Tag Archives: memoir

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.

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I Don’t Have the Words

I don’t know that I will ever be able to fully articulate how I love my kids. Were it a quantifiable thing I’d give you a number. As it is I don’t think any sophisticated adult has ever improved on the simple claim made by all of us lucky enough to have been loved as a child who have spread our arms wide and said, ‘I love you this much!’

img_4923Charlie is the sweetest boy and he will stop us to make sure we are listening, in the middle of getting ready for bed or when we are cooking or whenever, to tell us, ‘I love you. You’re the best daddy.’ or, ‘Mommy, I love you more than anything ever!’

‘Oh, Charlie.’ I gasp, ‘I love you so much, you are the most wonderful boy.’

I wish words were more evolved. I wish our minds, our full creativity could describe what flows through you as a parent. All of it is extreme. The frustrations, the joys the exhaustion‘s and elation‘s. The simple act of falling for your child, for me an act that happened in an instant, opens a vein you didn’t know you had. It pours from you in every way you can imagine.

I didn’t appreciate the love I was given as a child, not fully at least, until I discovered it from the other side. Until I looked intently at my own kid and marveled and recoiled and felt the bond between us so deeply that it seemed I could reach out and hold it.

img_5026Teddy is my little man and I can’t get over his curiosity. He’s trying all the time that his brother is around to compete, a thing that looks different in a younger brother than an older one. His focus primarily is on his big brother but his quiet moments are the ones that steal my heart. He can smile when your head shares a pillow with his and he wants to tell you about all the things he is thinking. About his ideas and plans, about how much he loves mommy and Charlie and me. He builds big and little bridges to you and everyone one at a time. It’s magic.

On the other side of this newfound entity of love for my kids is an equally newfound fear. One that could only exist in relation to my fondness for these boys. I’m terribly afraid of random tragedy now. While they have opened me up, have cracked the shell around my heart, they have also made me a vigilant hawk. See, I’m now and forevermore aware that there is something infinitely more tragic that can happen than there ever was prior to now.

The first week it paralyzed us to a degree. We had no idea that there was something so awful as the fears of a parent before they hit us. People can’t wait to tell you about the lack of sleep and the magic of babies. They don’t tell you that the most tragic of ends now comes to reside in your resting imagination.

I never so feared my own death before knowing that it would effect my own kids. It never occurred to me to think of it. Now if Karen so much as has a cold I’m worried, only for a moment at a time, but I worry there’s something bigger hidden in her cough. If I’m making dinner and she’s picking up the kids and they are a few minutes late my brain arrives, in an instant, at a place where I can imagine all three of them, struggling in an overturned car, or thrown from the car, scared and alone in their final moments. I know. IT’S AWFUL!!

But as quick as it comes it disappears and I’m back to worrying about whether or not I should use the last of the celery as it’s Charlie’s go to and whether or not T will eat the string beans or should I not bother to make them.

I don’t know what the word would be to describe these things, these rushes between otherworldly levels of joy and dread and monotony, but there should be a word. It seems to be a universal feeling and across the board it seems unknowable until the instant you fall for that kid and unshakable from that point forward.

Looking Back At Me

img_5002When did those show up? Those points. My skin is falling, my face is aged and aging and now I have points. Hanging on either side, mid chin. They are not shocking, until you notice them. Staring blankly in your mirror shaving. You see them. They are just there.

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad told me that it was mildly haunting to look in the mirror one day and for a second see your father staring back at you. It sounded like it could certainly be freaky. To know that you are looking out of your own eyes, possessing your own body, studying a face that is yours, you know, but doesn’t look anymore like it feels. It feels like that face you had in high school. That young, narrow, strong, perfectly fitting face you had. The one you stared at and inspected for laughs when you were little. Searched for blemishes when you got older. Ignored entirely for what appears to have been 20 years now as you got on making a life.

It was a utilitarian face. One that was being used to see the world, eat the food, drink the drinks, make the jokes, scream the pains, howl with laughter, bare to the elements and wear through it all. You hadn’t considered it for years. And years. And there it was. A face wholly your own but weathered and worn by time.

The first reaction for me was to recoil a tad. How did this happen? Why did this happen? The answers are obvious but the reactions are cascading. Shock, worry, awareness, fear, love and wonder. Reflexively I recall my own father sharing this moment with me, a young boy unaware of how this must have felt. I’m aware now and the moment, the memory of that brief conversation in a room long ago left for others to live in is reformed. Some new meaning, some heavier weight.

I’d never noticed anyone other than me looking back at me in the mirror until recently. I’ve played with faces when I was little, trying to see if I could make myself laugh or be angry or scary or silly. I’ve tried to pull faces, to see what others saw as I came into my own and was desperate to figure out who I was and thought the answer might lay somewhere on my appearance. I tried to hide the emotions I felt that my face betrayed. I’m embarrassed by that now, but shouldn’t be. It was some strange form of embarrassment that compelled me to try so hard to not show anything but anger for some early man years there.

Now I see a hint of my father in that face, but just a hint. There’s some of my mother there to. It’s not what I want it to look like. I want it to have so much more left to find. At least that’s the first thought. I want it to look like me. Like the memory I’ll have of my face whenever I can’t see it. The one that had no cause for lines and no time for sag. The me that was stupid but pretty. The energetic, unknowing eyes. The vibrant and taut skin. The me that wondered what it would feel like to see the years looking back at me from the past.

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.

Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

¬†Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

Spies and Rocket Ships

Last night after dinner, before bed we were engaged in the ‘wind down.’ This is what we’ve come to call that time of night that was ‘the witching hour’, when they were younger. Now it’s ‘wind down time.’ I prefer to think that this is not an entirely misleading name for this time, but rather an aspirational one. As is the custom during this time, the boys were running wildly between floors, screaming and laughing and we were in the kitchen, ignoring them as much as we could.

Ignoring a couple of hyped up little boys is impossible, so we ignore them merely as best we can. This is quite the change over a relatively short period of time and frankly, there’s some serious growth that is to be admired in it. After all it wasn’t 4 years ago where we were so scared of anything happening to them that we lived as volunteer shut-ins. I know. It’s hard hearted to invoke the word ‘shut-in’ for the purposes of humor. Fine. We were new parent nut bags so engrossed in over parenting our little ones that we never slept, pulled the alarms for every cough and acted as spotters for the first 10-22 months that they were walking. And I mean every minute of them walking.

So, to be at a place where we can pay only minimal attention to them, to be able to hear patterns of speech without engaging other than to recognize where our required, ‘Sure, buddy.’, or ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’, were needed, well, that’s like Will Hunting fleeing all he knew to pursue his dream and his dream girl at the end of the movie, without so much as a note for Chucky and the rest of the gang knowing damn well they were family and would not only understand but be damn proud of him level of growth we’re talking about.

Well, like all good things this one too had to end, so we jumped back in at some point when we knew we really couldn’t hope to ignore them any longer. Notably, this usually occurs when one punches the other or the other grabs something they want from the other and they bite them instead of relinquishing something of such a precious nature as a tiny, long forgotten instruction booklet from a tiny Lego set we may or may not have ever had, or a found rubber band or some other precious booty they salvage from the flotsam and jetsam of our lives here on this pioneer outpost. But not tonight. Tonight it went the way it should. We ignored, they entertained each other, we re-engaged and voila, this is how you start the bedtime process a mere 2-3 hours later than you always swear you will tomorrow.

‘Did you sign up? Wait, are you signing up tomorrow?’ Charlie asks as I settle in to the couch and start to brush his teeth ten feet from a sink where he could do it himself, but instead we act as servants to these boys who pay only in affection and dependence. Granted, we make out on the deal, still, we may coddle a bit too much.

‘Oh, I’m signing up tomorrow.’ I say and tense up ever so slightly.

‘Okay’ he says.

Phew. I haven’t felt this good about faking my way through since telling my doctor, ‘yeah, I don’t know. I guess I have 2-3 drinks a week.’ Felt pretty good.

‘Remind me again what I’m signing up for?’ You can absolutely be this transparent. THEY DON’T KNOW ANY OF THE TRICKS YET!

‘Spies.’

‘Okay, spies. Sounds like fun. What is it?’ Seriously, you can be this blunt in your blatant disavowing of knowledge you ‘yeah buddy’d’ not 5 minutes earlier.

‘It’s a game.’ Charlie says.

‘Yeah, we are spies and we run around the house.’, said Teddy. He’s even less sure and more confident than me. I’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

‘That sounds fun.’ I say

‘Yeah and tomorrow we’re going to build a real rocket ship.’

‘What!’ I exclaim. This is really taking a turn.

‘Do spies fly rocket ships?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. We’re going to build a real one. A real rocket ship.’, says Charlie. He’s pretty insistent. This is a new and serious tone. They recently saw the Wallace and Gromit short where they build a rocket in the basement and spend the day on the moon, so I’m pretty sure this is real.

‘I believe you.’, I say. ‘What else do spies do.’

‘They fly to space and do experiments and build rocket ships.’ The ‘duh’ was implied.

‘Okay. When are sign ups?’ I ask.

‘Tomorrow. We’re signing up and so are you and mommy.’

Done.

Turns out Spies is a pretty great game. If you ever have the chance I highly recommend signing up.