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 playing 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, 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 wild 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 twelve 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 twelve 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 his life 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 death.
In one way or another, addiction ultimately makes orphans of us all.