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I struggled choosing the gift. He’s quite mechanically inclined, as he aptly demonstrated the night he removed his own ankle bracelet, so it had to be something he could do with his hands, something that he would find engaging, but not too challenging. Hopefully, I’d find one that didn’t have a bazillion little parts, beyond his limited finger dexterity. A simple wood-working project, that would do. I got him the pirate ship and a birdhouse, small balsa wood models that would fit together simply with the tap of the harmless wooden mallet included in the package.

The dust of one's existence is easily wiped away..

The dust of one’s existence is easily wiped away..

On the way there, we discussed the gifts; too many small nails we decided. Tiny brads no longer then half an inch each, gave us pause. I could envision them scattered on the floor, spilled into his bedclothes or worse, finding their way into his mouth. We pulled over at a Toys “R” Us on the way to find something more suitable if we could. Not really sure of what mental age we would find him in, we settled on a beautiful stuffed German Shepard, warm and soft. Someone to keep him company.

Walking down the corridor was disheartening. Broken minds and withered bodies littered the hall, many staring blankly at empty walls no more than a foot from their faces. A few were aware enough to wave to us, either mistaking us for someone they knew or begging for someone, anyone, to spend a few precious moments with them; one woman kept pointing to me and motioning to a bouquet of flowers in the middle of the barren institutional table she leaned on, as if she was proud of the gift or possibly thanking us for it.

The door to his room was partially opened and I rapped loudly, knowing there was a possibility that his hearing aids were on low. As it turns out, we woke him from a late morning nap. He stirred slowly on the bed, half startled and disoriented but smiling nonetheless. As he greeted us and slowly struggled to a sitting position, Di sat across from his uninviting hospital bed on the only chair in the room; a small folding office chair, the kind you would pull from the basement only if you ran out of decent lawn chairs. The drapes on the window behind her were tattered and worn, threadbare and barely hanging off the curtain rod that looked as if it was mere seconds shy of dropping from the wall. There was nothing in the room to describe its inhabitant; the tan and gray walls were completely barren; no paintings, pictures, frames, decorations or signs of life what so ever. Fitting décor for a place to warehouse those with broken minds.

I asked him if he knew who we were and he said of course, but he never mentioned our names. He asked us how far we had traveled, a question meant to hide the fact that he truly had no idea who we were but which masked his embarrassment that he didn’t. I told him who we were anyway and he admired my sweatshirt emblazoned with the “UNH Wildcat” logo. It pleased him greatly as he touched the raised letters on my shirt and repeated “Wildcat, that’s fantastic,” repeating the growl of a wildcat for us several times. We told him we had a gift for him and he struggled to open the gift bag; I held it on his lap and pulled the stuffed dog from it. He was positively delighted; he asked us if it had a name and we told him no, that he could name it whatever he wanted. I specifically picked the Shepard from the shelf, remembering the story of the Shepard he once had as a boy. There was no connection. He was proud to put it on the small under-sized nightstand near the other small stuffed dog already there. He kept repeating that he wished it could bark, showing us what sound he wished it would make to keep the other residents, who had a tendency to wander into his room uninvited, at bay. He turned and asked us how far we had travelled. And again, we told him.

He said he wouldn’t be there long; he couldn’t wait to go home. He assured us he was going home soon, he just didn’t know when. He never said, but it was clear from his eyes that he not only didn’t know when; he didn’t know where. Where was home? He asked us where his car was? I assured him that it was in his garage, right where he left it. He admired my shirt and asked me where we had traveled from.

The conversation went just that way; seconds of him smiling, us making him laugh, him asking where his car was and how far away we lived. He spoke of boredom (not once while we were there did any staff interact with him at all), how at times it was too loud to sleep but today was quiet because many of the residents had gone for the day, other things to do. I’m quite sure he didn’t have the capacity to realize that none of them were able to go anywhere. I asked him if he remembered our tradition of decorating my house for Christmas, as he stood on the lawn in front of the porch and directed the work. His face lit and he assured me that he remembered, and how much he enjoyed it as well. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to fool me or himself, but I decided that I wasn’t going to let go of this memory and told him that we loved it too.

The visit was short, barely an hour. He smiled often, we made him laugh. He asked us where his car was and how long was our drive. He asked us if the dog had a name. He said he was bored; there was nothing for him to do. I wondered if he would have been more connected to others, to himself, if he had some stimulation, a least a picture on the dammed walls or possibly someone to speak to. The smell of the institutional meal was wafting down the corridor and we knew his lunch would soon be coming. We decided we needed to let him have his lunch, to keep him at least on this small schedule. We told him we had to leave and he stood and hugged us. He wanted to walk us up the corridor to the nurse’s station but no further; anything more tires him out he told us. He asked us how long we had to travel and we told him. We said goodbye and exchanged kisses on the cheek, though his hug reminded me of the cordial embrace one gives and receives from someone who was once a passing, fleeting acquaintance.

On the way home, I realized I had been sitting in hell’s waiting room. I saw the shell of a man I admire; empty, void of identity. He wakes in a strange room in a location he can’t identify. All he was, all he knew, shattered images in time, lost forever in a cloud of nothingness; no attachment, no past, nothing to remind him of who he was or who he is. I wondered if he was in emotional pain; can one long for those you never knew? Is all that’s left a daily void? Every minute of every day, surrounded by strangers, some you just met thirty minutes ago; many who tell you they’ve know you all their lives. Is it frightening to be forever surrounded by people you don’t recognize, including the one who stares back from the bathroom mirror?

So many things I wanted to tell him; so many things I wanted to say; things that would be quite startling, confusing, possibly unnerving coming from a complete stranger. I would tell you that I miss you; that we love you. That you mean so much to us, the couple you just met and will probably forget before we even reach the highway on that drive that we told you about so many times.

We are fragile. We make memories to hold, to comfort us as we get older. We reminisce fondly of those who have shaped our lives, many molding us into the person we have become. It is nothing short of utter desolation to lose all we were, all we are, and to forever be in a world where we are strangers to ourselves too.

After all; who are we if we are not the collection of moments we gather to ourselves over the span of our lives: that collection of experiences, faces and events that apparently can be easily wiped away like some useless writing on a forgotten chalkboard.


I hate the morning mirror. Just another reminder on a daily basis that time keeps inching forward, and my waistline keeps inching outward. With all due respect to Sir Paul; no, I’m not half the man I used to be either. More like one and a half times the man I used to be. And, if wisdom comes with age, I must be a freakin’ sage. No matter, I have to concentrate and get rid of the horrific white stubble that makes me look rather like a vagabond. Today of all days, please let me get through this without severing part of my upper lip or excising an ear lobe. Is my hand shaking with too much excitement to do this? All I ask is that if I can no longer look young and handsome, at least let me look acceptable; passable. For tonight, I have a date with the girl of my dreams.

I hear it even now....

I hear it even now….

Somehow, I managed to get the cold, multi-bladed instrument of torture to navigate around the gourd that masquerades as my nose, with no loss of skin or blood. All in all, a pretty good start to the day. Hey, I’ll take my victories wherever I can, no matter how small. Now, I just need to make sure my shirt is clean and pressed, my slacks are neat and for gosh sakes, try to make sure my dammed socks match. Preferably with no holes.

Twenty years have gone by. Twenty. The same anxiety I had that night buzzes through my body now, just as it did then. My stomach is doing the same back flips. It’s simple really; I worried for a whole week twenty years ago leading up to that night, hoping that somehow I could convince her to say yes. Since then, I’ve been hoping to convince her she made the right decision.

Twenty years. The restaurant is gone now, replaced by who knows what; probably some quickie mart or local Hallmark store or whatever. She loved it there. The food was always fantastic, the service was welcoming and friendly. The atmosphere was so relaxed, dim and romantic with plants and flowers all over the room. It had to be there. Had to. I’ve never asked her if she expected it. I never asked her if she noticed my hands trembling like an addict’s in withdrawal. Thank goodness that the room was candlelit or she may have seen the red tinges of my ears, the flush in my face. Or was I terrified white? I can’t remember. I do remember the pain I felt in my right hand, jammed way down into the front right pocket of my slacks, tightly gripping the ring, rolling it over and over in my hand, stopping every so often to squeeze it tight enough to dig into the fleshy part of my palm. I was afraid to let it go, convinced that I was going to lose it, drop it on the floor, misplace it somehow in much the same way I can misplace my keys or glasses with alarming ease and frequency.

I managed to smuggle a small poem that I had written on simple white paper, in script, in a beautiful black frame. During a casual walk to the men’s room, I nervously slipped it into the hands of the waitress and she quickly became a co-conspirator. Well, actually, her and a couple of the other waitresses. She managed to bring it out just after our meal, right before we were expecting dessert. I wish she wouldn’t have waited near the table with her co-workers; it felt like a thousand eyes upon me. I was only interested in two; two beautiful, bright blue eyes that mesmerized me from the first glance and have enthralled me ever since.

I had to write it down. I would never have gotten through it otherwise. My mind was racing and scattered, my tongue had no master and my mouth would never be able to adequately convey my thoughts without rushing or stuttering. Somewhere between the heart, the mind and the lips, emotion takes far too many twists to be expressed the way that it’s truly felt. No way I was going to risk this; no way.

It was simple. She read it slowly, at first not quite sure what it was when it was placed in front of her. And in that moment, I realized that there is nothing quite so beautiful in the world as the reflection of candlelight in her tear-welled eyes. As she read it, I realized that I might have just managed to have another person peer directly into my soul. I let her read it over again before I said a word;

Diane;

Marriage is a dance to love,

which is the music of life;

Please dance with me until the music stops.

Love;

Jeff

Twenty years have gone by. Twenty. That she said yes still makes me tear up. Twenty years. And in all that time, I still hear the music. What was once a soulful ballad, sung softly by a hopeful lone voice has become a symphony with rich, deep lows and breathtaking crescendos. I hear it when she walks into the room. I hear it when she speaks, or when she sighs. I hear it when I’m alone and my thoughts wander to her face. It lulls me to sleep every night. It echoes in the deepest part of my being.

Please tell me, dear Diane, that you hear it too; that twenty years hasn’t dulled the beauty of the music for you. Does it make you sway involuntarily? Does it wash over you, warm your soul the way it does mine? Does it still have meaning, this symphony, twenty years after it became the soundtrack to my life?

If it does, then dance with me for another twenty years. Diane, give me your hand; stand and embrace me.

And I will waltz with you through eternity.

Jeff

 


Another milestone, another tear. Should I have been prepared for this one, knowing it too was coming? I already faced the mixed bag of emotions when my eldest reached sixteen, realizing that the path I have chosen, the burden I have so eagerly, gleefully placed upon on my shoulders is coming to fruition. Fatherhood cannot be all rainbows, glitter and unicorn poop; one day you blink and she’s standing at the altar with someone you want to trust to love her and adore her with the same abandon that you have had her whole life. But the years have been kind to me; I have been part of the lives of two of the most beautiful souls I have ever come across. I could only have hoped that it would have lasted longer, ebbed away instead of hurtling away at the speed of light. Can’t we cuddle on the couch just one more time? We’ll see if we can find “Clifford” on PBS like we used to. Just us; no boys, no school, no Drivers-Ed, no world outside of “dad and daddy’s little girl” where I know you’ll always be safe and I know I’ll always be in your heart. We never heard the alarm of the dreaded “father clock”; can’t we linger just a little longer? I promise, I’ll make a ridiculously huge bucket of popcorn, just like I used to.

The things we remember make us who we are...

The things we remember make us who we are…

No, we can’t linger any longer. You’re running headlong into the world and I couldn’t be prouder. The memories we shared will forever play in my nighttime theater, old black and white reels of giggles and adventures. I remember when it wasn’t safe for me to kneel down on all fours to peer under the couch or a chair for a lost toy; it was always an open invitation for you to leap onto my back, demanding to be ridden around the living room until I was exhausted, breathless from the task and the uncontrollable laughter. It was always thus with you; you are joy incarnate, a deep resounding appreciation of life, love, friends and laughter. You are the light in any room; an easy, inviting soul. I can even see it in the eyes of your many friends who look to you for inspiration, acceptance or comfort. It is so rewarding to see you touch so many people the way you have touched me.

I may have been somewhat melancholy before; it is different with you. You are my baby, my last child. Yet, I only feel the apprehension of separation for you; I will always wish to be there for you. I’ll loosen my grip but I’ll never let go. But as I watched you grow into the young lady I now see before me, I took my own strength from your accomplishments, knowing that your depth of character, your remarkable intelligence tempered by a loving heart accompanied by a quirky, dry humor will endear you to many; I have yet to see you back down from a challenge, or fail at one. But your intelligence is only surpassed by your humility. The dignity you carry yourself with, and the deep respect and love you have for others is inspiring. Could I at least, in some small measure, claim that I had any contribution to the lovely soul which you have become? Or is that just vanity on my part? As I have said before, this is and has long been my calling:

I only want to be a good father. No greater responsibility can be placed on any man’s shoulders; No greater reward can be had.

I’m sorry, but I cannot allow myself to think that you have become the person you are now without me having some influence, however insignificant. A father’s pride I guess. Through the years, I spent many hours agonizing over if I was teaching you well, was I the father you deserved, did I do a good job…always agonizing over everything, every issue large and small, giving the same import to flowers that wilted to soon or pets that would pass unexpectedly. Did you have your helmet on? Were you climbing too high? Did you brush your teeth tonight? And through it all, you displayed a serene calmness, smile pasted on your face that seemed out of place for one so young; a lesson you took great pains to teach your father. I guess I always worried until the day you actually put the issue into perspective for me; “gee dad, I’m just not into all that drama.” I watch intently now as you navigate your life, seemingly frenetic to me, but barely giving you pause.

I only ask that you bear with me now. I’m sure I’ll embarrass you in front of your friends. Maybe I’ll get on your nerves asking about this grade, or details on this or that friend. Who are you with, when will you be back. You know, dad stuff. The stuff that lets me believe, lets me hope that I’m still important in your life, now that your life is so filled with things other than me. And always know that I am proud of you. I know you and your sister find it funny when I get all weepy; something I can’t control. Maybe a little too much drama.

But in the end, you are sixteen. And soon seventeen and then on and on. But the one constant is that I will always love you, I will always be proud of you. And I am more and more astounded by the person you have become and the possibilities that stretch out in front of you. My dear little Hannah; go on, get out there and own this world. I have no doubts that you’ll be successful in anything that you set your mind to. And don’t you ever look back.

Well, except once in a while to wave and to say “I love you, dad.”

After all, I still need a little drama…


I tried my best you know; being stoic. It just doesn’t work for me though, no matter how hard I try. If it’s not welling up in my eyes, it’s firmly lodged in my throat making it hard for me to get anything out without a quiver. You know; you’ve seen it. Whether it’s you bounding out on stage in your first ballet, your teeny little tutu fluttering, or as you walked across the stage to receive your scholarships, I’m sure you saw it in my eyes. I know sometimes it embarrasses you, so I try to keep it hidden. Well, at least under control. Usually with little success. The competing emotions make it hard to find a solution to keep it in check. Part pride; part sadness; sheer joy; muted concern. I can’t nail it down. If you can’t name it, you can’t fix it. It’s all part of the dad thing I guess. Let’s face it, you’ll never stop touching my heart until my heart decides to stop on its own.

Dads never let go.....

Dads never let go…..

I know I caught a little of it in your eyes too. As we decided where to hang your tapestry, your smile was interrupted briefly, very briefly, possibly only noticeable by those who study your face as constantly as I do. A small glitch, as if the signal had frozen and the feed hadn’t caught up. And just like that, it was gone, replaced by the boundless confidence and enthusiasm that bubbles from your personality.  We had quite a while to prepare for this day, you and I. From the hours we spent in the car canvasing different campuses, to the summer-long process of mom filling her checklist of the things you’ll need, we always knew we’d be packing the car full of your new life and disgorging it into some cramped, institutionally designed room where you’ll start the next chapter that takes you so far from us.  But it’s not just the distance. It’s the time; that vacant spot you’ll leave in our daily existence, the dammed inability for me to determine that you’re okay, that you don’t need anything, that dad can’t be there; even though it’s what I struggled to prepare you for your whole life. I guess I should have prepared myself. I was too busy denying it would ever come, as if I could put it off just by ignoring it and pushing it into the same dark corner of my mind where I hide the rest of my fears and disappointments.

But I can’t let my life be a series of events that I see in the rear view mirror of my past. I’ll always look back and see you; the first step, the first words, the start of school, the first date. It’s all there, letting me see where we came from as we map out where we go next, as if life always cooperates and things go as we plan. No, the rear view mirror only serves to remind me of how utterly fantastic and randomly wonderful my life has truly been. Every day, every event in that day made that particular day “the greatest day in my life.” Marrying your mom; greatest day of my life. The day you were born; greatest day in my life. Sharing a quiet paddle on the lake, the wildlife observing us as we awed at the majesty of it all; greatest day of my life. Every day with you has been just that; the greatest day of my life.

Perspective. I need perspective. Every little memory that fades in the rear view as I drive further down the road of my mortality was once an exciting, distant location looming larger in the windshield as it approached. Some of life’s little trips were meticulously planned; many were not. But I was always at the wheel, always in control, with the exception of the radio of course. Now I’m the passenger, maybe even sitting in the back as you steer toward your own destiny, trips and events planned and unplanned, always and forever heading forward in the direction which you have set for yourself, making memories that you’ll revisit one day in the rear view mirror of your own mind. And who knows, maybe you’ll find you get the same sharp, shortness of breath, the same hitch in your throat as you look forward toward destinations uncertain, peeking back into the memories that have set you on the journey which you embrace with full abandon today. And I’ll learn that going along for the ride now means that the greatest days of my life, from this point forward, will be those that you share with me, on a journey of your choosing, with days that will forever become “the greatest day” of your life.  I know you’ll have many; I know you deserve them. I cannot tell you just how proud I am. I like to think I have a way with words; there is however, no way to tell you just how happy I am for you.

So I turn the car away from the campus, the last images of your dorm peeking from the trees and obscured by the buildings that surround it. Maybe it was better that we said our good-byes quickly. Just the same, I peeked back in the rear view mirror, hoping against hope to get one last glimpse; maybe you were running after the car, maybe I should stop just to be sure you weren’t trying to follow me. No; you weren’t following. You’re on your own journey now, one that breaks my heart when I realize it’ll take you away from me and I’ll have to share you with a cold, uncaring, difficult world. But’s that’s only a dad’s perspective. Actually, you’re running headlong into a wonderful future, a fantastic journey that leads who knows where, to places I’ve only dreamed of; without fear, without hesitation, with the confidence and enthusiasm to achieve your dreams and your goals, ticking off one “greatest day” after another.  I know this because that’s the way we raised you. I can still see it in the mirror of my soul.

As I ponder how time will now move forward, I catch a glimpse of your sister’s face. She’s searching her own mirror, thinking of all the giggles you’ve shared, the things you’ve seen, done and accomplished together, sisters by birth, best friends by the tug of your hearts. And just as with the expression on your face in the dorm, whatever cloud darkened her face drifts away and instantly she’s back to the wide grin that she often wears.  She’ll miss you too, but soon she’ll have to face the windshield of her life and search into the distance for the journey that will take her from us as well. But this time, I’ll be prepared.

I plan to rip the rear view mirror from the car.

Lesson learned…..

 


No one knows when he died. No one knows how he died. Well, obviously someone does. Whoever wrapped his little body in a black plastic trash bag sealed with duct tape certainly knows. Aside from that, if not for a routine traffic stop, the only person who would have known that Quincy Davis was dead would have been the person who stashed him in the truck of her car ten years ago; his loving mother.

Who loved Quincy?

Who loved Quincy?

No funeral, no memorial, no grieving for Quincy. Apparently, his mother Tonya Slayton felt no remorse at all; well, she might have been a little annoyed at the inconvenience of him taking up valuable cargo space in her car, but other than that, she went on with her life pretty much as if nothing had ever happened. Or, quite possibly, it got a little better as she was no longer burdened with the very child she brought into this world.

Sorry, but children are, bluntly, inconveniences to many people. I see it all the time. Parents pushing their children into the arms of strangers, if not outright abandoning them to the streets. Keeping them busy in one activity or another so they don’t have to spend any face time with them. “I need a little me time, time with adults,” I’ve heard often. Take it for what it’s worth. I take it at face value. You can’t stand to be with your own children. Then again there are those for whom a child is nothing more than a conversation piece, a trinket, a possession, something they can put on display. Ask them just who their kid’s friends are, what their child’s favorite color is. Yeah, good luck.

No mention of the father in any story I have found to date; fathers are pretty damned inconvenient in society today too. What about siblings? No aunts, grampy or grandma? No favorite uncles, snot-nosed cousins, rambunctious best friends? No neighbors, parents of BFF’s, coaches, teachers, pastors, local friggin’ barbers? No one on this great green planet noticed the hole created by Quincy’s absence? Did no one ever hug this child, kiss his forehead, feel for him in their hearts? For God’s sake, what kind of miserable existence must this child have had before someone ended his life and he became a permanent fixture in the rear of his mother’s mustang? How could anyone, let alone a child, live day-to-day knowing that he was of such little value to anyone that he could vanish forever and no one would notice. Or care. And don’t think this wasn’t Quincy’s life. You know damned well it was. Just another expendable little life, brought into this world by another selfish cretin with a personality disorder so advanced that the stench of her own son rotting in the truck of her car had no effect.

Yes, it tears my eyes to read this. Catches in my throat. His death was probably quite violent, the final culmination of a life that was deemed absolutely worthless from the beginning. It was his mother who determined he was of no value to anyone in this world. As a result, there is no one to mourn him now.

Well, I mourn you Quincy. You deserve your special place in heaven. Rest well little man.

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