I hadn’t seen my dad in over a decade, but today was the day I was going to see him again.
It was a brisk Sunday afternoon in March, just warm enough for the snow to start dripping on the pavement.
I peeked through the fences into an outdoor area of the assisted living center somehow tucked away on a busy north Minneapolis street. I'd only seen pictures of my dad from when he was my age. He looked a lot like me, with brown eyes and thin blonde hair, but that was then and this was now.
If I were to describe the care center in a word, it would be dim. Like, for one, it was actually dim, with fluorescent lights flickering on & off. But it felt dim, too. An assisted living center for veterans only, men from different service times and backgrounds all found themselves there. From time to time, a nurse would come to push a military veteran--ruffled hair, premature wrinkles, and all-- down the hallway.
I saw the different pictures and hangings on each veteran’s door. Some were funny: one guy had a picture of himself from his hospital bed with eyes lit up and two thumbs way up. Some were patriotic, with emblems and printed out flags. Some were intimate, with pictures of sons and daughters. My dad’s had a paper on it warning robbers to stay out. They knew who they were, the robbers did.
With a knot in my chest and a pair of trembling hands, I knocked.
This is my Good Friday story, my walking in a circle story.
I come from a collection of abusive, bitter, and distant men.
Abusive, like my great-grandfather.
Cockroaches, my dad says. That’s what the kids were like when my great-grandpa came home. He was an abusive man. That’s all I’ve gathered about him. When his kids acted out, I’m told he’d take a 2x4, attach a nail to it, and spank them. I’ve never wondered since why they’d call him abusive.
Bitter, like his son.
He ran away at sixteen. Joined the military, married, divorced, had kids, divorced, and then married again. Much of the same story. Lots of frustration. Lots of hitting walls. Not a whole lot of direction. He died last year, but the picture my dad gave lives on to haunt me.
A dark room, a moldy Lazyboy, an ancient TV, a six pack, and a bitter man who’s a shell of who he could’ve been. I’ve never wondered since why they’d call him bitter.
Distant, like my father.
I was born in a military hospital in Clarksville, Tennessee. My mom and dad got married right out of high school. I wish the story involved clocks striking midnight, fitting slippers, and finding true love. It looked more like my mom getting pregnant and forced into marriage.
I hadn’t been alive for a year when my dad got sent to Korea. My mom decided to leave after a few years, two kids, & some emotional abuse.
Sure, he came back feeling blindsided, but he had chances. Chances he wanted to take. He’d take them from time to time.
Like, the time it was just he and I at a monster truck show. I remember him asking me who I thought was going to win & reminding me that Army stuff made him deaf in one ear. I don’t really remember him saying much else that night. I’ve never wondered since why they’d call him distant.
Time passed, my mom got remarried, and he eventually stopped seeing us. Life went on. My heart went on. It didn’t take time like you might think it did. It doesn’t take a kid born without legs to adjust either. He just goes on living, never knowing what it’s like to be able to stand.
And I had enough tools. I could always use my words. I got selected to read poetry at Barnes and Noble in second grade. I got invited to a young writers conference in fifth grade, the same year I hung up a Spelling Bee champ plaque in my room. I was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper in high school. Words were my art.
And if you saw me in middle school and the beginning of high school, you would’ve thought I had my stuff together. I used my words to drop F bombs, make penis jokes, and walk the fringe of any clique I wanted.
I was smart, smart enough to make it look like my ducks were in a row and dancing.
But something shifted each day as I stepped off the bus. It wasn’t even like I ran out of energy as much as it was taking off a mask. I stopped trying to be somebody that I wasn’t once I got home.
And when I was just myself, I was just like every man that had come before me: hard-nosed, bitter, and distant.
One night at dinner I found my face in a bowl of mac and cheese.
I can’t tell you specifically why my face was there, tears streaming onto a bunch of soggy noodles, but I can tell you it was frustration spilling from the same bottle where I’d stuck my hopes and dreams. I was waiting for something that I knew could never come, walking in a circle I didn’t think I’d ever break out of.
A drop fell when the housing market collapsed, but the rain started to fall when my mom was diagnosed with lupus. The storm didn’t come until a chilly night in October. A half year earlier one of Nick’s best friends was in a fatal car accident. He went into a downward spiral. He drove home drunk one night from a party to find flashing lights behind him and a DWI in front of him.
Within a matter of years, it felt like every beautiful thing in our life had been stripped.
Imagine me motionless in it all. I got more and more afraid of feeling anything. My mom tells me that she looked in my eyes and saw anger. Not the kind of anger that was about to throw a brick at your face, but the kind of anger that was angry at nothing and everything at the same time.
I was walking in a circle.
This is my Good Friday story, my walking in a circle story.
The splintered wooden door shuttered open. My dad appeared out of semi-darkness. He was a lot shorter than I thought he’d be, and he’d gained a lot of weight since I’d last seen him, and he now had a scraggly brown beard with a black stocking cap on to cover his mostly bald head.
Forgiveness took time. He had other things he wanted to bring up.
He’d talk about different things he’d heard from people. Some of it was government conspiracy. Some of them were orders he was getting from generals. He’s given me notebooks since of different secrets he feels like he’s been told from different people about why 9/11 happened, why the government is corrupt, and how grape soda’s a code phrase for vodka.
I found out much later he’d been diagnosed with psychosis & would hear voices telling him to do stuff.
We were walking on the cracked road coming from a nearby Dairy Queen when he walked in a circle.
It was so short it felt almost subliminal, four seconds maybe, and out of absolutely nowhere.
A few innocent steps driven by a command he thought he was given from old general Frank. The image hasn’t left. Just as unmistakable as it was weird, he walked in a circle.
I saw my family story in that moment. It felt a lot like walking in circles. A bruised generation gave birth to a new generation, who got wacked around in its own not-so-unique way and couldn’t help but do the same thing all over again.
We were walking in circles. We all are. That’s the point of Good Friday.
We experience life like a horrible nightmare for which we can’t remember the beginning. All we know is brokenness.
We ache & yearn for something different. Secretly, we know we’re not native to it; sadly, we still don’t know how to break it. Good Friday is about all of us walking in one big circle, desperate for real freedom.
attention, beautiful people! I'm posting a sequel to the story this Sunday. Can't wait.