"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood..."
When my mother got pregnant with my stepsister at fourteen, no one picked out or punished the father, a married man at the time. No one questioned whether or not the father forced himself on her. From that point on, my mother's future looked bleak. She was thrown out of her home by her father and had to rely on distant relatives and strangers for food and shelter. It was 1950: the age of I Love Lucy, the Cold War, and toxic masculinity. When my stepsister was old enough to ask about her real father, my mother simply told her that he had died in a car accident. She wanted her to believe there was nothing there worth finding.
After the birth of my half-sister and several homes later, my mother landed with a man who promised to take care of the pair. He seemed like a guardian angel come down from above to protect and guide her in a broken world. The rules were simple: make love, cook, clean, and always do as you are told. My mother was a tall teen with red hair, and a tongue that couldn't be tamed. After a few months she made the mistake of complaining too much. One day Vince decided to teach my future mother and stepsister a lesson.
The master of the house locked them in a coat closet in the center of the old city house where there would be no escape. He gave them a bucket and some water, then for good measure he nailed two by fours across the door. They huddled in a dark corner where mother used coats to keep my sister warm.
Several days later, Vince relented and let them out, but not without my mother's apology. I'm not sure if the confined space became a prayer closet. Somewhere along the way my mother stopped believing there was a God. All she wanted was freedom and to find a safe place for her and my sister Ann. It was then that my grandfather forgave her for being an unwed mother whore and decided to take her back.
When Vicky Blair turned twenty, she took her younger sister Doris to a dancing club where there eyes fixated on my future father. He was some catch, a man with broad shoulders, hazel eyes, and a slender nose. They couldn't stop looking at him, and he probably knew it. My father loved to dance more than drinking, even though alcohol was on the table. What made him even more attractive was the fact that he was a good dancer. It wasn't long before he made a move on my mother.
I wanted to say I was a gleam in my father's hazel eyes back then, but that would be a lie. My older brother had to be born ahead of me. Back in the 1950's, there was something about making love in parked cars. That was all it took for my brother, Robert to be conceived. The burden fell on my mother approaching my father with the baby news.
When my mother shared the news of her pregnancy to my father, he posed with a sheepish grin. "How can you be sure I'm the father?"
Despite all the bad men in my mother's young life, she was a survivor and figured how to get my future father to own his share of the conception. She knew where his mother and father lived on Avery Avenue in Syracuse, NY. It was her trump card, and knew his mother was a true influencer.
My grandmother had birthed a large polish family of three brothers and four sisters. She rocked the cradle and ruled her home. Once Momma Bednar got a hold of Thomas, his bachelor days were numbered. Thomas Bednar and Vicky were joined together in holy matrimony with a traditional wedding and the whole, "until death do you part commitment."
Finally, my brother Robert could be born in wedlock. However, my father refused to have my older brother named after him, because, as he said, "I can't be sure he's mine until I can get a good look at his defining features over time." Such was life before DNA.
When my mother gave birth to me, father didn't have to wonder. I was given his name Thomas Bednar. My mother often reminded me that I looked just like him. If only I had known how heavy the burden of his name and looks would wear on me.
It was important to tell my true story before I was born, because the early events in my mother's life had a profound impact on our family, and it would be the means to give the reader context for her future in my life and family.
If anything, this story will once again prove the saying, "Truth is often stranger than fiction." In addition, I relied primarily on my stepsisters recollection of events in the first chapter, who in the years to follow could be honest to a fault, if such a thing existed.
Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward...Job 5:7
Sometimes a mishandled truth can be a greater casualty than silence.
If I was to tell my story, I always knew the beginning needed my mother before I was born. She needed a context, so one would understand how her jaded view of men effected my life.
My parents had expressed their love in the bedroom enough for me to be born. Later, I would learn not every child was made with love. I gave them extra credit for it, because down the broken road they certainly needed it.
My mother chain-smoked Kool cigarettes when she birthed me on February 28th, 1958. I lived in a vapor tent during my infancy. She guarded me during my vulnerable months. But far as I know she kept on smoking. I was a told a baby girl died with crib death. Her name was Karen. After I got older, my father would drive by the cemetery and remind me she was buried in an unmarked grave. I wondered what her life would have been like before me, born between brothers. I also wondered if smoking had a part in it.
Like my mother, I learned early to be a survivor. But during the most horrific event in my life, I learned that the tongue could save or sever family ties. From earliest memories I'd clung to mother like a baby sloth. I still recall the lovely scent of unsmoked cigarettes and the shiny packs they came in. Something about them were attractive and deadly, not unlike the garden of good and evil.
During those very early years when I could barely walk, one of my favorite words was Daddy. I believe it was 1960, and I was only two when an evil event took place. There was so much love around me, it was hard to believe in my virgin mind that there could danger lurking from the person I trusted the most.
Often, my father would come home and play with me and my brother. I remember him, putting me on his back and then trying to throw me off. I would hang on for dear life until my stomach hurt from laughing. Often, my father would play the part of a horse and would snicker and whinny away. Although he worked hard, he never seemed to tire of us.
One day, my father came home early from his work at the steel mill where it appeared he learned his oldest brother had cancer and would die. They opened his stomach to look inside, and it was mush. I found out later in life when my mother could fill in the missing details, that she had heard the devastating news from an aunt. She didn't want my father's family to break the news. She knew how close he was to his big brother and feared how he would react.
I vaguely remembered how I would run to my father when the door from the long porch would pop open. As I turned the corner from the living room into the dining room, I froze as if something held me back. Maybe it was father's scary eyes locked on my mother, who stopped in her tracks behind the table. She had seen the same venomous look in my father's eyes. My brother and I watched the scene unfold, my brother curled up into a corner with his big brown eyes watching, helpless as a slug.
My father darted toward my mother. Without a word between them, it seemed she knew why he was angry. As the events unfolded I would try to get closer when it seemed some force, some entity held me back. I watched in horror, as my mother tried to escape around the dining room table throwing chairs in my father's path. At one point, she had her hand on the porch door to escape when my father grabbed her, I think by the collar or hair.
He yanked her away from the door and slammed her down on the floor. She tried to get up but fell back toward our basement door nearby. He pushed her back ward against it, yelling at her. She pleaded with him, "Think about the kids! Stop! What about the kids?"
My mother tried to kick him away, but it was useless. Her legs spun like someone pedaling for their life. Then he grabbed a chair and used the legs to poke and taunt her. "You should have thought about the kids when it mattered!"
Then the blood spurted from my mother. I watched him bang her head against the basement door. In my fogged recollection, it seemed my world turned orange from the wood and smeared blood on the wall, door, and floor.
"Oh God, no my mother cried. You're killing me!" Those words: her whimpering voice haunt me to this day. Over the years, I've learned how to deal with the PTSD, but those words still haunt me to this day. I was a two-year old boy watching my mother's life ebb from her. And I could still hear cry like a helpless cat in weakened voice. "My babies, no, no, please God no."
Most of what I relate and remember had come back to me in flashbacks over many years. My memory of it was like a jigsaw puzzle where pieces stayed missing. But I did recall how when she was passing out and blood was coming from her head, he dragged her down the basement steps.
I broke free from what I thought then was my sister holding me back. But she never jumped into the fray. I vaguely remembered looking down into the basement like it was a black hole. I heard my father scolding her. And to this day, I can still remember the smell of stale potatoes below. Funny how the memory of smell lingers with flashbacks.
My father reappeared, dragging my mother up the stairs one bump at a time. His anger seemed to be subsiding. My mother moaned and muttered. "I'm dying. I'm dying."
He looked over at my brother and I standing, stammering around helpless. Something finally broke his spell. He suddenly knelt down and said to her, "I'm sorry." He lifted my mother and guided her stumbling walk through the dining room into the kitchen where there was bathroom.
My father put her head in the sink. He ran water over her head. Then he tried to stem the blood with a towel. It didn't seem to be working. "I'm not going to make it!" She cried. She stomped her feet.
"You're not going to die." He chided her, like she'd made more out of it than she should. "I bet your sorry now."
"I'm sorry. Oh God I'm sorry. I need stitches. The bleeding won't stop."
My father, whose hazel eyes shifted to a sadness when he looked at us boys. I didn't know it at the time, but he suddenly cared about being our father. Maybe he wasn't going to kill my mother after all.
Imagine what it was like for my tiny mind to possess and digest his words and actions.
The last thing I recall during that time, was how he relented, afraid my mother would die. We were summoned into the cold light of a winter day, and then into the car.
It wasn't until I was eighteen years-old and visited my mother one day in her apartment where I could explain to her about the flashbacks I'd been having in my teens. My mother filled in the missing pieces of my patchworked memory with PTSD. I explained to her how as a younger teen, I would be playing with my best friend in his house, playing tag, running around their dining table. I would freeze, go into a trance like state. I recounted to her what I remembered. I desperately wanted answers. But the one I wanted most was the WHY "Why did Dad go into a rage and almost kill you?"
My mother lifted her dry, weathered hands in the air. "Oh, my goodness, your father made his family think I was having an affair! That's how he kept it under wraps."
"I don't get it. An affair?"
"No! Your father was so close to his family and especially his older brother Frankie, that when he figured I was trying to keep the news of his terminal illness from him, he went berserk!"
That was it! It was then that I finally let tears freely sting my face. I had an answer. And I understood during my formative years after the domestic violence, my father continued to worship his family. I once came home from school to the country house he raised me in, and I found a shot glass with his fingernail scratches on it and the distinct smell of whiskey. Then I learned his other brother almost died of a massive heart attack that day.
My mother added. "Keep in my mind, his mother passed away shortly after we were married, and your brother Robert was born. The cold hard truth was, he couldn't handle a loved one's death. He came out of the great depression too. His family was insanely close. To withhold information about his brother's terminal cancer to him was a far worse betrayal than adultery."
And then I said, "So it was over his family, he nearly killed you."
With tears staining my face I hugged her. My mother wasn't a hugger. In fact, I probably could have counted on five fingers the number hugs I exchanged with her as I grew up in a fractured family. But I took what she gave me. Yet, I noticed she never cried. She'd been hardened like the hammer my father used to wield over hot metal in the steel mill back in the day. I also noted though I looked like my father, I had her misty blue eyes. I would always have her eyes, something to hold on to. I too was a survivor. But I knew then there was more...
Before I left, I turned to her, "Wasn't my sister there? I remember someone trying stop me, block me from seeing what happened. She told me not to look."
My mother looked stunned. "Ann wasn't there that day. She was in school. When we were at the hospital she came home and saw the blood. She didn't know what happened. It freaked her out. She ran to a neighbor's house."
"I thought she was there. I could have sworn it." It was my turn to look puzzled.
My mother added. "I guess you don't remember the part where your father told me before we went to the hospital to get stitches. He told me, I would have to say I fell down the stairs. He told me, he would never go to prison. He would kill me first."
I froze by the doorway, listening to parts that had been buried and forgotten.
Oh, and another thing. "When I told the doctor I'd fallen, you were in the room, and with tears in your eyes, you said, "Daddy hurt Mommy. You were always my truth teller."
Then it occurred to me what good my honesty did. Nothing. Not one thing. He was never jailed or punished, unless you count my sister and brothers hatred of him as a forever punishment.
Before I walked away, I explained, "If it wasn't my sister, someone told me, someday I would understand. How is that possible? Maybe it was my imagination, but I don't think so."
My mother had no answer.
It was then that I knew, God had given me answer. I had not been abandoned and forgotten, not even on that day. I really wanted to tell her that there must have been an angel in the house that day, but it was useless. As I walked into the bright summer street into my vulnerable adulthood, I knew experts would say it was a defense mechanism of the mind. I must have invented that my sister was there that horrific day.
A heavy weight, like an anvil lifted from shoulders, as I slipped into my car. Then it occurred to me, what if it was my other sister Karen who died from crib death? What if she'd given me a message of hope that day despite the evil?
From a trusted source, I'm told this should be considered a non-fiction narrative and not a memoir, because I rely on other sources. But it will have the feel of a memoir. 2nd chapter was the hardest to write but there is light of love to come in the story.
Cast of characters:
Vicky Bednar (mother)
Thomas Bednar (father)
Tom Jr. (Me. The middle child)
Older sister (Ann)
After the bloody assault on my mother, it seemed things returned to normal. As far as I know the police never showed up at our door. No one sought council. It was considered a private matter that my father had beat my mother within an inch of her life. What I had seen was blocked, locked away, hidden in a deep vault of my tiny boy brain. It would be many more years before flashbacks would bring it to the surface of my mind.
Once again, my parent's made love enough to give our broken family a baby sister named Cyndi. Would this seal the bond of love between my father and mother? What about my older sister, Ann, who my father adopted? She'd seen plenty of blood when she came home from school. She was old enough to remember! And she never forgot how to hate our father. She was our reluctant teen babysitter when my parents would go out to clubs, dancing, or bowling. I hardly recalled her smiling or laughing, as we all lived through the family experience.
My father would come home from his job at the steel mill and play with us, including my little sister Cyndi when she was old enough to horse around. We would all take turns riding on him, as if he was the horse or bull. My little sister would grow up thinking of my father's kind eyes, soft eyes, not the hard devilish ones we experienced once. Everyone doted over her, but as it turned out it wouldn't be the magic glue to keep us all together.
For some years life seemed normal. I had fond memories of my father taking us on camping and fishing trips. Living in upstate NY, meant all four seasons. Even in the cold, wintry months, my father would take us out in a 1960's Ford Fairlane. He would drive out on the ice of Lake Oneida and do figure eights. Riding in a car without seatbelts, we slipped and slid around bouncing into each other. If I had a healthy fear of death, I probably would have stayed home.
Once, as a boy of eight or nine years old, I recalled going along with my father on a hunting trip near the Adirondack mountains. It was at night and there was a hairpin turn. As he took the curve, tires squealed, and the passenger door flew open. I slipped away, half asleep until the cold night air rushed over me. With one hand on the wheel and his free hand, my father grabbed my left arm and wrestled me back inside. Those were strange years, living in the allusion of an insulated life from danger.
I never questioned his love for me or feared he would turn into a monster and hurt me. Maybe he saw so much of himself in me. My brother, he never spoke about the incident that almost took our mother's life. He kept to himself until his teen years kicked in and his bitterness became evident.
One summer day, we packed our belongings into a trailer and moved from the city house on Emerson Avenue into the country. We had lived across from Allied Chemical, the main polluter of Onondaga Lake. It was known as the most polluted Lake in the country back then. There was once a famous infomercial about chief Hiawatha standing on the shore with a thick tear running down his face. We didn't mind leaving the sulfur sewage smell it spewed for the fresh air and a new start.
Brewerton was a village town at the mouth of lake Oneida. Our new house was small but flanked by woods in the back and wild fields in front of us. My father started a new job on the railroad, a job he loved. We had tracks in the back of our woods and at night you could hear the lone whistle of the train approaching a road crossing, I would sometimes fall asleep in my room to the hypnotic sounds of the clickety clack of the steel wheels on the track.
The blizzard of 1966 was a memorable time. It snowed non-stop for days. Then the winds howled. After a few days, the power in the house went out, which meant the furnace quit too. At some point we also lost phone service. My father who was on a road trip with the railroad and got stranded in Buffalo. All rail service and transportation eventually came to a halt. People were stuck in vehicles and had to walk for miles for shelter, and some froze to death in their cars.
My mother was unluckier than my father who was stuck in a hotel. She was stuck with four kids. By this time, my oldest sister was about sixteen years old, my brother was ten, I was eight, and my sister was about five. We all felt safe and insulated with enough food in the freezer to hold out for several days.
Our mother hardly played with us kids when we were little, but she loved puzzles and boardgames. I recalled us being bundled up with layers throwing dice or playing Operation. Every now and then we'd look out the windows and watch the drifts grow until it covered our windows and went over our house. Then I'd over-hear my mother and sister talk about the blizzard with concern growing on their faces.
One morning my brother and I were startled awake. "Boys, wake-up!" My mother barked. "We're going outside today. Sun's out."
I had the bottom bunk. I rubbed the sleep from eyes and looked at our window. No sun, just snow.
"I need a volunteer," Said mother. "I need one of you two boys to go through your window and dig us out, then look around and report back to me."
I jumped at the chance. "I will! I'll do it." I was already wearing a coat in my pajamas.
My oldest sister stood in the doorway; arms crossed. You could see she had her doubts. "Maybe he can make it. He's one small shithead."
"Ann, watch your mouth," Mother warned.
My brother looked up and rolled over. I was dressed in boots and thick mittens. My mother managed to push hard enough on the window to start a path. They got some kind of stool and then shoved on me.
I think my mother used her broad shoulders to keep me in place, scrunched against the opening. "Now, use your mittens and tunnel yourself out, and don't stop until you see the sky!"
I dug upward, snow falling around me into the bedroom. With snow stinging my face, I broke through the crust into the blinding sun.
When I managed to pry an eye open, I craned my neck like a gopher in a hole. I declared, "I did it! I did it!" Nothing but blue skies above.
Suddenly I had a cheering section in the bedroom. Even my oldest sister acted excited. I felt on top of the world because I was on top of my world.
I heard mother yell. "Now see if you can walk on the hard snow and climb on top of the roof. Then tell us what you see."
I climbed on top of the roof from a snowdrift which covered part of the shingled roof. I looked for signs of life, but it was a frozen tundra of buried homes, and as far as the eye could see no man or beast could be found. Our road seemed to have vanished! I listened, and only heard the whisp of snow in the air. It seemed all life had disappeared.
That day or the next we began tunneling out with shovels, clearing paths, and making progress to get our front door to open. I believe it was the next day, five or six days after being held captive by the snowstorm that ravaged our town, we heard the sound of snowmobiles making tracks on what used to be the road. Then we saw neighbor coming out from the forced hibernation. I think my mother told us that day, we needed to get on the roof, because soon we would see our Dad cutting across the open field.
Bundled and wrapped, we all climbed and gathered on top of the roof, straining our eyes. My mother always had eagle eyes. She spotted a couple specks moving toward us from a good mile away. She pointed. "Look that's your father with snowshoes on and a bag of groceries." He and another fella were following the snowmobile trails.
As we all watched him churning with his legs through the snow, it was like fireworks exploding in my heart. My mother held my little sisters gloved hand, and we all waved and cheered from the rooftop for our father. It was one of the best most powerful memories ever. In my innocent mind, my father was a hero.
Winter turned into Spring. My mother and father worked the garden around our house. It seemed a love for our country garden brought them closer. But the fights grew heated. Summer rain made the cornstalks snap and crackle until the stalks grew taller than I stood. As the seasons changed, so did the dynamics of our family.
One night I recall laying in my bunk bed hearing my parents screaming at each other when we were supposed to be asleep. Finally, one night, I heard my father storm out of the house. He never lived with my mother again.
As winter closed in again, there was a chill inside our home. For the first time in my young life, we had a Christmas tree and presents, but without our father. Years later when my father had passed I found the divorce decree among yellowed papers in his bedroom. It declared that my parents were divorced only a few weeks before Christmas when I was nine-years old.
I was too young then to realize that the divorce may have proved safer for my mother than to be the target of my father's abuse. It was remarkable even then, that my mother seemed to have no fear. When it came to a verbal fight, she could hold her own. But then came the talk between my older sister and mother about how much they hated my father. I hide around a corner and listened Sometimes I'd look in the mirror and notice how I resembled my father and wondered if my mother and sister hated me too. I craved to be close to my mother, but often I was pushed away from her inner circle. My brother, on the other hand didn't look like my father at all. No one ever knew what he was thinking.
Was he really my father's son?
Onondaga Lake was really one of the most polluted lake in the world in the 1966's. Today, the lake is fished and boated. It has become a remarkable environmental success story.
The picture is from Syracuse blizzard and coincidentally happened 57 years ago, beginning on January 29th.
Cast of characters: Tom Bednar Jr. (Narrator)
Father Thomas Bednar
Mother Vicky Bednar
Older sister Ann
Older brother Robert
Younger sister Cyndi
1967 started like most winters, dark, dull, and dreary. Our family dynamic changed without my father living at home. My mother needed to bring in extra income. She went to work for General Electric, a popular company in the 60's and 70's. She worked the night shift. Between school and the evenings, us kids hardly spent time with her. Once again, my older sister was the reluctant babysitter. She often looked constipated, bound by us, wishing she could be a free and dating as a high school teen.
My mother and sister reminded me when I turned ten that I should finally stop wetting the bed. They seemed to be running out of positive reinforcement and threatened to tell others about what I hoped would be kept a secret. It was worse when my father lived with us. He once threatened to rub my nose in it like a dog. It got to where I tried to conceal it, but even the smell would give me away.
I couldn't wait for summer. Often I played with my friends in the neighborhood or would visit a classmate from grade school. If my mother worried about us kids getting molested or kidnapped, she never let on. Sometimes a couple of my friends and I would walk the rails on the tracks behind the woods and see how far we could get before we lost our balance or dispersed from an oncoming train.
One particular summer day I woke to find my mother had brought a new man home. He was sitting with her on the couch in the living room sharing an ashtray and smoking cigarettes until they were shrouded in a cloud of smoke. He had beady eyes, a pinched nose, and a balding head. His smile was more like a smirk. I was just a boy, but I didn't need a degree to know he only wanted my mother. I found out later he discarded his previous wife and kids. I was told he was my mother's shift supervisor or manager. Fringe benefits.
When I labored by them, I gave the love birds a dirty look.
My mother immediately looked through the screen door at the sunshine, then my way. "It's a nice day. You should go out and play."
My mother always wanted me outside, rain or shine. I balked at the idea of her getting rid of me. "I don't feel so good."
"Well," she said. "If you don't feel good, then you should go back to bed."
I pouted my way into the kitchen where I rummaged through drawer and found a pair of scissors. I opened the fridge and found a bottle of ketchup. Then I squirted and spread the ketchup on the front of my shirt to make it look like I stabbed myself.
I stalked back into the living room with the scissors in my hand, crouched over as if in pain. One of my best acting jobs ever! They were not amused. I loved how Herb's smile evaporated and his eyes bulged. "Look what I've done to myself! I'm dying."
Mother jumped from the sofa as if she'd been stung in the ass. "What have you done?"
I made a lasting impression. Mom ushered me into my room, warning me, scolding me, ripping the scissors from my hands. "What's wrong with you?"
"I don't want to live anymore."
I had hoped it would have been enough to get rid of Herbie, but he stuck to her like glue. I never got him to leave my mother alone.
A few days later, I watched my mother and father talking in the gravel drive about the need for me to see a psychologist. My father was cold to the idea. He didn't want me talking about how he harmed my mother when I was two. He changed his mind when she told him it might help me to stop wetting the bed.
About the time school started, my parents would take turns picking me up and take me to the clinic in Oswego, NY. It didn't appear to be much of a secret that I was headed off to see a mental health counselor. I had been locking myself in the 5th grade bathroom and acting out in class. I'm pretty sure everyone knew I was mental case.
My father was the most fun when he took me to see the counselor. He'd make sure to drive real fast over the rolling hills on the back roads so I could lift my arms up in the air and feel the empty wave in my stomach like a roller coaster. I also didn't mind having my mother spending time with me when it was her turn to drive. During those drives I had her all to myself. I would have been a momma's boy if she had let me.
The clinic was a two-story building on a busy street close to Lake Ontario. We parked in the rear where we climbed this black metal stairway and entered into a room in the corner. If it wasn't for the big windows and the sun penetrating the room, it would have seemed scary.
A young woman opened a door from another room and introduced herself. I couldn't tell you her name. She had long dark hair and shiny-blue eyes. I was glad she was a woman. I didn't mind sharing secrets with her once I got to know her. She seemed the opposite of my mother, willing to talk to me about anything.
We talked about sports, especially football and my love for the Dallas Cowboys. Then she'd ask me what kind of games I liked. The place was cluttered with all kinds of toys and games. I kept looking at the clown in the corner. "What's up with that goofy clown?"
"You want to play with the clown?"
"What you mean? Like how? It just sits there like an overgrown bowling pin."
"You're supposed to knock it down."
"A punching clown. I'm supposed to hit it until I win?"
"Sort of," She stood up from her plastic chair and pulled the clown from its neglected space in the corner and set it in front of me. "Give it your best shot. You can't hurt it."
I should have known it was a set-up. But I was only ten. I didn't know better. "Wow," I said. "I bet I can wipe that smirk off its face." I coiled my hands into a fist.
"Go ahead. Try n knock him down!"
I unloaded on this clown. I pummeled it with both hands. I even kicked him a few times until I fell down with exhaustion. But there he stood with his cheap grin.
"How do you feel?" asked the counselor.
"I hate this clown! He won't stay down."
She smiled. "Think of that clown as someone you know, someone you don't like."
As I stood up for the second round, I pictured Herbie, my mother's boyfriend with the same funny smirk. I unleashed a flurry of punches. Then I pinned it to the floor. As I backed away, it returned upright.
"What gives with this clown anyway?"
The counselor leaned over from her chair. "The clown has sand in the bottom. Its bottom heavy. But don't you feel better, getting all that anger out?"
"You set me up. You made me play a game I can't win."
"Let's talk about that. Sometimes we get mad or angry cause we can't change things, things we can't control."
I liked her, but I didn't care to make it easy for her. In some ways, she, like the clown wasn't going to back down. Eventually I would open up and tell her my secrets. As for the clown, he had it coming to him.
My life was no funhouse: more like a house of mirrors, not knowing what I might smack into.
Tom Bednar (Me)
Tom Sr. (Father)
Ann (Older sister)
Mental Health counselor (No name)
Clown (No name)
Herb (Mother's boyfriend)
Back in the day no one ever suggested other than people who have been in war suffered from PTSD. It's become a common definition for others who experienced some form of violent trauma in their lives. I'm pretty sure the bed wetting was related.
My desperate older sister Ann finally proved she could secure a boyfriend. Months later, she was engaged to the creep named Allan. He spent too much time at our country house bragging about his high school wrestling days and offering to give us boys private lessons. When I told him I preferred the wrestling on television he laughed and told me that wasn't real. I figured he was jealous, because he was a fat toad compared to them.
Allan often tried to get us on our knees so he could demonstrate how a real wrestler does his moves. It seemed a weird request. When my sister got wind of it, she told him to back off. She seemed to know how to keep him on a leash. There was one time where I wouldn't take a bath for days, and my mother was fed up. When Allan got wind of it, he volunteered to force a bath on me. My mother likely wanted to humiliate me into cleaning myself properly.
I'll never forget getting locked into our tiny bathroom in that small country house where he proceeded to make me strip down in front of him and get into the tub. He took a washcloth and touched me in private places. My mother and sister could hear me scream, but no one thought I needed to be rescued. Luckily, I don't recall anything worse than getting molested or touched inappropriately, since there can be worse degrees of violation.
I'm not sure what prompted me to run away from home. Part of it was having other men like Allan, and perhaps Herb trying to control me. Neither knew how to be a father figure if they cared. I mostly hated my new world order.
It was a cold time of the year when I left the house. I'm not sure how I evaded everyone. I think my mother might have been asleep from the night shift. I bundled up with gloves, hat, and a coat. I put my favorite things in a little red wagon. I hadn't thought much about the consequences. I just knew if I could get to the place my father lived, I would be better off. Strange as it sounds, I never feared my father hurting me like he did my mother. He never smacked us kids unless we fought each other, then he'd chase us with a belt, but we were faster than him.
As I walked down the country road from our house, I knew it would be five miles to the next town in Cicero where my father lived in a garage apartment. I remembered him telling us kids about how far away he was. In my little boy brain, I hadn't realized it would take more than a few hours walking.
I'm pretty sure I could see my breath and the cold stung my face. Once I got to the main road, the traffic was heavy and loud. Cars whizzed by me. If I had known the dangers of walking beside fast cars, I would have thought twice. Amazingly no one stopped and questioned why a bundled boy labored along a busy road with a red wagon. No one offered me a ride or tried to kidnap me. The police hadn't approached me. It was as if I had a cloak of invisibility.
More than halfway the smell of exhaust fumes took an intoxicating toll on me. Certain landmarks told me I was close enough, like the miniature golf course or a firehouse. Every now and then I turned around to look, and wondered if my mother knew I was missing yet. Each step I took weighed heavier on me.
Not sure how I got through the busy intersection in Cicero, but once I did, I could see the white house with the detached garage where I knew my father lived. My heart raced. I didn't know what adrenaline was, but I could feel the electricity of the moment charging through me, giving me a second wind.
Once I crossed the street, I hurried to the garage door, but noticed my father's car wasn't there. I knocked on the door. No answer. I swallowed a ball of fear. My stomach flipped inside.
My only hope left was to ask the landlord if she would help. Imagine the surprise on this woman's face when I rapped on the door and she saw this rosy-cheeked kid. This woman made me feel like I didn't belong at her door. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, my Dad lives in the apartment here, and...and he hasn't come home yet. And I was wondering if I could wait for him?
"How did you get here?"
"I walked from my mother's. Please, I need to stay here."
"I can't let you stay here with me. Let me see if I have a key to his apartment. You say he's expecting you?"
I told a lie. "Yes, he is."
"Okay, let me see what I can do." She found a set of keys hanging on a board. "It's cold out here. And you walked a long way." She grabbed her coat and keys, stepping outside.
I breathed a sigh when she let me inside the apartment. I pulled my red wagon through the door, shut it, and plopped down on my father's bed and stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of silence. It felt as if I'd accomplished something on the level of swimming across an ocean or climbing the tallest mountain.
The phone rang several times. I nearly jumped off the bed. A few minutes later, I watched through the shade when a car pulled up in front. I dove behind the bed. My heart hammered until it hurt.
I hid like a mole that had no business being inside the place.
Tom is me growing up in a broken world
Father (Tom Sr.)
Older Sister (Ann)
Allan (Future brother in-law)
Herb (Mother's boyfriend)
Some names have been changed to protect the living from a lawsuit against me for telling the hard truths.
When the coast was clear I sat on my father's bed which took up most of the garage apartment. He had a tiny bathroom with a shower as the only other room in the place. I turned on the television and waited for him to come home. I couldn't wait to tell him I ran away and decided to live with him instead.
Hours later, I recognized my father's figure at the door. He fiddled with his keys, turned the lock, and thrust the door open. I leaped from the bed! "Hey Dad!" His eyes flashed in surprise.
His mouth flew open. "What's...what's going on? What are you doing here?"
"I'm staying with you. I don't want to go home."
"How'd you get here?"
"That's over five miles!"
My father wasn't as happy as I expected. Then again, I was ten years old, and he was fifty. Maybe he liked coming and going as he pleased, without having a son to weigh him down. I just wanted away from the strange new men in our family, and my half-sister who I suspected hated me, because I reminded her of my father.
He scratched his head over me until his dark hair needed a comb. Before he could say another word, the phone on the wall rang. It seemed so loud; I swear it shook the wall.
He answered on the second ring. "Hell oh."
My mother's voice was so loud I could hear it from the bedside. My stomach did flips again. My heart jumped into my throat.
My father's face tightened; his hazel eyes flared. "He's here. He's with me." More screaming from the phone. "He can stay with me from now on."
Yes! That's what I wanted to hear. My mother didn't seem convinced.
"Well, that's too bad!" My father hung up the phone.
I breathed a sigh. My heart seemed to settle back into its place and rhythm.
His angry complexion changed to sadness. "It's okay. You can stay." But he didn't seem so sure, as he looked around his one room haven.
Tears pressed against my eyes. as my father fished around for something to eat from the fridge. Before we could settle in with each other, a car pulled up in front of the window besides my father's car.
My mother barreled from her car. Allan followed! I knew then, even at ten, he was to be some kind of bodyguard. My sister Ann was in the car too. They must have left my brother and baby sister to fend for themselves. Mom barged through the door. My father turned around in surprise. What took me a few hours to walk, took my mother ten minutes to drive.
My heart tightened into a beating knot, as I watched them go at each other. My father's face turned beet red. Mother wagged her finger at my father and told him off. I couldn't say I remembered exactly what she'd said, but I knew swear words when I heard them, and I heard a bunch.
My father got in her face. I ran out from the door. Allan stood by the door listening, waiting to pounce on my father like a fat cat. I stood back, more alone than ever in the driveway. My sister Ann who stayed in the car, yelled for me. "Get in the car, Tommy!"
I refused to budge from my driveway where no one could grab me. Then it happened! My father looked like he had blood in his eyes. Allan bolted through the door, dove in toward my father's legs and lifted him on to the bed, pinning him down! Allan proved true to his keen wrestling moves he bragged about.
Helplessly I watched the scene unfold. My mother exacted some kind of pleasure, having my father flat on his back like a bug, warning him that he better never lay a hand on her again. She paced back and forth, wagging her finger, giving him the biggest lecture of his life.
I could see through the open door, the color drain from my father's face, as Allan pinned his arms down. My father weakly replied, "Okay. I understand."
Suddenly my father was no longer a strong man, a man who never backed down from a fight. With my mouth gapped open, I saw him look like a weak old man, hardly able to breath.
I turned away to see a police car pull into the drive. I bolted down the road, feeling as if my world was collapsing, caving in behind me until there would be nothing left between me and the ashes of my family. Cars whizzed by me. I wanted to keep running, but where?
I stopped long enough to wipe the tears from my face. From a corner of my eye, I spied mom's car coming toward me. I pretended not to notice. I dried my eyes and kept walking.
The car door opened while moving. "Thomas, get in the car now!" My mother sounded like she would boil me in her cauldron at home if I surrendered.
Allan volunteered to grab me. He leaped out. I shot back. "I won't go."
Finally, my mother's voice changed. She knew cursing wouldn't work. My sister told Allan to get back in the car. "Tommy," she said. "You don't want the police to take you home do you?"
I tumbled inside the car. Mom turned the car around. Before I knew it, we rode past my father's garage apartment where the police talked to him at the door. I wanted to be invisible or so small, no one could find me again.
As we drove on, Allan wore a smirk. I was glad he was in the front seat, but he would turn his head and talk to my sister Ann. Then he said, "I can't believe how easy it was to take him down. He didn't even put up a fight."
My sister looked at me and then him. "Don't! Don't talk about it." She looked at me, probably knowing his words would stay with me for the rest of my life."
My mother pulled into the gravel driveway. I don't remember what I said, but I'm pretty sure I challenged Allan to a fight. I may have even kicked him in the shin and punched him a few times. I'm pretty sure the blows bounced off him like blubber.
Before the sun went down, I was sent to bed. No one in the house ever talked to me and asked me why I ran away from home. Tossing and turning, I was unable to fall asleep. I snuck out of my room, crouched down and listened to my family talking, gloating over how they put my father in his place. I was living a nightmare. I needed to sleep and wake up with a new family. Little did I know that day would come sooner than I expected.
Tom Jr. (Me)
Tom SR. (Father)
Allan (Future brother-in law)
Ann (Older half-sister)
Jeremiah 29:13 "And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye search for me with all your heart."
My mother's stern voice ushered us boys into the living room. She had something important to discuss. In all my eleven years, I hadn't recalled her having a serious sit-down conversation. Waves of fear rushed through me.
My brother Robert planted himself on the couch first. Then I bounded in beside him with a brave face. My brother hardly ever showed his emotions. Since he was pushing thirteen, he may have been shedding more of his childhood than me.
The house was small. My brother and I slept in bunkbeds. My older sister, a senior about to graduate had a room to herself. That left my mother with our little sister in her room. It didn't take more than a second or two to get from one room to another. The walls were thin too, that's why I suspected this conversation would be about the time I ran away and tried living with my father.
Mother wouldn't blow smoke in our face, so she put the cigarette out in the kitchen and within seconds loomed over us. It was like a spotlight bore down and my mother had center stage.
My sister Ann listened in from the kitchen. I was sure glad her future husband Allan was nowhere to be found. He was probably bragging to his friends about how he had pinned my father into submission.
"You boys need to decide where you want to live," she announced. Mother was never one to mince words. She'd get to the point no matter how sharp.
Stunned into silence, us boys looked at each other. Confusion wouldn't linger long.
"I've talked things out with your father," she said. "He wants to come live here with you boys. He wants the house."
My heart squeezed into a fist. I needed to breath.
"Ann and you're little sister, the three of us are going to move into an apartment. But not far away." She looked us over, maybe tried to measure our reaction. "It means you can stay here! keep your friends, your school, and you get to live with your dad. That's not so bad now, is it?"
My brother was the first one to rupture. I'd never seen him rain tears before. He often had a certain far-off look in his brown eyes. There was no way to stop his spasms. The child inside him came out. "You mean...your leaving us?"
"Yes, but I won't be that far away. And I will come by to see you every week. Promise."
I waited for her to say, "I cross my heart and hope to die." But it didn't happen. My brother stood up. Hiccupped through tears. "I don't want... you to...to go."
My mother knelt down and put her arms around Robert. She looked at me, like I'm getting what I wanted. Somehow it was my fault. If I could read her mind, she was saying something like, "Be careful what you wish for."
She stood and wiped his face. "Don't you want to live with your father?"
My brother blurted out. I want you both! I don't want it to be like this..."
Mom injected. "I'm sorry son. I know it's not what you want. But it would be best to stay in the house with your father. Afterall, you have your school, your friends. And I will see you every week."
I was no dumb kid. she'd already made the decision for us. I'm sure I must have been hurt. I must have masked it. I recalled my brain brewing with ideas good and bad. What if I needed mom in the middle of the night? What if I had an accident? Then thoughts of living with my father took over. I imagined all the things we could do: Fishing, hunting, camping. What an adventure!
After my brother calmed down, we had to go to bed. It was timed for us to sleep on it. I'm sure we must have talked from our bunkbeds in the night. I think he cried himself to sleep. Somehow, we'd have to accept it. We really had no choice. Boys with father. Girls with mom.
I'm not sure what day it was, days later, maybe not even a week, my mother and all her belongings emptied from the house into a trailer and cars. Something emptied from me that day, more like hole formed in my little boy heart. Fat Allan came around, but I gave him a wide enough birth.
I wanted to live with my father. I got what I wished for, but my heart sank. Did I make them want to leave? If it was possible to be happy and sad all in one, that was me. But I knew my brother didn't care to live with dad. I don't think anyone saw it coming when he turned to drugs in his teen years and bitterness ate his soul.
Finally, the day came, and my father walked through the door. I helped him unload so many bags and boxes, I wondered how he kept so much in that tiny garage apartment. The biggest thing I remembered about that day was how he couldn't stop smiling. Over time, I realized how important the country was to him, the house, and especially the garden.
The garden was where we spent our best time together. It helped me heal some of my hurt. I loved watching things grow, digging up red potatoes like finding gold nuggets, or plucking sweet corn, breaking them off the stalk.
Our neighbors remarked how we had the best, sandy soil for a garden. We'd often found seashells when tilling the garden. I once asked my father, "Where'd the shells come from? I thought they are only on beaches by the water?"
He'd look at me with his hardened, weathered face, his straw hat casting a shadow in the garden. "It's possible there was once a lake where our land sits, maybe even an ancient flood." He winked.
My father may have loved his brothers and sisters to a fault, but his love wasn't lost on me either. His love for the land was almost equal to family. The garden was my first serious introduction to a creator, even though I'd gone to church, stuck my hand in holy water, did the sign of the cross. All those church lessons were lost on me, but not the ones from the garden.
Once when he was spreading manure around the leaves and vegetables he remarked how he couldn't understand why his little brother Johnny was an atheist. He'd take his soiled finger and wave it around. "Just think how there's a delicate cycle where manure, crap, pure crap makes the sweetest and best vegetables grow. It has to be something only God can do."
I was just glad my father was standing again and not flat on his back. He seemed content. But there was something about invoking God outdoors. It made me wonder, that he was out there somewhere beyond the blue, but as a kid, I couldn't put my finger on him. To me, no matter the religion pumped into me, he, this God was no better than the great Wizard of Oz, and I was Dorothy fighting my fears to find him.
On the very first night my brother and I had our own room! It should have been exciting. The bunk bed had been broken down and I was able to have my own dresser, my own window, my own lair. When the lights went out and I could hear the sounds of crickets in the yard, there was something in me, leftover. I loved my mom. I always wanted to be a momma's boy.
My father tucked me in for the night. It was a moment, a memory of him tucking me in, giving me a sense of security, that no harm would come. "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite." I wasn't sure what a bed bug looked like, never had been bitten by one. I'm sure if I'd know that they were little vampire blood suckers, I would have been more terrified.
But as the night wore on, I tossed and turned. As I stared at the ceiling, it dawned on me, my mother was gone. She was really gone!
I threw off my covers and wandered through the house to my father's bedroom, bumping into things until the small child inside me hounded my father awake. "I want my Mom. I need mom."
He leaped from his bed. Shouted at me. "Get to bed! Now!" He slammed the door shut.
I scampered away to my room, crawled in bed, and cried myself to sleep. I needed someone to talk to. If only I could find God and talk to him.
Tom (Me growing up)
Ann (Older half-sister)
Father (Tom Sr.)
Allan (Brother in-law to be
Jeremiah 33:3 Call unto me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things you do not know.
Becoming a teen boy can be confusing. I often got second-hand information from my childhood friends when it came to the birds and the bees. My father just had that wrinkled grin and look in his eye that nature will take care of itself.
Living in the country, raised by my father wasn't all bad for me. My brother unfortunately found drugs to be his coping mechanism in a divided family. He'd leave the house and sometimes not come back until the early morning hours. It wasn't long before Robert was failing in school. No one could turn my brother around. He was bound and determined to finish his downward spiral.
It was the tale of two brothers. I liked school, except for math. I loved to read. I fell in love with the book To Kill a Mockingbird. It began my love for words and fueled a fire inside me to write. As I got older, I graduated to Truman Capote and Cold Blood, and I imagined what it would be like to write spellbinding words wrapped in a powerful story.
Two boys, a broken home, and two paths. One went to drugs and quit school; the other went to church and completed school. I would sometimes walk a few miles into the town of Brewerton just to go to church. I would walk in surrounded by strangers who hardly smiled, and it seemed like they wanted to get out as quick as they could kneel and do a sign of the cross. Walking back home alone it never dawned on me that I could talk directly to God, that he sent his son as a means to a personal relationship. It was a wilderness journey on a lonely road believing like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I needed a marked path, a yellow brick road.
Since my father would be on the road with the railroad much of the time, I was often left alone to my own devices. Unlike my brother, I didn't mind cleaning the house, doing dishes. I liked things neat and tidy. It often paid off. My father would leave money on the kitchen table, and I found maid service profitable.
I took advantage of my freedom to a degree. Rick Nash became my best friend a few houses down. He came from a big family, a happy, loving family. I recall watching Rick's parents get playful with each other. All the kids bounding in and out of the house. I was fascinated to see two parents demonstrating real wholesome love with each other, despite the fact that they could barely put enough food on the table. I was jealous of my friend.
There were times when adults would make comments like, "You're friend isn't playing with a full deck." I recalled one night at my friends house when we were playing tag in his house, I had one of my first flashbacks. Running around the dining room table, I froze! I recalled things once blocked out, how my mother ran from my father around the dining room table. They must have thought I was one weird thirteen-year old. Then one night my best friend Rick called and said, "You can't come over here anymore. I don't want to see you around."
My father watched tears build in my eyes, as I stormed off into my room telling him what just happened. His softer side showed up. He told me, "Don't worry, I'll be your buddy, I'll be your friend."
In some ways, he was true to his word. He'd often take me out on to the lake and we'd go fishing. He'd untangle my fishing line without a single swear word. He took me deer hunting and would sit me down by a tree where I would fall asleep. One time we put on a deer drive in the Adirondacks and I lost sight of everyone. My older cousin saw bushes rattling and put his gun on me and nearly pulled the trigger! He said, "Hey man, where'd you come from? I nearly shot you."
It's interesting how you can look back on your life and realize but for this moment or another I almost got killed. In my teen boy brain, it didn't register how close to death I came. I was just glad my cousin found me, or I would have been lost in the mountains for good. In those early vulnerable years shaped my heart, but my heart leaked for something more, some way to make sense of a broken world.
As time went on, I hardly saw my mother. Her trips to pick us boys up became less frequent. I should have been like my brother. I should have hated my father for the abuse he'd done to my mother. But I couldn't find any hate in me. He was the one who cared enough to teach me how to be a man, and he didn't get mad if I cried. I couldn't hate my mother either. As a teen boy I resented her until the flashbacks came, and like jigsaw puzzle I would piece together what had been blocked out for so many years. As I matured into a man, I understood she had a history with men, a line of them that promised to love her and treat her with respect, but often they morphed into monsters.
One of those rare nights when I didn't have the house to myself and my father was home, we watched television together. I enjoyed those moments, even if it meant I was his remote control. It was after all early 1970's when only the wealthy could buy a television with remote control. Back in the day everyone was competing to have the biggest most powerful antenna on their rooftop. It was the only way you could get more than three or four channels.
My father wasn't happy with the few choices on television. As I turned the dial, I stumbled into a Billy Graham crusade. My father stood, yawned, and then said, "He's a good man, you should listen to what he has to say." He left me alone with Billy Graham. He hadn't cared to stay and watch it with me.
I was always looking to improve my messed up life, so I took my father's advice. I sat down and watched as this man with piercing eyes and a sharp finger scanned the audience. I couldn't believe I'd ever seen that many people packed into a stadium unless it was football. It was a curious moment. I forced myself to listen, because what he said seemed foreign to me. Here was this great communicator, obviously, and I absorbed nothing of it. Then something happened!
As I sat there and the camera closed in on the preacher he looked into the camera as if he was looking at me. He said, "You can know for sure you're going to heaven. You can have peace in your heart beyond understanding, if you accept Christ as your savior."
Something weird happened in that moment. It felt like someone was inside me, squeezing my heart. What he said scared me, as he talked spoke of heaven and hell. Then it was over. People filed from their seats and rushed out on to the field. Tears pressed against my eyes. I didn't understand what happened. It was over, but the fear, the hunger, the hole in my heart leaked.
I rushed into my bedroom fell to my knees in the dark on the cold tile floor. I prayed what I thought was a real prayer for the first time. But I didn't know what to say to a God that seemed to be hiding from me. I switched from fear to anger. I told God, "I don't know if I'm going to heaven or hell, but if I'm not going to heaven, then it won't be my fault. If I go to hell, its because you sent me there!"
I curled into ball, blabbering away, having a mental breakdown. If my father had heard me, he would have called for the paddy wagon to come and pick me up. But I was never more alone. God wasn't there, or he was just avoiding me.
Through the tears in my eyes, I looked up to my dresser in the half-dark and spied a statue of Joseph and Mary, the ones who had Jesus. I was mad at them because nothing happened! Asking them for help was useless, lifeless!
After I cried myself to sleep, I woke up to a cold, crisp, but sunny morning. Nothing had changed. My teen brother was missing in action as usual. I didn't know if he came home. If my father was worried, he never said so. I'm not sure where my father went. Maybe he went to find him or pick him up at a friends house.
I made my plans to go into the woods and find God. Like Dorothy who refused to give up until she met the one person who could rescue her and send her back to Kansas, I was determined to challenge God to show himself.
I threw on my jacket and found my boots, because it was late winter and the snow had melted, but it was muddy. Before I left the house I took the small statue of Joseph and Mary. As I shot from the house and ran down the path of the garden into the woods. With a statue in each hand, I ran through the trees like a wild jungle boy, almost crashing, tripping, falling until I came to an embankment where the sportsman lodge that owned the woods still practices near it as a gun range.
I looked around, knowing I could yell as much as I wanted. I could see the railroad tracks through the leafless trees. I looked up into the cold blue sky and thin clouds where my world spiraled out of control, and became dizzy with anxiety and fear.
I fell to my knees. If it were possible, I would have strangled the statue of Mother Mary and Joseph. I begged God. "Show yourself. Where are you?! I can't find you. I know you are out there somewhere. Someday I'm going to find you."
In a fit of anger, I took the statues with my fisted hands and bore a hole in the soft ground until they were buried. I said, "There! That's all the good these things have done for me."
As I crumbled to the ground, exhausted, I looked up into the sky past the cathedral of trees. Done with words, I listened. Silence. Not a bird sang, no sound of train blowing its horn in the distance, not even a breeze stirring in the trees. It was deathly quiet.
Sadly, I stumbled to my feet, believing that God didn't really exist or that he didn't care.
But oh boy, I was wrong! He was there, listening, determining a path of unusual events that would defy any logical excuse in coincidence.
"The heavens declared the glory of God..." Psalm 19
Friendships in teen years meant everything. I suffered from a sense of isolation. Having only three or four channels on TV couldn't fill the void. My father would be working on the road a few days at a time. I had no idea that this unknown God I talked to in the woods was about to show himself to me. He proved to be nothing like the wizard who hid behind a curtain that Dorothy discovered was not so big and important. The great one I sought had been hiding in plain sight, but I was blind.
I threw on my coat on and walked up the road on crisp cold winter day. Grey clouds and darkness threatened all remaining light. From the road I spied through the picture window the Nash family horsing around, an unbroken family in a broken world. I was the odd boy without a friend.
I turned and kept walking down my country road to nowhere in particular. My cold breath looked like smoke signals, cries for help. Up the road, likely bored as me came Mark McGill, son of a pastor. He was a sophomore in High School, I was a freshman. We hardly ever crossed paths. I was surprised when he stopped and asked if I would go to church with him.
I didn't need to check my calendar to see if I was free on Sunday morning. When I walked through the door, I must have been greeted by half the folk. They sang music with gusto, as if they meant every word written in the song book. There were no scowls on their faces, and when the service was over, they didn't fight each other to get out the door.
By the next week, the pastor spoke about taking Jesus from history and making him real in your life. I don't recall all the words, but it seemed like suddenly words punched at my heart. How could I have not seen or understood this Jesus? He took my place. He paid the price for me. I needed to invite him into my heart. For the first time I prayed believing he would truly be my savior. From then I realized I had a friend that sticks closer than a brother.
When my father found out I was going to church and youth group, he didn't seem to care. His only concern was whether it could be a cult. When I told him they respected parental authority he was okay with it. Youth group was a game changer.
I dove into the youth group, going to Bible quizzes and youth retreats. But what got my attention was the so-called Sweetheart banquet for teens around Valentine's day. Everything about girls scared and excited me at the same time. I was still under the influence that my mother had abandoned me and that there must be something wrong with me because of my gender. I wondered what girl would go on a date with me the ugly duckling.
If I didn't have enough strikes against me, my father wasn't exactly a role model on hygiene and clothing. I once watched him leave the house in plaid pants and a striped shirt to go play golf!
When date night came Mark's older brother Matt had a license to drive and a seventies Road Runner. I sat in the back seat. Mark had his date, and then we picked up mine. Things were blur. I do remember sweating profusely, even though it was cold outside. The nervous sweat found its way to the palm of my hands. Touching a girl or holding hands scared me, let alone thinking about my first kiss.
Rhonda was a doll. Because of her name, I smile to this day when I sing the Beach Boys song, "Help me Rhonda." She was probably fifteen. She had sparkling blue eyes and fluffy brown hair. When we all sat down for a dinner, I tried not to look like I was sweating inside like hot spring geyser about to blow.
I looked over at Rhonda and she smiled back at me. We found candy shaped like hearts on them. I didn't know how to have a conversation, so I passed different candy hearts to her with the messages. It seemed to help start a conversation.
Rhonda talked enough to get me warmed up. I'm not even sure I did more than pick on my food. Rhonda left me with only an appetite for her. Mark always seemed to have a girl on his shoulder. He sat across the way smiling enough to be the class clown. He was the life of any party, even for a preacher's kid.
I'm not sure how, but I snagged a second date with Rhonda. On the way into the city to drop her off, Mark kept nudging me in the back seat until I couldn't help but feel her body next to me, sending jolts of fear and excitement from head to toe. I think Mark practically asked her out for me.
On the night of the next date, we found ourselves having dinner at Mark's house, but this time we were able to have privacy with our dates in the finished basement where we tried to navigate through games like Operation. A real buzz kill. Sweaty hands again.
Then we watched a movie. Alone, the four of us that is. I recalled how Rhonda sat with me in the same chair. The movie was boring, but she wasn't. I was glad the basement wasn't lit up like runway lights..
During the movie, Rhonda looked over at me and leaned in, her mouth sort of opened and her lips parted. It was my cue to go for it. I froze. I couldn't bring my lips to hers. I left her flailing like a fish out of water. It proved to be my last date with her.
Next thing I knew, we had visitors in our youth group meeting at church. His name was Steven, and he had a car. He drove to high school every day. His parent's had given him a Ford Pinto for his birthday. When I looked back from my pew, craning my neck, I could see Rhonda and him were holding hands. After youth group, Rhonda jumped in the car with him. I watched in horror, as she leaned over and kissed until they were practically stuck to each other.
My lack of experience and fear of women would haunt me for years until one day one girl in particular refused to give up on me. Back then she would have only been eleven and living in Texas. One day I would find her on a broken road beneath a billion stars.
Through faith, I could see the future, one with true love, someone who was meant for me. I'm not sure there is such a thing as blind faith...
Tom (Me growing up. Not my real name in order to protect me from angry family members.)
Mark McGill (Best friend growing up)
In high school I started out as a bony freshman who tried and failed to make the football team. I remember vividly how coach Coffman took me into his office that smelled like body sweat and liniment. He made it clear to me that I was the last one to be cut from the team. He told me in his stuffy style how my heart was in it, but there'd be no point having me on the team, because there was no chance I'd see any playing time. What a diplomat!
As I made my way from the office through the locker room, I fought back tears, afraid the guys putting away their pads would make fun of me. Smugness was in the air along with the body sweat.
When I made it home on the bus, I kept it all bottled inside until my father came home to our little country house and immediately asked if I made the team. Then I cried like a boy who lost his puppy. As usual, my father tried to comfort me, and talked about getting my hunting license and how I could excel in other ways.
I hadn't thought about it that much until now, but my father knew what I needed. He delivered me to my older cousin who had a basement filled with weightlifting equipment. He told my cousin Paul, "See what you can do with this kid of mine. I need you to toughen him up a little."
Paul was tall and athletic, in his thirties. He had a reputation as a top grad school basketball coach. His next passion was power lifting. It was in his musty basement with cold steel, I found my niche. I took the bottled rage of being a skinny, misfit in school and harnessed it with the weights. In a few months' time, I turned sixteen and went to my first power lifting meet against men. I failed miserably at it, but Paul didn't appreciate whining. He drove us back in his Volkswagen bug and lectured me until his face turned blood red. I thought in that moment his head might explode.
Humility was coming in doses, but I wasn't about to quit the one thing I knew would get me respect. I hadn't forgot about my youth group and kept up with my desire to impress the girls at church. I went back to the basement gym and stuck with it through high school. The change in me was revolutionary, a true metamorphosis. I had peace within through my personal Jesus and a show of strength as I bulked up. No one in school picked on me anymore, and I had earned a reputation as the strongest weightlifter in school.
In the beginning of my senior year the old freshman football coach noticed me. I wasn't sure if he recognized that I was the one he cut from the squad years ago, but he told me, "You should be in sports, because you show so much promise."
I didn't rub it in. But this time I smiled all the way home, not in a bus, but driving my first car from school and couldn't wait to tell my father what this coach said. I earned his respect, and I savored it. My father's wide grin and twinkle in his hazel eyes told me, he knew what I needed all along.
Like any success, sometimes it can get into your head and heart. I often hung around with the outcast of high school, I even played chess with Herb Cottington who surprisingly went on to become an infamous serial killer out west. One day this veneer of myself I painted would be shattered and a valuable lesson learned.
It started innocently enough in school, early in my senior year. For some reason, there was this hidden longing, this dark desire to bully someone. I just wanted to know how it feels to pull that trigger. There were plenty of freshman to find, perhaps hundreds to pick on.
When the bell between periods rang, I pounced on a kid. He was bone-thin, pale white and looked as if I could breath on him and he would fall over. I stopped him in his tracks, put my hand up over his locker and asked him if he was ready for a beat down?
His eyes darted about, and I waited for him to pay me respect, plead his case. He sniffled a bit. "My brother is Joe Coogan, and he told me if anyone picks on me, to let him know and besides, I have cancer."
I backed away. Guilt and shame flooded my soul. I knew and liked Joe Coogan. He was a cool guy who went to the church that my best friends father built with his bare hands as a preacher/ carpenter. "Oh," I managed. "I...I know Joe. My mistake. Sorry bout that."
I wanted to crawl into a locker and hide. I couldn't believe that in my one weak moment, I found the one person in hundreds who should have been the last person ever bullied! I tried to forget about it and move on, but he kept coming back in my dreams saying, "I have cancer."
A few months later, my friend informed me that Joe Coogan's little brother had passed. He also told me there would be calling hours at Calvary Baptist church. He suggested we should pay our respects.
It was a cold evening with stars in the sky like silver trinkets. We walked through the front door of church and down the aisle. For me, it was a gauntlet of eyes. I'm not sure if anyone knew us, except Joe and his girlfriend. The mother hadn't taken her eyes off us. The father seemed unsure about us. Friends. We could be seen as friends from school. But I was no friend, I was the one who bullied Joe's little brother.
I braved the walk to the front near the stage. It was as if a boiling spotlight came over me. I folded my hands and knelt in respect. Before I prayed, I looked at this teen, frozen in time, forever the young son who would never see another day at school. He would never fall in love with a girl, never get married...never...never...never! SO MANY NEVERS. His star had fallen and burned too soon and suddenly across a naked sky.
I closed my eyes, guilt like a millstone around my neck. I begged God to forgive me.
As I shuffled away, I stifled the pain and blotted the tears until I could be alone in the cold beneath the frozen stars. I vowed to God I would follow his plan, and I would never take for granted each day.
I learned that every day is a day of GRACE!
Tommy is me growing up
Tom sr. is my father who raised me.
Paul is my older cousin who recently turned 80 years old. At 77 he won coach of the year honors with Onondaga Central High basketball and still is very active teaching boys. He's still my favorite cousin.
Joe Coogan and Joe Ann were high school sweethearts who married, had a family and moved to Tennessee. His mother and father had seven children all toll. The one child who passed was only fifteen. Shortly after that one of the boy's friends who was at the funeral died tragically in an accident.
Herb Cottington was a nerd with an IQ of about 150. He never lost a chess match, moved to Vegas, counting cards in black jack, it was there that he murdered his first girl, then went on to murder two more women.
After graduation I joined the Airforce to see the world. I started in Texas basic training and then got stationed twenty miles away in San Antonio. As a New York Yankee, one proud Texan explained to me, his state was worth more than a trip around the world.
Returning home on leave, I wanted my father to be proud of me. He had served during World War II in the Army Air Core. Once again, he reminded me of how fragile life can be. His favorite Army story was how he signed up to go to Pearl Harbor just before it was bombed, but a friend of his talked him into signing up for Alabama because the girls were drop dead gorgeous. So much for a call to arms.
As I stepped off the plane in my Air Force dress blue and reached the top of the escalator, I found my father standing below. When his eyes met mine, it was like he must have seen his young self in me. Tears filled his eyes. He didn't have to tell me he was proud of my accomplishments. His wet eyes told me what I needed to know.
My new home became Texas. Most of the guys wanted to make the bars and chase the local girls. I wanted to find a church family. I found a little church directly across from the base and it didn't take long before I was asked to build a youth group, since everyone was a generation or two older.
I quickly went to work calling former families with teens to join a fun youth day at church of volleyball and food. It was like a famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams, "Build it, and they will come."
It was no exaggeration that I had teenagers showing up from vacant lots and street corners, beside parental car drop-offs. One girl in particular kept staring at me. I found out later, she had just turned sixteen. She had hair of gold and eyes of hypnotic blue. I found out her family had just moved from Arkansas back to south Texas.
I tried to focus on getting the volleyball net up. I had to run into the church building to get something to help keep the net in place. She followed me inside. When I went out, she had me practically cornered in the vestibule. She was a beautiful distraction. We spoke without words. Her eyes fixed on me as if to say, "I believe in love at first sight."
The bus ministry was next on the agenda. The pastor made it clear that cute sixteen-year-old Mary knew where to find the children that wanted to go to church. My first stop would be Mary Blakely's house in the country. When I got to the front of the house and cut the engine, it sounded like the place was in an uproar. It seemed this loud family didn't mind if the rest of the world heard them. I wasn't sure if I should honk the horn or take my chances at the door.
Jimmy, Mary's father came out first. He was a wiry man with a leathery face. He skipped the small talk and gave me the run down on his eldest daughter, Mary Ella, in case I had other intentions. "Now, I heard tell, you got you one of those dang motor bikes. You don't ever take her for ride on it cause you could kill her quick as lightning. She has seizures. She can pass out on one of those dang things. This day is about church business and not a thang else."
I nodded. "Yes sir."
Mary and her younger sister Cynthia got on the bus. They directed me around the small town of Cibolo and then near the base to find kids interested in riding the bus to church. It turned out Cynthia was easy to work with directing me to locations while Mary sat behind me boring into my soul with her eyes. I wore aviator glasses on the bus, and she finally told me I should take them off cause, she couldn't tell what I was thinking, as if my eyes held clues.
The air conditioner didn't work from the beginning. By the time I dropped the girls back home, we all worked up a lather of sweat which hid the nervous layer. Cynthia skipped off the bus first. Mary lingered behind. Then she grabbed my bicep, sending a sensuous but nervous jolt through me. Before she stepped off she said in a deep Texas drawl, "I love you. Now what you aim to do about it?"
I had no words for Mary. I think I did pull my sunglasses down as she bounded away in a sun dress and sneakers. All I could think about was how her father might shoot me and hide me in his back yard unless I could win him over first. She was one dangerous catch.
First time I met Mary, it was no exaggeration, and to this day she will vouch for every word in this true story.
Cast of characters:
Mary, my future girlfriend
Jimmy Loiyd, Mary's father
Cynthia, Mary's younger sister by a few years
Tom Jr. Me
Tom Sr. Father
**I posted an old picture of my father from his days in the 1940's Army Air Core.
**When I popped into the church one day there were maybe five or six very old men who were deciding whether they should disband and close the doors. Once I and other airmen infused new life in the church with a youth group and bus ministry, the church rebounded with new life.
Proverbs 27:1 "Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.
Never do a dance when you're on top of the world. Should you fall it could do irreparable damage.
If I was going to date Mary Ella, it meant winning her father over. My moment came when the men had a prayer meeting. They went to a private room at church and fell down on their knees, taking turns calling out to God. I slipped inside the room knelt down next to Mary's father and fearlessly prayed. Some would think it strange how this was enough to win him over. It was too awkward to be fiction.
Jimmy Blakely, a man born to be a classic redneck, decided if I was willing to get on my knees beside him and pour my heart out to God, I must be someone he could trust with his eldest daughter. Truth was, I didn't know if I could trust his daughter not to get me in trouble. He had only two stipulations for us dating. I needed to lose the motorcycle, find a car, and make sure to have her home by "dark-thirty."
Everything was coming together in my young life. I had a career in the military, a growing ministry, and my first girlfriend. I fought and prayed to overcome my past, the trauma, the feelings of rejection as a boy. God knew I needed a strong-willed girl who didn't mince words. As she had once said, "I shoot from the hip, just like my Daddy." Hers was a spitfire love, a go through hell for my love and little did we know hell on earth was coming for me.
One morning I walked into report for work as a pavement specialist on base when my Sergeant said he was concerned about my recent erratic behavior. I recalled having trouble getting along with the crew, but to be real, some actions are only remembered through a foggy lens. He gave me a slip and sent me to the military hospital for a medical evaluation. In my mind's eye, I hadn't considered it that serious and figured it would be an amusing adventure.
All the buildings at the base were white with red clay over hanging roofs. The hospital was no exception. I walked in to see the head doctor of psychiatry. He had me in a quiet room where I filled out pages of what he called a way to help evaluate me. Things you would expect on the form appeared like, "Have you thought about hurting yourself or others?" Some questions would be repeated in different ways to get you to let your guard down and admit to something you didn't see coming.
After I turned my form in, an officer with several bars on his shoulders, deep set eyes, and a thick brow, ushered me into his private office. I watched his eyes widen, and then his brow knit together. My answers must have impressed him. He asked me if I'd like a sedative and some time off. I actually didn't mind the sound of it.
I admit my thoughts raced faster than my tongue could keep up with every question. My brain was misfiring, shorting out, resulting in a jumble of incoherent words and phrases. He insisted the sedative would help. When I think back, they were prepping me to be vulnerable and easy to go along to the big hospital, one with locked doors! I deceived myself, somehow stuck in an alternate reality where I thought I was impressing the doctor and controlling a conversation rife with subliminal messaging.
Soon the walls closed in. Orderlies lifted me from the chair and helped me down the hall to a waiting ride in an ambulance. I was too weak to resist, guided down the hall like a drunkard to the waiting ambulance where I was belted down on a stretcher.
At the Lackland hospital I was interviewed. They seemed to look at me as if I were an exotic animal or maybe the Joker in batman. My focus became a blur, my speech slurred. Whatever they gave me was working, slowing, sometimes arresting my viral thoughts. Paranoid walls I had crumbled, my Joker smile and false bravado was no match before the stainless white robed men and their potions.
I dug for my reality. Love. My first love, Mary. My new family, my church family. Before they injected my thigh with stelazine, I had a moment of reflection. But as the drug kicked in, it was like a huge weight rested on my brain, like treading water in my mind. I slogged against it into the evening. LOST. I was lost inside my head, and no one important in my life knew where I was and what became of me. It least in jail, I would have had a phone call.
I had no choice but to let go when they put me in a room with several beds where my mind shut down like a thick velvet curtain. The stage and spotlight popped. What thoughts I fought to keep, vanquished into a black hole of existence. FREE FALLING!
|Author Notes||I was diagnosed Borderline Paranoid Schizophrenic. When someone has this break with reality, they are often the last person to realize they have a problem. What most experts in the field believe is that it can be traced through families and also triggered by drugs like THC that ingredient in pot and can be triggered by stress in a job or by a traumatic event in childhood like I had. "But God has not given me the Spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."|
The Texas sun was hard to avoid with curtainless windows. It bored through my eyelids in the morning and brought me back to the reality of living in a locked ward. With each passing day I was a slug stuck in a dorm-like atmosphere where other crazies had access enough from the same room. They could easily smother me with a pillow while I was medicated and made to sleep. I was living a real life, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." In some ways, it seemed the blinding daybreak saved me.
My life was not my own. The military owned me. I had mistakenly thought our drill instructor in basic training was exaggerating when he said, "You maggots belong to us. You are now citizens of the military with a different set of rules and rights."
With cocktail of drugs in my veins, I continued in a slothful fogginess. I had plenty of self-appointed advisors from the orderlies to the crazy folk. One in particular mentioned I should call a lawyer because I may have threatened President Carter. Someone in the hospital should have warned me that all my ramblings can and would be used against me. Despite the medicine dulling my brain, fear surged inside me. One guy told me I was lucky to be in the mental ward and not the slammer. I should have been grateful.
Honestly those who worked there seemed to care about their job. But I was still careful not to get on anyone's bad side. The days went by like the soap operas on television filled with absurd drama and nothing of consequence. The one bright moment came when word got out at my barracks and friends at church were notified. It took a few days, but soon visitors found me. First, my pastor came and reported back to others that I was a confused young man in need of prayer. Then John Truxal came, the kind of guy whose personality lit up the room. He made sure to let me know he had my back.
My friends, my church family had not forsaken me. They thought it was all a big mistake. They prayed and fought for me. I had an army of believers helping me to fight my battles.
What about Mary? I worried how she would feel. I feared what her father would think of me. But they all showed up. The Blakely family streamed in through that buzzing door. Mary's father, Jimmy, this little leathery redneck man made it clear that he held nothing against me. It was then that I had to hold back a dam of tears, because for the first time I knew what it meant to have a family and friends with unconditional love.
The visitor room was simply a large area where patients mingled with loved ones and visitors. Mary sat down next to me and despite the medication and my often mile-wide stare, she pressed herself against me and wrapped her arm around my bicep. She looked frustrated just like when I wore those aviator sunglasses, and she couldn't see my eyes. They knew it wasn't the real me. Was it the medicine? Was it the psychotic break? Looking back, it was probably both! She desperately wanted to find me, the real person who was lost in his own mind. She loved me. She really loved me, a crazy person.
As the days turned into weeks, I couldn't take the revolving days of breathing the dull air and looking at the white walls and halls. One day on a whim I took an incredible risk. I waited near the locked door, as other less dangerous patients were going out on a day pass. I bolted and shoved one of the girls out of the way. I took to the elevator just before an orderly could grab me. I dodged them all down to the first floor. I ran toward the lobby front door and bolted outside into the free air. I breathed a big sigh too.
I sat down on a concrete circle with a fountain in the middle and scanned my freedom. I let the moment sink deep within. Then an orderly who I often engaged with called out to me and put his hand on my shoulder. "I had to talk them out of calling the MP's. I told them you would be down here. I told them that all you wanted to do was breathe some fresh air."
I had to admit it. He read me like the daily news.
"You ready to come back up with me now, Tommy?"
I didn't know it then, but I do now, that he was like an angel, a messenger who saved me from a far worse consequence. As it turned out, based on his promise to retrieve me, I didn't have go to a padded room or face a longer sentence.
After a few months I got my diagnosis. Borderline Paranoid Schizophrenic. They determined I would receive a medical discharge. It also meant it was an honorable discharge. The catch was, I would be committed to a VA hospital. I chose to go home back to Syracuse New York. They thought that would be a good idea, a comfort zone, and a bridge to getting back out into the world.
Mary wasn't far from my tortured mind. I'd have to admit that I wasn't capable of accepting or giving love as comfortably as she could. Leaving Texas meant that I would be thousands of miles away in another hospital. The way I was raised I had a difficult time accepting and holding on to love which further tested whether we would see each other again.
They called them medivac flights. They doped me up and sent me on this military plane and I would land on some base in another state strapped to a gurney then rolled into a bed. I was so out of it; I could have been in another country and not have known. The next day I was taken back up in the air. Finally, we landed at Rome AFB just outside Syracuse. From there an ambulance took and deposited me to the mental wing of the Syracuse VA hospital. But I was home-free, sort of.
This time I had a private room, but next to my room was someone who I was told had radiation poisoning from exposure while in the military. He could barely put a sentence together and shook uncontrollably. He shuffled around in circles, as his soul wanted to depart. I remember crying out to God in the night, praying to be forgiven for my selfish attitudes and taking my young life for granted.
The next day, another angel was delivered in the form of a VA chaplain. He seemed to understand me before I spoke more than two words across the bow of his office. He was young wiry man with kind blue eyes. "I bet you just want to go home and start a new chapter in your life."
At that time, I didn't not think it possible. I thought leaving the hospital for good was still a fantasy or a dream. I thought for sure they would keep me there indefinitely. I perked up from my chair. "I sure do. I just want to go home for a while."
"And I bet I can reassure the doctors you really are no danger to yourself and others."
"No sir. I'm harmless."
"I think the best medicine might just be your freedom and family. From one Christian to another, I think you have so much to give in this life."
It was like he understood my recent trials. He knew a had some sort of break. I hadn't chosen to have a breakdown. I had a ministry, a girlfriend, and a good job in the military. He was someone who understood me-another angel/messenger who showed up at a crossroad in my life.
Amazingly, the next day I was discharged! This time the doors opened to me through the first-floor hospital lobby where I didn't have to look over my shoulder. I breathed free air! I was no longer locked in a hospital and no longer owned by the military. And I could taste the freedom. But like a paroled person who was used to being told what to do every day, I was a lost in a surreal and strange new world. I walked out under the sunshine and tall buildings where a waiting taxi took me to my father's house in the country.
They doctors insisted I take the prescribed medicine. They warned me that schizophrenia was nothing to trifle with. A few days later, I threw away the medicine. I never went back to the doctors or hospital. I never looked back until I started writing my story. Miracle? The experts will tell you there's no cure, only manageable expectations with medication and clean living.
I reunited with my father but felt almost ashamed that in some ways I failed to make it in the military like he did. I recalled my first night or two, allowing the hypnotic sounds of the trains clickety clack on the railroad tracks behind our house to lull me asleep. One night I dreamed about Mary, my first love, not knowing if I would see her outside my sleep. One night I saw her hanging on to the yellow rose I gave her, doing her best to keep it alive.
I was such a fool. I once told her that if the rose should die our love could not be saved. Just writing this brought tears to my eyes. I hadn't understood how cruel those words were to someone that was in love with me. I learned later that she'd done everything she could to keep that rose alive.
There was a day when the rose died, but our love would survive. I Corinthians 13:7 "Love bears all thing, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
God speed our love...
|Author Notes||Within my paperwork from the hospital diagnosis it stated that I exhibited five differing personalities. Many years have come and gone, and then my youngest son who was almost twenty, the same age as me been exhibiting strange behavior. When my wife and I first noticed something wasn't right with his mind was when he sat on the couch and told us, "Sometimes I don't know if I'm dreaming or if what's happening is real." Soon his life would dive into a tailspin, not unlike my own experiences.|
Mary Ella was only nine-years old when her mother locked her and little sis outside the trailer home. She fretted over what to do. Her Daddy told her to go to the neighbor house and call him at work should their mother have another episode.
Mary hadn't counted on having most of her childhood taken, but someone had to grow up in a hurry, if the Blakely family was to get through it. It must have been a hundred in the shade that summer in San Antonio. She decided to try and talk her mother into letting her and sis back inside, before she had to make the long country walk in the sweltering heat, not to mention how the trailer reflected heat.
She pounded on the door. "Mom let us in! It's hotter than a firecracker on the fourth of July."
But there was no reasoning with their mother, as little sis clung to Mary. The wheels in her mothers mind spun out of control. "You 'all stay put. It ain't safe in here." Truth was, she feared doing something wrong-something sinister.
"But Momma, you got to let us in, we can't make it out here! Whatever it is, let us help!"
Mary Ella grabbed her sisters hand and headed off to the neighbor's house a few scratchy fields over, not mention snakes. When the call went through and Mary's father heard of it, he dropped the phone and broke the speed limit from Austin Texas to get there.
It turned out the pills Mother took didn't help none. She kept hearing voices, ones that told her the devil was in the house and hosts of things that meant danger surrounded her. She had been diagnosed schizophrenic. The Blakely's had no choice but to put her in a hospital for many weeks where she underwent shock therapy until she could hardly recall what went wrong. When she did arrive home, she was a few rungs higher than a zombie.
It made Ella grow up fast. She became the adult in the room, making Dad his lunch for work and doing mother's chores even after she'd come home, half a person. Sometimes it meant going to school, doing homework, and chores. Her life wouldn't be easy.
From the moment Mary Ella was born with her mom's cord wrapped around her neck, she'd been marked for a tough life. Turning from pink to blue, the doctor smacked her. She screamed a blood curdling cry. She learned early that pain would be a sign of survival. It meant you were alive for another day. She was a fighter, like her grandmother in Arkansas she'd been named after.
In fact, Mary Ella had her grandma's golden hair and stark blue eyes. Later in life she proved to have her spunk and spirit too.
Mary's grandfather Blakely came from the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, raised in the depression era. He was the youngest son of three boys raised on a farm nestled between mountains. For some reason the younger Blakely took the brunt of his father's abuse. Perhaps it was because he was smaller while his brothers grew big as oxen. The old man wasn't willing to beat anyone he couldn't control.
Mary's grandfather Blakely finally escaped his own father's brutal legacy of getting horse whipped and sometimes clocked by surviving long enough to get married to Ella, the matriarch of the mountains. She'd even stood up to her husband's father over stealing her husband's paychecks. She was no woman to be trifled with. And it turned out she exuded a fierce inner faith to match her outward attitude.
Like Mary Ella, grandma had yellow hair fine as straw in the sun and penetrating blue eyes. Her grandparents married and started a hardscrabble life together. They lived in a log cabin where there was a spring fed creek for drinking and bathing, no indoor plumbing, and oil lamps to light the home. Modern technology was a long way off after the depression when it came to the Ozarks.
Jimmy, the grandfather discovered his hands could make a living in the cabinetry business. He became well-known as someone gifted with woodworking. He decided early on to use his hands to refine and define in a creative way. When it came to punishment, he'd lecture his boys with pain on his face until they preferred Grandma Blakely's switch from a willow tree to their father's painful talking to.
Early on in their marriage, Ella sensed her husband was hiding the fact that he couldn't read. She showed him a document and asked him to read it out loud.
With a twisted look of shame on his face, Jimmy confessed. "Sorry to say, El. I can't read a lick."
Ella sprang into action. She grabbed her old leather Bible and started to teach Pappa Blakely how to read from her King James Bible. From then on they'd spent their spare nights before bed under an oil lamp where Jimmy stumbled through each verse like a small child.
One particular night Ella led her husband to John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It was then he prayed and found the bitterness of his former life dissolving away, replaced with a new heart.
A legacy of faith was born and during the dark days of Mary Ella's upbringing in a home with a mother whose mind was fractured, she'd found that inner strength and leaned on the mountain stories as told to her by her grandmother. She knew life would never be a rose garden. But she believed one day, by God's grace she'd have someone to love and be a help mate too, like her grandma was to her grandfather.
Sadly, Mary Ella's grandfather passed away the summer before we met. He died of an inoperable brain tumor. Some in the family concluded that he'd suffered from so many beatings, it could have caused his tumor. It may have explained why he'd had severe headaches at an early age.
Grandparents tell us of a way of life that's past.
When the world wasn't moving oh so fast.
When the family sat together every day
To eat, to laugh, to sing, to talk, and pray.
I'm filling in Mary's background as I approach the halfway mark of a very true story. I've relied on Mary to fill the details and background, most of which was collaborated when her grandmother was alive.
Discharged from military service-what was I to do with my newfound freedom? I left the mental ward from the VA and never re-filled a prescription. To some experts, it meant I was a walking time bomb. They say there's no cure for schizophrenia, but it didn't stop me from believing in prayer. Just maybe, I was a walking miracle.
With freedom came choices. They say when your older and you go back home, it's never the same. I was tired of looking up friends who had a family to think about. And it got old explaining why I hadn't finished my term of service in the air force.
If I went back to Texas, I would have a supportive church and Mary, who loved me with a fever that could start a prairie fire. Instead of driving to south Texas, I chose Colorado. Maybe I feared love. I had felt rejected by all the women in my life growing up and felt my mother's stinging rebuke in the hospital when I threatened to take my life. Her reply? "Go ahead then."
Little did I know, after I'd written to Mary a few times, she'd set out every day for the post office in the boiling sun. She'd clung to the hope of having another letter from me. Having gone back in time to reflect, it brings tears to my eyes to think of how she felt, sometimes going home empty handed, drenched in sweat, heart beating like a base drum. She'd go home to the double-wide trailer where she'd cook, clean, and raise her two younger siblings since mother had her breakdowns.
In Colorado I found a college for the ministry. They graciously found me a place to live and work too. I went to reside at the Silver State Nursing Home located in Castle Rock, Colorado off highway 25 halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs.
The nursing home was the most notable landmark. High on a hill, flanked by boulders, it stood out from the highway. I was given a room on an upper hallway where the self-sufficient elderly people lived. From my room I could see the mountains west like heavenly pillars in an endless sky.
I enjoyed the ministry there. I thought one of my duties was to encourage the elderly and listen to their stories. Often the nurse or director would ask me to wheel the elderly down for their meals when I wasn't in school.
I would converse with a ninety-six-year-old man on a regular basis. He was a charming and intelligent soul who had lived a storied life. We would sit in the parlor and discuss everything from history to politics. Once, I had mentioned that I'd like to be a writer, besides being in the ministry. He too exclaimed an unfulfilled passion for writing.
He stood from his chair and waved his cane. "I'm going to do it. I'm going to write a novel." I assured him it wasn't too late.
One sunny day I returned from school in Denver and parked on the gravel hill. As I walked through the door, I heard the unmistakable sound of an old typewriter slapping keys. "tat... tat... tat, zing!"
Over the next few weeks, there was a bounce in Mr. Cooley's step and the crest of a smile on his weathered face.
I'd grown used to the sounds of typing. But next to me was a big-boned German woman who I suspect would curse in her native tongue over the tat... tat... tat..., zing in the hallway.
A few months later winter found our fortress, bringing with it ice and snow. The self-sufficient elderly ones were dropped off from a field trip. Mr. Cooley was among them. Filing out, he slipped and broke his hip from which he never recovered. Then he got sent down to a room on the first floor--a death sentence. When I visited him, the spark in his eyes was forever gone.
The upstairs hall had grown silent, except for the loud whispers of that crazy German woman whose words often sounded like the hiss of demons through my wall. It seemed she'd hardly needed sleep as much as I did.
We turned another season and a corner on the winter weather, as the sun melted the snow and warmed our attitudes. The mountains took on a purple hue and the skies were an azure blue. When I stepped outside into the sun for a brisk walk, I spied smoke billowing from one of the worker apartments on site.
A nurse had driven up the winding hill. I waved her over. She jumped out of her car and ran toward the apartment with me. I broke the door down. Flames shot up and a rush of heat blew me backward.
As the flames grew, I spied him on the floor by the couch. It was Mel the custodian. I got down on my hands and knees.
The nurse screamed. "Get him out! Break his bones if you have to."
"I dove down, then slithered inside, face hugging the carpet. Breathing was impossible, my lungs burned. I grabbed his legs under my arms and yanked him through the door. I fell backward gasping for air.
She looked down, ready to do CPR. Then she felt how stiff he was. She looked at me. "It's too late! He's gone. Nothing can be done."
I jumped to my feet. We almost forgot about the male nurse in the apartment next store. I pounded on the door. "Get out! Get out! Fire!" He rushed outside coughing phlegm. I stepped backward, head between my knees, coughing more black mucus.
In the distance, the sound of fire trucks pierced the sky. When the director found Mel on the ground, he knelt down and wept like a baby. I hadn't known how close the director was to Mel.
The experience had confirmed in me the fragility of life, and how you don't have a guaranteed life span stamped on your forehead. I was truly living life without a net but with God's grace from above.
|Author Notes||Only in my early twenties, I gained valuable life lessons spending time living with the elderly.|
In a letter to Mary, I explained how the ministry school in Colorado was where I needed to be. I should have told her the truth, that I didn't know how to be close to her and accept her love without conditions. At times the distance between Texas and Colorado seemed a chasm of miles where our love could be lost forever.
My memorable ministry and work at the nursing home was coming to an end. Summer shone bright in the blue sky against the Rocky Mountains. The scenery was something that often kept me spellbound. Then along came Coreen. She was a dark-haired, blue-eyed girl who would graduate from Castle Rock high school. She worked at the nursing home and would wheel the elderly down to the chow hall. She'd wear those tight white pants with an athletic fit. She laughed at my jokes, and she invited me to have dinner at her parents if I wanted to date her in the future. They appeared to like me enough, especially when they learned I studied for the ministry.
She lived in a big house on a hill, a perch really, tucked away against the mountains. Her father was a wealthy business owner of warehouses in the city of Denver. Before long, I spent the summer working for her father in the big city. It was hard labor, lifting and loading conference tables and sometimes water heaters. The warehouses were old and musty. Some floors looked like they'd collapse without warning.
Coreen's father was a hard man. Once he spied the vagrants propped against his building, he disappeared up another flight of stairs and poured a bucket of water from the window, giving his version of baptism for the homeless. Many Mexicans used the rail cars behind the warehouses to get inside the USA and now and then you would find them hiding in one of the buildings behind boxes.
As the summer slipped by, I became lost in Coreen's world, wanting to be more than friends on dates. Wanting to belong in her crowd. We'd spent our nights going out to eat or playing basketball at one of the local gyms with groups of others. I wasn't sure what I loved most, the fact that she was pretty and fit or the fact that she loved all kinds of sports. She could have been in the Olympics on a softball team or track. As the summer months waned, I wanted her to love me.
When Coreen rejected a serious me, I found words meant to leave a scar when I told her during one of those nights with a billion stars in the sky. "I can't be your friend. I've gone too far in love with you. It wouldn't work. I told her it would be the last time we could see each other, because it would hurt too much." I was true to my word until we ran into each other at one of the gyms. In our forever goodbye, I watched tears fill her eyes for the whole world to see.
By the end of summer, I found myself too late to get into another year of college. I was living in Denver without any true friends, without true love, never more alone. It proved to be a crossroads living in an apartment with nothing more than a mattress on the floor and a phone on the wall.
A phone call changed everything. It was Mary from Texas calling me during her lunch break in high school.
"I miss you. I'm worried about you alone in Colorado. Are you okay?"
Mary wasn't from a wealthy family like Coreen, but her love was no fools' gold.
There was a heavy silence between us. "I know. I'm not in school. I'm going to look at another place in Texas. Maybe, you can go there too one day when you get out of high school."
"I'm failing the typing class, but it's just an elective," she said. "I spend most of my time in it typing your name. I can't get you out of my head or heart. I love you and miss you. You sound lonely, and you don't have to be. Please write me when you get the chance."
She didn't know it at the time, but I needed the call, an awkward call, a call that was easier to read between the lines, but one that would set me on the road to closing the miles between us. One day, some day I would see her and do more than hold her in my dreams.
|Author Notes||I fell hard for Coreen from a wealthy family. I was too young to realize I didn't really fit in. It was time when lost my zeal for the ministry and listened to the feminine sirens leading me into the abyss. Then one phone call brought me back from the edge. If it was possible for one woman to save another man, for me, it was Mary.|
It was mid-August when I made myself at home on campus at Arlington Baptist College. Before I got too relaxed, my first warning was, "Watch out for the copperhead snakes. They like to stretch out on the walkways near dark."
Later, I found out one of the girls from their dorm thought she'd kicked a stick until it bit back. Having moved back to Texas was getting real. If you glanced at the boiling sun, you would swear it seemed out to get you.
I made fast friends with my brothers from other mothers. A few guys had their girlfriends in school with them. It triggered my thoughts toward Mary in San Antonio. Would she be serious about college; or was she only serious about me?
When I called Mary, my head caved into my heart. I asked her on the phone if she wanted to go to school with me. It seemed she dropped the phone in shock. Truth was, I had her ready to pack at hello.
"There's not much time left to register. I can drive down in a couple of days."
After hanging up, my heart and head had a tug of war. Was I ready for that kind of commitment? When I hung up, I told her I loved her, but we had a popular saying back then. "Loves not just something you say. Love is something you do."
Before leaving to fetch Mary, I learned that her father scrambled to get her ready. She'd undergone a CT scan because she was prone to seizures. She was also borderline diabetic. But he was all in when it came to sparing no expense to be a bridge for his eldest daughter.
The problem wasn't Mary. It was me. I was afraid of commitment, afraid to love someone to the end. I took to the highway in my sixty-six Cadillac convertible, imagining this reunion with a family who took me in when I was in the service, who rallied around me when I was in the mental hospital, who never stopped believing in me.
Mary had graduated from high school, and she'd even managed to get her hair license. The family was ready to send her away with me looking after her. As I turned a corner and kicked up dust and gravel, they all clamored and jousted for position on the front porch to see me. I was welcomed as if I had just returned from war.
Despite the mother's breakdowns, and a father who couldn't keep up with all the bills, they had something the other family in Colorado didn't have. They were rich in love.
They brought me into the fold and fed me a huge supper. Mary's baby sister couldn't stop pinching my arm just to laugh at my pain. The family circled me, but my eyes were on Mary. The last time I saw her, she was a teenager. She turned into a young woman, her skin darkened by the summer, but her blonde hair bleached by the sun. She was my yellow rose of Texas.
Eventually the little kids wore themselves out until carried off to bed. The parents retired to their bedroom. I was to sleep on the couch with a fan blowing in my face, because there was no air conditioning. It must have been cooler outside beneath the stars.
Mary and I sat together and talked, but when the lights all went out we didn't care about words. We kissed and held each other as if we might fall off the face of the earth. I could see a glow of sweat on her forehead and on her thighs. She wore a summer dress that ran past her knees when she sat next to me. Before I could protest, we were on each other in a lather of sweat.
It seemed we were alone, and her room was on the other side of the double wide from her folks. Her body pressed against mine until we shook with pent up desire. Somehow, we both knew then we were near the point of no return. To be honest I wasn't afraid of what God would think. I could be forgiven. But I knew her father would have shot first and prayed later.
The next day, I had a long and serious discussion with Mary on the front porch. I told her she needed to wait. I told her that she wasn't ready for college. I would leave that day in my car and head back to the dorm without her. I can only imagine the pain I caused. I should have been tarred and feathered.
I was running from love, true love.
I slipped inside the dorm that evening and went to sleep, as if I needed to guard my freedom, a freedom from love. There would be other dates, other girls, but none of them were Mary. There was always something about Mary.
Then I got the letter I dreaded from her. I could see the tear stains on it. "What happened? I would have gone to school. I wouldn't have been a burden. I had my hair license. I could have worked and paid my way." At last, she said, "My heart is shattered. It's like you've broken my heart and into pieces and stepped on it."
The guys in the dorm smiled and joked about it. If only I had called her that night. If only I had told her I was wrong and admitted her love scared me. Instead, I buried the letter in a drawer and buried myself in my studies. I made my life about the ministry without Mary in it.
If only I had known that in a few short months, she would move out of her parents house and marry someone else. If hadn't smashed all of her hope to bits, things would have been different. A few months later when I called, her parent's told me the news. She'd run off and married someone else.
It turned out her father had gotten wind of an engagement. He went to the hair shop where Mary worked and yanked her outside in public, threatening her. He begged her to wait for me. He told her to give it some time.
Mary cried in the street, as her father dragged her to his truck. "He doesn't love me! Don't you get it. He's never coming back. It's over!!" She broke away from her father and fell back on the pavement.
Mary's father left when they threatened to call the police.
By the time I had reached out again to see how she was, she was already gone, married. Gone for good. The one girl who tried so hard to love me.
But this was not to be the end...to be continued.
|Author Notes||Years ago when Mary's father was going to the hospital and didn't have much time left to live, he swore to his daughter Mary, that I was in the ambulance with him. Mary tried to tell him I couldn't be there, but he could not be convinced otherwise. Every time I think of this it brings tears to my eyes that I couldn't be there.|
Chris Christofferson: Freedoms just another word for nothing left to lose...
Mary Ella got her 2nd wish. She escaped home for a quick marriage with another man. Marriage for her meant there was no back door for me, no second chances. I on the other hand decided I could dive into the dating pool without a net. But for mostly two years I floundered like a fish out of water.
I often had my nose in a textbook, but it didn't mean I stopped checking out the girls on campus. During my tenure in Arlington Texas, I don't recall getting more than a first date. I found when the girls got to know me on the inside, they didn't seem to like that look. I once told a girl my opinion of love on a date was best summed up by the Gatlin Brothers song, "Love is just game people like to play." That made her call off the first date before it ended. I could only blame my mother's abandonment of me for so many years before I needed to own my own head space with girls.
Mary would sometimes haunt me in my dreams. I would ask her if she was happy, but could never touch her, hold her, kiss her, and then I would wake up to my reality in the dorm. I needed a pastors' wife for the ministry, but I wasn't so sure I could make it as a pastor.
I moved on or rather time moved me along sometimes against my will. Before I knew it, I was twenty-four, a few years of school in the books, and another hot summer in Texas. Every now and then I wondered how married life was for Mary. But I still yearned for more. I wanted to be in love. I wanted a family. I wanted to be a father. Instead of praying for a pastor's wife, I prayed to share my life with the one and only one.
It was the summer of 1983 and I enjoyed spending my spare time with an old high school buddy and his wife. The year before he was driving down a sparse road in Texas and missed a hairpin turn. The car rolled over into a cow field. My friend spent the night and next day bleeding to death, having been thrown from his vehicle with a smashed foot and broke back.
All my friend had to get rescued was a red bandana and a save me Lord prayer. Finally, without another hour of life to spare, someone noticed the wreckage and saw him hanging on to a broken fence post. Spending time with my buddy meant that it would be my turn for a God moment or two.
When I was at his apartment one summer evening, we talked to a neighbor who was a student at the university. He often stayed up all night and went for days without sleep. While watching television with my friend and his wife I was overcome with what I can only describe as a rush of cool air and a tug in my heart. It wasn't an audible voice, but a sense of urgency to speak with the young neighbor about the gospel message before it was too late. But I brushed it off, chalked it up to self-guilt for not being a bold witness. We told him goodnight and he left--never to return.
A day or two later when I visited my best bud who had his own brush with death, he informed me at the door the bad news. "Hey, you know my neighbor, the college student who was a Muslim. He died the other night."
Doctors weren't sure but they suspected he may have had mono and that his lack of sleep weakened his immune system. Once again, the Lord reminded me, like David the Psalmist said, "We are but a step between life and death."
Another month later, I'm at my buddies apartment again. And yes, another a nudge came over me, but this time I asked if I could use their phone to call my old girlfriends family. I knew it was over, but hoped for closure, a means to tell Mary I was sorry for having left her in the lurch those years ago.
When I called Mary's family her father answered. "Well, I can't say too much. But Mary's in a bad way with this marriage. She left the buzzard once, and then decided she'd give him a second chance. Now she's gone and done carted herself far as Illinois. I tried to talk her out of it, but you know Mary, she can be more stubborn as a dang mule."
My heart sank into my stomach. He refused to give me her number, but he would tell her I called.
We made small talk for over an hour. I was racking up a pretty good long-distance bill on my buddy. I think his wife had given me the evil eye a few times. At some point, I don't recall when, Mary's father added, "Did you know Mary had a baby?"
"No sir." It felt like I'd swallowed a bunch of needles that stirred in my stomach. "I wouldn't want to get in the way of making a family work. Maybe, you could tell her for me I'm sorry I didn't step up when I had the chance with her. I...pray for her." And just when I relented to close the chapter between us...
something incredible happened! I was about to hang up when an operator came on the line. The operator said it was an urgent collect call from Mary Henderson, his daughter.
Later that evening, I learned that Mary was beaten half to death by her husband. He dragged her out into the walkway of the apartment where she passed out on the concrete. Thankfully, when she woke, her daughter Malissa was sitting next to her crying. She stumbled to her feet with Malissa on her hip and trekked toward the one home she thought might help her. It was where she called her father several times until the operator broke through the line.
Later there was a real concern her baby would be taken. She needed a guardian angel and a way of escape.
"The fear of man bringeth a snare, but whoso puts his trust in the Lord, shall be safe." Proverbs 29:25 (KJV)
|Author Notes||I took great pains to be sure I was as accurate as possible, including the dialogue. For this installment I wanted to reassure others who I'm humbled by them reading this that I needed no dramatic license for the timing of events that seem incredible if a coincidence. I recall them as special God moment I'll never forget.|
Mary lay on the sidewalk in the late summer sunshine of southern Illinois. She bucked and kicked from the seizure, drool spewing from her mouth. In her well of darkness she heard a baby crying, trying to get her attention. Her eyes fluttered until finally opening. The first thing she saw was her baby, Malissa.
Gone was Ken, the husband and father who in a rage punched Mary until the fight spilled out into the open walkway where he pushed her down and pummeled her some more. After a few swift kicks and some parting threats--he was gone. No one raced to their rescue.
Holding her child, Mary found her feet. She figured it was another seizure that took her out, not to mention Ken's pummeling. She recalled how her father paid for an expensive brain scan a few years ago when she was prepared to be with Tom at Arlington Baptist College. But it was Tom who wasn't ready for the commitment. Her thoughts would never stray far from the life she could have had with him. But she ran off from home, married a high school friend. She wanted out of the house. She was tired of her slavish life taking care of her young siblings and doing all the household chores.
Mary knew Ken liked guys. No problem. She thought she could change him. Ken's parents used her with that purpose in mind. The Blakely family disowned the whole affair. Maybe the echo of her father could still be heard. "Wait for Tom, he'll come around. He will come back."
Too late! Mary sealed her fate without her family's blessing. A few months later, Mary was pregnant. From then on, her life spiraled down a dank, dark well of despair where no one heard her cries.
Mary was the bread winner as a beautician. Ken hardly held a job for more than a few weeks. She paid the bills but found out he'd take the checks out of the envelope and spend the money at gay bars. He preferred having his wife work during the day so he could hop into bed with another man.
Mary wasn't turning Ken into a loving, God-fearing husband; he was turning her into a bitter, broken wife and mother. Her faith got buried under the bitterness.
Before their one-year anniversary, Mary kicked him out of her life and took up with an aunt and uncle. After the birth of her daughter Malissa. She could think of only one blessing in her life, and that was a healthy baby girl with brown doe eyes and brown curly hair. It gave Mary something to live for. It gave her a reason not to take her own life. It wasn't just a wilderness journey; it was hell on earth.
The second thing she thought about as she scrambled to her feet and put the baby on her hip, was how she was such a fool to have divorced Ken and then got sucked into moving to his home state to give their relationship another try. Oh, he was a talker, not just a fighter. He convinced Mary that his same sex attraction was over! He would even go to church, step up and help pay the bills. It was all a ruse.
As she stumbled through the grass down a hill and crossed over a busy road, all she wanted then was to find a safe haven and get out of southern Illinois. She feared having a seizure and passing out again. As she fought through the pain, bruised, and battered, thoughts of home brought tears to her eyes. She didn't care if she was called the Prodigal Daughter, She just wanted the love of home, family, and safe place for her baby daughter.
Pain shot through Mary's legs like shockwaves, but her adrenaline kicked in when she spied the house in the modest neighborhood where ken's half-sister lived with her husband Phil. They had a baby too. She didn't know what else to do. It seemed everyone was related to Ken. Ironically, he'd been adopted as a baby by Texas parents. His mother played fast and loose with men and had a string of unwanted babies. Somehow Ken found her and found the most real kin of his lifetime in the small town. His mother never called herself a whore, just another victim of drugs and alcohol. They bonded.
Holding the baby until her arms were numb, Mary stumbled up the driveway to the modest one-story house. She paused in silence in front of the door. People seemed afraid to get involved. It was something foreign to her mind. What would Phil and Debbie do? Would they send her away?
Mary pounded on the door. Debbie didn't open the door immediately. She looked out the window.
"Please Debbie, help me! Your brother beat me half to death."
Phil opened the door. His jaw collapsed at the sight of Mary. "Good God girl. What happened to you?" By then Mary's face was bruised with a swollen eye, and she had marks up and down her arms.
"I passed out on the sidewalk. I thought he would kill me. Please, please can I come in and call my Dad."
Phill tensed up. His face turned red with anger. "Ken did this to you? Get in here." He locked the door behind her.
She fell forward and couldn't wait to plop down on the couch in front of the bay window. Debbie stood near her crib, her baby asleep, looking afraid to get involved.
Mary had a hard time talking. Her mouth was dry, lips chalky. "Can I use your phone. I need to...to call my Dad. I got to get out of here."
Phill took charge. He looked over at his wife. "Deb, get Mary some water and get this baby something."
"We were in the kitchen. He...I told him off about something, then he went nuts. I scrambled to get out of the apartment. I...I thought someone would hear, someone would help! I got no one."
Mary shuddered and gulped the glass of water. Malissa took a sippy cup of juice. Debbie warmed up to Mary's baby and took hold of her on the couch while the couples baby slept in a crib.
"I won't let him touch you again," said Phill. "But you have to get out of town as soon as you get a bus ticket. Tom's mother knows too many people. You can't trust anyone in his family here." He looked over at his wife Debbie holding the baby.
Debbie looked over at Mary with a hinged look. Phill looked at her. "Debbie, you know it's true. Before long I guarantee he's calling Mary on his mother's orders to smooth things over.
Phill handed Mary the landline with a long cord across the living room. She dialed the operator to make a collect call. The line was busy. She tried and tried again. She tried for over an hour.
As it turned out I was the one on the line that day talking to her father, keeping her from getting through. Soon I would learn that it was a God moment of timing. I called Mary with an urge unlike any other after two years! Yet I was the reason she couldn't get through to her father. What an irony.
Desperation mounted for Mary. She used the bathroom, checked her bruises, freshened up the best she could, then she looked out the picture window near dark half expecting Ken to be standing in front of the bay window in the front yard. The phone rang! She jumped.
Phill answered. "No, you scum, you can't talk to Mary." He hung up. It was Ken. "You need to tell the operator to break through on your Dad's line. It's an emergency! I fear he may come over here with his mother. But no one's getting to you or that baby unless it's over my dead body." He looked at baby Malissa with tears in his eyes.
Mary broke through on the line and made the collect call to her father. She hiccupped through tears but managed to get her father to wire money for bus a fare home. Sometime after Mary hung up, she collapsed on the couch. Little Malissa hugged her neck. She kissed her baby and said, "We're goin' home to be with Mamma and Pappa."
Phill and Debbie made a place for mother and daughter in the babies room with a spare bed. As Mary lay in bed with her baby asleep, she stared at the ceiling and recalled how she almost called Tom when she was divorced and living with her aunt and uncle in Ft. Worth, Texas. She had his number memorized. She'd pick up the phone on different days, started dialing the number, then hung up. She couldn't bring herself to finish the call. She'd made a mess of her life. She had a baby. She was damaged goods. Tom would graduate and be in the ministry. She didn't want to screw his life up too.
Before Mary nodded off to sleep she clung to her Dad's words. "Tom called. He wanted to see you again. He wanted to know if you were okay."
A sliver of hope ran through her spine that night. She hoped, no, she prayed she'd meet Tom again. There was never a day when she stopped loving him. Never.
|Author Notes||Baby Malissa grew up, but it had been the last time she'd seen the father who pro-created her. She married, moved to western Arkansas, and became a nurse. Later in her life she decided to find Phil and Debbie and learn more about that side of her family tree. She reunited happily with Phil and Debbie who took her in those years ago when her and mother were in danger. About a year ago, she made one last visit to see Phil, the one who became a guardian angel. She was able to hold is hand in ICU at a hospital in Illinois and witness his departed flight to heaven.|
Mary and baby made it on the Trailways bus for home. The young mother, wearing sunglasses to hide her swollen eye, didn't care to look back. She wanted to forget she ever stepped foot in Illinois.
As the hum of the tires put the baby to sleep, Mary hoped to get through the journey without conversation. To be sure she understood everyone on the bus had a story to tell. It was 1983 and a Trailways bus was where the melting pot of America mingled. There were different shades of skin and a rainbow of colors. The common denominator was that they were all poor. No one rode a Trailways bus for days and stopped in every town on both sides of the Mississippi if they had money for a plane ticket.
Life moved like a tapestry of scenes from a movie about the Heartland. The view of cornfields, cow pastures, and bold rivers were all included with the price of a ticket. Mary and Malissa snacked and sipped water along the way. Malissa's smile and sweet face would lighten the mood on the bus. But Mary wanted Texas. She couldn't wait to feel the grass and dirt of home between her toes.
When time on the bus crawled on wheels, she'd close her eyes and sleep so she wouldn't have to count the hours. A depth of relief flooded her senses when she spotted a sign for Texas. Everything was big in Texas, including her love for Tom. He said he would call her when she got settled back home in Cibolo. She thought of him, as the bus turned south on I35 from Dallas.
When Mary crossed the threshold of her parent's house, she knew her life was at a crossroads. Despite assurances that her father promised Tom from school in Arlington would call her, she put up a good front. She said, "I don't want to date again. I don't want a man in my life. Don't need a man."
Mary's younger siblings doted over little Malissa. In some ways it was like they were making up for all the love and care Mary gave them when they were younger. It gave Mary the chance to zone out in her old room. It may have been a trailer once, but her father was a carpenter and managed to make extra rooms for everyone, including Mary. She closed her door, refused to eat more than a few bites of food, and mostly put everyone on notice for them to not hold their breath if Tom doesn't call. Her family worried over her, and they figured she couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds soaking wet.
Her father told me I should give her some time. She'd been through so much. I distracted myself with the end of semester class work. But Thanksgiving was fast approaching. Some of my student friends were already making plans to head home out of state.
With Thanksgiving days away, I made the phone call to Mary. Her mother answered the phone and didn't seem surprised I was on the other end. She yelled loud enough for everyone in the house to hear it. They never needed intercoms. "Mary Ella! Thomas is on the phone. Hurry up and get your butt out here." It was like I stirred the whole house with a call. "Somebody tell Mary to get her fanny out here."
Then it seemed there was a hush around the phone when Mary answered. "Hello."
My heart skipped a beat, just to hear her voice after all those years. "Are you okay? You're Dad told me what happened. He told me your situation, how you needed to get out of Illinois. He told me you have a little girl now."
I had trouble holding back the tears. It just seemed like a flood of emotions that were dammed up in my eyes wanted to let go and tried to drown my ability to talk. I hoped she felt the same.
"She's going to be two-years old on December 3rd. "
"I'd love to see you both, someday."
"Well," she said, and seemed hesitant. "You know where to find me. It ain't like you would need a map."
I heard her mother in the background yell. "Tell Tommy boy to come down for Thanksgiving. I bet he ain't had a good home meal in ages."
I wondered if Mary's heart was beating as fast as mine. She had always put her heart out there for me, and every time she did, I broke it. No, I crushed it!
"You must be busy with school."
"Not around Thanksgiving."
"You should come for Thanksgiving. Everyone wants to see you. Jennifer won't stop pinching my arm. She's so dang mean. I'm about to swat her one. Stop it!"
"I will come down. But my car won't make it. I'll have to fly."
"You sure you know what you might be getting yourself into? Wouldn't want you to climb out on a limb."
"I'm all in on that limb, as long as your there with me."
When the day arrived, and I was supposed to fly to San Antonio, doubts dug into my head and burrowed into my heart. Alone in an empty dorm and here comes a war between my head and heart again. I was on the second floor overlooking the atrium and concrete below. I stood there, alone, talking to myself, telling myself I'm not ready to go out on this limb of love. "What if I fall?"
A few hours later, before a friend would take me to the airport, I did an incredibly foolish thing. I called the Blakely house. I told Mary, "I can't make it. I don't think I can come."
The other side of the phone was deathly quiet. She must have thought, oh no. After all these years, I'm losing him all over again. "What do you mean? You can't come; or you won't come?"
"I'm just not sure I should..." I didn't have an excuse.
Mary's sister, who by now was eighteen, grabbed the phone. "Tom, you listen to me, and you listen carefully. If you don't get on that flight tonight, I'm going to personally drive Mary up there to the dorm, and we will find you, and when we do, you'll be sorry. That's no way to treat a young lady who has spent the last few hours getting ready to meet you at the airport. Do I make myself clear?"
"Abundantly so, and I'm Sorry."
"No siree! Sorry won't cut it. Sorry happened two years ago. You need to stop talking yourself out of this and keep your promises. Now can we count on you to keep your word?"
"Yes, I...I promise I will be on that plane tonight."
Sissy handed the phone back to Mary. She always knew when to step up for her big sister. I could hear Mary's anxious breath over the phone. "You okay?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, I'm such a fool. Your family is like the family I never had. I really do want to see you and your little girl. I want to prove to you I care."
I took my ride to the airport, hopped on the plane with minutes to spare. I watched the bright lights of Dallas fill the window and breathed a sigh that all the wrestling inside myself was over. It felt good to give in and let go‚?"to be vulnerable--to be willing to risk my whole heart and not just one piece of it.
It wasn't long before San Antonio came into view with all of it's colorful lights at night. As we touched down memories filled me of how I helped rebuild a church, was in the air force, and met Mary when she was only sixteen. As I walked from the gate through the airport I tried to imagine her look now and how she would have matured.
As I rounded the corner near baggage claim and the exits, my heart pounded like a hammer. Mary and her sister stood below the ramp in their church dresses looking up toward me, eyes wide. They both had more than enough makeup to spare. But I knew the real Mary was there, my down to earth southern girl who didn't need much to improve on God's creation. She was incredibly thin but gorgeous. Despite the dress, I could tell she'd been flirting dangerously with an eating disorder.
I walked down the ramp to give the pair a hug. Two years evaporated between us. I hugged Mary and kissed her on the cheek. The feeling sent shockwaves through me. My senses were on high alert: from the smell of her soft blonde hair to the touch of her soft, velvet skin. I was taken back in time when she first grabbed my bicep and told me she loved me, then asked, "Now what are you going to do about it?"
They could have put a dog collar around me and led me on a leash into the car all the way to their house and I wouldn't have bucked.
The picture I found is a rare photo of Mary and child days before I came down for Thanksgiving visit.
I changed my name at first, not sure why. I've changed some names, but I don't think anyone needs a name changed to protect them.
Mary and I found each other again after a stormy two years. We leaned into each other in the backseat of her sister's car from the airport on the way to the Blakely home. We should have caught up with words, but we spoke with eyes of love and longing to overcome what separated us. Mary may have thought her daughter could be an obstacle to us rekindling our relationship, but I wasn't bottled with bitterness. I was impressed with her sacrificial love.
Sissy drove through the small town of Cibolo at night. It must have been stuck in time. There was the same blinking light, same post office, and one set of tracks. Most folk passed through with some place else to be. But I was firmly where I needed to be. Memories cascaded through me like a waterfall, awakening my senses as Mary and I held hands, ready for a fresh start. The storms of doubt had passed. A calm and glistening sea of hope formed between us.
The Blakely family must have heard us spit gravel up the drive to the back porch of a trailer with additions. Jennifer, Mary's youngest sister flung open the door and bounded toward us with Malissa in her arms. I was smitten by how cute she was and questioned how any father would abandon such a rare gem as this girl. She reminded me of Shirley Temple in the movies with curly brown hair and puffy cheeks.
With outstretched arms, the child wanted her mother. Mary dove from the car. Mother and daughter re-united. We all huddled around them. Mr. and Mrs. Blakely came outside and joined the fray. I was hugged and welcomed back into their circle of trust, as if I never left. It was more than I deserved. It was grace in living color.
From the moment I saw Mary's daughter I loved her. If God was in it and Mary agreed, I'd be the kind of father this innocent child needed.
After dinner we enjoyed having Malissa as the center of attention who had birthday toys on the floor of the living room. Soon she warmed up to me. In the beginning she looked at me with her doubts. As I sat there on the couch I'd talk to her and ask her to show me one of her toys. She decided to come over and show me something. As I hugged her, she had my heart in her little hands.
Mary changed into her skinny jeans and sported a marijuana plant on her pants pocket. I supposed she must have known what it was. To be honest I watched how she made the plant shift as she walked. Yes, I know I was studying for the ministry, and I should have closed my eyes. She'd matured into a flower of beauty because of her innocence and vulnerability. I wasn't worried about what some stuffed shirts might think of me in a hardback pew if I was dating a divorced woman when it was providence that brought us back together. I no longer had a tug of war between my heart and head. It was all settled in my heart.
I knew Mary would have married me two years ago. I figured back then I had her at hello. But this time, I was the vulnerable one. What would Mary say, if I asked her to take a chance on me? Would she swear me off? Would she just want to be friends?
I watched as Malissa trailed over to her mother in the kitchen. She clung to her leg and rubbed her eyes.
I played peek-a-boo with my hands, spreading my fingers to see her and said, "I see you!"
I finally earned my first smile.
As the evening wore on, most everyone including Malissa went to sleep. Mary and I took time to talk but continued to look at each other, as if we couldn't believe we were free to see one another and dream together about what our future could look like.
I slept in Mary's bedroom. She slept on the couch. We knew enough to respect our distance, because it wouldn't take much to bring us together in more ways than one. That night in her bedroom I imagined what it would be like to be married, to be able to wake up beside Mary and build a future together. I couldn't be any more sure of it than if God had come down and split the bed in two with me in it.
Next morning after breakfast and before my ride to the airport, I asked Mr. Blakely if he would be okay with me coming back when school was out on winter break. He nodded with a wry smile and crinkled brow, as if he could see my desire to marry his daughter. I found out later after I flew back to Arlington Texas, he cancelled Mary's doubts. "Don't you worry none, that boy's coming back, and you can take it to the bank."
Mary was in an abusive relationship with a former husband.
Tom has been in school studying for the ministry
Sissy is Mary's sister three years younger.
Jennifer is her baby sister who would have been ten years old or more.
I had a special relationship with Mary's father. He was the kind of person that once he was in your circle of trust, he would defend you to the end. He was a true redneck too.
At the end of the first semester of school winter took a bite out of northern Texas. My Mary from San Antonio warmed my heart. There was heat between us on the phone. We spent hours hardly saying anything important. When I think back, sometimes just knowing we could hear one another breathing on the other end was enough to keep us glued to the receiver.
A few days before Christmas I was ready to make the run south to northern San Antonio. I had my 66 Cadillac convertible up and running. But with winter weather digging deep, I didn't care to drive down south on I35 with the top down.
With a broken speedometer, I made to my girlfriend in record time and surprised everyone. As far as Mary's parents were concerned, it was just more proof I was in love with their daughter.
This time things were different. When I got out of the caddy and breathed in the crisp winter air, I asked Mary to step outside so I could talk to her in the fading light. She was in her blue jeans but pulled her jacket on so we could be alone on the porch. I looked at her with those warm, wide blue eyes. And then I popped the question. Well, almost.
Once again I failed at etiquette. I had no one to blame. I should have read more about how to ask a girl to marry me in that once in a lifetime moment. Instead, without a ring or dropping to my knee, I said, not asked, "I think we should get married."
She should have gasped and slapped me. Once again, I was proving to be a man wired differently than some. And in this case I was hotwired to turn the key on love.
She could have said like in the movie, Jerry Maguire, "You had me at hello. You've always had me." But I think she said, "Are you for real? You really want to get married?"
"I do. I think we were meant for each other. And despite all the hurt in your life, God has given me a second chance with you."
She kissed and hugged me. "I've always loved you. I never stopped. I tried, but you've always had piece of my heart. Of course, I will marry you. I would have married you when I was sixteen."
"Then let's get married after Christmas. How about New Years Eve?"
"But we don't have rings."
"Let's go pick out our rings Christmas weekend."
She pulled her fur-lined collar up until it hugged her neck and her golden hair curled around it. "We best break the news to my parents."
We went inside and sat down on the sofa. I hadn't asked Mr. Blakely for his daughters hand in marriage. I spoke up and asked. "If you don't mind I want to get married to your daughter."
He smiled and almost laughed. "What took you so long son? Mrs. Blakely was holding Mary's baby. "It looks like you will be getting a wife and a daughter.
Once again, Mary's parents trusted me to be the best match for their daughter and believed I would protect her and little Malissa. They were far from a perfect family. But they loved me and believed in me when I didn't deserve it.
We sat down together in the parlor making plans while her daughter slept. We shared memories too. She pulled out her high school yearbook to show me the few pictures she had of me salted away. Then an old withered yellow rose petal fell from her yearbook. I watched it swim in the air and drop to the floor.
Mary snatched it up and placed it back in the book. "Do you remember when you once told me when you gave me the yellow rose, that if it dies, our love was never meant to be? I kept it alive as long as I could, then I kept it with pictures of you where my husband couldn't find it."
Tears stung my eyes. I hugged her and promised I would never be so cruel and immature again. I had learned my lesson.
I didn't know how to love someone. And if I wrote an exchange of words on paper during wedding vows it would have simply been, "I never knew how to love someone. You taught me how to love."
The next day we left the humble trailer with additions built by Mary's carpenter father. We took his small Ford pickup to go select rings. Even for San Antonio, the weather turned cold enough to smell snow in the air, even if it hadn't delivered lasting flakes on the ground. We warmed up the truck and left for the mall.
The city celebrated the colors of Christmas. There was a festive feel in the air besides the cold. I had grown up where a white Christmas was common. Somehow that didn't matter. We wouldn't have much time to prepare ourselves to be married by New Year's Eve if we didn't get busy.
If Mary didn't like the way I handled my proposal, she never showed it. I learned something about her when it came to picking out our wedding rings at the mall. She'd been concerned about the cost. She knew how to pinch pennies and squeeze dollars into turnips. But my love trumped our frugality. I protested and told her not to pick out the cheapest set they had.
With Ma and Pa watching Mary's baby, we had precious time to ourselves. I was thrilled with her every happy expression, and how I could give her and the baby a brand-new start-maybe help them forget their past abuse.
We dove into a movie in the mall. I don't remember the movie or the title because we spent time kissing each other and hardly paid attention to the movie. I couldn't tell you if others noticed our necking. For once in my life, I hadn't cared what others thought. Love can make you care less about your surroundings.
Before the evening was over, we purchased Christmas gifts for Malissa. The family never had more than two nickels to rub together. I was happy to have extra money and thrilled that I could buy my first gifts for a little girls love I wanted to win over.
After Christmas it was time to pack up and take Mary and Malissa back to Arlington, Texas. We needed to scout for an apartment and work out our plans for living together. I wasn't afraid I couldn't support my new family, but Mary and I talked about her wanting to cut hair for extra income.
We loaded up the caddy with everything Mary and Malissa owned which was in a couple suitcases and headed north. Around Arlington the weather turned colder, and there were snowflakes in the air. I had called a college friend and asked if my future wife and daughter could spend the week at his apartment while he was away in Florida.
He told me where to find a key, and it wasn't long before we had Mary and the baby's stuff inside. It was an open apartment with kitchen and living area combined. Rick had one bedroom with a mattress on the floor.
I'm not sure what we made for dinner that evening, or if I got takeout for us. Mother and daughter settled in. I would always make sure to hug and kiss that little girl of hers. I patiently waited for the day she would accept me into her life. I think for the most part she seemed to have this sense that she was safe with us. And that was the most important thing I wanted her to know.
At some point in the evening, I grabbed my coat and kissed my future wife. I would go back to the dorm because I didn't want anyone to get the wrong impression before we got married.
As the cold took a bite out of me and ice pellets fell from the Texas sky, I hopped into my car and turned the key. It wouldn't start!
I didn't have many choices. There was no one left at the dorm I could call who I knew. That's when I made the decision to spend the night in the apartment and wait it out until morning. I hopped back inside the apartment. "Car won't start. I could sleep on the couch."
Malissa slept on a makeshift bed. Mary stood in her nightgown. We looked at each other, struggling for words. I made myself a place on the couch with a blanket she found for me. We told each other, "Goodnight."
I couldn't sleep, as I listened to the howling of the storm outside and ice pellets hitting the roof. I should have prayed for strength, maybe quoted a few scriptures. But all I could think about was the desire to go into the other room and hold Mary in my arms.
I stumbled in the darkness from the couch, tapped on the door to the bedroom, and asked if I could lay next to her. She looked up at me standing in the doorway and softly said, "Okay."
I quietly slipped under the covers and held her. I told her, "I'm a virgin, I've never made love to any woman. I promise you will be the first and last."
Tom is in school for the ministry.
Mary was divorced from an abusive husband
Malissa is a little girl about to get a new dad.
The week between Christmas and the New Year in 1983 was a whirlwind. After many years our love surfaced and flowed with grace and maturity, ready to face the world with shared faith in the future. We were hurtling toward marriage on Saturday and a honeymoon on New Year's Eve.
Before the trip back to San Antonio to secure a marriage license, I put money down on a modest two-bedroom apartment. I wanted Mary's daughter to feel special. I wanted her to have a room of her own. I longed for the day when she would be ready to call me Daddy.
We were to be married in the church where we first met, when Mary was only sixteen, and I was a Yankee from the north. Her father fondly referred to me as a reformed one. I never bothered to ask exactly what he meant by that. I did like how Texans had a more open and friendly attitude toward people in general.
On the day of our church wedding things were so rushed, no one bothered to take pictures. Mary has often pined how we didn't have even one wedding photo. In fact, Mary's parents were our signed witnesses. I called my mother who was living in Dallas, Texas at the time, but before I could finish with the details, she'd cut me off and said, "I hope you didn't expect me to be there for your wedding. I have other plans."
It bothered me more that my mother presumed and judged that I would expect her to come on short notice. It didn't matter, I had Mary and a little girl who needed me. I was more determined to prove I knew how to be a good father and husband.
On the day of the wedding Mary's first ever boyfriend showed up with his fianc√©. They got married just ahead of us. We were shocked and surprised at the coincidence and timing. The boy's father once tried to convince me to stay away from Mary on the grounds she has seizures, and she would be too much of a burden to me if I were to become a pastor.
As Mary and I stepped into the aisle to say our vows. I turned to see a grouchy bulldog look on the man's face. You just knew he wished his son married my Mary instead. It was some twist of fate that day.
Standing at the altar, I wore my black Sunday suit. Mary was in the vestibule wearing her long lacey church dress. It was a shade of green because she hadn't owned a white dress. What I do recall in detail was her pasty, white ghostly face. She looked ready to pass out in the aisle!
As the piano played and she weaved her way toward me, a tension rose inside me until my heart hurt. I feared she would have a seizure before our vows could be said.
I had nightmarish visions of her flailing on the floor, her body convulsing, and foam coming out of her mouth. But she made it! Her father and mother helped hold her up so she could get through it.
We said the traditional vows. The one difference I liked was how we said, "For as long as we both shall live, instead of until death do we part." We had some living to do as one flesh, the way it was meant to be.
And then we were married! When I had time to reflect on the moment and watched Mary all but pass out at the altar, I realized after all my false starts and having a reputation for bailing out on love, she must have had an incredible moment of fear that gripped her heart until we tied the notch.
After putting money down on an apartment in Arlington, I hadn't much left for a motel. It hadn't bothered us that much when we couldn't find a cheap enough room. We circled back to her parents' house. So much for fancy weddings and honeymoons. Our love was worth so much more.
If the wedding was one to remember, how about having a honeymoon at your in-laws' home? Since there wasn't a door to the extra bedroom, they made a thick blanket work for our privacy. If we could hear the crackle and hiss of the fireplace, we were pretty sure someone could hear our bed squeak in the night.
Try making love on your honeymoon with your in-laws the next room over?
The picture in the previous chapter was the only picture only a day or two after we married, and was taken by mother who was too busy to drive down for the wedding.
We were more than ready to start our new life and pursue my ministry.
I gained a wife and a daughter when I woke up New Years day, 1984. Our little two-year-old was all I needed for Christmas. My little Miss Malissa was the best gift of all.
We turned our humble two-bedroom apartment into a home living in the heart of the metroplex. I started a new semester in ministry school, and then I went to work the 2nd shift as a janitor for a school district. Mary didn't mind staying home in the first few months to give her child an adjustment to a new home and life. She wanted to help pay the bills, but I didn't mind doing double duty, so mother and daughter could feel loved and spend quality time together.
I was taught early on in church, before you leave your family, tell them you love them. No one can be guaranteed tomorrow. I also loved a song I heard called, "Love is something you do, not just something you say." I believed Mary appreciated the early sacrifices in our marriage I made. It made us closer.
My mother and half-sister came to visit us when we had our first apartment. I could never understand how they couldn't make it to my wedding a few hours away, but they suddenly wanted to spend time with my new wife. Alone. I was in my mid-twenties but new their intentions weren't pure. Once my mother found a bruise on Mary's arm and got excited and told my wife, "If he's hitting you, tell me."
Mary tried to honestly explain that it was from moving some furniture or boxes or something ridiculous, and she couldn't understand why my mother was so upset. As I explained in earlier chapters, my mother was nearly beaten to death by my father, and it appeared my half-sister and mother expected me to follow in his footsteps. I was never happier to prove them wrong. I never felt loved by them, only rejected for looking like my father. They didn't care to know what was in my heart. I wasn't worried, I had Mary's family who loved me unconditionally as my main motivator to take care of my family.
One night after a long day, I'd come home and kiss my young wife. Malissa would usually be fast asleep in her bed. On this particular night less than a week after we'd been married, Mary told me of a wonderful moment when she had little Malissa in the laundry room and there was another elderly woman tenant doing her laundry. She enjoyed my wife's company and that of our spry daughter. She couldn't get over the dimpled smile and how happy she seemed. She stooped over and asked our girl, "What did you get for Christmas this year sweetie?"
With a bursting smile and my daughter's eyes aglow, she said, "I got me a Daddy for Christmas!"
In the late evening after a long hard night at work, I was held captive to Mary's words, as she told me what happened in her day. Tears stung my eyes. But they were tears of joy!
As the weather improved with spring, Mary was ready to work a few hours at a hair shop within walking distance. On my open days from school or Saturdays, I was psyched to be my new daughter's babysitter.
It was the first time I recalled Mary trusted me for the day with a spry and spunky two-year-old. If there had only been a manual on what to expect. Maybe it was the kid in me, but I thought it was going to be easy. Malissa was bouncing around on our bed like it was a trampoline. No problem. I kept a close watch. I was athletic; I could catch her.
The phone rang or something distracted me for a moment. I rushed to the next room over something. As I motored back into the bedroom, my daughter's face was pressed against the window screen of our 2nd story apartment!
I yelped. "Malissa no!"
The screen pushed through to the sidewalk below. I dove across the bed and managed to grab an arm or leg, some kind of limb. She nearly tumbled head-first! I shouted at her, scared her stiff, then hugged her. She must have seen the fear in my eyes and cried, not realizing she could have died.
My wife could have come home to see a dead daughter or one in the hospital with a skull fracture. Lesson learned. Never, ever, ever let a two-year-old out of your sight or more than an arm's length. It was the grace of God that for one instant, your blessed life could have been altered forever.
It wasn't many more days after the incident in spring that my wife would share more news with me on one of those late evenings when I would come home from school and then work. She told me with a glow and smile, "I'm pregnant. We're having a baby!"
During the summer months we discussed baby names. We hoped for a boy, since we had a girl. Mary wanted to name a boy after me. She wanted a little junior. I countered and said, I wanted to start a new tradition. I wanted him to have a strong Bible name. She warmed to the idea as the months passed, and it became settled in her heart. Nathan was Hebrew for, "Gift from God."
Mary's due date was ten days before Christmas. We were getting close to the time when we should have had a name for a girl too. One day I crowed, "We need to have girl's name picked out already."
Mary fired back, "I'm not doing it! I just know he's a boy." I shook my head and backed away.
Our child was due ten days before Christmas. The days toiled by the expected date. Then, lo and behold, on Christmas day, Mary went into labor. I rushed her to the hospital. With pain that can only be described as a curse, she delivered a healthy baby boy!
After the pain came the blessing, as I heard a lovely healthy cry from the delivery room. My wife was right. God must have been in it all along. How does someone name a child, "A gift from God," and then have him born on Christmas? That stuff just doesn't happen on its own.
We marked our first year together as a family, and another gift that keeps on giving.
"Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all we ask or think..." KJV Eph.3:20
We were happy and blessed to have a boy and girl. We never tried to have more children, but as I got older, I wasn't as good at what we called the timing method, and neither of us had an operation. So you guessed it. More children flowed from our loins.
Our third child, we saw the sonogram and knew it would be a girl. We decided on the name Amanda, because it meant, "Worthy of Love." I joked with the doctor and had a good laugh when I suggested he should help us have her be born about seven days earlier than the due date so she could be born on Valentine's Day. Without help from the doctor, she was born on that special day, perfectly matching her name, like my son's birth on Christmas day.
Our second year of marriage and another child meant it was time to find a new place with more room. I was a full-time student in college and had a full-time night job. We didn't have a big budget. We settled on renting an old house in Arlington. Unfortunately, it turned out rats were living there before us. They started throwing hints, but one day my wife was vacuuming the living room and one jumped on her vacuum!
As soon as I could graduate from school, we decided the rats could have the house back. It was a scary time, and we were afraid for the kids. Eventually we moved near the DFW airport where I took on a part-time job in airfreight with one of the airlines. It turned out to be a good move in more ways than one, since we could fly on standby.
Another part of our life that scared me was how Mary would suddenly have a seizure. But I was even more scared for her because of the medicine she was doped up on going back years ago. The doctors and all the past exams couldn't find anything neurologically wrong with her. They had no explanation for her seizures. The resulting decision was to put her on a strong dose of phenobarbital and dilantin.
Somedays her pupils dilated to the point I couldn't see the blue in her eyes. A few times I would come home to find the neighbors watching over her because she had a seizure. I decided to pay more attention to how she was breathing. I hated what the drugs were doing to her. They were more harm than good.
One day I was with her, enjoying our family, and I noticed how she took sharps breaths to the point of panting. It was like she fought the deadening effects of pills.
She was nearly in tears, trying to catch her breath. "I don't know what to do. I will never be able to get a license to drive, but I'm more afraid of being alone with our babies and having a seizure!"
I read the panic on her face. It was time to stop, drop, and pray--then act!
I shared my experience with Mary about how I once had carbon monoxide poisoning over a long-distance drive with a bad muffler and a hole in the floorboard. After the incident, I developed a habit of hyperventilating. Then a smart doctor figured it out by testing the oxygen in my blood from an artery. Painful! Absolutely! But worth the discovery.
It was one of those miracle moments. I believe with all my heart God had brought me through that experience to be there for Mary. Sometimes miracles happen through providence and the relationships we gain.
I saw firsthand what the so-called medicine was doing to her. Mary and I flushed it all down the toilet. Then I looked at her and said, "By God's grace I'm going to see those pretty blue eyes of yours again, and you won't have another seizure."
My wife took that step of faith with me. She learned how to adjust her breathing. Like they say, "Keep calm and trust God." From that day forward she never had another.
A few years later I took her to her first driving test. She passed with flying colors on the first try! As she ticked off each year she realized I was the kind of man that didn't want her to feel like a prisoner in her own home. I married a tough woman, and she had the faith and fire to take care of her family.
We used to joke about how some neighbors would think we attended a church where women are kept in their place. Although there were churches like that, we were not part of that extreme. Once, when I was working as an assistant pastor someone who didn't know us said, "I don't like your church or your kind of people. I don't like the men who use the Bible to keep women down."
I smiled and offered a challenge. "Spend a day with my wife, and you might not paint with such a broad brush."
To this present day, we have run a business for over thirty years, and Mary's been at my side for nearly every job. She knows all too well; I've become the one who depends on her. Partners in God's grace!
One day I asked my Texas wife if she wanted to move to New York. She said, "YES." For her, it was like jumping into the deep end of a pool before learning how to swim.
It wasn't easy loading up a red Ford Escort with everything we owned, including our two children. Somehow we made it through the states without injury. I can't say the same for the Escort. It had issues the day I drove it from the lot.
Mary had a taste of upstate New York one summer on vacation. Unfortunately, it rained nearly every day. Her first perceptions were that she might have to abandon the sunshine of Texas for a depressing experience. I was famous for saying, "But we have sunshine in our hearts, we have Jesus!" And then it would rain. My other famous quote was, "Be content in whatsoever state you are in, including NY." And sometimes my father would make her laugh when he would sing his version of "I love New York."
Our plan was to settle in with a church where I could be the youth pastor or an assistant pastor and cut some spiritual teeth. I was impatient, and we often found ourselves bouncing around. I had forgotten the basic Yankee rule of northern folk, including churches. "Trust but verify." Nothing like being under a microscope every moment you live.
My wife learned the hard way about northern culture. She would often wave to strangers on the street and sometimes attempt to engage them in conversation. Not all people were distant and cold, but sometimes she would get that, "Go to hell look," when she waved.
At first we lived with my father. He treated my wife with such grace and love. They got along famously. She was a blessing above and beyond to my father. Settling into a church helped our adjustments too.
My father would often take Mary and the kids out when I had to work. I worked a couple part time jobs, one for the airlines in Syracuse, NY and the other for Airborne Freight. As providence would have it, the freight job had the benefit of a free lawyer when you needed one. We used the lawyer to start the proceedings for me to adopt Malissa.
I will never forget how happy Mary's daughter was when I told her at the age of six that she would one day stand before the judge, and he would ask her if its okay for me to be your legal father. There was a satisfied grin from ear to ear.
Mary always told Malissa everything about her past. Some of her bad dreams at night reminded us that she remembered things on her own. My wife decided early on that she would have no secrets between them. To this day, I believe it's why mother and daughter are close. There was no root of bitterness that got in the way when Malissa researched her own past as an adult and learned more details about the heroic couple who rescued them in Illinois. She knew the score. She knew then that her first father had abandoned her. We all went forward with eyes and hearts wide open!
Sometimes Malissa would remark how she had brown eyes and wished she had blue eyes like her little brother or me. Time has a way of working things out. Once again God's undercurrent and timing would put us in situations to remind us we are never drowning but carried along by his grace. Once, when she was a teenager, I took her on a carpet cleaning job to a motel. The manager in charge looked at her and remarked, "I can clearly see how much your daughter favors you."
That one experience made her day. Malissa couldn't wait to get home and brag to her mother about what happened. But without a doubt her greatest moment came when she stood before the judge at seven years of age and legally became my daughter. I hadn't known how much impact that day had on her life until her class was assigned to write a letter on a day when each student felt special. The title of her story was, "The day I felt special when I was adopted."
To be continued... Next, the Perfect Storm, and how we drove against all odds to make a little girl mine.
Romans 8:15 (NCV) The Spirit we received does not make us slaves again to fear; it makes us children of God. With that Spirit we cry out, "Father."
Mary is my wife from Texas
Malissa is the daughter I was going to adopt
Nathan is her second born and my first son. (Although he's not mentioned in chapter.)
My father who divorced and spent the rest of his days that way, living alone.
*I intentionally used this chapter as a bridge to the chapter on adoption coming up, as I felt it would make the whole lead up to it rather long.
It was the late 1980's, and the adoption proceedings were in full swing. I visited someone in the city for a sit down of why I wanted to adopt Malissa. Then there was a home meeting where the head of the agency visited the family. By summer, I landed a good full-time job. I wouldn't have to work several jobs to make ends meet anymore. I hadn't given up on the ministry, as I figured it would happen when the time was right.
Before the adoption became final, it meant that we had to leave upstate NY for New Hampshire. It was summer and the kids would have a fresh start. It made the trip and transition smooth, as we got used to a New England culture. No sooner had we got settled into our apartment than a court date had been set for December. No problem, I thought. I know how to handle myself in winter driving, having been raised in the snowbelt where inches are often measured by feet.
Wait a minute, there was a potential problem. We bought a used ford wagon from a friend. It had issues with the carburetor and would often spudder and want to stall. After my father got one good look and whiff at the blue smoke coming from the tailpipe. He declared, "The person you bought this from is not your friend."
I still wasn't worried. What were the chances that there would be a storm for the record books from the East coast to Syracuse, NY? As it turned out, only days before our scheduled trip to the courthouse to seal the adoption a low pressure was building in the Atlantic and there was also a forecast of snow coming off the warm waters of Lake Ontario toward Syracuse. It turned out to be what can be described as the perfect storm! Two low pressure systems were on a collision course!
The window of our opportunity to get out of town and get on the thruway was closing fast. Just hours before we left there was talk that authorities may have to close the thruway, our only sure path to making back home for the adoption.
We packed our bags, loaded our son and daughter in the back of the Ford wagon, and then Mary and I looked at each other and said a prayer. I fired up the wagon affectionately called, Betsy. I'm not sure if my wife saw a calm determined look on my face, or a crazed one, willing to risk life and limb. It was probably somewhere in between. I watched the first few flakes fall and melt harmlessly on the windshield, and then off we went into the unseen dangers.
We took the bypass around Boston and edged on to thruway 90. The car hadn't backfired once. We sang some tunes and told myself, "I got this." My boy and girl were tucked safely into their seats. A few hours in and the snowflakes thickened and fell with a fury to the point where the wipers couldn't keep up. I leaned over the dashboard, as visibility was next to nothing.
As we charged up our first mountain on the highway, the car backfired! It sounded like a cannon shot. The car sputtered and jerked with each mountain. At times we couldn't be sure of where the road was except for the faint lines leftover from another brave car or truck.
I tried to hide my nervousness and pushed it down somewhere inside where it pressed against my heart. I looked at my wife who looked at me to see if my confidence had slipped. In that fateful moment I heard Malissa, at seven years old call out to me. "Daddy, you don't have to do this on the count of me. You can turn around. It's okay."
With low visibility, a car threatening to stall, it was in that a powerful sense of courage trumped everything around us. I shot back over my shoulder. "No honey, this is your moment, your time. I love you, and we're not turning around! We're going to make it for that court date."
Shortly after having made that statement, the car started cooperating again. Fortunately, the authorities didn't close the thruway, or I'm sure we would not have made it for the court date the next morning. Things were slow and the snow kept falling, but we had made it through Albany New York, and were on our way toward Syracuse. Betsy, our temperamental Ford sputtered a few more times, but she held steady on the highway.
By the time we got about an hour and half from Syracuse, we were exhausted. I could feel my arms cramping from all the hours of tension. We thought, maybe we should get a motel room in Herkimer, NY. I almost regretted it from the start, as we almost got stuck just past the tolls from having to stop.
We found a motel, but the walls were paper thin. Without a chance of getting a good night sleep, we decided to push on to my father's house. We loaded up into the blizzard winds and falling snow. I fired up Betsy with another prayer. There was no turning back!
As we got to the entrance of the thruway the car got stuck. I gave my wife the wheel and used my old powerlifting muscles to shove and push the car out of the snow rut. We shimmied our way back on to the highway. I remarked to my wife, "You know, I've heard people say, "'There's a fine line between foolishness and faith."'
I drove in a coffee caffeinated frenzy into the early dark morning hours until we were close to my father's house in the country. Just as we were almost there, you could look up and see a clearing in the night sky. It was better than a rainbow covenant. It was like God's message of mercy could be seen by angels.
I slipped into my father's unplowed driveway, knowing I'd have to dig us out, but I didn't care. We'd made it home. We got inside the house and collapsed into my fathers other bedrooms with a tremendous sense of peace. The adoption would be a done deal the next day.
In the morning, the sun came out, almost blinding our eyes from the reflection of all the fresh fallen snow. I dug the Ford wagon out from the driveway. Plows had cleared the roads, creating a winter wonderland toward the port city of Oswego.
As it turned out, Oswego bore the brunt of Lake effect snow. As we passed through the city to the courthouse, cars were buried, and snowbanks flanked us like arctic guardians into another world. It must have seemed even more impressive to my daughter whose eyes grew wider as we approached the courthouse. She looked up and looked around, as if she had been given the keys to a magical city on ice.
The steps to the courthouse had been salted and thankfully open for business. Hand and hand we stepped through the giant doors. From what I recalled, there was a moment when I stepped outside from the judges chamber. I waited in anticipation, as Malissa, soon to be my legal daughter needed to be the one to agree that she wanted her name changed.
The judge must have been impressed with what the little girl had to say, especially considering what we went through. As I sat outside for her personal talk with the judge, I could only imagine the story she weaved, as only a seven-year-old could. When the doors flew open, mother and daughter rushed toward me with the signed document by the judge while I held our son on a bench nearby. "It's done," my wife declared. "She's legally yours, mine, and ours!"
I swept Malissa into my arms and gave her a peck on the cheek. We headed home, as the sun melted away the cold.
A few months later our family had the opportunity to move back to upstate NY. There was an opening for a cleaning manager in Syracuse at Niagara Mohawk, the power company. We settled into an apartment, happy to be close to family and friendships recently forged. Our kids became firmly rooted and grounded.
Some three years later, my daughter and her classmates in 5th grade were tasked to write a letter about a special day in their life. Some wrote about Christmas and certain gifts or trips when they felt special. My daughter wrote about how special she felt the time we faced a fierce winter storm in order to make it to the courthouse for her adoption.
The teacher was so moved by her letter, she eagerly enlisted other teachers to hear it read. As some teachers stood and listened near the doorway, they choked back tears.
When I heard about the letter Malissa wrote, I hadn't understood the impact and impression I must have made on our daughter. To be honest, I was surprised that her impressions of that night resided deep in her tender heart.
One singular truth I learned: Love can move mountains.
Tom, the narrator
Mary, his wife
Malissa, the daughter
Nathan, the son
Coincidences for some are just that; for others, it may be an answer to prayer.
We had our family, me and my three, a steady job, and a dream to someday buy a home. I almost had it all, but the one thing I went to school for--the ministry. It was an unfulfilled calling. It was a piece of me that wanted something more in life.
Pastors loved to have our family in church, and for me to be a work horse. They would say, "You're not ready to pastor until you prove yourself."
On one of those ho hum days, I found myself driving down the road on the way to work praying. "God steer my life where you want it. I'm a man without a ministry. Bring people into my life like you have before. Show me great and mighty things." Then I would add something like, "You didn't bring my family all the way up north, just leave us in the lurch."
I didn't know it at the time, but God was ahead of me on the curve to come. I was wrestling with God. It was what I called a spiritual tug of war.
I drove into the city and went up to the third floor where my office was beneath a stairwell and tucked away from those who may not want to see us. We were cleaning scabs working to thwart the union at the power company. Our main job was to find ways to get the janitors to work more than 4 hours in an 8-hour day.
I strode into our big hole in the wall without windows and one large metal desk. Our secretary Linda was there to greet me once she put the phone down. She looked worried. Her brown eyes moistened. I thought, oh boy, her car broke down or maybe her hairdresser cancelled. But what she told me next turned my world upside down and spun me on my axis.
Linda pummeled me with her words. "I just got off the phone with a friend. She's in the hospital. We don't know if she's going to make it out of the hospital. She needs a pastor. Didn't you say you were one or something like that?"
My jaw dropped so hard and fast, I was speechless and frozen in place. Hadn't I just been asking God to use me in a big way?
"Tom, can you help them or find someone who can from a church? My husband and I have Chris and the two children at our home, but we can't do it long term."
Okay. We had only moved back to Syracuse months ago and are still visiting churches. I said, "Sure. Better give the details. What hospital and room number is she in? And you said her name is Kathy?"
Linda sighed and slumped, as if an invisible weight slipped from her shoulders. Then she stiffened again. "I need to tell you, maybe warn you. She's dying from AIDS. Her husband has it too, but it's not as severe. The kids have just been tested, and they don't have it. Thank God."
Back then in the early nineties, having AIDS was considered a death sentence. People were afraid to be around others with it. It was a modern-day leprosy!
She looked at me again. "You will visit them, won't you? They are not from around here. They are at the end of their rope."
My mind was racing a hundred miles an hour. I didn't have time run and find a pastor. Linda expected me to dart a few blocks over while she covered my shift. There was nowhere to hide, not from this. I was already working from inside a place that felt like I was Jonah in the belly of a whale. What could possibly go wrong?
Since I was dressed for work, including a tie, I figured the hospital would take me for a legitimate pastor. After all, I was a youth pastor once. After parking on a side street, I climbed a steep hill and made it to the vestibule of the main entrance. I pushed my way around the carousel and quickly found the elevator. Once again, I found myself praying on the move, this time in an elevator floating up to the fifth floor.
As the doors sprang open, the floor looked busy. Nurses in blue and white uniforms scurried about. Doctors had white lab coats. I did my best impression to act like I belonged there. I'm not sure what I told them at the nurses station, but it worked.
Going down the hall someone with mobile IV shuffled past me. His hollow face and protruding bones made me wonder if it was an AIDS wing. Looking down the hall there was a young man in his twenties sitting on chair. The air between us smelled and tasted of a strong disinfectant.
Arms folded, he turned his head my way, then stood. His jeans were baggy and falling down his hips. his face was somewhat sunken.
"Are you Chris?," I asked. I offered my hand, in part to let him know I wasn't afraid to touch him. Well, to be honest I wasn't sure how to feel. His grip was surprisingly firm and warm. "Your friend Linda asked me to come over. I'm the night manager for Service Master at Niagara Mohawk.
"Kathy is in the room and our kids are visiting her."
I turned to look in the room. Kathy was on her back in the hospital bed. I saw a daughter who looked very much like her mother, with long, blonde straw hair. The boy who was held down on the bed by his mother's rail thin arm looked like his father with sandy-blonde hair.
"If you don't mind, we should get acquainted. I want to know more about you and how I can help." We sat down on the chairs in the hall. "Tell me how you all found your way from Oklahoma to Syracuse."
It was as if Chris couldn't wait to get things off a heavy heart. "As a minister, you need to know we haven't led a very good life. I got some skeletons."
"It's okay." I tried to reassure him. "This is just between us. No one else, but us and God."
Chris sighed. His shoulders slumped. Then he shook his head. "Its all my fault. We got in some trouble with the law, drugs mainly. But then it makes you do other things you shouldn't. We reckoned if we left Oklahoma for New York we could start fresh, but our habits rode with us."
I nodded with agreement.
He mostly talked down to the floor, until he looked up and asked. "You know we have AIDS?"
"Yes, Linda told me."
"I'm not full blown like Kathy. It attacks your white blood cells and then you get sick all the time and a common cold can kill you."
"How's Kathy doing at the moment?" I looked over and watched Kathy, looking at me with a flicker of hope that maybe I brought a miracle in my pocket. Tyler broke free and raced over to his father. I had been told by Linda, that Stormy was eight, and Tyler four.
Chris admonished his son. He grabbed him by the shoulders. "Listen here boy," he said in that southern accent. "you go back to your mother and be nice now." As Tyler returned to his mother, Chris confessed. "We're not even married. We've lived together all these years."
I reassured him that we would focus on their health and the children, not the lack of marriage.
"They hope Kathy can pull through and make it out of the hospital. We were pretty sick with worry." I encouraged him to open up. "It's my fault," he said. "We must have got AIDs from sharing needles. I'm the one that got her hooked-on meth, then came the needles."
Chris had the tracks on his arms to prove it.
I was suffocating in my own emotions, sometimes forgetting to breathe. Then it was my turn to visit Kathy. I prayed a silent prayer as I walked through the door. "Lord, fill me with your Spirit. Give me the right words to say and in the right way. Bring us your mercy grace. Amen."
As I walked in and introduced myself to Kathy, I put my hand out. "I'm Tom. Linda asked if I could come see you."
Kathy put her bony hand out and offered a weary smile. "I'm Kathy, and those are my kids. You can see Tyler's hard to corral. I hardly got the strength to hold him in place."
I slid a chair up beside her. She did her best to prop herself up on the bed. There were big windows that allowed plenty of light, enough for me to see her thin, bleached face, and stark blue eyes. "Your kids are adorable," I said.
Kathy knew she couldn't afford to mince words. "The hardest thing is that I don't figure to be here to watch em' grow. My mom in Oklahoma is in a bad way. And I don't know who would raise them."
I wasn't ready for any of this. There wasn't a class I took in school on how to talk to someone in the prime of their life who could die in a few months if not days. "I don't have all the answers, but I do know I'm here for a reason. Together, we can pray and figure things out."
Tears formed in Kathy's eyes. "I lived a terrible life. Chris must have told you some. You must think I couldn't possibly be saved. I really have accepted the Lord. I backslid big time."
"It's okay, Kathy. You did the right thing, wanting to reach out to a minister and wanting what's best for your kids."
"I shared needles. We've been hooked on meth. And then I've done things, things I'm not proud of. Chris was desperate. He said we needed the money. I didn't want to, but I even worked at a strip club in town, just to feed the kids and our habit."
"I can tell your heart is an open book. I have to believe that God's ahead of us on this, and I know he loves us through our Lord Jesus. Have you heard the verse, "'Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."'
"I recall that verse from Sunday school."
I squeezed her hand. "For now, hold on to that as your promise. Make it real. Make it personal with God. I don't have all the answers, but I think I know a church that will help. They won't turn you or your children away Kathy. I promise."
"I've gotten some better," she said. "I hope to make it out in a few days, soon as they can get my white cell count up, and I'm not at risk for another infection."
Maybe I should have been afraid. But I patted her hand. "I will return with some help for you and your family."
I made promises I didn't know I could keep. Before I left into the hall from Kathy's room, I got down on a knee and hugged the kids, telling them I was there to help their Mom. I told Chris I would return. I wouldn't leave them stranded.
As I went down the corridor to the elevator, I knew I was in over my head. It was time to give Jesus the wheel and not just have him along for the ride.
Linda was our secretary, but she always reminded me she was really an administrative assistant.
Chris Glover and Kathy became my ministry, my focus with their children.
I had more than one visit with Kathy in the hospital. In my truth telling, this chapter was really a composite of different conversations. Once when I was alone with Kathy, I looked out the window and told her, "It's a beautiful day, if only you could be in it."
She replied, "Tom, when you're close to the end of this life, even the weather doesn't mean so much anymore."
Special thanks and shout out to the person beyond the artwork, Lynn for short. Hope she reads this. What powerful picture she offers. It is after all a story about love and heartbreak!
Time was the enemy. I learned how to pray in the car and on my feet. A young twenty-something Kathy's life hung in the balance. I needed help with a family crisis and didn't have time for small talk.
The next day after I was at the hospital, Northside Baptist church was on my radar. I drove to meet the pastor who I'd never met until that day. I dove from my car and darted into the church.
I introduced myself as a having moved back to Syracuse a few months ago with a need for my family to find a church home. Then I came at him like a wrecking ball with words. "Besides, I met this desperate and dying girl in the hospital through a contact at work. She has two children, a boy, and a girl. Her husband is trying to keep it all together, but he's also sick." I took a deep breath. "They both have AIDS. But the children have tested negative."
You should have seen his jaw drop. Here was this plump pastor with a patch of hair on his shiny bald head. But I credit him with quick action. After he took it all in, he didn't give it another thought. He bounded from his desk, and we jumped in his car for the hospital. It turned out he had a big heart too.
He assured me the church would marshal together a means of shelter, food, and all the prayers and support needed. As we talked and learned more about each other, I knew then that this church would also become my church family.
Kathy recovered enough to get around. Everyone who met her could tell she was too thin. A sharp- boned woman who might shatter on impact. But her sparkling blue eyes defied the death sentence. As a church we all guided her through securing a place for her family to live, and the pastor even conducted an official wedding ceremony for her and Chris the father of her children. They finally tied the knot with their children Stormy and Tyler beside them. They publicly professed their faith and were baptized. My wife and Kathy became close as sisters. It seemed as if nothing should go wrong.
When it came to Kathy, we prayed for her health and believed in miracles. She was hanging on to live for her children. She wanted to be there for them, to watch them grow. We spent time with her and the kids, and our kids were about the same age. They loved coming over to our place. We were a natural fit to be together. There was no doubt, God's providence was at work in those days. Sometimes his providence can be like a rip current, if you fight it and swim against it, you might drown. Let it take you along to another shore.
It wasn't many weeks into summer when the subject of who would raise her children came up. Kathy would breach the subject with my wife and confide in her. One particular day, across from the kitchen table, she confessed to my wife. "Mary," She said, "I reckon you know the Pastor and his wife want to adopt our kids. There even pushing papers on Chris and myself to sign."
Mary must have looked stunned when she spoke. "It seems they are getting ahead of the curve here."
Kathy chimed in. "I just don't know if it's a good fit, I mean you and Tom are much younger, and your kids are around the same age."
"I'm going to talk to Tom. I know they've done plenty for you. But don't feel obligated. You don't owe them your kids because of it."
When I got word of it, I wasn't surprised. Pastor Bradford had been doing more than dropping hints. If I were to agree with Kathy and my wife there would be a tug of war over those kids. We had just got comfortable with our new church family, and I wasn't into sparring with the pastor. I asked my wife to be low-key and assured Kathy and Chris that things would work out if we all prayed and stayed close.
What I knew about Chris the father made everything unpredictable. We suspected he was still using drugs. And I knew he wasn't about to hand over his kids to anyone unless he had both feet in the grave.
Before summer ended, our pastor made an announcement. He and his family were leaving the church for greener pastures. I wasn't aware that there had been deep divisions and concerns in the church. Afterall we were new on the scene. The pastor insisted that Chris, Kathy, and the kids follow them to their new church calling. It was a big fat no.
As it all unfolded, Chris and Kathy opted to head back home to Oklahoma. Before the summer was over everything had changed. The Pastor abandoned the church. The sick family left for their original home. I suspected it was where Kathy wanted to spend her last days. It wasn't that I didn't believe in miracles. I had been a witness to plenty of them in my own life.
As the remaining days of the year unfolded in 1992, we voted in a new pastor. My wife built a friendship over the phone with the grandmother of the Glover children, knowing if both Chris and Kathy passed away she might help us take custody of those kids. It was a simple and powerful promise my wife made to a dying mother.
Then the day came when Mary got the dreaded call. Kathy had passed away at a hospital in Oklahoma. My wife was told that as Kathy lay in the hospital bed dying, she blamed Chris for everything: the drugs, the sickness, everything. As it was told to wife and relayed back to me, she cried out, My babies! My babies! You killed me and took my babies!" Then she died.
Chris, the young widower had his kids and there was no telling where they would go next. We held hope that one day we would see them again. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, then another year gone.
But one day, there was a knock on the door.
Kathy Glover, an AIDS patient and mother
Chris her husband
Stormy the daughter
Tyler the son.
Pastor Bradford, the fifty-something minister who insisted on having custody of the children.
Tom and Mary, married and to whom the story is about
They were the best of times and the worst of times. In a few short months our pastor went East. Kathy and Chris went back home to Oklahoma, where Kathy died in the hospital. We had no idea what Chris would do with his two children. We did our best to keep the lines of communication open with his mother in case Chris got sick and the children needed us.
It was time for us as a family to count our blessings. We voted in a new pastor and turned a corner on winter. But then our contract with Service Master was lost. The company asked if I would move to Ohio. We were at a crossroads but convinced that we should stay in upstate, NY. We decided if God was in it we'd start our own cleaning business. Why not? With a few hundred dollars and a few prayers, we jumped into the business.
On the first day, I loaded up the carpet extractor and drove out to find some work. I had no idea where to start, so I kept it in my comfort zone and drove down the road by our church. I stopped over into the parking lot and caught the new pastor heading out. I told him that I was looking for carpet cleaning work. He seemed in a hurry and politely shrugged me off.
Once again my best and most powerful prayers seemed to be in my car. Fear had a vice-grip on my heart, as I started toward the main road. Then tears swelled and blinded my driving. I pulled over on a gravel section near the church. I banged on the wheel and cried out to God! I feared failure as if it were a disease. My family was counting on me, and my kids needed to see God's hand in this. As cars zipped by, folks might have thought I was having a seizure or a mental breakdown.
Between sobs, I asked God, "Please, God, if this is to be our ministry, if this is to be a living too, show me your greatness, show me your love and mercy. You promised you would not leave your children to beg for bread." I'm not sure I remember all the words. I just know I wiped the tears that stung my eyes, and as I entered the main road, I added, "Please lead me to the right place at just the right moment and time."
A few minutes down the road, I drove, not sure what would jump out at me. Then I saw a sign for a small motel not far from the highway. I drove into the front area near the lobby and office. I charged inside with my chest held high and chin up. No one was at the front desk. That's when I saw it, calling me. It was a shiny silver bell on the counter, between me and destiny. I rang that bell as if my life depended on it. I popped that bell; half expecting an angel would earn his wings.
Out from an empty space in the back appeared two copper-skinned men of Indian descent. One of them asked with an accent "How may I help you?"
I blurted out, "I clean carpets for a living and wondered if you would like a price on the rooms?
Their jaws gaped open. They paused and looked at each other with saucer eyes. "This is unbelievable! We were just in the back room with our fingers in the yellow pages, trying to find a carpet cleaner."
A chill ran through me. Out of all the many God moments in my life, I had never had a more specific and spectacular pray answered.
That day was the official start of our carpet cleaning business. From that day and over thirty-years later, I never looked back, unless I wanted to remind myself that God proved he was in it.
As our cleaning business took off, we also became more involved in church with the new pastor, then the knock on the door brought us new challenges.
It was Chris! Stormy and Tyler were with him. He spent hours at our dinner table explaining his misadventures, and how he desired to leave the children with us for a while. He was making plans to go to Florida.
At the time, we only had a three-bedroom apartment. But we weren't about to say no. We could tell Chris looked weak, and he was suffering from his fight with AIDS. We threaded a fine line between faith and fear. We expressed to Chris that he had to be careful around our kids. We trusted him when he said his children were negative. He gave us the very impression that he wanted us to adopt his kids one day.
Chris stayed with us for a short time. His kids settled into a new life. Meanwhile, I expressed to our pastor one day how we intended to adopt the children. He hadn't wanted to talk about that just yet. He had another concern on his mind.
Pastor Abend asked, "Tom, you would understand our concern as a church that the two children should be cleared, tested here? I have to tell you, others in the church have expressed concern over it."
A rage swelled inside me. I did my best to try and let the steam out in spurts. "So, let me get this straight. Your chief concern is whether the kids have AIDS and might interact with someone?"
Pastor put a hand up. "NO, that's not what I'm saying at all. It's just that we have to be safe. You can certainly understand how others would feel?"
"Okay, I get it," I said. "You prefer healthy families, not sick ones."
He looked as if my words punched him in the gut. "Wow, Tom, I can't believe you said that." He sat down. "I guess you really gave me something to think about, concerning my own heart."
"And by the way, didn't you say that the church convention was going to be held in San Fransisco where you risk having your bed made by someone with AIDS and your food served by the same? There won't be any strict testing of those individuals."
"I'd have to admit, you made a valid point there."
Walking away from the pastor left us more distant and at odds. To his credit, I need to say a few months later, he baptized my son and Stormy, the girl whose father had AIDS. I secretly applauded his courage to hold her before the church and dunk her. As I write this chapter, he has served our church now for over thirty-years!
Chris left for Florida. We were not even sure if he would pass away on the road, or if we would see him again. The one thing we had were his two kids. My wife enrolled them in school as a guardian, and we did our best to make them feel they were part of our family. And maybe for good...maybe.
To be continued...
Big thanks to Cleo 85 whose picture I've used more than once.
Tom is the husband and father whose story it is about.
Chris is the person dying from AIDS whose kids Stormy and Tyler, he takes across country after the AIDS death of his wife.
Pastor Abend is the new pastor who came on when the other one abruptly left.
***Over the years our pastor has proven himself a servant of Christ and the church. Early on we had our moments, but today the church thrives and all are welcomed.
***When we enrolled the Stormy and Tyler in school the school started to work with us and tried to help us secure custody of Chris's kids. Next chapter.
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