My mind forced me to remember, to analyze how I got there. I started to take a mental walk through the pictures of my child memory and this is what I saw:
I met the world as son of two loving parents and a jealous older sister. From what I recall of those formative years it was a normal life full of happy times, adventures, and nurture. Each summer we would load the back of our maroon-red Dodge Aspen station wagon and drive the 1500 miles to visit my grandparents in Ohio, then after that to visit my father's two brothers who lived in the heart of steel country just north of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I loved seeing my relatives and traveling to a different part of the country. I was fascinated as each evening when the orange summer sun dipped below the horizon the fields would sparkle in tiny yellow flashes of light--almost a mirror to the night sky above. One of my favorite memories was asking my grandparents for a mason jar so that I could try and capture one of these fireflies to see how they worked. I was rarely successful in imprisoning these magical fairies that only existed in the more humid climates of North America unlike the semi-arid conditions of northern Colorado where I lived.
My mind drew me to my favorite times in the Rocky Mountains fishing in the lake nearby, and then to swimming at the city pool that filled the summer gap between school years with laughter and adventure.
One summer, after a particularly heavy rainstorm I couldn't wait to try out my brand new telescoping fishing pole. I ran out to Loomiller lake near our home to try my luck at snagging the “Big One.” I baited my hook, and threw the line out to my favorite spot near where a rumored car had been submerged leaving only the top of a solitary tire above the water line. A few moments after that first cast, I felt something big pull on the line. I had one! The granddaddy of the lake. The one all the kids in the neighborhood wanted. My heart fluttering with excitement, I slowly started reeling it in not wanting to dislodge the hook. As it got closer, I could see the pole bend in a severe arc as I kept the up the fight pulling the fish toward the shore. Just as I got it near enough to pull it out of the water with my bare hands, my brand new telescoping fishing pole snapped in half with a crack. Then the line broke. Damn! He got away leaving only a disappointed little boy and this story. To this day I believe that fish is out there with my hook in his mouth laughing at me.
My family had an active life in the church. Each weekend and Wednesday evening we went to church. There was Children’s Church on Sunday morning and a christian boys club similar to Boy Scouts called the Royal Rangers each weekday. The pastor of the church during those times was a charismatic and kind man. He was well respected among the congregation and the community. To this day as spring settles on the Front Range and the yearly plague of millers blackout the streetlights, I think of Pastor James I. Miller and I say a little prayer for his surviving family.
So far my trip through my memories was simple, like a roller coaster slowly inching up the first incline. You sit in the roller coaster car--almost relaxed--until you see the top of the hill and the drop that comes next. My drop came next and I didn’t want to see it. I wanted to scream.
I was eleven years old, dressed and ready for school when I saw him. Something was wrong. I could see my father laying on the bathroom floor he was crying out “GOD! Where are you! GOD! Why have you abandoned me?” As I went to go check on him to see if I could help, the door to where he was slammed shut. I heard sobs from the other side. “WHY?”
Those were the last words I ever heard my father say. My last images of my father dying and crying out to God in despair. The wood grain of the bathroom door still seared in my mind.
My pictures get blurry--lost in my 11 year old confusion. Mom told me to go to school. I robotically left the house trying to make sense of what was happening. The only thing I knew to do was pray that he would be ok and that I would see him after school. I know I made it to school because the dismissal bell couldn't come soon enough. When the bell rang, I quickly grabbed my books and hurried home. I needed to see if he was ok. I knew that about a year ago the doctor had diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer and had given him six months to live. I knew this could not be because we had faith and prayed.
I was my father’s proxy during his illness. We believed that if we prayed hard enough, tithed enough, and had enough faith, my father would be healed. We sought out faith healers with big names in church circles. Oral Roberts, the mac daddy of them all, laid hands on my dad to have the power of God heal him. I believed. All the men in the church prayed for my dad. I believed. When my was sick, I went up and the Royal Rangers prayed over me like I was I was him. I believed. I prayed. I believed.
A block from school I was running as fast as I could. All I could think was that this must NOT be happening.
A voice from inside a neighbor’s jeep called to me. “Your mother and sister are at my house. They want you to come with me.”
(Back in that day we were far more trusting than we are now.)
I got in on the passenger side and she drove me to a house with a brightly painted red door. I went inside and she took me to where my mother and sister were waiting for me. I slowly walked into the kitchen. I heard my mother crying.
I could see the crest of the roller coaster. I knew what was coming, but it was too late to get off of the ride.
“Your father has gone home,” she said.
I can't remember too much after that,--the pictures are only partial images my brain cannot piece together. What I can remember is that there was a disagreement between me and a couch in the basement. When I was done taking my anger out on the furniture I went outside to the front porch and wept uncontrollably. I could hear every male stereotype of the day, including my father, screaming at me that men don’t cry. I felt angry and weak because I was acting this way. It was the last time I ever allowed my emotions to overwhelm me.
After the funeral as they lowered my father into the ground, my best friend, Steven*, and I played among the headstones. We tried to make a game of finding the oldest grave. After awhile we came back to the memorial service. The casket that held my father was being covered in soil. People were leaving. I took one last look at box that held the body of my father, got in the backseat of our car and drove away. I looked out the window as the fake green turf and the white tent faded into the distance. I won’t look at the memory pictures of anyone’s faces.
When we got home the house was eerily quiet. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom and shut the door. I looked around. A part of me wanted to play with my train set. Instead, I sat on the floor in the darkest corner of the room. I had just lost my father. I was alone and lost. Who could understand the intense emptiness that my 11 year old heart could hold as the numbness of my father’s departure was ignored. Children heal quickly, right? I look at that picture often, of me in the corner. It is like the slow motion moment on ride where you have hang time before you reach the bottom of the first hill.
All that afternoon, and for years afterward, the voices from the funeral service haunted me. Well intended people sentenced me to a lifetime of false perceptions and unobtainable expectations,
“You’re the man of the house now.”
“Since you are the only male in the house it’s your job to protect the women.”
“Well, you are in charge now. Better go get a job.”
He meant it as a joke. As a grieving eleven year old boy, I took it very seriously. The words of consolation only caused confusion and misdirected anger later in my growing up years. What I really needed that day was a hug. I needed someone to tell me I was going to be ok and that it was ok to be what I truly was, a child. I needed to be a child. From that day forward, that privilege was taken from me--whether self imposed or not. I look at another picture. It is me standing in the foyer of the church surrounded by people, feeling abandoned, trying to figure out how to be a man.
As I sat in the corner of my room that day, trying to force back the tears, trying to keep the grief from overtaking me like the day he died, my internal critic was talking to me. “Crying is weakness,” I told myself. “I must be strong for my family. I will not cry.” Still the tears flowed.
I tried again, “The man of the house shouldn’t cry. I am the man of the house now. I WILL NOT CRY!!!!”
Eventually the tears stopped and as the sun set in the west and my room darkened to black I fell asleep curled in a tight ball in that same corner hours later.
I had to get off the roller coaster, but it was too late. I had only gone down the first hill.