Hope with Me
“Get down there, boy…”
Even at four years old, I heard the threat in my dad’s slurred words. He stumbled away, leaving a trail of sour breath in the air, but I knew he’d be back…most likely. If I was lucky, he’d finish the beer in his hand, his sixth since coming home from work the hour before. He’d fall asleep in his recliner and forget why he was so angry in the first place, if he even knew. Sometimes, I think he just needed someone to hurt.
But there was rarely that much luck in our house.
“Go!” said Pat. “He’ll be worse if you don’t.”
I knew that. Not as well as my brother did. He was three years older, three more years of going down into the basement so the neighbors couldn’t hear the cries. They wouldn’t have said anything, anyway. In Missouri during the 60s, if you had a father around at all, he was probably a drunk. The neighbors were dealing with the same pressures we were—hard, damaging labor for work, low wages, and everyone knew the Russians were going to blow us all up soon, anyway, so why try for better? That’s the world I was born into, June of 1960, in the small town of Troy, Missouri.
I turned and looked down the stairs. It was dim; it was always dim down there. I don’t know what scared me more, the shadows that turned every corner of the basement into a hellscape or the man who would meet me there. I swallowed and wiped my eyes, then took long trembling steps down into the dark. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon. I know that, not because I saw a clock on the wall, I couldn’t have read one then, anyway. I hadn’t even started school. I knew it was five because that was about the time this always happened. My dad would get home from work at four, and he would either be mad at who knows what, or he wouldn’t be. We never knew why. He would go to the fridge and grab a beer and start his nightly ritual. My brother and I would do our best stay out of his way and hope he didn’t call us. But we knew we had to stay in range. It would only be worse if we didn’t.
Over the next hour, he would either drink himself into a stupor, or he wouldn’t. That hour decided our night. At five o’clock, we would either still be in our room trying to be quiet or outside trying to play. Or…we would be in the basement trying not to scream. Screaming was weakness, and weakness in his children was one thing my father couldn’t tolerate.
Looking back now with all the years behind me, this is my first memory of being whipped, and it’s the one that stands out the most vivid in my mind. I know this wasn’t the first time I’d visited that basement with my father, not by a long shot. I’m sure as soon as I was able to walk, he had me toddling down those steps. But it’s the first time what happened down there really stuck with me. Before that, the memories and feelings are just blurred colors and emotions—fear, pain, red, orange, darkness…others. But this time…this time, I remember everything.
A half-window on the rough brick wall of the basement washed the dusty space in just enough light to make every shadow more terrifying than if there was no light at all, just enough light that as I trudged to the center of the room to await my doom, something glimmered from one corner of the room—a box of some kind, but something was odd about it. I heard my father’s footsteps above me and saw the dust filter down from the exposed plank wood floor above. That was good news. The bathroom was that way, and the kitchen. Maybe he had finished his sixth and was making room for a seventh.
I turned back to the glimmer in the corner. My eyes adjusting, I saw that it was a glass box with a wooden base and something inside. Even fear couldn’t hold back my child’s curiosity. I approached one careful step after another.
My eyes shot wide and everything around me disappeared. I sat down beside this treasure, excited, distracted from the reason I was down there in the first place. There were toy cars, painted and made of metal with wheels that looked like they must have been real rubber—a far cry from the few, cheap plastic toys my brother and I had. The box was heavy. I turned it in every direction, looking for a way in, but there was no lid.
What kind of box has no lid?
I didn’t understand—toys existed to be played with, but these could only be looked at. I heaved my little body against the box, hoping its bottom would reveal some strange access, but it was too heavy. I could only lift it a few inches from the floor before the smooth glass frame slipped from my grip, and the box’s heavy base fell back into its resting place with a great clatter. Metal clanged against glass, and the concrete floor of the basement sent loud echoes back up the stairs, screaming what I had done. I froze, each breath punctuated by my rapid heartbeat. Then it came—first, the footsteps fast across the floor above, then the call.
“Boy! What’r you into?”
“Run!” I heard in a forced whisper from the top of the steps and saw my brothers head disappear from the opening.
My father came tumbling down the steps soon after and stopped at the bottom. I saw his eyes suddenly sober and then change to a rage. “Get away from that, you… Go!”
I ran for the stairs, hoping I had somehow dodged tonight’s punishment, but he grabbed me by the arm and glared down at me with a scorn I’ve never seen him equal since. He ripped his belt from his worn workpants and striped me with it. I don’t know how many times he hit me, only that I had to sleep on my stomach that night. The next morning, no words were said over breakfast, and when he left for work, I went back down to the basement to find that the box was gone. I never saw it again, and he never spoke of it.
Many years later, I learned that the toys had belonged to another boy, a boy that I had never met and never would. That’s how I learned my father had been married before my mother and that I had a half-brother. He never spoke of him.
I don’t tell you that story hoping you’ll hate my father. I did enough of that throughout my life for both of us. I love my father. I can say that now. The truth is, I always did. Even if I thought I didn’t, even if I had told him as much, even if I wanted not to, I loved him. I don’t want to paint him as the villain of this story. He’s not. That much I know for certain. If there has been any villain in my life, that villain is me. But I don’t think that’s quite true either. Sometimes, I think we seek villains because when so much bad happens, we need someone to blame. But blame never really takes away the pain of life. I know. I’ve tried.
I also don’t tell you about my childhood to make excuses for the decisions of my adolescence or for the greater part of my adulthood for that matter. This is a tricky point, and you may not believe me. That’s okay. You’ll believe whatever you believe as you read these pages, and there isn’t anything I can do or say to change that. I’ll revisit belief later, but for now, just know, I’ve had a lot of experience with excuses, both from me and from others. I know what they sound like and what they taste like. Excuses are a lot like villains. We use them to make one person feel better—mostly ourselves—at the expense of another. But moving hurt from one place to another never got rid of it. There are no excuses in this story, only reasons and experiences and the lessons learned from them. Funny things, reasons and excuses. They often sound so much alike that they can’t be told apart. If I had tried to write this book even five years earlier, it would have been riddled with excuses, but my intent has changed. And that’s the only real difference—intent. Excuses seek to gain a verdict of “innocent” from others for a thing done wrong. But you see, I know that I am not innocent. I’ve hurt people. I’ve hurt myself. I seek no verdict of “innocence.” As such, I only give reasons—to explain, not to excuse.
But now as I write this, after six decades of decisions and the consequences that come with them, I also seek to share something more than stories and the reasons for them. I want to share hope—hope that no matter how dark the story or your past, that your future can be written more brightly. I have that hope. I have lived a life, but I still have a life to live.
Let Me Feel
Fear wasn’t allowed in our home. Not that there was a list of rules on the wall that said as much or that my dad told us, “you’re not allowed to be afraid.” Of course, that never happened. He never said more than a few words about anything, much less emotions. And we only learned the rules when we were punished for breaking them. But he made sure we knew, fear was what weak people felt, and weak people were the worst kind of people. A look of disgust at me or my brother for a moment of hesitation, a sharp rebuke if I quit something because it hurt, a tirade at someone on the television or the radio because they were “soft,” he had a hundred and one ways to let us know. And we knew.
He took us for a “drive” one day. He had gotten a new old truck with an engine to match his bravado. My dad never did anything with us boys unless it was to “teach” or “toughen” us, so I dreaded the drive from the moment he mentioned it.
“Get in the truck, boy. Don’t make me wait.”
He stared down at me while I stood trembling next to the open truck door. There was that look, disgust that he had sired this weak disappointment of a son. I don’t remember climbing in, or leaving the driveway, or even coming to the long stretch of straight road, a mile or so from our house. I only remember flying down that long hill and seeing the needle on the speedometer pass the “100” mark. I remember it feeling like the wheels on the truck were not even touching the asphalt and that any subtle change in steering would send us out of control to our deaths.
I must have started crying or screaming or something because he slowed down. That might have scared me more than the speed. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. I could feel the anger and disappointment radiating off him. It was only a few miles back to the house, but I thought it would never end. He didn’t even look at me when we got home, didn’t say a word. I overheard what he said to my mom as we walked through the door. “You were right.” It was one of the few times I can remember them agreeing on anything. I was a disappointment, and they both knew it.
That was also one of the few memories of my mom from that time. Most everything else are just blurry images of her coming or leaving. She might have been a ghost, from what I can remember, as early as I can think back until I started school. One of my only other memories of her from that time was when Kennedy was shot. I was only three when the news spread across the country. I remember standing in front of the T.V., and even at that young age, knowing that something terrible had happened. I could see it on the reporter’s faces and in the hysterical crowds of people as the camera panned the scenes of mourning and shock around the country. But what sticks out in my mind more than anything was the complete lack of emotion from my mom. She just sat there on the couch, staring at the screen, as though nothing was on it, no different than if we had been watching The $100,000 Pyramid. Even when my mother was there, she really wasn’t.
In conversations with her as I got older, she told me that she was just working all the time back then, but I don’t remember that. I just remember her being gone, or at least, not present. When I started school at five, her shifts changed at the local garment factory, and she was home with us more. That didn’t really change anything; it might have been worse. She was there, and I could see her, but she was so empty and cold. She and my father only seemed to ever speak with each other when they were fighting, and they only ever spoke to us boys when we were in trouble. He was a ball of rage, and she was a block of ice. Between the two, I learned that the only emotions worth showing anyone were the worst kind.
I used to do things for my mom, hoping to get her approval or at least her attention. I would clean the house without being asked. I would make her things out of random bits and pieces of nothing I found in drawers or elsewhere. I would draw her pictures or bring her flowers from the yard. But she never saw them, never saw any of it, not the way I wanted her to. She would say “thank you,” but even at that age, I could hear that she didn’t mean it. Her tone and every inflection in her face spoke another message—she didn’t care. Then, she would do what she always did; she would find some fault. There was still dust on the windowsills. The flowers were wilted. The heart I had drawn wasn’t symmetrical. It was almost like a reflex, like she couldn’t just accept something as it was. It had to be broken in some way. Maybe that’s the only way she could relate to the world. Maybe that’s the way she viewed herself–broken. As a young child, I felt like a I was one of the things I brought her—flawed, overlooked, unseen.
Anytime I spoke to my mother, it would take two or three times before she would even recognize that I was speaking to her. I have this lasting image of her staring out the window, blank and distant. When she finally turned my way, she wouldn’t answer whatever question or respond to whatever comment I had made. She would just shew me off. I felt like my mother never saw me, except to find fault. I remember running away one time at the state fair. They found me and scolded me and beat me, and it was the best I had felt in a long while—at least I was valuable enough for them to look for me. I had been sure they would have left me. There were never any kisses or hugs, no “I love you’s.” Nor did this exist at any of our family gatherings. I never saw my parents express empathy or compassion with anyone. It was clear to me, my mother didn’t love me, and my father outright hated me.
I wish I could say I was able to turn to my teachers for the love and attention I never got from my parents, but they were no less human, dealing with their own sets of pressures and difficulties. They provided a few challenges for me, as well as for all us kids back then. I think my first real memory of school was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The teachers guided us through the classic “duck and cover” drills, in case of a nuclear attack, the ones that every generation now makes fun of…rightly so. They didn’t instill much confidence. All we knew as kids was that any day “the bomb” was going to drop. They even showed us a film of this ominous man sitting at a desk with big, thick glasses (he was a communist, of course) reading a paper saying that the Russians were going to take over the United States without ever firing a shot… We were first graders! Another film they showed us in the first grade taught us that if you smoke even one joint of weed, you will end up a heroin addict and a crazed maniac. And now, weed is legal in many states. So, what I learned from first grade was, Russians and weed smokers are monsters; they were barely human, if they were at all, and we should hate them; and, one or the other was going to kill me. You can imagine how difficult it would have been to care about school when the world would soon be in a nuclear holocaust survived only by the Russians and villainous weed smokers.
It’s amazing how programmable a young mind is. We believe in our parents, our government, our teachers, and a slew of other authorities. We think they’re supposed to know the answers. But they don’t. They just pass on a new version of the same filtered information they were given when they were young—the same limiting beliefs, fears, and prejudices.
Since my childhood, I’ve been to the Ukraine, and I’ve met many Russians. Lo and behold, they are people just like me. Incredible! I’ve also smoked a considerable amount of weed and can safely say, I am both human and not a monster. At least, I like to think that.
As I sit here now, so many years later, I have the benefit of having known my parents as adults and being one, myself. They changed considerably as I grew, and so did I. I eventually came to truly appreciate them and understand why they were the way they were. I know now that they loved me and showed it in the best way they knew how, but like me, they were working with the programming their parents gave them as children.
My mother’s dad died of alcoholism when he was forty-two, and besides giving them life, that might have been the best thing he ever did for his children.
My father was raised in an orphanage, then raised by his uncle. His father had left him and his four siblings when their mother died, shortly after his birth. I never got to meet my paternal grandfather and only ever heard little about him. He was a drunk and only contacted my father when he was in jail or needed something. When he died, the state of Illinois contacted my father to pay for his funeral. I was there when the call came. “Let him rot in a field somewhere,” my dad said. “He never did anything for me. Why should I do this for him, now?”
The truth is, my parents loved me much better than their parents had loved them. That was a hard truth for me to believe—some of the most important ones are. But once I had accepted it, many of my childhood memories began to take on a different color. I felt more acceptance, more love. It seems to me now that in the deepest parts of us, the places where our oldest wounds are, that’s what we’re really seeking—love and acceptance, the love and acceptance that we believe we never had. We seek it in the strangest places: money, sex, power, control, everywhere outside of ourselves. But that isn’t where love is. Love lives within. It’s one of those strange things that you can’t really receive until you already have it. And when you have it, you will always receive it. People are often like mirrors in that way; they only show you what you show them first. But I didn’t know that back then. That came later…much later.
As a child, I had to find love and acceptance wherever I could find it. Between the ages of five and ten, I would adopt things, lots of things: snakes, birds, lizards, even bugs. I was attracted to things that were hurt, things that I could help heal. I would take them in and feed and water them until they were better. I had to hide most of this from my parents, of course. My dad would have seen it as weakness, and my mom would have just seen it as clutter, so I kept them all in my room under my bed. Back then, I felt closer to a pet beetle than I ever did to my parents. I would talk to them while I fed them or splinted their broken arm or wing. I spoke to them just like I would anybody else…no, not just anybody…like friends. I had a way with them, too. They liked me. They would crawl or hop up onto my hand when I reached down into the box or cage. I saw them as unique. I valued them for who they were, and in return, they gave me their trust.
But this led to the first real tragedy of my young life. As I would find out, the biggest pain comes when you’ve given the most from your heart.
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