Act 1: Setup
At the age of 12, I nearly died when I was hit by a car, attempting to cross the road on a 3-wheel motorcycle. Now, as an adult with children, I can only imagine what that must have been like for my parents. My childhood memory is of my mom crying and my dad being angry. He was angry because the motorcycle was new, and something we could not afford; because a car hit me, and because I put myself in a position to get hit. What I took away from that experience was that crying was weak and anger was how men handled difficult situations.
My motorcycle accident forced me into a period of limited mobility, so I threw myself into music. Two years later, after visiting relatives in Maryland, I hopped off a train in New London, CT, guitar in hand. With a goofy grin on my face, I was feeling, if not looking, every bit the rock star. My mother was there to pick me. She approached me with tears in her eyes. She hesitated, then said, “your father has moved out.” The smile on my face grew three sizes that day. It’s etched into my memory as one of the greatest days of my life.
To some that may sound cruel. Others might relate instantly. My parents needed to divorce; for their sake, and for the sake of my sister and me. These types of endings are not always easy to view in the moment. But time often offers better perspective. When he left, my dad was 37 and it was the first time that he was on his own.
At 18, he went from living under his parents’ roof to college. As a freshman, his 1.2 grade-point average earned him an early sendoff from the University of Maryland. A rapid maneuver for a school whose mascot is a terrapin! He joined the Navy, and soon after entered into marriage.
When he was 23, I was born. Hindsight again affords me the ability to see that he never had the time to learn who he was; to live beyond the rules of the school, the military, marriage, and parenthood. He followed the plan that so many others of his generation followed. In the end, my childhood memories are of a man rarely happy without his pal Jack Daniels.
Later in life, anyone who met us could never have imagined the darkness from which we began. Our relationship, up until the divorce and for many years to follow was non-existent or severely stressed. As a result, I used my dad’s path, as the anti-blueprint for how I would live my life. I approached each new goal with a fierce competitiveness.
Act 2: Conflict
With each success, my pride swelled. I was on a mission to accomplish everything he hadn’t. Not to gain his approval, but to destroy him. Never thinking about what made him the man he was, only wallowing in my own hurt. I pursued my dreams. I finished college. I traveled. Most importantly, I delayed marriage and children, until I was older. I was engaged in a one-sided battle. I was attempting to build a wall of jealousy that would hurt my father the way I felt hurt as a kid.
Act 3: Resolution
Over the years, we made small steps in each other’s direction. But, there was still a very wide chasm to cross and no bridge in sight. I marched on with my life until pride started to become hubris. I was 28. He was 51 and 12 years sober. It had been 14 years since the divorce. I had since lived a second lifetime, since his departure when I was 14. In a flash, my fight was over. I was ready to forgive.
I no longer wanted to hurt him. I wanted to understand his pain; to help. I invited him, from his home in Connecticut to mine in Colorado. Thankfully, my efforts to hurt him, in my teens and twenties, had failed. My accomplishments had made him proud and inspired him to reconnect with his own dreams. When he arrived, I surprised him with a motorcycle ride. It would become our first of many.
Growing up, many of us want to believe we will do a better job than our parents. We often do, but, it is easy to forget how much easier it is to learn from someone else mistakes than to start from scratch. For years, I believed I was a better person in spite of my father. As I got older, I realized I was who I was because of the work in progress that made him who he was.
A story is often thought of as beginning, middle, and an end. This is not inaccurate but can be more precisely described a setup, confrontation, and resolution. As I look back on my life with my father I see it as:
Setup: 14-years of sadness, struggle, and anger.
Resolution: 14-Years of riding together. Talking. Learning from one another. Forgiving each other and healing.
October 21, 2017, the 5th year anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, coincidentally, from a motorcycle accident. He was 65 years old, 26 years sober, when he was taken from this world. At first, I was sad and angry but I spent years with those feelings. I had to have hope to believe his work was complete. That he didn’t die but was released.
The hope that the lives he touched will go on and help others. That the epilogue to our 3-act life together would turn into a sequel, not a repeat. Stephen Spielberg once chastised screenwriters, saying,
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or and an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.
Perhaps, this approach is a disaster at the box office. But I believe, it is a beautiful metaphor for life and death. Of course, I would choose more time with my dad. More rides, more stories more learning, more love, understanding, and acceptance. I accept, that while we can control our choices, we cannot control the outcomes.
In 2002, the drummer of the band Ruch, Neil Peart, released his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. After losing his daughter and then his wife, he rode his motorcycle 55,000 miles over 14 months, (yes, 14 again), looking for a reason to live. Back then, I saw it as a metaphor for the healing my dad and I were going through. On one of our rides together, I gave him a copy. When he passed away I found it on his bookshelf and took it back as I headed out to two months and just over 10,000 miles of riding.
Each day, I remind myself that guilt does not get to call shotgun as I move forward. I owe it to myself, those around me and the work my dad and I did together to live a life of adventure and courage. I refuse to let his death be anything less than a beginning!
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