Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Wreck

I had a wreck a few days ago. A bad one. I am lucky to be alive, since my car isn’t. It was a big, blue, gas-guzzling, steel reinforced “clunker.” But it was my clunker.

My arm, my good arm, was sliced and diced. My head and jaw hurt like I’d been through another series of electro-shock treatments. (Different story for a different day). I shake. My concentration is shot. I am more paranoid than usual. I ache all over. And if that’s not enough, for the next few weeks I am driving a Kia.

I’ll give you the bare facts, then I’m going to bed. I don’t know if I will write tomorrow.

I was on my way to the Mental Health/Mental Retardation (MH/MR) clinic for my monthly “visit” with my psychiatrist and to pick up ‘scripts (7) for another month of meds.

I was driving 30 through a residential area when out of nowhere a white blur going 35 slammed into my driver’s door. I was thrown over the curb, across the lawn and up against the house on the corner. Since I was conscious through it all I assumed I wasn’t hurt. Then, I saw blood running down my arm, onto my shirt, my pants and the passenger seat. Glass, I guess.

The front of her ’98 Lexus folded up like an aluminum can.

The neighbors came running and wouldn’t let me out of my car until the ambulance arrived. They brought me glasses of water and told me hair-raising stories of neck and back injuries, most of which resulted in some form of paralysis.

The police came first. Two cars, three officers. One talked with the woman in the Lexus, one gathered witnesses and the other talked with me.

I thought I was making sense until he told me I wasn’t.

“You’re in shock,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything. We’ll get your statement in the ambulance when you pull yourself together.”

Two ambulances arrived. His and hers. When they removed her from the Lexus they slapped a neck brace and a back brace on her and laid her out on one of those hard, plastic stretchers.

They pulled me out and helped me lie back on a stretcher with wheels. Mine had padding.

The woman asked them to bring her over to me. Regret came pouring out.

“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t see the stop sign. Forgive me.” She was sobbing. She repeated it three times.

I don’t know her name. All they told me was that she is insured by Allstate.

I’m not, but there is no doubt I was in good hands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Mother's Secret

I missed one day of school in junior high and it turned out to be the day I discovered my mother’s secret.

I spent the morning reading the comic books I had borrowed from Benji when I knew I was getting a fever.

I heard the front door open and close around noon. I got up and looked out the kitchen window. My mother was standing on the curb next to the mailbox. The mailman was next door. He had no white truck. The only thing he was driving was his hush puppies.

He reached into his worn-out, over the shoulder leather letter holder and handed her the mail. With her back to the house, she sorted through the letters one-by-one. She looked both ways, tucked a letter in her apron pocket, turned, smiling like the cat that ate the canary, and started up the sidewalk. I beat it for the bedroom.

Three hours later she went to pick up my sister and brother. I went straight for the kitchen. The letter was still there. It was a bill from a fancy department store. The bill was in her name and it wasn’t small. The thing about my dad was that he never allowed charge accounts. He was real strict on that. Everything was cash except for the house and the bills that went with it. Money was tight. I wondered how she would pay it.

I went through the bill. It was clothes for us kids. She knew everyone was wearing corduroy jeans, button-down, half-sleeve shirts and weejuns. They were on the bill; along with two blouses for my sister, and a shirt and jeans for my brother. Nothing for herself.

We would just find the clothes hanging in our closet, or folded in the dresser like they belonged there. Like the Clothes Fairy delivered them.

Maybe she went shopping for herself sometimes, but my guess is she never made it out of the children’s department.

Here's to the moms who went without so we could go in style.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The God Box

A small man with big hair blew through Hazelden Alcoholic Treatment Center to speak to us. He was an addict-turned-preacher-turned-addict (x 3). He was 68 by the time he got to us. Sober for 15 years.

He brought a psychedelic box with him. He held it under his arm, like a teddy bear, when he spoke. He’d decorated it with paisley wallpaper, red hearts, crosses and comic strips.

He told us his “God Box” kept him sober.

We were skeptical, of course.

He told us that whenever he is tempted to get into trouble (alcohol, money, pills, sex, pride, manipulation, worry) he writes the problem on a small piece of paper and drops it into the Box.

“I give it to God ASAP,” he told us. “I let it go. I give it up. And whenever I find myself taking the problem back and handling it myself, I open the God Box, pull out that piece of paper and tell God, ‘I think I can handle this better than you can’.”

Some of us tried it. We’d find a Kleenex box, or a box from the kitchen. We’d decorate it a little, put our name on it and carry it to meals, to group meetings and to bed. You’d see guys writing, stuffing and unstuffing the Box. I did it for ten days, and I ran pretty clean those days.

One downside to being an alcoholic/addict is believing you can handle everything yourself. But who doesn’t like being in control? The Lone Ranger rides again (and again).

I’m back at it. The God Box. I don’t carry it into restaurants, or everywhere I go. I leave it in the car, or at home. Fifty times a day I’ll let a problem go to God, then take it back. And somewhere in the middle of this endless cycle I pray, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I have a long way to go, but as my brothers and sisters in Alcoholics Anonymous keep reminding me, “It’s progress, not perfection.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Hard Lesson

"Never play cards with a man named Doc.
Never eat at a place called Mom’s.
Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are greater than yours. "

Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side, part 3 (1956)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Father's Love

I have this recurring dream. I am in the park at Barton Springs in Austin. The place is dead except for one man sitting on a bench about 100 trees away. I don’t think he sees me so I serpentine to within three trees.

He is a man in a dark suit, white shirt, black thin tie and sunglasses. He looks like Ackroyd of the Blues Brothers.

Without looking up, he motions me over. He pats the bench twice with his ring hand.

It is my Uncle David. My dad’s younger brother. The so-called black sheep of the family. The alcoholic. I move toward him cautiously. He has been dead for many years, but I don’t know it in the dream.

I could let you in on the whole conversation---how long he’s been on the bench waiting, why he chose Austin instead of San Antonio where I lived, and a bunch of other stuff, but that gets us nowhere.

So I’ll start where he asks, “How are you doing these days, KP? You look a little sad to me.”

I tell him I’m not sad.

“You’re thinking about your dad, aren’t you?”

I say yes, because I have been thinking about him and whenever I think of him I am either sad, or mad.

“Let me ask you something,” he says. “Who taught you to tie your shoes?”


He sits there waiting for it to sink in. It doesn’t.

“Look,” he says. “I was your father. Look at me. I am your father. No kid has just one father. One man can’t do it all. You think it was luck that I was always around? I was there for you then, and I am here for you now. I am your father, too. Ask your mother.”

Like I say, I have dreamed this dream many times, and always when I needed a father’s love.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Her Fever has Broken!

Woody Allen said that the most beautiful words in the English language are not, “I love you,” but “It’s benign.”

I was at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas visiting a friend. We talked for 10 minutes, prayed together and I left. I passed the nurse’s station on my way to the elevator, pressed the button and waited.

Suddenly, a door down the hall opened and a man came bursting out. He looked both ways, saw me and started running toward me waving a piece of paper.

“Her fever has broken! Her fever has broken!”

He grabbed me around the chest, whirled me around and said breathlessly in my ear, “Her fever has broken!”

The elevator opened, he let me go, and I went down to the lobby.

I am thinking about that man again tonight who had such good news that he had to stop the first stranger he saw to tell him.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

God's Native Language

My neighbor lost his dog. Peaches ran away. He looked everywhere from his house to the highway. He finally went home. He was sick.

He found his wife putting on lipstick. How could he tell her? Peaches was his wedding gift to her a year earlier. She was the child of a couple who would be childless.

He stood behind her in the bathroom frozen in grief. He saw himself in the mirror with his mouth open trying to speak, but only a sound came out---a tiny cry of a sound. A sound anyone would miss. A sound only a dog might hear.

When she heard it she turned and said, “What?”

She put her hand to the side of his face, and said, “What is it, baby?”

Things happen that push us back to a place before vowels and consonants. Back behind where words come from. We are speechless. Literally.

In 1982, I stumbled onto something by accident that shattered everything. The noise that came out of me was prehistoric. The next day, and for several weeks, there were no words. The men in white coats came and took me where I did not want to go.

St. Paul writes that there is a language understood only to God---groanings too deep for words.

It is God’s native language.