The sun reflects off of the sand and makes surface of the water an opaque shimmer. The white hot light of mid-day almost blinds and forces me to avoid looking below the surface of the water rushing through the inlet.
The Boynton Inlet breaks a narrow strip of land and links Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean. Twice daily tides rush in and out the channel and the current rests only briefly between tides. When the moon and sun align and wind blows from the northwest violent currents occur on an ebb tide creating formidable six to ten foot waves at the inlet mouth. Boats captains that choose to exit the inlet defying the white cap obstacle must negotiate a narrow channel that turns southeast along the beach exposing their boats broadside to the waves. Over the years there have been countless boats run aground or capsize attempt to run the ebb tide gauntlet. And if the waves at the mouth are not enough, a shallow, four foot deep rock ledge on the south side of the inlet channel can shear a prop at low tide. It’s like threading a needle.
At the inlet entrance birds wait for an opportunity to pluck a meal from the water, unaffected by the shimmer and current. Predator fish—snook and bluefish—drive small pray fish near the surface and to shallow water. Just as the mullet and pilchard think can breathe having survived pressures from below, diving gulls and pelicans swoop to pick them off. And the predators lay waiting for prey to return to deep. All of this seems to conspire against the schools of baitfish, yet their numbers seem to stay constant. There’s enough to feed both bird and Barracuda.
When I was young I spent weekends fishing from the jetty at the mouth of the inlet. Fishing always seemed best on an incoming tide with bright blue-green water rushing in. With the sun partially obscured by clouds, I could see silver flashes; fish truing in the current while feeding then returning to refuge from the tide to the rocks.
I understood the flow of swirling in and out of the inlet. I felt in control of the tide when I hooked a fish in that wild water. Although fear of falling in, forced to sink or swim, to be bait or swim with the predators was always in the back of my mind. Could I survive that?
During mid-day the bright sun reflects on the sand and bleaches everything white hot and on both sides of the fast moving water and can blind the eyes. Boynton Inlet breaks the narrow strip of land separating Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean. Twice daily tides rush in and suck out the channel. The current rests fifteen to twenty minutes during slack tide at high and low tides. Violent currents occur on a strong ebb tide and can create six to ten foot waves stand at the seaward mouth of the channel. Boats exiting must broadside to these waves to follow the channel to deeper water and there have been countless accidents running the ebb tide gauntlet. And if the waves are not enough, there is a shallow, four foot deep rock ledge on the south side of the channel that comes into play at low tide when the wind blows northeast, which pushes the waves higher. The inlet mouth points to Freeport, Bahamas and is the shortest Intercoastal exit to an open water run of about eighty miles to the islands.
At the channel entrance, birds wait for an opportunity to pluck a meal when the predator fish—Snook and Bluefish—drive the small pray fish near the surface or to shallow water. Just as the mullet and pilchard think can breathe having survived pressures from the deep, the diving gulls and pelicans swoop and pick them up. The predators prowl waiting for the prey to return to deeper water. All of this seems to conspire against the schools of baitfish, but their numbers stay constant—enough to feed the birds and the Barracudas.
My dad would take me to the inlet on weekends to fish from the jetty and the side of the channel. Fishing was best on an incoming tide when water would be a bright blue-green color and, when the sun was high, we could see silver flashes of fish truing in the current. However, when the tide turned to drain Lake Worth the water turned a murky and it was time to head home with our catch. The water swirling in and out of the inlet made me feel strong when I hooked a big fish. It also created fear when I thought of falling in and swimming around the rocks with the fish.
The inlet was more alive that the beach or the waterway and the place where the two meet draw fish, and boats. I would watch the faces of be captains as they navigated. A calm face looking ahead of the boat had no problems. Tight eyes looking from side to side were touch and go whether they would make it in or out of the channel—we held our breath.
I tell myself and anyone who will listen that
I am an open and caring person and that I follow the advice of others much better now
compared to several years ago. However, depending on the exact circumstances
of my recent behavior Cindy may not fully buy into my argument. I have been
told that I can be somewhat unilateral and single minded at times andignore the good advice offered to me. One clue
that I have slipped into a disagreeable frame of mind is when Cindy picks up the
nearest weapon, like a screwdriver, knife, or hammer, and moves directly toward
me in one of two ways: calmly and methodically or hysterically screaming. The
real tipoff that I may need to listen to what she is telling me is her focus on
my head or on another vulnerable part of my body. She may utter or scream something
like, “I’m going to jam this screwdriver in your head, then maybe you’ll listen.” I
suddenly become a bit more attentive.
has the most experience attempting to communicate with me during the last
thirty years, so she is completely immune to what little bit of charm I can
muster when I am cornered in a lie or self-centered behavior. Those who know me
less well, I have found, are less likely to tell me I am full of shit when I may indeed be full of it. That is with
the exception of my friend Haynes, who I have known for over seven years. Haynes
can see through the BS, perhaps because he is a past master of selling similar spin.
such occasion when Haynes sensed that I was full it was when he called recently to see how we were. I told him we were great and that Cindy and I planned to paddle
the Nantahala River the following day, just us. He told me that he always goes with at least
two friends because there’s no telling what can happen on the river, especially
on a cold day in November, and that I should really reconsider my decision. I tried my best to convince him that I knew
what I was doing , that there will surely be others on the river that will
help if Cindy and I get into trouble, and not to worry about us. After
several minutes of this back and forth conversation, he realized that I was not going to change my mind and that he was wasting his breath. He simply said, please be careful.
was sure we could handle the Nanty, after all Cindy and I had four trips under
our belt and we had not come close to getting in trouble—we were experienced. Ha,
we were about to find out just how inexperienced we were.
did not sleep well at all the night before our excursion. I kept thinking of what
Haynes had said, the safe line to take through each set of rapids, and just what
could go wrong on the river. Cindy did not sleep well either and we hit the road almost an
hour earlier than we had planned.
soon as the sun came up, thick fog hung in the low areas slowing our progress.
We came onto a bad accident near Blue Ridge, Georgia
that had all four lanes of the road blocked with smashed cars and emergency
vehicles. We made our way around the wreck and drove on to the
We arrived at the put in point about 10:30 AM and immediately began unloading our boat and
gear, including our brand new two piece dry suits. I drove the car about seven miles downstream to the takeout point, parked it, and thumbed a ride to where
Cindy was waiting. We paddled into the current about 11:15 AM. The air and water temperatures were both in the mid forties.
About 100 yards downstream I noticed waves were splashing in the boat. I thought that this was weird because we had not yet reached the first real whitewater. I then realized the river was running much higher
and stronger usual, or at least higher than I was used to seeing the water. We rounded a bend and headed towards Dellabar’s Rock, the first class two rapid downstream from our put in at Ferebee Park.. The
current was pushing us to the left toward a big rock despite both Cindy and I trying like hell to stay right. After clearing the upper part of this rapid, we paddled into an
eddy on river left. Cindy said, “Let’s try to surf the waves.”
we paddled up the eddy, the swirling current sucked us
toward the wave. Easing the boat into the wave we were immediately pushed upside down. It was a surprise to be completely underwater trying to figure out which
way was up.
I popped up Cindy had her arms wrapped around the front of the capsized boat. She was saying, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” She asked me if I had my paddle as the current
pushed us downstream. I said, “Oh shit, no,” and turned to see it float past us by
about ten yards away. I swam to retrieve the paddle and the cold forty
five degree river water seeped in my pants, soaking my skin. I did not think about the cold at all as I swam back to the boat.
We tried to push the boat to the shore; however, we made little lateral progress as the current continued
to push us downstream. We both repeated, “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” as we
swam as hard as we could toward the shore with the bulky boat. We finally made it to a small eddy
where we righted the boat and climbed in. Cindy looked back me and said, “I’m wet and I’m
paddled as best we could through several rapids immediately downstream and made it to an eddy in a
sunny spot. We both drew a deep breath and wondered aloud what we had in mind
by trying to save money on two piece dry suits that did not keep us dry at all during our swim. I said that skimping on equipment intended to keep us warm and dry was not
a real good way to save money. Cindy said, “No shit, and we should not be
alone on this river.”We noticed that our
suits were steaming in the warming sun.
back into the current, we made our way downstream. We had limited control of our path down the river. The river pushed us where it wanted to take us. We continued to
paddle and only rested where we could eddy in the sun.
had one last problem when Cindy fell out of the boat upstream of The Bump. She
quickly climbed in, we paddled through The Bump, and we ferried to the beaching
area upstream of The Falls. We hauled the boat on shore with no intention of
running the class three rapids.
sat in the sun, removed our wet boots, drained our pants, and were grateful that we made it
without either of us being hurt. I hiked to the car and when I returned we packed up and
headed home. As we drove, Haynes called my cell phone to see how our trip went. I recounted our adventure
and that the river really got my attention. We will not paddle alone again.
The morning began like
any other; Ayden was on the road driving again. However, today he found himself
on an unfamiliar road. Not paying attention and driving erratically, he was
sure he was headed in the right direction because all four lanes were bumper to
bumper with cars traveling well over the speed limit. Also, the four lanes in
the opposite direction were virtually abandoned, an intermittent stream of cars
traveling slowly in the right lane. Obviously, the place he had left was not a
popular destination. He felt he had no choice but to keep on going.
Ayden was so
preoccupied with weaving through slower cars, those only doing seventy-five to
eighty miles per hour, that he had completely forgotten about the passenger
sitting next to him. There was no conversation, he just silently watched as
Ayden drove. The passenger did not ask about their destination, he seemed
content to just be along for the ride. He turned to the window watching the
blur of passing trees and traffic.
Lost and moving at
break-neck speed, Ayden briefly thought that if he crashed on this strange
stretch of road he may never find his way home. Home seemed so long gone and he
was not even sure in which direction it was.
slowed to a crawl and it immediately irritated Ayden. The passenger commented,
“Looks like an accident ahead.” Ayden did not acknowledge the passenger,
instead moved to the right heading for the shoulder to get around the obstacle
of slow traffic.
Swerving onto the
shoulder, he thought better of his escape route when he saw flashing lights and
three crashed cars on the shoulder. He held his place in the right lane and
passed the accident minutes later. The passenger said, “Well, those people are
lucky that the rescue vehicles were able to make it to the accident through
this heavy traffic. It looks like all involved should be fine. They will probably
spend tonight at home.”
Again, Ayden did
not as much as glance in the direction of the passenger. He thought to himself
that he was lucky to have not been involved and was relieved to be on the open
road once again exceeding the speed limit. He pulled a joint from a cigarette
pack and fired it up.
The neon sign of
the liquor store at the exit ahead caught Ayden’s eye even in the bright midmorning
sunlight. However, buy the time he decided he need a beer to cool his parched
throat, the exit was a tenth of a mile ahead. From the far left lane, he
crossed three lanes without glancing in his rearview mirror and made it to the
exit four seconds after noticing the sing. It was a miracle there were no cars
on his path.
He exited the
liquor store with a twelve pack and a quart each of vodka and bourbon. He thought
he was playing it safe because he was unfamiliar with the road and there was no
telling how far the next liquor store may be—may as well stock up.With a beer between his legs, he was back up
to speed when he reached the end of the entrance ramp.
Ayden did not
offer the passenger a drink, and the passenger did not ask. He sat quietly,
content to take in the landscape.
Morning faded to
afternoon, as the weather turned colder. Clouds had thickened and the bright
sunlight faded to a gray glow on the road below that had narrowed to two lanes
in each direction still clogged with cars traveling ten to twenty miles per
hour over the speed limit.
Ayden noticed that
the road was now moving through a valley with mountains rising on each side.
The highest peaks rose into low hanging clouds, obscuring their true height. A
river flowing through the valley meandered back and forth across the road. As
they traveled, the mountains closed in and the light faded. Soon the car
labored as the grade steepened, climbing an unavoidable mountain in his path.
The road curved
sharply as it gained elevation. Deep vertical rock cuts grew up on the left and
steep slopes dropped to the right. Occasionally, on the right, were views of
the mountain that lie ahead. Wisps of fog began to blow across the road. It
eventually thickened, shrouding the traffic and slowing the pace to a cautious
crawl. Ayden’s patience quickly diminished. In frustration, he turned to the
passenger and asked, “Is there a way out of this mess?”
He responded, “The
main road will begin to descend into a valley several miles ahead and we will
drive out of the fog.”
Ayden could not stand
idea of several additional miles creeping through the fog and exited onto a two
lane road with no traffic to slow his journey. The fog diminished and he was
again traveling well above the speed limit, happy with his choice. With his
newfound freedom, leaving the traffic behind, Ayden took the cap off the vodka
bottle again and pulled a beer from the back seat. Turning the passenger he
said, “So much for your advice, we’re making great time.”
“Yes, we are
moving along. Where are we going?”
yourself with that—I’m driving—how ‘bout a beer?”
“No thanks, not
Suddenly the fog
closed in much thicker. Ayden was having difficulty seeing the lines on the
road and the curves that lay ahead. His hands tightened on the steering wheel
and fear of driving over a cliff or into oncoming traffic gripped him. He saw
the fuzzy outline of gravel drive and eased the car off the road.
“Okay, how the
hell are we going to get out of this?” he asked the passenger.
“Let me drive, I
can find the way down the mountain.”
“Well, okay. I
could use some sleep.”
They traded seats
and the passenger, now driver, turned into the road. However, it seemed to
Ayden they were heading in the wrong direction.
“You’re going the
wrong way. You are taking us back the way we came from.”
responded after a few seconds, “You must be confused because of the fog and
because you’re now sitting in the passenger seat, Trust me and get some sleep.”
Ayden could hardly
hold his eyes open and passed out in a matter of minutes. He had an unusual
dream, despite being extremely intoxicated.
In the dream, he
was driving in his home town with his friends getting high, as usual. Suddenly
everyone turned against him and they were angry at him for some reason. They
drove to the river, dragged him from the car, and tied him to the hood. They
threw mud and rocks at him and shouted profanities. Then someone released the brake
and the car rolled over the bank into the water.
Ayden was looking straight
up at the surface and the sunlight fading to darkness as he and the car sunk to
the river bead. In the dream, he was thinking that he was lucky that the car
went straight down and did not roll in the current, trapping him under the car.
He believed he had a chance, however slim, to free himself. Twisting and
turning, he managed to free his hands, allowing the ropes to loosen just enough
to allow him to slip free. His first move was straight up to the air above;
however, he knew those who pushed him in waited there. So he swam with the
current to a bend in the river and surfaced out of view. He turned and ran
downstream not looking back.
When he woke, he
felt out of breath and relived that it was just a dream. The dawn light through
gray clouds half lit the countryside and the interior of the car. Ayden asked
the driver where they were.
He said, “We are
about one hundred miles from home. We should be there soon.
Ayden was suddenly
sat straight up, shaking the sleep from his foggy head, and said, “Pull over
right now—I knew we were headed in the wrong direction.”
He slid over
toward the driver, grabbing the wheel, turning it hard to the left, and forced
his foot to the brake peddle. The car careened across the deserted two lane
road, skidding to a stop on the shoulder. He opened the door and forced the
passenger out, he thought. Not looking for oncoming traffic, he turned the car
in the opposite direction and accelerated. With his head pounding, he reached
in the backseat for a breakfast beer. As he turned he caught sight of the
passenger staring out the window.
“What the hell did
you have in mind driving in the wrong direction? Where are we anyway?”
“As I said, we
were about an hour and half from home. Where do you want to go?”
“I’m looking for
something new and don’t want to go home. There’s nothing there for me. You have
delayed my travel by at least eight hours.”
The passenger did
not respond to Aden’s
angry words and they fell silent again.
All Ayden could
think about was making up for lost time. Pushing the car faster, a light rain
began to fall.
Several hours had
passed when Ayden pulled into a gas station to fill up, take a piss, and buy a
cold six pack. The stop took no more than ten minutes. With rain now pouring
from the sky, Ayden was back on the road that soon began to curve its way up
the mountain where the fog had forced to pullover yesterday evening.
Traveling too fast
for conditions, the car was sliding around the curves, not staying in the
narrow right hand lane. He slid around a 180 degree bend and was suddenly face
to face with a truck coming down the mountain. The truck tried to brake but the
wet road caused it to fishtail, blocking both lanes.
Trying to make it
to the right shoulder of the road, Ayden lost control and headed straight down
a steep wooded slope. Unable to slow or steer, he braced for impact as the
trees flew past. It took less than a minute for the accident to unfold;
however, it seemed much longer to Auden. Finally, the car slowed and suddenly
crashed a stop at the bottom of the slope into a stream. The air bags deployed,
keeping Ayden from crashing into the windshield. He laid dazed and
semiconscious, unable to move.
dragged Ayden to the right seat and slid into the driver seat. He started the
stalled car and eased it out of the rain swollen stream, driving downstream a
short distance to where the road had crossed it a few hundred yards from the
Ayden was now
fully conscious and could not believe that the car was out of the stream and
moving back onto the road, heading down the mountain. Nonetheless, he screamed ,
“Hold it, your going the wrong way again.”
The driver said,
“You are in no condition to drive—you are lucky to be alive. Don’t you think
it’s time to go home?”
Ayden almost felt
like giving up—he was so tired and he needed rest. However, he said, “Hell no,
I don’t want to go home. Pull the car over now and let me drive.”
The driver looked
at Ayden and did as he asked. Ayden slowly slid over into the driver’s seat, feeling
sharp pain in his left shoulder, arm and leg. He was not able to lift his left
hand to the steering wheel. He pulled the shifter into drive, quickly grabbing
the wheel with his right hand, and headed up the mountain road.
“Please let me
help you—you need to see a doctor and you need rest,” said the passenger.
There was a part
of Ayden that knew the passenger was right; however, what came out of his mouth
was, “I am fine. I don’t want to go home.” He drove on.
As he reached the
plateau at the top of the mountain, Ayden suddenly felt ill because of the pain
and because he had had nothing but beer, vodka, and bourbon for the past two
days. Unable to focus on the road, he swerved to the shoulder, dropping the two
right wheels into a ditch. He tried repeatedly to pull the car ahead, but he
was stuck, again.
“Okay, I give up.
If you can get us out of this one, I’ll agree to go home,” he said to the
“Okay then, let’s
Trading seats, the
driver backed out of the ditch, and they headed down the mountain road toward
For the last 6000 years humans have been riding horses and using them in various ways for work. However, horses existed for over four million years prior to being domesticated. During this time they evolved into one of the fastest creatures on earth and developed a sensitive alarm system. The slightest unnatural sound, smell, or unusual movement can trigger a horse’s explosive flight response. The instinct to run from danger has proved to be troublesome and, at times, dangerous to humans on or near a fleeing horse.
The first rule of equine safety is to be in control of your horse, according to Kay Head, a horse trainer I hired recently. She said, “This rule is a no-brainer; but from what I see you ain’t close.” The first time she saw Slick, I was putting the saddle on him for our first lesson and for some reason he took exception to it. While in a cross-tie, which consisted of two heavy timber posts about eight feet apart embedded in a large concrete slab with heavy chains that clipped to each side of Slick’s bridle, he suddenly reared and tried to run backward. His back legs slipped and he ended up sitting like a dog, still pulling at the ties.Kay said, “It looks like Slick has lost all his good marbles and they have been replaced by bad marbles.” I was told that if I wanted to be safe riding Slick I had to get rid of the bad marbles, find the good marbles, and be dominant and in control, even when this 1000-pound animal is frightened and decides to flee.
Kay asked for some history about Slick’s behavior to better understand why this horse was on edge and so easily frightened. My wife Cindy and I told her about how well behaved he was when we first got him and how he progressively became harder to deal with. Cindy told Kay about the first time we experienced Slick’s dark side.
On a sunny spring day Cindy was riding Slick, a five-year-old spotted saddle horse that we had owned for about four months. We had had no real problems with him during this time. I was riding a twelve-year old Tennessee walking horse mare named Cocoa. After crossing the Little River outside of Woodstock, Georgia, we decided to take an unfamiliar trail that headed south, paralleling the river. As we approached a bridge carrying a highway over the river and trail, Slick became noticeably frightened; but we made it under the bridge with no major problem. However, Slick was obviously on edge. Suddenly a grasshopper jumped and buzzed across the trail in front of Slick. That was too much for him and his flight response kicked in. A grasshopper, weighing no more than an ounce or two, set this horse off at a dead run down the trail with Cindy desperately trying to stop him. Slick suddenly side stepped, reared, and Cindy went flying off, face first to the ground. Slick turned and headed toward me and Cocoa, with his ears pinned back. I jumped off Cocoa and was able to catch him before going to check on Cindy’s condition. She was shaken and it was obvious that she would soon have a black eye.
During the months following this first encounter with Slick’s flight response, Cindy told Kay that she continued to have problems with him. She got to the point where she preferred to ride even-tempered Cocoa. Slick realized he had control over Cindy and that she was afraid of him. And oddly, this seemed to make him increasingly fearful.
So, feeling very macho and sure of myself, I told Kay that I began riding Slick regularly. I had no problems, at first. He was fun to ride and had a lot more energy compared to Cocoa. He was obviously well trained by his previous owner. He turned easily with leg pressure and light neck reining and would quickly speed up and slow down on command. He seemed to enjoy working and his fear was in check most of the time.
However, while riding with a friend, Slick lost it again. We were cantering when we came to a sharp bend in the trail. I leaned to make the turn and my saddle suddenly slipped to the side—I had obviously not adequately tightened the saddle or it had loosened during our ride. This startled Slick and his flight response kicked in. He broke into a run and I went flying off. Slick kept going and did not look back. By the time I caught my breath and picked myself up, broken ribs and all, my friend had returned to check on me and said he had no idea where Slick was.
When I found Slick, the saddle was hanging under him and his back right foot was hung up in a stirrup. He was absolutely wild. It took about twenty minutes to catch him, calm him down, and get the saddle off. During this time it became clear that his right rear leg was hurt; however, I had no idea how badly.
Following an expensive vet visit, we received good news that there should by no permanent damage to Slick’s leg and he should recover physically. However, there was definite permanent psychological damage. It took almost two years before Cindy and I did anything to repair this damage.
During those two years I continued to ride Slick, but it was almost always a challenge. I began to feel as if I was riding a time bomb—it was just a matter of time before he would go off. I was constantly on edge while riding and it was no longer an enjoyable pastime. I would joke that a good day riding Slick was one with no broken bones. We often rode at KennesawMountainNational Park, a busy public park in Marietta, Georgia, and I became increasingly fearful that I might hurt someone passing us on foot.
I eventually had all I could stand of this horse and decided to sell him. However, I needed some help to get him manageable enough to sell. That is why we hired Kay Head. Cindy and I heard from a friend that Kay really understands horses and that she had helped this friend a great deal with her horse. We figured it was worth a try. It was clear that we could not deal with Slick without professional help.
Kay started right in working on the saddle issues by having me saddle and unsaddle Slick until he no longer was bothered by it. She said that a horse will learn and remember almost anything if you repeat it seven times a day over seven days. I became very efficient at saddling this horse. In less than a week Slick had overcome his problem with the saddle. That was one problem down—several more to go.
Next, Kay began the ground-work phase of our training. I worked with Slick in a small round pen for two months, totally from the ground. I did not ride him at all during this time. Kay taught me how horses communicate and interact in a herd situation. She explained there is always a hierarchy, with some horses being dominant over others and how dominance is asserted. Kay said that I must learn how become like a dominant horse as far as Slick was concerned.
I started by learning pressure points in order to move Slick around where I wanted him to go. Two points on the upper and lower neck turned his head, pressure on the side near the stirrup would move him sideways, and pressure on a hip would turn his back end. She also showed me how to pet Slick in order to calm him down; much like his mother would have when he was first-born. This work helped build confidence between Slick and me and prepare him to respond to leg and rein cues while riding.
I then moved to driving Slick around the ring using voice and body commands, asking him to speed up, slow down, change direction, and stop, all while standing at the center of the pen. Kay explained that this is how dominance is established. She said, “Keep the pressure on him to do what you are asking and as soon as he does it take the pressure off.” Kay said, “That’s how the dominant horse in the herd works—through pressure and body language. You want Slick to see you as dominant, not the other way around.”
The ground-work went well and Slick eventually began to calm down. He seemed to enjoy working in the round pen and he was a fast learner. My attitude toward Slick began to change. I was looking forward to working with him and I was no longer talking of selling him. He became my companion—how could I even think of selling him?
The next step was to get back in the saddle. Slick’s skittishness and fear seemed to return as soon as I got on him. However, by going through familiar tasks and commands he quickly calmed down and was easily doing what I asked of him. This was not at all how our relationship had been just a few months previous.
At this point Kay taught me a valuable lesson, the one-rein stop. She explained that I would be able to stop any horse by turning him with one short rein held at a constant length. I quickly gained confidence with this and Slick would respond immediately by stopping, turning his head, and tapping my foot with his nose, as if to say, okay, you have my attention. It was a huge relief to be able to easily stop Slick when he began to get out of control.
Kay said having control over a horse and having his trust is a great responsibility. One must never ask a horse to do something he’s not ready to do and the rider must never put the horse and himself in danger. She said, “You can undo a lot of training by trying to force a horse to something dangerous like crossing a flooded stream or descending a steep muddy slope. You have worked very hard to build a trusting relationship with Slick and you must work equally hard to maintain it.”
Slick’s re-training took six months. During that time I developed a better understanding of horses and how to communicate with them. I know from recent experience that Slick’s natural flight instinct is still very much a part of him. The simplest things can scare him, such as a deer crossing our trail or something as benign as a tree stump. Just about anything can provoke Slick’s best defense, flight. But we now have tools and training to deal with this. The idea of selling Slick is gone. He is a pleasure to ride and he has his good marbles back.
Beulah, my mom,
was scheduled have an MRI over a two day period in June, 2006. She had
discussed with her oncologist that she could not lie still on her back for the
three to four hours to complete the procedure in one day due to her severe back
pain. They agreed that she would be admitted to the hospital and have the full
body MRI done over a two day period. The plan was to check into to NorthsideHospital on Wednesday June 7, 2006 and be back home by
My 81 year old mom
was on Medicare. Because of inefficient and arcane Medicare rules she could not
simply walk in the front door of the hospital and request to be admitted, even
with doctor’s orders. Instead, she had to go first to the emergency room, even
though her condition was not a medical emergency, and be admitted through the
ER so the insurance would cover her medical expenses.
Emergency rooms of
large urban hospitals are busy 24-7 and NorthsideHospital
is certainly no exception. Most hours of any day the ER medical staff is overwhelmed
with a variety of patients, which makes the Medicare rules regarding hospital
admission all the more bizarre. The ER triage system first treats those with
life threatening conditions and the rest wait for the next available nurse and doctor,
and in my mom’s case, the next available room. She waited for over two hours on
a gurney in the hallway before an ER exam room was available. And it took
eleven hours before she made it to a room to a room was available. My mom, accompanied
by my dad, Bill, walked into the emergency room at 3 PM on Wednesday and were finally
in a third floor—oncology floor—room at 2 AM Thursday. The first MRI session
was scheduled for later that day.
This ordeal, which
would be difficult a young healthy person, took a toll on Beulah. You see my
mom, who had suffered with back pain most her life due to severe scoliosis, had
been in constant, severe, debilitating pain for eighteen months. She had tried
a variety of treatments such as epidural blocks and pain medication, none of
which were effective. She had been taking high doses of narcotic pain
medication including viocadin, morphine, and deluded for about at least six
months. She had long resisted such meds because they made her ill and dulled
her sharp mind. She read constantly, kept track of investments, paid the bills,
and regularly worked crossword puzzles. Beulah could not function due to the
pain and the medication made it difficult for her to focus. Several months
prior to her last trip to the hospital she would lament that this was no way to
Friday at the hospital went well. The time that Beulah spent in the MRI was
uncomfortable because she was in a great deal of pain despite regular doses of
oral narcotic pain medication. Despite severe pain, my mom and dad were
preparing to leave the hospital Friday afternoon to await the MRI results on
Monday. However, during the checkout exam the oncologist, who was not her
regular doctor, suggested that she stay one more night to get her pain under
control. He said the hospital pain management specialists could visit her on
Saturday. She reluctantly agreed because her regular oncologist was returning
from an out of town conference and would make rounds on Saturday. She hoped the
MRI results would be available then as well. The pain management doctor ordered
an IV pump of deluded, a narcotic pain medication, and then vanished not to be
As the evening
wore on the medication was not working and Beulah became restless. The nursed
reminded her that she could push a hand held button to receive a dose of
deluded as often as she need it. In addition, my father had with him some of
her prescription medication from home and gave her viocadin in addition to the
deluded. The combination of this medication put Beulah in a semi-comatose state
and her respiration and heart rate fell dangerously low. She had overdosed on
In the early hours
of Saturday she was sent to ICU in an attempt to stabilize her vital signs and detoxify
her body of excessively high levels of narcotics. She received Naloxone through
an IV pump. This medication is used to treat opiate overdose. Health care
officials provide doses of this medication to heroin addicts to carry with them
in case of accidental overdose. It increases heart and respiration, makes the
patient alert while flushing the narcotic from the system.
When I arrived at
her room early Saturday morning, Beulah was receiving 25 ml per hour of this
medication and, of course, no pain medication. She was alert and in extreme
pain. She pleaded with me to ask the nurse to give her something for the pain;
she could not continue living in such pain. My dad and I explained that the
nurse could not giver her anything for the pain until her vital signs
stabilized. She grabbed my arm, and with more strength than I believed she
could possibly posses, pleaded for relief, “I cannot live like this.” She also
said over and over, “You must write this story” and “Please write my story.” This
went on for another day and a half. The only time she could rest was when the
nurse would reduce the Naloxone dosage to 10 ml per hour or less. Exhausted,
Beulah would sleep; however, instead of restful sleep, it seemed more like
During these two
days, while watching my mom slowly die, I found the only thing that made any
sense was to pray. I was powerless to do anything else for her. Of course, I
prayed for my mom’s recovery; but as time passed it became clear Beulah would
not recover. Sandy,
an ICU nurse prepared us for the reality that Beulah would likely not recover
form the over dose and that her health was failing. I prayed that I could carry
her pain I remember late one night praying that she be freed of her body so she
could fly free.
One afternoon I
sat alone with her as she struggled in pain from the Naloxone, her strong hands
gripping my arm and hand, pleading to let her die. Around a nurse reduced the dosage and mom drifted
to sleep. I sat in a chair staring at an electrical outlet in the high tech ICU
wall behind her bed. With my palms open I prayed that God grant Beulah, my mom,
some peace and to let me carry her pain. The room that had swirled with anxiety
and pain a few minutes prior was now peaceful and calm—Beulah was resting. I
dared not move from the chair or even remove my eyes from the plug. I connected
to and plugged into God behind that wall. We stayed just like that for over an
hour until my dad returned. I let him sit in that chair to watch Beulah sleep.
I hoped he would plug into what I had found sitting in that chair.
came to visit on Monday, June 10 and said there was a suspicious lesion that
showed on the MRI and he recommended a PET scan and biopsy to confirm what he
suspected was cancer of the spine. This came as no surprise to Beulah. She took
the diagnosis much better than my dad, Bill, sister Martha, and I took this
news. The doctor also suggested that following the biopsy, while under local
anesthetic, the pain management doctor could insert an epidural catheter to
deliver pain medication directly to the source of her pain. She and my dad
agreed to the biopsy and the catheter.
With the results
of the PET scan and biopsy in hand that confirmed spinal cancer, her oncologist
recommended a limited series of five radiation treatments. However, Beulah’s
condition had worsened and Sandy, the ICU nurse, suggested that consider
hospice care because her condition would not improve. Reluctantly, my dad,
Martha and I made arrangements at a hospice.
was a silence between Bill, Martha, and I. We knew Beulah would probably not
recover and that she was dieing. None of us wanted to loose hope and we wanted
the doctors and nurses to do all they could to make her comfortable and help
her recover from the deteriorating state she was in. However, as the days
passed, we knew recovery was not realistic. Eventually, our thoughts were
spoken. Mom talked with Martha about the dress in which she wanted to be
My mom had in
place a living will which stipulated no heroic life prolonging measures in the
event of a terminal diagnosis. It seemed that time had come and she knew it.
When she was conscious, which became less and less as time progressed, she
would say, “Why can’t I die? I cannot live like this, I just want to die” and
“Mark, this is a story you must write.”
On Friday, June 16, Beulah was moved form ICU
back the oncology floor. Sitting with her on Sunday, June 18 about I felt plugged in again. My mom
had developed severe fear and anxiety at night. It would begin about five or
six in the evening and last most of the night. I found on the American Cancer
Society Web Site that this is a side effect of the combination of cancer and
pain medication. However, this evening she was sleeping. I tried to open the
window; however, it was screwed shut. I was sure if the window was open she
could fly free, but the hospital window would not let her out. I sensed she was
disappointed that the window would not open.
After two days
delay while the hospice made arrangements for the pump and medication for the epidural
catheter, she was finally moved to the hospice on the morning of June 19. That
evening at , she died
while my dad and I held each her hands.
This story did not
end the way any of us wanted to end. However, all of our life stories do end.
The details of my mom’s death really do not begin to reveal how she lived her
life. I have heard so many stories for m her friends and from people she worked
with that Beulah unselfishly took care of many who came to know her. She never
dwelled on herself, including the pain she lived with. In the end I think
because she could not take care of those she loved and others around her,
that’s why she did not want to continue living.
When I started the
Master of Arts in Professional Writing (MAPW) program at Kennesaw StateUniversity
in the fall of 2003 I had no idea if I would complete all of the course
requirements. I only intended to take a few courses and see if I could keep up
with the young, gifted MAPW students who I found to be so adamant about their
writing. After all, I’m what one may refer to as a well-seasoned, mature (old
geezer) writer who had not been in a classroom as a student in twenty-three
years prior to my first MAPW class. So what made me think I could sit in a
student’s seat, complete ten classes, finish a capstone project, work forty to
fifty hours per week, and be a father and husband? And could I write well
enough to earn passing grades?
With the help and
support of my family, the encouragement of the MAPW faculty, with the
collaboration of my classmates, and with God’s help, I have earned that degree.
In doing so, and by completing a variety of academic coursework, I have grown
as a writer and look forward, for the most part, to time spent writing.
I enjoy writing,
especially writing “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott discusses at length in
her book, Bird by Bird. The random
thoughts that pour on to the page, when I am confident no one will read them,
often frighten me and confirm, in a concrete way, that bizarre and random
thoughts seem to continuously rattle around in my head. And when I re-read a
“shitty first draft” and realize I have no idea at all what I was trying to
communicate, I begin to seriously question my ability to write and to even
develop coherent thoughts. However, through perseverance or perhaps desperation
when I pick through first draft detritus and find a sentence or phrase that
catches my attention and imagination, the real work of writing begins—revising
and rewriting. I subject myself to this work in order to convince a client that
our engineering firm is eminently qualified for a particular project or to
connect with more or less normal people and convince them, and myself, that we
share common experiences. In other words, through repeated refinement and
revision, I find the words to engage my audience and develop ethos and
Writing is vital
to who I am and what I do for a living. Words, the form they take on paper, the
story they tell, and where they lead never ceases to amaze me. However, at
times writing begins to stray—“spaghetti,” in the words of Ralph Keyes from his
book The Courage to Write. When this
happens I have learned to walk away and return from a different direction, or
perhaps abandon an ill-fated ship of words entirely.At other times words and my writing process work together and my
voice, which often fails in spoken conversation and argument, speaks clearly on
paper and I develop a clearer understanding of my subject. Whether the subject
is an engineering topic at work, a personal nonfiction essay, a fiction story,
or a poem, when I connect with my audience and they respond, my readers are
collaborating with me and improving my writing.
Response lets me
know what is important to my audience. For example, my nephew recently
commented on similar feelings and experiences through a series e-mails after
reading an essay I sent him about my recovery from drug addiction and
alcoholism. I am over thirty years older than my nephew; however, we are
connected by a common disease. We discovered this common ground through
writing. Our conversations at family gatherings have never touched on this
subject. Other family members do not share our interest in recovery, so the
subject rarely comes up. Writing has connected us in a way that spoken words
A second example
of connecting with my audience comes from the workplace. I gained a valuable
client by writing a detailed engineering proposal outlining an economical
solution for constructing a sewer line through an ecologically sensitive area.
The client responded by awarding my company with the design project, as well
as, several subsequent design projects.
My experience in
the MAPW program has changed my approach to the writing process and
collaboration. I’ve become less fearful of writing and more sensitive to my
audience’s needs and desires. I’ve grown to enjoy collaborating with readers.
However, most writers agree that writing is work and involves risk. Committing
words to paper opens the writer to the risk of rejection. For example, writing
a statement of qualifications engineering proposal entails the risk of being
judged unqualified or at least less qualified than others by a valued client.
Also, personal essay writing lays the writer bare to being judged unusual,
peculiar, or downright bizarre—much like the reaction of some to my story of
recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. However, taking chances through
writing keeps life interesting and keeps me connected to those around me. And,
perhaps, my audience will understand that it is okay to be unusual and to seek
help if they find themselves in an unhealthy situation.
process has become a vehicle to freedom for me. I have found freedom from my
self-absorbed daily grind. As an adolescent and young adult, I fancied myself a
free spirit, a revolutionary, removed from the “establishment.” The reality
today is I’m very much part of the establishment and my freedom often feels
compromised, not by the responsibilities themselves, but rather by my
perception of responsibilities and the choices I make. I know, on one level,
there is nothing at all confining or wrong with being responsible to my family
and the workplace; but, my obsession with those responsibilities is often
unbalanced. Writing frees my spirit. It lets me fly and shake loose from the
drag of mundane chores and my often obsessive, addictive behavior. I choose to
write because the work of writing rewards my spirit. Writing transforms my
creative imagination into a tangible, concrete expression that has the power to
touch others. When my writing works well, I am able, in the words of Caroline
Westerhoff, to “touch the Mystery,” or gain glimpses of God in everyday life,
as I discuss in the essay “Touch the Mystery: A Conversation with Caroline
Wwsterhoff.” I do not fully understand what or who God is, but what I cannot
explain, such as my daily recovery from a hopeless situation with drugs and
alcohol, gives me faith in the Mystery.
As I note above,
my writing included workplace writing and creative writing as well as
composition and rhetoric writing. Regardless of the genre, my writing process
includes common elements and dysfunctions. I cannot just sit down and write
without first cleaning my desk, going for a run, making sure the house or
office is in order, or some other form of procrastination. I wish I could just
immediately start writing because I have limited time to write at work and at
home. So, to make the most of my available writing time, I have learned, the
hard way, to take the time to outline my story or subject. I also research and
read about my subject. With this preliminary work done, I push through a rough
(shitty) draft, then walk away from it for a day, if possible. When I return, I
read the draft aloud with my outline and research material at hand. I cut the
irrelevant stuff, which is often painful. This revision and rewriting process
involves at least three iterations, sometimes many more. As the deadline approaches
for completing the piece, or when I am just tired of looking at it, I put the
finishing touches on it and call it good.
Finding time to
write what I want is a challenge because I work forty to fifty hours per week
as an engineer writing letters, reports, and proposals, and supervising civil
and structural design projects. Climbing the stairs to my home office to write
after a long day at work is often tough. I found encouragement recently in a
biography of Stephen King that I saw on television. King began his writing
career by writing after work. He was motivated to write and stuck with it
through some tough times. King’s story motivates me to keep writing.
Making an outline
prior to writing is time well spent. This realization came after struggling
with several stories and by reading and rereading Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story. Prior to reading this
book, I thought outlining creative writing was unnecessary and a waste of my
precious writing time. Wrong. I have trashed numerous drafts and entire stories
because I had no clear idea where I was going. In addition, I never start
writing at work without an outline. So what made me think I did not need an
outline to write a short story or personal essay? I was inexperienced with
creative writing and had many misconceptions, such as writing talent could
carry one through difficult writing situations. I learned that without the
direction of an outline my mind will wander to unknown places and invariably
become hopelessly lost.
With an outline in
hand, I begin researching. This process helps me keep my story straight. I have
learned not to trust my recollection of the order of past events and some
important details surrounding those past events.
With my outline
and my facts straight, I write a rough draft. I usually write on a computer
because I have found this saves time. When writing a first draft I turn off the
spell check and try to reach the end of the draft with limited rereading. At
this stage, I do not even try too hard to keep my mind from straying from my
outline. Sometimes I am surprised when I end up in uncharted territory.
Occasionally, these uncharted directions work with the story and I revise the
outline. Other times the uncharted writing is a waste of time and I return to
the outline road map.
A good test for
the material that remains is to read it aloud to myself. Where I stumble, I
rewrite. What sounds trivial or does not suit my voice, I revise.
Time or my
patience usually runs out on the revision process; therefore, I often call the
last revision I have time for my polishing revision. However, I have found that
revision never really ends. Rereading so-called “final” drafts long after the
due date often reveals something that is not quite right and in need of
A final test of a
story or essay is to ask myself how it makes me feel. Will it resonate with my
audience? Will my audience understand what I am trying to tell them? I also ask
if I am happy with what I have written. My reaction may range from this is just
okay to feeling satisfied by discovering something new or something that I did
not fully realize prior to writing.
after writing a draft of “Out of the Fog: A Leap of Faith,” I had two dreams that I attribute to writing about the details
of my alcoholism. I have told my story several times to various groups, but
this did not have the same effect as writing about this subject. In the first
dream I was an inmate of a prison. I was helping two other men build something
in murky water. My job was to swim from deep water near a bridge pier, avoid
snakes, traverse a rocky bank, find construction material, and return to the
two men treading water. Danger lurked beneath.
In the second
dream, I found myself tied to the outside of a car with running boards. Several
people pushed the car into the water. As the car descended, the car turned on
its side and I watched the surface retreat from view. I was thankful that the
car was beneath me instead of the other way around—there would be no hope if
the car settled to the bottom on top of me. Time was running out as I struggled
to free myself. I knew when I got free I could not go straight up because
whoever had pushed me in was waiting above and keeping watch. I swam under
water to a bridge, slipped quietly out of the water, and climbed a steep,
rock-lined bank to escape.
Well yes, this is
weird, but I see these dreams as a sign that I was perhaps headed in the right
direction with my story. I see connections between my writing and past life. My
dream of drowning while tied to a car represented my sinking into alcoholism
and drug addiction. I used my car to transport me from bar to liquor store to
dope dealer—it enabled my addictions. The other dream is not so clear. The
prison situation had something to do with addictions, but I seemed to be
helping the two in the water, which also has to do with recovery.
No matter what the
type of writing, connecting with the audience is what it is all about. The
workplace audience is looking for specific information. Students and teachers
are seeking to expand their knowledge by reading composition and rhetoric
writing. Readers of creative writing do so for entertainment and to identify
with characters or the narrator. Fr me, the most important aspect of writing is
the response from an audience.
It was on December 22, 1999, and I was frantically putting the finishing touches on a proposal that was due at that afternoon. The proposal was for the design of a pedestrian corridor and bridge for the City of Marietta, Georgia. The last item I needed for the proposal was the drug free workplace certification that was required by the City, which read:
Associated Engineers expressly prohibits the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensing, possession, or use of controlled substances. Violation of this prohibition will result in immediate and severe penalties, which may include dismissal and/or criminal prosecution under the jurisdiction of the state of Georgia. We the undersigned acknowledge and support every effort to maintain a drug free workplace.
I was the last to sign the form, although my name was at the top of the project team. My hands were shaking so badly that my scratching barely looked anything like a signature. I had been up most of the two previous nights working on the proposal that I had put off for a month. I was drinking heavily and eating handfuls of amphetamines. I had slept a total of five hours during the previous seventy two. The drug free workplace certification was simply a requirement of the proposal and it had no real meaning whatsoever as far as I was concerned. I felt it did not apply to me.
I threw the completed form on the secretary’s desk and said. “Make five copies and bind the proposals. They have to be there in an hour.”
I returned about thirty minutes later, grabbed the package of bound proposals and buzzed out of the office telling the secretary that I would be out of the office for the rest of the day and with no word of thanks for helping.
I hopped in my car and drove like a maniac three blocks to City Hall. I could have walked from my office to City Hall faster than it took me to drive it, but I really wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. I made the delivery with fifteen minutes to spare—yet another successful proposal writing process.
I returned to my car and again drove like a maniac two blocks to Crystal’s bar to celebrate my resounding success. Crystal and I were old friends. She had worked as a bartender at Shillings bar for years before opening her own place. I drank my usual combination, Gunnies and scotch, for two hours before driving four blocks to St. James’ Episcopal Church for Wednesday dinner. At that stage, I wasn’t capable of walking four blocks to the church. I really wasn’t in any condition to drive either, but that seemed like the only viable option at the time. I flicked a cigarette in the street before making my way into the parish hall. I met my family, Cindy, my wife and Alexis and Rachel, my daughters. I explained what a crazy and hectic day I had had. I then made my way to the boxes of wine and drew a glass of the red.Boxed Gallo wine is really awful stuff, but it was just what I needed to get me through dinner and the after dinner program.
This was a typical day for me at the time. I had been under the influence of drugs and or alcohol most of the previous twenty-nine years. However, it was taking a toll on me physically and emotionally, not to mention what it was doing to my family.My childhood was the only time I could remember feeling in control and not confused, doubtful, and fearful about my life.
Laid Back Lantana
I grew up in the South Florida town of Lantana, a small easy going town. I was seldom confused or doubtful about what to do or my place in the world. I knew most of our neighbors for several blocks in all directions. My parents repeatedly told me I could do anything I put my mind to and I believed them—they never lied to me. This was during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when South Florida was peaceful and thriving. The country was experiencing a peaceful lull following World War II and the Korean War. Even in times of occasional conflict, such as the Bay of Pigs confrontation, our country and president John F. Kennedy seemed to come out on top and were able to face down the Russians.
I remember classroom drills when my first grade classmates and I practiced getting under our desks, rolling into a ball, and covering our heads with our hands. This was preparation for a nuclear attack, although this was not really discussed in class or at home. In hindsight, I’m sure our defensive position under our desks would not have been effective. But the attack never came and the drills ceased. Life in Lantana returned to being laid back.
During the years we lived in Lantana, we would visit my mom’s family in Tell City, Indiana, usually during the month of August. I always looked forward to these trips and visiting the Schauberger clan—my grandma, grandpa, five aunts and uncles, and ten cousins. Most of TellCity, including the Schaubergers, had some German heritage somewhere in their family background and the whole town would close for a week in mid-August to celebrate Schweizer Fest, a German festival. There were parades, rides, and a BeerGarden. The BeerGarden was hopping from morning to late at night. I thought it was great to sit at the table with my cousins as the adults drank beer and grew louder and louder as the night wore on. When the BeerGarden closed each night, my mom would walk the children to my grandparents’ house as the other adults adjourned to the Moose Lodge.
One night, my mom took me to the Moose Lodge in search of my father. She was concerned because she knew that he didn’t drink like her brothers. She probably did not want to confront her brothers, so she sent me into the Moose Lodge to get my dad’s attention. Well I got his attention, as well as the attention of everyone in the place. Several of the patrons sitting on stools at the bar, including my dad, almost fell to the floor when I walked in. I went through the room full of drunks like I knew exactly what I was doing and sat on a stool next to my dad. My uncles howled. My dad said, “Mark, I’m glad to see you, but you’re not old enough to be in here.” “I know, but mom is outside and she sent me to let you know it’s time to go home.” My uncles howled again. I turned my attention to the electronic beer sign behind the bar that had a moving image of water flowing over a waterfall. I said, “Hey dad, how do they do that? It looks real.” He said, “Come on, it’s time to go.”
My dad slept for a long time the next day. My uncle Ramey arrived at my grandparent’s house mid-morning, drinking a beer. He asked where everybody was. I told him that my mom had gone to visit friends, grandma went to the store with my sister, and my dad was asleep. Uncle Ramey snickered. We sat on the front porch and talked until a flock of noisy black birds swooped down and roosted in the big oaks in the front yard. Uncle Ramey began to cuss at the birds. He went to his car and returned with a shot gun. He sat on the porch steps, and said, “I’ll fix those birds.” I sat down next to him as he loaded the shot gun, finished his beer, and started blasting. A dead bird or two fell in the street and the flock departed for a safer neighborhood. Then my dad came to the front door, not looking fully awake. He asked what the hell was going on. I told him that Uncle Ramey got rid of those damn black birds. Ramey and I laughed. My dad told me not to use that kind of language and he went back upstairs.
The Schweizer Fest of 1962 was a particularly rocking time when my cousin Linda married Don Robertson. The wedding was held at the Catholic Church in TellCity, a few blocks from my grandparents’ home. I have been told, repeatedly, a story about an incident that happened during the wedding that involved a buckeye.
I don’t have a clear memory of this time, but I’ve heard the story so many times from so many family members, it must be true. Don had given me a buckeye the day before the wedding and, very convincingly, told me it was a good luck charm. He said I should put it in my pocket and always carry it with me. I did as Don suggested and put the buckeye in my pocket, but I evidently didn’t leave it there. I had never seen anything like a buckeye in Lantana and I must have thought it would bring me even more luck if I held it in my hand. Well, during the wedding service the buckeye slipped from my hand and hit the marble floor of the church with what I’ve been told was a resounding thud—and the thud did not stop there. The marble floor of the church sloped to where the bride and groom were standing facing the priest, some distance from where I was sitting. The sound of the buckeye’s oblong shape gaining speed on the marble floor must have turned heads away from the bride and groom.
Don has told me, maybe a hundred times, he knew right away what was rolling down the floor and who was responsible. The buckeye finally ended up at his feet. All, who were sober enough to remember, say that Don bent to pick up the buckeye and slipped it in his pocket just before he kissed the bride. He’s convinced that buckeye brought Linda and him good luck that has lasted to this day.
In the fall of 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My sister and I were out of school on Thanksgiving break and my family was camping at a state park near Ocala, Florida. The vacation was cut short on November 22. We returned home to Lantana. I was seven and wasn’t quite sure what had happened. I was confused why we were returning home a few hours after setting up the tent. Whatever it was, it must have been important. I remember that both of my parents had voted for Kennedy and were shaken by his assassination, as was the entire world.
Lyndon Johnson became the 36th President on November 22, 1963. He inherited the Vietnam conflict which escalated dramatically into a full blown war during his six years in office and the civil rights movement became a national issue during his presidency.
People in Lantana and members of our Episcopal church, The Church of the Guardian Angel, began taking sides on the civil rights issue. I remember our priest, Father Fayer, preaching a sermon in which he told the congregation he would be traveling to Washington, D.C. to march in a civil rights rally. This sent ripples through the pews. The consensus of opinion was, it was okay to talk about civil rights, but it wasn’t okay to actually do something as radical as protest and march down a public street. My parents discussed the situation at great length. My mom and dad supported civil rights and the priest’s trip. However, not everyone in the congregation agreed with my parents and many of our friends left the church, which disappointed our entire family. Our church community was a big part of our lives and these events changed our community.
In January of 1968, our family moved from Lantana to Atlanta. In April of 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and in June Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. These were difficult, confusing times for the entire country. The community feel of Atlanta was completely different than Lantana. We did not have a network of close friends and the church we attended was much different than The Church of the Guardian Angel.
However, we did find friends from Lantana in Atlanta. The Levesque family had moved from Lantana to Smyrna, Georgia, two years before our move. Mark Levesque was my age and we had been best friends in Lantana. Our friendship continued in Georgia, and Mark L. and I would travel many roads together.
As if feeding on the turmoil and confusion of the 1960’s, young people and college students began questioning the judgment and authority of those in power. Also, during this time drugs became readily available and I became involved. I also became selfishly invested in the push to end the Vietnam War when I was faced with the possibility of a low draft number.
Richard Nixon became the 37th President in 1970. Interestingly, there are two key figures in the George W. Bush administration who began their long political careers in the Nixon administration—Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. They kind of remind me of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Cheney and Rumsfeld have been in the public eye almost as long as Keith and Mick. Just like the Stones, Cheney and Rumsfeld seem to keep turning up like Ever Ready bunnies.
Also in 1970, four students were killed and nine students wounded by National Guard Troops at KentStateUniversity. The Watergate scandal broke in 1972 which eventually forced Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.
The changes and disappointments in the world around me, my family’s move from Florida to Atlanta, my involvement with drugs and alcohol, and my rebellion against “the establishment” changed the way I saw the world. For the first time I was confused and I doubted the news I heard and read. I was not into church during this time, although I went occasionally, and God had no place in my life. I also rejected the family that loved me. Drugs and alcohol became a fog that shrouded and enveloped my life. In the words of Jackson Browne, “I took my young imagination to the acid test […] I let my pleasures lead my little world astray.” I turned on a bumpy road that took almost thirty years to ride out.
Dinnertime in our family has always been a time of gathering and connecting. However, one evening in 1971, dinner was a real trip, so to speak. I was fourteen and in the ninth grade at NorthSpringHigh School. I had quit the swim team, broken my wrist playing junior varsity football, and I was running with a crowd that was into protesting the Vietnam War and doing every drug we could put our hands on.
One crisp fall day while I was waiting in the school smoking area for class to begin, a friend, speaking under his breath, let us know he had orange sunshine acid for sale. He sold out in a very short time. To say the least, that day at school was very eventful and so was dinner that evening.
Still feeling the effects of the drug, I really wasn’t up to sitting down with my mom, dad, and sister for pleasant dinnertime conversation. We had spaghetti for dinner that night. The noodles and sauce were doing strange things on my plate and my dad was looking at me as I played with my food. My mom asked, “Are you feeling okay Mark?” I said, “I feel fine, why?” She said, “Well, you don’t seem hungry; you’ve hardly eaten a thing.” I said, “I’m fine, leave me alone” and I added, “I’m going out after dinner.” My dad asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “Just out.” There were many difficult dinnertimes to follow. I was present for most dinners because my family insisted on it, but I was often in a fog.
Eventually, I ended up with a very different family at dinner. When I was fifteen, my parents sent me to St. Andrew’s, a private boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee.
It was a cold gray day as my parents and I drove northwest out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was Super Bowl Sunday, January 16, 1972. Driving up the mountain toward Monteagle and Sewanee we slowly ascended into low hanging clouds. The fog surrounded the interstate and my thoughts. I had no idea where they were taking me and the gathering fog disoriented me. I was very apprehensive about what I would find at this school. St. Andrew’s was my parent’s attempt to find a solution to my out-of-control drug and alcohol use and complete lack of interest in school, although at the time, I didn’t see any problem at all. I couldn’t see where we were going as we turned off of I-24 toward Sewanee because of the thick fog. I remember one overriding thought: “Where the hell are they taking me and how am I going to get out of here?”
After my parents helped me move my stuff into the dorm and said their goodbyes, I set up my stereo and put on a brand new Led Zeppelin album—the one with “Stairway to Heaven.”
My roommate, Marty, whom I was sure was from a planet other than earth, came into our room to let me know it was time for dinner. I said I really wasn’t hungry and would not be going to dinner tonight, thank you. He said I had to go or I would get “stuck.” I asked what in the world “stuck” meant.Marty said, “If I didn’t check in at dinner and breakfast, or if I broke any rules, I would receive weekend detention and not be able to hitchhike into town on the weekend. “You’ll be stuck on campus all weekend.” I said, “Great, I love this place already.” So, Marty and I headed for the dining hall. We walked out of the dorm into the cold fog. I asked “Which way to the fucking dining hall and where did all this fog come from?” Marty pointed to a glow about twenty yards away and said that I would get used to the fog. He said, “Don’t worry, it should lift around March.” “Great, I really love this place.”
Dinnertime at St. Andrew’s was a requirement. Whether you were hungry or not, you had to attend and check-in with the Master of the Day. The reason for this was twofold. First, the school wanted to make sure you were still on-campus. Second, everyone was required to hold a coherent conversation with the Master to prove you weren’t under the influence of a mind altering illegal substance—the Master always sat in a well lighted area of the dining hall. The real attraction of the dining hall was connecting with members of my school family to discuss plans for the evening or to plan our weekend trip to the thriving town of Sewanee. The only legal attractions in Sewanee were the Movie Theater, University Bookstore, library, and Student Union. However the off-limit places held the most alluring attractions and was the subject of most conversations. We occasionally discussed class assignments, but only if we had nothing better to talk about. The food was only a secondary consideration. Everyone had their place in the dining hall with a group of friends. But, I recall as a new student, I found these groups intimidating and difficult to join. I entered school in the middle of my sophomore year. I was the only new kid to start that January.
As Marty and I walked into the noisy hall, the first thing I noticed were banners hanging from the high ceiling around the perimeter of the hall. They were obviously banners from the last forty or fifty graduating classes—how weird I thought. Then I suddenly realized that the room was growing silent and all heads seemed to follow me as I walked past the Master to the food line. I thought, “Great, now I’m on display.” I got my food and sat with Marty to eat under the watchful gaze of about seventy five of, what was to become, my St. A family. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to find fellow earth people.
John sat down after Marty had left. As we talked, he must have sensed my displeasure about finding myself on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a shroud of fog. He said, “So let me guess, you don’t want to be here and you’re thinking of going over the hill.” He explained that “going over the hill” was thumbing down the mountain to either Chattanooga or Nashville. I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I have in mind.” But, John immediately dashed my hopes saying that he had tried “going over the hill” twice and the Master of the Day had tracked him down both times. He said, as a result, he was not able to go into town for a month after each excursion. So he had decided to make the best of the place and I may as well do the same. I said, “Great.” He said, “Cheer up; I’ll take you into town this Friday to Archie’s house.” He said, Archie was a day student and he would introduce me to him. John added, “Keep this quite because day student’s houses are off limits. I said, “Ok,” and found myself feeling better about the place.
It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that maintaining a B average had definite advantages. If your average fell below B, you were required to attend supervised study hall in the school building from to , Sunday through Thursday. So, I studied and kept my grades up. However, other than keeping my grades up, it didn’t take long for my life to reach the same uncontrollable state that I was in at North Springs.
For instance, I soon learned that everyone who lived on the mountain was related to Mr. Tate, who was one of the most dreaded Masters and my biology teacher. I could pass for eighteen, the legal drinking age at the time, so I was designated, from time to time to ride my bike on the back roads to buy beer at the Sewanee Market. One afternoon, however, one of Tate’s relatives called him and described this tall guy on a bicycle that may have been a St. Andrew’s student. Well, Tate knew I had a bike and the description must have fit. He put his arm around me at dinner that evening and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I was to stay away from the Sewanee Market.
After that, the only place we could drink was at the University of the South Fraternity Houses on party weekends. We would supply the pot and drugs and the fraternity brothers would let us drink all we could hold. We thought this was a great deal. The only problem was that St. A students were not allowed into town on party weekends, which meant we couldn’t hitchhike into town, as usual. We had to walk down the mountain through Shake Rag Hollow and back up the mountain into town. It was a tough walk into town, and an even tougher walk on the return trip.
One party weekend, John and I were partying in an upstairs room of a fraternity house. It was getting late and we decided to leave so we could make it back in time for bed check. I opened the upstairs door and through the smoke I saw Mr. Tate walking in the front door. John and I immediately decided that we probably should not leave at that time. We checked the window. We weren’t sure we would survive the fall, but jumping was not completely out of the question. We watched Tate stroll around downstairs for about ten minutes, which seemed like several hours to us. Then he left. Or had he? We weren’t sure. We asked someone to check outside. Apparently Tate had indeed moved on. John and I made it to the trail without being seen by Tate and were back to our room just before bed check. Tate had an annoying habit of showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He evidently showed up walking down Abow’s Alley in Sewanee at the wrong time one Wednesday night just after the start of school in 1972, my junior year. I had given Marty, my old roommate, a few joints. He and three others were walking down Abow’s Alley smoking and ran into Tate—busted. When asked where they got the pot, they named me.
I did not go to town that night and was relaxing in my room studying when Andy Simmons, the Master of the Day and my math teacher, barged in and said to follow him immediately. I said, “Sure, what’s up?” He didn’t answer. We made our way to the administration building. I knew something bad was going on and began feeling more and more uneasy. We walked to the headmaster’s office. Father Martin, sitting in the large office behind his desk, said, “Have a seat, Mr. Holmberg.” I felt sick. He explained how Marty and the others were busted and that they had implicated me. He said that I was expelled immediately and that my room was being searched. He said that he had called my parents and my mom was going to pick me up Thursday morning. He instructed me not to talk to anyone about this. I didn’t.
My mom arrived at the next day. It was a long ride home. Needless to say my mom and dad were not pleased. They also knew that my chances were not good at North Springs High.
Around Thanksgiving, my parents said that St. Andrew’s had agreed to let me return to school on the condition that I would be permanently expelled if I had any discipline problem at all. I was relieved and excited about returning to St. Andrew’s.
I turned over a new leaf. I tried out for and made the basketball team, cross country team, and football team. However, I didn’t completely give up my old habits, but I was much more discrete about it.
I graduated from St. Andrew’s in the spring of 1974 and my drug and alcohol use escalated immediately.
Mark L. and I have been friends since we were two years old. We rode many bumpy roads together and ended up in several ditches along the way.
One evening in the winter of 1975, we ended up in the Smyrna, Georgia, jail, sharing a cell. We had been out on a Saturday night drinking, as usual. It was getting late and the liquor stores would be closing soon, so Mark L suggested that we stop at the nearest bottle shop so he could run in and pick up something for Sunday. As I pulled in the parking lot, Mark L said, “Park on the side of the building, not in front.”He also wanted to borrow my coat. I am six foot five and Mark L is maybe six feet tall. I said, “Sure you can use my coat, but what’s wrong with yours?” “Yours is just better.” So, off he went in a coat about two sizes too big for him. Two or three minutes later he came running to the car and said, “Let’s go, now!” I said, “Okay, what’s your hurry?” “Don’t ask, just drive.”
When we were back on the road, Mark pulled a half gallon of vodka from under my coat and said this would get us through Sunday. He said, “Pull down Lee Street and we’ll stash it somewhere.” We ended up stashing the bottle in a hedge on a side road next to BrawnerHospital, a psychiatric facility specializing in drug addiction and alcoholism treatment. Once done with that, we headed to Mark’s house.
Suddenly, there were blue lights behind us and a Smyrna cop car, blue lights flashing, swerved in front of us. With guns drawn, the officers strongly suggested that we get out of the car and lie face down in the street. Not seeing another viable option, we assumed the suggested position. The officers searched the car and finding nothing inside, began to question us. Not being real forthcoming with Smyrna’s finest, Mark L and I soon found ourselves handcuffed and being led to one of the police cars. I asked, “Why the fuck are we being arrested?” One officer said, “Shut up,” and hit me in the back of my head with his nightstick. Mark L said. “What the hell, you can’t hit an innocent handcuffed man.” The other officer told him to shut up and hit him in the face, giving Mark L a bloody nose. We didn’t grasp the shut up concept until the officers explained the consequences of continuing to run our mouths a few more times with nightsticks and fists. I still to this day don’t know why they didn’t give a breath test, but they didn’t. A DUI would have been just another charge against me. The officers were intent on finding the bottle of vodka that the store owner had reported stolen by two guys driving an orange Camaro—we fit the description.
We never drank that bottle. The subtle interrogation techniques of the Smyrna Police soon worked and Mark L told them where to find the stolen merchandise.
My dad bailed us out of jail on Sunday morning. He asked what the hell happened to our faces, had we been in a fight? We related a sad story of handcuffs and nightsticks and that our civil rights had been repeatedly violated. My dad told us both to shut up, that we’d gotten exactly what we deserved.
Mark L entered a treatment center and stopped drugging and drinking eleven years after that night.
I had been in various stages of disarray due to alcoholism and drug addiction since I was fourteen. I suspected that I had a problem, but I had no desire to change. I often prayed about my situation, especially on my knees in front of the commode or when I would wake up in a jail cell. Those prayers, such as they were, were never answered. Most of the time I doubted if there was a God. And if there was, He or She surely did not give a damn about me because I was a lying drunk.
The theology of the Church confused me. The Wednesday night boxes of wine seemed to be the main attraction for me at church. However, I was too fearful to just quit going to church—something seemed to draw me there.
My doubt, confusion, and fear led me to enroll in Education for Ministry (EFM) in 1996. EFM is a four-year course of theological study offered by Episcopal Church, which was based on the curriculum of the first year of Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The first year was devoted to reading and discussing the Old Testament, the second year covered New Testament, year three was church history, and year four was theology. I was sure this course held the key to my spirituality. But EFM only compounded my doubt, confusion, and fear. My addictions provided an easy escape from these uncomfortable feelings.
Each year we started our weekly EFM classes with each member of the group telling their spiritual story based on prompts from the textbook. By the beginning of my third year I realized that my spiritual life had gone into hibernation and my attention and energy was focused on drugs and alcohol. Others in the class would eloquently describe their life as a spiritual journey, which had delivered them to a wonderful understanding of God and the Church. I thought this all sounded like a load of crap. After all, I had been wandering around in a thick fog most of my adolescent and adult life having no idea where I was going. Perhaps I could have said I was wandering in the wilderness like the Old Testament Jews. But I was not honest enough to come out and express my doubt and true feelings. This created an uneasy tension as I struggled to find anything spiritual in my life to talk about during my allotted two hours of class time. I would invariably focus on my youth and made up spiritual stuff, which were lies. After all, the class members did not know me when I was growing up—it was my story, albeit with some fiction thrown in. I made it through the first three years of EFM this way. The fourth year, however, I was a little more honest and my addictions made it into my story, but all of the references were in past tense. I felt it was too dangerous for me to be honest about where I was in present tense.
Shortly after I had given my last spiritual autobiography, I found myself sitting in a Wednesday night program listening to a guy from a treatment center talk about drug and alcohol addiction. I had no idea what the program was about that night and when I realized what the subject was it was too late to make a graceful exit. That was the evening of December 22, 1999, the day I had turned in the proposal and spent the afternoon at Crystal’s bar. So, I nursed my glass of wine and listened.
The treatment center guy handed out a list of ten questions and asked us to honestly answer them. He said we did not have to share our answers with anyone. When we were done he said that if we answered two or three of the questions with an affirmative response, we may have a problem. Hell, I knew I had a problem and the questionnaire verified it—I answered yes to all ten questions. The one that really got my attention had to do with medical problems, including liver problems.
After two consecutive physical exams, the doctor had made me schedule follow-up visits because of high blood liver enzymes. Each time he said that I must cut back on my alcohol consumption, stop smoking, and lose thirty pounds. I promised to follow his advice, but I lied. What I really wanted was a second opinion that would pronounce me fit as a fiddle so there would be no medical reason to change my lifestyle.
So, after the program I slinked out of the parish hall and went home. Cindy had not stayed for the program because the girls had homework. She asked how the program was and, what sounded like my voice, said, “It was very interesting, I think I have an addiction problem. I’m going to stop drinking.” Cindy got a real strange look on her face like she could not believe what she had heard come out of my mouth. Then she said, “No shit you have a problem, I’ve been telling you that for years. You need help; you cannot do this on your own.” Again, a voice that sounded like mine said, “I Know,” and I agreed to make a phone call, which I did. I found help.
I found a group of people who cared about me and did not care what I had done or not done in the past. They just wanted me to stay sober, one day at a time and they said God would take care of the rest. They must have read my mind and body language as I was thinking what the hell do these people know about God? I didn’t want to hear about their Higher Power. They handed me cups of strong black coffee and told me not to spill it on myself. They also told me that I did not have to believe anything right now, just keep coming back. I figured what the hell, the doctor had told if I keep on drinking I’d be looking for a new liver soon or I’d be dead in a few years. I was ready for a change, so I kept going back and I did not drink or drug.
Things began to change. The fog in my head slowly began to clear. I began to feel better physically and I began feeling better about myself. When I had been a few months sober, out of the blue Mark L called. I had not talked to him for over a year, since his wedding, where I was his best man. When I told him about my recent awakening, his reaction was much like Cindy’s—he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He drove two hours to see me the next day. He brought wedding photos with him. We agreed that I didn’t look well, or sober in those pictures.
That was almost six years ago and my life is completely different today. My liver enzymes are normal and I’ve lost twenty of the thirty pounds that the doctor suggested I lose. As my dad says, I’m in pretty good shape for the condition I’m in. Slowly and reluctantly I found that Higher Power those people told me about. I choose to call my Higher Power God today. I simply took a chance and let go, if only for a brief moment, of my confusion and doubt, and came to realize that the fear I had lived with had begun to fade. It’s not at all logical and if I think too hard about it I confuse myself. So, I accept what I’ve been given because I don’t need to go back into the fog.
During the weeks following the Episcopal Church General Convention early in August of 2003, I was preoccupied with the very public and lively debate of the Church’s consent to the election of Reverend Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire. Much of what I had read and seen on television was from those opposed to an openly gay man serving as a Bishop in the Church. There had been little said or written in support of Robinson, despite his election as Bishop by the Diocese of New Hampshire. I found myself with many unresolved questions and I needed a long walk or run to clear my mind.
A walk was just what Roscoe, our dog, thought I was in need of. He floated in the room and sat beside me with a look that said, we must go for a walk and enjoy the sunset! How could I refuse? As Roscoe and I headed out the door on that warm sticky mid-August evening, the twilight was a beautiful sienna color, created by the setting sun and gathering storm clouds. However, by the time we reached the end of the driveway drizzle began falling. The rain was not that heavy and I thought that a walk sure beat paying bills and the other mundane tasks that I had left in the house. Plus, the light created by the setting sun was very unusual.
Several minutes into our walk I suddenly noticed that there’s no one else out, walking or driving. We were alone, just Roscoe and me with my questions. I thought why in the world would this man choose to subject himself to a firestorm of public attention and subject the Church to this divisive action that could ultimately cause schism? What effect will this have on my church and our budgets? Will people leave the Church? Will friends leave St. James? Will Cindy, my wife, still have a job at the diocesan office? These were the questions running through my head as Roscoe and I walked in the rain.
Gradually I sensed that Roscoe and I were not alone in the rain, which had picked up a bit. I began to imagine a conversation with Gene Robinson. I envisioned him walking with us. I imagined his demeanor to be calm, open and honest. I could almost hear him explain that he had great fear on many levels, but that God provides courage to live with those fears. I could almost hear him explain that he couldn’t live in the church and keep that part of him under a basket or in the closet. I’m sure that these words of Jesus from The Sermon on the Mount were important to him:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Matthew 5:14-16)
In mulling over my imagined walk with Robinson, I realize there are many in the world, lay and clergy, who live with a part of their identity hidden. Bishop Robinson’s actions may allow some of them to shine their light, if they choose. With God’s grace the divisions of the Church will be healed and everyone’s light will shine as one.
Well that was an eventful walk, indeed. And, just for the record, I only talk to imaginary people occasionally—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
However, I know my perspective changes when I put a face to things and situations I fear and don’t understand. We all know gay people. Those I know are not threatening. They are our friends and members of our community. It’s hard for me to truly fear anyone whom I’ve come to know. I felt I came to know Bishop Robinson on my walk that evening.
I feel strongly that God’s hand, through Jesus, was working through the Episcopal Church leadership at the 2003 General Convention. The Jesus I know and understand never let the opinions of others stand in the way of accepting and recognizing those who are faithful. This is made clear for me in the story of the Canaanite woman and Caroline Westerhoff’s essay from her book Calling. In a chapter titled “Danger” (41-44) Caroline explains how Jesus was pressured by the disciples to send the pushy Canaanite woman away. After all, this is not only a woman—a second class citizen of the day—hounding the entourage, she is also a Gentile, to boot. Jesus would have been on firm ground with his disciples had he dismissed the woman and sent her away. He did not. Because of her persistence, Jesus finally recognizes and accepts the Canaanite woman’s faith and heals her sick daughter. I am sure Jesus hears the persistent voice of our gay friends and accepts and recognizes their faith.
Roscoe and I rounded the corner, heading home—the rain still falling. What I heard, or imagined, answered a few of my questions. However, the hard part, for me, is living with the answers and implications. If Gene Robinson can live his faith and commitment, and let his “light shine” in the face of controversy, then I should be able to put aside my self-centered fears and live by faith also. Hopefully, my church, and the Church as a whole, will come to understand the gay bishop and the broader homosexuality issues that we are dealing with, and everyone’s light will shine as one. However, there are risks and danger.
Caroline Westerhoff sums up the risks and dangers in terms of the Canaanite woman:
It is a dangerous thing to meet the Canaanite woman. It is a dangerous thing to look her squarely in the eye. It is a dangerous thing to heed to her voice, to give credence to her demands. We run the risk of being uncomfortable, of being inconvenienced—of sometimes looking silly. We run the risk of changing our direction. We run the risk of being converted. We run the risk of being God’s holy people. (Calling 44)
The risks I faced in this situation are small compared to Bishop Robinson’s.
Westerhoff, Caroline A. Calling: A Song for the Baptized. Boston: Crowley Publications, 1994.
Westerhoff, Caroline A. Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality. Boston: Crowley Publications, 1996.
I turned fifty last year and it seems that I have been living with a lot more aches and pains since I celebrated that dreaded birthday. I’m not sure if my body is actually breaking down or if it’s just because I’m having a hard time dealing with the fact that I am fifty. I obsessively go to the gym three to five days a week, try to eat right—whatever really means—and I run with my dog roscoe when my right hip isn’t acting up.
I’m convinced my hip is weather sensitive because it really bothers me when stormy weather is approaching. Some nights it is bad enough that I wake from a sound sleep with the pain and cannot go back to sleep until I take three or four ibuprofrin. I can usually get back to sleep about fifteen to twenty minutes later, after the drug kicks in.Sometimes late at night I begin to feel sorry for my self and ask God why I have to live with all this pain.
Then I remember what a friend with an artificial hip told me. “When the pain becomes bad enough, you’ll beg for a hip replacement.” That’s when I thank God that the pain is not bad enough that I would willingly let a doctor to slice my hip open, saw my hip joint from my leg bone, and replace it with an artificial steel joint. In this light, the pain is just not that bad. But at least I have a choice of treatment for pain relief and, based on recovery of people I know who have had this surgery, it’s a good choice when my pain becomes unbearable.
I remember the pain that my mom lived with day in and day out at the end of her life. During her last two years, she went to a half dozen doctors that could offer no diagnosis for the source of her pain or simply offer relief from her debilitating pain. She was eventually diagnosed with cancer of the spine; however, this diagnosis came too late for any treatment, even palliative treatment, to be effective. The combination of taking narcotic pain medication for eighteen months, mistreatment by her pain specialists, and the depression caused by unrelenting chronic pain made her weary. During an extended hospital stay, she gave up hope for recovery and simply wanted to die to escape the body that was too painful for her to carry.
My mom lived with back pain most of her life because a severe scoliosis and major surgery and treatment during the 1930’s. When she was a young woman, doctors told her that she would not be able to carry and give birth to children. My sister and I are living proof that these doctors were wrong. She never complained of the pain she lived with and always cared for those around her. At her funeral, her friends and workplace colleagues shared countless stories of her caring and compassion. She was nursing home administrator for over twenty five years. It was clear from these stories that she cared deeply for the day to day caregivers—nurses and nurses-aids—and less for the doctors who rarely visited their patients at the nursing home. They would only do so if her and her nurses insisted that a patient was too sick to travel to the doctor’s office, which was often the case.
So my pain pales in comparison to the pain that my mom lived with all her life. This does not make my pain go away; but it makes it easier to bear and makes me grateful that I’m really in good health.