This Will Haunt Me Till I Die

black vehicle steering wheel
Not my car; mine looked a lot worse after my accident.

 

We’ve all done things in our youth that we regretted later in life. Some of these life events are silly and insignificant and others do irreparable damage to our psyche. Let me tell you about a mistake I made that has caused me pain and consternation throughout my adult life. As with many car accidents, the outcome of this one could have been tragic; fortunately, three lives were spared, but fear of the worst possible outcome, has tormented me for the past 40 something years.

I completed high school when I was 17 years old and started my first semester at Brooklyn College. It was a big, intimidating campus and I hated being there. My family had relocated to North Carolina for my stepfather’s business and I stayed behind. After not sleeping for months, I dropped out of Brooklyn College, packed up my very old and dilapidated Plymouth Valiant, and drove down to North Carolina to join my family. It wasn’t just that I hated Brooklyn College; I missed my family. School could wait a semester.

I knew that I would soon enroll in a college or university in North Carolina, but since I didn’t have a penny to my name, I needed a job first. Staying at my mother and stepfather’s house would not and could not be more than a temporary solution. They were both smokers and I hated my stepfather. Fortunately, back in the 80s, one could easily get a job with a high school diploma and rent was cheap in Salisbury, where my family had relocated.

Before I’d hit the south, I had never heard of cotton mills. Makes sense that after they pick cotton it has to go somewhere right? I was 18 years old, strong as an ox and willing to do just about anything to earn a buck. I was quickly hired for a third shift position at Cone Mills, a large cotton mill in Salisbury. Cone Mills made all kinds of denim at this plant. I figured I liked blue jeans and the money wasn’t bad. I was hired for the third shift, 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.; better known as the graveyard shift. Working in the middle of the night has its advantages, however, sleeping is not one of them. Your body is so confused about the time of day, you end up wide awake during the day, when you should be resting.

 

 

 

Greg, a new friend from work, would cover for me in the early morning hours, when I needed a few minutes of shut-eye. I would steal away to one of the shipping containers for a 15 minute nap; not ideal, but certainly helped get me through the night. Greg was a true southern gentleman and he saved me from losing my job on a number of occasions. He also helped me find a low-rent trailer home which ended up being the lowest point of my life. It was during this time that I met my neighbor Brenda who was diabetic and required a lot of attention. She had an eight-year old named Gene who needed a father figure and I was conveniently only steps away and and young enough to kick a ball around on demand. Gene would pester me to come out and play day or night. My having had few friends and a good deal of pent-up energy, made it difficult to say no to Gene. On one particular occasion, I wished I had refused him.

Mid-day and a knock at the door. I had just settled into dream sleep. It was about 98 degrees and very sticky; typical July North Carolina weather; the kind of weather I despise. The trailer was an oven and Gene decided it was time for me to wake up. I hear the knock and throw the pillow over my head, knowing full well that I would never get back I sleep. I grabbed some shorts and a T-shirt, got dressed, and walked out of the trailer. Gene was jumping up and down, always excited about something or other, and I was groggy and semi-conscious. I told him that I would only get out of bed if we mowed the lawn together — I had a 6′ x 8′ patch of crabgrass outside my trailer door. Gene agreed, ran to retrieve his mother’s lawn mower and proceeded to tug on the cord to get it started. I watched him for a bit thinking this was a great way for him to release some of that crazy little boy energy.

After a few minutes of Gene’s panting and scowling, I offered to give it a try. It only took 30 seconds for me to realize the mower was out of gas. I said, we’ve gotta get gas Gene. The gas station was a quarter mile up the road and Gene got super excited about a ride in my new Mustang. He shouted to his mother:

“Be right back Momma, goin’ with Chris for gas.”

Brenda yelled back, “Okay boys, grab me a Cheerwine.”

The owner of the trailer park had a gas can in the community shed, but we couldn’t find the cover to the can. I figured we were so close to the gas station we could fill it halfway and avoid spilling gas. I probably hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. This third-shift business was not good for my sanity. I don’t even think I brushed my teeth that afternoon and that alone proved I was out of sorts.

Between the weather and being sleep deprived, I was making terrible decisions. Gene held the empty gas can in the passenger seat while I drove. I was still pretty excited about my new, gently used, black Mustang. It looked pretty good; however, a four cylinder engine and very little horse power, was nothing to brag about. It took less than three minutes from home to pull into the service station — I wish we had walked. Gene predictably wanted to pump the gas; I went inside to pay for two dollars worth and grab a soda for Brenda. If my memory serves me correctly, the can was about half full.  I told Gene to put the gas can between his feet on the floor of the car and hold it while I drove us home. I approached the exit onto what was a fairly major road; in fact, it was called highway 70 even though it wasn’t officially a highway. The speed limit was 55 miles per hour, but I don’t think anyone drove under 65 on highway 70. The service station had recently added flags along front of the station to draw attention from the road.

I had to make a quick left turn onto the highway, so I approached the road looking to the left first. I recall having a difficult time seeing past the flags. I crept onto the highway a bit further so that I could get a better look. Seemingly out of nowhere, a tractor trailer plowed into the front left (driver’s) side of my car. The car flipped over at least twice. This was prior to seat belt laws, but fortunately, Gene and I had both buckled-up. It was pre-air bags, unfortunately. I must have blacked out because my last memory was seeing the truck and then I woke up in the ambulance to my mother’s voice.

She kept repeating, “Chris, Chris, it’s mom.”

I looked around in a panic and said, “Where’s Gene?”

My mom had passed the accident and pulled over to see if she could help, discovering it was me who had had the wreck. She told me that Gene was in another ambulance and that he was okay. Mom also told me that the truck driver was not injured. I wondered if she was lying to me. I did not get to see the car at the scene, but I’m certain that if I had, I would have thought that Gene was killed. My mom rode with me in the ambulance and when I got to the hospital, they rushed me to the operating room. My clothing was cut off of me with a scissor and I was poked, prodded and x-rayed. Later I was told that my face was pretty torn up from the windshield and I had banged up my left arm and leg. At some point they brought Gene into the room where I was being treated. He had a big smile on his face and ran to my side. Brenda was with him and she too was smiling. Gene was boasting that he had broken his collarbone and had to wear a sling for awhile. Brenda kissed my check and told me that she was happy that I was okay. Seeing Gene made me weep uncontrollably. It was such a relief to see Gene was alive and walking.

Later that week my mother drove me to the car salvage lot to see my car. It was unrecognizable. Again, I wept privately. How did Gene make it out alive?  I cannot erase the memory of that truck nano seconds before impact. I play it over and over in my head to this day. Where did that truck come from? How did I not see it? Was I unfit to drive that day? Gas spilled everywhere in that car and it didn’t explode; how was that possible? So many questions that will forever remain unanswered.

I remained on third shift at the Mill after the accident. Gene and I had a serious conversation about allowing me to sleep during the day; the accident matured us both a bit. I developed a newfound respect for cars and how dangerous they can be. Kids always go in the back seat now and I don’t drive unless I’m fully alert. If Gene had been killed or seriously hurt in that accident, my life would not have been the same. I have always had a hard time shaking this thought. I’m forever grateful to the gods that Gene was only minimally hurt and I’m fairly certain that that car accident was my wake up call. The scars on my face are a constant reminder of how precarious life can be and how fortunate I am.

 

On a break for the next few weeks. I’ll be taking my first trip to Wales on Saturday and reporting back what I experienced. See you soon.

 

Living With a Lie

“There are only two things. Truth and lies. Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognize itself; anyone who wants to recognize it has to be a lie.” Franz Kafka

No photo description available.
Grace Marie when she was a happy child (to my left). Anthony to my right next to my mom and my sister Debbie.

My mother’s lies taught me two things:  First and most harmful, it was acceptable to lie, and second, secrets are impossible to keep.

I had a beautiful half-sister who died a horrible premature death several years ago; she was in her mid-forties. In fact, it was her birthday a couple of days ago and it was the anniversary of my brother Anthony’s death. My sister Grace found him with a needle in his arm on her birthday. She was already far gone by then and I’m certain, finding her (our) brother lifeless in her own home, must have sealed her fate.

My sister Grace or Gasha (the way we spelled it), as she was known to close family, was a troubled child. She wore thick glasses and was labeled “four eyes” by her siblings and peers. We also called her monkey because of her button nose; kids can be mean and her brothers and sisters were the cruelest of all. I am not claiming innocence; in fact, I may have been the worst culprit. Perhaps it was the secret I held onto that drove me to cruelty.

My parents argued a lot; in fact, they argued night and day. My father would come home from work at midnight and my mother would dig in her hateful claws. Having been exposed to this behavior early on, I worked hard to tune them out and fantasize about a quieter world that I knew existed elsewhere. My memory of their relentless rage goes back to pre-school and a time when I was too young to understand the complicated world of adult anger. One particular memory is vivid because it involved a lie I did not understand at the time; I may have been five or six years old.

Many angry words were exchanged during one very loud shouting match and most of those words were as difficult to comprehend as a foreign language. For some reason I held onto something my father said, “Grace is not my child.” At the time I thought it was odd for my father to say such a thing and so, I dismissed them from my thoughts. Every so often I found myself daydreaming and reflecting on these words. As I grew older and more inquisitive, I wondered why my father said this to my mother. I looked at my sister differently because of what my father said. I naturally wondered who her father might be, if it were not my father. I was not aware of an affair my mother had with her first husband while she was married to my father.

When I turned nine, there was a lot going on around me; my only living grandparent passed, my mother was divorcing my father and marrying my stepfather, and I was repressing my sexuality (I remember having some strong feelings toward one of my mother’s male friends). My mom and I would occasionally spend quality alone time together — rare because she had seven children. On one of these occasions, I decided I would ask her about Gasha. My mother had a way of drawing me in as a close confidant and then shoving me away. I can’t blame alcohol because she wasn’t a drunk, but her father was an alcoholic and physically abusive; perhaps it was his influence. As a child I longed for the kind of closeness where you felt honest love and affection — not likely to get it from my mother, but I never stopped trying.

We were sitting on her bed watching an old black & white film and she was running her fingers through my hair. I may have been as happy at that moment as I would ever be with my mom.

I looked up at her and said, “Ma, who is Gasha’s father?”

My mother pushed me to the edge of the bed and said, “Where do you get these ideas?”

I told her that I had overheard an argument she had with my father a few years earlier and she told me that I was imagining things.

“Who would Gasha’s father be if it wasn’t your father? Honestly Chris, I worry about you.”

I wanted to believe my mother, so I let it go . . . until a few years later when this happened:

I was having dinner with my father at the restaurant where he worked. Our meals were very special to me and we always spoke openly and earnestly. I’m pretty sure I was in my teens at this point. I had accidentally seen my parents marriage license and came to learn that my mother and father didn’t marry until I was three years old. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t bother me. My dad told me that they couldn’t marry because my mother’s first husband was in prison and there was a law about divorce and incarceration back then. He said that they married as soon as they legally could. I shrugged and decided this would be a good time to ask about Gasha. I sort of tricked my dad and acted like I knew for certain that Gasha was not his biological daughter.

When I asked him who Gasha’s father was he said, “Joe is her father, but I adopted her and so she’s my daughter now. How did you know about this? Did your mother tell you?”

I shared that I had overheard an argument between the two of them when I was a kid and he grabbed my face and squeezed my cheeks; something he did to show affection. He hardly ever said anything negative about my mother and I wish I could say the reverse were true.

When I asked him how she ended up with Joe while married to him, he said, “Your mother has always been a bit wild.”

Truer words had never been spoken. Now that I knew my suspicions about Gasha were true, I had to consider what this meant for my relationship with her, how I felt about my mother lying to me, and whether or not I should share the truth with Gasha and our siblings. I knew early on that it would not be fair to share the truth with her. It was my mother’s place to tell her the truth. I was tormented by the lie. I did not approve of my mother’s infidelity and I could not understand why she denied the truth all those years ago. In my mind, I could never truly trust my mother again — in truth, I doubted her always. I’m also certain that I felt betrayed by my mother and it has had an affect on every loving relationship in my life.

My mother did eventually tell Gasha who her biological father was. I’m not sure when or where it happened. My brothers and sisters found out at some point as well. It seemed to me at the time that no one cared about the indiscretion or the lie. I questioned my own reaction to it:  had I made too much of it? Did it really matter? As an older adult I am obviously still questioning the lies I faced as a child and young adult — there were many others.

I recall often looking at Gasha and wondering who she resembled. When she would behave a certain way that was odd to me, I would explain it by considering who her father was or was not. Gasha had a severe eating disorder and made several bad choices in her life. She was angry, she isolated herself from those who cared about her, she refused to acknowledge her disorder, and she trusted no one. I cannot help but wonder if the knowledge that she was conceived during a torrid affair, had had a huge impact on her life and her ability to cope. Knowing her biological father was willing to allow my father to adopt her, must have tormented Gasha throughout her life; her self-worth was shattered.

My mother had a very complicated relationship with her and Gasha was resentful of the way she saw my mother treating the rest of us; she seemed to always feel slighted. I was aware of both the way she was treated and the way Gasha perceived it. I had conflicting feelings about my sister. There was a part of me that believed she didn’t belong and I’m not proud of those feelings. At the same time, I felt sorry for her.

Gasha’s downward spiral was difficult for me to watch. She married trailer park trash and she had a child with him. Freddie shot himself in the head early on in their marriage. I remember visiting her in Knoxville, Tennessee and thinking that there was hope that she’d come out on top of all the drama in her life. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Bulimia took hold of my sister in her early 20s and never let go. All four of my mother’s daughters suffered from some sort of eating disorder as a result of my mother’s obsession with weight. Gasha lived in complete denial — the disease and the consequences of starving one’s body of nutrients destroyed her life. Her two children suffered the most; watching her abuse herself on a daily basis, had to be impossible to observe. Out of respect for my niece and nephew, I will refrain from commenting on their current lives.

The question is, was it the lie that destroyed Gasha’s life or was it her personality and the circumstances of her illness? I guess we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that shielding her from the truth all of those years was not productive or right. If her biological father had stepped up and assumed his role asher father, might she have been stronger and felt more loved? I have to believe she would have embraced her father and adjusted to her circumstances. After all her two oldest sisters had the same biological father. But after being adopted by my father, Gasha, was instead forced into a situation she did not ask to be in and was prevented from being with a man she might have loved. I’m not a psychologist, however, I am fairly certain that Gasha was thrust into a situation that would have caused anyone pain and anxiety. It was a lot for a young person to take on and in truth, she had to endure the ramifications of this terrible lie, on her own. It’s a small miracle she was even with us into her forties.

When faced with the reality of a difficult truth or keeping a secret, always go with the truth. As hard as it is to share that secret and cope with its consequences, that reality is far better than living a lie.

 

“When you check your own mind properly, you stop blaming others for your problems.”

Thubten Yeshe

A Note to Today’s Youth

To those out on their own paths, setting little fires.

— Celeste Ng

 

 

 

I have to state right up front, I am not bitter nor angry. I like young people — don’t judge, I mean in a healthy way. Lots of 60 year olds are jaded and set in their ways, so conversing with a hopeful, energetic young person can be refreshing. I’m fortunate to have many great-nieces and nephews who are willing to talk; conversation being such a rare occurrence these days. [Note:  One has to be cautious because that the media has painted an ugly portrait of gay men who spend time with boys; I am sadly acutely aware of this perception. I am also aware that the same taboos exist for straight men and girls. In our society, perception is everything.I proceed cautiously.]

The good thing about how I prepare these blogs is the spacing between thoughts. As I think about this entry, I realize that I know nothing about what is on and in the minds of our young people today; therefore, I am making a lot of assumptions and I hope to be forgiven for it. I’m also aware that much of how we behave is developmental and in reality, some of us develop more quickly. But the nature versus nurture factor has a large baring on how the young mature and therefore, it is the nurture part I will address.

 

My Observations, Some Speculation and a Lot of Darts in the Air

Lately, rather than sit in rage and stew about global matters, I have been directing my attention to our youth. I live just feet away from a high school in Faro, Portugal. Some of what I observe on a daily basis is disturbing and confounding. I cannot imagine how any young person today could smoke that first or 100th cigarette. Even if parents and teachers are not educating children about the dangers of smoking, there are an abundance of warnings put out there by media and the government. Still, during their class breaks, I see hundreds of young people outside smoking cigarettes and marijuana. I’m concerned about their health and the economic future of our planet. Smoking is the number one cause of our escalating healthcare throughout the developed world. The role models these kids look up to in Europe, are unfortunately,  not very heathy; the amount of adult smoking is astounding. To those young adults smart enough not to smoke, I say, good for you for taking care of yourself.

I’m starting with the negatives, however, there will later, be a good deal of positive observations to share.

  • I have to be careful not to make sweeping generalizations here:  I know there are young people who are employed; however, I also know that one of the reasons it has become very difficult to fill physical labor and entry level positions, is that young people are not entering the work force until after much later in life. In the past, parents had their children work while in high school and college in order to teach them the value of money, independence, and self-discipline. Parents today are afraid to take the focus away from studying and extra-curricular activities. I believe it’s important to make a little money and learn how to manage one’s time. I strongly recommend that young people have a part-time job as early on as possible.
  • Our youth are obviously frustrated with politics. Considering old white guys have, for the most part, been running the show for a long time, who’s to blame them. Being frustrated is no excuse for inaction. Change will never take place unless our young people start to question our political leaders and en masse, take them to task. I see some of this, however, not nearly enough.
  • Social media came on pretty quickly and I know it’s done more good than damage; however, what I have seen is a change in the way people are communicating. Since I am focusing on the youth, my biggest concern is the amount of time young people are spending locked-up in their bedrooms face timing, texting, and surfing the web. Face-to-face, human-to-human interaction has to be better than cyber communication.
  •  I’m going to blame the parents for problems we are having with young people; there is no one else to blame. From where I’m sitting, it seems to be an issue around respect. Now of course this is not true of all parents, but in general, parents seem to have lost control over their kids. I’m not a parent and I don’t have the answers; however, what I’ve noticed over the last 30 years or so, there is too much freedom given to children. Kids want discipline in their lives; it’s a way of saying I love and care about you.
  • Those who teach young people have a huge role to play in how they behave, their self-esteem, and the life choices they make. It’s not fair to put it all on the teachers. They now have the added fear and responsibility of dealing with guns in schools and I’m not sure any of us can imagine what that must be like. In reality, this too is an opportunity to shape the minds of our young people (example of students rising up and demanding change). It’s easy excuse to complain about student apathy, paperwork and low salaries. Teachers need to remember why they decided to teach and they need to begin to work together more to bring about change. Again, we are at a place where frustration and anger are getting in the way of process. Clearly, those emotions are being projected on to the children. I imagine my words will anger many teachers. I was a college instructor for day years and I know from experience that when you show interest and make connections, it makes a difference. It means more time, energy and dedication, but even if you make a difference in one life, you have done a service to that individual and society.

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”
― Jim Henson, It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider“

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
― William Arthur Ward

 

What Makes Me Hopeful

So much is happening all of the world that makes me feel hopeful about our future. Young people protesting gun violence in schools, young people marching against climate change, young people turning out to vote, and young people inspiring adults. It’s not all doom and gloom — I just want to see more of it.

I was more involved as an activist as a young person. I has energy, ambition and drive; then I became jaded and judgmental. We all go through different stages of our lives; we all look back and have regrets; and we all have opinions. In my opinion, the youth of today is smarter and more mature than we were 30, 40, 50 years ago. Social media has made it easier to spread the word and light a spark, the likes of which we have never witnessed in the past. We are experiencing such polarization and global awareness and I believe our young people have taken notice and are finally coming to terms with their power, obligation and their ability to make change with a sense of urgency and real impact.

 

A quick Message to Our Youth

  • Take to the streets, Have you seen what is happening in Hong Kong and extradition to mainland China. I am inspired by this uprising and I am certain that this very large group of protestors are making a difference. Venezuelans, Europeans, Argentinians, and citizens throughout the world are coming out in massive numbers to show their opposition and initiate change. Empowerment is powerful.
  • Use social media to make your message clear and you thoughts/feelings known. Spend less time on selfies and superficial matters and more time on social change and shaping the future.
  • Stop smoking and start taking better care of the vessel you have been given to live a meaningful life. Your future will be better for having done the work now.
  • Live in the moment and savor every second you have to enjoy nature, human imperfection and one another. Our capacity for depth and meaning knows no bounds.
  • Guide adult behavior and action. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and it’s never too late to learn. Adults are often at a loss about how to treat you, what to say to you, and learning more about who you are. Share what is in your heart and on your mind; the revelation will astound them and you will benefit from their response.
  • When you get older you will realize that the gift of youth is energy, passion, fearlessness and the ability to make mistakes — you have some time to correct those mistakes and learn from them. Embrace all of those things while your young and you will be a better person for having done it. You will inspire your peers and set an example for the rest of us; God knows we need inspiration.
  • Be yourself and resist the urge to conform.
  • If you feel different inside, allow that difference to shine through in self-expression. People will embrace you for your authenticity and courage . Those who cannot because their minds are small or their own experience is limited, should not be regarded; focus on yourself. What others think of you is none of your business. Worry more about what you think of yourself. Once you have learned to love yourself, all the other love in the world will come your way — you will be a magnet for positivity and healthy love.
  • Talk to one another face-to-face and share your feelings. We all have insecurities, self-doubt and pain. Sharing it makes it so much easier for coping. You will find that being human means we share similar thoughts and feelings and that are dissimilarities are beautiful.
  • Physical love and affection is another one of our many gifts; however, impulses and hasty decisions often lead to pain and regret. Caution is good and learning to say no is empowering. Be your own person and don’t let others tell you how or should feel or what action you should take. Being your own person means making your own decisions, learning from failure (don’t be afraid to fail), and starting again; sometimes it takes several tries before you get it right — this is how we learn.
  • Don’t be afraid to debate adults; however, diplomacy and empathy go a long way. Human beings are fragile, resilient, and long for acceptance. The amount of time it takes to process varies for each of us; give adults time to absorb your words — your patience and understanding will be greatly rewarded.
  • Embrace your youth with joy and zeal. There is a reason we are given the gift of growth. Be young with enthusiasm and grab life by the balls. The amount of power and strength you have is limitless and setting your sights on achieving all you desire will make the journey fruitful and meaningful. There is a reason adults often wish they could return to their youth. Know that this is your chance to shine and change, for good, the future of the world.
  • Dance as much as you can and continue to do so for the rest of your life.
  • Tell those around you that you love, why you love them and then show them that you love them.
  • Give back to the children who will determine the quality of your future. Paying it forward is gratifying and mutually beneficial. We own nothing; it is only ours to temporarily borrow. It is our responsibility to return it in better shape. The gift of life is the greatest gift we were given. The gifts of nature, the planet, the animal kingdom, time, the universe, food, and love, are all lesser gifts not to be taken for granted or abused.

I learned a great deal about my own misgivings and perspective writing this blog. In truth, I am enough and so are you.

 

 

 

A few days in Tavira was restorative (40 easy minutes from home). I did not take a lot of photos, I resisted spending too much time on twitter, and I laid off the keyboard. What I can tell you is that I have discovered a place close to home to clear my mind and cleanse. It beautiful, quaint, excellent food, and a great value.

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Tavira, Portugal at dusk