~ Until We Make Contact/Grief & the Certain Slant of Light
He’s been gone 8 years now. I miss him. I saw it all rolling out before me early on. And sure enough, it played out more-or-less the way I thought it would. You lose your last blood line into the world, and it starts to feel a little more fragile. It’s a process; the “trying to make sense of it all.”
Sure, I could have wished for a happier ending. But “you play the cards you’re dealt,” as the old songs say. Given the variables in his character of his brilliance, joviality and sadness, when wedded to an innocence almost bordering on gullibility, I don’t see how anything but a miracle could have prevented the outcome. It’s like my wife says, paraphrasing Ma Joad: “A million things could happen, but only one ever does.”
I saw him at his best. A gift to be sure. He emerged, at least to my consciousness anyway, as a vigorous young man in his late 20’s. Wings of inspiration and passion still dripping wet…and all was promise.
Chapel Hill, NC. Early 60’s. He was a young-married, a new father, an eager dad, an Explorer Scout master, a semi-pro jazz drummer. He was a lover of wine, women and song. Mary, his wife, embodied all of the last three. And he was a brilliant, young scientist. My mother always referred to those years in Chapel Hill, NC (1960-1971) as “our golden years.”
He was working in the Research Triangle Park. He had just patented 35 processes that led to the invention of indoor/outdoor carpet. The company he worked “owned” his technology and inventions & thus reaped millions off of him. He never saw a penny. This is true. He shrugged it off. “More ideas will come,” he’d say. “The well hasn’t run dry.” That was his gullible side that believed in the Company’s “goodwill.”
He was athletic, confident, and focused. He was also as “debonair” as much as a geek could be.
I can still see and hear and smell all that was our family’s Friday evening ritual
festivities…The sounds of him coming home from his lab, his chemicals and
inventing. Hugs all around; sitting down to play drums on a bit of “Take 5,” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. (“If you can play in 5/4 time, Billy, THAT’s special.”) Followed by the week’s “victory” Martini for he & mom. Steaks on the grill out-of-doors and perhaps a quick invite to a neighbour or two. He would play Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Louis Armstrong a bit too loud, dancing with Mary, martini in hand, vigor oozing from every pore. Later on in the evening the be-bop of Miles Davis and Coltrane showed up. It was the flip side of the passionate scientist who was my father.
I was a kid, less than 10. You tend to think of these moments as something frozen as if in a frame; a perpetual world of warm sunshine and smiles woven with nuances of “possibility” at every turn. The world, in a word, was “charged.”
His hard work & good fortunes lasted well into his 30’s and early 40’s. Later, the years of economic reversals, professional sadness-es and outright bad luck would claim the brightness from his sharp blue eyes and shackle that spontaneous spirit.
We are, often without knowing it, “dialed in.” We are are quietly transfixed by “tapes” we listen to within our hearts. We hardly know they’re playing. Perhaps the dial of each of our heart’s radio station is set early in life. There are a lot of “transmissions” out there. Good programs and bad ones. The “bad broadcasts” often reveal their “call letters,” so to speak, when we discover we’ve been living in fear & anxiety, bitterness & calculation; when we nurse our grudges and pamper our wounds. It’s hard to change the station.
I suppose the tapes of my father’s orphaned youth played too deep inside for many folks to notice. His biological dad skipped out when he was 7. He remembered talk of being put up for adoption. Then at age 11, when his mother remarried, his step-father sent him off to boarding school. He never really came home again. I suspect he always wondered if he was really loved and if he was ever good enough. All of his “stations” seemed to suggest this.
I think I saw it even as a youth. His perpetual driven-ness, perhaps masking a world of wounded-ness, had to take a vacation once in a while. Alcohol helped him “stare it down” for short seasons. But I think what his friends saw as a “drive” that seemed to know no bounds, was really more of a pleading entreaty: “Am I doing this right? Am I’m I ok? Am I good enough? Somebody say something…”
His “game face” made it hard to detect. Dad rarely dropped his guard. But, I think I sensed something of it on occasion. Those ever increasing rounds of parties and celebration eventually devolved into drinking alone.
But you never drink alone.
You can always see your real “self” sitting there across from you and your glass. And you wonder who the hell you are. And you wonder what any of this means.
And you wonder about such things, as he did very much wonder about them, alone.
One can be drowning and not know it. I was barely into college. I had “gotten saved.” And my own vain, paltry attempts to offer him help were usually fueled by so much over-zealous “evangelism” that he, quite rightly, ignored them. I was a prick, assuming too much and not knowing half of what I prattled on about God, the Bible, sin and salvation. God, have mercy.
The sad fact, the way i see it, is that there was no one really “there” for him. There was no one there to mentor him when he was young, or challenge him when he was older…No one really there to say that encouraging “atta baby!”. It would have meant everything to him. Maybe the encouraging words we withhold from each are more harsh than the cruel ones we often say.
But if he was anything, he was a survivor. Captain of a ship going down. You learn to cope with the gnawing feelings of inadequacy. Stare down the flotsam and jetsam coming off the boat that just hit the rocks.
There was no dropping of the guard even with himself. And because there was no dropping of the guard, there existed no possibility of discovering a way for him to befriend the hurting orphan in himself and say to him: “You’re a great kid. You’ve done so much with your gifts. You’ve loved your wife and kids. Bravo, sir!”
The continual calling forth of energies from within to hush the “bad tapes,” of course, was eventually doomed to failure. That station broadcast 24/7/365…and as such energies dissipated with age, he listened to it more and more. He sank further into depression in his later years. He soldiered on because, after all, that’s what survivors often do. He marched hand in hand with his own sadness.
The sad thing? Even if such good influences had existed in his life, I’m not sure he’d have had truck with them. They didn’t fit in his schematic for his own self-acceptance, and self-worth. Self-worth? That was a thing to be earned. A thing to be struggled for; a peace to be bought with the currency of sweat and discipline….and even then, maybe it wasn’t enough.
The best thing he had was my mother, Mary, departed now almost 3 years ahead of him. He was lucky to have Mary, my vivacious mom, for a wife. A beauty, a poet, a dreamer. I asked her (about 10 years ago) how she and Dad had met. We were chatting on the phone one Sunday evening. Here’s the story:
Mary is attending a party at the Univ. of Va., circa 1950. She is with another fella that night and has just entered a large Southern gothic home on campus where the party is being held. Mary, elegantly dressed, is barely through the door when suddenly, another student, slightly tipsy stumbles down a long flight of stairs that open out into the entry way. She, startled, drops her handbag, reaches out and breaks his fall.
“And that man,” my mother said, “was your father.”
I don’t know if it was a “Holy Spirit moment” or not, but I said: “Mom, you’ve been catching him all your life.” I don’t remember her saying anything.
He marched on a bit longer after she died. 3 more years. My wife and I saw him through one drama after the other. Repossession of his car, being kicked out of a nursing home for angry outbursts. Insult to injury, the Veterans Administration denied him thousands of dollars that were his because of his service in Berlin with the Army. He was “ready to get out of Dodge,” he told me. “I want to see Mary. I’ve heard her her voice in the wind many times,” he said. I have no doubts of it. He took the boots off and passed on (I believe) to catch up with her.
So, what have I learned about grief? What do I know about the best things lost (or worse) not fully realized; things never “birthed?”
Here’s what I think I know: I believe there are dark things that can rise up from within and overtake us at any time. I don’t mean dark things like demons, or malevolent spirits. Such explanations are too easy – too convenient, if not outright nonsense.
It’s simply that, most of the time, much darkness goes unnoticed and uncontested beneath our skin. My Dad, given who he was and what he was born into, had no real idea what was living beneath his. Nor did he have the tools to excavate them…and here was an intelligent, passionate man. The element of popular psychology that might have made for some healing was decades off for him and, as I said, I’m not sure he would have had truck with it anyway.
No, his “rules for life” were hard work, getting tougher in tough times, and
loving passionately the good things in life. He believed in “making one’s own luck.”
I think the rush and flash of notoriety from his hard work startled him intially. His inventions and patents made millions for his company but, as I said earlier, he never saw a dime of it. And his new-found identity further masked numerous smaller cries for help.
I wonder sometimes why I had the ears to hear those cries. You wanna help. You wanna get inside…but, I had no idea how to.
It was almost 30 years before his death & he was very much alive. I was grown and married myself with two sons. As a young songwriter, I found I was writing 75 songs a year for the first 10 years of my work. It was as if some dam had broken open. My father’s past showed up everywhere.
The first song about him was called “America, America”
It was a simple, 4 minute journal. Sung in the first person, it was disarming. And I knew it was disarming. I knew it was an “Everyman” kinda tune. I could barely sing it “live” for years after it was written. I remember it’s debut:
The tune, barely a day old, was played at the old Downstairs Cafe, in Athens, Ga. There’s a place in the song, during the bridge, where a lump in the throat showed up. It was the place in the song where I sing, about this man of boundless energy and unspoken sadness:
“I remember kicking ’round the vacant corner of some playground
I was hoping I might get you back…and dying to make contact…contact…contact…”
with each voicing of the word “contact” trailing off a little quieter, a little quieter, till a whisper…It was an orator’s way of marking the distance that I felt was happening and there was no way to halt it or reverse it. Distancing. A premonition? It was as if I already “saw” how all this would fall out 30 years before it happened. I wasn’t wrong.
My wife, Muriah pointed out to me that the song was about grieving, but a
grieving that took place long before his death.
Grief over things lost, things not realized. Grief over the incongruities, the cruelties and the inexplicable things of his life. Now, I can see that the sacrifices he made for his 3 kids was nothing short of heroic.
I’ve said this before here, but I believe it: God gets the last word in these matters. Faith asks us to believe that all things will be whole, will be made new. If “playing the hand that’s dealt you,” is part of what it means to believe, then he believed very, very much. And that, too, is heroic.
Are yearning, waiting, letting go, and grieving all brother & sister components of “faith?” Are they the little “merit badges” of walking through this veil of tears? Maybe so. Perhaps there is no triumph of grace, no final victories unless we all find such wholeness. Wholeness for all. Our beloved, our children, our friends, our colleagues, and even our enemies.
Forgive our failures to say the kind, encouraging word to each other, merciful Lord. Forgive us the words we withhold. Words that may be the first installment of Your own words to us: “Well, done thy good & faithful servant. Enter into the joy….”
Dad, I had it easy. I watched from the sidelines. I saw the heroism in your spirit emerging. I saw it in all it’s stumbling glory. Sure, it took me some time to hear what tapes you were listening to; even longer to name them. But I knew them. Those stations & their “transmissions” sounded so much like many of my own. But, I did see you “stare them down.”
And now, maybe I know why. You stared them down so you could “show up” for life. For us. For me. You did your best with what you were given, played the hand dealt you. I still hear celebration. I can still see the youthful vigorous energy and smile. Sinatra, “Dino,” 5/4 time, Mary, with Martini in tow. Life, kids: “Here’s how you do it.” You were a natural, Dad. For us.
This life: the old familiar vale of tears. The exacting toll of bedevilled years.
Our lives: these hastily erected, make-shift tents pitched in a world with tainted springs where the ghost-words of Ecclesiastes scribes ring all about our ears.
Until we make contact, Dad.
You are so very missed.
“America, America” by Bill Mallonee
my dad sure believed in you
he said “a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do”
got his degree at your diploma barn
he was the first kid off the farm
gonna change the world with chemistry
run up all the credit cards
hell, there’s more where that came from it’s a cinch
i knew by the age of six i’d never make a scientist
when i saw the price you paid in their trenches
pushed her out and they let her drift
then the wind changed unannounced
brought a new friend home to watch tv
to help you deal with the anxiety
she measured out her love in ounces
yeah i’ve seen you do…what she asked you to
i remember kicking ’round
the vacant corner of some playground
hoping we would get you back
and dying to make contact…contact…contact
now i struggle to pretend
and fill the gaping holes in
and remember all you did
looking back to take inventory
I put the best construction on the story
i’m now writing for my kids
’cause i know you’d do…what they ask you to
God shed your grace in his lonely heart this evening and if he falls asleep gather him and hold him tight and help me with this grieving
’cause i know he’d do…what you ask him to
i salute you
Bill Mallonee: guitars, vocals, harmonica
Mark Hall: accordion