Tag Archives: autobiography

The Letter, The List and My Greatest Fear

Mansfield, Pa. I was there for the week for basketball camp. I don’t know how it became a thing in our town, hundreds of miles away, but for anyone serious about basketball, at least any of us between 10 and 14, you went to Mansfield for a week of basketball camp. I was the most serious about it and I was there. I was about 12 and it was great.

It was a great time for a 12 year old who was obsessed. I was the kid who had a basketball in my hand every minute. I was the kid in Western New York, where it can snow in 8 or 9 different months a year, who would shovel the court to play in January. Or October, if need be. I was the kid who played a level up always. I was obsessed and good as far as anyone could tell. This was the first big year away at camp and the first time I shined outside my own town. I was good against the good kids my age from other towns. I could run with the good kids older then me. It was a buzz.

My dad picked me up and my memory is that he told me we had to get going fast. Mom wasn’t home and we had to get moving.

‘Where’s mom?’ I asked.

‘She had to go to see Grammy.’ He said.

‘When?’

‘She’s there now.’

A lot of things happened in our house without advanced warning. There were six or seven kids at that time, including a toddler, so it’s possible these plans were always in the works and I was just never informed. Still, weird for her to travel alone, but to be honest, she’d gone to Israel on her own while 8 months pregnant with the little one so who’s to say if it was weird that she went on short notice to see her parents.

‘Why?’ I asked.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I don’t know if I asked that. Maybe I didn’t, though I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up. Maybe we were driving a friend of mine home or something and he couldn’t tell me. Whatever was said I didn’t know ‘why’ she was gone until I read it in a letter. Might have been in the car right when I was packed up and we were ready to go. I have a memory of it being a letter I read when I got it on the kitchen table when we got all the way home. In hindsight I can imagine a dad wanting to keep it from a kid as long as possible.

What is true is that I found out in a letter. My dad probably wrote it. Might have been mom, but I can’t imagine. It was one of them. My grandfather was dead and he’d killed himself. It was a suicide letter by proxy.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have to start again. I’m nervous about losing writing. I fear it’s like basketball. I’m old and unable and all those years of pounding my knees on pavement have not left me very able with a hoop and a ball anymore. I can shoot, I’ll always be able to shoot, but the rest is rusty and the will and ability to fix that are gone.

I’ve been sharing the writing I’ve done in the past in different ways recently. It’s been good to reach some new people and find some new life in old stories about times gone by. It’s been interesting to mine my own work, produced largely without reflection. Or rather, to reflect on what I was compelled to write over time.

I recently shared a piece that was written as if it were a letter to my sons. It was a letter outlining the fact that what I want for them is to feel loved and to love. I want the person they love to love them and to inspire laughter and curiosity and energy and compassion and passion and all the things that love alone can fulfill, but I don’t care if the person they love is a man or a woman. I will very much care about who that person is, I just won’t care about that.

It’s in line with a lot of my work, really. Often I’m sending a message out through time and space hoping they will see it and know they were loved. Know that I’m aware of the things I got wrong. Sorry for the parts I’ll fail at. I want them to know that I was a failure. That I was a drunken mess for years. That I had false starts and self doubt and self loathing. That I was depressed. That I hated school. That I didn’t know what I was doing when they came along and all I wanted to do was do right by them. That love so amazing as the love they and their mom have brought to my life is worth slogging through painful times for. That even the hope of it is enough.

I remember having a conversation with my sister a number of years back where I told her that I have always kept a list in my head of who it is I think is most at risk of killing themselves. It’s not some list of sad celebrities or self destructive artists of one sort or another. It was a list of family and friends. Mostly family. A list I at times put myself on. A chronicle of my real time assessments of presumed depressive states that were potential life changing suicides. I did it subconsciously and without noticing I was doing it for years. It sounds like bullshit to me, but it was true. I was truly unaware of this constant drone in my psyche.

One of the recurring points I’ve made over the years was the startling and profound understanding of mortality that I had when I saw my kids the seconds after they were born. It’s more pronounced after the first, sure but that isn’t to say it wasn’t there with the second. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung, but it can certainly be rung again.

It was a rolling realization but the fact is that it was inevitable, being me, that sooner than later the fear of the worst thing I could ever imagine would occur to me. What if some day, too far out to imagine, but not so far out I can avoid ever thinking about, one of my kids, in a moment of pain and suffering and confusion and hopelessness and depression killed himself. It’s the worst thought I can imagine. It’s vomit inducing to say. It’s my biggest fear and I’ve never acknowledged it until now.

Because I got that letter. The one that I had no idea would ripple into the future not in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In families that weren’t even imagined yet. In the darkest corners of my imagination and in the lists I’d construct mindlessly for hopes that somehow the preparation would perhaps soften a blow I couldn’t possibly see coming.

I’m not capable of having an objective view of my life. By definition it’s impossible, but at times my subjective experience of it can lead to insights that perhaps obvious to others are still profound for me. So saying that it would appear my grandfather killing himself may have effected me and my point of view may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t to me. It wasn’t at all.

I felt bad after reading the letter. I felt hurt even. There was no ‘good’ way to tell me and at a time when communication at a distance was not like it is today I understand why I’d learn about it this way. But it felt like I was left a few days behind. I came back to everyone being in the third or fourth day. I came back to a process that I was left out of. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault. I’m really only putting it together right here. At the time I just felt out of synch with the world. I didn’t know what else to do then keep doing what I did. I probably went and shot hoops. It’s literally how I spent an easy 50% of my waking hours at that time.

What I didn’t do was cry. I felt terrible about that. I wanted to so badly, but it just didn’t happen at that time. I didn’t really shed a tear. Maybe I would have had I been there for the group horror, but I wasn’t and I was a twelve year old boy. Emotions are hard always, but they’re a more confounding sort of hard, a less tethered kind at that age. It was 30 years later, when a young man I only knew through others and only enough to say hello to killed himself that I finally wrote about him, and my grandfather and read it to my mother that I really bawled about it.

The tears were not just sad tears. The tears I’ve shed for this event are sorrow filled to be sure, but they are rage informed as well. Confusion and fear are in tears for a suicide as well. There’s empathy and judgement and all of it just comes out. It doesn’t get processed or fixed with a good cry. That’s the thing about suicide. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell it can’t get resolved.

I write because I write. I have only this single keyhole through which to see the world and from where I’m looking the threat of finding out the worst news imaginable is possible because I’ve found it out before. And I’ve watched others find out what it all means, over time, others more directly related and I can’t ever lose the fear of it. So I write. I write about as many of the feelings and failings I can muster the courage or the perspective to find in my story. I write to the worries I have that can keep me up, about what if they don’t know how much I love them. What if they are disconnected at a time when I can’t reach them and they think an awful thought and I can’t hug them and hold them and assure them they are loved. What if they are afraid of me or think I will judge them harshly and I add weight to the burdens I can’t know that they will someday carry. And I write.

I write because it brings me joy and relief and understanding and it can fill me with pride and drive me to dig deeper. In doing so I’ve come to understand that I don’t always see all the forces compelling creation. I don’t always understand why the topics come to the surface. When they do I can ignore them or indulge and some I’ve indulged should likely have been ignored and many I’ve ignored should probably have been explored. The process of creating over time though is starting to reveal reason’s to me and one of them is I don’t want to ever catch myself ever thinking I’ve ever failed to do everything in my power to keep these two names, these two magical and wonderful human beings as far away as possible from my tragic lists. Lists I can’t sop making.

What Writing Does and Doesn’t Do For Me

Writing. I write to express myself. Sometimes it brings a smile of recognition to those that have known me or shared a portion of the same paths I’ve traveled. Other times in sparks interest of a sort that is more intriguing. Revealing of a self I may never have thought to share or may even have been hugely ¬†invested in hiding. For me writing sublimates rage, actualizes vulnerability and exposes fear. It’s lessened the load considerably.

Sometimes I write merely to impress. To give myself and hopefully some others a few laughs. I like the feeling of making people laugh. I like the feeling of people thinking I’m funny even more. I like them telling me I made them laugh and that I’m funny most. I’m as easily wooed by flattery as anyone. Moreso than many, I’m sure. External validations are sweeter than the internal ones. Not as long lasting, but at least theres a button to push. Can’t always find it, but at least I know its there, waiting to be pressed.

It’s amongst my healthiest coping tools, writing. It’s creative and productive and a tool for reflection that has served me well. I fear the times when I’m uninspired and don’t write for a few weeks. I spent twenty years scrawling incoherent ramblings of rage and confusion into manic and crazy looking notebooks and journals wanting desperately to be a ‘writer’ only to learn it took others reading to make me one.

After that I learned that a facility for words merely means you meet the minimum requirements. What became apparent quickly to me was that I had to start getting naked. I had to start writing down the truths of me and not just the flattering ones. I wrote about rage and failings and experiences I buried deep. I shared my scariest moments and my more vulnerable ones. I have not fully cleaned out the closet as yet, but I’ve made space so when I look in I can make some sense of what’s left in there. I can see it all. I don’t just crumble under the sheer mass of emotional detritus. It’s been a very healing and healthy exercise. One I’m proud of.

If you are one of the few that has read a good deal of my work you’re aware of this. To one degree or another you’ve seen the praise seeking showoff, the vulnerable human and the emotional rager. I’ve kind of put it all out there. What’s not so present is the view you might have of me if you were actually looking at me with your own eyes. Every day.

Writing. It’s the best tool I’ve had to cope. With the pressure of being a dad and a husband. The pressure of working in a field where we are caring for people and their loved ones. Having what feels like a lot of responsibility on me a lot of the time due to both those things. Not to mention the inherrent guilt I seem to have been born with. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. It’s the best tool. But it’s not the only tool. Just the best.

The others I won’t get into. I won’t lay them at your feet and wait for some unearned praise, though that needy part desperately wants to. He wants to share all he does from midnight to three, wants to watch the little numbers crawl up. He wants your manipulated respect and even the tender feelings you have and share for a person being truthful about the lesser parts. But they would only validate me and make me more prone to continuing the other things. The ones I won’t share. Not with you or anyone. The parts I don’t want to let go of. That meet me in the middle of the night and stay primary no matter how much I squeeze in to distract me.

Writing is my best tool for coping. I just wish it was enough.

Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

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I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.

Picture Day on Mamalode

Today I’m looking back and projecting forward as I look at my son on Picture Day. Click the link to see my story on Mamalode.

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Fragile and Brave on Mamalode

There are things you forget. Wisdom’s that disappear as you grow. Things you shed intentionally or coincidentally. Having my kids has reminded me that there is great benefits to be had by allowing the world in and letting it effect you.

Today I’m on Mamalode with my piece, Fragile and Brave. Please go there and take a look. I’d love to hear your thoughts. While you’re at it take a moment to look around. If you like my writing there’s a good chance you’ll LOVE the writers at Mamalode.

Thank you and I hope you have a wonderful day!

A Note to my Sons On How Men Get it Wrong

To my sons.

There’s a lot I can help you with. Even more, I suspect that I’ll try to help you with. Perhaps even long past when you cease needing it. At those times I suspect you’ll be frustrated. You’ll wish to be left to do things on your own. You’ll wish it too early and I’ll let go too late. That’s what a good dad does. While I can’t give you everything you’ll ever need I will do my best to give you a good dad. In that attempt it occurs to me that there are some things I should share with you when they occur to me. This is one of those times.

img_3575You are little boys right now and I can’t tell you how delightful that is. For us and for you. Your problems are plentiful but mostly easily solved. Life has only just started and without a baseline for context the fact that your brother wants to play with your Halloween costume is enough to¬† bring you to tears. We hug you and kiss you and assure you that those tears are not necessary. We might be wrong. We’re wrong a lot. Anyway, I went a long time without crying. I cried so much when I was little, just about the ages you guys are now, that I was removed from Kindergarten. I wasn’t ready and as a result I cried everyday until all the grown ups agreed with what I knew. I wasn’t ready.

I believe that men have often so confused the concepts of weak and strong that it’s a reasonable conclusion to come to when you are young that true weakness is strength and true strength is weak. It’s a real mindf*ck for young men. We are taught that crying is weak. We are told that needing others is a sign of weakness. We are told to ignore pain. To quiet our emotions. To not emote, to be stoic. Truth is I don’t know if I was ever told these things but I knew them. The message got through that manhood, that true masculinity was immune to pain, stoic and self-reliant.

This is total bullshit. It took me way too long to understand that.

To the contrary. In many cases those very same attributes, at least for me, were indicative of my own fear. I think I went a good decade without crying. I trained myself to be stoic, literally berating myself and commanding myself to be disciplined and to shut up when I would drive to parties or family gatherings. Seriously. I’d say it out loud. ‘Just shut the fuck up. Why do you have to make a comment about everything. Shut. Up.’ And when I’d do it, when I’d stay aloof and removed and not needing of so much attention, I’d be proud of myself. And I wasted yet another chance I had to tell people how much they meant to me, how much I needed them, to show them how much they meant to me because I was trying to be something I thought I was supposed to be. Strong. Stoic. Self reliant. I wasn’t any of those things. I was weak. I was afraid to be myself. I was a million miles from being able to ask for what I needed. I was a man.

img_3520Well, it turns out that strength is exactly where I thought it wasn’t. I’m 42 years old now and I’m as prone to tears as I was at just about your age. I’m as needing of the love and support of my family as you are now, just in a different way. And I’m oodles happier for being comfortable with the truth which is that it is so much better to be able to ask for help than it is to be staunchly resistant to it.

I asked for a little help, in an office, from a professional. I figured out, with her help, that I needed to poke some holes in the bubbles I’d surrounded myself with and I did that, after years and years of avoiding it, by having a long overdue reality testing (revealing) conversation with your amazing Nana, my mom. I confirmed that it was okay to need someone by falling fully in love and revealing my full self to your mother when we met, almost immediately upon meeting, actually. Finally, I was a changed man who understood what it meant to be strong when I held you the first time and shed tears I didn’t know I had.

Don’t be afraid of feelings. They are to be embraced and explored. The reality is you can ignore them forever but if you do you’ll miss out on all that life had to offer.

I Am Dad

I’m feeling kinda done with writing about parenthood. It was a massive transformation and now I’m transformed.

img_3451Parenthood is a sequence of workaday realities that once awed and floored me in a way that when not paralyzing, was heartbreakingly beautiful and expansive. Well, its still those things, really, I just can’t throw as much emotional energy behind it all anymore. I am still transported on a daily basis to a place of awe and wonder, but it’s often fleeting. It has to be. Any moment of daydreaming and self reflection is necessarily interrupted by the mundanity of daily life with a 5 and freshly minted 4 year old.

Gone is the exhaustion fueled deluge of emotional frailty and excruciatingly earnest expressions of fawning and perspectiveless love. It is not as sad as it sounds. These feelings are still there, behind all the work. Gone however is the constant feeling of being overmatched by the task at hand. It’s been replaced by a security you only have when you have a steady hand and a clear eyed confidence that you are up to the task.

img_3402Sure, we could feed them better food, we could replace TV shows and movies with family activities, we could certainly stand to reduce screen time and increase story time. We could even take better care of ourselves come to think of it. We could sleep more. We could drink more water and less wine (okay, I’m the wine drinker). We could be more physical and less sedentary. We could stand to spend less time on our screens and could be more patient and less prone to yelling. Where was I going with this… ?

Whatever. All of it is to say we got this. We get a ton wrong, but we’re doing it. Not everything is a trauma and drama. We’ve left the bubble where reflection and exploration were how we retained a sense of self as we changed to who we needed to become.

Being a parent, a dad, is now a fully ingrained part of me. It’s who I am and I’m no longer struggling to fit into this new uniform. Its on and worn in at this point. My mistakes are not as often the learning and growing experiences they once were. Now they are just human. Just what it’s like being this guy.

img_3373What hasn’t changed is the love. The fascination. The endless desire to be connected to these people. My tiny tribe. Karen and I have rediscovered each other and it’s never been better. We’ve never been closer or more in love. The kids are still orbiting us, tied to our motions and our decisions and our schedule but they are drifting. They have interests beyond us and it’s amazing to us what is so natural to anyone else. It amazes us simply because we have all of the wonder and awe of the first time they opened there eyes stored in our hearts and to see them venture and wander, well, it can make you swallow hard and hold back a tear now and again. Just as fast the moment passes and we are swept up into the day to day grind of running a house, a car service, a grocery and a restaurant (specializing in nuggeted nutrition of dubious value), a recreation department, an education system, social services organization, a health and safety inspection unit, a counseling service and cleaning service (which is a failing venture if ever there was one) and to a degree we never could have before, we love doing it. It’s our life’s work. For now the emphasis is on work but down the road, and not too far, it’ll be understood much more so as our life.