Anyone who dislikes this approach should blame Roger. Better yet, read one of his books, each one finished. You can find the whole collection by clicking here.
You can also find all of my completed books, tucked neatly between covers or downloadable as ebooks, on my Amazon Author Page.
When Love Breaks
Standing among thousands of people when the Star Spangled Banner fills a stadium, holding back ridiculous tears, my love for this tangled, rough-edged country — or the one I thought it was — swells, as much form as feeling.
Death’s the worst way to get caught because denial can’t be fixed. No adjustments are possible when loss reaches deep inside and releases the locks.
Cancer finally overwhelmed my father. Our phone rang early one morning, before we were up.
“You’re probably not too surprised, but I’m calling to let you know Dad died a half-hour ago,” my brother said.
A swell of sorrow came on so strongly I couldn’t get out the words to tell my wife what she already guessed. I cried, stubbornly, for the first time in more years than I could remember.
I’d seen Dad a week before, flat on his back in the hospital. His mind clear, he asked me to bring my son around, “if things get serious,” as if a body poisoned from pancreas to brain stem wasn’t quite there yet.
He let me off the hook, putting aside what he lost with my arranging so little time. A rancorous relationship with my first wife had worsened, and he didn’t know how many unbuilt bridges I’d have had to tiptoe across, nor could he. Huge and complex once, the fragile spans seemed trivial in the moment.
Then, he was gone before I did much of anything about arranging another trip home, this time with his grandson in the passenger seat. As much as I was aware of regret, I was equally aware that much of it was inevitable after my decision to go it alone in the quiet storm of becoming who I was — a big statement, but we live in big times.
Out of the wreckage of our family after what is euphemistically called “the divorce,” we cultivated our own separate gardens, living under the same roof, a Balkanized family, each garden surviving but ready to drift free whenever any link in the fence holding us in broke. Links were severed, rearranged and repaired. Wounds were patched over without healing. In the end, we were such different people, so little family.
“Who’s your hero?” Todd, my boss to be asked, during my job interview. It was a personal question for him, intended to expose the depths of the person in the chair across from him.
Todd was tall and muscular with an athlete’s dominant physical presence, his emotions not far or well-hidden from the surface.
“My father,” I answered.
Todd was a family romantic but a realist too, and my answer was too easy without evidence.
“My Dad overcame greater obstacles than I’ll ever have to. When he was thirteen, growing up on his family’s farm, polio almost killed him. He could walk still, but with a severe limp for the rest of his life, but he never complained. He never even talked about it,” I added, not sure I really considered stoicism a virtue. “That was hard enough, but he also raised five of us by himself. He was the first and only single father I ever heard off, all of us under ten, but he hung in there. He was much tougher than we realized at the time. Most of that time, he had almost no social life, just us and his job. He never complained. When we were kids, we didn’t really appreciate how difficult that must’ve been, but in perspective now, what he did was amazing.”
That was the capsule version, ripe with meaning, so condensed it flirted with being untrue.
Todd leaned over his desk, his chair squeaking under his weightlifter body.
“How did everyone come out? All right?”
“Yeah, really, my brothers and my sister are all pretty remarkable people. They’re all successful, with kids, grandchildren now…”
Also, largely untrue. That he never asked how it came to be that my father raised five kids alone left the story seamless.
What you find is that love breaks apart like a peculiar kind of crystal. Only enormous effort and incalculable brilliance, plus desire and commitment, can juggle it back to approximate form, but even then, it’s hollow. Because our ill-equipped family lacked much of any of the necessary qualities, our broken love collected oily dust and residue without resistance, sharp edges and rounded corners forever unchanged after the last big battle. We learned not to look back at the destruction, but some light will find its odd way through any crystal. You can see the radiant grades, but you won’t do anything more than nod at them as they slide by on their parallax courses.
Love gets bounced around in popular culture, dumbed down until it approaches nauseating. Love’s palmed off as snake oil that cures all ills. In a shallow pipe dream, birthing intensity puffs out in flab, obstructing access, an obesity epidemic driven by fear.
Love gets broken and, most of the time, isn’t repaired. Where our inner selves hit the streets, we haul jagged edges and patched over wounds. Whispers of genuine feeling lift us, but it’s like trying to catch bubbles. It gets away. Bubbles break. And we stand by, watching them drift, better to chill than fail.
After a year of turmoil on the ragged borderline with chaos, Mom ran through a door and clattered downstairs without saying goodbye, further crippling us, Dad too. Disorder ceased, but in the calm that followed, order didn’t look so hot either.
Mom hit the pavement in downtown Binghamton, in the hard area around the courts and other government buildings, struggling to stifle the tears streaming down her cheeks. For a minute, she wasn’t sure she could walk. Bringing us back to New York with nonrefundable train tickets, feeding five active kids for two days on what little cash was left from the Florida disaster, she was now penniless. She’d separated from her boyfriend in Miami, returning to a home where her key no longer turned the lock. Childless for the first time since she was sixteen years old, she hit bottom in a flat and wasted place. She hadn’t seen the wreck coming until she careened into it.
“What else was I going to do?” she told me when we sat up late, drinking coffee and swapping stories, decades later, in California. “I still had my checkbook.”
Hanging onto the edge of sanity, she pulled up enough charm to pass a bad check for a railway ticket south. She’s rendezvous with Bob in Virginia and figure something out. Their escape to Florida had failed when they were unable to scare up jobs, but you learn and you get better. Nothing shook her off her foundation for long.
“Your father and his shyster lawyer really screwed me there,” Mom told me, twenty years after the implosion. “I don’t know what he told you kids, but they never notified me about the custody hearing…”
“He told us you didn’t show up.”
I remember sinking. After a week on the farm with Grandma, my uncle and his family, we ran up the flat stone path, built to protect your good shoes from snow and mud, to Dad’s car when he turned into the rutted driveway. Temporarily displaced like orphans, we’d waited to find out how the grownups planned to move us back toward normal.
“She didn’t show up,” Dad said, window rolled down, without leaving the car.
You could see from his pinched smile he felt victorious, not happy.
“Do you know what that bastard did?” Mom asked. “I’ll never forgive him for it…”
We made eye contact, fleeting because emotions were charging from all directions.
“They sent the papers to guess where? My last known legal address, our house, the one I didn’t have a key to anymore. The son of a bitch knew I’d never get it. Of course I didn't show up. I never knew about it.”
Orienting around one bad deed, Mom slapped away her own part in setting herself up for it. When she tucked Dad’s children in a car and ran off to Florida with one of his friends, she waived all the rules for a fair fight. It wasn’t extraordinary that Dad countered.
Children under ten are damages waiting to be executed. Nobody has to flip the switch. Most parents build thoughtful shelters around it, but our crippled parents seemed, both of them all their lives, oblivious to the harm. It was between them, and who won?
“Your sister’s birthday was coming up,” Mom continued. “She was my little angel, but your father and his devoted mother grabbed the presents and everything else I sent you kids before you could get them.”
Grandma moved in with us, staying in the big bedroom off the kitchen, when Dad brought us back to a scrubbed up home. Nothing about it would surprise me if she conspired with her most vulnerable son to rub Mom out of their world, jerking down the code of silence.
Whatever happened, the oblivion, the voiceless poison, that ensued was unlike anything you could dream up for a story. We just stopped talking about her. In real time, tactics between the grownups meant nothing, less than nothing. Our mother was gone without any drug for the pain or a conversation to build a bridge of sanity. The ticket for Dad’s world carried with it firm rules about silence, the dagger of deepest danger sheathed.
Memory’s unconscious tools are underestimated. The history of mental illness says they are also misused. Preventing more injuries, my memory bathed the next few years in forgetfulness. Not everything — I remember some lessons but not the struggles of getting through them.
I assume my brothers’ did too. Decades later, raising children of our own, we rarely talked about those days. On the rare occasions when we saw each other, the gaps left wholeness beyond the reach of wishful thinking. My big brothers, scaring me with tales about witches and ghosts, but holding my hands, stronger bodies all around me — losing that was the price paid for protective forgetfulness. A chain reaction of uninterrupted wrecking pounded down the years, easing finally with a buffering of unexpected phone calls. How much did any of us have left by then? We had resilience. We had independence.
“Hi, son,” Mom said with an unexpected Southern drawl when I got my turn on the phone. “I bet you didn’t expect to hear from me.”
I was twelve or thirteen years old. For at least five years, I hadn’t known if she was dead or alive.
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