So, I want to talk about the moments in your life that change everything. A huge part of any narrative are defining moments. Those points where the character, through action, dialogue or event, faces a crucial decision, change in view, or moment of enlightenment. Like all art, that’s a reflection of life. Those perfect little moments that you remember forever. As a person who generally thinks of his entire life through song lyrics (there has to be a name for that psychiatric disorder in the DSM-IV), I will use songs to highlight these moments.
I find it so fitting that the Greek word for revelation, “apocalypse,” is now the word for the end of the world.
The earliest “revelation” that I can remember in my life that altered the way I looked at a part of my life was as a kid. My mom and I were looking through old family photo albums. I stopped her on a photo she didn’t know was even in the book, thinking that it had been carefully edited to prevent just such an occurrence, and asked who the man in the photo was. She asked why I wanted to know and I told her “That’s the bad man in my dreams.” It was my father. During my childhood, I suffered from night terrors.
The dream was always the same. My mom and I were driving up a mountain road at night in our old Ford pickup truck. We would have to pull over for some reason, maybe a flat tire. At some point, I would realize there were other people we knew with us like my grandfather or someone else. While everyone was busy fixing the car or just talking, a monster would sneak up on me. It was kind of a Frankenstein/undead creature that looked basically human and it would start eating me alive. I would be screaming and screaming for help, but it was like no one could hear me or no one cared. And I would wake up screaming like that as it tore me apart. As the years went by the monster lost its face and eventually just became a darkness. Nowadays it’s usually like a mountain lion or dogs something, and I don’t have it very often at all.
I eventually came to realize that regardless of the shape the monster took, it was my father. For a lot of kids, far too many, the monsters aren’t under the bed or in the closet. One of the hardest parts of it is that it makes you feel set apart from other people. It’s a seemingly incurable isolation. IMO, the song Broom People by the Mountain Goats captures that feeling perfectly.
“36 Hudson in the garage,
all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room.
Dishes in the kitchen sink,
new straw for the old broom,
friends who don’t have a clue,
In a society that demands uniformity, it segregates you from what’s “normal.” The entire Sunset Tree album by the Mountain Goats is the story of John Darnielle’s childhood and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Listening to it for the first time, it was one of the most powerful and effecting albums I had ever encountered, though his own experiences were far, far, far worse than mine.
Flash forward a few years. I’m a spoiled only child living in the idyllic paradise of the 90’s (aren’t all the decades of our childhood?). I’m strange and introverted, socially awkward and self-obsessed, smarter than any of the kids my age and surprisingly manipulative. Machiavellian really. I wasn’t a bad kid per se, though the way I see it all children start out inherently evil and learn how to be good. My best friends were my older cousins, brother and sister. One day I told the brother that I was much better friends with his sister and made a huge deal out of it, saying I didn’t need him as a friend.
Why did I do this? I have no damn idea. Feeding my ego? Sure. Exercising power through hurting someone else? Most definitely. But no idea what served as the catalyst. Afterwards, my mom pointed out what a mean thing that was to do and it was the first time I clearly remember feeling like an asshole. Not the last time in my life, mind you, LOL. That is the human default after all. For people, acts of fear and hate are the equivalent of slipping into neutral. However, that realization of what I had done and the guilt crystallized in me. It would be many years before I would have to confront my ego further than that, but this at least spurred me on to try to fence in that smug sense of self-importance a bit. Ego forms a comfortable wall between low self-esteem and reality, and the deeper that well of fear runs, the stronger that wall has to be to hold it all back.
I Fought the Angels by the Delgados is the best example of those moments where you say something horrible and hurt someone you love, especially those times when the second the words are out of your mouth (or even while you’re saying them) you know immediately that you’ve gone too far and done something awful to someone you love.
“Knew at the time that they came out
Wish I could have them disallowed
Everybody knows that
We say things we do not mean
Everybody knows that
We say things that are unclean.”
Stepping further down the road of my life, I was working my dead end job in medical transcription and killing time. I had settled into a well-worn rut in my life. Cozy, safe and imprisoning. One day, waiting for work to come in, I Googled my father’s side of the family, curious how their lives are going. I came across the obituary for my paternal grandfather. I never knew him, so it was at worst vaguely odd knowing he was dead. I read more of his obit and it mentioned that his wife had died. So both my grandparents are dead. I only knew her as the woman who sent me little plastic Jesuses and religious cards and worried for my eternal soul in the hands of Catholics, but nothing more. So I kept reading. It mentioned that he was survived by his daughter and her husband and their child, but that his son, my father, had died.
I stared at that line. My father was dead. The monster in the dark died. I couldn’t quite fathom it. To me, he wasn’t a guy. He wasn’t some living, breathing person that could get sick and pass away. He was the dark itself. Now I’m reading that fear got lung cancer, ended up being admitted to a hospital and died 2 weeks later. I read more and it turns out he had re-married (a woman with my mom’s name bizarrely enough) and had another son. At least he had the tact to not name him after me too and completely recreate his old family. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t pulled a Cotton Hill. In King of the Hill, Hank’s father Cotton re-marries a much younger woman and then names his new son “Good Hank.”
I proceeded to leave what has to be the weirdest message from an employee my boss ever received. A weird rambling message about how my father and grandparents were dead, and that they had been dead for months/years now and at different times and I didn’t know them, but I couldn’t work. Not sure she understood it. I know I didn’t understand it. My first thought when I read that he was gone was “It’s finally too late, dad.” I never expected him to change or recover and there’s certainly no way to make up for what he had done, but there was a strange finality to it. The certainty that it was now officially impossible for him to redeem himself. Or maybe he did, and it just didn’t include me.
People have asked if I’ll contact my half-brother, and my answer is always a resolute”NO!” I see there as being two possibilities: Considering that he spent years with my father, whereas my mom got me out of there immediately, he was left alone in the dark with that monster like I was, but without end. There was no light at the end of that tunnel. He didn’t get to wake up screaming from that nightmare, he just stayed in it. In which case, he could very well have become the monster that my father became at the hands of his uncle. Monsters begetting monsters down the line. I don’t want to see that.
Then there’s the possibility that my father “recovered.” Maybe he got on meds, got off booze and cigarettes, sought out help and stabilized mentally. Maybe my half-brother grew up with a real dad. In which case, our two parallel worlds really aren’t compatible. I don’t want to have to hear good memories about my father. I can’t sit around and listen to pleasant domestic stories about the creature that hunted me night after night in my dreams.
And what would my version of events be like for him? If he has good memories, I want to leave him with them. I don’t believe it, even the moment I first thought it, but maybe my father realized that with me he had a debt he could never pay back. He can’t remove those scars that I live with. So maybe he did the only thing he could and paid it forward. A childhood given for a childhood taken. Again, I don’t believe it, but it’s a good story isn’t it? Catharsis. Redemption. Salvation. Powerful themes that string our hopes together.
Once again, Mountain Goats and the Sunset Tree album are on my thoughts for this one. Pale Green Things sums up, so beautifully, that haunting knowledge and insight. When you know a truly bad person as intimately as they know themselves, and you understand them, without condoning them or forgiving them or even liking them. Sometimes you know someone so deeply because you love them, and other times you know someone because you hate them.
“My sister called at 3 AM
Just last December
She told me how you’d died at last,
Not long after that, I fell quite ill. Crohn’s disease or IBS or something. No one really knows and I’m too poor/uninsured to find out, but all that’s beside the point. I had been sick for months. Nauseous and going to the bathroom a dozen or more times a day. Constantly felt like I had a live animal in my gut eating its way out. One day I couldn’t stand up anymore. I was too weak and I couldn’t eat or keep any fluids in me. My mom rushed me to the ER and it took 4 bags of IV fluids to replenish me. They told me afterward that if I hadn’t come in, if I had waited a few more hours, I would have died. And that’s still beside the point.
The reason I bring up this experience is that while I laid on that hospital bed, IV in my arm, Zofran giving me a temporary reprieve from the nausea, but knowing that this was all just a brief respite, I had the beginning of another revelation. It would take two more years before it culminated and I came to a real conclusion about it, and even now it’s something that continues to serve as a guidepost to my maturation and evolution. Funny how blindly we stumble through our lives, isn’t it? Looking up at that hospital ceiling, I thought (rather melodramatically) “I’m going to die alone. I never even got to love anyone and no one ever loved me.” The universe had cheated me. I had spent my whole adult life being responsible, taking care of my mom after her stroke, and being forced to maintain my distance from others because I was different. I was angry and bitter.
As they say, people grow old, but they never grow up. It did perhaps start me on the right path though. A trail I’m still struggling to follow. I stayed alone for many reasons. I’m not really a mans man type. I’m a nerd. I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and I have no clue which sports teams belong to which cities or, in many cases, what game they are even playing. I can build a computer, but as far as I’m concerned cars run on magic. So women wouldn’t be interested in me. And they wouldn’t be attracted to me because I’m out of shape. I don’t have the toned six pack abs and broad shoulders that’s required of my gender to be worthy of love.
I also couldn’t date because what happens if I tricked some woman into loving me and then I developed schizophrenia like my father? I had a plan from when I was a kid that if I ever went the path my father did, that I would kill myself rather than take the chance of hurting someone. I was too poor, too dumb, too this, too that, and on and on it went. A million reasons stacked on top of each other as to why I didn’t deserve love, why I couldn’t feel love, why I couldn’t keep love if I found it and why I had an obligation to protect others by avoiding intimacy in all forms.
Some may see a pattern developing in these thoughts. As I said, I wouldn’t fully conceptualize it until much later, but I wasn’t strictly alone because of my failings and weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Chris Hemsworth, so women aren’t forming a queue outside my door, but that’s not the only reason why I was alone. I was alone because I made sure at every turn to prevent it. I was afraid. So I built a wall out of cowardice and hid behind it. It’s an easy place to exist, but a hard place to live. Nowhere Man by the Beatles I think covers it well.
“He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”
Two years later, as has been mentioned here before, I met my first love. I didn’t try to fall in love with her. She was one of many harmless crushes I fostered to make it seem like I was giving things a chance, then do nothing, let it fall apart and blame the universe for screwing me over. Then she fell in love with me. “Wisdom is fickle and chance is God’s retort.” My plans of self-isolation were laid to ruin. I played it safe; she declared her love. I asked to be her friend; she asked me to be more. I knew I wasn’t what women found attractive; she had a very different opinion. She told me all the different ways that I was a good man and all the things that made her love me. It didn’t fit the script I had written and I couldn’t care less. I was head over heels and the cowardice wall collapsed in days. Love conquered the Nowhere Man.
One of the songs on a mix CD I made for her (she even loved my dorky-antequated-mix-CD-creating side) had the song Slow Show by the National on it. It was a song special to me when I thought of her.
“I wanna hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up
So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God, I’m very, very frightened, I’ll overdo it
You know I dreamed about you
For twenty-nine years before I saw you
You know I dreamed about you
I missed you for, for twenty-nine years.”
I didn’t just fall in love with a woman though. I also had two wonderful daughters come into my life. There’s no other human relationship where you can have a friend that throws up on you, depends completely on you for survival, contributes almost no effort or resources to your life, emits an ear damaging shriek multiple times a day, and makes you watch the same movies again and again and again and again until you feel you have a strong legal case against the Disney corporation for making it, and you’d still take a bullet for them without a moment of hesitation. They weren’t mine by blood, but they were part of my heart and soul, and even in their absence I feel the tug on my soul. With the woman I loved and the kids I adored, I had a family. I had something more precious than anything I had ever had in my life. A sense of overriding purpose in the world that made every hardship bearable, and every past heart break and defeat worth it.
Turns out the single best compliment I ever received was from a 4-year-old. This amazing little girl had been tortured by her father in ways so horrific that I’m still haunted by it. Yet she survived and endured. Where her older sister was more dissociative, choosing to pretend it was all fine, she had the more appropriate response: She was pissed. Life dealt her a raw deal and she was angry. The universe owed her one. She had so much attitude for someone so young, and I respected it. It already meant the world to me that I was the first man she felt comfortable around after getting away from her dad. I think her and her sister knew that their original stay at my house (long before their mom and I fell for each other) was no simple sleepover, but that they were hiding and that we were taking shifts staying up at night to protect them, though we made it all about fun movies and games to keep them distracted. I was the only male in her life that she let pick her up.
Her feeling safe around me was, in itself, an incredible compliment. The same from her sister. For that matter, their mother’s trust in me was another source of pride for me. The three most important people in my life trusted me. Trust is sadly rare. I think that on some level they probably knew that not just would I never hurt them, but I would protect them from anything at any cost.
So one day, I went into her room to deliver the chopped up hot dog she wanted (cut vertically and then horizontally, because the other way around renders it inedible apparently, haha) and I put the Little Mermaid on the TV I got her and her sister (not just for their entertainment, but so their mom and I could actually get an hour here and there to ourselves) and this forever so matter-of-fact, calls-’em-like-she-sees-’em little girl looks up at me and says “[my name], you’re a good man.” I had to laugh. She said it so seriously. I told her she was a great kid, gave her a thumbs up and left.
And ever since then, I think of that moment. It’s not just a compliment. And it’s not just a sign of trust. It became something more. To me, now, it’s a promise. None of us are good all the time. We’re all jerks now and then, and we all mess up, big time, repeatedly through our lives, but that perfect little 5 word statement of hers makes me want to be a better man for the rest of my life. The thought of ever disappointing her, even now that she’s not part of my life anymore, is appalling. So I have to try every day to live up to it. No easy task for an animal so flawed as a human.
I always think of the song I Want To Protect You by the Eels. One thing I’ve always loved about this song is that it’s all purpose. It can fit as a love song to a girlfriend or song of protective love to a daughter. I’ve always seen it as the latter, probably because I’ve never seen grown women as needing protection beyond the general idea that everyone should protect everyone. It doesn’t specify what type of love, only that desire to protect the people you care about, and that knowledge you get about how important that person is, even when the rest of the world doesn’t/can’t know it. Back then, there were three people I had to protect.
“Not many understand
But I’m your biggest fan
The savage fools cannot appreciate
The miracle of you
How could it be true
You’re everything good in the world.”
It wasn’t happily ever after (nothing ever is) though. The woman I loved moved on and with her went the place I called “home.” Not a house, not a physical place, but home in the truest sense of the word. It’s hard bouncing back from that kind of disappointment. What started as Slow Show and I Want to Protect You became the Rolling Stones 19th Nervous Breakdown LOL. “On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind.
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine.”
So it goes…
The question is what revelation comes next? Impossible to know, but I’m working on a few. Some of them will take to seed and grow brand new ideals in me, and others won’t. We’re such strange hives of personality. One revelation, more deeply personal and yet paradoxically near universal: I want love. Being single is fun. It doesn’t stop you from being happy. It doesn’t make your life less interesting, worthwhile or complete than being with someone else. But for me, just me at least, I loved being in love and I realized that’s who I am. I gave up on it because the revelations I had in my youth told me that I couldn’t have it or I didn’t deserve it. One day hoping hurt so much I stopped. We can’t choose to stop feeling fear, but at some point we have to ask ourselves if we can keep living in that fear. I can’t. I never could and I know that now. Not just romantic love. All love. Now I just need to find the strength to overcome that fear each day I’m alive. Whew…
I’ll probably screw it up, but that’s life and I won’t surrender. Loving others and loving yourself is like Playing With Fire. Yes, I love what is basically a religious song, haha! The lyrics may not mean the same thing to the writer as they do to me, but that’s the nature of art.
“Rolling river of truth, can you spare me a sip?
The holy fountain of youth has been reduced to a drip
I’ve got this burning belief in salvation in love
This notion may be naive, but when push comes to shove
I will till this ground.” -Playing With Fire by Brandon Flowers.