My book is about my real life..here’s some hard stuff….you can buy an autographed copy of the book directly from me by writing me a note here, on FB, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hit the road Jack
And don’t you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more…
There was a note from my father in the mailbox at 96 Laverne early one July morning in 1969. It said: Your mother died this morning. He didn’t knock on the door or call. I stood there holding it my hand. It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming, but I didn’t know it would be so soon. My parents weren’t in the business of leveling with us about life’s big issues. It was always more like: If you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you. If you do know, then I don’t need to tell you.
She’d been fighting cancer for eleven years and had finally passed away at home. I’d seen her just a few days before. I was on foot, carless as I was in those days. My sisters were driving her someplace. She was sitting in the back of the car, wearing a print dress which was bright and cheerful, but she was skin and bones. Her once-graceful arms looked like pipes draped with loose, gray skin. The car stopped and she rolled down the window and told me that her mother, my Grandma Nonie, had just died. I said, “Gee, I’m so sorry, mom.” I felt a stab of guilt. I never had anything helpful to say to her in her illness, and I felt equally ineffective at that moment as well. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d ever talk to her.
She’d been sick for so long, it seemed like she would just go on. I didn’t think about her death being imminent. At least when my father died I got to tell him I loved him before he went. I have the memory of those last words to hold inside of me. But not with my mom. She hung on for only one more week; I think she willed herself to live until her mother was gone. I have now come to see the way she, and later my father, carried themselves as they approached death as having a lot of dignity, for which I am today grateful. It was an unspoken life-lesson, teaching by example. That’s the way of the parent, since kids, especially teenagers, don’t listen to advice. But we absorb the way our parents handle themselves as human beings.
But right then, I didn’t think about dignity. I was in shock. I quickly walked the mile across Homestead Valley to my parents’ house. I was afraid her body would still be there, but they’d taken her away earlier. I couldn’t even bear to look into her room. I was spooked. There was a floor to ceiling mirror right at the foot of her bed and I thought that if I looked in it, I might see her propped up on her pillows in the bed, the way she had been for almost two years. I was two months shy of my twenty-first birthday. My mother would have been fifty-two that November.
Though I’d been saying to my friends for some time that it would be better when her suffering ended, when it actually came to pass, I was hit harder than I could imagine. I learned in a dizzying moment that blood is thicker and deeper than intellect. Death is visceral and ethereal at the same time, but it’s only peripherally intellectual. In the inscrutable, hard way that life works, her death pushed me into the beginning of my spiritual life-journey.
As I look back on my life, I know I’ve always been a seeker. Even as a child I looked up at the sky and wondered why I couldn’t just spread my wings—in fact, where were my wings?—and leap through it into some glorious, pearly somewhere, free of all the crapola of life, the hard guys, cold girls, homework, and terror of H-bombs. LSD drop-kicked me sideways beyond the edge of reason and gave me a glimpse of great potential. But when I came down from that high, the vision would blur, even seem ridiculous and downright frightening. But my mom’s death inexorably pulled me down the steep trail into that lonesome valley we must walk by ourselves. I didn’t know that I was descending into that labyrinthine maze yet. I just knew that, while I got through most of the service and memorial all right, I felt suddenly more like an adult. And one-half orphan.
My older brother Lew came down from far northern California, where he’d stayed on after college, and we drove around together, even wearing sport coats and ties for the wake and funeral. We talked as equals for the first time. We’d been of almost separate generations in our house. He was a big kid and I was a little kid, because we were five years apart. It makes a difference when you’re a kid. We little kids would be up at dawn on Christmas while the big kids annoyingly slept in until seven, no longer hungering for the wish-fulfilling BB gun or toy soldiers under the tree. We’d all been sent off to boarding schools during high school, in the tradition of my highly-educated dad and mom, so we sibs barely knew each other. I’d always looked up to Lew. He stood up to my father’s blustery posturing at times, even having a bit of a slapping match with the old man in the TV room during dinner once when I was home from school on vacation. My poor dad, he didn’t have the heart to be a disciplinarian, so he made a lousy, non-credible one. He failed at it in the same way he failed at many things.
Thank God, my mother’s wake was anything but a dreary affair. There must have been over a hundred people at our house, drinking, laughing, reminiscing, and playing piano and singing, like a cast party for one of their light opera shows. It was a grand send-off. Mom would not have looked well on a dour, whiny event. In fact, there was one person there being maudlin and she was shown the door by one of my mom’s friends. My parents were part of a lively crew, educated, funny, and talented, with a taste for life that has left a glamorous picture in my mind. I drank a pitcher of something with one of the grown-ups, a man who boozily confided that he’d been the only one who really understood my mother. I guess I didn’t know much about her myself.
After the whirl of activity passed, I stopped and looked around. I was worn out. My life had changed in a subtle way. I hadn’t lived at home since I was thirteen, but there’d always been a home with a mom and a dad. I didn’t know what to think, how to feel. I wasn’t seeing my reaction with any perspective and there wasn’t anyone to guide me through it. My dad was emotionally unavailable and Lew was gone back north.
Mortality had never hit me before. People actually die. My mother was gone. I’d never see her again, peering over her reading glasses with that penetrating, suffer-no-fools look. One anchor chain had been severed, and the other didn’t have much hold on me. After a few days, my dad started cleaning out the house, something my mom had begged him to do for years. He replaced the cat-peed drapes in the living room and threw out a bunch of junk. I suppose he was trying to clear out his mind. He had quit drinking when my mom got cancer. His life had been a hell of guilt and suffering too. But why did he wait to do the things she’d always wanted him to do? It made me kind of mad, also very sad and lonely. I had no girlfriend right then, in fact I was in a long drought. There was no one to hold me.
It wasn’t long before a real San Francisco fog bank of depression enveloped me. I reached out for comfort and the first thing I got my hand on was a bottle of bourbon that I lifted from the wake. Booze had been in my life for awhile: taco pig-out and a bottle of Red Mountain or a quart of Brown Derby, but I’d been more into pot. I hadn’t wanted to screw up good, creative marijuana highs with liquor. But that changed now. I’d still been in the throes of ripping myself away from my family, battling about not going to college, avoiding the draft, living like a hippie—full rebellion. Rebel without a clue. I’d walked out on Christmas six months before my mother’s death. Teenage karma. I needed something to dull the guilt and pain, the pain I wasn’t fully even conscious of as pain. I couldn’t face my mother’s death straight-up as an issue. So I told myself I was just drinking to relax, to be cool, to be confident, but it was more profound than that. Her death had cut away the floor beneath my feet. My childhood demons of fear and failure had risen from the depths and sunk their talons into my ankles. They were going to pull me down.
Somewhere deep in me—and believe me, I know I’m not alone in this one—is a drive toward self-annihilation; a blinding, hell-bent desire for personal obliteration; a sneaky intuition that there’s no self worth keeping alive. My acid-born spiritual ideas came apart in a chain reaction like that room of ping-pong balls on mousetraps they showed on TV to illustrate the A-bomb reaction. Shit was flying everywhere in all directions in my head and guts.
Did I start drinking so I wouldn’t have to face my feelings and lack of self worth? So I didn’t have to face myself? I couldn’t even conceive that idea. I just knew that when I drank, I found some respite, some relief. Maybe I’d be somebody I liked, that other people liked. I needed that drink, that bottle, that obliteration. Everyone saw the problem long before I did. Nah, that’s not true. I knew it was there almost as soon as I started. My nickname wasn’t Al‘C’hol for nothing. Alcohol was going to dance me around for the rest of my life. It’s not always been a fun dance, though it’s had its moments. Ginger Rogers with an ice pick in her hand on your shoulder. Sometimes it was fun. But other times, I slid into oblivion of the dark variety.
One night I got drunk and played with a pistol, putting the barrel into my mouth, imagining that I would pull the trigger. It was a pointless, maudlin moment; I knew I wouldn’t do it. I was just feeling sorry for myself and being self-dramatic. But it was an emotional place I would return to over and over again. Bang. Just kill yourself, you fuckin’ loser. Instead, I wrote a song about it called Sound of Thunder.
I sit on the floor with my rum
I cannot pull my knife or use my gun.
Though Lew headed back north after a few days, from that time until the end of our lives we would be real brothers, no more big kid–little kid, with many things in common through the years to come: good old alcoholism, spiritual seeking, and fly-fishing. Sometimes all three at the same time. Out of sadness comes opening.