Monday, November 15, 2010

The Day My Father Did Not Die -- Chapter 9

The Weight of Who I Am
Chapter Nine

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; -- Proverbs 3:5

I told myself that June 2009 would be a new beginning, but it was more of a lingering ending, as if the writer of this chapter of life couldn't bring Himself to compose the page-turning sentence.  If this was a pause for dramatic effect, it was overkill.  Could we not move on . . . please?  I spent days counting losses; nights dreaming of them.  My pep talks were not working, and I was having a hard time swallowing the "somewhere God opens a window" happy pill.  

The calendar on our refrigerator held new meetings in the place of old ones scratched through, smudges of a former life.  

"Meet with attorney."  
"Potential court date."  
"Final retirement papers due to AT&T."  
"Visit new church."  

Not very social.  There was no penciling-in of pool parties, church picnics, summer vacations, grandchildren to babysit, birthdays to celebrate.

I tried to think of mundane things to place on the calendar, to fill in the blanks, like daily reminders that I had not died.

"Get a haircut."
"Mow the lawn."
"Write something."

A "new beginning" and a "starting over," are oddly similar, but they are not the same.  One sounds like you are going to do something different and the other sounds like you're back to square one. Positive words:  "new," "starting," "beginning."  Troubling word:  "over."  Just walking through the house to look out the windows to see if north, south, east and west are all still there falls a bit short of either phrase's expressed optimism. For me, there seemed no appeal in beginning again or exploring do-overs; too much was gone; there was too little remaining on which to build.  The views were familiar, but about as real as a Polaroid, smaller and flatter than I remembered. The familiar roads led nowhere because there was nowhere to go.  All the highways and byways that had seemed connected on life's road-map had been rolled up like carpet and put on a shelf.  Life's journeys had narrowed down to trips to 7-Eleven -- with the hope I would not see anyone I knew, though I wished I would -- and trips down the gravel road to the mailbox -- with hopes I would hear from no-one, though I desperately wanted to.  I was more than conflicted; I was equally-balanced between thinking life was revolving around me . . . and that life had stopped revolving altogether.

Lisa assured me I had not died.  "Yes, you are still a person," she would agree when I would say "I'm a person too," in doubt.

Even when we disappear to everyone else . . . we are still here.  The road that seems to connect nowhere else still knows the way to God.

The Early 70s
College Days

June 20, 1973
 Mr. Tom Hunter 
P.O. Box 5461
North Texas Station 
Denton, Texas 76203

Dear Tom,

Sure was happy to receive your letter today.  Made me feel pretty good, it has been quite a spell since you've wrote me a letter, and that was a very nice letter.
Sounds like your doing real swell in college.  I'm real proud of you Tom.  I'm proud of all four of you kids.  Just keep up the good work but don't get so covered up that you don't have a little time for pleasure also.  I think that the way of life that you have chosen for yourself or feel that you were chosen to follow is a wonderful way.  So let no one discourage you.

You say now that you are out on your own you understand things a little better.  I feel as you grow older you will understand and realize a lot more.

I'm going to try to get in a position where I can lend a helping hand when needed.  As I told Sue, that's what I'm for.  You kids have never asked me for anything and I think that's where I failed.  I believe I would have felt better if you all had but still I think that you all are just getting to the point where you will need it most of all if I can only give it to you when you need it.  Maybe sometimes I can, maybe sometimes I can't.  So please don't be angry or disappointed if I can't, but I'm going to try awfully hard.

So please write to me and I'll be seeing you soon.


I wish I had a copy of a faded letter of my reply to him to assure me that I wrote my father back.  I'm sure I did not make him feel "better" by asking him for anything because I had, in my self-righteous college-kid arrogance, with dismissive superiority, foreclosed the possibility that he had anything left to give, further devaluing him at a moment when value is what he so needed.  Sure, in unexpected waves of emotion, I would find myself, as a 19-year-old, wanting to sit once again on the merry-go-round with my siblings while he pushed us in ever-faster, never-ending circles that went . . . no-where.  Late nights at my desk behind some perplexing book, I would let my mind drift back to memories of summer nights in his dilapidated one-room high-rise apartment in downtown Fort Worth where we would watch the revolving neon sign on the neighboring bank building and eat dime-a-can biscuits with grape jelly and he would slide his rough hand across my burr-cut head:  "My Tom-Bo."  But, Tom-Bo, and Susie-Q would always join Mike and Debbie on the bus in the morning and Fort Worth would fade.  And fade.

Some things, however, do not fade. They insistently persist, leaving stains that challenge all efforts to cover or color over, no matter how hard we try. With an obliging lack of awareness and the over-rated wisdom of a teenager, I declared that my past would not present itself as an encumbrance to my present or possess any power over my future. I shrugged off the abandonment and accepted my Dad's explanation that it was not what he had intended to do. I buried the sexual abuse by Mr. Hooten as "just one of those things" that happened, now irrelevant.  Shrug and dug; done and gone.  I was grown.  I decided I would try to trust again, though the list was an exclusive one, with Christ at the top, and myself second.  Others to be added later.

My high school years ended on the high note of personal freedom.  I worried about what would happen to my mother and little sister if I abandoned my bedroom-hallway to the right of the front door. Would they spend the rest of their years eating cupcakes, rolling their hair and doing their nails during Carol Burnett and kicking back to laugh at Johnny Carson before turning in?  I was afraid Sue would never leave my mother alone.

The worry was short-lived though, as Mother surprised really none of us when she announced she had met a "really good guy" one night while out dancing in
Dallas with her friends, Lottie and Beverly.  I admit to some doubt, going on the assumption that in the past she had considered Daddy and "the man whose name we do not mention" to be "good guys" also.  Then George came to dinner.

Mother made one of her greatest meals -- the Saladmaster Waterless Cookware special -- a pot roast, potatoes, carrots and an upside-down pineapple cake all cooked in the same pot, without water, flavors un-mingled . . . magic. For the past year or so, whenever evenings or weekends were free, Mother had been hitting the cookware sales circuit, demonstrating Saladmaster in all the finest homes . . . and I had been her chief assistant and waterless cookware washer.  George could not have known how many times I'd eaten that very menu as Mother perfected it.

As it turns out, George would have eaten a raw onion and a glass of sour milk if that was all she had offered.  For the first time in my life, I saw a man truly in love.  And, of all things, with my mother, who had learned from her past, but had retained her determination to keep life interesting. George had nothing at all in common with Daddy or the unmentionable (Michael).

"So, what do you do for a living?" I wanted to know.

"I build and repair airplane engines," George said nonchalantly, beating a pipe against his palm to see if I might notice he was missing a few fingers.  "I've been doing it for a long time and it's a good job and a good company and I like it." George never left anyone guessing about whether he was telling the truth. His life was good enough to not need embellishment.

Not a tall man, George was strong, blonde-haired, smiled a lot and had kind eyes that did not look away.  He liked to work hard, talk, fix things, listen, help people, laugh at jokes, tell stories, hunt, fish, dance and . . . my mother. And he even liked me, which was fine with me, though I considered him about 20 years and a couple of mis-steps too late.  I did not want a father.

George did, however, turn out to be a good friend, a very good husband for my mother, and an important influence on me as I tried to catch up on the idea of what men are supposed to be.  Granted, I did not follow his example closely enough to learn how to build Civil War muzzle-loaders, hand-carve Meerschaum pipes or square-dance, and I never wore a fringed leather-jacket or Nocona snake skin cowboy boots.  But I did learn.

Not once did George ridicule or dismiss my interests -- reading, writing, listening to music, going to church -- or criticize me for not being able to tie a good knot, handle a knife, take down a deer, clean a fish, or rebuild any kind of an engine.  Not once.

Only one thing about me was unsettling to George.

"Tom," he said, a few months after my mother traded the last-name-we-won't mention for his, and became Mrs. George Oliver Thomas.  "Shake my hand."

I had already done that.  I shook it when I met him; I shook it at the wedding.  What did he expect?

Suddenly, my bravado of "being all over it,” -- "it" being the past -- disappeared.  I did not like to touch or be touched, part of a protective bubble I had built around myself in the years beyond Mr. Hooten's abuse and my Dad's "Tom-Bo" head rubs.  It wasn't a phobia, just a discomfort, part guilt from having let someone touch me so wrongly, and part an awkwardness from self-inflicted solitude.  I wasn't good at touching or being touched.  I squirmed away when hugged. I flinched when patted on the back.  I ducked when someone tried to tousle my hair.  A peck on the cheek would produce a grimace. The aunt-hugs at Thanksgiving were like running a gauntlet . . . give me air. These were not predetermined reactions, just natural for me. 

I had already shaken his hand twice and had done so pretty much voluntarily.

"Your mother and I will be moving to
Irving soon and I want to teach you to shake hands before we go," he said, in that way he had of making every word count, leaving no doubt as to intention.

Teach?  You mean, I thought, I'm 19 and I don't know how to shake hands? "Well, yes," George would have said if I had asked:  "You're 19 and you don't know how to shake hands."  Unlike the stepfather who preceded him, he would not have added, "What in hell is wrong with you?"

Instead, he looked straight at me with the eyes that do not turn away and he locked in on my eyes that could not turn away, extended his right hand and said "I'm George.  How are you?"

My hand went in his. I may have outnumbered him in fingers, but he definitely had the edge in squeeze and firmness and would not let go until I responded with proper force, grasping his hand with acknowledgment.

"I'm Thom.  And I'm fine.  Thank you for asking."

George taught things the way he had probably learned them.  Once and done.  Check-ups would follow on visits to make sure the handshake routine had taken, acknowledged only once with a "that's good."

I decided my Daddy would have liked George and that the-one-we-never-mentioned would have hated him. Which seemed exactly as it should have been.

During my first year of college, I discovered two things, neither of which would have a positive impact on my grade point.  I discovered the Baptist Student Union on campus, where the doors were always open and someone was always expecting me.  And I discovered Rob, the BSU friend who would become my first dorm roommate . . . and the first real relationship challenge for me, the first sign that there were choices to be made and that I was not as personally-defined as I thought I was. I was teetering on the edge of change and did not know it, moving from the phase where things happen to you to the stage of making things happen, from just reacting to acting.

As the end of my freshman year approached, Mother -- known on the square dance floor and in George's heart as Mary Ellen -- moved to
Irving to build a new life with her George.  Our duplex days had ended; my hallway lifestyle would enlarge to the expansive half of a Kerr Hall dorm room on the campus of North Texas State University.  I had decided that much; I was diving into the college scene. I just needed a roommate.

It was time to leave it all behind, even though I had learned by then that doors behind me never seemed to fully close.  I would walk through a new one, and the next room might be bigger, but it was always cluttered by the furniture of the past.  The new sights and sounds were exciting, the new people intriguing and appealing, but everything and everyone was always filtered through my memory banks. The caution signs would go up.

Like Jon before him -- but totally unlike Jon really -- Rob affected my emotions in a way for which I was not prepared.  I had trained myself to be a bit detached, in control, a step ahead, guarding my emotions against pain, walls ready to erect at a moment's notice. I was suspicious of anyone's interest.  What did they want? That reservation had not worked with Jon, whose true interest in me at a time when I felt there was nothing of interest about me, dazzled me in junior high. I learned about friendship and became border-line emotionally dependent, almost to the point of hero worship. At the same time, Jon's sincerity helped me believe there actually were some good things about me. It had been a healthy friendship, the loyal-to-the-end type, but, as usual, a move intervened and Jon and I had grown apart in recent years, seeing each other only a few times through high school.  He had new "best friends."  I never really did, until Rob.

Rob and I had little reason to be friends, as in nothing in common . . . that we knew of . . . when we were introduced by a mutual friend, an older girl at the BSU who knew both of us needed roommates for the summer. The meeting in the Student Union cafeteria would be one of the most puzzling moments of my life, to be replayed over and over again in the light of the tentacled events of life that would come from it as what promised to be healthy and growing would tangle and choke.  There were no warning signs flashing, so I threw myself in completely.  This, finally, was what I needed.  A friend who liked me as much as I liked him

It was almost as if I had met myself . . . and in doing so had found out that I was not anything like myself at all.  I had interests I had never known. Sitting across from me was someone who could sing, an artist, a guy from a stable two-parent home, a one-house-all-my-life guy who laughed easily and made others do the same, the instantly-popular personality, a person who seemed to know what I was thinking before I ever said it . . . and agreed with pretty much all of it.  And, even though my life had been nothing like his at all, it seemed like I knew how he had lived and what he had thought.

Our conversation overflowed with "Really?  Me too!" and "I know exactly what you mean."  "Oh yeah, that's my favorite too."  I didn't understand why I was sharing almost everything about myself with a total stranger and why I felt chilled and shaky as we talked eagerly over each other and on endless topics.  Was this friendship?  Why did I have any interest in this funny little guy who couldn't sit still for a second and who made a joke about everything and everyone?  And why was he so focused on me, sitting still like a stone, but babbling on about all the things I never tell anyone?

And then he asked me about my parents.

"Oh," I said, having heard all about his idyllic life.  "My father died a few years ago."  The words just tripped right out, nonchalantly, as if I had said them a million times before.  And then I heard them.

The shakiness and excitement vanished in the face of the lie.  I was caught but only I knew, because I realized Rob believed me and if I told him it wasn't true, that "I was only kidding," he might withdraw, re-think the trust which had come so easily.  I was falling into a familiar trap, trying to please someone, to be something I was not, in order to gain something or keep someone. 

"I'm sorry," he said . . . and I enjoyed the sympathy, thinking it had been way too long since anyone had actually felt bad about anything I had been through.  I had brought two-parent-perfect-home-Rob to silence.

All for the hope of acceptance, I had, in a sense, killed my father, pushing away the memories of the nights I had laid on my bed in the dark wishing he would come back into my life, knowing he was only a bus ride away down the freeway. 

"He just died," I said.  "I don't really want to talk about it."

Besides, there were lots of other things to talk about.  Did we want a floor high up in the dorm?  Did I have a TV, even though they were forbidden?  Had I ever read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes?

How could we have the same favorite book?

"He's not really dead," I finally said. 

I think if Rob had rejected me when I revealed the lie, we might have saved each other some terrible pain, wished each other the best and moved on.  But he didn't.  He forgave me and said he understood, even though there was no way he could have. 

"Let's get a dorm room on the highest floor we can."

The deal was sealed and life was taking a turn I did not understand and did not care to.  I needed a friend and now I had a friend.

I was a person too.

Where were my caution flags?

1 comment:

  1. A friend, interesting idea.... Something that was asked at one of our "Men's breakfasts" "Do you have six friends who will carry you?" Interesting,,, as the only answer I could come up with at the time was NO ! and that was somewhere between 6 and 10 years ago. I really can't say I have someone I can spill my heart out to.