Happy Birthday! It has been a long time since we’ve spoken. I miss you. I miss knowing you.
Your life has taken on an epic arch for me. You were born into abject poverty in the coal mines of western Kentucky. One boy out of five children, one lost early to diphtheria. Living in a shack on company property, using company scrip. Always hungry. Always underclothed. Never having shoes that fit, never having shoes in summer. Your first winter coat coming from the largess of a man you would never know or meet, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Waiting in line to get it.
Your dad a quiet retiring man. Loving kids and cigarettes. Braving machine guns posted at the door to his workplace, helping to bring justice and equality to those who descended into the deep dark, bringing up black gold for the men who would live in palaces. Dying from black lung and disappointment. Your mom, intelligent, driven, hard. Hating life and hating you. Finding Jesus long after she needed to find Him to bring His compassion into your life.
You escaped. Or so you thought. You left Muehlenberg County for a life in the armed forces. Bringing that manly, silent type to the close lipped service of the Air Force during Korea, bringing our boys home, again and again. Suddenly, you saw life outside of coal dust and poverty. Bright lights and big cities. Tailor made suits for your slimness, bringing life to your dapperness, your aesthetic. Stylin. A long way from no shoes and clothes worn too thin and too small.
Leaving the service with the vow to never go back, never be a slave to those who would require kowtows and secret handshakes. But the world was no longer the same. You were no longer the same. What does an intelligent, undereducated guy do after seeing the world?
How you got to that blackened hell hole of a steel mill, I will never know. Did you jump at the first job opportunity? While other southern migrant workers were finding positions at GM and Ford, Bethlehem and US Steel, you landed at Blaw Knox. Being under serviced by a second tier, corrupt union, taking your dues and looking the other way. Sometimes working two jobs when a strike was called, attempting to put food on the table for your fledgling family.
The baby children we were, adored you. You were funny and giddy. I remember the dancing and singing and the smell of Old Spice. Eventually, your growing silences distanced you from your children. Those silences becoming frightening and stifling. And the silences themselves growing, broken more and more regularly by angry outbursts.
We were orphans, our family. Not that there weren’t grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins. We were isolated geographically, we were isolated by experience, by circumstance. The annual pilgrimages back to the promised land were what connected us to our people, but it was a one way trip. There was only us, and we were fracturing.
By the time I was in my teens, our interactions were sparse. More often, I would attempt to escape the house, escape your notice, afraid I would raise your ire yet another time. When it came time for college, I only wanted to get as far away from home as possible. And that leave taking was the first time as a young adult I knew you loved me. Hugging me good bye when you left me on campus, you had tears in your eyes. Standing there by the gaping maw of that empty LeSabre trunk, you cried and I was stunned. It was game changer.
It was never possible to have a phone conversation with you, you passed the phone to Mom. It was on the breaks from school that I found my Dad. We talked and you started telling me a few things, teasers. I had found myself during college and in so doing, lost my fear. Those were precious years, but neither of us knew we were in the elimination round. There should have been more speed. I was able to catch a glimpse of what you had endured, what you had climbed out of. A surface scratched.
Your sickness started sometime in the 70’s. Your silence and anger masking what must have been debilitating pain. None of us knew what you suffered, you didn’t let us in. After that first major episode, there were ups and downs medically. When you had passed the ten year mark, you were safe, isn’t that the rule? By the time my life was gaining momentum, focusing, yours was veering off course.
I married in 1986. As I prepared to walk down the aisle on your arm, you gave me a chance to back out. Maybe you knew something I didn’t; maybe you just wanted to keep your newly found baby girl. You were so handsome that day, no indication of the time bomb going off in your chest. Ten short days and you were gone.
I have a tendency to shift the scraps of knowledge I have about you to try and build a complete, or a more complete, picture. The game I play to try to wrap my arms around a wraith. The picture always stays slightly out of focus. Lately I’ve been learning to let go. It isn’t easy. Sometimes there’s a great comfort in hanging on to these painful scraps, especially when they’re all you have.
In the end, I know you loved me. You gave to me all that wasn’t given to you as a child, and so much more. You sacrificed, you loved. I benefitted. I have had opportunities and experiences you wouldn’t even dream of. Your tough love made me strong, resilient, independent. Prepared me for even tougher days ahead.
I love you.