Up, Down, Fast, Slow, Inverted, and All Over the Place

“However, I hope that in after days the experience of men and things, if painful, will prove useful. It did to me.”
~ J.R.R Tolkien ~

I can watch the shadow of tree branches sway in the breeze on grass for longer than I care to admit.  It is a slow undulation reminiscent of waves and the stomach of sleeping dogs.  A comforting sound of crashing, rustling, and whispering reminds me there is motion and life in this world.  Visible evidence that the world is spinning and time is passing, yet I feel firmly planted, unswaying in the rhythm of life.  I cannot tell if I am standing under the excruciating sunlight of a windless desert or in the darkness of a long, Alaskan winter night.  Life is confusing, but especially at times like these.

Unlike the sprawling, bright green-leafed box-elder in the front yard, the cherry tree in my backyard never looked quite picturesque.  The soft-colored bark led not to leaves of whispered pinks, but to a drooping, dull green.  Bright, luscious cherries did not hang delicately from slender stems; instead, the fruit fell haplessly to the ground if it was not devoured by ravens where it hung.  Yet I loved this cherry tree.  Upon moving to Tennessee as a high school senior; every year at summer’s dawn I would spend an hour or two pruning it.  When I returned from a semester abroad in Italy my junior year of college, I noticed dead branches extending out from the trunk.  One Sunday morning, I removed the clippers from their spot on the wall in the garage and walked to the base of the tree, dead cherries under my toes.

I slowly and methodically trimmed higher into the tree.  As the dead branches fell, the tree drooped less against the cloudy sky.  The pile of dead sticks and sick leaves grew as I removed what was slowly killing the tree.  Thinking I was finishing, I leaned against the lowest remaining branch.  It gave way beneath my hand, snapping cleanly from the main trunk.  Water flowed from the wound, revealing a large section of wood; I could not help but think of Christ when it splashed out, but His bones were not rotten.  The branch appeared healthy, but the decaying interior was worrisome.  I examined the tree as the sun broke through the clouds and for the first time that morning the tree looked vigorous.  Where it had drooped in the pallor of an overcast day, it now appeared to be standing tall in the sun.

I know what it is like to stand tall in the sun with my previous burdens littered at my feet, even if I forget this feeling more often than I remember.  The inside of my bones were rotten as if I were this cherry tree in God’s backyard.  I felt His gardener’s hands – firm and gentle – prune the dead weight from my branches.  I felt the throbbing pain of decayed branches being wrenched from my trunk.

March 2016 Instagram (9)

The seasons of life have shifted and His shears have been continuously at work.  It was as if God, as Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, wanted me to realize that “there is more about you than meets the eye.”  The transformation of Frodo from a lover of the down-home comforts of the Shire to a resilient adventurer collapsed on the slopes of Mt. Doom exacted a heavy toll.  He experienced being hunted, stabbed, hungry, lost, alone in darkness, hopeless, and helpless.  A life-altering quest removed him from the comforts of tradition and ritual and changed his core identity.  I may, regrettably, not live in Middle-Earth, I may not be a minority, I may not be a literary hero in a beloved epic, and I certainly do not have hairy feet, but I am a lot like Frodo Baggins of the Shire.

I may not have had the simplicity of Shire-life, but my childhood in the Tampa suburbs defined uncomplicated.  I was provided for and every need and most wants were met.  I was loved; I was happy.  In my favorite fantasy novels, the most life-changing adventures start in a serene home.  Frodo was preparing for a birthday party, Rand al’Thor was delivering crops with his father, Harry Potter was asleep in his crib.  I was playing football in my neighbor’s front yard when my dad called me home.  My six-year-old stride took me from their sunny, sandy yard to our lush grass under three monstrous oak trees.  I walked in from the beautiful central Florida spring day and saw my parents on our green, blue, and red plaid couch.  My mother’s eyes were puffy and red and my father’s jaw was tense; I sat down between them.  Frodo inherited a magic ring with a secret history, Rand’s village was savagely attacked, Harry’s parents were killed.  I heard my mother explain that they were separating.  She held me as I cried as if my soul were trying to escape my eyes.  My toys lay forgotten in my bedroom much like Harry’s by his crib, the dryer rumbled behind the kitchen like Rand’s horse’s hooves as they ran into the countryside, and the wall unit hummed behind the couch like Frodo’s neighbors after his uncle disappeared.  Not all adventures begin with a tragedy – Frodo was lucky in that regard – but, in my experience, most do.

I was not home the day my father moved out.  I was with my mother, a cheerleading coach at the time, and her squad doing a fundraising carwash for cheer camp.  By complete coincidence, it was held at the gas station closest to my father’s new apartment.  The squad, many of whom were my babysitters, tried to distract me by spraying water at me or starting a suds fight.  I searched all day to see if he would stop by and get his car washed.  The lights cycled hundreds of times and thousands of cars passed, but I never saw his grey hatchback filled with moving boxes pass by.

Six months later, on Christmas Eve, Dad and I went to Busch Gardens, the big amusement park in Tampa.  Three days prior I had turned seven and received a pair of shoes that made me tall enough to ride the big rollercoasters, the ones that stand silhouetted against the clear blue sky.  I strained my neck as the ride attendant measured my height – an exact fifty-two inches – as dad told her it was going to be my first time.  She sat us in the very front row with a smile as we were the only ones on the ride.  The cart hung suspended from the track and my knees were locked straight out as I watched my new shoes soar over the pit of crocodiles and through seven inversions.  She saw the smile on my face as we came back to the station and sent the cart through without stopping the cart.  I do not remember a thing about that first splintered Christmas that year, but I will not forget the clinking chains, the roaring wheels, laughter, and screams.

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Two months after that day on the rollercoasters, Mom and I drove to a farm south of the city to pick up my new Rottweiler puppy.  Orange orchards, tomato rows, and strawberry fields extended in all directions under the golden sunlight of mid-afternoon.  We had decided on a Rottweiler because our former neighbor had one, Asta, when I was a toddler.  I would spend the afternoons lying on Asta’s stomach beneath the oak trees or walking up and down the driveway chatting with her.  I was the only kid in the neighborhood Asta liked.  They had moved roughly the same time as the separation and I really missed her.  I thought of Asta as my dog, though as I got older I realized she never was.  I cannot kill the ownership that four year old me felt for her, she will always be mine.

“What are you going to name your new puppy?” Mom asked as we left the gas station where we had stopped to buy drinks and a snack.

I watched water bottles wobble in the cup holders as the car rumbled over the rough country road.  I looked around, not having considered this before in the excitement.  I read the label of the water bottle and said, “What about Naya?”  Two hours later, we drove home with my constant companion for the journey from first grade to the end of high school, Naya.

I sometimes joked that my parents decided to get me a puppy as a consolation gift for the separation.  Few relationships in life have affected me as much as the one I had with Naya.  I was too young to understand loyalty and betrayal as abstract concepts behind separation, but I fully understood the love of my dog.  She was a constant when everything else, Mom excluded, seemed to be in constant upheaval.  When I would get home from school after evenings at Dad’s, I would spend time talking with Naya on the porch about where I had been.

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I had always been an advanced reader in school, but in first grade I began reading to escape.  There were mysteries to be discovered alongside the Hardy Boys in their old jalopy.  Mom and I searched Blockbuster to find the animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a movie that followed many hours spent in the pages of Narnia.  I would read three or four books a week sometimes, especially when I was not in baseball season.  I never read to Naya, but more than once I pretended she could talk like the animals in Narnia.  She heard every problem in my life and sometimes I imagined that in her eyes I read her thoughts saying, “I understand.  I love you.”

Naya and my father were with me the first time I experienced the pain of death.  We had laughed on the drive as Naya, now a much larger puppy, attempted to sit on Dad’s CD case in the backseat of his truck but kept stumbling with every pressing of the brake.  We were on our way to introduce Naya to Asta and I could not have been more excited.  Her owner sighed heavily when we arrived, telling us that she had died two week prior.  I collapsed on the grass.  I shook with tears and Naya licked my cheek; I began to play with the corner of her ears.  When Dad drove back home I continued to cry as I remembered all the things about Asta I loved.  Dad remained silent, apparently not knowing what to say.

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In second and third grade, my parents attempted to reconcile multiple times.  I would get to bed and try to hear them over the humming wall unit.  Sadness weighed heavily on my heart every time I heard the front door lock followed by his engine starting in the driveway.  We took the only family vacation I remember to my mom’s sister’s house in Knoxville for Thanksgiving in 1998.  That season the Tennessee Volunteers were undefeated and as a surprise my family took me to my first home football game in Neyland Stadium versus Kentucky.  The crowd sang “Rocky Top” loudly and proudly as the Vols routed the Wildcats 59-21.  My mother had attended Tennessee, but my father was not a fan.  I remember his being happy that we were happy, though, and I thought that things were finally going to be okay.  Two weeks later, he told my mother that he would not be moving back in.  He wrote me a letter explaining how much he loved me, but there was so much left unsaid.

Most children in these circumstances absorb the blame and place it squarely on their little shoulders; I accepted this falsehood.  I began to focus on trying to fix everything I perceived to be wrong with me, convinced that those were the things keeping my family apart.  I worked harder in school, in the gym, and on the baseball field.  By the end of fourth grade I had completed my most successful year of life to date.  At my private school I had finished at the top of my class academically for the fifth straight year and I had finally gotten the blue presidential fitness patch, the highest honor of the program, instead of the red.  Dad never told me he was proud of me.

Most importantly in my mind, my baseball team had come in second place in the entire county with a 27-1 regular season, finishing 32-3 overall by losing in the final game of the double-elimination tournament.  My father never missed a baseball game that I can remember, even though he traveled for work almost every week.  I was an abysmal hitter that season.  The coach always told me as I went to bat to get two strikes and then to bunt and run.  I was the 8th batter, usually a position of honor because they have the opportunity to bring in up to three runs, but I never lived up to the position.  My only redeeming factor on offense was that I could bunt and outrun almost every single thrower in the league, usually allowing a runner to be brought in.

My first hit of the season came in the final regular season game.  It soared to the base of the fence, a triple in which the parents in the stands and my teammates forgot to cheer they were in such shock; getting a hit that season was that rare.  Two games later as we battled for a spot in the quarterfinals of the tournament, Dad yelled to me as I walked to the plate, “If you hit into the outfield, I’ll give you twenty dollars!”  As my bat cracked with the contact of the ball on the first pitch I yelled, “You owe me twenty dollars!  You owe me twenty dollars!” as I ran to the first, the ball safely dumped in the outfield.  That time the parents and my team exploded with cheers and my dad smiled from the stands; I had brought in the winning run.  He handed me the twenty with the proudest look I ever saw on his face, but he never told me he was proud of me.

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I had not been told what caused my parents’ separation, but I began piecing things together in fifth grade.  One vacation I found myself asking my mother’ sister pointed questions that eventually revealed the truth.  I had met the woman my father had an affair with many times; I had vague memories of going to the movie with the woman and her daughter and of seeing her at company family functions.  But my first clear memory of her was an evening we spent at the Florida State Fair with another one of dad’s coworkers and his wife.  She had promised to ride whatever ride I wanted and I was armed with the secret knowledge that this was the woman, the very woman who had ruined my perfect family.  I found the scariest looking ride on the entire causeway, one I would not even consider riding under any other circumstances, and proudly proclaimed that this would be the first ride of the evening.

Her face paled as they locked the two of us into our seats.  The seats lifted high and spun over a hundred feet in the air on spikes that rotated at the same time as the entire ride rotated.  I laughed through my own fear as I reveled in her terror through the ride; I still smile at the irony of her screams of “Jesus! Jesus! Shit! Shit!” as we rotated in and around the neon lights of the ride.  She did not ride another ride with me for the rest of the night and, for just a moment, I felt vindicated.

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As I grew, my father and I began to bond over two things: rock music and rollercoasters.  Dad listened to all the great hair bands (Scorpions), country-rock bands (Alabama), the classic legends (AC/DC), and the occasional curveball (Celine Dion).  My love of all types of music comes directly from my father.  We would drive in his white truck and sing everywhere we went: “Back in Black” on the way to Orlando for a day at the amusement parks, “Song of the South” as we passed over the bay bridges, “My Heart Will Go On” as we waited in the slow moving traffic of the air show, or “Rock You like a Hurricane” as we drove to the movies at Westshore Mall.  Our music tastes reflected the rollercoasters we loved: up, down, fast, slow, inverted, and all over the place.

Ever since the first day of rollercoaster riding in first grade, my family had purchased annual passes to Busch Gardens so that either parent could take me to the park.  But as I grew older, we expanded our rollercoaster palate by getting annual passes to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Sea World.  Every year in Florida, early in February, residents are offered great deals on annual passes; I always looked forward to February.  Dad and I would ride our old favorites at Busch Gardens one weekend, and then trek to Orlando to snag up annual passes for the price of one day at Universal.  As we would stand in line for a new ride, both of us would bounce and wait anxiously to see if this would become our new favorite.  Afterwards, we would compare experiences and rank them on our favorites list.

In September 2001, our love of rollercoasters culminated in our first father-son vacation.  We planned for months in advanced and eight days after 9/11, we flew first class cross-country to LAX in a plane similar to two of the hijacked planes with only one other person on the flight.  Dad had saved sky miles over his many years of traveling for work and so the flight and seat upgrades were completely free; it remains the only trip I have ever flown first class.  I remember being nervous on the flight, an entirely new feeling as I had always been a comfortable flier, but it was the least eventful, emptiest flight of my life; our stewardess was so bored she brewed me sweet tea on the plane.  We spent the next two days riding the rollercoasters at Disney’s California Adventure and Six Flags Magic Mountain.  When we were not talking about the rides, most of the days passed in silence, small talk, or listening to music as we drove around southern California.

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Naya had the same love of new adventures that I realize now burgeoned within me at a young age.  Where by the age of twelve, I had traveled to quite a few States and had been on a church trip to Israel.  I should’ve known that falling in love with the feeling of ancient cobblestones under my feet would create a wanderlust never satisfied.  But Naya, she liked to explore the neighborhood.  We’d return from the grocery store to discover her missing from the backyard.  We’d drive around the corner and find her playing with the dogs at the auto shop, or down the next street with another Rottweiler in the shade of a tree.  She’s returned reeking of dead fish.  We eventually chained her with a long chain to a cinderblock so she could explore the backyard to her content, but not escape.  Or so we thought, until one day we watched her drag a cinderblock down the road while eating lunch in the living room.  Even stepping it up to the trampoline didn’t help; she’d drag it across the yard to chase a squirrel in the middle of the night.

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The last day of sixth grade, my parents’ divorce finalized and Mom and I moved to a new house on the other side of town.  I spent hours exploring the world of Middle-Earth on the back porch, Naya by my side as faithful as Sam to Frodo; it was the only escape that worked to distract me from the new life that was beginning around me.  I would watch the movies as I did homework, continuously distracting myself.  This led to my reading other epic, multi-book fantasy series – Dragonlance, Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire – all in a desperate attempt to get away.  With our new house forty-five minutes away from his apartment, there were more long drives of singing or awkward silence with my father.

On one of these drives as we approached Mom’s and my house he asked my permission to start dating again.

“I don’t care, Dad,” I said softly, thinking of the woman.  He nodded, and two minutes later I was walking in the front door with my backpack.  He never brought it up again.

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Over the next two years our drives were dominated by the Evanescence album Fallen.  Dad and I knew every word and it rarely left the CD player in his truck.  There are few times I remember being livid with my father; one of them involved missing an Evanescence concert.  The band was coming to Tampa to perform a free show at a waterfront park thirty minutes from Dad’s apartment.  I had been spending every Sunday with him for years, so I knew that I would be with him on that day.  I bounced as I called him after I heard the radio announcement; we were going to see the band that had been the soundtrack to our drives for over a year – for free!  He shrugged off the information when I told him, but I held out hope.  I locked myself in the bathroom halfway through the afternoon and shook with rage as I stared in the mirror.  Dad had decided to spend the day working on his taxes, something he could do any day, and had left me to watch television instead of doing something that would have become a special father-son memory.

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During my freshman year of high school, we began to notice the effects of age on Naya: a slight limp in her walk, a small tumor growing on her eye.  She had always lived at Mom’s house, but Dad still treated her like his dog and he asked Mom and me to take her to the vet.  As I sat on the frigid tile floor of the vet’s office, I felt the cold through my thin workout shorts.  Naya’s head was leaning against my thigh and my head hung between my arms.  The vet had just told us that Naya had cancer and had six months to live.  We scheduled the removal of the tumor from her eye for the following week and returned home, Naya smiling, unknowing, in the rear view mirror.  I called Dad.  He asked to talk to Mom.  I handed the phone over and sat on the porch with Naya, crying and playing with the corner of her ears.

Conehead Naya (5)

My seventeenth birthday will forever be etched in my memory.  My girlfriend and I had broken up a few months earlier and most of my friends had quit talking to me after that, as Mom and I left the church we all attended around the same time.  My three best friends were all out of town for the Christmas holiday.  The only people at my birthday were my parents and two of dad’s coworkers and their wives.  The sushi was delicious and the gifts were lavish – a new digital camera; new rims, wheels, and tires for my car; and a new car stereo – but at the end of the supper I saw something I will never forget.  One of my dad’s coworkers handed him a Christmas card and next to my father’s name was the woman’s, the original woman from the very beginning.

Three days later, Dad and I went to Sea World to use our last annual pass day before Mom and I moved to Tennessee and to experiment with my new digital camera.  On the drive to Orlando we listened to the Top Forty hits of that week; I knew almost every word while he recognized very few.  It was not the first time I noticed that my father and I were growing farther apart in tastes.  The first time I realized that Dad and I had vastly different tastes in entertainment was in November 2002, when we drove down to Miami for the Homestead 400, a NASCAR race, with two of his co-workers and their sons.  It rained the entire drive across the Everglades and I looked in vain out the windows for alligators lazily floating in the pools.

The field outside the racetrack was muddy and crowded with trucks, beer cans, and rednecks; I felt like I had stepped into a stereotyped world.  Four hours later as the final car drove under the checkered flag I pulled myself off the cold bench and trudged through the field back to the truck.  Dad had bought me a white Dale Earnhardt hat that day and I have no idea where it is today.  I regret losing it because it is a memory of a father-son vacation – I still have the photos from the rollercoasters in California – and yet I have absolutely no use for it.

In the Sea World parking lot, the number one hit played as we parked in front of a giant statue of a dolphin.  When I was younger I wanted to be a marine biologist so I could train dolphins at Sea World, and every time I return to the park the inner five-year-old is captivated with every jump, flip, or simple swimming motion.  I tried to think of a way to ask Dad about the name on the card, but I remained silent unless it was to talk about the seal that barked at us, the penguins on the other side of the glass, or the sharks swimming above us.

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Six months later Mom and I moved to Tennessee.  It had been two years since Naya had been diagnosed with cancer, but she was the most stubborn creature God ever created.  She rode in the backseat of mom’s car with a green lei around her neck the entire drive from Tampa to Knoxville.  People say dogs are like their owners and she must have been a very interesting reflection of me, all smiles, love, and rebellion.

Naya and her Leai

Tennessee was supposed to offer a world of opportunities, friends, and happiness.  When November arrived as if it normally followed June, I drove to the park near my house.  I wandered along the shore of the lake until I came to a willow tree surrounded by springy grass.  Sitting under its drooping branches, I inhaled the late autumn breeze off the surface of the water.  Motor boats lazily passed by, their buzzing motors mixing with the music from my iPod.  I scratched lyrics into my notebook from the songs I listened to and thought about the past five months.

I had unpacked pictures of my first girlfriend and all the conflicting emotions of heartbreak and love flooded back in.  I had a cousin pass away in early September.  My mother’s company, the reason we had moved, folded within three months while our house in Florida was stagnant on the market (we lost it in foreclosure a year later).  My favorite uncle’s company had also collapsed in a mire of conspiracy and his trial was about to start.  Dad and I talked on the phone every other day, but I never felt like I was telling him good news.  He would tell me that he loved me and that he was planning to move to Tennessee to be near me soon.

I began to retreat into my shell.  I was a reserved person to start, but my world shrank to the four walls of my house.  I had one close friend in Tennessee, but the rest of the time I spent with Naya; she slept in my basement bedroom as her old Florida bones could not handle Tennessee’s cool autumn nights.  I would talk to her about my uncle’s trial because she was the only one listening.  It was not much different than when I would sit on the porch and tell her what I did at Dad’s apartment the evening throughout elementary school.  Naya and I celebrated my college acceptance letter; Mom and Dad celebrated the financial aid letter.  He never told me he was proud of me.

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My father moved back in on my eighteenth birthday.  Our bills were dangerously close to defaulting, so he moved into our guest room to help us pay them.  His job was regional, so the transition for him was easy as he only had to live close to an airport.  The real reason he moved was to be closer to me, but sometimes I honestly feel more thankful that he helped us not lose the two houses at once.  I’ve never told him thank you.  Our house in Florida had still not sold and the options were for him to move into that house or to move in with us.  It was not as bad as my seventeenth birthday, but it was a close second.  Unloading a U-haul is nothing like unwrapping a present.  We forgot to make dinner reservations at my favorite restaurant; I paced on the sidewalk as we waited.  It took three hours and the food was made bitter by my mood.  Every day we became poorer and so did I.

I began to snap at people.  Mom would hear a heavier song with a lot of screaming and antagonizingly ask what I was listening to and an argument would break out.  Naya would scratch at the door to go to the bathroom and I would complain as I rolled out of bed in the morning.  The look on my father’s face the first, and only, time I spoke back to him is forever ingrained in my memory.  It was a cold January morning and I was getting ready to go to class: “I’m depressed enough as it is in Tennessee, I don’t need my own dad telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I’m smart and educated, Dad, so just shut up.”

All three of us had cups of coffee forgotten in our hands.  I did not speak to him for three days; Mom told me that he said he was so shocked he did not know what to say to me.

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The second semester of my senior year inched along.  It was my first real winter and I wore layers of clothing at all times, always sat in front of the space heater or fire place, or shivered nonstop in the car.  Naya began deteriorating with age and the cancer became visible on her left foreleg.  I would sit next to her on the floor in front of the space heater and sing whatever song I was listening to at the time.  A glacial winter gave way to a frigid spring without much life.  Mom started planting and tending to a garden in the backyard while Dad continued working long hours and travelling for work, often back to Tampa where he had been based for two decades.

April brought the cruelest moment of all time: a call to the veterinarian because Naya was too weak to stand up, let alone climb into the car.  The veterinarian said she would come to our house the following afternoon.  I sat in the garage on a striped towel spending my final time with Naya.  The best friend who only ever loved me and had been there since first grade was in so much pain she could not stand.  I cleaned up the urine and kissed her on the top of the head.  The next day I remembered Naya lying beneath the cherry tree, black coat poignant against the white snow, as I felt the weight of her head in my lap.

I sang to her one last time through the stammer – heavy breathing, trembling jaw – of an approaching collapse.  I played with the corners of her ears.  I do this with every dog; it has not felt the same since.  I held myself together through the injection, through carrying her to the back of the vet’s truck for cremation, and through cleaning her section of the garage.  Dad was away on a business trip and I could not bring myself to call him and let him know.  I texted him and got in the shower and I am not sure what fell faster: the water from the shower head, the tears from my eyes, or my body when my knees buckled.  When I dried off I saw that he never replied.

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That August I moved into my dorm and both of my parents were happy as we carried my stuff into the room.  The first time I brought friends home, I contemplated how to explain my parents’ living situation as we drove the hour back to my house.  Everyone knew I was from a divorced home and that Mom and I struggled financially, but it still made no sense how well my parents got along, especially without me in the house.  But until the end of my sophomore year, they coexisted well and they both came to love my friends as much as I did.

In February, I had gone to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with two of my friends and we were driving back to campus when Dad called me.  He explained to me that he had bought a house and was moving out since Mom had recently gotten a new job and could sustain the bills on her own again.  He had been flying back to Tampa for work more regularly that semester and I did not realize why until much later.  I thought this made sense; I found out later that he had not told Mom that he was looking for a place to live.  Over Easter Break I helped him move some of his heavier furniture into his house, and it’s been over three years since I stepped through that door.  I don’t even know how to get there, just the general direction.

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My junior year of college I spent the fall semester getting ready for a semester abroad in Italy, a long-term dream for which I saved money for three years to afford.  I was busy with six English courses and did not talk with either of my parents often.  The semester was a whirlwind and the first time I got to breathe was at Thanksgiving.  Dad was not joining us that year, which surprised me as his sister was staying with us.  A card came in the mail the day before Thanksgiving and I sank to the floor of the kitchen when Mom pointed to the address.  A Christmas card had come to our address from a coworker who did not know Dad had moved and it was addressed to him and the woman.  She had moved to Tennessee and he had not said a thing.

For the second time, I was livid with my father.  I instantly questioned everything he had ever done.  My father was a man of secrets, we all have secrets, but this one had spanned almost my entire life.  I at once pitied and hated the woman; pitied because who wants to be a secret in someone’s life for almost two decades and hated because she could not just leave my family alone.  I wanted to hate my dad but I could not; I grew to be indifferent and cold.  Mom always says the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, because with hate at least you feel something.

I fantasized of the letters I would send my father – the only way he ever communicated beyond the shallow level of music and theme parks – but never sat down to write one, perhaps that is what this is meant to be.  I daydreamed of the conversations we would have as he explained his side of the divorce – something he has never done – but I was always too afraid and indignant to initiate them.  I acted out the scenario in the shower where I sat him and down and said “It’s her or me.”  I returned to the plaid couch in front of the window and relived the pain of six year old me sobbing in the arms of my mother.  I do not remember the feeling of the couch or the cool air flowing out of the wall unit or what we were wearing.  I remember anger and hurt.

In the midst of all this angry pain I received a text from my father that caught me completely off guard.  He did not know how angry I was at him or that I knew the truth.  I was walking down the sidewalk to my dorm, huddled against the icy wind.  Completely unlooked for came a sentence I had resigned myself never to see or hear: I am proud of you, son.  Nothing had happened to deserve to hear him say it, but to read those words caused me to stop walking underneath the leafless trees.  My heart raced as I walked back to my room and sat down on my bed.  I continued to read over the text and I felt a warmth return to my cheeks.  I realized that I have never really known what to say either.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Two months later, I stood on the Venetian waterfront, the barrier islands hazy in the distance.  Northern Italy was dreary and cloudy the first day I visited what became my favorite city in the world.  The massive blocks of stone supported by stilts constructed a city that defied logic and redefined beauty.  I wandered the tight alleys and roamed the crowded streets.  I leaned over the handrail on every bridge and inhaled the scents of the sea as the water flowed lazily through the canals.  Every shop offered another souvenir, another gelato, another wine.  The city of my dreams was firmly in my reality, but on this day my focus had shifted across the Atlantic.  Instead of enjoying Saint Mark’s with my best friend, I thought of Naya and the walks by the water.  Instead of smiling at the lovers – fingers entwined, lips locked – on the bridges down the secret alleys, I thought of my father’s secret woman.  I was no longer vindictive to her existence, though I do not think I will ever be able to like her.  The warmth of wine while sitting in a cloudy piazza merely sharpened my thoughts and focused my pain.  My shoulders rubbed my best friend’s as the crowds thronged around us, staring up at the mosaics of Saint Mark’s.  Fifteen years had passed since my shoulders had rubbed my parents’ arms on the plaid couch; I was distanced but still touched.

I stepped between the two pillars that welcome sailors into San Marcos and the clouds dissipated.  All that had my attention was the quiet whisper of water lapping against stone and the voice promising that everything will be redeemed in the end.   I felt the sun on my face.   The dead branches were illuminated and the shears were raised to begin pruning.  For a moment, all was well and in this moment I was able to truly and finally begin the process of forgiving my father.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fall semester following the cherry tree trimming, I returned to college for my final year of undergraduate studies.  As a senior English major, I was required to write a thesis to capstone my time in the program.  I had decided during a course in Italy that my thesis was going to incorporate the ideology of eucatastrophe as created and defined by J.R.R. Tolkien, but I wasn’t prepared for the journey that the largest paper of my academic career would lead me on.

At the beginning of that semester, I understood the concepts of grace and forgiveness on paper and, like most Christians, claimed an experiential knowledge; however, I lived my life not knowing their full power or scope.  I continued living like works and deeds would compensate for failures because I possessed no true concept of receiving a gift without expectations.  I find it hard accepting something as marvelous and encompassing as grace when I do not think that I am worthy.

These musings on grace did not shape my thoughts as I began to study the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien in order to finalize my thesis topic, but through the study of his literature they were illuminated.  I read to gain an understanding of what drove his craft, attempting to comprehend his idea of eucatastrophe that I read about in “On Fairy-Stories.”  I read his articulate letters and scholarly essays and this picture developed in my mind of what a “sudden and miraculous” grace looked like.  However, once I immersed myself in the pages of The Lord of the Rings and experienced the epic with this new perspective, my worldview began to shift forever: I finally started understanding the reality of grace.

The journey to destroy the Ring changed Frodo throughout his entire hobbit being: his body was scarred, his mindset was altered, and he knew he could never return to the way he was.  As I read Tolkien’s narrative, I noted that each and every character, noble or evil, experienced this grace in either its redeeming or damning form.  The cheap paperback copies I purchased to underline and mark-up contain an entire stack of post-it notes, each denoting a moment of eucatastrophic grace in Frodo’s journey alone.  Inundated with the grace being displayed in this fictional epic, I began to recognize overwhelming grace on earth.  Tolkien desired for readers to connect his mythology to this world and wrote so that this would be possible.  If the truth of Christianity is represented in Tolkien’s world, and I claimed to be a Christian, that truth had to be evident in my life.  Once I made that connection, I knew I had to elucidate my journey to understanding grace.

Discovering the lack of requirements to be shown grace overwhelmed me one day as I sat in an armchair reading The Two Towers.  It was sudden and out of the blue, much like my father’s text almost a year earlier.  I should have realized that all the times I thought I had to earn my physical father’s pride and yet receiving it out of the blue should have been an indicator of how God viewed me as well.  I cannot count the times I have heard that a person gets their view of God from their relationship with their father.  I understood what it meant to be provided for and I knew I was loved, but I did not realize that I did not have to earn these things.  My father loved and provided for me because I was his son, not because I was a stellar student or an amazing athlete.  I cannot say that I never recognized this, because I always knew it, but I never lived as if it were physical examples of the great evident truth.  I wanted to earn everything from my father; I wanted a reflection of my worth from a mirror that reflected a just picture of me stripped of accomplishments.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It always comes back to my father.  I resisted telling the story of my relationship with my father through an entire twenty page draft, but the story – the truth – won.  The majority of what has been in this piece, the second paragraph to the Venetian waterfront, was directly copied over from the creative portion of my thesis that accompanied my research essay on eucatastrophe.

When I crafted my story, I wanted to create connections between the two narratives, Frodo’s and mine, to expand the understanding of grace, while at the same time allowing the images to carry an influential weight apart from Tolkien’s epic.  Grace in The Lord of the Rings was shown in wisdom from experienced counselors, in companionship, and in nature all culminating as a reward for striving until the will allowed one to go no further.

I made the decision to orient the essay around the fact God was in control even though I may not have always recognized it, connecting the narrative to Tolkien through the wise Gandalf.  The companionship was obviously my dog Naya, and her existence through my youth.  Nature played a dual role in that it connected to companionship through an animal and to the rewarding moment of my story in the existence of the sun.  One of my favorite passages in Return of the King is when Sam sees a star and his hope renews, and then the next day the sun shines in Mordor for the first time in over an age.  I wanted this emphasis on light to carry profound weight in my essay and I chose to end on this image of illumination on the Venetian waterfront.  I connected the image to the very moment I was willing to completely give up my relationship with my father and at that moment God stepped in.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The crazy thing about life is that when you finish your autobiographical story, turn it in, get a fantastic grade, and continue on towards graduation the story still continues.  I had forgiven my father, but I hadn’t told him.  Far from it, we continued on in shallow conversation, neither of us willing to breach the hidden secrets – him to tell me for the first time, me to let him know I’ve known all along.  So I was able to pretend that because I had written the story, I could forget about it all and move on.  Life has a healthy way of humbling you, and I like to think enough of God that He didn’t laugh at me.

A couple weeks before graduation I was watching a soccer game on my laptop in the library while working on some homework.  My phone started vibrating, so I checked to see who was calling.  Noticing Dad’s name, I walked to the patio and answered.  We talked about purchasing my flights back to Italy where I had recently been awarded an internship at the study abroad program I had been to previously.  For over an hour, he searched Delta’s website and other places, talking about it while I leaned against an arm chair, sneaking out to check the score of the soccer match every ten minutes.

We switched to talking about all the family members coming into town for my graduation and where they would be staying.  I still remember hearing him slip this into the conversation: “Well, remember how I told you my girlfriend lives with me?”  I still remember my incredibly blunt, “No,” and his, “Oh.”  I know he only told me because my grandparents were coming into town and staying at his house and they would’ve asked me about it.

I proceeded to wonder if this conversation meant that she would be showing up at my graduation.  I was only justified in my worry in that Mom flew directly to anger.  One of the biggest days of my life, much like my eighteenth birthday, was in danger of no longer being about me.  My heart was in my throat when I walked out of my dorm the morning of my graduation to meet my father until I saw she was not with him.  I look back on graduation as a day I’d rather not have to live again for multiple reasons not connected to this story, but at least the few bright moments were focused on me.

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The following summer was spent coming up with creative excuses to never go over to Dad’s house to hang out.  I found out about his dog, one he had almost had for almost a year before I learned of his existence, and only got to meet the big guy when Dad brought him over.  His name is Magnum, a name fitting a massive English mastiff, but his nickname is Boo-Boo, which is honestly one of the main reasons I can’t stand this woman I barely remember meeting oh so long ago.  You don’t do that a dog, you just don’t.

Once August rolled around, there was only a month left before I left for Italy for three months.  Dad began a concerted effort to try and spend more time with me, and somehow I redirected all these plans away from his house every time.  I just didn’t want to deal with it.  I affirmed myself that if he wanted to keep her hidden, I would just let her go on living in the cave of my fake ignorance.  I could tell he wanted to have a more important conversation all summer, but I kept it shallow.  I kept it short.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The irony of returning back to Italy is that it was very clear to me that God had one thing for me to do there: finish what I had started the first time I stepped through those pillars.  I began reading the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller about three weeks after the plane touched down, and one of the main plot lines of that book is Donald’s journey to meeting his father and telling him he forgave him.  I got the point loud and clear, and one Friday morning in early October I sat down at my desk.

I was crying before I finished typing “Dear Dad,” and the next hour was spent between crying and typing.  I apologized for a lot, but I also stated my side of things.  I paced for ten minutes in the middle of my room before running over and hitting send before my nerve collapsed.  I knew it was just after 4am for him, but all I did was refresh my email box for the next two hours.  I was sitting on a couch with my coworker and she could tell I needed to get away.  My eyes were puffy and breathing ragged.  Right before we left campus to run some errands, my email box pinged and it was from my dad.  I started crying one sentence into his response.  It was filled with more grace and honesty than I had ever seen from my dad.  He told me he and I need to get away for another father-son retreat so that he can explain some things.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Ten months later, the best way to describe everything is emotional radio silence.  I took that next step, and felt immensely better for it.  But nothing else has changed – we haven’t had much time together and our conversations have returned to their typical level.  She still lives with him, and he uses more plural pronouns than he used to, but I still avoid going over to his house as much as possible.  My desire to not go anywhere near her overwhelms the desire I have to spend time with my dad every single time, and it kind of scares me how unwilling I am to compromise on that fact.

I really just want to return to Europe because it is the easiest to ignore this part of my life there.  Dad has mentioned that he wants to see Germany and Spain, and Mom wants to see Italy and Greece, and I’d love to spend time with them there.  But over there, I can pretend to forget this so-called adventure by the feeling of old cobblestones under my feet.  The joke is on me, though, because I know I cannot outrun this story.  It is the one I’ve been chosen for, as much as I’d trade everything – every experience, every friend, every breath – for it to have happened differently.  Little did I know that what I thought was the Mount Doom of my story was just crossing the river into Rivendell.  I’m terrified.

~*~*~*~*~*~

I guess in the end, the cherry tree metaphor is the ultimate irony.  There is no such thing as the perfect metaphor, because life is too intricate for that.  Towards the end of the summer before my senior year of college, the tree was struck by lightning and completely died.  My uncle and Dad cut it down and we used the wood in our fireplace.  The stump still sits flush with the ground in the backyard, and I guess that’s the best way I can explain my mindset on life where I am today.  My roots are there, but all growth has been cut down to the core and fruit is nigh impossible.  But like I said, the story will only continue.  I’m just curious if I’ll ever get out of the ground and back into standing in the sun.

“Still, let us both take heart of hope and faith. The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it. There is a place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued.

We may laugh together yet.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~

Author’s Note: A large portion of this began as my senior thesis in the fall of 2011, and I updated and revisited it two years later in the summer of 2013. A lot of feelings expressed in this piece have since been overcome. My father and I have a mostly healthy relationship. He’s married to the woman I refer to in this now, and she and I get along quite well, too. That’s growing up. But more importantly, it’s forgiveness and grace. I read the anger I wrote with in this and get so sad. But it’s not the end of the story. It got quite better, and maybe I’ll write more about that one day.

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