Monday, August 30, 2010

Good News/Bad News

I looked at my Blackberry and felt my heart rate begin to increase slightly. I’d missed a call, which isn’t all that unusually, but this missed call was from Paula, my ex-wife. She doesn’t call that often…I’m usually the one to initiates contact so I was excited that she had called me. I used my trackball to click on “Call Paula” and waited. After a couple of rings, I heard her soft voice as she said “hello” and asked how I was. As I responded, suddenly I lost the connection. I redialed and could hear the short “beep” at the end of the ring that indicated that she was on the phone. She had mentioned that she was waiting for a call, so I waited a few minutes and called back.

Once again, she answered after the first few rings. She apologized for the lost connection and we continued to visit.

“I wanted to be the first to tell you,” she said. “I just didn’t want you to hear this from someone else.”

Suddenly my mind was working. What could it be that she wanted to tell me? Had something happened to mom or dad? That didn’t seem plausible because I don’t think she could hide the pain of that in her voice. Maybe she had met someone. I feel my heart constrict at just the thought of that. Were the kids ok? Finally, as calmly as I could, I asked her what the news was.

“Conrad is getting married,” she said. “I wanted to be the one that told you. I haven’t even told Tina because I just didn’t want it to slip in conversation.”

As I held the phone to my ear, I was filled with a variety of emotions. Conrad is our youngest son (actually my stepson, but I claim him as my own as I do all the kids). When we first got married, he was the only one of the kids who lived with us and was the one that I spent the most time with. While I deeply love each of our kids, my love and relationship with Conrad was a little different because he had lived with us.

“I’m so happy for them,” I replied. “Have the set a date yet?”

A date! Why would I even ask the question? I knew that this was a wedding that I wouldn’t attend. And just the realization of that was heartbreaking. I had been at the marriage of both of our older children…had even worn a tuxedo as a representation of my position as their dad (even as their biological dad did as well). I had been in the hospital for the birth of all four of our grandchildren, sharing in the joy of creation and birth.

But that was all in the past, and choices that I had made changed the future. I hadn’t talked to Conrad, or seen him, since shortly after my arrest. And though I know he loves me, the pain that I caused has left our relationship in limbo. My last image of him was with tears streaming down both of our faces as he hugged me and told me that he loved me. Paula keeps me up-to-date on his life but I’m no longer a part of it.

It’s not that an invitation to the wedding is out of the question. They may invite me. But attending isn’t an option for me. That day is for Conrad and his bride-to-be. My attendance would only take the focus off of them as many of his friends and family would question why I was there. I could never do that.

I’ve discovered that the consequences of my choices and my crime will never be fully paid. I’ve spent my time in prison and “paid my debt to society”. I’ve lost my career and my family. I no longer have the financial resources and wealth that I had once begun to accumulate. But I am changed. My relationship with God is stronger than ever and I’m not the man I once was. My sibling bonds have been restored and I see grace clearly each and every day in my life. But still…there are days when the reminder of my loss is more painful than others. And the realization that sometimes “good news” is “painful news.”

Photo from Flickr
Computer image by Mike Licht, Notions

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beyond the Clouds

Each morning as I carefully descend the three metal steps from my fifth-wheel trailer I call home to go to the car to head for work, I take a glance to the east to look at the mountains. I never know what I might see. The property that my trailer sits on has one of the most magnificent views of Mt. Rainier in the region. Sadly, I have to admit that on most days, the entire mountain range is obscured with cloud cover and not even the foothills are visible. But even with that knowledge, I still take the time to look because I know that “it’s there”.

We sit on the tarmac as the plane loads…filled with excitement for the next week. As usual, the black asphalt glistens from the rain that falls so regularly in the Pacific Northwest. As I look out the window, the sky is gray with the sun invisible…hiding somewhere “up there”. I have flown enough to know that if we fly high enough, we will break above the clouds and be in the light of our nearest star.

I’ve thought about clouds and what’s hidden behind them a lot over the past couple of months. I’m not sure if it’s just my nature…or all of human nature, to look for those things that we believe should be there. Or, seek after those things that we really want, even when it seems that they are too far out of reach. A journey beyond the clouds was culminated this past weekend at my younger brother Geoff, and his wife Lynn's home in Bothell.

I was there for a celebration. Not only me, but also my sister Deb and her husband Walt and about thirty plus friends of my little brother’s. For the past several months, he and his wife have been trying to purchase the property that they have been living on. For the three years that he’s lived there, on many occasions he has commented on how much he loved that place and that it was exactly the kind of place he would like to buy some day. But he knew that it wasn’t going to be this particular place. It was a rental house and large shop building sitting on a little over an acre that was destined to be torn down so that a sub-division could be built.

But then something that has become so familiar in these tumultuous economic times occurred…the developer went bankrupt and the property was turned over to the bank. Six months ago, Geoff was informed that he would need to find another place to live…he was being evicted. Suddenly his life was engulfed by thick, heavy clouds that obscured a vision of the future for him. For a while, he looked for other places to live, all the while continuing to pay the monthly rent on the property. One month stretched into two…then three. I asked him on the phone one night how his search for a new home was coming. “We’re in denial”, was his response. They simply didn’t know where to go or even where to look. When we’re in the clouds, that’s what life is like.

A few months later, a plan started to formulate. A decision was made to make an offer to the bank for the home. They knew that there was no way that they could offer what the developer had initially paid for the property, but they also realized that a lot of property was selling for considerably less than what its market value had been only a few years earlier. After some negotiating, they settled on an “offer” and started to work with the bank for financing. They had qualified for a loan through another lender, but the bank apparently wouldn’t accept that type of loan. As the deadline for the offer neared, the final paperwork was submitted…and it was time to wait. A phone call from the bank and suddenly the clouds pushed back in. Denied. No “ifs, ands or buts”. It was done.

I was with my little brother the day after the notification and you could see the weight of sadness on his face and in his voice. No anger…just the disappointment of not getting to the top of the mountain, of not being able to see around the next bend in the trail. He had an attitude of grace, simply telling me that if this wasn’t the place that God wanted him, then He must have an even better place picked out for him.

A few days later, something amazing happened…the clouds started to clear. He received a phone call from the lender that he had originally qualified through. Interest rates had dropped nearly 3/4th of a point and he would now qualify for the amount of the offer they had made on the house. Calls were made to the bank that held the deed on the house to get the offer extended for another month…something the bank didn’t seem excited to do, but that they did nevertheless. More paperwork filled out and submitted. A bit of stress in the household as Geoff and his wife worked to navigate the purchase with everything seemingly against them.

The final day that the offer was valid for quickly approached and it seemed that the top of the mountain was in sight. A meeting at the bank and the final closing papers were signed. A request for the money to be wired to an escrow account submitted and confirmation that it was received. It was time to put the sunglasses on because it seemed that they had finally ascended beyond the clouds. But….

Then the phone call. “The escrow company has wired the money back. The lender needs proof of seven more months of rental receipts.” It was after three o’clock in the afternoon when the news was received. The lending bank was in Texas, two time zones ahead. The banks were closed. It was a Friday and the offer was only good until midnight on Saturday. Suddenly, the clouds moved back in. A weekend of uncertainty lay ahead.

There is no coincidence in my mind that last Sunday as I stood in the backyard of my brother’s newly purchased home that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Through perseverance and a desire to achieve the goal of purchasing his home, Geoff and Lynn refused to allow the dark clouds to turn them back. While most of the time, the end was never really visible…never really clear, life teaches us (if we look) that there is ALWAYS something beyond the clouds. It may be the snow capped peak of Mt. Rainier. Or perhaps the sun as it reaches down from heaven shining on a jet as it streaks across the sky. Or maybe, it’s a dream realized.

Mt. Rainier photos by Mark

Geoff and Lynn photo by Deb Shucka

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


My eyes slowly adjusted as the pale morning light struggled to penetrate the dust and grime on the windows of the old milking parlor. I stood there with my hands stuffed into the pockets of my blue jeans…the knees ripped and worn and in need of new patches. I could feel the cold, fall air on my neck as it drifted over the collar of my old, red coat. In the corner where the calves were penned, I could see him down on his knees. I slowly walked forward, not really thinking about whether or not I should be here…after all, it was daddy’s farm and Mike just worked for him. I was startled by the sound of a snap and crunch, followed by a short bleat of the young calf.

“Whatcha doin’, Mike?” I asked as I stood watching, partially obscured in the shadows. I walked toward him as he looked up from the motionless calf laying at his feet.

“I had to put this one out of its misery”, he replied as he looked up with a start. “It was born with his hips twisted and couldn’t move. I think his back was broken.”

“How’d you put it out of its misery? All I heard was a crunchin’ sound.”

“I just broke his neck….that’s the easiest way. And they don’t suffer much that way.”

“You must really be strong to be able to do that.”

“Not really. It’s pretty easy to break the neck of things that small.”

I looked down at the dead animal, its body lying in a limp mass at my feet. Even though it was a newborn, it was still bigger than I was, and its neck was certainly thicker. I turned to leave and told Mike I might see him later on.

“Hey Mark. Would you like to come by my trailer and have some pizza with me some time?” he asked as I reached the concrete steps that led up out of the milking parlor.

“I’ll have to ask Mommy”, I said as I opened the wooden door and stepped out into the sunlight, “but hopefully she’ll let me. We don’t get to eat pizza very much and its one of my favorites.”

It was only a few weeks later that it worked out that I could go to Mike’s and have the pizza for lunch. I was looking forward to getting to be in his trailer and eat one of my favorite foods. I knocked on his door and waited…shuffling my feet with my hands stuffed into my pockets. He opened the door and invited me in and I entered the dimly lit trailer he called home. The space was small and had the smell of a room that was kept closed up. The windows were covered by pull-down blinds and the small kitchen table was covered with papers and books.

“I thought we’d eat over on the couch,” he said as he walked over into the kitchen area. “It will be more comfortable there than at the little table I have.”

I walked over and plopped down on the couch…older, yet it still looked newer than anything we had in our house. I was filled with excitement as only little kids can be as I sat there waiting for lunch. The smell of the basil and marinara sauce on the pizza drifted in from kitchen as Mike opened the oven to take it out, making me realize how hungry I was.

“It will just be a minute to let it cool and then we can eat,” I heard him call out. “Would you like some root beer or do you have to have milk?” he asked.

A choice? I was thrilled that I’d be able to drink something other than the water or milk that it seemed I had to drink at every meal.

“Root beer, please,” I said as I sat on the small couch that was the only piece of real furniture in this small space. In a few minutes, Mike came over with a plate with the pizza and a glass of root beer and sat down beside me. We sat and ate while Mike told stories of his work and asked questions about how I liked living on the farm. After gobbling down two pieces, I was full and started to get up to take my plate and glass into the kitchen.

“I’ll get that for you, Mark” he said as he stood up and took the dishes from my hands. A moment later, he returned and sat back down beside me…closer it seemed than he was before. As he sat and continued to talk, I felt his fingers run through my short crew cut and down along my neck. My body responded with goose bumps as his fingers touched my neck.

“That tickles Mike!!” I said as I leaned away from him.

“Oh, you’re ticklish are you?” he responded as his hands and fingers started to move across my young body. I twisted and squirmed on the couch as he continued to touch me all over, not containing himself to my neck or my arms and chest. My body shuddered as his fingers touched my private area the first time. The touch was electric and I stopped all movement…barely breathing as the sensation coursed through me. His hand stopped and started to rub and stroke me more deliberately.

“Does that feel good?” he asked as his fingers touched me in a way I had never been touched before. I stammered as I replied that it did and just sat there on his sofa. He slowly unbuttoned my pants and slid down the zipper, his fingers sliding inside my underpants. I gasped as I felt his rough fingers touch me. “I bet it would feel really good if you touched me like this too”, he said as he looked at me and continued to caress me. “Would you touch mine for me, Mark?”

My mind raced as I sat there, enjoying the pleasure but feeling and emptiness grow in the pit of my stomach. There seemed to be something wrong but I had no idea what it might be. I nodded that I would do that for him as he unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. I began to touch his privates with my small fingers and could hear him begin to moan. His hands stopped touching me and I soon felt his hand move up to the back of my neck. I suddenly felt the pressure of his hand pushing my head down toward his lap. As I tried to pull away from him, his fingers tighten their grip on my neck. My face was soon pressing against his groin.

The next several minutes were a blur as he forced me to perform oral sex on him. Tears burned my eyes and streamed down my face as I did what he told me to do…his hand continually on the back of my neck. When it was over, he released his grip and I pulled away…slinking into the corner of the couch.

“I gotta go Mike”, I said as I drug my sleeve across my face to wipe the tears away. He fastened his pants as I stood up to leave. “Just a minute”, he said as he stood up in front of me. He slowly leaned down until his eyes were at my level. Resting his hands on my shoulders with his fingers touching my neck, he stared directly into my eyes.

“This is something you can NEVER tell anyone…ok Mark!” he said. I stood there trembling, feeling his strong hands on my neck. Suddenly my mind saw Mike kneeling over the calf…and the sound of a snap and a crunching sound. It felt as though my heart stopped for a moment and I stood there frozen. “It’s pretty easy to break the neck of things that small” was suddenly screaming in my ears.

“I promise I’ll never tell anyone Mike. I promise, really I do! Ok?!” I spit out as I stood there more afraid than I’d ever been in my life. He stood up and stepped out of my path. I quickly walked to the door and out into the late afternoon air. The shadows were falling as I walked up the hill toward the house. What I didn’t realize then was that the events of the fall afternoon were also the beginning of a perpetually darkening shadow in my own life.

Photos from Flickr

Monday, August 2, 2010

Beyond Frank...

There is a part of me that can still feel the excitement…we were going on a vacation! And not only was it a vacation, but it was an over-night vacation. Mom and dad talked about it for weeks before we left. We didn’t have many opportunities growing up to get away from the dairy. After all, the cows needed to be milked every day, the milk processed and bottled and then delivered to waiting customers six days a week. Even now as I think back, I’m not sure how we were able to get away for even this short trip.

My mind rushed with the possibilities of what me might discover when dad said that we were going to Frank, Alberta. While I had never heard of that particular part of Canada, when he told us that there had been a major landslide that buried a small mining town at the turn of the 20th century, I fantasized about what we might find as we rummaged through the rocks once we got there. Would there be treasure or other “old” stuff that we might find? What if we found some bones of someone buried alive? That would be “so cool”…if not just a little bit scary for a little boy.

We finally started out on our adventure…the long awaited vacation. As we pulled out of our gravel driveway, the sky was dark with clouds and the threat of rain. We headed north up highway 95 toward the Canadian border. We crossed the border at Porthill and continued the drive toward Frank as we passed through Cranbrook…a not so unfamiliar destination of frequent Sunday drives. I barely noticed the rain as it started to fall, my mind racing with the thought of the explorations that was only a few hours away. As we continued toward Crowsnest Pass, the rain began to fall harder and the cloud cover seemed to thicken as we made our way up over the pass at 4,455 feet.

When we dropped over the top, my face was plastered to the cold, damp window. Surely I’d be able to see the huge mound of dirt and rocks that had buried this once bustling mining town. I was sure that dad would be pulling off the road any time now so we could go out and start to dig for old stuff. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of dad talking to mom.

“Well, there it is,” I heard him say. I turned my head, peering out the window, only to see huge rocks bigger than our car strewn across the country-side. "Surely there was something wrong," I thought. "This can’t be it!" This was supposed to be a landslide, with dirt and little rocks that we could dig through. This was going to be an adventure where we were going to go digging and searching…and exploring. I could feel the burning of the tears as they started to well in my eyes, keeping my face pressed to the cold window so no one else could see.

Finally, I turned away from the window and asked if we were going to get to stop at all and check it out. I could see mom give dad a furtive glance. “It’s pretty wet out there in the rain, but I guess we can stop for a little bit if you kids want to,” he replied. We soon pulled off the side of the road, and pulling on our coats, we got out of the red Rambler station wagon and climbed around on a few rocks. There was no way we were going to be able to explore anything. The boulders we climbed across were too large to even try to budge. Our stop lasted only a few minutes before we were all getting cold and damp from the falling rain.

As I think back on that weekend of my youth, I’m reminded of the power of dreams. As the days dragged leading up to the “big vacation”, I couldn’t wait for the adventure to begin. My mind was filled with images and thoughts of all of the “what-if’s” that we might encounter. It gave me something to think about, something to ponder, something to hope and wish for. It also reminds me that sometimes our dreams are fulfilled in unexpected ways. In this case, there is a little more to the story.

We drove away from huge rocks and sandstone boulders and continued to drive further north into Alberta. Finally, someone asked where we were going.

“Mommy has always wanted to go to Banff and Lake Louise and since we’re this close, we’re going to drive up there,” dad responded.

“How far is it?” I asked.

“About another 200 miles,” he replied as he relit his pipe filled with his Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco. He rolled his window down a crack to allow the sweet fragrance of the smoke to escape as he drove along the Canadian Rockies toward our destination. It was nightfall by the time we reached Banff and found a place to stay. The air was still filled with the dampness of fallen rain. My heart filled with the weight of another disappointment.

The next morning, we were greeted with a cloudless sky as we awoke. The city of Banff wasn’t bustling on this Sunday morning as we searched for a place to eat breakfast, but at least the sun was shining and the air was warm. The food seemed tasteless as we sat in the Canadian restaurant and soon returned to the car to pack up for the drive back home. But before we headed south to return to the North Idaho dairy, dad started the 35 mile drive up to Lake Louise.

“What a waste,” I thought as we drove along the narrow two-lane highway. “We live by a lake. Why can’t we just go home.”

We finally reached the top of the nearly 2,000 foot climb up the mountain to the lake. As we turned a final corner, I felt like the air was knocked out of me! There in front of us was one of the most beautiful lakes I had ever seen with a huge, castle on the shore. This was a completely unexpected treasure that was delivered to us on this trip that had seemed such a disappointment to me.

I’ve discovered that dreams are like that. All too often, I get something built up in my mind about how great it is going to be…only to find that it wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead, something else is revealed during the “dream quest” which turns out to be even better.

I’m reminded of this trip down memory lane as I follow the dream quest of my sister, Deb. A pent-up dream of being a writer for years finally became a reality for her a year ago. Dreams of completing her first book, finding an agent, getting published and sharing her story have been left mostly unfilled. But like our trip to the Canadian Rockies as children, an even greater treasure is being revealed. Healing. Recognition as an amazing writer. The development of friendships and relationships that only occur through the willingness to share and be transparent. And ultimately, a book that will far exceed anything that she could have conceived when she started this journey.

Photo of Frank Landslide - by dimoreien on Bing Photos
Chateau Lake Louise - Bing photos