Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 23
Track practice at East High began the first Monday in March, Coach Raffensperger asking me to continue working with the distance runners and finish what I started last fall. It was wonderful to get back in the routine of daily practices, to invest my emotions in the team. We had a good one. But I dreaded what was on my next “to do” list.
The Monday after my birthday I sat down with Coach Cretzmeyer, explaining I would be beginning classes in September but wouldn’t be joining the team, reluctantly admitting the scholarship should go to someone more deserving. I talked with him about my attempts at running last November and how it was filled with fits and starts, my enthusiasm not enough to overcome the obstacle of a shattered leg. It was tough acknowledging, but there was no escaping the fact.
I walked out of Cretz’s office deflated, as though I had broken up with my girlfriend. Now I would have to find a way to pay for my college dream. And I didn’t have a clue how that was going to happen.
That spring Mike Wilkinson won the State title in the mile with a 4:13.0, missing my school record by 0.9 seconds. We cheered loudly as he came down the homestretch and crossed the line with his arms raised high, Mrs. Wilkinson jumping up to give me a hug, Mike Sr. dancing a jig as he waved to his son down on the track. I was so proud of what we had accomplished this season, thrilled that Mike would be continuing his track career at his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
After the excitement died down Raff slid in beside and looked me squarely in the eyes, shaking my hand as an equal, finishing with a “thank you” and an arm around my shoulders. I smiled so hard I thought my face would burst. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, but for the man who was one of the greatest influences in my life to say it…the words were invaluable.
As with much of my life, three days later the trajectory suddenly changed.
Matt Jr. was born at Mercy Hospital, the same facility I’d been to many times for stitches and broken bones, my trepidation still evident as I neared the building. I had to pause before I crossed the threshold, reminded of my past...and that of my mother.
Yet holding my son and gazing into his blue eyes made up for all the suffering. I stared at his red face and fisted hands, slipping my little finger into his clutches, vowing to be a good father. To show my son I was strong enough to escape the clutches of my upbringing. I couldn’t stop smiling at him, kissing him on the forehead, enjoying the powdery scent of his tiny body.
Each day I trudged to the bank haggard and exhausted, fatigue from sleepless nights worse than that from a twenty mile run. Matt woke up two to three times each night, his cries loud enough to wake the dead, the lack of sleep aging our faces like the portrait of Dorian Grey. Yet all it took was the smile when I tickled his chin, or the way he stared into my eyes during peek-a-boo and I was transformed, willing to put up with more.
But after three weeks my patience was pushed to its limit, Liz and I walking around the house like zombies, trying to fit in naps during any break we could find. Many times I found myself standing in the kitchen holding an empty baby bottle, trying to recall why I was there.
Mr. Wilkinson smiled when he walked by my window at the bank every morning, noticing the bags under my eyes, claiming that I would certainly survive even this. They were the only words from him I ever questioned. If not for Mrs. Skogstad, Alice, and Tom, I don’t know that we would have survived. Diapers piled up in the hamper like Kleenex beside a cold sufferer, an endless stream of laundry baskets alongside the washer, our backyard clothesline filled with rows of flapping white squares.
Weekends used to include parties and movies, swimming and running, picnics and pizzas; but now it was a nap in bed beside Matt, a stop at the doctor’s office for checkups, a trip to relatives to show off our newest addition. My fatigue was worse than it had been during the highest training mileage of mid-August, when the workload of miles hit me like a cement truck. Tired all the time, sleep my only desire, an evening of peace and quiet as elusive as trying to hold a bead of mercury between a thumb and finger.
The responsibility of taking care of my wife and a newborn son was an unenviable challenge for this nineteen year old, my life filled with far too many demands in too many directions, restricting the freedoms I had grown accustomed to only months ago. I missed the halcyon days other teenagers enjoyed. I yearned to jump on a bus to spend time with Ashley. Go to a baseball game in Chicago on a whim, camp out all night under the stars with Steve, hitchhike to Davenport and water ski with friends. But those were all a pipe dream. No longer an option.
I had been carrying the heavy load for the Wilson family since I was a fourteen-year-old, taking on responsibilities no teenager should have shouldered. Like Atlas, who was condemned to hold the heavens for eternity, I discovered myself in the same position, unable to find anyone to take my place. Though I couldn’t give up on my dream to be a teacher and coach, with each passing day the dream was farther and farther away, convincing me it would never become a reality.
That in fact, despite Alice's words, I would turn out just like my father – a drunken loser.
I began to rebel at my responsibilities, rankled by the unfair demands, shirking duties I had promised Liz when we got married, displaying the irrational “fuck this” attitude of a typical teenager. The rage that built in my chest was impossible to restrain, only a guttural roar releasing an eruption. I always made up for my harsh words with kisses and hugs, but lately I found myself storming out the door to walk off the anger, discovering it impossible to control the frustration any longer, fury building in my body like steam in a pressure cooker.
After shouted words one evening, I rushed out the front door and slammed it shut, storming down the sidewalk towards the river to clear my head, cracks on the sidewalk rushing by my feet, oblivious to the world around me. There was the screech of tires and a blast of a horn, “hey dumb shit, why don’t you look where you’re going” bringing me out of my trance, the red light not enough to make me stop. I would have been happier if he had hit me. At least I would have escaped the depression. The feeling of worthlessness. The craving to put this all behind.
I found myself leaning on the railing of the Student Union footbridge, trying to collect my thoughts, a place where I always went to let my mind wander. I stared into the distance at the setting sun, sighing at my situation. I am so fucked. Life sucks. I knew I loved Liz but the stress of all this was killing me. I was losing my enthusiasm for everything. Even life.
The sex that had been so exciting three months ago disappeared from my primal hierarchy, the desire for intimacy no longer worth the effort. Not the highlight of the day. Or any day. I just wanted to sleep. To numb my brain so nothing negative could enter.
Couples walked behind me as I leaned at the railing, their soft conversation making me long for those forgotten moments, lights on the bridge beginning to create a kaleidoscope’s shadows as the sun dropped over treetops, voices of the pairs so intimate it made tears run down my checks. What has my life become?
I loved Liz as much as I loved my sisters or my mother, certain that she was the one for me, yet I questioned whether I was the one for her. That I had too much baggage and was dragging her down. Couldn’t provide what she needed. Wasn’t a good husband. Or father. Roger McGuinn’s lyrics crept into my mind as I stared at the dark water, aware this could be the night which would end my pain.
“Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road to some other town.”
I took a deep breath and stood, turning towards downtown with eyes cast to the cement, struggling to get up the Jefferson Street hill, my hip sore from the rapid pace I’d used to walk off my anger. As I cut through the shadows on campus I looked for a place to sit down and rest my hip. The soreness stilled bothered me. It was just another depressing item on my list.
The flashing sign at 1st National Bank caught my attention. “9:23pm and 82 degrees.”
Shuffling over to an empty downtown bench I plopped down like Grandma Gatens, staring at the cigarette butts under my feet as I thought about my predicament. Fuck, fuck, fuck. After dad’s death it seemed things were finally turning in the right direction. Good fortune was mine. I would be running at Iowa with a scholarship, Alice was blossoming as a freshman at East High, and Ashley would be graduating from Urbandale High School in weeks. I had a wonderful girlfriend.
Yet life went south, my aim much lower after the car accident and broken leg, dreams of a promising running career dashed in that random moment, our beautiful baby boy born five years too soon. It was too much. Tears rolled off my checks and puddled on the bricks underneath, my brain trying to come up with some way to redeem a fucked up life.
Shouts from across the street rolled at me like the California surf. I looked up at the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in Donnelly’s tavern, two customers illuminated by the display as they exited the establishment. One of them held the door open for a new patron going in; from the background a crack of billiard balls, the ping, ping, ping of the pinball machine, exuberant shouts from a group of drunks, each sound drawing me towards the bar like a moth to light. Inertia was the only thing keeping me glued to the bench.
The urge to stand was almost overpowering, yet a sudden stab of clarity over-powered my impulses, an acknowledgement that despite never having a drop my desire for alcohol was a choice from which there would be no retreat. A trapdoor with no escape. I was paralyzed with fear, afraid that if I moved I would fall into a bottomless abyss.
Black thoughts filled my mind, the genes in my body welcoming the nothingness of substances that would shut down my brain like a light switch. Let me forget my troubles and the shitty life I was given. I balanced in a precarious position between the two choices, praying I could cobble together enough courage to walk away. Darkness surrounded me as I stood.
I shuffled east on College Street gazing at my worn out shoes, tears rolling down my cheeks, snot dripping from my nose. I never chose to get beaten by an alcoholic father so my oldest sister could restart her life. Get my thumb broken because I was trying to protect my mother from a drunken husband. Spend nights awake thinking of ways to save Alice from sexual abuse. Nor did I ask to stay up half the night with a colicky baby. I need help.
Slowing to a stop, I looked up, pausing on the sidewalk in front of their house, wondering how it came to be my destination.
Mr. Wilkinson answered the door in a bathrobe over his pajamas, inviting me in as though I was an expected guest. He pointed towards the living room and I sat down on the edge of a chair, resting elbows on knees, hands on either side of my head. He waited for me to look up and start. I sat there for fifteen seconds and then took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
“Mr. Wilkinson…I don’t know what I’m going to do. Being a father sounded so exciting six months ago…but now.” I rubbed the tears from my eyes and sighed. “I’m just plain exhausted. Liz and I seem to fight every night…about the dumbest things. I want to go to college so badly, but she says we can’t afford it. That our son is more important than my dreams.” I took a deep breath. “He is…but there has to be some way I can do both.” I stared at the floor. “To go to college and raise him.”
Sobs racked my body as the floodgates opened, memories of my mother rushing through my thoughts. Mr. Wilkinson waited until the shudders in my shoulders slowed, knowing I needed to release the tension. I wiped away tears with the back of my hands, embarrassed at the display. He sighed but said nothing.
“I sat in front of Donnelly’s this evening for twenty minutes…trying to decide whether to go in or turn away. I knew he would serve me. The urge was almost unstoppable. Only the thought of mom gave me the courage to get up and walk away. But I’m afraid that one day I’ll be so worn down…” I didn’t want to say the next words, finally looking up, waiting for some help. Some way out of this crazy situation.
“Matt.” I could see the fatigue in his eyes, aware I must have woken him up. “I worry about you every day. Afraid of what will happen. When they diagnosed your mother with cancer…well, we talked for a long time. I promised her I would watch over you three…and that’s a vow I intend to keep.” He nodded, rubbing his eyes.
We both looked over as Doris entered the room in her bathrobe and leaned over to squeeze my shoulder, turning to sit on the armrest beside her husband. He put his arm around her waist and continued.
“Doris and I have talked about you and your family many times. We both want the best for each of you. We see great promise in you three. And Liz too. I know you’ve taken on a big load over the past five or six years. Far heavier than anyone your age could expect you to shoulder.” He looked at Doris.
“So here is what we are going to do…”
The kitchen clock showed it was almost midnight when I walked in the back door. I could hear Matt Jr. whimpering in his crib, knowing what was next. I leaned over and kissed Liz on the temple, whispering in her ear.
“I’ll change him.” I pulled him into my arms from the crib.
I fed and changed him a second time at 3:30am, waking to a kiss on my forehead in the early morning sunlight, Matt Jr. beside me on the cushions I’d placed on the living room floor.
“Thank you honey. I’ll take him. You get a shower.”