LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

I came here to write a different list, then had a sudden memory come to me and wrote this instead. (TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of suicidal thoughts)
  1. My dad had a very short window in which to make his west coast dream come true.
  2. He didn't even realize how short a window. But his body would only cooperate for so long.
  3. And so, after the fall in Santa Cruz, CA which broke his hip, and after visits with two different surgeons there who both said, "With your particular injury and type of paralysis, it's less risky for you to simply live with the broken hip than it is to undergo replacement surgery," he moved back in Pennsylvania.
  4. After 18 happy months of splitting his time between the two home bases he chose - Tempe, AZ and Santa Cruz - he was suddenly there with my sister and I, at her dining room table in Harrisburg, sipping that slow slurp of coffee I'd almost forgotten, like he'd never left.
  5. Except there were earrings now. Tattoos all the way down one of his arms. A large cross on a thin silver chain, ironic for the once again "on the outs with God" non-practicing Catholic. A UC Santa Cruz sweatshirt. Cool new John Lennon-style glasses.
  6. And he told us about adventures in the desert. Some, I'd heard before, over the phone. Those 18 months out west had been the awkward beginning of our new dynamic that stretched across the last decade of his life, a dynamic where we were closer over the phone than in person.
  7. One of the stories I hadn't heard before, well I guess it was more a memory than a story. Just like what I'm recalling of it now.
  8. It came out in a quiet moment when the boys were outside playing with nerf guns, and Buddy had nothing in the street worth barking at, and the Paxtonia neighborhood was settled and calm. Just my sister and I sitting at the table, as dad spoke of what he might want to do with his time now.
  9. He remembered a man who had approached him in a McDonald's parking lot in Phoenix. Dad was sitting in his car, windows down. He was listening to Catch A Fire by Bob Marley & The Wailers. Concrete Jungle.
  10. And this man approached and asked for change, and my dad, having watched all his friends become yuppies and shield their families from the world in protective suburban bubbles, those very same friends who once hung out of dorm room windows while Santana blared, speaking louder than necessary about rallies and how much they hated Nixon...
  11. ...My dad had long since decided he wouldn't be like them. And in his precious, sun-kissed months in Santa Cruz, he'd wheeled the length of Pacific Avenue and the boardwalk more times than he could count, and he'd gotten used to reaching into his bag and pulling out whatever he had, to give to whomever needed it.
  12. He had no qualms doing the same in this parking lot, for this man.
  13. Except that it was different with this man, who seemed so broken down, so visibly at the very end of a long life on the outside.
  14. And recalling him, and how he looked, and what he said, my dad wept. He couldn't stop himself. He sobbed as he spoke about how helpless he felt, and how he knew that even if he gave the man all the money he had, it wouldn't have mattered. It wouldn't have been enough.
  15. I sat at the table, and my sister sat at the table, and my dad sat in his wheelchair and wept.
  16. 18 years in that chair, and wept.
  17. Another ten years to go, and wept.
  18. Days, weeks, sometimes months in bed, in front of a television, pain patches that won't help, then withdrawal from the patches, then losing his father, then a broken knee and more bed, then the staph infections that bring him to the very brink of death, then finally some hope and sunshine out west, ever so brief, then another fall and a broken hip.
  19. And wept.
  20. Wept for a man he didn't know, but met once and had a really bad feeling. A helpless, lost feeling he couldn't shake.
  21. And all the bad to come, all the pain, all the falls, all the infections, the abandonment, the women he loved who couldn't be with a man like him, the women he didn't love who desperately wanted to nurse and pity him, the day after day trials of pills & lifts & pushing & headaches & sidewalks without ramps & catheters in the dick & more pills...
  22. ...he wasn't too worried about any of that. He was a lot more concerned about this man in a parking lot, who made him cry.
  23. And he said, "I think homelessness is the greatest problem we face, greater than anything else. People who can't eat, people who have nowhere to go. I think I might spend more of my energy there. That's what feels right."
  24. Well, even though he had eight more years after that, he never quite rededicated his life in the way that maybe his heart wanted him to that day at my sister's table. But he did spend the rest of his life giving - to my sister, to my nephews, to me, to plenty of organizations and families and friends in need of a lift and a push.
  25. Lifting and pushing was his life, in many ways.
  26. And in the most dire moments I've experienced in the past year, as I've watched some of his last gifts to me dwindle and fade and run out, I've sometimes felt far away from that afternoon with my dad and his memory. And instead, I've felt like simply leaving.
  27. I've thought about my mom and my sister, and what they need that they don't have. I've thought about my nephews and questions of college, or the freedom to follow seemingly impossible dreams.
  28. And I've put that part of myself that is already so small, so constantly drowning, behind the wheel.
  29. That part of myself that was so easily wounded when the promise of everlasting love was given and then taken away by a person whose anxiety and whose fickleness and whose own lifetime of wounds led her to fall hard on feels and then, just as quickly and intensely, pull herself away from them.
  30. That part of myself that was so destroyed by cynical, mean kids who believed they "saw through me" and indulged their giddy willingness to make quick and harsh diagnoses about people and situations they don't understand.
  31. That part of myself that is always waiting for people to end up not meaning what they say, not following through on what they said they'd do, not hanging around after all.
  32. That part of myself that wants to be hopeful as I usually am but feels like the year when I was cynical & pessimistic (2015, while making Coyote Hours, leading up to & ending right before I joined List) was the only time I didn't feel overwhelmed by life itself, because I didn't feel constant loss & disappointment & hopelessness & helplessness.
  33. I've put that part of myself behind the wheel and then I've thought things like, "Maybe what's left of the money, which isn't much anyway, would be better off in their hands. Maybe there's nothing else for me to do here. Maybe I should just try to make someone else's life better."
  34. "Because it's not worth it, just trying to pick up the pieces for myself. I've been left enough. I've been frustrating to people enough. I can't do it anymore."
  35. There was a time period of a few months when it was common for me to feel and think that way. Because I had squashed myself down so small that I felt like saving and refurbishing my own life would be like trying to fix a hole in a plastic straw. It's much easier to just get up and grab a new straw. Let it go. It's just a straw.
  36. "And besides," I thought, "there are plenty of sad, whiny white men in the world who feel like they have lots of problems. Why not just have one less of them in the world, and do some good for others with what's left of dad's gifts?"
  37. But in more recent months, I've come to find there's more value to my life than I was allowing myself to believe, and there are a few key parts of how I was able to feel that way:
  38. 1. I was able to witness the deep love that the people closest to me have for me, and to understand that it would be no gift to them at all for me to abandon them and leave behind a little bit of money.
  39. 2. I was able to to accept the things I dislike about who I dated, to accept that it's ok & even necessary to allow myself to feel negative feelings about her & the whole situation, & to recognize that how I am seen by myself & all of the people in my life is much more important than how I am seen by a few who dislike or don't want to know me.
    (For anyone not on Instagram who was confused when I made references to my situation from last year in another list, here's a brief version of it all: https://instagram.com/p/BP6MvcxAEP-/ )
  40. 3. I was able to remember the importance, and life-affirming beauty, of community and acknowledge the potential for friendship that all of us carry for each other, no matter who we are. Honestly, the most potent reminder of this came from the Clinton campaign & its slogan #STRONGERTOGETHER.
  41. 4. I was able to get a little good-humored again, a little more spirited, a little more passionate, a little more "writer-y" in a way that has always served me well in the realm of self-love, so that I finally could ease up off those other thoughts and feelings, and recognize the value of continuing to piece together my life. 💜
  42. When I got on here to write something to you guys, I was gonna get into the latter stuff right off the bat, and it would've been a very different kind of thing. But that memory suddenly came back to me.
  43. I remembered how my dad cupped his mouth in his hand as he wept. And I took all of him in, the body of the man confined to the chair, and I thought about all of his problems. And you know what I felt for my dad?
  44. It wasn't sadness or pity.
  45. It was inspiration.
  46. He made me want to be as good of a person as he was that day.
  47. And I've been checking in with that memory, every now and then, ever since.