Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It Makes Me Wonder...?

The stench of the cigarette smoke roils off of him like the mist off of a crashing wave each morning as he climbed into my car for the past week. He casually tosses the butt over his shoulder as he stoops down and slides into the car, settling into the leather seats. The odor hangs in the air for few moments before being circulated throughout the car…diminishing the assailment on my olfactory senses. I put the car into gear and pull away from the curb and make the remaining 15 minute drive to work.

As I drive, I think about this man sitting next to me. A “gear-head”, I have to believe he would be more comfortable riding with my brother Geoff than with me. Sitting there without putting on his seatbelt, our conversation flows easily. My questions about the health of his dogs, or the turmoil in his community association or about his health. His comments about a ’68 Camaro barely visible under a tarp parked behind an outbuilding that I’ve never noticed before. His political commentary, peppered with colorful language that I haven’t heard since I was in prison. His anger toward law enforcement and their “out to get him” attitude.

There is very little that he doesn’t share. I hear the story of his gunshot wound that nearly killed him…and the bullet that did kill his best friend. The tremors in his voice betraying his anger that the killer walked away scot-free because his friend had made a threatening gesture with a baseball bat. On the damp cold mornings typical of our northwest weather, his ankles throb as a result of the metal pins still embedded there repair the damage received when he was run over by a car. His eyes carry dark circles under them from lack of sleep…the result of stomach problems.

His home is a single wide that he shares with his girlfriend and her daughter and boyfriend. He happily shares his space with six dogs and three cats. The roadway in front of his home is packed with three cars, a boat and pop-up trailer. A 1979 Corvette occupies the small patch of brown grass one might call the front yard. A driver’s license suspended will keep them all there…unused and immobile for the next year.

Among the stories he has shared during our two weeks of car pooling is about his mom…and his sister. With his mother’s health failing, his sister made the decision to place her in a nursing home. Living in California at the time, he was infuriated at his sister’s “callousness and selfishness” and moved up to Tacoma to care for her. He lived with her until her health completely failed and she passed away.

Sadly, more than just his mom died. So did his relationship with his sister. Angered over her apparent selfishness, he cut off all contact with her. Frustrated with her invitations to attend church and the lack of congruency between her life and her words, he’s walked away from any relationship that he may have had with Christ. Now…angry, bitter, scarred, and in failing health himself, he drifts from job to job.

Tony reminds me of so many men that I met in prison. With eyes focused only on the past and the perceived (or actual) injustices that they have endured, they choose to give up on living a life of significance. Instead, they look at every opportunity to blame society and everyone in it for their current situation. The negativism is almost palpable…nearly as infectious as the latest H1N1 flu. And it makes me wonder…

How did I escape all of that? How did I spend three years in prison without ever using profanity? How have I been able to maintain a relatively positive attitude in a situation where I still find myself imprisoned by the choices of my past? How can I freely share my story without the weight of the guilt and shame crushing me until I can no longer breathe? How can I look into the eyes of a woman that I love…whose heart I shattered into an infinite number of pieces through my deceit and betray, and see love reflected back? How…did I escape?

There is no easy answer. It’s not because I was once such a “nice” person…or a “great” person. And it’s not because I have such great self-confidence that I believe I can overcome any situation. The only reasonable answer that comes to my mind is that I’ve learned to accept the fact that I am loved…and worthy of love. Accepting that realization isn’t easy…and it brings with it a certain amount of pain. The pain coming not from being loved, but from comprehending that I’ve ALWAYS been loved and NOT recognizing that it was enough! Understanding that the love of God and of family and friends can get us through even the most difficult seasons of our life.

1 comment:

Deb Shucka said...

I love this story! For so many reasons. The contrast you create between your life now and Tony's - when they could so easily be the same (although I can't quite picture you with six dogs and three cats). The humility but also the clear expression of the insight that the biggest difference is your willingness to accept love. And your willingness to accept that you're worthy of being loved.

Your writing here is brilliant: "The stench of the cigarette smoke roils off of him like the mist off of a crashing wave each morning as he climbed into my car for the past week." One of the best first lines ever.

The detail about his refusal to wear a seat belt (and you letting him stay in the car without it on) is so powerful.

His deep loneliness ("There is very little that he doesn’t share.") and your willingness to listen without judgment. I see in this writing more evidence of the gift of healing you offer now just in your being and openness.

The life he's living is incredibly well-drawn in the single wide paragraph. I love this line: "A driver’s license suspended will keep them all there…unused and immobile for the next year."

The parallels between his family issues and ours took my breath a way a bit and made me even more grateful for where we are as siblings.

Your continued sadness makes my heart hurt, but the fact that you take complete responsibility makes me love you and want to protect you even more than I already do.

From a writerly perspective - when you're ready to revise this to share with a larger audience - I would like to see as much of you physically as I can see Tony and your surroundings. This might be a good place to talk about your glasses, both as a description of you and as a metaphor for the fact that prison still clings to you in mostly invisible ways. You both live in trailers of a sort - that contrast would be powerful. Your decision to stay out of a relationship until you're truly free. Your no-dog-yet compared to his kennel approach. I'd really like to see you work this - can you tell? There's so much here, and so much that it could yet be.