Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Date to Remember

"You know Mark, we may look back on this date in two years from now and think 'that was the day our ministry together began!"

It was on a Saturday morning at about 8:20 AM near milepost 17 on Hwy 18 between I-5 and I-90. Those certainly were not the words I was expecting to hear on this day. Actually, I was simply looking forward to attending my first professional golf tournament (as a spectator of course...pretty obvious to anyone who's ever seen me play.)

Just the night before, a man who is becoming a very good friend told me that he had tickets to the Champion's Tour event up at Snoqualamie Ridge and asked if I wanted to go with him. He said one other friend would be going as well, a pastor from a neighboring community. I thought about it for a few minutes. I was half expecting my little brother to call and invite me to come up and visit him for the weekend, but the call had not come it. So I accepted his invitation and made plans to get up earlier the next morning...my only day to sleep in...and make the short journey up to the tournament.

August is a difficult month for me...especially since my arrest. It was in August that I kissed my wife for the last time and got on a Greyhound bus and headed to California to surrender to the Federal authorities and give up my freedom for 1086 days. August is the month my first (and only) grandson was born...a grandson I haven't seen in over four years. It marks the month that I walked out of prison...a semi-free man. It is a month that reminds me of the profession that no longer welcomes me...a month when I see the reminders of a passion and an identity of who I was...an educator. Yellow buses. Kids at the malls buying new clothes for school. Advertisements on TV and the radio promoting the 'back to school' sales and fashions. The last time I saw my wife (ex-wife) was in the month of August. Difficult! Hard! Painful! A month of memories seared into my heart and my mind...not to go away anytime soon.

So it has been interesting to reflect back on the words of my pastor friend..."we may look back on this date..." Maybe August will bring something positive into my life down the road instead of the pain of the past.

It has been my desire from the moment I was arrested that some good might come out of my fall and my sin. I don't know exactly what it might look like, but I pray that through writing or speaking or a combination of both that my testimony and experiences might help at least one other man or family avoid the pain and destruction that has been the hallmark of my life the past 54 months.

I was surprised, though, at the conversation in the car on the drive to the tournament. While I knew the pastor who was travelling with us, we were not what I would consider confidants or close friends. I had met him less than ten times in the past, but he did know my situation and my history. And I was aware that he had problems in the past dealing with pornography. As we drove along, my friend explained to the pastor that he believed that with my own background that there was nothing to be concerned about as they visited. My friend sensed that the pastor had something that he wanted to share...and that it would most likely need to be something kept confidential. It was.

The pastor shared with us, and sought the forgiveness of his friend, that he had experienced a setback and had found himself drawn back to pornography on the Internet. He had confessed to his wife and his senior pastor and was seeking professional counseling to deal with his problem. He was confessing to his friend because he had not been completely forthcoming with him in the past about his struggles. As I sat in the backseat, I found my head nodding in understanding as he shared his failures and his pain.

I was invited into the conversation because I've been where this man is now. I found myself drawn back to the Internet and the filth and evil lurking there on more times than I can count. But I didn't have the integrity that this man did to turn to friends and family to seek help and honestly share my struggles. Instead, I kept going back, falling deeper and deeper into a trap that I eventually couldn't find my way out of. The darkness of the sin was totally blinding. But through God's grace, I was offered a faint glimmer of light to find my way back to a life.

I found myself easily sharing about my experience...about prison...about being a registered sex offender...about the restrictions I still find myself bound by. I didn't feel shame or guilt. Instead I felt blessed that I was being given the opportunity to allow my failures to serve as a warning to someone perilously close to the edge himself. I wish I would have been able to see the warnings when I was at the stage he found himself in that morning. My life most likely would be different now. Not necessarily better, but certainly different.

When the pastor said that we might look back on that day as the beginning of our ministry together, I can't describe the feelings erupting inside of me. First, someone who actually considered me as a ministry partner. Second, someone in the ministry who would know how to go about putting a program and a message together to share with men and women everywhere about the destructive power of pornography and sexual sin. Third, someone who had faith in me that I had something to share...something of value...something important! And finally, the realization that God was orchestrating this entire moment. I've always believed that God does not waste anything and that He does not intend to waste my life. This is a battle that the enemy is not going to win! God placed me in that car on that warm Saturday morning in August...in a month of painful memories...to offer me a chance of redemption. An opportunity to partner with another son of God who has struggled as I have. A chance to begin a deeper healing process by peeling back even more layers of my life, revealing a transparency so essential of my own healing and for the healing of others.

There are a lot of dates I remember in August...perhaps there will be a new one to add to my list.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Love, Sex and...(Rewind)

I've been thinking about sex a lot lately. I suppose that shouldn't be a great shock...after all I am a male and we have a reputation for thinking about it all the time. If I was still 15, it might seem more understandable, but alas, I'm much older than that. But my thoughts of sex are not what one might expect. It's not the thought of engaging in sex (though that idea does appeal to me after seven years of celibacy), but rather what sex has meant to me throughout my life.

For the past several weeks, the concept of "love" has been a primary focus of conversation and/or messages to me. In my church, it has been the center of several sermons. One of the books I recently finished reading helped to clarify what love is really all about. In my treatment group, we discussed the relationship between love and sex. The devotional I read each day has focused on it as well lately. I'm beginning to think that Someone is trying to get me to re-examine love (or the lack of it) in my own life.

My sister recently made a comment in reference to some of my writing about how she connected love and sex throughout her life. For her, sex was the only love she knew. I've thought about her comment off and on since she shared it, and after thinking on it, I realize that in some ways sex filled the same spot in my life. I just didn't realize it.

For me, nearly every relationship that I had (or wanted to have) was sexualized. If not in the flesh, then it certainly was in my mind. If I liked a person, or if I believed they liked me, it was in invitation to bring sex into the equation. That seemed to be what the relationship was built on. But a strange thing happened in those relationships...they didn't last very long. When the sex was over...or got boring, there was no anchor to the relationship and we would drift apart.

As I have reflected on those relationships, I have come to realize that very seldom was I the initiator. Even when I was married, my wife probably initiated sex more often than I did. Sometimes it was overt...and often it was more subtle. But for me, it was very rarely overt and almost never a verbal request. I'm not certain why except that it is probably centered on my fear of rejection. I wouldn't ask for sex because I was afraid they might say no.

Psychologists who specialize in sexual issues say that children naturally want to explore each other in sexual ways and that it is harmless. In fact, the research seems to show that children who do explore their bodies and the bodies of other kids their age are less likely to have any type of sexual dysfunction as adults. Sadly, that was stolen from me as a small child (as it has been for countless children through this country). From my earliest memories, I was afraid to explore sexually with others. I was too embarrassed and carried too much guilt. I don't know if it was related to being threatened by an older man who molested me or if intrinsically I knew that the sex I had experienced was wrong, but discussing or initiating sex has been a major struggle for me throughout my life.

And that brings me back to the "love" and "sex" connection. I've come to learn that love is really about relationship and everything that it takes to build a good relationship. Conversation. Honesty. Integrity. Selflessness. Knowing each other. Investing in each other. As a child, I didn't have any of those types of relationships...at least I didn't recognize them if they were there. Instead, the relationships held something else in common and that was sex. I wanted to be around people who would interact with me sexually. It was the indicator to me that I was OK...that I was special...that I was loved.

I realize now that my concept of love was defined by sex in my life. Not in every case, but in most. The only exception would have been my wife, but it was when I got into internet sexual-based chatting that our relationship began to be torn apart. Maybe it was a bigger part of my understanding of love in that relationship that I believed before.

I am thankful that God has given me the courage to write about the issues in my life that He slowly reveals to me. And I'm thankful that my words are read and commented on. It's a sign of love and lack of judgement that I had never realized in my life before. God continues to reveal His own love for me and demonstrates that love through the words and actions of others. Sex is great...but there is nothing greater than the intimacy encountered in a truly loving relationship with someone else.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Too Good to be True!

The heavy-set man...no, make that the fat man, walked up to me and introduced himself as Ron. I had only been in the unit for about an hour but I think the fact that I was white and middle aged led him to me. He quickly went over a few "rules" with me and then started visiting. As he talked...and I listened since there really wasn't much room for any of my words in the conversation, he asked me if I was a golfer. He said that I looked like was athletic and had probably played some kind of sports at one time. I told him that I loved to golf and had actually been living on a golf course when I was arrested.

"Hey Atwater!", he screamed across the unit. Here's another guy who likes golf.

As I stood there leaning against the wall, an attractive black man, his head shaved smooth with a smile that stretched from ear to ear walked over. He extended his hand and introduced himself as Robert, but "everyone calls me Atwater" he added.

"So you like golf, huh?" I asked.

"Oh yea. I played on the Senior tour before I was arrested", he said.

I didn't watch a lot of the Senior tour on TV before I was arrested, but I had been watching golf long enough to know the name wasn't at all familiar to me.

"I don't think I remember hearing your name before", I said. "Sorry, I watch a lot of golf, but the only Atwater that I can connect to sports is in football."

"Oh yea, you mean my son, Steve. He played for Denver until he retired a few years ago. And don't feel bad about not recognizing my name from the Senior tour. I played under an alias 'cuz there was a warrant out for my arrest for a few years."

Over the months that I was in prison, Robert shared a lot of stories with us.

His ex-wife was a Federal judge and he would regularly tell us that he called her anytime he had problems with any of the staff.

He was arrested for money laundering and the sale of drugs and the Fed's had never recovered the millions that he had laundered.

He owned several McDonald's in L.A. and they had some of the highest consumer traffic in the country.

He and his current wife operated a couple of credit unions and they had one in Mercer Island in Washington state.

"If you need a job when you get out Mark, I can get you a job at the Mercer Island shop," he told me more than once. Of course, he never gave me a phone number or name that I could contact when I got out.

ESPN came in and did an interview with Robert and now there were people who wanted to make a movie about his life story.

He worked as a golf caddie for more than twenty years at the Augusta Golf Course in Georgia, that home of the Master's tournament.

Robert was the "classic con"...and he was good at it. He could lie better than anyone I had ever met in my life. And there was nothing in the way he talked or carried himself that would make you think he was a liar...except that he just was. In fact, I've not met very many people in my life that were easier to like than Robert was.

Shortly before I got out of prison, a former inmate that lived in my unit sent me a copy of an interview that Sports Illustrated had done with Robert shortly after he sent to prison. The truth is, Robert had played on the Senior tour...one time as Darren Muarry. He had caddied the year before on the Senior tour and had convinced the sponsors of tournament that he was a really good golfer and they allowed him to play in their tournament. He placed last.

Actually, Robert had shared a number of stories about that tournament. He would laugh as he would tell us how poorly he had played. How embarassed he was when he four putted the first green and got a quadruple bogey. He even admitted that he had placed last in the tournament, but that was where the truth ended.

The man who had interviewed Robert saw through him immediately. He, too, had never met anyone that who was as likable as this senior golfer who had never learned how to tell the truth. There was nothing that Robert would say that you could trust as being the truth. It was so sad because he was attractive, witty, charismatic and articulate. Had he used his skills and talents in a legitimate pursuit, I have no doubt that he would have been extremely successful at anything he attempted.

Sadly, I think Robert had lied for so long that he truly believed his own words. There were many times that he would come along beside me and tell me that "we" were so different from most of the other guys in this place.

"There's no way we'll ever come back to a place like this. We just made one mistake and got caught. It's not that we're bad people."

I can't say that Robert is "bad people." It's just that he is allergic to the truth. I know that I'll never see Robert again, but his face and story will be etched in my memory forever. I still have the Christmas picture we took together with him wearing the Santa hat and a smile that always warranted one in return. I'll remember that smile and his kindness. I'll remember his stories and his facade. I'll remember the con who truly was a "con".

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Ugly Duckling

I had just completed my luke warm shower...the shower room sounding much like I remembered the locker room during Junior High school. For some strange reason, it seems that when men are in a community shower area, they feel a need to shout everything...no indoor voices used here. And they want to laugh and shout. As I walked out of the shower area wearing only my boxer shorts, carrying my wet soggy towel, I stopped in the sink area. I really don't know why...I had just completed my shower and shave a few moments before.

I stood in front of one of the sinks, looking at myself in the polished chrome mirror (no glass mirrors in this place). As I stared at the reflection of the man looking back at me, anger and hatred rose up inside of me. I hated what I saw. In my eyes, he was one of the ugliest people I had ever seen! There was nothing that I could find attractive.

There was no joy in smile...no twinkle in his eyes...no glow to his skin. In a sense, he was a walking dead man. My heart broke as I realized that reflection was my own.

I was reminded recently of the story of the Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen. I was visiting with my ex-wife on the phone as I try to do every week. We were talking about my therapy group and how it is helping me recognize and deal with issues from my past and helped to form the man that I became. For years, I never took a good, honest look at who I was and the experiences of my youth. It was too ugly of a time in my life and I just didn't want to deal with it.

"Why are you so different from the others?" And the
ugly duckling felt worse than ever. He secretly wept at night. He felt nobody
wanted him.

"Nobody loves me, they all tease me! Why am I different
from my brothers?"

Excerpt from "The Ugly Duckling", by Hans Christian Andersen

As I went back and re-read the childhood fable about a swan that had grown up as a duck, I was struck by how I had shared the same feeling that the "ugly duckling" had. How does a little boy acquire an image of himself that he would feel so unloved? The answer seems so simple now…when ugly things happen to people; it gives them a skewed picture of who they are. I can still remember the confusion that I had as I entered adolescence about my sexuality. I understand now that being sexually molested as a little boy had left a lasting imprint in my mind, much as that baby swan that was raised by a mother duck had a lasting image imprinted in his mind. He thought he was a duck because that was what he had seen since birth. But he knew that somehow he was different. He didn't know why, but he could tell.
There is a scene in the Disney animated movie version of "Tarzan" where the young boy Tarzan feels totally lost and different. The other "ape" babies make fun of him and call him ugly, because he is different. Though raised as an ape, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't be one. The scene in the movie has Tarzan down by a stream, crying because he feels so alone and different. His "momma ape" comes down to the stream to comfort him. She shows Tarzan his reflection in the water and points out that he is different...that he is not an ape, but that he is beautiful all the same. He's not really ugly...he's just a boy and not an ape after all.
There are times when I wish that I had received that reassurance as a little boy. The pain of being teased for having a lisp when I started first grade, of having ears that were bigger than everyone else's and that stuck out (making great target for being flicked)...of just feeling different were nearly overwhelming at times. The molestation and the confusing sexual desires that it left buried that I knew were wrong left me feeling guilt that I had no one to talk to about. I developed shyness around girls that left me feeling even more awkward and different that most adolescent boys normally feel. When I looked at myself in the mirror as a blossoming teenage boy, I hated what I saw and knew in my heart that everyone else would hate it too.
I still have to look at my reflection every day as I brush my teeth or shave or comb my hair. I don't often stop and take a long look at the man looking back at me. But on those occasions when I do, I don't see the same ugly man (or boy) that I had seen in my past. Like the swan in that childhood fable, I now know who it is that's looking back at me. Though I'm not beautiful like a swan, I know, and accept, what has happened in my life and accept the fact that they helped to form the man I became, whether I liked it or not. I realize that, unlike the "ugly duckling", by refusing to try to find out who I was, I continued to only see the ugliness of my life that I wanted to keep hidden from everyone, including myself.

Like the swan in the Ugly Duckling, it has taken me time to discover who I am. And like the swan in the story, I know that I am different from others…even my brothers and sister. The differences come from our different experiences. There are a lot of things from my childhood that I wish had not happened. There have been times that I wished that I would have had a different life…that somehow it could have been a lot happier and filled with joy instead of pain. I no longer feel that way. I am a unique creation of God, with life experiences that have molded me…some for the good and some for not-so-good. The ugly duckling has grown up, and through that growth and maturity, I have come to acknowledge that I don’t have to hide my past any longer. I don’t have to deny the things that happened to me and the residual effect that have had on me. Like the swan, I can now live my life without fear or guilt…but with the contentment that comes from seeing the reflection peering back from the shiny mirror as a man who has discovered the reality of his life, accepted his flaws and let go of the ropes of bondage that kept him isolated for most of his life.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Skin to Knowing!

"She sat back beaming. 'You are wise in the ways of real love, Mackenzie. So many believe that it is love that grows, but it is the knowing that grows and love simply expands to contain it. Love is just the skin to knowing."

From "The Shack"

by William P. Young

I just finished reading an incredible book...a book that could be life-changing for those who don't already have a relationship with Christ. Even those who do will never look at God...and the vision of the Trinity the same way. The author brought to life a concept that scholars have tried...and failed...to explain for centuries.

I love to read, and while much of what I read is mindless fiction, there are occasionally nuggets buried in the writing that I stumble across. The quote above is one of those that touched me in a very profound way. I noted it in my mind when I first read it, wanting to make sure I remembered it. I continued in my reading for several chapters and was then drawn back to it. It had spoken to me, but I didn't quite get it yet. I hadn't marked the page, so it took several moments before I was able to find it. Once again, I slowly read the words over and over, knowing that there was a message in there for me, but my conscious mind wasn't grasping it.

I finished reading the book this afternoon, and I was once again drawn back to this paragraph. Was God trying to communicate with me? Was there a lesson here he was trying to teach me? Try as I might, it still seemed like there was something just out of my reach, like the rings at the Carousel that were just inches away from my fingers as a child, but that I never captured.

After grappling with the passage for several minutes, I put the book away and went to the computer to check my e-mail. There was only one new message today...it was from my sister and I sat there and read her words, this fog that had been blurring this passage finally lifted and I found clarity in the words.

I've always loved Debbie...she's my only sister and there have been times in my life that we have been very close. And there have been seasons in my life where there has been a chasm that seemed to separate us. Neither of us created the distance, but we would both admit that it was there.

A lot has happened in my life in the past year...actually the past four years. Next week, I will celebrate a year of freedom from the razor wire and fences that enclosed me for almost three years. During that time, I have read with regularity my sister's writing. And through that, a miracle has occurred that I never would have anticipated...and I doubt that she would have either. I have come to know my sister. I may be the only one in my family who does...and I relish that gift! Her willingness to become transparent and share her fears and anxieties...her dreams and desires...her past and her present have allowed me to know her in ways I could never have dreamed, and in the process caused me to love her in a deeper way that I ever had before.

As I reflected on that realization, I understood for the first time in my life a reason that it has been so hard for me to truly love...and to understand love. I had never really sought to get to truly KNOW the people that I claimed to love! I never took the time to get to know my mom or dad...to know who they were and why they were who they were. There were opportunities, but they are now lost forever. I'll never be able to love them the way I could have because my pride, or fear, kept me from asking the questions or listening to the answers.

I had the most incredible woman for a wife and loved her to the extent that I was capable of at the time. I realize that I love her more now than I did while we were married because I have come to really know her more in the past four years than I did during the entire eighteen years of our marriage. I've asked and she's shared. And at times, she's simply shared and I've listened. At other times, she's simply loved and revealed a character of grace and love that isn't seen in many people.

And God...well He's another story! Until I took the time to get to know Him...to spend time with Him, I didn't really love Him. I said I did, but in reality, it was only words without meaning. I had no clue who He was! I had never talked with Him...I had talked at Him a few times and rarely had I ever listened for His voice. Today, I can honestly say that I love God with all of my heart, and I grow to love Him more and more each day! The reason is that I get to know Him better each day. And while He already knows all there is to know about me, I think His love for me grows stronger each day because I allow Him to get to know me better each day.

I can't really express the excitement that I have about learning how to love! It is changing the way that I live. I'm trying to make for room in this "skin"...providing for new opportunities to others to love me...and for me to fill the "skin" of others.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"This is my Story...This is My Song!"

I had been playing the guitar now for about five months. The first two months were really, really difficult. The teacher was good...a Vietnamese who would also spend quite a bit of time at the Chapel. I was learning the chord fingerings OK, and I was getting the theory down, but I just didn't have (or take) the time to practice like I needed to. Part of it has to do with my learning style. If I don't some immediate application to what it is I'm trying to learn, I find it difficult to motivate myself to practice. But...if I either use it, or see how I can use it, then you will find me practicing much more that is expected.

It wasn't until one of my friends, Zach, brought a worship song book by the Chapel that he had that had a lot of songs that I recognized and the guitar chords that went with the songs. I would find myself spending hours in the Chapel during my work time with a guitar in my hands practicing songs. It was amazing how quickly I started to learn how to play that beautiful stringed instrument. It all made sense, and the guitar was actually beginning to make a sound that was more like harmony than the sounds I would hear coming from a guitar that a two year old would create from his own random strumming. I was really beginning to like this!

Then one night, something really strange happened. I started to hear these words in my mind and there was a melody line with them. Could this be a song germinating in my mind? I pushed it aside, knowing that I have never been creative like that, and even if it was a song, I would never know how to write it down.

I put it out of my mind and read for awhile and then crawled up into my bed. I was greeted with the nearly empty pillow case that passed for my pillow and the thin blanket that would cover me through the night, warding off the cold air blowing from the air conditioner directly over my bed. It only took minutes for my body to begin to feel the hardness of the steel plate that substituted for what most people call "bed springs". I knew my body would be screaming at me in the morning as I pulled the blanket up over my head and tried to fall asleep amidst the clamour of another night at TCI.
"I've been down that road
That leads to death and destruction,
I've listened to lies from the devil himself.
I was lost and alone
In a fantasy nightmare,
But God by His grace
Has brought me back to His throne."
As I lay there in bed, the words kept rolling around in my head. They began to develop a cadence and as they continued to play, music once again joined in. Only this time, it was even better than when it first started to ferment hours earlier.
I'm not one to get out of bed and write down things that I think of while I'm in bed. I know that because of that trait, I have left a lot of good ideas in bed that I forgot long before my alarm would wake me the following morning. But on that night, something...or Someone...kept prodding me to get out of bed and write this down.
"You show me grace
You show me love.
You show me grace
From Heaven above.
He has touched me through you
His obedient daughter.
He has shown me His grace
By being loved by you!"
I crawled down out of my bed and rummaged in my locker for a notepad and began to write. As I wrote the first set of words that had come to me (was this really a verse?), another set of words quickly rushed into my mind. Even as I wrote the words on the paper, my mind was associating musical chords to them. I didn't know the name of the chord at the time, but using little arrows, I placed them above the words on my paper to know that the music should move up or down.
My heart started to pound with excitement at the thought that God was giving me a song! And not just any song...this song was about me...about my life and my struggles...and how He has revealed Himself to me over these past months.
"I can't look in your eyes
Without seeing Jesus
Whenever you speak,
I hear His still, small voice.
In the caress of your touch
I feel the love of the Master.
Thank you my love
For showing Christ to me!"
When I think of what I've done in my life and how I've hurt those who loved me the very most, I am amazed at how differently they have reacted. My brother's and sister have shown me love and support since they first heard that I was in trouble. Some of my former co-workers were quick to run the other way and distance themselves from me as quickly as possible, while some that I didn't even realize were really friends have surrounded me with their love and support.
But the one person that I deserved to have completely leave my life...didn't. I know she wanted to, she has told me that. When she left our condo on February 25, she never expected to come back or have any kind of relationship with me. She knew that she would go her separate way and start a new life without me. She had been able to separate her from important people in her life before, so why should it be any different this time? Because Someone else had a different plan....a plan to use her to save a lost sinner...me!
"He has shown me the way
He has shown me the light,
Cleansed me from sin
Given me new life.
Thank You my Lord
For Your treasured daughter,
Thank You my Lord
For my beautiful wife!"
There is a beautiful old hymn that has a line in the chorus that says, "This is my story, this is my song!" That's what God gave to me that night. I didn't plan to write a song about, or to, my wife, Paula. But God had different plans, as He often does. Through the words of a song that He placed in my heart, He continued the healing process that He started over a year before and that He continues to this day. He helped me to see what REAL grace looked like...and He used the person that I have loved more than anyone else on this earth to reveal it to me. And He continued to peel back the scales from my eyes so that I could see exactly the kind of life that I was living. He is truly an amazing God!
The next day in the chapel, I took out a guitar and began to play with the song. Within less than an hour, I had a chord chart written for "my song" and I was playing in the office. David, the gifted musician who played keyboards for the church choir, asked what it was that I was playing. With a little bit of pride in my voice, I told him that it was a song that I had written....a song that God had given me...a song of my life.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

When Is Goodbye?

This was not a place that I wanted to be...not today and actually, not any day. There is such a feeling of hopelessness in this place. The paint on the cinder block walls can't hide that fact that the walls are still impenetrable for most of those who are here. As cheerful as they try to make it appear, there is little cheer here.

I contemplated not coming. I could have just driven by and come up with a good excuse. The traffic was pretty heavy because of the Seafair activities out on the lake. It was getting close to dinner time and I really didn't want to interrupt the meal time. I signed in and walked up the stairs. Seeing the door handle at the top of the door, out of reach for those who live here caused my heart to tighten. I knew what it must feel like for those in here who can't reach the door handle...who can't get out of this place. While it doesn't say "prison" any place here, that's what many of these people are in.

I looked around as I passed through the doorway, pausing and glancing down where the chairs are but there was no one there. I turned and walked down the hallway, past the nurse's station and turned right up her hallway. As I passed one of the day rooms, I stuck my head in and saw only empty chairs. Continuing up the hallway, I found the door to the small room she shared with another woman. A old woman sat in her wheelchair outside the door of the room, looking at me with a sense of confusion in her eyes. "Who is this man?", she must have been thinking.

I turned and quietly went into the room...darkened by pulled shades and lights in the off position. In the darkness, I could see that one of the beds was occupied by a woman that looked like she must be in her eighties...perhaps her nineties. She was sleeping soundly and I chose not to bother her. The other bed was empty, the thin blanket pulled up over the pillows. I'd never been in this room before...I didn't know which bed was hers.

As I turned and walked out of the room, the old woman in the wheelchair called out...whether for me or someone else, I don't know. I kept walking. Perhaps she would be in the dining room or in the TV room. As I turned the corner toward the dining room, there was an old, grey-haired woman, slowly scooting in her wheelchair toward the sliding glass doors that seemingly offered a means of escape from this place only to dash the hopes of the would-escapees by being locked. One of the wheels on the chair were locked as the woman pulled herself along...constantly being pulled to one side only to push herself off the wall to straighten herself back out.

The shoulder of her pink sweat top had slid down over her bare shoulder, but she seemed not to care...or notice. I walked up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder.

"Hi", I said in a gently firm voice, knowing that she was deaf in one ear.

She paused and looked up at me.

I've been here before, and part of the reason I hate this place is that this woman I came to visit today often doesn't even recognize me. Though she carried me for nine months and went through the pain of labor and childbirth to deliver me, her mind struggles for recognition.

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, "The Lord of the Rings...Return of the King" (I've seen the trilogy over six times each) where one of the kings (one of the good guys) is laying on the battlefield, his body broken. His daughter comes to his side and throws her battle helmet off, tears streaming down her face. The king opens his eyes and focus on his daughter.

"I know that face!", he declares.

Today in the place that smells of disinfectant and bodily excretions, this old woman looks up at me. Suddenly, her face breaks into a smile larger than I've seen on her in many years.

"I know you!", she tells me. I can see the tears welling in her eyes as she sees this man and recognition comes to her brain.

I bend down and kiss her and she returns the kiss, her face still smiling through her toothless mouth.

"Who am I?", I ask.

"You're my brother!", she exclaims with great pride. I stood there and held her hand and smiled at her.

"I love you", I said.

Her face continued to shine as she looked up at me from the confines of her chair. I unlocked the wheel of her chair and pushed her to the corner where there were chairs where I could sit down and visit. Visit is a kind word for the conversation. With her mind gone, mom had her own language that only she can understand. I sit and nod in agreement with her. I hold her hand and tell her that I love her and how pretty she looks today. Her conversation continued to jump from what may have been Mars or Venus. But I just sat there and looked at this woman who seemed happier than I had seen her in years.

"I recognized you today, and I was right", she said again with a sense of deep pride. I could tell that it was important to her. I can't imagine the mental prison she must be in. Once a very intelligent woman now struggling to put a sentence together and more often than not even recognizing the faces of her own children. Her smile made me want to cry as I sat and smiled with her. Soon it was time for me to leave, and I gave her a final kiss and turned and walked away...toward that door that has the handle I know she can't reach, no matter how hard she tries. I didn't look back, knowing that I would have seen her pushing her chair frantically after me, not wanting a familiar face to leave.

When I got home that night, I went to my computer to check my e-mail and to see if my sister had blogged recently. Debbie is a gifted writer who writes with a passion that I can only hope for. No matter the topic of her writing, she finds a way to touch the reader...and that night she touched me.

She wrote about her cat. Not just any cat, but a cat that she had raised from birth. Her cat is now fifteen years old and it has disappeared. In a very poignant way, the title of her blog asks the question that I found myself asking about mom..."when is goodbye?" She had been searching for her beloved cat for a full week and he had not come home. In her heart, she was struggling with whether or not it was time to accept that Tabasco wasn't coming home...that he was gone. There would be no more cat sitting at the window...or laying on her bed...or sharing her dish with the other cats. Was it time to acknowledge 'the end.'

As much as I hate going to that place on Mercer Island with the door handles too high for the patients to reach and strong odor of disinfectant, I know I'll go back. This visit reminds me that the visit isn't about me...it's about this woman whose name is "mom." My heart breaks that I will never truly know her or who she was. I'll never have questions answered about my own life that only she can answer. I'll never be able to ask her questions that I should have asked years ago, but my pride prevented me. Today reminds me that there is a possibility that if I walk into that place on another Saturday afternoon, I'll hear the words, "I know you!" On that day, I might be Geoff, or Frank, or Bob or Grandaddy or her brother...or perhaps her mind might allow her to connect all the dots and recognize me for who I am...her son.

When is Goodbye? Not quite yet.