Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Would Have Been a Dad!

I never know where my triggers may come from or what might spur a memory. But they seem to come nevertheless. I had such an occasion during with my treatment group this week. One of the men in the group shared how he was coming to grips with the anger he had for his wife who had three abortions before they were married. He went on to share that he had been close to several women as he was growing up who had abortions themselves (not of his child) and how it had changed his relationship with them. He admitted that part of it all had to do with jealousy...both with his girl friends from his youth as well as with his wife.

As he shared, it brought a memory back that had receded deeply within the creases of my consciousness. It took me back to 1983 and the memory wasn't a good one. I was dating a woman that I had pretty serious feeling least serious for me. She wasn't my "first love", but I figured she was a woman I could spend the rest of my life with. My family liked her and she seemed to like them and fit in with them well. We dated for well over a year and spent a lot of time together and had become sexually intimate early in our relationship.

By the summer of '83, we had become pretty "comfortable" in our relationship, and as I reflect, I really wasn't a very good boyfriend. I know that I took her cooking and nurturing for granted and never really did anything very special for her. I guess she realized that too. And is often the case in life, she met someone who knew how to treat a woman and swept her off her feet.

I remember the conversation (now) like it was just the other day. We were sitting on the couch in her apartment and we were talking about her getting ready to travel to Australia to visit her dad. I'm not sure how, or why, she brought it up but out of the blue, she told me that earlier that spring, she had an abortion...and I had been the father.

I was totally speechless! It took me a few moments to grasp what it was she had just told me. I had gotten her pregnant and she never told me...and I was totally clueless. And instead of telling me and allowing me to be a part of the decision about our child, she thought the best decision was to abort the baby and move on with her life.

After simply sitting there on the couch for what seemed like an eternity, I reached over and held her, and told her how sorry I was that she had to go through that by herself. She told me that she hadn't been alone...that a "friend" had been there with her. I didn't ask her why she didn't tell me or why she didn't allow me to be a part of the decision. I didn't ask her who the "friend" was or why she didn't consider me a good enough of a friend since we had been sleeping together for over a year by now. I simply apologized...and cried...and held her.

Our relationship was essentially over at that point. When she got back from Australia, everything had changed. As school started again in the fall, we spent less time together and she was soon receiving flowers at school from a new "friend". We remained friends, but we never talked about the abortion again.

As I sat in the small room with my treatment group, I reflected on how I had reacted to the news of the abortion more than 25 years earlier. I had done what I had done my entire life. I had accepted that it was OK for others not to tell me the truth about things that were important in my life. I had accepted that it was OK for others to make decisions about my life without asking for my input. I had accepted that it was OK to be less than honest if it meant that truth might be hurtful.

And then I thought about what had really happened. Someone else had murdered my baby and I hadn't been asked if it was OK! I had conceived a life that was snuffed out and never given a chance to breath fresh air into his or her lungs. I was going to be a father and I was never going to get a chance to hold my own baby in my arms. And as I thought about what I had allowed to happen without explanation, I got angry. I was angry with myself for not being a man enough to confront the situation 25 years ago. And I was angry that something had happened to me during my life that I had believed that it was more important to bury my feelings instead of speaking honestly from my heart. Strangely, I was never angry with her. And that makes me angry.

My wife Paula and I never had children of our own. I was 30 and she was 35 when we got married, and I know enough about biology to know that the risk of genetic defects in the baby and risk to the life of the mother with older pregnancies was great. She had three beautiful kids that came to love me as their own dad. We now have four beautiful grandbabies that I got to hold in my arms within minutes of their births. I know first hand what I lost when that baby was thrown away 25 years ago.

And the pain in my heart is real...and feels fresh. I'm sure part of the reason is the fact that I can't hold my grandbabies any more and won't be able to be around them for I don't know how long. My niece is having a baby in two weeks and I'm not sure I will ever hold him in my arms.
I'm not sure how exactly, but I know my life would be different today if the baby would have been born. One thing I do know for certain though is that I would have been a dad.

Photo from Flickr

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hanging on by a Thread

I don't often get visions, so no one was more surprised than I was as I was resting this afternoon that a picture continued to come to my mind. It was the image of a spider, hanging from a single thread. There was no web in the vision, just the solitary spider and the gossamer thread of silk that it clung to. And in my spirit, I knew it was more than just a simple picture or was something from God.

God has been speaking to me a lot in this past week. And the message has been a consistent one. I know there are some who would say that we find what we're looking for when we feel that God is talking to us, to the continuity of the message resounded clearly, day after day, and it was culminated today with the vision. His words..."don't fear" and "have faith".

I know from experience that it is easier to say that I have faith and that I'm not afraid than it is to actually live it. Three years in prison will test any man's faith. And no matter how "minimum" the security is at a prison, they are still not safe places. There is a reason to be afraid in that dark place. But when you have received a promise from God, and you believe that promise...and God fulfills that promise, faith is strengthened. That's where I am.

Through devotional after devotional this past week...through messages on the radio and in church...through the words of song and article, God has told me not to be afraid. He is in control of all things. "Trust me", He says. "Remember", He reminds me. "Have faith", He challenges me. And then in His love, He sends me a vision to reinforce His promise to me.

As a former biology teacher, I know a little bit about spiders...and other creepy/crawly things. Unlike many people, spiders don't bother me. In fact, I had a pet tarantula spider for more than five years that I kept in my classroom. At times, I would take the big, hairy creature and allow him to walk up my arm and across my back and back down my other arm. It got quite a reaction out of the kids as they watched this spider that invokes fear in so many simply walk on my bare, susceptible skin. They would also watch in amazement as Gladys (the spider) would catch crickets that I had placed in her cage and paralyze them with her venom and then "tie" the cricket up with her silk. (Every time I watch "Lord of the Rings - Return of the King" and watch the giant spider wrap up Frodo with her silk threads, it reminds me of Gladys and the crickets).

Different kinds of spiders use there silk in different ways. Some, like Gladys, simply tie their prey up with the silk. Others, like Charlotte (from "Charlotte's Web") spin intricate webs that unwary creatures fly or fall into. But other spiders use a single of strand of their silk (called a gossamer) to float from place to place. Some spiders have been know to travel more than 50 miles this way. But the silk of all spiders have one thing in is incredibly strong. In fact, it is stronger than steel itself.

The picture God gave me was of that spider, hanging onto their single strand of silk, floating on the wind. It doesn't matter where the wind takes the gossamer...and its passenger the spider. What is critical is that the spider hangs on to the thread. For me, the thread is the promise...the faith, that I have in God that I can trust Him through difficult times. And it is stronger than any problem that I might face.

There is a lot of uncertainty in my life right now. The business that I work for is on the brink of collapse...looking to reorganize through bankruptcy. I really don't know right now whether I will have a job next week...or even tomorrow. And in an economy with literally hundreds of thousands out of work, the probability of a convicted felon easily getting a job is not high. But, I'm not anxious. I'm not fearful. In truth...I'm prepared. Not financially, but spiritually and emotionally for whatever happens.

God has spent considerable time leading me through the wilderness and strengthening me every step of the way. He has allowed me to fail and He has lifted me up when I've fallen. He has never asked me to be perfect...because He knows that I can't be. He's never asked me to give more than I'm capable of giving Him...because He accepts all that I give Him from my heart. He only asks one thing from continue to hang onto that thread of faith that He has given me. Like the spider, it's enough to take me where ever the wind of the Holy Spirit carries it.

Photo from Flickr

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I heard a word today that has really made me stop and think..contentment. I have to be completely honest, it's not a word that has come to my mind lately...not for at least five years. At first, I thought about just letting the word play around in my gray matter for awhile and let it pass, but it hasn't. And I'm pretty certain that it's not going to until I put voice to it.

At first thought, the word simply brought to mind the question of whether or not I'm "just OK" with where I am in life right now. But as I looked the word up for a more complete definition, it means more than just being "OK"'s a satisfaction with where you are in life.

There are a lot of things that I'm extremely satisfied/content with. I am probably more emotionally healthy right now than I've been in many years. I've come to the place in my life where I've acknowledged and accepted where I've come from and how those experiences have shaped and molded me. And I've recognized that I've made a lot of changes in my life over the past several years.

My probation officer decided that it was time to pay me a visit on Friday and stopped by my home here. She hadn't seen me face to face in almost a year. As she stepped in to my house, she commented that it was the first time that she had been in my new place and that it was really nice. I thanked her...because it is. As we visited, I commented that we hadn't seen each other for a while and her response was a little unexpected...though very pleasing. She simply said it was because I was doing the things that I need to be doing and she didn't feel a need to check up on me constantly.

As we continued to visit and she asked about all that was going on in my life, she said she was amazed at how much I had changed, even in the past eighteen months that she has known me. I've made friends, become involved and avoided isolation. I've re-established relationships with my brothers and sister...and maintained relationship with Paula. And...I'm not hiding from who I was.

The truth is, I have changed. I journaled a lot during the six months before I went into prison and Paula gave me all of my journals when I was released. I was reading through one of them a week or two ago and I would read from my own words how difficult it was to accept the things that I had done...and the things that had been done to me. There was an anger beneath the surface of my writing...mostly at myself. And there was a lack of acceptance that I would have...and could have been the man who was sent to prison.

I won't say that prison broke me...but I have been broken. It was by the truth. I had to be willing to look honestly at my life and my feelings...things I had never been willing to do before because there was simply too much pain and confusion by looking in those dark closets. But I looked anyway. I had to...not out of curiosity, but out of a need for healing. In the deepest recesses of my heart, I know that God knew that I needed time and a place to find peace and it wasn't going to come by working a 24/7/365 job. It wasn't going to come by looking for escape in an Internet chat room. It would only come by seeking, finding and accepting truth in my life.

And that's where my contentment lies tonight. I still want more for my life because I believe God wants more for my life. I don't want to be alone and lonely every night. I long to be sharing my life with someone to love. I have a story to tell and I believe there will be a time, a place and a platform for that story to be told. But, if there isn't any more than what I have right now, I am OK with that. My life has been full. I have experienced things that fill books and movies portray to millions through film. I have received the gift of Life that does truly satisfy my soul. I know who I am...and I like him.
Photo from Flickr

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


He's not a man I would have chosen for a "cellie" at first glance. He arrived in prison about a year after I did. He was short and a bit on the round side. He seemed to have his pants hitched up a bit too high, he spoke with a stammer and he was legally deaf. His first night there, he came over and stood by me and a couple of other men while we were waiting to get released for dinner.

I'm not sure why he approached us. It may have been because we were white (which was a bit of a minority in here) or because we spoke English (another minority). I'd like to think it was because we were decent, safe-looking guys...I never did bother to ask him. He introduced himself as Ray and told us that he had voluntarily surrendered himself earlier that day. He and his wife had flown down from Portland, Oregon the day before and she drove him out to the prison to turn himself in.

I could tell he was a little on the nervous side, so I asked him where he lived in the Portland area. He was from Canby and had worked as an accountant for over twenty years. I've never been to Canby, but I've seen the signs from the freeway. We visited a little bit more as we waited for the C.O. to release us and I told him that I was from Washington state and had been here for a year. I asked if had any decent hygiene stuff, and he told me that he just had the stuff they gave him when they checked him in.

1 - dull orange razor
1 - tiny bar of soap that you might find in a Motel 6
1 - half sized toothbrush
1 - tube of something that said "toothpaste" on it but had to have been mislabeled judging by its taste

I told him that I had some "real" stuff in my locker that I bought to give to new guys when they arrived and offered it to him. He was apprehensive at first (which I clearly understood), but finally said yes. We went back to my cube and I got the stuff out of my locker for him. I have to admit that while I was in prison, I broke very few rules, but this was one that I violated on a regular basis. The rules said that inmates were not to give any items to any other inmate, but since the prison had taken away our ability to donate items to the chapel to give "goodie bags" to new arrivals, I ( and many of the other men who attended the church) gave out of our lockers instead.

The C.O. finally bellowed out "Chow Time!" and we all began to leave the unit and head to the chow hall. After dinner, I offered to show Ray around the place. I took him to the Chapel first and told him that I worked there. I introduced him to some of the clerks and a few of the other regulars that were hanging out there. Then the tour of the library and then down to the yard.

As we left the Chapel, Ray said that before he came into prison, he had visited with his pastor. He had never been much of a church guy, but his wife encouraged him to begin attending before coming to this place. His pastor had given him some good advice..."get to know some of the other Christian men that you will meet in there" he had told him. It was amazing that God led him to John and me on his first day.

Ray was assigned to a three man cube like all the new arrivals are. It became apparent quickly that Ray was an extremely generous man. But not in a way that he was trying to buy favors or friends. He would simply try to help any one that he saw in need. There was a Native American man who lived in the cube next to Ray. He was a real loner and suffered from Tuberculosis. It wasn't uncommon for him to be coughing up blood on a regular basis and was often time held overnight at the infirmary. Ray noticed that he liked to play chess, so I would find Ray often sitting in the man's cube playing the game. When I asked Ray about the games, he said it just seemed that the man was always alone and he thought he needed a friend.

After he had been there about a year, my "cellie" was released so I had an open bed in my cube. I was living in a two-man cube by now and the bed that opened was a lower bunk. These were premium property and were coveted by most of the inmates. Everyone expected that I would request to be transferred to the lower bunk and that the upper bunk would become vacant. Instead, I asked Ray if he wanted to put in a request for the lower bunk. I told him I would submit a request that he be placed with me. Because of his health issues, Ray couldn't sleep in an upper bed. The prison honored our request and Ray was soon moving up the hall and into cube #1 with me.

Ray had a great sense of humor and would tell stories from his youth that make me laugh so hard my sides would hurt. He had always had a fascination with guns and things that exploded as he was growing up and he and his brother decided to build a home-made "cannon" one summer. They lived out in the country and after they manufactured this thing, they decided to see how well it worked. There was a small lake next to their property and some old row boats that were tied up along the edge. Ray never said if it was his idea or his brother's, but they decided to aim the cannon at one of the boats. They loaded their cannon with a large ball bearing and lit the fuse. Ray said even he could hear the explosion as the cannon ignited and the cannon ball shot from the barrel of their invention. They couldn't believe their eyes when the ball hit one of the boats...and sunk it! He knowingly rubbed his butt as he told us his dad's reaction as we rolled on the floor laughing.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "perfect" room mate in prison...or anywhere for that matter. (I had one in college...Scott...but that's a different story) But I have to admit, Ray was a very good room mate. He didn't feel we always had to be in conversation (maybe his being deaf played a part in that) and he was clean. He was also honest and I didn't have to worry about him getting into any of my stuff.

When Ray first arrived in prison, one of the things that he did was write down the number of every day that he was going to be in prison. It was about 700. Each day before dinner, he would take out the paper and ceremonially draw a line through the number that represented the day. I got so I enjoyed watching him do it and tell me how many days he had left since he got out ten days before I did. That way I didn't have to count. I knew I would be able to keep track of the my final ten days.

Like many inmates that shared this little piece of Hell with me, Ray was treated unfairly by the prison. Shortly after he moved into my cube, his hearing aids began to act up. He made an appointment to go to the infirmary to have them checked. When he went over, they gave him new batteries and said everything would be fine. They worked about a week and then went dead again. It was back to the infirmary. This time they cleaned them and sent him back. In a few days, they stopped working again. So Ray went back for a third time.

I know from experience and watching and listened to the inmates in prison that there are a lot of them who try to use the system. Ray wasn't one of those men. When he went back the third time, the officials said there was nothing wrong with the hearing aids. They said they sent them into an audiologist in Bakersfield and they were fine. But when Ray put them in his ears, they didn't work and he was deaf. Ray asked permission to send them home to Oregon to get them replaced or repaired. He offered to pay for the shipping and any expenses that might be incurred. The prison refused. He appealed all the way to the warden's office. The answer was still no.

The last six months that Ray was in prison with me, he was virtually completely deaf. He was able to read lips, and if you stood on the correct side, he could kind of hear you. But his life was made even more miserable in a miserable place. Ray had lived a hard life. Hearing impaired since birth. Physically abused by his dad. Rejected by his classmates as being different. Single until just before he entered his mid-fifties. A workaholic who had few friends.

There is an adage that you can't judge a book by its cover. That was Ray. On the outside, just an ordinary man...almost invisible. But inside, a man with a heart of gold. God blessed me with bringing Ray into my life...and into my cube. And into my heart.

Photo from Flickr

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Birthdays, Basketballs and Bandages

I'm 52 years old, so I've had a lot of birthdays...and over the course of those years, I've received a lot of gifts. I can recall many gifts that I've received, but I have difficulty associating most them with a specific occasion or a specific year. I don't know if I was given my .22 rifle as a birthday gift...or not. Or my first bicycle. But I do remember one specific gift, and how old I was when I received it.

My birthday always fell during spring vacation from school, so it was simply celebrated on the farm with family. Spring break was usually filled with repairing fences broken from the heavy snow or playing out in the woods. Some of my fondest memories of childhood were simply laying in the warm spring sunshine in the neighbor's field filled with thick, dry grass during that week away from school. But on this birthday in 1968, when I turned twelve years old, I spent it up on the mountain with my two brothers.

The mountain ridge that ran behind our farm was a favorite haunting ground for all of us as kids. We would spend countless hours exploring and pretending. On this warm, spring day, we were up on the third cliff where we would usually end up finding ourselves. At the base of the cliff was a field of large boulders, the result of an ancient rock-slide. We must have been playing cowboys and indians...and I was an indian, because I was trying to make myself a tomahawk out of a stick and a sharpened rock. I had my baling twine with me that I'd brought from the barn down below on the farm. I also had a real hatchet to cut the handle for the tomahawk.

I can still almost see it happen in slow motion, even these 40 years later. I was holding the stick...actually a broken branch from a nearby tree. I was holding the stick upright, the base resting on one of the large rocks and I was using the hatchet to trim away the small branches.
I had been in the Boy Scouts, so I knew the proper rules for using an axe/hatchet.

Always cut away from your body!

For some reason, on that warm April morning, that rule slipped from my mind. As I was cutting away the last of the branches, the blade of the hatchet hit a knot on the side of the stick and bounced down and away from the stick. If I would have remembered that rule, my hand would have been clear of the path of the hatchet head. But instead, it was directly in the path of the blade as it bounced off the stick.

The sharp steel of the blade hit my left hand and immediately blood was running down my hand onto the rocks below. I felt no pain, but the sight of all of the blood caused me to cry out. Both Frank and Geoff were nearby and ran across the rocks quickly to where I was standing. My hand was completely covered with blood by now, so it was difficult to know how serious the accident was.

Frank yelled to Geoff to go down the mountain and tell mom and dad what had happened. Nimble and agile, Geoff ran down ahead of us. Frank grabbed me by the wrist, causing me more pain than the hatchet had and started to run down the mountain, half dragging me as I struggled to keep up.

I wasn't in the barn when Geoff reached the farm, but I heard the story. Dad was in the milking parlor, cleaning up. Breathless, Geoff ran through the door, yelling "Daddy! Daddy! Mark cut his thumb off!"

By the time we got down the mountain, dad was coming out of the barn to meet us. By now, Frank's hand was splattered red with my blood as well as my own. The initial shock of the cut was wearing off and my hand was beginning to throb with pain. When dad approached, he took me into the barn to one of the big stainless steel sinks and placed my hand under the warm water as it ran from the faucet. The sting of the water as it hit the wound became almost unbearable and I found myself sobbing from the pain.

As the blood was slowly washed away, the injury became visible. The blade of the hatchet had peeled back a "V" of skin at the base of my index finger about an inch on each side. The tendons were visible, but mercifully were spared from any damage. In the same way, the blade had missed all of the bones and nerves in my hand and miraculously, had only caused the cut to the skin.

After cleaning the wound, dad wrapped my hand in a towel and we went to the house. He warned us not to tell mom how serious it was. A trip to the emergency room followed which resulted in five stitches to reattach the loose flap of skin that had been peeled back from my hand. Unfortunately, the doctor wasn't gifted in the art of suturing and the scar is still large and visible today. Even the needle holes are visible, making me wonder he used a needle or a nail to sew the hand back up.

The remainder of my twelfth birthday is mostly a blur. I don't remember the trip home or what we had for birthday dinner. I'm not sure if mom made my favorite cake...Devil's Food chocolate...or not. And, I don't remember opening any of my gifts. But I do remember what the gift was from mom and dad. It was a basketball!

I don't remember asking for a basketball. I think the only time I'd ever really tried to play was at a weekend basketball clinic at the school. I had been terrible and didn't really have much interest in embarassing myself like that again. We had a gravel driveway so we didn't really have a place to play, but that was the gift. Dad placed the basketball hoop on the front of the garage, and I can remember watching Frank and Geoff play basketball with my gift. Eventually, my hand healed and I joined in the games. We played with that ball for many years, eventually moving the basketball hoop to the attic of the barn where we had a wooden floor.

I'm not sure if I remember the gift of the basketball because of the injury or for some other reason. But, it's a birthday I remember...and I will carry a reminder of in on my left hand for the rest of my life.