Dad, I was not the best son.
To my child's brain, it seemed that all you ever wanted to do was work. After you came home? You did yard work. Weekends? All we had was yard work, toiling under hot sun as we sweated and burned our skin, or during the winter, bundled in thick jackets while we raked up leaves and trimmed bushes. I began to hate the sound of the rake, making that peculiar "skrrrrrrit!" noise as it scraped against concrete, and the crunch of dry leaves that seemed to avoid being pulled into the dustpan, only to break apart into smaller pieces.
I hated the smell of cut grass, and the acrid scent of trimmed juniper bushes, because all they reminded me of was the fact that I would be outside again next weekend, doing the same thing, over and over. Sundays often meant washing your car, or polishing shoes in preparation for school on Monday. I got used to my fingers getting pruney, temporary premature wrinkles of an age I did not feel yet, and the smell of shoe polish as it permeated the back porch where I had to work.
I hated *you,* because you were always the one who made me do this. I was rebellious, angry, and full of selfish hate. Why me? Why did I have to do this stuff, when your other son seemed to have it easy. Why was it always the job of the eldest to do yard work, small maintenance, and other things that your younger son could do so easily, and yet, was not there with me?
. . .
Then, one day, you weren't there anymore. Cancer descended swiftly.
It was only a few days later, after you were in the ground, that I realized you did not make me work just for the sake of working. Instead, you had imparted wisdom: When was the best time to pick oranges off the tree and how a ripe orange was supposed to look, feel, and smell; when it was important to clean a car, and how important it was to make sure it was a thorough job so the paint job and interior lasted longer, how to clean shoes to make them appear like new and keep them from breaking down, and the benefits of keeping a well-manicured lawn, and trimmed bushes, without needing to hire a gardener.
So, Dad, thank you for these things. Thank you for showing me what you knew. Thank you for giving me the wisdom that I could only appreciate later in life, as an adult. Thank you for the lessons that I needed to learn, even though I did not understand them at the time.
...and I hope you can forgive me for being the person I once was.
“The Spirituality of the Tangible”
I'm reminded of what Vine Deloria Jr. said about religion and spirituality: "Religion is for people who're afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who've already been there."
Now, there are different kinds of hell: The most well-known one is the hell of the afterlife, that religious people fear as some kind of punishment for a life ill-lived.
...but the other hells: addiction to drugs and alcohol, abuse, mental illness--those hells are far more prevalent and real.
In my experience, the interesting thing about people who have survived these kinds of hell --abuse, addiction, and mental illness-- are the people who have an interesting view of spirituality: They don't identify with any particular type of religion, so much as they believe in more tangible things: Good people, warmth, charity and friendliness, and the reality of how people treat others. That in itself is a type of spirituality--the spirituality of the tangible.
That is not my chair.
At my mother's house, there is an old wicker chair that my dad used to use. He'd sit on it to work on whatever things he had picked up earlier: Wiring, a broken thing of some kind, or something.
Looking at it, I could already here the peculiar "creeeak" of the wicker as it adjusts when he sat down on it. He would then reach up with one hand, adjust his glasses, then get to work on whatever doodad or piece of technology that required repair, the occasional "creeeak" of the chair protesting as he adjusted his position.
I came to associate that chair with Dad: That was "Dad's Chair," and not mine.
. . .
When he passed away, I realized that's one of the things I missed: Knowing that Dad would be there, in that seat, working on something. I had grown comfortable with him sitting there, focused, hands moving over the object of his attentions, making it better. That's what he did.
...and he always did it in *that* chair.
When I look at it, I realize I can't sit in it. I can't own it. It isn't mine.
It's not my chair.
It's Dad's chair. It always will be.
. . .
Let us dream.
To think that we are just creatures made of flesh and bone is to underrate ourselves and our potential--especially, what our minds are capable of achieving.
You may be a mother who is frought with worry over what her child is doing every second of the day. That’s okay--good mothers do that.
You may be an office worker, trying to struggle from paycheck to paycheck, doing your best to make rent.
You may be a professional athlete, staring at the field during tryouts, wondering if you have what it takes again this year.
The thing is, in the end, we have a common ability: The mother, dreaming of a child that will grow up to do something wonderful. The office worker, wanting that better life where they don’t have to worry about how much of that next paycheck will help cover bills. The pro athlete making that last-second, winning goal and helping their team win the championship.
The common ability? To dream of more, of something better.
We are allowed to dream. We are allowed to think big. We are allowed to wish for more than what we have now.
So, when anyone tells you that you can’t afford to have dreams, or that you’re not allowed to, or that you’re stuck where you are and can’t improve your situation...to hell with them. To hell with their limits. To hell with them defining *you* by *their* shortcomings.
Dream that dream, and reach for that goal. Don’t let anyone stop you, because they *can’t* stop you.
...and most of all, don’t let *you* stop you.
Sometimes, that hole can’t be filled.
I stood there in my suit and tie, which I barely wore. I had a surreal moment where I remember the last time I put it on; it was for a job interview two years ago. Since then, it sat in the closet, on a hanger, untouched and unused.
The idea that I had to put it on again for a friend’s funeral seemed...out of place, somehow. Like I should have put on different clothes for this.
I stood in front of the coffin and looked down at my best friend Kenny, reclining in it; his face appearing calm and serene, as though he was taking an afternoon nap, instead of his final rest. Just last week he and I were discussing his dreams to visit Tibet and possibly see Everest. We were sitting on his back porch, watching his kids play in the late afternoon sun, cold beers in our hands and bellies full of his wife’s cooking. I watched his kids running around, chasing each other, laughing and screaming while the sounds of dishes and pots banging together under running water drifted through the open kitchen window.
“I can’t stay here, Marco,” he sighed before sipping. “I just...I need to get out and experience something. Like those times I talked about going on a safari in the jungles of Africa, or exploring glaciers in Antarctica...that kind of stuff.”
“You have great kids, and a loving wife,” I replied, my butt firmly placed on the top back porch step, which was bathed in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. “To me, that’s my idea of heaven. What else could you want?”
He stared off into the trees beyond the edge of his property, saying nothing as he sat there, beer in hand. The writers called it ‘the thousand-yard stare’ and it was usually associated with soldiers who had seen too much war.
I had been seeing a lot of it in Kenny’s eyes as of late, whenever we got together. This topic of his feeling empty and restless had been on his mind a lot, for a while.
“I just...I feel empty, Marco. Like there’s a huge hole in me that was never plugged. Like it’s too late to plug it.”
I felt uncomfortable at this. I didn’t know how to respond to this kind of talk, and my stomach twisted and churned like I had active snakes in my belly. “Well, you need a therapist, my man. Someone who can fix your noggin.”
“I made an appointment for a shrink up in the city,” he said, still staring into the distance as the trees rustled and swayed in the breeze. He tipped back his bottle and swigged until it was empty, then set it down. “I hope he can help me.” Kenny turned to face me. “Haven’t you ever felt...I dunno, ‘empty’ Marco? Like there was a huge piece of you that was missing?”
Crank up the snakes churning in my stomach, now having a full-on dance party. “Uh...Kenny, I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know this stuff--I’m just a car mechanic. I can help you rebuild your GTO, but this mental stuff...” I shrugged, and finished off my beer, the last suds tickling my throat as it went down.
In retrospect, I wished I had listened to him more, and had advice to give him. Something, anything, to prevent what happened two days later. Instead, he got up, gave a half-hearted grin, and looked at his kids with undisguised envy. “I wish I was like them. So full of promise and hope. A life ahead of them that hasn’t been ruined.”
I got up and clapped him on the back. “C’mon. Let’s help Lena put the food away.” I smiled, trying to get his mind off of this subject. I gave him a gentle push back into his house, towards his kitchen.
Now, here I was a week later, staring down at his corpse. I had to admire the job the embalmers did; he still looked alive. Like he would get up at any second, smile, and go hug his kids, and kiss his wife. Poor Lena. She was sitting in the front row of the church, dressed in black, bawling her eyes out while her sisters did their best to support her. She loved Kenny so much...I guess it just wasn’t enough.
His kids were there too; little blonde-haired, blue-eyed angels that looked out of place in their black suit and dress. Hannah, the youngest at five, was kind of dazed and out of focus, not understanding the ways of grown-ups and why they were doing these things for her daddy, whispering questions about why he was sleeping in a big wooden box.
Ernest, at seven, had his father’s thousand-yard stare right now, dark circles under his eyes from loss of sleep. He was the one who found Kenny with his wrists slashed and his life bled out down the drain of his family’s bathtub. That poor kid. That’s the last thing any child that age should go through.
I made my way to the podium, and tapped the mic. I heard the thump-thump-thump resound through the church. Yep, it worked.
I was not a public speaker. I hated the idea of doing this, and the snakes in my stomach started roiling again. But as Kenny’s best friend, it was my duty. So, I manned up, and spoke:
“I knew Kenny. We grew up together in the South Side, going to Saint Martha’s together, and later Bowie High. He got into computers, and met his lovely wife, Lena.” I tried to smile at the tearful woman sitting in the nearby pew. She continued crying, inconsolable, and my heart hurt to hear her in such pain.
“He was lucky to be a father to two great kids, Ernest and Hannah,” I paused at this. Hannah looked up at me from her seat in the church, and waved, smiling. I gave a little wave back before continuing.
“Kenny had dreams about exploring Mount Everest, kayaking down the Amazon River, and diving for treasure wrecks off the coast of Florida. He was also a practical man, and he put them aside to be a husband and father. He didn’t want his children to grow up like he did, without a father to care for them. As soon as he heard the knews that Lena was pregnant, he turned to me and said, ‘Marco, I’m going to be the best father those kids ever had,’ and I believed him. When Kenny did something, he did it with his heart and soul.”
I paused at this. What do I do now? I express his private regrets that he wished he did those adventures? That would tear Lena apart, not to mention give his kids issues. There had to be a better way to tell people what was going on inside him without turning him into a villain. He truly did love his wife and kids...but in the end, I guess he really didn’t know how to reconcile setting aside his dreams for the life of a husband and father.
...And that must have been what wrecked him inside, and drove him to end it.
“I don’t know what happened. I knew Kenny talked about an emptiness inside him, and at the time, I didn’t know what it was. But it bothered him a lot. Like he...like there was something inside him that was a hole that needed filling with something. I just wish I knew what it was when we spoke; maybe I could have helped him. I’m good at fixing cars; I’m not good at fixing people.”
I turned to the coffin at this, and spoke to my dead best friend. “Kenny, I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to say so that you didn’t do this.” The hot tears began to roll down my cheeks at this, and I let them. “I wish there was a way you could have filled that hole inside you. I wish there was a way I could have helped you fill it. I wish there was a way to...to have helped you, somehow.” I turned back to the mourners, many of them sniffling and bringing out kerchiefs and tissues.
I continued. “Growing up, I didn’t have a brother--I was an only kid. But Kenny was the closest thing to a brother I ever had... and I wish I had my brother back.” I wiped the tears away with my suit sleeve, leaving shiny trails on it as I went back to my seat.
The day life went away.
It was another day of the same routine, over and over.
Get up, eat, go to work, deal with people screaming at me all day, drive home in bumper-to-bumper traffic, try to put some food into me, stay up too late, and then sleep. Sleep through the weekends to make up for lost sleep during the week.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Every two weeks, the paycheck I took home was barely enough to cover rent and utilities. I, a grown man, had to beg my parents for money to buy food.
The funny thing is, I didn't plan for life to be this way. After college, I had hopes of being a teacher...until I saw the horrific treatment teachers received in public schools in my area.
Nope. Not going down that road.
So, I took a job in civil service hoping to make a difference.
Instead, I am straight-jacketed by rules not of my own making, telling the public words that they do not want to hear, and receiving verbal abuse trying to enforce said rules. I am trying my best to help people who do not see a person helping them navigate the nebulous restrictions laid down by managers who never did my job, and well-meaning politicians who created policies that did more harm than their intended good. Instead, they see me as the enemy.
"You suck, dude!"
"You don't fuckin' care!"
"How would you like it if I told you that!?"
Day-in, and day-out. Eight hours a day, five days a week. The goal is to survive to get the paycheck.
Somehow during that time, I lost who I was. I lost joy in doing things. I lost the person who enjoyed living.
I lost *me.*
...and I don't know how to find him again.
There is sunshine even on an overcast day.
Here's the thing:
The sun is always there. During a rainy day, when it's pouring buckets and you're considering gathering two of every animal before building an ark? It's behind the cloud cover. Even when it's snowing, there is sunshine.
There is sunshine in the darkest, pitch-black room where there are no windows.
There is sunshine in the crevices and caves of the deepest parts of the Earth.
There is sunshine in the darkest parts of war-torn countries when it looks like there is no hope.
There is sunshine when a baby is born, crying and screaming, and when that elderly person takes their final breath.
Remember that. There is sunshine, and where you take it, it will always go. The sunshine is inside, and no one can ever take it away from you.