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Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

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The Mender (May, 1987)

Make do and mend copy

It’s funny how something as simple as a small boy’s open face can tumble even the firmest defenses.

Sitting at my desk at school, surrounded by half-filled mugs of coffee, dog-eared laboratory manuals, and fermenting laundry; pressed from all sides by assignments outstanding; due dates looming like dark clouds, I decided I had had enough. With a single gesture, I cleared my desk, sending self-important documents sprawling across the floor. Picking a pen and a few sheets of paper out of the wreckage, I began to write:

Zooming down the highway at seventy-five miles an hour, the young woman reviewed her time-table for the day. Before setting out on her errands, she had dutifully visited the tiny apartment her mother and grandmother had shared since her mother had abruptly left her father in mid-January. After thirty minutes of polite conversation, thirty minutes during which her mother had self-consciously picked at her ragged cuticles with large-knuckled fingers, thirty minutes during which her grandmother had rocked, quenched and quiet, in her oversized rocker, the young woman had excused herself.

She had gone on to the bank and then to the post office. Sometime before she headed back to campus, she would stop by the grocery store to pick up stockings for her grandmother and some cereal for herself. If she were lucky, she would have time to pick up her father’s suit at the dry cleaners.

But first things first….She was now on her way to visit her father, who had been admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. A week ago, he had almost died; but a second surgery and three transfusions had pulled him through. On her way to the hospital, she would stop at the house to look for his checkbook and gather his mail—today was the day she was to help him pay the bills. The daughter visualized her father’s fleshy and stubborn face atop his flaccid white body.

As she pulled up to the house, she noticed that the garbage cans were overflowing. They looked as though they had been sitting in the driveway for a week. The grass had grown tall since she had last been home, and someone’s lark had left tire marks, deep black scars, in the damp spring soil. Cigarette butts and bottle caps, a sure sign of her brother’s habitation, littered a path worn from the drive to the front door. In all the windows, the curtains had been drawn, adding to the property’s forlorn appearance.

Cautiously, she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside. Ugh! A cloud of stale marijuana smoke burned her eyes. She squinted in the darkness. As she made her way to the window to open the drapes and let in fresh air, she stumbled over a disarray of pillows and blankets mounded in the center of the living room.

When she had opened the drapes and thrown open the windows, she stood back in surprise. The house’s emptiness shocked her. At least her brother had had the courtesy to move most of the furniture and breakables out of the way before having a party. She shuddered to think of all that would have been ruined or missing had he not taken these precautions. Still, without the pictures and knick-knacks, the upstairs seemed gray and lifeless. Perhaps it was right that they should have been moved. The objects her mother had lovingly arranged throughout the house had perpetrated a cheerful lie. At least now the deceit had ended. Her mother had walked out three months ago, weary of her father’s bickering and her brother’s wildness. She would not soon return. Why shouldn’t the rooms of the house bear witness to the facts?

Now, in the afternoon shadows, the remaining cabinets gaped like empty mouths; white spots replaced the floral prints and showed the walls to be badly in need of paint. Butts and stains had rooted themselves in the brown carpet like persistent weeds. No scents of cooking or cut flowers warmed the house now. Instead, the air was ripe with the odors of stale beer and smoke–and vegetables rotting in the refrigerator.

She studied the huge black speaker strategically placed in a corner of the living room and facing her now with utmost contempt. Her brother had taped its wire to the carpet with strips of electrical tape, forming a snake-like suture leading back into his room and the mother system. Following this trail, his sister tiptoed back to his room. She expected to find him asleep, as usual, resting after a long night of partying, but he was not in his bed. Thank God he was not there! Had he threatened her today, nobody would have been around to help her.

Sleeping, he resembled a good-natured giant, his oversized hands and feet protruding from his wiry frame and dangling off the bed, which had become too short to contain him. And his face…he had prided himself on the scruffy beginnings of a mustache. Seeing him asleep, one could almost forget his temper, the drugs, the late-night police visits….

She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes in momentary relief.

In an instant, relief gave way to anger. Didn’t her brother EVER think of anyone but himself? Of course not! He had a way of worming his way out of every predicament, disclaiming all of the responsibilities and escaping most of the consequences of his doings. He simply did whatever her wished, knowing that eventually, someone else would be forced to pick up his tab. What would happen now? Her father was to be released from the hospital in a few days. Was he to come home to this? Was it any wonder he had developed an ulcer?

Ignoring the knot in her stomach, she tried to focus her energies on the problem at hand. She willed the larger issues to the back of her mind in order to treat their symptom. She would just have to squeeze out a few hours to do some straightening and cleaning.

Where should she begin? She could not move the heavy furniture herself, and yet she knew she could elicit no cooperation from her brother. Her sister would be of no assistance. She had moved out a week ago, her green eyes shot with red, and was still too uneasy to return to the house. Her mother…? She would not ask this woman to abandon her new-found adolescence for motherhood in all of its responsibilities. Enough! She would concentrate on the positive—how she could serve her father and how she should be glad to be able to serve him in this way. With her hands on her hips, lips pursed, she surveyed her situation and determined what she could accomplish alone.

Gathering up the soiled bedding, she sang to herself. She sang as she emptied hampers and retrieved underclothes and towels from bathroom floors. By the time she had hauled all the bundles down to the laundry room, she was weary of Joni Mitchell and her melancholy lyrics and searched her mind for lighter tunes.

Time flew as she straightened and scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed. Her mood began to lift. A gentle breeze had cleansed the air; and, like a tender rain, the pine-scented cleaner had bathed the house in freshness. The sinking sun warmed the rooms, repossessing them one by one.

Brave in her triumph, the young woman dared to touch the large speaker which still defaced the living room. She pulled up the black tape and managed to push the beast back into her brother’s room and shut the door. She felt the satisfaction of one who has vanquished a trespasser. Flicking back her damp bangs with the palm of her hand, she felt ready to face her own room.

She thrust open the door and met with the sound of breaking china. Now she knew where her brother had stored the articles he had removed from the other rooms. Appliances, boxes of breakables, and a stray bong prevented her from opening the door very far and forced her to squeeze her way through for a closer look. After a quick examination, she retreated, not desiring to compromise her good cheer. She would reclaim her own room another day. Today she had neither the time nor the energy to wonder who had slept in her bed, or what had become of her jewelry box, or what that was floating in her toilet. She closed the door and returned to the living room for one last inspection.

She was genuinely pleased with what she had been able to accomplish. Small victories such as these made the larger battles seem less formidable. With every struggle, she acknowledged, comes a bounty of good. Silently she thanked God for the beautiful weather. She thanked Him for the fact that her father would be leaving the hospital shortly… and that she had entered the house before he had.

She put behind her the times she had attempted, herself, to mend and patch and pick up the loose ends in her household. She put behind her the times she had believed in herself, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, and been disappointed. She felt strong. She had hope. Soon things would change—she had prayed that they would. God had heard her. Soon there would be an end to this vicious spiral, the seemingly endless chain of bitterness and rebellion. Yes, she had hope: vibrant hope, realistic hope—realistic because she knew that whatever its form, God’s answer was at hand. Her mother might never return; her brother might never change from his abusive lifestyle. Still, she knew relief would come.

Looking out the picture window at the blooming dogwood, she observed Mark, the little boy from across the street, approaching her house. With large, clumsy steps, he bounced up the driveway, holding his cupped hands importantly before him. The girl smiled to herself. She wondered what he could be bringing this time… an injured bird, a dandelion, a fistful of cookies…?

He stopped before he reached the house and planted his feet steadily and deliberately, as if to brace himself. For a moment he paused. Then he rubbed his hands together, spreading a handful of refuse across the lawn. With a look of innocent satisfaction, he turned and started for home.

Violently, the girl flung open the door. In a second she had spun the child around.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she screamed, her flushed face inches from his.

Wide-eyed and without comprehension, he looked first into one pupil and then the other. He hesitated.

“My father was mad because your brother partied all night.”

Without realizing it, she had been holding her breath. Now, pierced to the marrow, she allowed it to escape, slowly deflating her rigid shoulders. Wearily, she reprimanded him.

“Why didn’t you at least throw them in the garbage can?” She pointed at what she now recognized as several hundred of her father’s address labels. How had they ended up on the neighbor’s lawn? Mark must have had quite a job to retrieve them all.

The boy’s eyes turned to liquid, and his chin trembled. Finally he replied.

“I didn’t know,” he wimpered, squirming.

Taking a step back, she scrutinized the offender. He was just a little boy, a child of six—not unlike her own brother at that age.

“Oh,” she answered, no longer aware of the child, who, frightened, turned and sprinted for home.

She remained for a moment in silent contemplation. A moment later, she returned to the house and began to cry.

I returned to the house and began to cry. Later, in the safety of my dormitory room, I picked up a pen and a few sheets of paper and began to write….

Image credit here

 

Christopher, Part I

Image courtesy of hdm1652

Image courtesy of hdm1652

The chime jingled cheerily as Aris pulled open the heavy coffee shop door. He smelled Cara’s hair as she brushed by him. Their chunky winter coats competed for room in the narrow opening. He was about to make a fool of himself.

Sitting now, coffee in hand, he casually inquired. “So, you’ve mentioned Christopher a couple of times…”

A month back, the two had met at the home of an old grad school professor. Dubbed “Mr. Chips,” Dr. Miles could be counted on to throw a big bash every Christmas. It served as an informal reunion for decades of students who would otherwise have lost touch–or never have met at all.

A moment ago they had been talking about hiking boots and the best places to get kebabs. Cara bit her lip and grew quiet as she stared into her mug.

“I loved him.”

Aris knew he couldn’t compete. He sat up straighter. He would listen. He would listen and then fade into the background before she could see through him.

“I gave him the best I had. Maybe more than I could afford…. I acted like I was in control but I was kidding myself. He knew me too well. He knew my strengths, my weaknesses–every contour of my mind and body. And he used what he knew. He pushed me to my limits.”

This was unexpected. Uncomfortable.

“So…he abused you.”

“No, no. It wasn’t like that.

“I don’t understand then.”

“I thanked him for it. I wanted it.” She was looking right at him now.

She wasn’t the person Aris had thought she was. He had to look away.

“I hung on his every word. I wanted his love so badly.” Her voice and expression had become intense. “I just wanted to know I was special to him. I would have done just about anything he asked. Deep down, I knew he did love me. But I was just so needy.”

She deflated.

“I can’t believe he’s gone. I never saw it coming.”

“Lovers, then.”

“No. No. God, no!” Reverie interrupted, Cara came to. She broke into an amused smile.

“I thought you knew. Christopher was my coach.”

Photo credit here

I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

All Nighter

Photo courtesy of Aaron Stidwell
Photo courtesy of Aaron Stidwell

Razor stubble litters his humid morning face

Snowflake flecks invade those black-knight locks

Muddy coffee vapors collide with my perfume

And curdle my awe

His gritty gaze slumbers

Even as it lumbers

To greet me

Demigod,
Can this be you?
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