an open letter to a stranger

now playing: mary chapin-carpenter, “what you didn’t say”

the internet, and blogging specifically, has transformed me into an oxymoron…the benevolent stalker.

i write about my own life, but i also read about others here – their successes and failures, their trials and tribulations, their dashed expectations and their dreams. to be certain, i usually spend more time reading than writing – i am but one, after all, and you are so many.

this, after all, is how i found out about the recent passing of your father, right before christmas.

i initially thought about sending you a passage from john steinbeck’s tortilla flat that i have a vivid memory of finding comfort from…but then i reminded myself that i don’t really know you, save for a few phrases entered into comments windows here and there, and i thought better of it…it would’ve been an awkward email, at best….

the age of the internet has both brought humanity closer together, and pushed us further apart at the same time. if not for the ‘net, i wouldn’t know who you are to begin with…but the nature of the beast also has made us all instant freaks or weirdoes if we cross too eagerly into territory that isn’t normally traversed. we’re instantly suspicious of those who go out of their way to offer more than basic cordiality.

so i kept my mouth shut.

but, as time passed, and i read more of what you were willing to share about your relationship with your father, and about your brother (whom you’d suspected for some time to have been blood)…and about how he handled the transition from his marriage to his subsequent relationship with your stepmother, parts of your story struck a chord with me.

i’ll tell you why…not because i want to compare my path with your fathers’, or for any reason, really…save to perhaps shed some light on why i found your story moving.

i’d been married to the mother of my children for seven years when we finally split up. to this day, i couldn’t tell you why we married in the first place – i didn’t really foresee anything better coming my way, perhaps…maybe i thought that something more akin to what i really wanted wasn’t realistic? either way, i knew the day of our wedding that it was to be temporary, somehow. i know this because i remember thinking, when i woke up to the rain that morning, that the next time i wouldn’t have an outdoor wedding because it was too risky. i remember that thought very vividly.

at any rate, a bland beginning gave way to a mediocre existence, and as i doggedly pursued a career in music, our differences and the huge gap in our expectations became glaringly obvious, but although we fought constantly and seldom agreed on anything, we stayed put. we had two children rather quickly, and leaving never really presented itself as an option for me. i wasn’t a runner, i reasoned, and i wasn’t about to desert my children, whom i loved deeply. if anyone was gonna go, i figured, it’d be her.

when i think about my life at the time, it’s pretty plain to me why circumstances made it easy to stay. i was constantly on the road – i was playing twenty nights a month most of the year, and held a series of day jobs during that time as well. why move out if i was never home? for a couple living under duress, you really couldn’t ask for a better arrangement. she stayed home with the children while i went out and earned a living, and i seldom saw her, so the opportunities for our differences to arise didn’t present themselves as often as they would, had i been the traditional nine-to-fiver.

as with all relationships, there becomes a moment when it becomes obvious beyond any denial that you can offer up that things are really pretty much finished. i came home from the supermarket and unloaded the van, and walked up the front porch steps with my arms draped with the tight plastic handles of the grocery bags – easily six or seven to each forearm – and couldn’t open the screen door. it was locked so the children couldn’t get out of the living room and escape her perimeter of supervision (she was in the kitchen, washing dishes). i gently kicked the bottom of the door (knock, knock) and asked her to come let me in.

“it’s open, come on in”, she said.

“no, it’s not…” i replied. “if it was, i wouldn’t have bothered you. can you come open it?” i asked again.

“it’s open, i told you,” she repeated, and the same exchange happened several times until i finally put the groceries down on the porch and ripped the locked screen door off its hinges and threw it onto the porch. i was furious. afterward, though, looking back on my behavior, i knew that this wasn’t me at all, and that if this was the kind of person that i was becoming, then perhaps i really should think about moving on. but i lacked the courage of my convictions.

i had taken on a day job, driving a forklift for a printing company – it was grunt work, and that’s exactly what i wanted at the time. i was gigging my ass off, and working on my first record, and i just knew it was temporary…something to pull in some extra cash until the record was done, and i could start taking on more of the kind of work that i couldn’t really get until i had a legitimate record. but that’s where i met christina.

to quote campbell scott’s character in singles, “if i had a personal conversation with God, i would ask him to create this woman.” that’s how i felt. she was everything that i had wanted my partner to be, and then some…where my wife was judgemental and belittling, chris was supportive and encouraging. she knew the words to every song i wrote, she believed in me more than i did, and she was exactly what i needed.

she was also ultimately the motivation i needed to leave a bad situation behind.

it’s always easy for people outside a situation to pick out the “bad guy” and to label someone as being at fault when a relationship fails. in a situation like this, we’re primed to single out the “other woman” as being the evil element and to castigate her for her role in the events as they unfold. but every situation is different, and every party has a side to the story, and in some cases, there really is no bad guy, just a bad situation, and bad situations breed bad decisions sometimes. in my case, i had already started to plot my escape long before i ever thought there was a snowflakes’ proverbial chance that there could’ve been a future that involved “chris and tom”, but there was a chris and tom before i’d made the leap and gotten out of the house…so as far as the general public was concerned, chris and tom were to blame for the fact that there was no more tom and jill.

this particular plot twist makes it easy to ignore the fact that there was never much of a tom and jill to begin with.

chris and tom, though, ultimately fell through as well – not even a year later. but although my heart was broken and i couldn’t understand or come to terms with why there should be no chris and tom, i never once regretted that there was no more tom and jill.

and i came to accept and believe in the concept of everything happening for a reason.

when i left their mom, jayda was freshly seven years old and dylan had just turned five (they were born exactly two years and eleven hours apart, incidentally), and didn’t really understand what was going on, except that daddy lived somewhere else now. i took a third floor apartment in the city that i loved – we still talk about it, in fact – and i resolved to remain close to them. i could’ve easily taken this as an opportunity to load the van and go wherever i wanted – boston, nashville, new york city, austin, san francisco – certainly, i thought about that all the time. but i couldn’t. it just wasn’t in me.

because i knew that if i left, i’d never come back. and while i certainly wouldn’t mourn the change, the distance would have taken too much of a toll.

the silver lining, for me, came in the months and years that came to pass after jill and after chris – when it was me and my children. we had opportunities that we wouldn’t have had in any other situation but for how the cards ultimately fell – just the three of us. we went to new york city together, we did “mallwork” (which was our invention – we’d take their homework from school and go do it at a table in the food court and have dinner and watch the ever-evolving cavalcade of berks countians waddle toward the escalator) together, we’d make “daddy soup” for dinner (campbells’ creamy chicken mushroom soup and bowtie pasta or elbow macaroni, whichever was on sale), we took any number of trips that we’d never have taken, had we been the traditional family unit, and we learned to rely on each other and function as a family…just the three of us. and i have a relationship with my children now that i know, in my heart of hearts, i’d never have had were i allowed to continue to chase money around while their mother raised them without me.

the time that i spend with my children now is ours – no one can take that away from us. even as they grow older and start down the trepidatious path that is teenagerdom, we remain close. i keep waiting for the shoe to drop and for the generation gap to rear its ugly head, and i know it shall in due time. my daughter has always been an old soul, and is growing up a lot faster than i’d personally like for her to, but that’s beyond the realm of my control. my son is ever the goofball, and has his own social circle that requires his attention. and i know that they’ll grow up and older and that my role in their lives will diminish over time, but i will be eternally grateful to chris for showing me that there was something in life better than what i had, even if it turned out to be something other than what i’d hoped for at the time. i think that if it hadn’t been for her, i’d still be under the same roof as their mother, eternally deadlocked in an emotional standoff that would’ve had awful repercussions for my children.

staying together for the kids is bullshit, i found. my children have managed to thrive as a result of our separation, and they have a safe place under my roof where they can go when they need shelter from the other side. i’d never have been able to offer that to them if i was still there, still part of the problem and not the solution.

i honestly don’t know why i’m telling you this, save for the fact that reading your reflections about your father have given me cause to do some reflecting of my own – and learning what i’ve learned about your father this past week or so has given me cause to relate to him, on a personal level. when i read what you wrote about your feelings about him, about what he taught you, and what you learned from his example, it’s obvious to me that you already know the one thing i could’ve said to you about your father that i feel as though i know – the man who showed up in court was your father alright, but it wasn’t your father…in the same sense that it was me who ripped the screen door off the front of my house, but that’s not that person who raises my children.

i get the sense that you’ve got unresolved anger as a result of some of your history with your father, and i know this to be the case with my children as well…they’ve told me about it on a few occasions. but it seems to be more as a result of ill-advised choices i’ve made that have affected their lives than about the fact that their mother and i aren’t husband and wife. God knows, i’ve done some stupid shit in my day, and i deserve to bear the burden of accountability for it. i’ve done what i can to try to amend for as much as i can, but i don’t think any of us, as parents, ever succeed completely on that level. i’ll always begrudge my mother, for instance, the fact that i never had braces as a child, even though i understand as completely as it’s possible to understand why i didn’t – we simply couldn’t afford it. i know and understand this, but something in my psyche will always lay that at her feet…because, after all, who else do you hold responsible for something like that? i know she didn’t have the money. i know this. but my anger at the result of not having braces as a child and the subsequent result is directed at her nonetheless. illogical? you bet. but that’s how it’s evolved.

and so it will be with me, as time goes by – as a parent, i’ve failed at times. but i keep dusting myself off and getting back up, because winning the war is sufficiently important to dictate that i survive the battles that i’ve lost, i think.

and someday, nic, like your father, i’ll be gone. it may be thirty years from now, but it could be later tonight, for all anyone knows. my children will have to go forth from whatever day that is and find their own path.

it’s my hope that, when that day comes, that i’ve left them with a semblance of the foundation that you were fortunate enough to have in your father. should any of us have the gift of awareness of this plane of existence after we pass on, i feel safe in assuming that he’s immensely proud of you…as i am of my own.

the words that you wrote for his eulogy warmed my heart…and i hope that despite what may happen in the aftermath of your fathers’ passing, that you’ll continue to take shelter and comfort in your family, in your siblings.

i don’t know you from adam….but you’re in my prayers.

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