This is my dad, Ricky Smith. He's been living on the streets of Arcata for over a decade. On Feb. 2, he was murdered just feet away from the same corner he stood on every day and played his guitar and sang for passersby. He gave smiles and kindness. He often held a sign that said, "Hungry for Peace." Over the course of the last couple days, I've had a crazy amount of locals reaching out to tell me how sorry they are for my loss, how Ricky was such a light in this world, how he always had something nice to say, a genuine smile and even how all the cops loved him because he was "one of the good ones." We have a huge homelessness and mental health crisis in Humboldt County, and not all of them are pleasant.
My dad had a huge heart — he was a brilliant man and a hard worker, with quite the sense of humor. When I was little, I was definitely a daddy's girl. He was fun, he embraced his inner child. I have good memories of him getting on our level to play and that meant a lot. Puddle jumping, strapping on roller blades, skateboarding at the skate park, skipping with me while holding hands and pulling me way up high so I would feel like I was flying for a few split seconds each time my feet left the ground. Working with him when I was 12, back when he owned his construction company, and learning how to tie trucker's knots, getting my first tool belt. He was hard on me, making sure I didn't "half-ass" any job, in his words. He always accepted me and supported me regardless of what phase I was in. He always believed in me and did the best with what he had to support me in my passions.
In his passing I want to say all the good things ... that's what you're supposed to do, right? This is not easy for me but his death has also stirred up a mixed bag of emotions.
I haven't had a relationship with my dad in over 15 years. I'm 31 — I'll let you do the math. Ricky was an alcoholic, drug addict. This was my price to pay for having a "fun" dad. He was abusive in more ways than one. He was a liar, a thief and a manipulator. He was also abused and endured more trauma in his childhood and life than most people I know. My son said that's probably why he liked to make people smile, because he knows what deep pain feels like.
He turned to drugs and alcohol at a very young age and, in turn, he never really had learned any healthy coping mechanisms. His mental health suffered and he struggled with very severe ADHD. I have empathy for all of that and wished him peace and healing over the last decade. That is, once I was old enough to understand and work through my resentment of him tearing our family apart.
My childhood was hell in a lot of ways because of this perpetual cycle of inter-generational trauma. I was 7 when I had my dad promise me he wouldn't drink anymore. It was apparent at a very young age that he had a problem. I can remember finding heroin needles in my backyard around that age. Being whooped with a belt for reasons I can't even remember. We were homeless on more than one occasion before I was 10 years old. I took 21 hits of LSD on accident at age 13 because having party favors on hand was more of a priority for my dad than making sure our house was a safe space to raise children.
Life was a party for him — a lonely party. A coping-with-trauma-by-avoidance-and-self-medication party. A self destructive party.
Walking home from the bus stop in middle school, I never knew what I'd come home to. Once in a while, he might be sober and sitting in his recliner with his reading glasses and a book, calm and collected. The next day I could hear music blaring from five blocks away; I knew it was coming from my house. Getting louder and louder the closer to home I'd get. I'd hold my breath as I'd walk up my front porch and open my front door to my dad blitzed out of his mind before 4 p.m. ... rocking out to Joe Bonamassa.
And we can't forget that one time he was arrested for running through our neighborhood naked, high as fuck on whatever vice he chose to escape with that day.
I ended up feeling like I was parenting him more often than not. Putting him to bed when he would fall asleep in his chair too drunk to do those basic responsibilities himself. Standing up to him when he would go on drunken tangents and berate my siblings or mom. He drank a 30 pack of beer most days as a baseline. Pills, meth, heroin, cocaine, acid ... you name it, he did it. I was ashamed of my home and hardly invited people over as a kid. I'm sure you can imagine why.
I moved out at 15 because of my dad, his addictions, the trauma and abuse that me and my whole family endured. A few sleepovers at my best friend's turned into weeks of me staying there, which turned into months. I helped my best friend's mom around the house and she let me live there. I'm sure it was obvious I didn't want to go home without me having to say much. My best friend lived only two blocks away from my dad's house but it was far enough for me to not be stuck within those four walls of unpredictability. About the time I started living with my friend, the doctor told my Dad he wouldn't live much longer if he kept drinking the way he did. I let go to protect myself.
When these people in my community tell me how great my dad was and that they're so sorry for my loss, how he was such a beacon of light and truly a shining star ... I tell them I'm sorry for their loss. They probably knew my dad better than I do at this point. I wish I would have had the chance to have a healthy relationship with him. I wish my son had a stable grandfather in his life. I have grieved the loss of my dad 10 times over within the last decade, knowing any day could be his last because of his lifestyle choices. Waking up in the middle of the cold winter nights, in my warm bed, with tears streaming down my face thinking about how my dad was probably frozen to the bone. If the drinking didn't kill him, the drugs would, and if it wasn't the drugs, he would probably freeze to death out there in the cold of winter. If it wasn't the weather, then I figured someone would probably kill him and then I get a call Thursday morning that he was murdered.
Sadly, I wasn't very surprised. It may sound callous but I had been prepared for this for a long time. I had to be, mentally ... to let go and not allow his addictions to drag me on a mental/emotional rollercoaster right along with him. Part of me feels relief that he doesn't have to struggle through life anymore and, in a selfish way, I don't have to worry about the "when and how" anymore.
He chose to be right where he was for the last 10 years. I did try to help him and talk to him about his situation about four years ago. He said he didn't want help, he was humbled by living on the streets, he felt good helping others who didn't have anything. When he was given extra food, he would give it to others who were struggling. He would share his smile, his jokes, his gift of music. He saved someone from suicide. He saved one of my friends' teens from losing it. He made many people's day, and to those people who gave him the time of day, you truly made his. The silver lining in his death is the outpouring of community love and support. I know my dad was where he was supposed to be. He was able to do more good than harm in his situation. Bucking the system ... I guess I get my rebel spirit from him. Out there, he had no obligation to his family or to conform to be anything other than who he was ... to be free. He chose to stand on that corner and spread love and peace, to sing for strangers and share kind words. He was fulfilling his purpose ... as crazy as that sounds.
Talking to the police department today, the woman in charge of evidence tells me that he had my birth certificate folded up in his pocket. Somehow, for the last decade ... through being robbed multiple times, losing everything he owned besides the clothes on his back. Somehow, he had held onto my birth certificate? This made me cry. I loved my dad. As fucked up as he was, I loved him. I try to be grateful, let the negativity of my past be the catalyst to a brighter future. He gave me a lot of good qualities and I learned a lot from his mistakes. I learned that I wanted to break the cycle of addiction and heal my own inter-generational trauma. I had to eventually love him from a distance and I hope he knew I loved him even then. I know he loved me, he just didn't know how to be the dad I felt like I needed him to be — the sober predictable one with the recliner and reading glasses.
I hope he is at peace: warm, full, free of trauma, guilt, the weight of the world, finally effortlessly sober.
I love you, Dad. I forgive you. Fly free.
If you have someone you love on the streets, someone you love who is struggling with addiction, or had a childhood based in trauma, just know you're not alone and my inbox is always open.
This essay was first published on Sara Autumn-Breeze Smith's Facebook page on Feb. 4.