Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Best Day

City Slickers is a fun movie. Three guys on a pilgrimage in the South-West, getting a taste of being “REAL” men and recapturing their mojo amongst dirt, knives, guns, steers and horses. The unmistakable highlight is the gnarled Jack Palance as Curly, the tough-as-nails cowboy. I was 21 when the movie came out and went to see it with my soon-to-be-fiancée and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Except for the punch line in one of the key scenes exploring the character of each of the three friends.

 That hurt.

I was only 12* years old when I experienced THAT day. My dad was as close to a worst-case sufferer of Bi-Polar syndrome that local doctors had ever seen, although it was labeled the much more descriptive “Manic-Depression” back then. Oh boy, growing up in a family where mental health issues were part of daily “normality” can really kick an impressionable kid hard, and often. I loved my Dad, and still do, and to his credit, he never succumbed to the other typical vices of alcoholism, violence, abuse or infidelity. Dad was smart, a math wiz with real talent. But he never seemed to be able to finish anything, including his college degree. Coupling the subsequent economic/salary struggles with a severe Bi-Polar sufferer was toxic to healthy family life.
There had been some foreboding indicators that my parent’s marriage could have been in poor health. A 6 yr old hearing his mother wailing from behind closed doors will tend to stash that memory away in his subconscious. But THAT day was different, a predictive vision where the only possible outcome was terminal. We were having lunch at home after church on an otherwise normal Sunday when my parents announced they were going to have a “Trial Separation”. My siblings didn’t quite seem to get it, but somehow I knew instantly that it was a disaster. In my case there was no best day & worst day co-existence, but much like the tone of Ed’s voice as he uttered the words “Same day”, I knew that my world had collapsed. I was gutted and inconsolable for hours.
But once I was done that afternoon, whether I knew it then or not, I’d decided to survive. In hindsight my response was probably pretty typical for a soon to be teenaged kid: I constructed an impregnable wall around my psyche. I decided that I would never be broken again, or show emotional weakness of any kind. Of course, that just meant that I’d decided to disconnect from any meaningful relationship, with anyone. PERIOD.
And what were the downstream effects? The next five years of my life, my early teens, were a virtual write off. They were a wasted blur of deep-seated loneliness, resentment, restlessness, and eventually, were compounded with serious anger issues that lasted well into my 20’s. Not a volcanic explosive anger, but more like perpetually bubbling lava. Fortunately, I was ....generally.... kept from socially and legally unacceptable forms of rebellion by the equally violent, but much more palatable form of aggression-therapy that is organized sport. Suffice to say that basketball is not a non-contact activity.
Much, much more fortunately though, God brought the first true friend I’d really ever had across my path when I was 18. I was at my lowest point, when the divorce was finally initiated and Dad had moved to another state. In and out of college classes and on and off the basketball court, I learned that it was possible to be accepted and befriended for who you were, not for who you were pretending to be. True Christianity as practiced by my friend was fundamentally different from being religious. Finally, my eyes had been opened to the only real route out of the morass I was in. Thank God. Recovery was a long and painful process, and in many ways still continues nearly two decades later.
I’m not sure I will ever know what turns my life could have taken without my personal valley of the shadow of death. But I know this: I will do whatever it takes to protect my kids from ever having to go through something similar. On my eldest sons 12th birthday* I had the opportunity to close one loop on this painful history. I brought him to a weekly meeting I go to with a group of guys that I trust. I got to describe my story, it was the first time he had heard it. I introduced him to the guys, and then made him stand up in front of them. Then I said:
“Know this, this is NOT going to happen to you. Your mother and I love each other, and we love you. You are incredibly blessed and it's clear to us that God has a big plan for your life. We are very proud of you.”
More was said with respect to the personal challenges looming for him as a teenager, but the evening was about a much bigger picture. It was about destroying the spiraling whirlpool that is generational family breakdown. It was about my son being affirmed by his Dad in public, something that all kids need to experience, but was so cruelly denied to me. It was about putting him on notice that the teen years can be tough, but we would be there for him.

It was one of the best days of my life.

Dad U
-break cycles

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