In the last millisecond before sleep overtakes us, a series of dreams are dispatched from a dark and mysterious place. These dreams are customized according to our needs, and play on our fears, desires, triumphs, and life experience. The best and worst of them all share one common trait….they can be utilized for growth and understanding.
Grief does not discriminate. It can be seen in the face of angry fathers who carry young sons just killed in senseless wars. It can be seen in those who feel dead when abandoned or abused. And sometimes it can take the form of deep empathy felt by an aging stranger who happens upon a small town cemetery and imagines the intense pain felt by this family, so long ago.
My parents were both 17 when they married. They were not high school sweethearts and met randomly. By coincidence, they both had dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and were alike in many more ways. How long their marriage lasted is a point of some confusion for me, but it was no more than 6 years, and could well have been less. I have but 2 fleeting memories from that time and both are unpleasant. After they divorced my older brother and I continued to live with our mother and we moved frequently. Not many memories there either, but I do recall her ironing a sports patch on our shirts and asking me which team I favored. Living in New York in the early 50’s I could have been a Dodger, Giant, or a Yankee fan, and I chose a Yankee patch. I suppose my love of baseball started at that moment. I do know we continued to move frequently, and I also remember going to Yankee stadium a few times and it was overwhelming and joyous.
My mother became involved with a man named Al when I was in the second grade and we were living on Avenue C, close to Coney Island Ave in Brooklyn. He was a handsome man and soon enough they were married and I now had a step father who liked to drink. He wasn’t a mean drunk, more the disappearing kind.
Continuing a series of moves with my mother and now her alcoholic husband, we spent the next year living in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. This was the absolute bowels of New York in 1957, and as an eight year old I spent the year fighting for my life, stealing from broken parking meters, and learning all about the mean streets. Finally, although I do not remember the announcement, we were going to be moving to Long Island, as Al was sober enough to have landed a good job with an airline.
We moved into a nice home in Levittown, got a dog, and my love of baseball now included an opportunity to play on a real team. To prepare for this I would go play some ball with a friend named Skully who lived behind us and we would have full blown practice games where we would throw grounders, line drives, and pop ups in his yard. We also would announce each play and keep score. It was about as much fun as a 10 year old could have and I was developing skills that surprised and delighted me. We would also go to the neighborhood park and play pick up games where a bunch of kids would just spontaneously show up and play. There I discovered that I could hit even better than I could field, and soon I was going to have my first organized game on a little league team.
Life with mom included an unhealthy dose of low self esteem. I was overweight, a poor student, very shy, and had bad teeth and bad habits. But I was about to play ball and I remember so vividly the pride I felt when I first put on that little league uniform. It was a full uniform, much like professional athletes still wear today, and walking down the street in that jazzy looking outfit was one of the proudest days of my life. I walked with attitude, where none existed previously. I couldn’t wait for the season to start.
Soon enough we were playing ball and my male coach actually was named Linda, which is as weird now as it was then. Whenever someone got a timely hit or made a good play they got a drink of some sort of homemade lime concoction. Not only was the drink fabulous, it was ice cold. Even though I was chubby and out of shape, I could hit a ball a country mile, and would do so frequently. I remember hitting one ball so far over everyone’s head that a normal kid could have run the bases twice, but I chugged hard and was somehow thrown out at the plate. I think it took me five minutes to round those bases before I was thrown out. Couch Linda was thrilled as there were guys on base who scored several minutes ahead of me and I was fed extra ice cold lime concoction. Oh man was that drink delicious. What a joy it was for my tender soul to discover something I was good at, and all I could think about was playing ball.
After a little more than a year in that nice house it all came crashing down. Al had lost his good job and we were going to be moving. Imagine that. I can’t tell you what my emotions were, because I do not remember them. I think that by that time I was so completely resigned to things ending, changing, and beginning again that I just sucked it up, crying only when nobody was looking.
We moved briefly to another house in Levittown but there was no money coming in and we ate a lot of rice mixed with hamburger and ketchup. There was a sad pall in that house. Nobody was happy and things felt tense and foreboding. I started the 6th grade in yet another school and by now was very withdrawn. I remember being in that class and never feeling comfortable, especially around girls. At a time when kids were just starting to connect with the opposite sex, all I wanted to do was hide. Right about the time I felt like I was going to completely disappear, we had some sort of family meeting and the bombshell was dropped…….my brother and I would soon be going to live with my father and his wife in their home, also on Long Island. Not only would this involve changing schools in mid year, but my whole life was about to change. You see, at just 11 years old, I loved my mother deeply, and had no concept of how deficient and toxic she was. The idea of going to live with my father and his mystery wife did not appeal to me, although he had stayed a steady part of our lives, picking us up on weekends and taking us to ball games and movies. I was not afraid of him; I was just completely overwhelmed by uncertainty and loss. It was a very deep loss, the kind that wrapped itself around every part of me and I could feel it from my head to my stomach but mostly in my heart, whatever was left of it. I was shattered and numb when I arrived at my father’s lovely home in a very nice neighborhood. He was a successful car salesman with the ability to be charming and conniving. He was also just 33 years old and had no parenting skills and a wife who did not want us in her home.
Initially Marcia made an effort to be kind, but the fact that I was overweight and really didn’t even know how to properly use a knife and fork soon became a bone of contention. In fact, everything was a bone of contention. I was punished for not cleaning my room correctly, I was punished for something I said, or didn’t say. I was always punished, and the next one was always in line. Usually these punishments were waiting for me after school and I began to have a very deep sense of dread that extended past my head and became physical. I would be walking home every day feeling genuine panic and nausea about what was waiting for me. My father just kind of went along with whatever Marcia said and I had nowhere to turn. Moreover, I was put on a very strict diet and while that might have been a good thing if administered with affection, in this case it was punitive and drastic. Essentially I was always hungry, anxious, and afraid. One day when no one was home I went through Marcia’s dresser and found a box of chocolates. I almost ate the entire box and I caught bloody hell for that. While I was actually making some friends and liked the school I was in, I was not really allowed to play much, as I was always being grounded for this or that.
As the spring approached I found out that my 6th grade class had a baseball team and there would be tryouts. Now this of course was the most exciting news I could have heard, and by that time the forced diet had yielded some good results and I was quicker and taller and stronger than I was the last time I got to play ball. I still had my skill set and it is fair to say that the coach liked my game quite a bit and I was chosen to be the starting first baseman. Oh how I loved to play ball and now, at last, I was going to have another opportunity to be good at something. On the school team!
I was so happy that day after our last practice and our first game was going to be played in just a few days. All I could think about on the way home was how excited I was and that the coach was going to start me at first base. Life was not so bad after all. Then I opened the door and Marcia flew into a rage about me having practiced in my school pants, and how it was a terrible thing to do and she was going to take it up with my father. Later that evening I was informed of my punishment and was told that I could not play on that team. No recourse, no discussion, no chance of playing, ever. I had to quit and that would show me who the boss was and teach me a valuable lesson. I must have cried. There is no way I could not have pleaded forgiveness. But I don’t know that for a fact. I do not remember. I suppose I might have just looked at them both, tears running down my face, and said nothing.
Several days later I could see the team getting ready for their first game as I made my way to a home that didn’t feel anything like home. My mother and Al would come pick us up on weekends, just like my father used to. She would ask me if I had any money, and I would give her my allowance.
By the grace of the universe Marcia threw us all out two years later. She actually changed the locks on us, and my father found us an apartment in the same community so we could stay in the same school. He wasn’t around much and it was very lonely, but it was also without fear and was really the best deal I could have had at the time.
I played a lot of pick up baseball games throughout my teen years and I was an exceptional ball player, with an incredible stick. But I lacked the confidence to try out for my high school team and figured there was really no point. I was given no encouragement, and no parent would have been there to watch me play. Even though I continued to struggle emotionally, I loved those years in a beautiful community and always had lots of friends and became very good with girls. That community did become home. Still, the terror I felt walking to Marcia’s house every day is something I remember clearly, and that kind of emotional abuse may well be the worst thing you can do to a child. As part of that abuse, having to quit that team and feeling that loss so profoundly has remained with me all these years, and is palpable in the same way a broken heart might be.
© 2012 Michael Fiveson
Every day in every part of the world, there are things that happen that end happily, with great relief, or end with devastating sadness and overwhelming grief. A child chasing a ball, steps out from behind a parked car, and narrowly misses being hit by a bus when the driver, catching something out of the corner of his eye, manages to hit the brakes, just in time. A toddler left unattended for just a few moments opens the back door and falls into the family pool, drowning, while his parents, believing their son was sleeping in his room, are making love. Horrors in Iowa occur simultaneously with laughter in Mexico City. Chance does not favor race, and tragedy waits in the shadows for innocent victims. There is no possibility of understanding how this works, other than an acceptance of the randomness of the universe. To think that good deserving people are spared, is proven false every moment. Certainly we can lessen the risk of loss with safeguards and foresight, but even then darkness has a way of finding many of us, and wreaking havoc. Child molesters win the lottery, while good honest people are robbed at knife point.
Secluded and tucked away at the back end of the mountain Town of Grand Lake, Colorado, the Lemmon Lodge was the perfect place to spend our last day of summer vacation. We were on our way home from Yellowstone where we spent four nights camped in a conversion van. Cramped and without any amenities, the van was still quite comfortable and since we were still young, it was a great adventure for Judy and I, and our three year old son, Matthew.
We were lucky to find a cabin available at the lodge, as someone had just cancelled. Typically, they are booked well in advance, and with good reason. The Town of Grand Lake is an old and textured community that sits adjacent to the deepest lake in Colorado. At 265 feet deep, this large lake is a very rich blue, and astoundingly beautiful. The Lemmon Lodge sits along the lake’s edge and has a point which is where the inlet waters from Rocky Mountain National Park enter Grand Lake. At the right time of the year, this inlet makes for very good trout fishing and much to my delight; the fishing was said to be excellent when we checked in mid afternoon.
Matt was a happy child who was great fun to be around. Precocious and intelligent, he was the joy of our life, and every second spent with him was affirming and wonderful. Like most good parents, our world revolved around him. The cabin we rented was rustic and old, and it was a relief to have a real bed and our own bathroom. It was a perfect summer afternoon when we finished exploring and Judy said she was going to lay down and read while Matt and I fished. I remember how excited I was to rush to the inlet and I quickly set up my rod and told Matt to stay next to me and help me fish.
The fishing was fabulous. I have gone entire summers without catching a nice trout, but on that day, in that place, I was experiencing magic. Matt was excited as I pulled in my first fish, and he had a hand on reeling in the second large fish. Then, like a 3 year old, he quickly grew bored, and walked around; staying close to me so I could keep an eye on him. The problem was, I didn’t do a particularly good job and after a while I noticed that he was no longer within eye sight. Looking around it was clear that he was gone. My God, how long had it been since I actually looked up to make sure he was there. In the instant that I realized that he was missing, I went into a mind numbing panic.
Rushing to our cabin, and finding that he was not there, I drew Judy into her own panic and hysteria. “Matt, Matt, Matt”, I yelled, as I looked everywhere. Going from one end of the property to the other, no one remembered seeing my son and soon my panic turned to disbelief. This was like a very bad dream, except it was really happening and I could not awaken, and make it go away.
Not knowing where else to look, I forced myself to walk the short boat dock, looking in the water for my sweet son. At that point in time I think there was a reasonable chance that Matt was either dead and floating in the water somewhere, or he was abducted. Leaving the dock, I continued to call his name. Judy was at other parts of the property continuing her own frantic search. By now we were thirty minutes into looking for him and I suppose our next move would have been to alert the authorities, but then I saw my boy casually walking down a hill, not far from me.
I yelled to Judy that I found him and rushed to Matt who explained that some kid wanted to show him his cabin. I was shaking when I hugged him and explained to him why he can’t ever leave our side without telling us.
There is no doubt that I was completely at fault. I knew it right away, and it gnawed at my heart and soul every second I was looking for him. I don’t know why I was given a second chance that day. I have thanked God a million times, but I know too that other deserving parents have their hearts ripped out in similar circumstances. All that I could do is become a more diligent father, and I have fiercely protected Matt, our only child, at every turn.
I don’t know what my life would look like if chance and circumstance had punished me. I marvel at parents who live on after they have lost a child, although I am certain they are never the same. Considering that it was I who was totally responsible for Matt wandering off, I am reasonably certain I never would have forgiven myself, and it probably would have resulted in losing my wife, with whom I just celebrated our 41st anniversary. I think I would have lost myself too. Perhaps I would have joined the legion of broken souls who reside under bridges, drinking the pain away.
So I continue to give thanks, protective of my son, now an adult, while remaining on guard and hoping that I can continue to find favor in this lifetime.