Lessons From Emily’s Missing Boat, Teaching Me to Sail

“I’m fine, I think I’m doing really well, considering it just happened a year ago.”

The conversation is still fresh in my mind, although it took place over a year ago. The best part of family reunions is breakfast talk, and this one was with my oldest brother.  With a father who was absent much of the time, this brother takes on the alpha role, and it seems to continue on, decades later.

Anyway, he asked me a second time, “Bill, really, how are you?”

Really, I’m much better than most people would be after losing a child,” I replied very matter-of-factly.  “But life is just much different now.  I have absolutely no patience for bull-shit, no interest in unimportant things.  I don’t care about anything at all that doesn’t make me a ‘better version of myself,’  more likely to do what I’m supposed to do while I’m here.”

“That doesn’t sound like much fun, there’s more to life than just the important things!”

The tone had suddenly become very serious.  “Here’s the deal…  trust me, you have nothing to worry about – I would never do anything to hurt myself, but I don’t really care if I live, or not.  I’m ‘over it,’ and ready to check out”

My big brother’s face drained of all color.  I continued, “If I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I’d tell no one, and not even consider any treatment.”  I was talking to a man in the midst of debilitating and painful prostate cancer treatment and recovery.  I’d held his hand as he recovered from anesthesia.  That was back when I thought divorce and the loss of my mother would be my darkest days, and the greatest tests of my faith.

He looked down at me as I had grown accustomed, he was the big brother with all of life’s knowledge, and I was Billy, the naive little boy.  He was using his adult logic to tell me how “stupid” my feelings were.  Except this time he was wrong.  It was I that had the knowledge, the life experience.

I ripped back into him angrily, for the first time in my memory,  It was as if he was from Mars, and had no idea what he was talking about, about how things really were.  This time it was I who possessed all of life’s knowledge.  I had lost my son, and he had no idea what he was talking about.

It seemed perfectly logical to me.  If a 19 year old child, my first son, could die, the world would end soon for all of us. Perhaps I felt as though the world had ended already.  My world had.  This was not a metaphor, it’s truly how I felt.  And if I was going to die soon, why would I get my oil changed, or get new tires, or cut the damn grass.

The shrinks nod approvingly, because apparently it’s just another stage to progress through, and mine were not uncommon feelings.  I hadn’t sought out mental health therapy, but it seemed to seek me out.  I’d been urged to visit, or even visited by organizations like Compassionate Friends, Rainbows, and ClearCause Foundation.  These are some pretty awesome folks well versed in uplifting the survivors.  But I’m a self-help junkie, and prefer to experience epiphany myself, especially if I can do it in a setting with my Lord and Savior.

Besides, like in the Tim McGraw song, Live Like You Were Dyin’, shouldn’t we all live like today could be our last day?  The tragedy had tested my faith, and directed me towards (an attempt at) being that “best version of myself,” that Matthew Kelly talks about.  In fact, it’s become my mantra when dealing with people myself, or pontificating to others – “Never say or do anything to someone that you wouldn’t want to be the last thing you ever said or did.”  And, in fact that is most certainly a healthy “life vision,” the best way to navigate through our daily encounters with others.

But the problem is, how selfish it was making me.  My focus of getting me through life righteously, would be much easier if it was a short life.  And so when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, I always took the highest, most dangerous, risky passages at every opportunity.  I agreed to jump out of “a perfectly good airplane” with my daughter Kayla on her 18th birthday, and I didn’t really care if my tires had been bald for a month.  That was the stuff I did subconsciously, my self-destructive unconscious.  My visible encounters with others took on the tone of, “What’s the right thing for me to do?”  But not for their sake, but for my own.  To get to heaven, but not just to get to heaven.  Because it makes God happy with me.

Upon reading back over this last paragraph, I realize it sounds like splitting hairs, and very philosophical.  Here’s what I mean – years ago, I heard a Buddhist version of a parable.

The student, after years of instruction, was told that his route to heaven was his mantra.  It was whispered in his ear, and he was sternly warned not to share it with anyone.  He asked the wise old monk, “What if I tell others of this mantra?”  “That would give them all access to heaven, but you would lose your own salvation.  It would be very foolish.”  Shortly later, the wise old monk heard much commotion outside, and looked to observe his student on the street, sharing his mantra with his family, his friends, everyone, in fact, who would listen.  The wise old monk rushed out to him, and looked down proudly, “You have learned well, and will most certainly join your friends in paradise.”

You see the difference?  It can not be “all about me.” Getting myself to heaven may, in fact be the point, but a much more loving and effective way to do so is selflessly.

So what’s any of this got to do with my daughter being lost at sea?

Tara (Nicholas Brown)

The “Tara”

 

Six days after we lost contact with Emily, I actually became angry with her for being so inconsiderate.  How could she put her life in such peril?  All of our lives had been torn apart, how literally destroyed each of us have been, how much pain her brother’s death had caused.  What was she thinking?!!  Clearly not thinking! Completely selfish and inconsiderate!  I’d had this very talk with her as we flew back from China with his ashes.  Our family could not withstand another loss.  Blatantly discarding all consideration of her family, she disregarded us and our feelings, and went on a tiny sailboat in predicted rough seas, and… and…

And yet, here I had been doing the same thing for two years.

Much of last Thursday’s workday had been on the phone with the United States Coast Guard and with Emily’s big sister’s fiance (a yacht captain), and the parents of Emily’s friend (the captain of the 32 foot Tara), being strong and coherent.  The rest of the day was spent squatting in the back room of my veterinary hospital embracing Cullen’s dog Svedka with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Then I drove home for two hours going 80 miles an hour in the rain on bald tires.   “And so, when I hydro-planed to my death, surely my son would embrace me, and lead me ‘home,’ to our Lord.”  How incredible will that be???  Much like Mercy Me’s hit I Can Only Imagine, I do look forward to that day!  But somehow, now it sounds embarrassing to even write down those words.

Do I think the loss of my own life would be any easier for Cullen’s siblings?  To lose their father, and new stepfather? And my own siblings?  Any my wife?  After already losing her first husband to lymphoma, I don’t have any more compassion and consideration for her than to take absurd risks with my own life, because I’m “over it?”

Psychologists call it cathexis.

It’s the emotional energy used in concentrating on a person, or the emotional value we develop and place on someone.  

I had so valued my relationship with Cullen, that I had disregarded my own value to Emily (who I was now angry with for being so “selfish”), Camille (who is counting on me to walk her down the aisle in a few months and to love and embrace those grandchildren she has planned), Kayla and Noah (who already said goodbye to their first father when they were just babies), and Sharon, who has already had the love of her life ripped from her by cancer.

And on that sixth day, as my anger evolved into concern, and I found my voice cracking, and often unable to complete sentences containing her name.  Only when I made myself numb could I speak matter-of-factly to the Coast Guard and others involved in the search.  I flashed back to my steps to the pulpit to deliver Cullen’s eulogy.

Our “Camino,” this journey through life, is full of growth and lessons that must be learned through living, and not taught from someone else’s perspective.

I can not be told how stupidly I’m behaving, I must come to that realization on my own.  In psychoanalytic terms, this process is called de-cathexis.

In order to refocus your life’s energies toward the future, you need displace some of that emotion onto other people and things in your life.  This process cannot be rushed, it takes time.

There have been many lessons learned from the Tara’s being blown off course by a wicked storm:

  • Many people, loved ones as well as strangers, have reconnected to prayer with our Lord.  Seldom are our prayers so quickly and visibly answered.  Thanks again to over a hundred thousand who bowed their heads for us.  In the only conversation I’ve had with her since, Emily described this all as very humbling.  If reconnecting others to prayer was the only consequence of this saga, its all been worthwhile.
  • My big brother still knows more than I do.
  • Emily’s a big girl, and gets to make her own decisions.  I’m not allowed to get upset if she doesn’t see things from my perspective.  I’d have gone on that sailboat too.  I have many times.  And she won’t learn the same lessons that I would have.  She’s not me.  Others travel their own journey, stumble and fall, and gain their own knowledge.
  • My car handles much better now with my new tires.
  • Sometimes, when the storm is too brutal, we must lower our sails, but then we drift and will eventually founder.  I’ve learned that it must be raised again to catch the wind, and move forward.

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Perhaps most importantly, I’m afforded the unexpected luxury of learning one of life’s valuable lessons, this time without tragedy.  It’s much different than reading books on grief recovery assuring me that, “It’s OK to keep living.  We don’t betray our lost loved ones by resuming life.”

It’s OK, or even required, to refocus some of that emotion, and reconnect with others that continue to love us, and also ache with their own bloodied knees.  Much Love.

 

 

 

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Dr. Sam

The 12 year old boy stood alone, looking around frantically, unable to think clearly. Why had he ever asked for this? He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  How could this have happened?

“Big Red” was an old Snapper riding mower that only Johnny Byford was allowed to operate.  He had been Dr. Sam’s “vet assistant” and the general fix-it and maintenance-man around the animal hospital property for over ten years.  Today he’d be going out to help Dr. Sam work 800 head of cattle, and so the property maintenance would be postponed for a day or two.

Billy had wanted to be an animal doctor for as long as he remembered.  He had begged for years to have a dog, but the pleas were always met with a resounding, “No, it would just too big of a responsibility for the entire family (translation: you’re a pretty irresponsible kid, so grow up a little).”  When Billy’s big sister had gotten a kitten for Christmas from her boyfriend, that broke the ice.  Within 6 months, his persistence had paid off, and Billy had his first dog, “Pooch,” the ugliest, most pitiful, miserable little wretch anyone had ever seen.  Even then, life was fleeting and ever so precious.  Within six months of “Noelle” dying from feline leukemia, Pooch was found poisoned in a neighbor’s yard.  And so a steady progression of relationships with the small-town veterinarian were born, as Roger, Wolfie, Sam, Sean and Mandy became successive members of the family.

Having thus become acquainted with Dr. Sam, as the dorkie little kid with the ever-present “wow” big eyed look behind his wire glasses, Billy finally got up the nerve.  He asked if he could volunteer sometimes out at the clinic, “Just to help clean up and stuff.”  Hair thinning at the top, even at 30, Sam looked down, “How old are you young man?  When you get to be about 10, I’ll put you to work!” (This was well before minimum age requirements, or at least before they were really enforced).  Sam thought for sure this would be a few years off, and by then the silly little kid would have long since moved on to washing dishes, or mowing lawns.

“Great,” Billy almost shouted, I’ll be ten this summer!  August 27th!”  Johnny looked at the scrawny little brat and laughed, relieved that it was at least 4 months off.

Billy home sick with Wolfe & Noel 1972crop

August 27th of 1969 fell on a Wednesday, and Billy was sitting on the front steps when Jackie the receptionist arrived, without a clue as to the importance of the date.

Billy was mainly a bothersome pest that just wouldn’t go away, everywhere at once, always asking questions, and basically a pain in the ass.  But Sam was a “stand-up” man, and they had a deal.  Besides, Sam didn’t have any children yet, and Billy was growing on him.  The weeks turned into months, and weekends turned into summers.  He really wasn’t allowed to do much in front of the clients, but he gave most of the baths, walked the dogs, scooped the litter-boxes, and kept the runs free of feces.  This was the perfect job.  Except he knew he really wasn’t allowed to do anything important, anything of real responsibility.  That would soon change.

Billy used the push mower around the edges and behind the clinic, watching with envy as Johnny got to ride the big riding mower and do the “real” lawn work.  How he longed to do something that cool – when nobody was watching, he’d sit on the mower in the barn and shift the gears.  Such was the innocent stuff of little boy’s fantasies in 1971 Sikeston, Missouri.  Billy’s imagination was startled as he clipped a rock with the rotary blade and sent it hurtling across against the metal building.  Johnny’s head turned, and Billy sighed to see him laugh at his carelessness.

Dr. Sam bounded out the side door with his arms filled with syringe guns, castrating instruments, blood tubes, and rolls of cotton.  As he walked towards his Bowie Vet Truck, he motioned to the boy to come over.  “Dr. Sam needed to talk to me!  Maybe he’s gonna take me with him to work the cattle!  I’ll be such a big help!” his mind racing as quickly as his little legs.  “Johnny and I won’t be back before quittin’ time, so when you’re finished mowing, just go in to see if Jackie needs anything before you leave for the day.”

“Yessir,” he replied as he turned and hung his head, walking back towards the push mower, kicking the ground.  If not for the approaching shadow, he would have walked right into ol’ Johnny, rushing towards the truck after putting Big Red up for the day.  That would have been really funny to them.

The next morning Billy had to ride his 10 speed Schwinn the 3 miles to work, because his Mom was teaching a remedial summer class, his daddy was at the farm, and siblings were all busy.  He arrived just to see Dr. Sam and Johnny cleaning up the instruments from working on a limping bull, and he braced for admonishment for being a few minutes late.  But Doc simply said, “After you get the kennels cleaned, Billy, I need you for something big.”  He looked up to see a serious face, but Johnny was behind him smiling.

As the boy scrubbed the dried feces off of the concrete kennel floor, he couldn’t help but imagine, “Is today the day he’ll actually get to do something big?”  As Billy squeezed  the floors dry, the idea fell apart as Dr. Sam said they’d be leaving soon to finish at the feedlot where they had been yesterday.

“Since you’re pretty much finished up here, come on out and let Johnny show you how to run Big Red.  This grass is gettin’ mighty tall an’ it really shouldn’t wait another day.”

Billy’s heart was bursting with excitement, but he did his best to look unmoved, answering matter-of-factly, “Sure Doc, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  Johnny rolled his eyes, because he knew this was a big deal for the little brat.

Johnny had actually already showed him what everything was, and how it worked , many times, in anticipation of this glorious event.  Johnny made a point to let Billy know that it was his suggestion yesterday, as they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, that he thought he could be trusted with the big mower.  So within about 4 minutes, Billy had mounted the trusty steed, and was doing “manly work.”

What everyone but Billy knew, was that Big Red was a rust bucket.  This thing was over twenty years old, and always breaking down, throwing a belt, or getting overheated.  Nuts and bolts constantly loosened and fell off, and just last spring, a wheel had fallen off.  But to Billy this was the most responsibility he’d ever been given, much like the little kid in the movie A Christmas Story, summoned by his father to help change the flat tire.  He is entrusted with the hubcap and lug-nuts until he loses his balance, flinging them into the dark, and utters the famous expletive.

Billy puffed his chest out as he had suddenly become a valuable employee, riding the trusty steed on its first lap around the field in front of the barn.  He watched Doc and Johnny loading up the truck for the day.  “When,” he dared wonder, “would he be considered for a day of that – now that’s what he really wanted to do, his life’s mission.”  As he pondered these dreams, basking in the glory of the moment, the tension rod holding tight the belt connecting the engine to the transmission snapped in two.  The belt fell off the camber, and into the path of the blade.  As the mower coasted to a quick halt, the belt wrapped around the blade, quickly chewing it into black rubber pieces, sprayed all over the driveway.

Billy’s head spun around to see the reaction of those who had trusted him.  They hadn’t seen a thing, but were inside getting another load of medical supplies.  He jumped off the machine, frozen in panic.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong, but (he thought) nothing like this had ever happened before, and somehow he had screwed up his first real chance to prove himself.  He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  And failed.

Billy had no idea what to do, but more than anything, he didn’t want to face them, and just wanted to run.  Dr. Sam was supposed to teach him how to be an animal doctor, and Johnny Byford had trusted him.  He had let them down.  As he raced through the possibilities, he saw his bike leaning against the building, but before he could consider the consequences of racing away, the door opened and out ran the two men.

There was fear and panic, dread and disappointment.  But it was all Billy’s.  The consolation from Dr. Sam’s response would be remembered, valued and put to prose some 40 years later.  There would by no tears, or hugs – these were three grown men.

I looked up to my mentor, my role model, and my friend with tears, I’m sure, in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”  Johnny was smiling, probably relieved that his little pal hadn’t been hurt.  Dr. Sam, who’s initial reaction appeared to give me a hard time, suddenly realized this I just a little kid, and this was one of those serious moments where you don’t mess around.  But I anticipated his change in body language was now be one of regret, that I was too little for such a chore.

He squatted down beside me and said, “Billy, this is not your fault.  Even if it was, the only people in this world who never screw any thing up are people who never do anything.  I’m proud of you for wanting to work so hard.  Now help Johnny get this mess cleaned up and put Big Red up ’til tomorrow.  We could use a hand at the feedlot today anyway, so after you’re done here, get you’re boots on and get in the truck.”

Much Love.

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

“I Hope It’s Everything You Need It To Be”

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When I left to hike the 540 mile Camino de Santiago last May (2013), people didn’t really know what to wish for me.  Most knew I was working through a major grieving journey after losing my 19-year-old son Cullen, but no one seemed to “get it.”  My associate at work honestly didn’t expect me to return (was I to stay in the Pyrenees to herd sheep?)  In retrospect, I’m not really sure what I was hoping for either.  I wrote my siblings a letter informing them that I was going, and that I literally hoped to have some profound conversations with my God and my son.  Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Bernadette, Therese, and blessed Mother Theresa are among many who claimed they very clearly heard the voice of God throughout their lives.  I think my family were deeply disturbed by such an expectation; lacking faith that such communications could indeed transpire, were scared that I would spiral into deeper and deeper anguish and depression.  Several simply said, “I hope its everything you need it to be.”

Regardless of my expectations, it was something that I simply felt compelled to do.  Watching a movie called The Way, was the last thing Cullen and I had done together, and its eerie foreboding of a father who must confront the accidental death of his son pulled me forcefully.  Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who learns of his son’s accident, and when he travels to Spain to bring the body home, discovers the accident had occurred as his beloved son was hiking the 800km Pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago towards the Cathedral at Santiago, where St. James is buried.  We agreed to make the pilgrimage together when he returned from China, after he earned his master’s degree.  I decided to make that Camino and enter the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the first anniversary.

On my 31 day Camino I did, in fact, have many such conversations.  Although I longed for the voice of Charlton Heston or James Earl Ray to come echoing through the woods or from the sky, those weren’t my expectations.  I learned from Elijah that the voice of God wasn’t in an earthquake, the wind, or fire, but instead in the “soft whisper of a voice.”  So I walked the weeks alone and most hours, there was only the silence.

On April 20, 2013 as I entered the tiny village of Utrega, Spain, the ground began to rumble, and as I wondered if there could be a train nearby, streams of people ran into the street and began to shout.

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May 5th, I began my trek across the Meseta.  I have no idea why I thought the Mesa would be dry and hot, but today it certainly was not.  The entire day was below freezing, and the steady wind varied between 20 and 40 MPH.  Fortunately it blew from behind me, but the sound of the wind was extremely loud and sometimes made it hard to carry on a conversation or even think.

Later in May, on the 9th, with the Meseta 4 days behind me, the weather was still chilly, and now included frequent showers, resulting in a bone chilling shiver that began to play tricks on me.  I struggled onward (as many pilgrims I had met liked to say, “Ultreya!” (an expression urging one to “go beyond,” or “onward with confidence!”).  sarcastically telling myself that these past few days had certainly fulfilled some of the requisite suffering to constitute a “pilgrimage!”  The rain had trickled off my waterproof pants, but the small drops that wicked onto my socks had taken a toll.  My toes were numb and my hands had tremored with shivers for hours.  The road forked and I committed to the albergue (similar to a hostel) 4 kilometers down this road.  As I neared, I realized I would have difficulty continuing, but the strengthening smell of wood in the fireplace kept my feet trudging forward.

My heart sank when I discovered the typical 8-12E cost 25E here, as I realized I only had about 20E until I got to the next town big enough to have a bank.  I shrugged as I continued on, realizing there were no other nearby accommodations listed in Brierly’s Guidebook.  But as I got further from the albergue, the intoxicating sweetness of the fireplace smoke seemed to get even closer.  Less than 100 meters later, just around a bend in the road, was something that made me start to sob.  Here was a farmhouse with “pilgrim accomodations,” including dinner that night and breakfast, for 12E.  Within 30 minutes, I had enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious home cooked meal, and sat with my feet by the soothing warmth of this fire, communicating something with its popping and crackling.IMG_5775

None of this clicked until the afternoon that I hiked for hours alone through the logging forest.  This was one of the emotional days, as I shouted out at God in frustration.  Why was he not speaking to me? I read scripture every morning to give me something to meditate on.  I said several rosaries every day as I walked.  I spoke aloud the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Speak, Oh Lord, your servant is listening” repeatedly.  “WHERE ARE YOU?” I finally shouted through the tears at the top of my lungs.  “I’ll do anything you want, but you gotta talk to me, show me something!

Later I would recall this day, as I read C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Revealed, where the devastating grief from losing his wife Joy to cancer made the author very human to me.  Here was the quintessential man of faith, that I had on such a pedestal for authoring such inspiring Christian literature (from the apologetics of Mere Christianity, humor of Screwtape Letters, thought provoking The Problem of Pain to his best known children’s books, so full of symbolism such as Chronicles of Narnia), having the very same emotions I was having.  Lewis didn’t doubt the existence of God, just “what sort of a God?”  “A loving God?  He wasn’t very loving to Joy!”

Lewis continues, I turn to God now that I really need Him, and what do I find?  A door slammed in my face.  The sound of bolting and double bolting.  After that, silence.  It’s like being in prison.”

That’s exactly how I had felt for months, and more specifically, at that moment.  No one around for probably miles, I hadn’t seen anyone for hours.  And silence was all there was up there in the Spanish mountains, except the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, which now was loud enough that I couldn’t have heard that “soft whisper of a voice” that I was trying so hard to hear.

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And then, out of no where, I was startled and jumped as the shadow of someone passed me, as if I was standing still.  He muttered something very softly, almost a whisper, that I couldn’t understand, maybe some other language, I assumed.  “Wow,” I thought, “that guy is really flying!”  And there was just something really strange about him, he looked so … familiar.  And he wasn’t carrying a backpack like everyone else, it was more like a rucksack.  That’s it, he had what looked like khaki or desert camo colored – rucksack.  And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  This guy didn’t just look familiar, I knew exactly who he was.  But Mike Snelgrove was gone now.  (Mike is the subject of my next blog post)

So, I stood there in utter astonishment.  I really gotta read more of that “Old Testament” stuff that’s not “actually relevant” anymore.

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

I had felt an earthquake, felt a toppling wind, and the warmth of the fire.  And finally, the passing whisper.  As I relived this day in my mind the other day as I was working around the house, trying to find the message, this song shuffled out of my playlist:

What Do I Know Of Holy(by Addison Road)

I made You promises a thousand times
I tried to hear from Heaven
But I talked the whole time
I think I made You too small
I never feared You at all No
If You touched my face would I know You?
Looked into my eyes could I behold You?
[CHORUS]
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?
So, that’s it.  When we try too hard, when we talk too loud, when we make ultimatums and demands – we hear nothing.
“I tried to hear from Heaven, but I talked the whole time.”
C. S. Lewis also makes some progress in A Grief Observed:
     Imagine a man in total darkness.  He thinks because he can see nothing, that he is in a dungeon.  In the middle of that darkness, he hears a sound.  The sound is brief, and comes from far away.  Perhaps the sound of waves, or the wind in the trees; and for the first time, he senses that he is not in a dungeon, but in the open air.  Nothing in his situation has changed.  He still waits in darkness.  Only now he knows the unseen world is greater than anything he can imagine.
     It came in the same moment that I sensed that the door was neither shut, not bolted.  Was it ever shut?  Was it bolted from the inside by my own desperate need?  They say a drowning swimmer can’t be saved if he is too fearful, because he grabs and clutches his rescuers too tight.
Had I been doing that –  making demands, and ultimatums of God?  Was He talking to me, just as desperately as I was to Him, but I just couldn’t hear through all the shouting from my desperate need?
It sure looks that way as I write the words.
Much Love.
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MLK Day, Irony at Half Mast

halfmastI’ve always flown a flag over my home and my animal hospitals because I enjoy proudly expressing my patriotism and love of the freedom we have in this country.  I’ve been fortunate to travel many places where the freedoms weren’t quite so evident.  Guns have literally been inches from my family’s faces in Northern Ireland, Mexico City, and most recently China.  I often add a second flag beneath the Stars & Stripes to commemorate an occasion.  The Black & Gold of my beloved Missouri Tigers on game Saturdays, Miami Dolphin Aqua & Orange on game Sundays, and the Irish Tricolor on St. Paddy’s and Bloody Monday.  Less frequently you’ll see her flying at half mast to memorialize fallen heroes or tragedies.

Over the years, many clients and neighbors have commented on my lowering Old Glory the third week of January.  Most are pleasant surprises of my honoring Martin Luther King, and numerous black clients expressed their appreciation.  One elderly woman did so just today.

Jean Murray Klein was born in Southeast Missouri on October 4th, 1921 to a family involved in farming for generations.  He graduated from Mizzou, came home from WWII a decorated war hero, married my mom, and overcame the demons of alcoholism and cigarettes.  He always enjoyed game day in the man-cave with his best friends Lee Bowman, and Dick Tongate, and he treasured that football I had Dan Marino sign at our children’s shared pre-school.  But Daddy was a product of his environment and Jim Crow culture.  Let’s just say he didn’t have the tolerant world view his children have adopted.  I don’t think he even knew any black people, or if so he never spoke of them.  Mom had a “colored woman” (Dad’s words) help her around the house while I was young, and I became very close to Beulah.  My earliest childhood memories include her ironing while I was “rockin” next to her on my spring suspended horse, while “Charlie Brown,” by the Coasters played on the radio.  The old man really did the best he could – I later found out that every holiday he would bring her family a turkey or a ham.

Anyway, Dad certainly didn’t have any problem cheering for the black athletes who led the St. Louis Cardinals and the Missouri Tigers to success, but that was pretty much the extent of his comfort zone.  I belly-laugh when I remember my sister Maureen showing him a picture of her with a huge black man, whom she told him she had been dating.  It was actually a picture of  a football player she had taken for him, but the narrative changed, “Because it would be really funny.”  Daddy almost had a heart attack, then forced a laugh about it, pretending he had known all along that it was a joke.

Cancer took my daddy 7 years after he had laid down the non-filtered Camels, on January 16, 1998.

So you see the obvious irony.  Daddy was buried the third week of January, which “co-incidentally” turns out to be Martin Luther King day.

Yes ma’am, I do fly our flag today in memory of one of this country’s finest men, I’m as proud of him as you are.

I thought you should know…

“Billy, um… have you looked on Facebook lately?”  my brother Steve was calling me on the phone.  Not shocking, but certainly an infrequent occurrence.  “I thought you should know what Cullen posted.”

Being called “Billy” always startles me just a bit.  I haven’t called myself “Billy” since the 7th grade, so it generally means family or a childhood friend.

One of the few famous people I know actually called me out with that moniker in college, and I was forever treated differently afterwards.  Fraternity hazing was still a popular sport in 1977, so at the University of Missouri Theta Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho, I was “lower than the fish-shit scum at the bottom of the ocean.”  I can still smell the foul mouths of Kevin Shopher and Jim Famuliner as they shouted at the tops of their lungs what an embarrassment I was to the upperclassmen, and that I might as well quit right then, because I just wasn’t cut out to be one of the “finer gentlemen” of Ag-Rho.  “Ha ha, what a bunch of jerks; If these two can make it into this frat, any one can!” Dave McKee and I used to double over laughing at these idiots when they weren’t around.  But during the “evening activities,” we’d “Sir, yes sir!” and complete the obligatory 24,410 push-ups (we actually counted that pledge semester) that were required to get our ticket punched.

Anyway, I was in Schnucks Liquor store in Columbia, Missouri, with my “big brother,” Don Cupps and several others who loved me dearly, getting the beer, etc. for the football game pre-party at the frat house, when someone shouted, “Billy Klein” from all the way down the aisle.  I cringed hearing this childish name that I had graduated from, knowing my “brothers” now had new ammunition to tease me with.  We all spun our heads around to see James Wilder, the BMOC running-back for the Mizzou Tigers, who was in the midst of taking us to the Big 8 (later the Big 12) conference championship, and an unprecedented number 4 in ranking polls.  Jersey number 32, known as the “Sikeston Train,” was a giant physically, and as it turns out, a really nice guy as well.  He would later be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (keeping #32), and in breaking all their records, rescue them from being such an embarrassment.  His son James Wilder Jr, also wears #32 for Florida State (I do wish the Rams had drafted Wilder instead of the Bucs; Jr would be playing now for my beloved Mizzou Tigers, instead of the ‘Noles!

What nobody knew until that moment, was that I had grown up with Wilder in Sikeston, Missouri.  Number 32, as you can imagine, was quite a sensation in our home town also.  “The Mule” shattered every known record and the Sikeston Bulldogs went to the State finals for the first time in over 30 years!  We admittedly weren’t the best of friends, because that was back when blacks hung with blacks, and whites hung with whites; we also never met until 7th grade, since I had gone to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School for the first six grades.  But we did know each other from school, parties and athletic banquets; out of 365 kids in my senior class at Sikeston High School, only 5 went strait to the ‘ZOU, and so we certainly were acquainted.  So when James called out to Billy Klein, my esteem zoomed immediately.  Funny how life works.

(Back to that phone call)  So on that day, when my 16-year-old son Cullen “came out” on Facebook by saying he was “bi-” and “in a relationship” with a boy, it was rather upsetting to the fam.  I wasn’t thrilled that he had made the whole thing public, especially since Mom was alive and actively keeping up with all of her beloved family through FB, but I certainly wasn’t shocked.  I had known for years which team he’d be playing for, and as I’ve explained earlier, had anguished over every angle, and every “alternative.”  When we were going through the divorce, it was just horrible for everyone, and Cullen, as expected, acted out with some rebellious stuff, so I did take him to Anthony Feretti, a local family therapist to have “someone to talk to, and work things out with.”  (It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I would have thought it quite a relief to learn, in working ‘things’ out, Cullen had discovered he was just ‘going through a phase,’ and that he was now ‘normal,’ and playing for our team.)  Dr. Tony soon told me Cullen was fine, very healthy, and just a really good, sweet kid.  God knows I knew all of that already.

I was well aware that even then, long before Allan Chambers would abandon Exodus, that reparative theory really did originate from a loving approach, but was horribly flawed in its theory.  Sure, I blamed myself, blah-blah-blah, but I had read enough and educated myself well enough that none of this was supported by facts.  Just as many straight kids have horrible parents, and just as many gay kids come from supportive, interactive, loving, functional families.  Chambers and I have become friends, and I hope the world lightens up on him, as everything he did was out of love and honest integrity.  Remember, in the 50’s physicians appeared on TV commercials promoting cigarettes as a healthy way to relax.  It’s not lying if you believe current evidence supports your position.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what Steve thought I could do.  Get him “into therapy?”  Disown him?  Throw him out?  Give him a spanking, or at least a “good talking to?”  I know I’m being snarky, but it truly is as frustrating as hell, as well as all the other emotions I’ve described elsewhere.

But what about my poor dear Cullen?  It must have been so frightening, lonesome, embarrassing, and so many other emotions that I’ve had so vividly explained to me by so many gay people who have recently “come out of the woodwork.”

Having tossed that ball around in my head for so long, I replied with the only thing I could reply with.  Remember “Pascal’s Wager?” this is my play on it.  Weigh one horrible extreme against the other, and choose between the two possible tragedies.

“Steve, I’ve thought long and hard, cried many tears, and prayed many tears about this.  I have come to the decision that I’d much rather hold my son’s hand as he’s lying there, dying from AIDS at age 30 than walk into his room to find him hanging from a rope in his closet at 15.  So we’ve decided, God and I, to accept him, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll be there for him as much as he allows me to be, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll cherish the small time I have with him (since he seems to prefer to stay with Debbie), I’ll support him as best I can, I’ll pray for him, and I’ll love him unconditionally.  And Steve, I ask that you pray for him, and us, as well.”

Steve really didn’t know what else to say, and I’m sure was , at that point, a little embarrassed.  I hope not, because he also acted out of love, the best way he knew how.  I did thank him for calling.

Every post I write seems so full of regrets, but how I reacted to the call, and Cullen’s coming out isn’t one of them.  It was the very best I was capable of at that time.  I love(d) him unconditionally.

I do however regret not telling Mom.  I also miss her so very much, and her warm loving smile, compassionate voice, and healing embrace.  In wanting to spare her “the hurt,” I robbed her of that true loving, honest relationship that she would have wanted.  I effectively kept my son and my mother apart.  I kept him from knowing her unconditional love.

I kept her from her reason for living, to love her family unconditionally, because she would have.

My mom was a true witness for God’s unconditional love through His son Jesus Christ.  If I really did love Cullen unconditionally, and I very much tried, it came from her.  Thanks Mom, and I’m sorry.

———-

Just a couple of footnotes.  None of my family, my brothers or sisters have never have had unkind words that I’m aware of (at least as adults), and all actions have clearly been rooted in love.  Feretti is a very competent therapist.  I do wish James Wilder, Jr. played for Mizzou.  Regardless whether or not you agree with his personal opinions, Alan Chambers is a good person.  Alpha Gamma Rho is a wonderful organization, and it does “build better men.”  I would join her again, in a heartbeat. I do miss my mom and my son.

Although I have lots of life regrets, I do have lots to be thankful for and feel very blessed.

 

Shared Birthday “A Parent’s Coming Out”

My birthday was actually in August and that was the date I had wanted to post here for the first time since walking the Camino de Santiago, but the emotional energy required just seemed elusive.

I’ve tried several times, but I seem to sit and stare at the keyboard, and type, and delete, and copy and paste, and delete, and stare, and just find myself not at all sure where to start, and what to feel comfortable sharing.  It’s been 3 months since I opened up on any of my blogs, and my shield must be back up and trying to protect my “me.”  I got up from my session, and exited without saving anything.

Finally, on my 90 minute drive to work yesterday I had my epiphany.  I got my introductory thoughts, my segue to what I really feel like I need to say out loud.

It’s funny how our childhood events stay with us over the years.  I’m over 50 and I still am moved by some of these experiences; many make me cringe.

I was never particularly athletic as a kid.  So (unless “captains” were best friends), yes I was typically picked last for sandlot baseball, football, basketball, and even pretty awful trying to do stuff like waterski or fish.  I didn’t know crap about how to do these things, I just hadn’t been taught.  My big brothers were much older and weren’t around much, nor was my dad. In fact, modern psychology would likely blame these experiences and their consequences on their father, or on his absence.  I suppose I should cross-post this to my blog involving him, and how the marriage counselor (who I saw as I desperately attempted to salvage my first marriage) had blamed all my faults and flaws on the absence of Jean Klein.  Not that I didn’t try.  I remember vividly climbing up in his lap to pretend I cared about Cardinal baseball or his one TV show, “Combat,” a 60’s series about life in the trenches during the battles of WWII.

We don’t usually see ourselves as others do, especially during childhood and adolescence, so I’m not sure if I was just a little guy and not very macho, or if I truly was the sissy that Paul Sherman referred to as he tried to beat the crap out of in high school; another time involving Sonny Riley also comes to mind.

The point is not that kids bully, or that I was bullied, but frankly, “Why are kids bullied?”
Today we tend to think bullying always involves a “gay” thing?”  Why else (as if that would have been a legitimate reason) would you pick on someone for being what you thought was a sissy?  Was it just to pick on someone who they perceived as weaker, so they could get away with it, ie. nature’s way to ensure the strength and longevity of the herd, by eliminating the weakest – survival of the fittest?

Or was it even more sinister?  Guess there’s no way to know for sure; I’d guess the perpertrators wouldn’t even know, or even remember that they had committed these horrible “hate” crimes so many years ago.  Probably just “boys being boys.”

I did my best to “push back.”  Although I didn’t even try out for the football team – I was just too tiny, and had no idea whatsoever about the rules or what most of the positions did – I did go out for the wrestling team.  I wasn’t very good here either but at least it was size appropriate.  I worked my butt off, and got into pretty good shape in the weight room, but still just wasn’t very athletic.

Not really sure what it was, but I must have put off some funny vibes too.  I remember getting a series of late night phone calls when I was about 14 from some anonymous boy, who was apparently attracted to me.  I was stunned that he agreed when I called him a queer, and kept prodding me to admit I was too!

Bear in mind that this was a small town in southeast Missouri in the 70s; I didn’t have a “odd uncle Donald,” nor did I even know that “homosexuals” even existed in the real world.  The closest I knew of such things was the reading the headlines of the Sikeston Standard Newspaper (as I rolled them for my paper-route) about a group of “perverted men” that were caught “running around naked at the rodeo grounds.”  I had (have) no idea what that even means – perhaps 2 were caught in the act in a car or the restroom, but it sounded to an eleven year old like a naked free-for-all where they were doing rodeo stuff like riding horses, or bulls, or even playing tag or some other worthy olympic endeavor.  Just wasn’t really sure why they wanted to be naked, or why it was against the law or newsworthy, or what a pervert even was, except something really bad.

Anyway, so this kid kept calling me late at night, and I remember getting really upset, and angry, and disgusted that I would be such a target.  He only stopped calling when I claimed that the police were involved, the phone was tapped, and I only needed to keep him on the line for 6 more seconds.  He never called back.  However, I did find these calls disturbing.  What signals or mannerisms had I been sending out?  I was clearly attrective to him, and never gave it any more thought that he (they?) might think I played for their side!

Clearly not.  I liked girls.  Alot.  Really. Perhaps too much, or perhaps it was normal to have my raging thoughts and fantasies about lots of girls.  I couldn’t even name them all without a yearbook, or a phone book.  Whew, what a relief.  I was normal, not a freak.  Hmmm… freak?  pervert?  queer? – what about – pansy?  sissy?  pussy?   Is this what the “bullies” were thinking?  When people were called these latter things, were they really thinking the former ones?

Have I been holding this crap in since I was getting “unsolicited” calls at age 14?  or since I got hit in the face batting in little league trying to bunt at age 11, or when I was laughed at when I ran onto the sandlot for a weekend 10 year old football game wearing my dad’s vintage helmet from his days?  Did they just think I was an idiot, or did they think I was a lesser “guy” because I didn’t have boy “stuff,” equipment or knowledge.  Was my lack of “skills” because my dad never showed me, or was I really some kind of a “borderline” sissy?

So this has perhaps been my lifelong shield – to overcompensate, to hide my “issues.”  Wow, the shrinks would have a field-day!  Hours spent in the gym, so I could look manly.  Dozens of girlfriends as “conquests,” again, proving what a “man” I was.  An embarrassing, phenomenal amount of alcohol (etc) abuse – was it to numb the confusion and frustration? or to be like my old man, so history could repeat itself, yet another generation?  Hundreds of weekends away, proving what a “great father” I was, at dance, gymnastics, and cheer competitions.  The only thing I’ve proven is that I can be a shitty husband too, since my first attempt resulted in her infidelity after 19 years, and immediate divorce.  I’m apparently pretty forgiving too.

So I’ve now spent a thousand words setting the stage, describing where I came from.  How could this crap really be relevant 40 years later?  Well thirty years ago, I became a father.  Certainly I wasn’t the first man thrust into this role without a guidebook, or even much of a role model.  Some of the finest men, strongest leaders, and successful athletes never even knew their fathers – or knew that they were a bum.  So I really and truly doubt that any of my faults were because my own father didn’t have much of a guidebook either.  His best friend, Mr. Dick Tongate, told us after Dad’s funeral that when they were kids together Papu would berate him and didn’t think he had ever told Daddy that he had done a good job (on anything), ever hugged him, and certainly never that he loved him or was proud of him.  Wow, my brothers and sisters were so moved to learn this.  So, would we kids be expecting too much from the old man?  I should expect him to realize that it was important to teach me how to throw, buy me football gear, take me fishing, watch my band concerts, little league games, wrestling matches, teach me how to tie a tie, jog with me, discuss the Lord with me, talk to me about love and sex, or even explain what was going on in the Cardinal baseball and the Mizzou football games?  To hold me with one hand, even if a Falstaff beer was in the other?  This is rhetorical, of course.

Perhaps Jean Klein really did do the best he could.  He had a rat for a father (had Papu’s father been inattentive and cruel as well?). Dad faced death in Belgium, France, and Germany.  I’m sure he saw (and did) horrible things during that war.  He had come home from that overseas hell addicted to nicotine and alcohol.  Mom told tales of war demons that would haunt him for decades, often through nightmares.  Life was frustrating also – as a farmer, he constantly pleaded for rain, or less rain, or less heat as his crops often failed, and his father berated his efforts for a bountiful harvest.  Yes indeed, Jean M. Klein may well have done the best he was “capable” of.

Anyway so I quickly fathered two daughters, and thought I was a pretty good dad.  Perhaps I was, but it was, in retrospect being a “pretty good mom.”  You see my parental role model was really Mom.  Maureen Blanton Klein was actually a bit of a supermom.  I can deal with that in a different post, but suffice it to say, her’s was really the role I was playing.

But, as I would later say in his funeral eulogy, “Although daughters are wonderful, and mine hung the moon, a man wants a son.”  So twentyone years ago, on my own birthday, I was blessed with William Cullen Klein.  Not only did we share the same first name and birthday, I’d soon find out just how much alike we really were; and how different.

Like me, Cullen had my daddy’s piercing beautiful blue eyes.  He was always so determined – it seemed like he could do almost anything he set his mind to.  Despite the fact that I really (or so I remember) tried to teach him to throw and hit a baseball, and throw and catch a football, or even shoot a basketball, he had about as many athletic gifts as I did.  I took him to Marlin and Dolphin and Cardinal games, and tried to explain the games’ rules to him, but he didn’t really care.  Regardless, he was incredibly intelligent, in the “gifted” program at Gemini Elementary School, honor society, and strait “A”s.  When I overheard a couple of his classmates call him a pussy, i flashedback to my own inner torment.  My beautiful son was me, all over again.  I saw a the proverbial “target” on the back of his head, and had to do something.  I enrolled him in Tae Kwan Do, and even went to classes with him.  He had his second degree black belt in no time, and we even went to the boxing gym together.  My son would NOT be bullied.

Not so deep down, just under the surface, I saw the writing on the wall, and when he didn’t act on the advances of an absolutely beautiful 12 year old neighbor girl, I knew for sure.  Cullen was gay.  It doesn’t take much digging to know that I knew long before then; its likely that’s why I tried so desperately to do those guy things with him.

Was it my trying to protect him from those hurtful words and fists that I had felt 30 years earlier?  Or was i actually continuing to protect myself?  Did those same taunts still keep me up at night? Would this prove them right, what a pussy I really am if I raised a gay son?

So this was my epiphany as I drove home.  Does this explain some of the pieces missing from the puzzle?

Of course I did the typical things all parents do when a child “comes out.”  This will be a later blog post, but here’s a snippet: I grieved the loss of MY OWN dreams – family name would not go forward, no grandchildren, no generational Christmas mornings or Easter egg hunts;  Fear for his physical and mental health and safety; Fear for his soul – as Catholics, we weren’t exactly “bible-thumpers,” but I certainly doubted this was part of God’s plan; We’d never do those things I had so longed to do with my own dad – football games, hunting trips, girl stories, grandchildren on the lap.  Yes, and as I’ve read, those are pretty typical selfish emotions for parents of a gay child.  But for me, there was much more, and I was just beginning to realize it.

So here it is.

To this day I have never posted on FB or even said to my social friends or employees, or even a single person on the Camino the words, “My son is gay.”  Lots of people know, of course, but I have never said the words, except to family and my closest friends.  This, in fact, makes me very, very sad.  I have lost my son and will never again on this Earth hold him in my arms, and yet I’m still too embarrassed to tell people.

I’ve always used the excuse that anyone’s (his) sexuality is a non-relevant detail – like blue eyes, or a big nose, or even whether or not they like asparagus.  These details don’t “define” the person; someone (Cullen) isn’t a “homosexual” or a “gay,”  they are not a noun, they are an adjective.  Instead, someone (Cullen) is a person that happens to be attracted to the same sex, and that’s ONE of many things about him, it certainly doesn’t define him.

That, in fact, is all true.  That’s what I often told him.  He wasn’t a “gay.”  He was a great kid who happened to have SSA, as well as all of his other attributes.  But has this all been a convenient excuse?  My belief set was clear – absolute unconditional love, and this one feature did not define him.  Although he didn’t choose this cross, he could certainly choose how to act.

But really.  Was all this rewording simply an exercise in semantics?  That’s the topic of a future blog.  But my point is, did this re-wording allow me to sweep under the rug this little fact?  When someone asked if he had a “little girlfriend,” I would smile and just say, “No.” Was I also obliged to share that his choice would rather be a “little boyfriend?”

Admittedly, there was a difference between asking Cullen to be discrete and not post “in your face” pictures of Tim and him embracing or kissing when Mom was alive and followed all her children and grandchildren’s every move on facebook.  But those days are past, so what’s my excuse now?

I just don’t know.  Hopefully simply expressing these feelings, and posting them, no longer so anonymously, is a first step.

Dear God, Thank You for this Family

Father’s Day, 2013

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My girls here with me.  We took up an entire row at Mass – the only thing I asked for today.

So much love and support from Sharon, Kayla, Noah, Camille and Emily.  What have I done to deserve this?  I am humbled by my gifts in this life.  I miss my son so much it hurts, but I would be selfish to ask for him back.

I have this warm faith inside that Daddy is with Cullen today, together with Mom; all in our Lord’s embrace, sending out love.  Actually makes me smile.

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I prayed for three things today.

Thanksgiving for all I have.  My family is the personification of Your love, supporting each other every moment.

That my God cradle and hug him, and let him know how much we love him.

For healing, faith, and consolation for my wonderful family.

We are sad for us, but so very hopeful in our faith and love that our God has him in His loving embrace.  This father’s day is so different than last year.

Perhaps it’s the Camino.  Perhaps it’s just time.  Perhaps it’s the Holy Spirit.

Thank you dear Lord for the confidence that my dear son is ok.  And that you allowed me to know him for 19 years. And that you inspired him to do so much good.  Much Love.

Happy Father’s Day 2013

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