A father's alcoholic descent

Mark Whitaker and his parents, Jeanne and Syl, before the couple separated and alcoholism destroyed Syl's health and career.

Story highlights

  • In new book, CNN managing editor tells story of his family
  • Following parents' separation, Mark Whitaker and his brother visited their father
  • Father was too ill to pick the boys up from the train station due to alcoholism
  • Visit was cut short when Whitaker's dad had to check into a hospital for treatment

With spring break nearing, my mother contacted my father and arranged for Paul and me to visit him again in Princeton. He suggested that we arrive on a Sunday, and since she had a class to teach the next day, she told us that she would drive us as far as New York and put us on a train the rest of the way. When we got to Penn Station, she bought us two tickets, and half an hour later Paul and I got off at Princeton Junction and started looking around the little station for my father.

He was nowhere to seen.

A middle-aged white couple walked over to us.

"Do you remember me?" the man asked. "I'm Hube Wilson, an old friend of your dad's."

CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker
CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker


    CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker


CNN Red Chair Interview: Mark Whitaker 03:03

"Yes," I said. "We met you in California a long time ago."

"I remember it well," he said. "But I had a different wife then."

Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'
Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'


    Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home'


Mark Whitaker's 'My Long Trip Home' 06:14

"I'm his new wife," the woman said, putting out her hand. "I knew you too when you both were little boys. My name is Gina."

I didn't remember her.

"Where's Dad?" I asked.

"He's under the weather," Hube said. "He asked us to pick you up. He'll be at home when you get there."

The Wilsons grabbed our duffel bags and took us to their car. It was an ordinary sedan, not the VW bus I remembered from Venice. They did their best to make small talk, remarking on how much we had grown and asking how we liked school. But it was awkward, and Hube no longer matched the matinee idol image I had of him in my mind. His hair had gone white and his face was etched with deep wrinkles.

When we arrived at the apartment, I noticed that the blinds were drawn. Hube rang the bell and we waited for over a minute before my father opened the door. He said hello and gave my brother and me a hug, but his embrace felt weak and he looked tired. It took several minutes before he said anything about my appearance.

"It looks like you've lost some weight, Mark," he said wanly. Is that it? I thought, dejectedly. Is that all you're going to say? I lost eighty pounds and you barely even noticed?

He had prepared sandwiches and iced tea for lunch. The Wilsons stayed and chatted while Paul and I ate. My father smoked and drank coffee and didn't touch anything on his plate. When the Wilsons left, he told us that there wasn't much to do in Princeton on Sundays but that he had plans to take us sightseeing and to a movie the next day. He suggested that we might want to take a nap. I wasn't tired, so I browsed through the bookshelves in the living room to find something to read. I picked out "The Godfather," by Mario Puzo, and quickly became engrossed by the opening scenes of the big wedding and the horse's head in the movie producer's bed.

For dinner, he reheated spaghetti he emptied from a plastic container in the refrigerator and made garlic bread in a toaster oven. "I remember how much you like garlic bread," he said. Paul and I got into our pajamas and climbed into the sofa bed that he had prepared in his upstairs study. He kissed us goodnight and went down the stairs.

I still wasn't sleepy, and as I lay awake thinking, I heard the front door open and close. Where's Dad going? I wondered. Is it okay for Paul and me to be here by ourselves? Then about twenty minutes later, I heard the door open again and the sound of my father's footsteps. Relieved that he was home, I drifted off.

Paul was sound asleep when I awoke the next morning. I listened for other noises but didn't hear any. I felt hungry, so I rose quietly and tiptoed downstairs to see if I could find something to eat.

The kitchen in his condo was small and modern, with a little eating counter and bar stool. I didn't know exactly what sizes liquor came in, but I could tell that the Beefeater bottle on the counter was the big kind. There was still some liquid left in it, but not much, only a tiny bit at the bottom. Next to it was a pumpkin pie. It was the storebought variety in a tin shell, not like the pies my mother made from scratch for Thanksgiving. The center had been scooped out, as if by a scavenging animal. There were no slices, just an ugly hole in the middle.

I stood there for a long time, trying to figure out the meaning of what I saw in front of me. It reminded me of the still-life paintings in my mother's big books about French art, only with a gruesome twist. Had Dad done this? I wondered. Did he drink that whole bottle of gin? Was that why he went out at night, to go to a liquor store? And why would he eat the pie that way? Was he so drunk he couldn't even hold a knife and fork?

I heard Paul getting up. I didn't want him to see the sad tableau, so I hid the bottle and the pie in the back of the refrigerator. I made us toast for breakfast, and we sat around waiting for my father to wake up. Sometime after noon, I smelled cigarette smoke upstairs. Then there was the sound of a phone being dialed and my father talking in a low voice. At last he came downstairs, covered only by a terrycloth bathrobe.

"I'm sorry, boys," he said. "I have to leave. I've called your grandmother in Pittsburgh and she's going to come to take care of you."

"Where are you going?" I asked anxiously.

"Back to the hospital," he said. "I wanted to get well to spend time with you boys, but I'm sick again and have to go back."

He went back upstairs, and Paul and I sat there in the living room until sundown, dazed and disappointed, not knowing what to think about what was happening. The next day Grandmother Edith arrived, and a taxi came to take my father away. He must have been too proud to call my mother, because she only learned what had happened when Grandmother phoned her to make plans to meet at Aunt Cleo's.

On the train ride to New York, Grandmother Edith tried to keep our spirits up, but I could see how distraught she was.

"Do you know we're going to France next year?" I asked, hoping to say something that would make us both feel better.

"Yes, Jeanne told me," she said. "I think it will be a wonderful experience for you boys."

"And what about Dad?" I asked. "Do you think he'll be okay while we're gone?"

There was a long pause before she answered.

"I don't know, child," Grandmother said, "but I want you to pray for him."