Friday, October 25, 2013

Three Words That Became So Hard to Say

I saw Grandpa Jim, my dad’s dad, only a handful of times throughout his life. We visited when I was a baby, far too young to remember any of my family’s first visit to Texas with me, that trip living only through stories and a few photographs tucked away in a box that documents the earliest years of my life. I vaguely recall him coming up several years later when my mother passed away, though I suspect this hazy memory exists only because I know he was there, have been told by family, and as a result, I’ve concocted a memory that may or may not actually be real. We talked often—at least compared to frequency with which he talked to his other grandchildren. For most of his life, I lived the furthest away, yet whenever he called my dad, he was always quick to ask about me, or to talk to me if I was around. These conversations became more frequent as I grew older, perhaps because I gained more of an appreciation for family, regardless of the infrequency with which I saw them.

He was often late with birthday presents and wishes, when they came at all. It wasn’t uncommon for him to mention a birthday six or seven months later, or at least at Christmas. But I have a few memories of holiday presents: he sent me a VHS copy of Jurassic Park the year it came out, and I remember not knowing what to do with it or to say, as I already had a copy of it, likely bought by another set of grandparents, the ones to whom I was always closest. Of course, I said nothing of this to him. Another time, for either Christmas or my birthday, he sent me a knife, telling me that every boy needed a pocketknife. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I had dozens, collected from trips and received as presents from others in the family, or that it was hardly a pocketknife, at least compared to others I had. It was large and thick, housed in a leather sheath and stored in a white cardboard case. There was no way it would fit in my pocket, and I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do with it.

All these years later, out of all the knives I’ve had, that’s the only one I can say with certainty that I know where it is. The sheath has long-since disappeared, but the knife itself rests in my living room, and I’ve found a variety of uses for it over the years. On a few occasions, I’ve misplaced it, and each time, a sense of urgency has swelled within me.  Sure, with it gone, I obviously can’t use it, but purely for functional purposes, it could be easily replaced. Yet I’ve searched for each time until I’ve found it because of who gave it to me, and finding it has been like finding a lost puppy that’s wandered off.
One of my clearest memories of my grandfather comes from the last time my family and I visited him in Texas. For whatever reason, we were later in arriving than Grandpa Jim had expected—perhaps my dad had taken a wrong turn, or traffic had been worse than expected. It could really have been any number of things, but all I really remember is walking up to the door to meet Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie. Grandpa Jim opened the door, looked at us, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Where the hell ya been, ya sonuvabitch?”

I would see him one more time during his life, several years later when he and Grandma Jackie would fly up for my wedding in 2008. By this time, he had battled cancer for years, struggling, relapsing. When I watched him and Grandma Jackie walk out of the Plaza Hotel in Ashland on a cool night in October, the first thing I thought was that he looked tired and rough. His hair was gone, which for some reason I hadn’t expected. He was clad in black jeans, a white dress shirt, and a leather jacket. Covering his bald head was a leather cabby hat, and as I watched him, I couldn’t help but think that the man who had once looked like Elvis—had even signed an autograph as the King himself when a stranger had stopped him at a gas station in the late 70's, convinced Grandpa Jim was the recently departed King of Rock ‘n Roll—now looked like an aged mob boss, rather like Dennis Hopper. And not the Rebel Without a Cause Dennis Hopper, but Dennis Hopper at the end. He took us all to dinner that first night in town, most of the family gathered all around a table for the first time in what must have seemed like a lifetime, and also the last, and I remember that what he did most was listen. He sat quietly, smiling, as we did what families do: catch up, bitch about work and school, and reminisce. Those who had the most stressful relationship with him cried, a lifetime of disappointments and struggles juxtaposed with the dying man who just listened. Somewhere there’s a photo of all the family, of those who came, taken by a waitress who was roped into manning the camera. God only knows where that photo is, but I oftentimes wish I had it.

I would see him for the last time a few days later, the day of my wedding. While we were still dancing and eating and catching up with friends who’d come to help us celebrate, Grandpa Jim and Grandma Jackie came up and said goodbye. They were heading back to the hotel early, as they had to leave early in the morning to visit family in northern Ohio before heading back south. They handed me a card and money, which I tried to refuse because I knew they couldn’t really afford it, and then they both hugged Amanda and me. I help Grandpa Jim longer than I would for a normal hug, for perhaps some part of me knew I’d likely never see him again.


When I started to write my first novel, the one on which I’m working now, Grandpa Jim was the first character to come to mind. Perhaps because he, in every sense of the word, was a character—larger than life, irascible, funny. By that time he had been dead less than year, finally succumbing to the cancer that had ravaged his body for years. And as I write, I’m reminded of him: the man he was and wasn’t, but perhaps more than that, I’m reminded of how much about him I don’t know. Every once in a while, my dad will tell me a story about him in his younger days, and I’m shocked at his antics. Many of the stories will work their way into the novel, for they’re not only a way to keep him and his memory alive, but they’re also wickedly funny, in turns perverse and poignant.

But perhaps what strikes me most is that as writers often pour our hearts and souls into our works, our characters whom we love as though they were real, as though they were family, and yet there are times in our real lives, times not concocted by our imaginations, when we have difficulty pouring those emotions into those around us. We’re more guarded, more cautious with our words and emotions.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who is also in the process of dating again after a divorce. She’s been referenced (though never named) several times in my posts, and she’s been a good sport about my using her in my writing. And we were talking about love, just as we’ve talked about what you call someone you’re dating when you’re divorced and past the age of eighteen, and the difficulty we as people can have with saying “I love you” to someone with whom we’re romantically involved. She told me that she was close to saying it to the guy with whom she had her first serious relationship after her divorce, and that she feels herself getting there with the guy she’s seeing now.

It’s one thing to say it to family and friends, especially when considering the different types of love—agape, eros, philia, and storge. It’s easy to discuss love amongst friends (philia love) or love of children (storge love), yet it can be hard to say it to another as love shifts from eros to agape, if and when it does. Regardless of how we feel and what we want to say, forming the words can be difficult, likely because once the words are said, they can’t be taken back. And there are times when you feel the urge to say those three words, the phrase dancing on the tip of your tongue, and so often we bite them off, shuffling them out of the way for something else, something less terrifying.

But why? Sure there’s the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty facing new relationships with new people, and we fear repeating the past. Is that it? Do we as writers pour our hearts into our characters out of a cowardice that allows us to find it easier to let our characters speak the words that scare us so?


This post has nothing to do with Grandpa Jim or love, at least exclusively, not really. Sure, he’s a central character in my novel, but I allow my characters to speak so many of the things I may be afraid to say in real life. My first story collection, currently titled “Small Town Tales and Sunday Stories,” which may someday see the light of day but has as of yet been read by only one person (the wonderful Travis Koll, who did a great job reviewing and editing my rough draft) is filled with characters who struggle with religion, doubt, dissatisfying relationships, the feelings of being stuck in a small town and wanting to get out, and of getting out and longing to come back. They become mouthpieces for views I can’t—or don’t—espouse in everyday life.  And these themes and those like it are evident in my first two plays (which someone, someday, may read) and my novel. Themes of longing, of hurt, of love, and of struggling; themes of regret and the reconciliation between a life longed for and never realized—those everyday human themes that bind us, regardless of how seemingly disparate our lots in life are.


My grandfather and I talked several times in the intervening years, but the last time I would see him would be when I would scatter his ashes in 2010. He passed away just a few weeks shy of the two-year mark of his having come for my wedding. We loved each other, but we didn’t know each other well, yet he’ll live on in my writing, and with each story—perverse, crass, and poignant as it may be—maybe we’ll get to know each other even better. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Accidental God

Maybe space is a window, leading down from Heaven to earth. Pitch black, streaked with swirls of purple and blue, the cosmos dancing around bright stars flickering their timeless message, dazzling. Brilliant white. Like the eyes of God watching over the earth through a blanket of night.
I was in my garden when I heard the scream—the horrible, blood-curdling, soul-piercing scream of fate recognized without the opportunity to avert it, only to meet it head-on in a split second of final clarity. I turned just in time, rising from my earth-stained knees sunk into the damp garden, wiping my hands on the front of my shirt, my eyes scanning, searching the horizon for the source of the cry, still ringing so clearly in my ears, reverberating. Looked just in time to see the collision, the meeting of the truck as it crested the hill, with the small motorcycle. The collision sending the young riders into the air, a cartoonish image in the slowing of time, each movement exaggerated, like falling through puddles of gelatinous air.
                They landed and bounced, skidding across the road, the girl tumbling and rolling farther than the man. Still screaming. Or maybe by then it existed only in my mind, ringing in my ears in perpetuity.
But if those are the eyes of God, where are the hands? Where do they reach, scooping, cradling? The feet, carrying Him to and fro? What else exists in that great expanse of nothingness? Nothing more than planets? Stars? Dust? Whole galaxies just reaching endlessly as they go nowhere?
I was standing under the bright filling station lights, mindlessly pumping gas, just casually watching the numbers roll higher and higher. A generic pop song, all bleeps and computer-generated rhythms— and for the life of me I can no longer recall what song it was, though it keeps playing over and over in my mind in short clips, each measure just looping— broke the monotonous whir of distant cars on the highway just a mile away.
                I jumped, startled, when I heard the squealing of tires and the nauseating heavy crunch of metal on metal. It was near, sounded like it was on top of me, and I looked around frantically, scanning the surrounding area, my mindless reverie snapped into focused attention. All of this under the soul-shattering scream that filled the night, swirling, enveloping me, threading between the trees of the surrounding woods. My eyes scanned the surrounding area—no sign of a crash. No black tire marks. No dented hulking masses of metal. Nothing to indicate the source of the scream. Nothing out of the ordinary on the late summer night as I stood pumping my gas. Nothing except some child’s doll someone had thrown up the road. I stood watching as it tumbled and rolled, wondering why a child would be out playing this late, and in the middle of the road.
And if God isn’t up there, out in space or above it, looking down through infinite darkness, then where is He? And how long has He been gone? Coming back anytime soon? Maybe. Maybe he just ran out on an errand, ran to the store for a loaf of bread and a quart of milk. Perhaps to the deli for a bite to eat. Maybe the sign on His door reads Be Back Soon. Maybe. Maybe not.
But it wasn’t a cartoon, I realized. My instincts took over, adrenaline coursing through my veins, as I dropped my gardening tools, wiping my hands on my shirt, streaking it with smears of dirt. I sprinted without thinking. Step after step across the lawn, through my gate, out toward the road, digging up small bits of newly grassed earth with each step as I crossed the threshold between burgeoning lawn and broken blacktop, never looking for oncoming cars as I crossed. The scenery blurred as I ran, my mind numb, out-of-shape lungs burning, telling my middle-aged body to stop. I turned up the road, the night silent and calm, sprinting until I saw the scene: a pickup, old and square-bodied, rested atop a small motorcycle, barely big enough for the two people who had been on it; the driver was out of the truck, holding his head and frantically walking back and forth, muttering something to himself, though I heard nothing, could only see his lips moving up and down; from under his hands rivulets of blood trickled, dark and thick; the man on the motorcycle lay a few feet from his bike, rolling slightly on the ground, groaning. I searched for the girl, whose cartoonish flight I was still replaying in my mind. Finally I saw her, probably ten feet from the scene, patches of red leading the way to her. I made my way up the road, following the spotted trail with bits of gravel-emblazoned skin stuck to the road. Her hollowing eyes were wide. A puddle of black was pooling around her, stemming from the gash in the back of her auburn hair. I knew there was nothing I could do, it was too late for her, and could only watch the eyes grow vaguer and vaguer. She tried lifting her hand, to in those last few second look for the man, rolling her eyes slowly around. But nothing, I knew, would help. So I turned my attention back to the man I’d passed, kneeling by his side, my responders training from when I was younger coming back in waves.
                I barely noticed the man jogging down the road, curiously at first, as if unsure what he was looking for or at, quickening his pace as the reality of the scene bore down on him.
It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention— I was, there was just nothing I could do. I had been watching the road, hadn’t been drinking, texting, talking on my cell phone; hadn’t even been changing the radio station, for Crissakes. I was careful. I was aware. I was a good driver. The night was peaceful, a late summer night, with crickets. I can clearly remember the crickets, invisibly chirping all around me as I turned off the highway. Crickets and the soft whir of the tires over the road. Some song on the radio, some pop song, the catchy kind that latches on and won’t let go, persisting in the memory for days of all who hear it. On and on and on. And then there they were, out of nowhere. Not nowhere, exactly, not as if they materialized out of thin air, were created in that instant to dart their bike out in front of my truck; but they may as well have been. Because I was on them before it could even register that they were there. Pulled out from a side road. Maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe they thought I was slower than I was, that they could make it. Whatever they thought, they were wrong. Or maybe they didn’t think anything at all. Perhaps to them I didn’t even exist. Not that it matters, I guess, in the long run, because by the time I saw them, the only thing I could do was hammer my feet on the break, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, and start to slide until something quickened my stop.
I left behind the gas station lights, so bright against the fading purple night, and strolled down the road, looking for the doll. Except that I wasn’t. I knew, of course, that it was no doll, but I didn’t want to; I didn’t want to know it, so I kept looking for bits of string hair, plastic chunked and sticking to the coarse pavement. It looked like one of those water-babies my daughter had played with as a child, the kind that is squishy when held, had burst. That’s what I told myself—tried to convince myself of—as I got closer, but I knew I was wrong. I knew when I saw here that no child had been playing with a doll, that the girl who’d been thrown was not much more than a child herself, and all I could think in those first few moments was of my daughter, and how I hoped it wasn’t her lying before me, even though I know this was a useless worry as she lived so far away, would not be here, could not be on this road on this night in late summer, but as a father this was all I could think. I even started to call her name—to call Katie—until I saw another man moving away from her. I got closer.  He was focusing his attention now on a second body, a man, mangled, crumpled under the dented, distorted mass of what had just moments before been a motorcycle.
Maybe God never asked for the job, taking on the responsibility only when no one else would. No way; not me. I don’t want it. Perhaps He stood around, eyeing the competition as they made excuses for why they weren’t fit. You want me to take on that kinda pressure? No way. I can’t think fast enough. I have other plans. Excuse after excuse until he was the last one left, the potential masses dwindling with each passing moment. Come on, someone’s gotta do it.
We were thinking of nothing, really; nothing except milk and diapers for Lucinda. Feeling nothing but the soft vibrations of the bike under us. My husband’s hands on the handlebars, mine clutching fistfuls of his leather jacket. We rode feeling nothing but the soft wind through our hair in the late summer night. We were unencumbered, free, on a quick run to the filling station. No purse, no wallets, just the cash in our pockets. Not even a cell phone. Free and alive. We never saw it coming until it was upon us, and the last thing I remember is the scream that escaped my lips. It was a scream of fate accepted without even the chance for refusal. Free and alive and together—until we weren’t.
There was nothing we could do. In today’s world where everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, we had nothing between the two of us. His was back in his car under the filling station lights; mine was back on the railing of my porch, sitting idle by the sweating beer I had left. I check the motorcyclist’s pockets—nothing. No cars, no headlights, just the five of us on the quiet road. The filling-station man ran back to get his phone as I started CPR on the crumpled man. The driver is kneeling on the ground, holding his head, but there’s nothing I can do for him except tell him to lie down. He keeps looking around, asking what happened. I try to get him to calm down, but I’m only one man, the only one there for these three, and the odds are so dour. I need to wrap the man’s head; his hands are soaked and the blood is still coming in spurts and rivulets that stream down into his graying beard. But I continue CPR, cursing my forgetting my cell phone.
By the time the paramedics arrive, it’s too late for the woman, her eyes blank and gray. Her husband is questionable, and the truck driver is lying on the ground, finally not moving, my shirt now wrapped around his gaping head. But the ambulance had come from the hospital just a few minutes away, and all the while, we two worked, the filling-station man and I, and neighbors came out to their yards, many just stopping and staring, but the feeling of helplessness was persistent.
                The ambulance was followed shortly by a string of cars, no doubt coming from the local football game; since the accident, we’d seen none, when usually the road was so busy we feared allowing our kids to play in front yards for fear of them running toward this very road, as heavily congested it was. Someone had called the paramedics from a cell phone, one of many people who stood in their yards so as to not get too close.  We don’t know how long it took the ambulance to arrive, or how long it took to load up the people and cart them off for better help than we could provide, a white sheet covering the young woman. In my mind, it was years, each second ticking by like the changing of weeks, and no one will ever tell me differently.
                And after it was over, we just stood there, those who helped looking around at those who watched, who in turned looked around at everyone else.
We were there that night, all of us around, in some capacity. Observer. Victim. Layman saint. Helper. But I can’t help wondering where God was as the truck struck the two on the motorcycle. Was He in the cab with the driver? On the bike with the husband and wife of only two years? Or maybe He was home with their one-year-old little girl, cradling her, as she sat on her grandmother’s lap, drifting in and out of sleep, waiting for her parents to come home. Was he in the ambulance with the paramedics? Maybe He stood in one of the yards, watching, whispering, trying to understand what had happened, trying to get a glimpse. Maybe He was in everything that happened that night, in and around the whole scene. Maybe He was everywhere yet nowhere, all at once. Maybe He was in one of the passing cars. Perhaps it was the one who slowed almost to a crawl, the woman in the front passenger seat leaning out her window, her entire torso extended, phone in hand, snapping pictures, hatefully urging me to move as I attempted to block her shots with my body, my hands, any means necessary. Or maybe He looked down with a hint of sadness, His hands tied in the name of fate, just a casual observer to all that happened.  Maybe it wasn’t who God failed to show up that night, maybe it was all part of a bigger plan, something so grand I can’t understand it. Maybe the truck hit that motorcycle to keep from hitting someone else further down the road, someone whose death would be more impactful to more people. Someone younger. But what kind of tradeoff is that? One life over another—one more precious than the one lost. And how awful to have to make that call. Maybe that’s what God was doing, weighing His options. Maybe. Maybe not.  But if that’s God’s job, He can keep it.
                I’ve spend many restless hours since that night, those images dancing in my mind, wondering about what happened, why it happened. Maybe it was a test and most of us failed. Maybe it was nothing, just happenstance. Where was God that night? Wherever He was, I wish I had been there too.