and child. Usually I was the straight man, Myron, the cut-up — the same dynamic that existed between my dad and me.

On weekends, as Natalie slept off her night shifts, Myron and I went for walks. Inclement weather forced us into the stores of downtown Toronto — to the Eaton Centre to check out the fountain. To Mountain Equipment Co-op, where you could play in the tent display if you removed your shoes. To the Indigo bookstore at Bay and Bloor, where you could spend hours on the Thomas the Tank Engine display tucked away on the lowest level. The local coffee shop learned to start the hot chocolate when they spied us coming their way — light on the cocoa, easy on the milk steaming. I developed a list of adequate diaper-changing stations downtown and kept them in mind when I caught that distinctive smell. He got a kick out of streetcars. Sometimes, we went for subway rides, just for fun. One day, I set Myron next to me on the Yonge line, in his own seat, and he turned around and got up on his knees and raised himself into a standing position to get a good look at the two goth teens behind us — and he giggled.

My boy, getting a kick out of the subway freaks.

And I thought, Shit, I’m actually — we’re actually — doing this, it’s working, actually. Maybe you’ll pull this off.

Myron slept in our bed. We had discussed moving him to his crib. These discussions ceased once Natalie returned to work. I read Myron stories until he fell asleep next to me, and then I left him there. I liked the idea of him next to me. He was warm. He was good company. And I sensed he liked having me in there with him. We slept well together. Sometimes, he woke up and he cried, and all it took was my extended arm to remind him of my presence. Sometimes, I woke up and, again, all it took was an extended arm to remind me of his presence, and I returned to sleep. My kid was OK.

The first few moments after he slept, the fragility of his lips, the smooth of his cheeks…. He still slept the way he’d come out, with a fist held tight against a cheek, as though he was prepared in slumber to defend himself against whatever the world threw at him. That anyone would allow themselves to be so unprotected in my presence…it humbled me. It was here that I realized to what extent he assumed his father capable of the act of protection. His calm was absolute. Such rest could only be possible in the presence of someone in whom he had absolute confidence. That someone was me. He had absolute faith in me.

This was the guilt’s apex. Realizing a tiny perfect creature has absolute faith in your capacity to protect him is a wonderful thing — unless you’re battling a drug problem at the same time, as I was. Why couldn’t it be a quirk in evolution, that the instinct for self-destruction via alcohol, possibly, via cocaine, certainly, via crack, obviously — why couldn’t that instinct be quelled while a father has charge of an infant? But no. In this era, I partied with the same vigour I parented. The resulting guilt was pure and perfect and so poignant it corrupted the pleasure I derived from my boy. The guilt was unsustainable. Be a parent or continue the party? The guilt said I couldn’t have both.

Later that year, I went in for a physical and discovered my blood pressure was so high my doctor wanted to put me on medication. And something called my ketones — they were up. “How much do you drink?” he asked.

I pressed my palms into the examination table’s paper cover. “Not much,” I said. “Maybe a case of beer a week? More, if I go out and, like, actually party.”

“Party,” he frowned. “What’s that entail?”

“A little cocaine,” I shrugged. “Sometimes a lot of cocaine. Crack.”

His eyes flicked again over my blood test results. I felt I could be honest with my GP. His office was downtown, just south of Toronto’s gay enclave. Plenty of his patients used plenty more recreational drugs than I did. So I was a little taken aback with his reaction.

“You’ve got to stop,” he said flatly. “These levels are unusual for someone your age. They could lead to some serious trouble.”

And then this: Sunday morning and we were late for a brunch date. Mittens and hats and…where the heck is Myron’s balaclava?…getting on his boots and my boots and his snowsuit and my coat and…where are my gloves, where the heck are my gloves?…there they were, stuffed into my coat pockets and we were almost all set when Natalie did her little mental checklist of what we had — diaper bag, Myron is covered, snack, drink, and then we realized, we forgot the pacifier.

If there was one thing we couldn’t leave the house without, it was that. Eyes unfocused while we considered possibilities. I checked my pockets, Natalie checked hers, we checked the little wicker thing where we kept the hats and mitts.

Myron and I sprinted up the stairs (well, he was in my arms), and I sprinted down the hall to our bedroom at the other end of the house, and there it was, the little clear pacifier — and by the way, whoever invented a clear pacifier, don’t you want to make the thing easier to find? Rather than completely invisible?

“It’s 8:40!” Natalie shouted up the stairs, and I ran down the hallway with Myron giggling in my arms — by this point the boy was an expert Daddy-rider, which is probably a talent that requires skill like horseback riding; he moved in sync with me — I rounded the banister and stepped down the first stair and caught a toe.

Momentum, cursed momentum, carried me forward. I arched my back, I threw my weight rearward, away from open space and the 12-foot vertical fall before me. My arms spread. No: I spread my arms. One hand hit the wall on the right; the left cranked into the stair railing. My hands now were at waist level.

Myron fell. He was about the level of my waist when I grasped what I’d done. I caught his neck. I pressed his head to my thigh. Fucking momentum. His head slid away. He fell backward. He was horizontal and his face wore astonishment. He landed at the stairway’s midpoint, head lower than feet and flat on his back. He bounced. He bounced into a backward somersault.

My little boy crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.

Natalie got to him first. She scooped him up. She just held him to her for the first moments. I stood awkwardly over them. He was in her arms, face red, mouth open, totally silent. She carried him to the couch and it wasn’t until all of us were on the cushions that the first wail arrived. By that time, it was a relief. I had been wondering whether somehow the fall had removed his power of speech. Blood trickled from his mouth. Scarlet skin joined left eyebrow to hairline. I ran my finger over it. It formed a ridge. And a lump appeared, volcano-like, at the back of his head.

The weekend’s rental car sat in the lot across the street. I sprinted for it. Natalie held him in the back seat as we drove. The city slept under the recent snowfall. Myron was quiet when we pulled into The Hospital for Sick Children’s emergency driveway.

All I could think was fractured skull.

They called his name within minutes.

“How’d he fall down the stairs?” asked the admitting nurse.

“I dropped him.”

She looked at me. Her focus took in my red eyes and my tear-swollen face. Her tone came softer — “It happens.”

Myron was quiet by this time. He peeked out from Natalie’s arms long enough to accept a nurse’s offer of stickers. A scab marked his upper lip. A fat lip bloomed out from under the soother. Both Natalie and I kept a hand on him, as though our touch was keeping him healthy. The nurse did her stuff. Stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, temperature. The doctor’s examination: the pupils, the abdominal palpations — everything seemed OK. Perhaps he had a minor concussion, the doctor said. Perhaps, not even that. Kids are pretty resilient.

Round trip, the hospital visit took 90 minutes and through it all, something new hunkered in my chest cavity. It stayed there even after we walked through the front door. In lieu of our long-cancelled brunch, we toasted bagels. Until now, Natalie had done all the morning’s consoling. I’d wanted to hold my boy, but hadn’t felt I deserved the solace. And what if he rejected my entreaties? I didn’t know whether I could handle that. So Natalie had given the hugs, she’d held him while the doctor did the examination. She transported him from car seat to house. Now Natalie took Myron upstairs for a nap. I followed behind. On the bed, we formed parentheses around him. Then, without prompting, he climbed on top of me. He set his head down on my chest, so we were belly to belly. The sound of his breathing. Only as he drifted off did I realize he forgave me.

This would have been easy to explain had I been hungover when it happened. Had I been out late smoking crack the previous night. Drinking, at least. Were there some connection between my caught toe and the rest of it. There was not. The previous evening, Natalie and I had watched a movie. We turned in by 11. Still, as days passed, as my boy showed no lingering effects of his fall, this incident became associated in my mind with all the other betrayals represented by the drinking and the drugs. It was yet another sign of the way I was failing my son.

It’s simple what happened: I dropped my son. Faced with the choice of saving myself or my boy — because when I caught my toe on the top stair, I could have saved my boy. I could have rolled forward — and twisted — so my boy was above me as we both fell, so I landed below him, first, cushioning his impact. Instead, when I caught my toe on that first step, I let go of him and arrested my own fall. Until something tests you, it’s easy to move with the swagger and voice of a hero. Except hero isn’t something that just comes. It’s something you have to work at. To be heroic when you’re needed, you have to be a hero when you aren’t.

Excerpted from Superdad. Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Shulgan. Published by Key Porter Books. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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