Home > Short Stories > Going Back to Big Tree – Part III

Going Back to Big Tree – Part III

A man can divide his life into four parts.  Part three: When his father becomes a genius.

After High School, I worked a few jobs here and there and then took my savings and went to college.  It was there I met Janet.  If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I can honestly say I’ve experienced it.  I’m not sure I believe in predestination, reincarnation, past lives or anything like that, but I do know that when I first met her I could have sworn we were old friends.  Looking into her eyes was like looking into another life once lived a long time ago.  Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll find someone we’re supposed to find and that will happen.  We will look into their eyes and see an ancient soul smiling back at us as if to say, “Welcome home, I’ve been waiting for you.”  Suddenly, my life was all about Janet.  I wanted to hold her, to rub her feet when her toes were cold, stroke her hair as she fell asleep, wipe away the tears when she got hurt.  But mostly, more than anything in the world, I wanted to just fall into her endless eyes and lose myself forever.

The year in college went quick and then I was all out of money.  Me and Janet had decided to get married and I needed to start looking for a job – a real job.  After discussing our options at great length, I decided to join the Air Force.  The economy stank, I had no prospects, and we both wanted out of Idaho so bad our teeth hurt.  It seemed to be the answer to all our problems.

My first assignment was to Madrid, Spain.  When we arrived in Madrid following a sixteen hour flight from Salt Lake City, I arrived at my new unit the lowest rank you could possibly be and Janet was so pregnant the baby had already bought film for the trip.  Janet almost wasn’t allowed to make the flight and in fact, had we waited another week, she would have had to stay behind and follow later.

We took an apartment on the fifth floor of a building near the base and with no furniture except a rocking chair, an old steamer trunk and an ironing board for a table, we called the place home.  But it was more like an asylum.  Josh was born two weeks after we arrived in country.  He came a little early, but other than that, everything went well.  It was after the birth things went down hill.

Josh had colic and would scream day and night non stop.  It was a living hell.  Some people wonder how it is that a person can take their own life, but I don’t.  I know.  I know how easy it is to be pushed over the edge.  And I was the lucky one.  Every morning I got to leave the asylum and go to work for the day.  At night I would come home and we would fight until bed time.

Our fighting was vicious, complete with slamming doors, flying china, the whole side show.  If Josh wasn’t crying we were yelling at each other.  Between the post-partum depression and the cabin fever from being cooped up in the apartment all day with a crying baby, Janet was ready to kill herself, or me, or both.  It was ugly.

At night, Josh would start crying and the neighbors next door on the other side of the block wall would pound on the wall as if that would make the baby stop crying.  I hated them.  I wasn’t sure who I wanted to beat the living hell out of more, the neighbors, the kid, or myself.  There were times I would stand on the balcony, looking down at the concrete below, and wonder if the fall would be enough to kill me or if it would just leave me paralyzed.  And then I’d wonder if Janet stood there during the day thinking the same thing.  Oh good God it was absolute agony.

My father used to say to me, “Wait ‘till you have kids of your own.”  It looked as though he’d exacted his revenge.  We couldn’t manage phone calls home more than once every couple of months.  But we had some friends much older and wiser than us, who lived two floors above and they had a video camera we could borrow.  We could exchange tapes with parents back home and they could watch their grandchild growing up.  We would make tapes to send home, making sure we put on a good show for the grandparents.  As odd as it sounds, we found humor in the fact that we were able to be nice to each other for an hour or so.

It was still the deep chill of the cold war and we stood nose to nose with the old Soviet Union, ready to see to our mutual destruction should either side flinch.  It was like staring down a dog.  Whoever blinked first, lost.  There was plenty to do at work and at home with a young family, with little money, and living off-base in a country that didn’t speak your language.  But of all the things that he could have been concerned with, my father always ended each video tape with, “Make sure you’re changing the oil in that car of yours.”  Above all, he was a man of machines.

I’m not sure how we managed to keep it together for three years.  We came back a family but Janet and me had decided to call it quits.  It was just a matter of getting settled in and then it was off to see a lawyer.  We couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

I had been reassigned to Tucson, Arizona.  We rented an apartment on the second floor of a building near the base.  Janet wanted a second floor apartment.  She said it made her feel safer.  I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t just a cheap jab at me, but she got her way.  The next day, the movers came.

Of all the things that can happen to a family, tragedy will either tear them apart, or pull them together.  You never know which way it will go until it happens.

Toddlers are curious little buggers and if you blink, they’re gone.  The movers had arrived at the apartment late in the day and we were tired.  We hadn’t had anything to eat and we just wanted to get our stuff in the door, eat something, and go to bed.  Janet was in the kitchen unloading a box of china so we could eat and I was in the bedroom setting up the waterbed so we would have a place to sleep.  The house was a flurry of activity.  Everyone was in a hurry.  And no one was watching Joshua.

His curiosity over the movers and our inattentiveness became his downfall, literally.  Neither of us is quite sure exactly what happened, but I heard something in the kitchen crash to the floor and Janet scream.  I thought for sure she’d dropped her grandmother’s antique crystal.  What really happened was, one of the movers ran up the stairs and into the kitchen and asked Janet, “Don’t you folks have a little boy?”

By the time I got out there, he was at the bottom of the concrete stairs, face down on the sidewalk, and wasn’t moving.  I thought he was dead.  Janet was going absolutely bananas.  I just froze for what seemed like an hour and then ran down those stairs so fast I don’t even remember doing it.  One second I was at the top and the next, I was kneeling over Josh’s little body trying to feel a pulse.

With my own heart in overdrive, I couldn’t find any pulse on his tiny little body and was sure he was dead but I dared not say it aloud.  You can’t bring yourself to say it.  You can’t bring yourself to believe it.  All I remember thinking at the time was, “Why not me?  Why did it have to be the boy?”

Janet and me were both so wrapped up in our own pain and frustration and panic, one of the movers ran upstairs and called 911.  Or maybe one of us did it.  I don’t recall.  It’s a blur, like a bad, bad dream.  When the paramedics arrived they found his pulse but it was faint.  I wasn’t sure if I should feel relief at that or not.  A cornucopia of emotions fills you up and it’s a chore just to sort them all out.  I felt rage, fear, sorrow, guilt and pain.  Mostly pain.  A lot of pain.

We wanted to blame each other but in the end, we each blamed ourselves.  We got Josh to the hospital where he was stabilized but in a coma.  He’d taken quite a few knocks to the head and the doctors didn’t know how long the coma would last.  They said it could be hours, days, or forever.  I wanted to rip my guts out with my bare hands.

I hadn’t prayed since I was a kid and wasn’t sure it would do any good but I was sure it wouldn’t hurt.  So I accepted my hypocrisy and got down on my knees.  Some people say that God is up above with the Angels and the Saints.  I’m not so sure.  If God exists, He’s down here with the beggars and the thieves.  Because when you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re lying face down in the dirt, that’s where you’ll find Him.  At least, that’s where you always start looking.

We didn’t sleep for three days and never left his side except to go to the bathroom.  We didn’t eat much because we weren’t hungry and neither of us wanted to be out of the room when he woke up.  It was during those three days that Janet and me found each other again.  I got down on my knees to pray and I got down on my knees for her too.  I looked up into her eyes and saw that beautiful girl I had seen those years earlier.  She was still in there and she still wanted me.  I still wanted her.

After three days of agony and waiting, Josh woke up.  It was his mother’s face he saw first.  I was glad.  She deserved it more than me.  He was left with some minor paralysis in his right arm.  The doctors were baffled as to why it was only his arm and not the entire right side of his body.  But that was for them to worry about.  We didn’t give a damn why.  We were just glad to get him home.

His disability, if you can even call it that, hasn’t slowed him down a bit.  He’s grown into a smart, tough, ambitious and athletic young man.  He can run like an antelope and he’s the star of his college soccer team.  His coach tells me he’s good enough to go pro.  But I’m not telling him that.  Not yet, anyway.  College comes first.

He’s never held anything against his mother and me.  Hell, he can barely remember it.  But Josh doesn’t have to play the guilt card on me.  I’m perfectly capable of doing that all by myself.  I’ve carried that card in my shirt pocket over my heart every day of my life since.  As I get older, it gets a bit easier but that’s only because of something my father said to me all those many years ago when it happened.

He must have known what I was feeling because about a week after we brought Josh home from the hospital, I got a letter in the mail.  It read:

Dear Son,

I wanted to write and tell you how proud I am of you and what you’ve done in your life.  Many lesser men would have failed where you have already succeeded.  Being a father isn’t easy.  We all make mistakes with our kids.  They don’t come with instructions.  But we do the best we can.  And when we stumble and fall with them in our arms, we blame ourselves.  We blame our self because we think it’s somehow nobler to do so.  We blame our self because we think it means we’re taking responsibility.  We blame our self because we don’t want to hurt the others in our life any more than we already have.  But in the end, we hurt them anyway by making them watch us self-destruct and kill our self with guilt.  One of the most important lessons you can learn in life is how to forgive yourself for being human.

You’re a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good soldier.  I’m proud of you.

Love, Dad

It was official: my father was a genius.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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