Aug 16, 2012 - 11:15 am
Well, it was down to just the three of us…me, my nephew, and my new niece…
We thought we might turn in ‘early’ for a change – it was about midnight, but I caught my second wind and we ended up staying outside in the garage and talking some more. I had the windows and side door open and also opened the big garage door to open up the space – a nice breeze was gently blowing through there as the stereo provided the background noise.
I’d have long been asleep in Texas by now on this late Friday night – but here I was, dead to the world, but finding the energy I needed and began gearing up at midnight to go around one more time…
Grandpa’s funeral had got me to thinking about the things that we take for granted and don’t tell one another. He made me think about the facts about a person that never come to light, except when we get to the funeral and find out something we never even knew about them.
I didn’t want my epitaph written by someone who never knew me – I wanted my family to hear those things from me – while I was still alive – and while it still mattered.
So, I started talking…
As the talks would progress over the course of the next several hours, I would find myself having the courage and conviction to finally address the ghosts from the past and discover the strength to break the cycle of enabling and covering up that had held me down emotionally for fifty-years of a life that hasn’t been realized or used to its fullest potential yet.
By doing so, I exposed truths and hardships about myself to my new family that I had never told anyone, other than Kim. I showed my young family how being in touch with your feelings and not being afraid to express them in front of others can have a liberating and freeing effect.
Because, you see, there is a part of you that dies off from the telling – but in the broader context of things, there is a new part of you that lives on from the telling – and you find yourself re-born, with that newfound sense of freedom that you are getting a “Do-Over” and another chance at life to do what it is that you were meant to do.
And that by finally coming to grips and breaking the ties with the past and talking about it with others – I could now shed the past and live in the present and find out what my future just might be.
I could see a future that was now unfettered and full of promise for a better and brighter tomorrow – and a future that is finally free from the tyranny of an oppression that sought to minimize the individual through mental and verbal torment, that was geared to hurt me and break me down to make me feel ashamed of who I was – or more to the point - who I wasn’t.
I told so many stories that night, but let me take a few of the more poignant ones and share those with you – as we lived and shared in the moment – into the early dawn of that Saturday morning…
I told them that I was born in Houston, Texas in the year 1961. I went on to explain that this was also the year that Hurricane Carla hit the Texas coast –and would become one of the strongest storms to ever strike the United States.
I would have only been about six-weeks old then…far too young to have any recollection of the event itself. I guess it’s safe to say though, that even at the earliest of ages, “Hell’s always been comin’ with me…”
I filled them in on some of the family history that they otherwise never would have known about had I not taken that time to bridge the gaps between those generations.
So, I told them about great aunt T…
Now, here was an old-school gal if there ever was one. She took a fancy to me when I met her that I never really understood, until a time later on in both of our lives.
Let me preface this story and go back to the beginning of where it all started…
When Kim first took me up to PA to meet ‘the family’, I was nervous and wanting to make a good impression. In those days, all of the patriarchs and matriarchs were alive and breathing – and Craig was about to be on full display – to see if he measured up and could cut the mustard.
We all met at a restaurant for dinner that evening – the dining room was upstairs and had been reserved for our event. I came charging into the room like a bull in a china shop and when I saw the faces before me, sitting all in a row, I became the proverbial deer in the headlights – I was stunned.
They were eyeballin’ me up and down and left and right - I didn’t know what to do – so, I thought back to something that my dad taught me long ago. He said, “Son, when you walk into a room full of women you don’t know – just start hugging ‘em.”
And that’s just what I did! Turns out that Pop was right about that one – and it’s been serving me well ever since:)
I went around the table and hugged on every single one of them. One of them was great aunt T.
What she saw in me, I don’t know. At the time, I was young and brash and very insecure about myself and what to do with a family like this. I had never experienced anything like this before.
She liked the fact that I was a southern man – and she liked the way that I talked. I’ve always been pretty good at talking my way in and out of many situations in my life. My old mantra was “Fake it – until you make it.”
I used a lot of BS in those days to mask the insecurities that I held about myself then. I puffed and blustered and shook my tail feathers like a rooster in a hen house:) I guess she was just smart enough to see through all of that – she saw the real me through all of that noise.
Well, at our wedding reception, we were having what the locals called a Dollar Dance. The gist of all of that was the women would line up for the groom – and the guys would line up for the bride.
They would give you a $1 for a quick turn or two around the dance floor and this was part of the donations towards the honeymoon.
Aunt T’s was sitting down when her turn came and she did not want to dance with me, because she was tired or embarrassed or something, but I was having none of that. And somehow, I convinced her to stand up there with me – and in front of everyone we danced together.
This was apparently a big thing to get Aunt T to do something like this – and it took all of my southern charm & schmoozing to get her to the dance floor. The wedding photographer’s daughter was shooting the reception video and captured this poignant moment of us together. She was in the right spot – at just the right time to capture that moment and freeze it in time.
A few years later, Aunt T’s health had taken a turn for the worse and she was in a nursing home. We had taken Kim’s mom to see another of her daughter’s out of town. On the way back home, they wanted to stop off by the nursing home and visit Aunt T.
Now, I grew up in a nursing home watching one of my grandfathers languish in that facility for several years until he passed away. As a young boy, it made quite an impression on me and those visits were difficult for me for all of the obvious reasons.
I really didn’t want to do this – but as life always seems to tell us – I’m glad that I did. As it turned out, it would be the last time I would ever see her again.
As we came down the hall towards her room, I could see her frail body slumped in the chair – I could see no expression in her eyes as she sat there motionless, just biding her time.
Kim, her sister, and their mom were in front of me when we entered the room. Her expression went unchanged.
And then Big Tex entered the room…
All of a sudden, it was like a lightning bolt had struck her. We made eye contact and she immediately came to life – you could just see the light bulbs going off in her head as she remembered who I was…and clearly she was surprised and happy.
You know, that look of excitement and unbridled enthusiasm that we see in one another’s eyes when we are so glad to see someone? It’s really the Look of Life as it turns out.
And she was now back among the living – she wanted to have nothing to do with the other gals and focused her attention squarely on me. She wanted the attention of her Texan man.
Aunt T could no longer talk, but she spoke volumes with her eyes and facial expressions…
She stood up out of her wheelchair – don’t know where that came from, but she rose up out of that chair on her own and held my arm and began to sway back and forth – she had gone back in time to the day of our wedding – and the dance that we shared that day – that almost was not to be.
I’ve got a few tears thinking about that again too….
She was a funny lady too – she pointed to my belly and put her hand on my stomach and made a circular motion – she smiled widely and slyly as she did it.
Her message to me?
I had gotten too fat, LOL! And she was letting me know about it:)
It was hard to leave her that day…she would not take her eyes off of me and it hurt me to see her like this – she had that look of forlorn longing in her eyes – the look that said “Please Don’t Go.”
It remains a haunting image for me to see that look on her face as we made the break and made the long walk back down the hall to the car, where many miles separated us from our destination and we had to get traveling to get everybody home.
That was a story that my nephew knew nothing about – and I thought it was important and a part of the family fabric that I wanted to preserve, so the story could live on and be told and remembered. My nephew had memories of her and so I knew that this would resonate with him and carry some true meaning.
Then, we talked about my sister, Suzanne…and the night she was murdered…
My sister lived 125-miles away from me then – it was a quiet place called Hawkins, Texas. Suzanne, her friend, and a young man, were out at the lake one evening in his pick-up truck.
Their night and their entire lives would change when the demon they called, “The Animal” - a then 3x convicted serial rapist, who crossed their paths, just as dusk was approaching.”
He brandished a pistol and kidnapped them at gunpoint.
When I talked with the sheriff that next day, he said, “We found both the purses in the truck…”
And I knew all I needed to…we’d have to officially wait…but, I already knew….
On the night of her murder, they were at the lake and I was at a playoff basketball game between Dallas vs Lakers. It was a much hyped, anticipated event and the crowd was literally blowing the roof off that joint – we were known as the Reunion Rowdies back in those glory days.
Anyway, the place was simply deafening – to the tune of 125 decibels, which is the equivalent of a jet airliner engine…it was the loudest crowd I’d ever been too…the vibrations reverberated inside your body and you actually felt the noise.
During one of the timeouts, I looked around the arena and saw the fans all standing and cheering wildly – it was completely exhilarating.
All of a sudden, the arena just went stone cold silent. I could still see all of the fans waving and cheering, but I could not hear a sound.
It was like someone had put noise cancelling headphones over your ears…
This went on for a minute or two…and then just like lifting those headphones off your head, the noise came roaring back at full volume.
I was confused about this. I “felt” that something was happening to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on the pulse of what I was experiencing – I just knew that something was amiss in the universe.
They would find my sister’s body over the next couple of days searching. They found her face down on the side of the hill, clutching a vine. She had been raped, sodomized, pistol whipped and strangled with her own panties – and then thrown over the hill, ike a bag of used garbage.
That’s how they found her:(
When my aunt and uncle came to identify the body, they told me that she was only “recognizable” by her class ring. That’s how badly mutilated her body was. She was just a couple of weeks from her high school graduation and her senior prom.
I can still the dress in my mind that she picked out to wear - for the day that never came…
That story still makes my blood run cold, even to this day…
When I think back to what I was feeling that night at the basketball game, I can only draw two conclusions from that experience.
1. When the arena went deathly silent, it was her SCREAM to me that something was
2. The silence that I experienced was her telling me “Goodbye, brother” – for the final
Whatever it was, it still haunts me to this very day – and the silence is just as deafening today, as it was back then…maybe even more so, as I feel her absence more with every passing day that I grow older without her in my life.
They would capture him and put him in jail – but he escaped there and took a female guard hostage with him. The subsequent manhunt and re-capture would become known as “The Largest Manhunt in Texas History.”
It took about twelve-years to wind through all of the appeal process that would ensue. Once, someone is convicted, you might as well write off the next ten-years right off the top, because it is a long and convoluted process and there’s no need getting your heart in it at the beginning – Time and Patience, remember me saying?
In the final hours, the case went before then Texas Governor George Bush, who thankfully denied a stay of execution and allowed the execution to move forward to its rightful conclusion.
I’m not a big political man by any means. All I know is that on that day – and in that final hour, that George Bush did right by me and my family – and we remain eternally grateful for his decision and his integrity and remain steadfast and supportive behind his conviction to do the right thing for the victims and their families that loved them.
So, we were led into the mighty Texas Death Chamber…
Just as we are walking in, the drapes were drawn back – and there lying on the table is The Animal – he’s strapped down for the lethal injection.
I had waited twelve long years for this moment. I was on a mission and as I barreled down towards the glass that separated me from the evil that had robbed my future and altered my destiny, - all I could think about was the other trails of lives he had ruined all along the way, before he got to our folks that day.
My eyes made contact with his for the very first time and I would burn a hole in him with my glare, before he turned his head away. I muttered an expletive and the court reported jotted that down for the record.
I had made my point. I had lived to see this day that Truth, Justice and the Texas Way, were alive and well in my home state. I had looked into the steely eyes of a killer – and stared into the same eyes that my sister had last seen with her dying breaths.
The execution process is not at all like you would expect it to be. In fact, if you’ve ever put your pets down, there was more feeling to that than there was this. The first drug put him to sleep and the subsequent ones stopped his heart – all this really came down to was just glorified euthanasia.
I was the last one out the door – I saw his face turn blue – and I saw the doctor feeling for a pulse and pronouncing the death at 6:18pm. And then I left the building.
I went over for a press conference for the local tv news. I told ‘em all that day, “The bill has finally come due – and we settled it here this evening.”
I was asked if the execution process brought me closure?
I told them “No.” I felt no closure. I felt like we settled a lifetime debt, but I did not feel better about how it all turned out. How could I? My sister was gone and never coming back.
I said, “Trading his life for my sister’s is not compensation to me.” But, I went on to say, this had to be done, so that me and my family could live with it and know that he did not get away with it.
My dear, beautiful sister for The Animal?
It was “Tic for Tac”, but we, the families really lost – we lost the day that our loved ones were taken. We lost that day, because a 3x convicted serial rapist had gotten out on parole each of those three times, when he should have been incarcerated to prevent more tragedies like we endured.
But, I also told them that we did settle all accounts that day and that was the best that Texas could do for its own on this day. And that if this had not been done, then I would have felt “cheated” for the remainder of my days.
As I stood in the garage, replaying the images in my head, and telling them this bone chilling story, it dawned on me…
I told them both, Suzanne would have been your AUNT – Aunt Suzanne….wow, I just can’t wrap my mind around that phrase. It’s hard for me to say those words.
I had never considered that before – it never occurred to me, until I was done telling them this story. I already had been crying while I talked to them, but that thought just made me stop cold, before I started crying my words out.
I looked over at my niece and said, “I need a hug.”
And I stood there, exposed and vulnerable, with tears running down my cheeks and my guts spilled out all over the floor…in front of my nephew and in front of my niece, who I was just getting to know on this trip. At first, she hesitated, but then came to me and we embraced.
You know those kinds of hugs when you really need a hug? The kind where you press your bodies together so closely, you can hear the other person’s heart beating? The kind where you want to hang on and never let go?
Yes, that kind…
We hugged deeply and I kind of twisted her slightly side to side, just to squeeze as much out of that hug as I could – it just felt so real, so warm, so comfortable and reassuring.
Then, she sat back down…and no surprise here…I kept talking…
I told them about the night that my dad beat the living daylights out of me. I was staying with my dad for the weekend at his place. I was about twelve or thirteen, I believe. My friend and I had gotten into an argument. He went home and I went across the street to the grocery story and read magazines.
I lost track of time and it got real late and nobody knew where I had disappeared to. I headed back to his place and then heard my dad yelling at his girlfriend that I was missing.
The tone in his voice got me real scared. I hid in the bushes so he wouldn’t find me. But, he did. The rest was just a blur as I was yanked up from the bushes and thrown inside the house on the floor.
Pop had on cowboy boots that night and he kicked me and hit me with every step that I would take up those stairs trying to get to my room. He was enraged that night and his fists were flying around, just trying to hit anything that he could with them.
When I went down, I got it with the boots being kicked at full force. I made it to my room and he cornered me in there. His eyes had the look of a mad man gone berserk. I thought I was going to be hurt badly and maybe even beaten to death.
I’ve never been this “scared” before in my life – cancer never scared me as badly as I was scared that night. And you never hear me use the word ‘scared.’
This was that time. I wanted to go back to Mom’s place and just get to my room – if I could get back there, I would be safe….always safe in my room. But, I was too young and didn’t know how to get there.
That’s saying a lot, because my Mom was every bit as bad as my dad...that’s how desperate my situation that night was…but my thought was just to get to my room, not Mom’s….the room. In there, I could hole up and ride it out for another day.
I laid awake all night that night, because I was too frightened to drift off – I kept thinking that something just might happen in the night…it was so chilling – to be that scared – to have your heart palpitating like that – to experience sheer terror from a person that was supposed to love you.
As I sat there telling tale after tale, I started to understand that I can tell a story pretty dern well. From time to time, I can scribble down a couple of coherent thoughts that I share with you, but I discovered in myself, that I can talk a pretty good story too.
I know where to go – and how to get there. And I mix in the tragic with the comical, and toss in some funny voices with all kinds of voice inflections…and voila. I find I can hold their attention, add the thrills and suspense, and then deliver them safely back again – and you don’t even have to leave your house:)
After that story, I started thinking about my nephew and our relationship over the years. I was trying to think about how many times we had seen each other in the twenty-four years we had known one another.
We started counting the events on our fingers...1-2-3…etc…the way that we figured, we could only count as high as eight times in those 24 years…and I haven’t seen him the past twelve of those.
He started to cry…I started to cry…and together we cried…I went up to him and put my arms around him and hugged him and told him that I did love him and was proud of the man that he was becoming and that I was sorry for not being there more for him.
Just like with my niece…we held the embrace for a long time…it was meaningful…it was sincere…it was real….and it was building a bridge back that I hoped we would all walk over once more - time and time again for the remainder of our lifetimes.
My niece was sitting on the riding mower with the prettiest tears in her eyes watching all of this unfold…none of us could ever see any of this coming…not even me.
You know, eyes that are pooled with tears have a certain depth and clarity to them that are unrivaled – they are so beautiful and mystic as the eye fills up with water to the point where they spill over the brink and cascade down your cheeks, like a waterfall does.
When the eyes are like that, they allow you to see through to the depths of one’s soul, where you can see “The Real You.”
Anyway, it was another real and touching moment that morning…and as the night headed towards day, there was still more to come…
So, my nephew told me that he always looked up to me and listened to the things that I had told him over the years. He started listing all of the things we had done together and said, “Uncle Craig, we have done a lot of things together in the times that we were together.”
And I said, “Yes, we have crammed a lifetime – into such a short time.”
I told him I was sorry that I had personally lost touch with him, since my cancer diagnosis. I revealed a truth and told him that I was mad at this family for their lack of support during my illness – not so much for me, but for one of their very own – Kim.
I went on to say that this side stops talking to this side….and then your imagination fills in the rest of it…pretty soon bitterness and resentment set in and you are holding imaginary grudges that do not present themselves in the real world.
You say, “F ‘em”…and they say, “F you”…and there you have it…the recipe for the perfect storm.
I told him I was not mad at him or anything – but that I was hurt that he didn’t call me every now and then, or send an email. I was just so sick most nights to be what I needed to be, but had wanted to hear from him.
He shook his head and understood what I was saying. He told me that he got that. I took that as him possibly having those feelings about me – and maybe he felt that I had abandoned him, even though I had cancer and was ill.
He had a point – and so, I decided to tell him another ‘truth.’
I had told him and my niece that I did not want to get to know Little Miss Sunshine before I had come up there this time, because it would be a waste of time for either party by doing so.
Especially, since she would not remember me because she was so young and tender – and I would be dead from cancer before I would ever get the chance to really know her and have her get to know me.
I said, “That’s the truth.”
He nodded. I told him that I would work harder at being a better uncle to him and his soon-to-be bride and their family.
I told you that this night would be about “Truths.”
Next, I wanted to take the opportunity and the time to talk with them about some business.
I told them that they needed to have renter’s insurance for the house they are staying in, as well as the outbuildings, like the garage…and to make sure it was replacement coverage.
And for money matters, having just gone through with all of this mess with my dad’s mishandling of his estate and such, I explained the need to be each other’s beneficiaries on each other’s bank accounts – I discussed POA in lieu of being able to handle your own affairs – and we talked about a will and what some of this provisions might be today for his family – and then down the road as his kids grew and the family got bigger.
I told them I wanted to see some action taken soon and some information gathered for me to look at, so we could put a plan together. They listened intently and it was clear that I had their attention – at least, for the moment.
And then, I started getting really crazy with my thinking…and started talking about and planning “vacations” with them – and some with their family. I started telling them about places that we could go – and seeing what places interested them.
I love these guys and they are cool to hang out with – and we really get along so well. And I told them that if I knew that my death was imminent, that I would sell stuff off to cover airfare, lodging and whatever expenses or pleasures were needed to go to the Hawaiian Islands for a once in a lifetime vacation – 1st class all the way!
But, here is what is interesting about all of that….
For the last eight-years since I’ve had cancer, I’ve never allowed myself to look further than 3-6 months down the road – the whole time.
Who can blame any of us for that?
Cancer calls the shots way more than we want to give it credit for – cancer takes the action to us first – then locks us into that medical treadmill that is so hard to get off of once you step into the maze that is the medical system
Our lives turn into their lives – and we find we can’t see too much farther than the next scan cycle – and the verdict that will either vindicate us – or sentence us to more hard time.
But, as I was sitting here talking with my family, “Cancer” was not even on my mind – not for one second - it was nowhere to be found – almost as if it never existed.
Here was your guy, without even giving it a thought, planning for the future – his future – their future - and looking years up the road – not months.
I was just envisioning a possible future without cancer – or more periods around cancer – where we could make hay and a few memories…before…well, just before.
I’ve never allowed myself the permission to explore those possibilities – or to even consider its very existence of such a phenomenon. It was daring on my part – I allowed myself to finally break the mental barrier of cancer, where I would allow myself the opportunity to be – or consider being…
Of course, I know the realities or at least the probable possibilities that I’ve inherited could change those plans significantly – if not permanently at any point.
Still, it was fun to imagine the possibilities anyway…I dream of these family vacations that we could take. Their other two girls have already been to Disneyworld with their father – but Sunshine hasn’t.
And I told them that I wanted to take us to Disneyworld and see the magical kingdom through a child’s eyes – the eyes of wonderment and imagination. I told them maybe we could even do the cruise as part of the trip. We could take The Big Red Boat out for three days and then spend the next four days at the Disney resorts.
That would be a cool family picnic right there – I’ve always wanted to go back one more time – and maybe with new blood, the trip could be so much more than what I could envision it could be.
We went there for our honeymoon and it was absolutely the best time I’ve ever had – it is truly “The Happiest Place on Earth ” - as long as you have a few benjamins in your pocket:)
I guess the big thing is I was doing more than “living in the moment” – I was living for the future – a future I now wanted to be a part of in some form.
It was after 4am by this time – I had been standing the whole night holding court and talking my fool head off – my back ached like there was no tomorrow – and I needed to pee anyway.
Great thing about being out in the country – you can just head to the side of the barn and take a piss in the country air with a cool breeze and the moon and stars as your shadows. There’s nothing more freeing than that…brought back a lot of old school memories from my grandparent’s farms in the old days.
Ok, here’s the story that ties back to Foxburg in the wine shop…we’ll close this chapter with this delightful story – Sundance had been snookered by those that love him…
I came back in and we were closing up the garage for the night. All of a sudden, my nephew hands me this sack…I pull it back a little bit…and I see what looks to be a wine cork sticking out of this bottle.
I couldn’t figure it out at first…and then I realized what it was…and what had happened…and I began putting the sequence of events together…and saw how they played me…and then that Ah-Hah moment of ‘they got me, but good.’…
What my niece and nephew had gotten me was the Pirate wine bottle with the lights inside it. They decided to get me that for my birthday – which by that time of the morning was just about upon us.
So, the bottle walked off the shelf alright. When I went back and strolled through the back room of the store, my nephew grabbed it and handed it to my niece, who put it up at the counter.
They thought that was the end of it, but I’m a resourceful guy – and I found another one in the back of the store hidden on a shelf. When I came back up front with the lamp in my hand, she freaked out and told the cashier to not sell it to me – to tell me that was being held for somebody else.
And that’s when my niece downplayed the lamp that I brought up and plugged in to show her. She had told me, “It doesn’t look too good.”
Somehow they walked out of the store with it and I never even noticed:)
You gotta’ love that story – what a setup – what a con job - and boy, did I walk right into that one:)
Because of the closeness and affection that we all shared that night and the intimacies that were revealed, my nephew wanted me to have my b’day present early – it was early alright – about 5:15am by now:)
We headed inside the house and stopped in the kitchen for a donut and a glass of milk…guess what we did?
Yeah, we had a donut and a glass of milk and talked some more – till about 6am and then we finally hung it up for the night
Before we broke, they were telling me how much they enjoyed the evening together. And I told them that even though none of us had slept all week long – that I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again – exactly the same way.
In a very poignant moment, my niece said to me, “No one has ever talked ‘That Real’ to me before…ever…like you did with us tonight.”
Well, that about says it all…
It was the nightcap to one of the greatest Personal Growth moments of my entire life and a lifetime of hurt and pain came cascading down around me during The Garage Talks – afterwards, I was so emotionally spent and tired – but it was such a cleansing kind of tired – a lot of what I had held on to my entire life had been left in the garage that night.
And from those ashes – I hope to build another day…
Stay Tuned to The Sundance Channel
Next Episode: “How I Spent My 51st Birthday”
See how my day turned out to be anything but…next time on The Sundance Channel.