There I Am, In Younger Days…

There’s a picture from my parents’ wedding that always gave me pause. It was one of those awkwardly staged post-ceremony photos taken while the wedding guests talk amongst themselves about “how lovely” the wedding had been, and “how lovely” the bride was, all the while waiting for the newlyweds to arrive so the reception proper could start. My parents are flanked by their parents. My mother’s father looked rather dashing in his tuxedo, and my grandmother looked like a fashionable 1920’s lady. My father’s parents looked happy, but a bit awkward in their formal dress.

But it is of my parents’ faces I write. They have this look of happiness, of joy at having found one another. This is to be expected. What always captivates me about that photograph, that one-sixtieth of a second preserved in black & white, is that they look like they’re ready to take on capital-L Life together. Their meeting and courtship, the proposal and engagement, these were the click-clacking of the rollercoaster climbing the first giant rise. Here they are–together–ready to face all the ups and downs life will throw their way.

Life has thrown them their ups and downs, yet they have remained together, steadfast and strong, handling all those unexpectable twists and hidden turns with love and grace and wisdom, knowing that they were still a team.

Their parents have all died–my dashing grandfather first at 67, the night my friends Mike, Jeff, John, and I were supposed to see The Pretenders in concert, a few months before my high school graduation; my more-awkward grandfather was the last, passing away at 88, the same night as I was best man in that same friend John’s wedding in Maryland. My parents handled each of these deaths with as much aplomb and grace as could anyone.

My parents put my brother, Marky, and me through college. We’ve each had our ups and downs, career-wise, but we’re generally okay. Marky has had injuries to deal with–a torn ACL, blown rotator cuff, and a back so bad the surgery kept him out of work for months. I’ve battled substance abuse and mental illness, and had one hell of a nasty infection which nearly killed me.

My parents were always there, accepting the scary parts of the ride as well as the fun parts.

I mention these events, this morning, because I was thinking of that picture, of the look on their faces, all smiles, but with a readiness and faith that they were in for a hell of a ride, and that they’d be taking it together.

And so they have.

I’m having a “fit of the sullens” this week, and I don’t know why. It could be my chemicals. More likely, I think it’s just this time of year. I loathe the Holidays®. Absolutely loathe them. I’m not one who likes the forced happiness and peaceonearthgoodwilltowardmen™, because to me it’s just a false veneer over an ocean of greed. Holidays are never easy for us megadepressives, and worse still for megadepressives who’ve made Xmas commercials for years, and worked for companies selling peaceonearthgoodwilltowardmen™.

The holidays have never bothered my parents. They put up their Christmas tree, set out the little Dickensian village on the hearth, hang Christmas lights from the eaves and trees. My mom bakes till the house smells like heaven. They like the holidays, and they accept as one of the weird bumps on their ride that I’m a pre-ghost Scrooge and a pre-Cindy Lou Who Grinch all in one.

The thought map that led me to this is a bit convoluted, so bear with me. My book maven, Kelly, recommended a book called “The End of Life Book Club.” I bought it, and I was just starting it. From the preface, it seemed like a book my mom would enjoy. That led me back to that picture of my parents, way back when they were half my current age.

And that led me to another picture just like that. It wasn’t a wedding photo–far from it–and the subjects were not dressed in any sort of finery. It was of me and this girl I’d been dating. It was my birthday, and the picture was outside the Texas Cattle Company, where we go each year for my free birthday steak. I was slouching down a little, resting my chin gently atop her head. We both had smiles…

We had that same shimmer on our faces. We weren’t just smiling at the happiness of the moment, but we looked like we were climbing aboard that rollercoaster together, ready to weather life’s twists, turns, and bumps.

It didn’t happen. We were kaput within a few months. We tried to be friends for awhile, but I realized that that futile exercise was more draining than it was worth. There came a day this past summer, while I was in the deepest part of my depression, where she texted me for some reason. I told her never to text me, e-mail me, call me, contact me, or even fucking think of me again. That hurt to say; it hurt worse to mean it.

A few days later, Michelle came down for our weekly “sanity breakfast.” We drove out to Turtle Beach. For some reason, that picture fell out from beneath my sun visor. I’d forgotten it was there. Michelle and I parked the truck, and braved Tropical Storm Debbie’s winds to walk over to a picnic area. I tore that picture to shreds. We did our best to light the pieces on fire (in retrospect, it would have been wiser to sit in the truck and set the thing afire, then just throw it out into the rain-soaked grass).

I don’t know why I tore up that picture. I guess it was symbolic, blah-cubed, representing that I’d finally made a clean break, etc, and that I was no longer beholden to something the girl and I both knew could never be.

In reality, what I did was destroy a picture of me in a happy moment. No, in the grand scheme of things/the book of love, whatever, we failed as an “us.” That “climbing aboard a rollercoaster” thing…I don’t know. Maybe it was there; more likely, it was something I wanted to see.

Most likely, it was just one-sixtieth of a second’s worth of a happy three-hour date, across five years of acquaintance.

This is why I don’t take a lot of pictures. I obsess. I try to contextualize; I overanalyze. There’s a famous photo of a Vietnamese officer shooting a civilian prisoner in the head. If I stare at that photo, I think I can see what each is thinking–is the prisoner praying? Is the officer really going to pull the trigger? The other night, I watched a documentary that touched on Vietnam. The whole thing lasted about three seconds. The prisoner wasn’t praying or thinking of his family. The officer walked up and shot the prisoner in the head. Period. My analysis was all for naught.

So now–a couple hours after I started to analyze why I paused at the beginning of this book–I wonder why I thought of all this.

I can’t unshred that photograph, nor do I really want to. I realize now how much time and emotional energy, how much wasted hope, I spent looking at that one-sixtieth of a second of captured light. I’d see that picture, and I saw something non-existent. At that moment, we were two people who liked each other and were full of steak, nothing more. I wonder how many months of sunny afternoons I missed as a result.

“There I am in younger days,

Stargazing, painting picture-perfect maps

Of how my life and love would be.

Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection,

My compass, faith in love’s perfection.

I missed a million miles of road I should’ve seen.

(Indigo Girls, “Love’s Recovery” (w/m by Emily Saliers))

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6 Responses to “There I Am, In Younger Days…”

  1. Your life isn’t over yet, Tom. While I can’t tell you that I understand how you feel, I’ve also had my demons and yep, I’ve been to the edge too. 🙂

    But you have Michelle (she sounds like a great friend, good for you!) and having one friend and both your parents beside you counts for a lot.

    Let’s take it a day at a time. 🙂

    • If you were on this side of the planet, May, I’d hire you as my therapist. I might end up paying you in coconut cake & key lime pie, but your perspective would help. 🙂

  2. It’s both simple and dangerous to start thinking of the untaken paths in life. I obsess about them more than I probably should. It’s not that I’m unhappy with my lot in life — I feel very very blessed, but I’m SO DAMN CURIOUS about how things might have turned out. I would love to see those lives. I think.

    • It would be sweet if we could sit down with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, and flip between lives on cable. “On Channel 274: Tom isn’t a dick, and ends up with the Little Red-Haired Girl”, but just to see. You’re right: it’s dangerous. For every “Tom goes to class, studies, graduates from med school, and becomes an orthopedic surgeon,” there’s also a “Tom never goes to rehab and dies before his 40th birthday.” And who knows? I could have been on my way to my Emory Med School graduation, and been t-boned by a semi. There’s no telling.

      When I’m having a bad Abyss day, the “what ifs” come far too easily, and the “your life isn’t that bads” can’t get through.

  3. Been there; still there — the same sense of holiday dreadedness.

    On the flipside, my dad regularly sends me pictures of he and my mom in their younger days. I think he thinks he had that with her, and doesn’t want to forget it. I think he’s starting to date again and maybe it’s guilt. I don’t know. I do that over-analyze thing too.

    I think we’re all just trying to do the best we can. Anyone who thinks they have it figured out is lying.

    Good luck this holiday season. I won’t be around for a while but I hope to talk w/you in the new year w/a renewed sense of hope. Without hope, we’re kind of screwed. 😉

  4. Great post. My emotions at this time of year are sharply mixed. Well, okay, they’re like that all year. But, specifically, even though I’ll never get back the way I felt about Christmas as a kid, the echoes of that time sometimes buoy my spirits. Other times, I’m just giving the finger to the Lexus-with-a-bow commercials on TV and shaking my head at all the miserable crap in the world that will continue right through the marketing-driven festivities.

    I do find it really hard not to regret the stuff in life that didn’t happen. At some point I have to start shedding those possible alternate paths from myself, from my own story, or I’ll have an impossibly big web of things I wish I’d done, and they will completely crowd out my ability to do good things with the one story I’m actually writing.

    There’s no way—there simply isn’t enough time and brainspace—that I could have done everything that would have been cool on some level. It’s hard to really get my brain around that truth, to set aside the bromides we’re sometimes told as children that we can be anything we want to be. Because we can’t. Our lives are defined, in part, by our limitations, some within our control and some not, some that we choose to fight and others we let be.

    I sure made a ton of those picture-perfect maps in my head, twenty and thirty years ago; I’m not sure that any of them marked the path to where I’ve actually ended up. So I need to do something with this story, right here, because it’s the only one I get. Unless I just start making up crap about myself. 🙂

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