It’s 1982, and my life is in the process of being rebooted. Mom’s troublemaker friends are gone, the substance abuse has stopped, and the number of medications rolling around in my bloodstream is reduced to a very reasonable two. The world has come back into focus.
Mom remarries, filling in that persistent gap in my life where a father should have been. I don’t like Dave at first. He’s… Well, he’s not my dad. I’ve never had a dad before, but I still resent this stranger entering my life and taking the spot on the pedestal I’ve reserved for my idealized biological father. Like all grown men, Dave is big and scary and his voice is like a terrifying storm when he raises it. He’s never been a father before. A lifelong bachelor, he’s suddenly got an eleven-year-old and a nine-year-old on his hands. He’s playing catch-up.
|This was taken in 1984. There are actually very, very few pictures of anyone during the Dark Year and the Reboot Year, 1981-1983. At first there was nothing anyone wanted to remember, and then we were too busy forming a new family to take pictures.|
Despite our early friction, his presence in my life has a profound and transformative impact on how I see myself and the world around me. Without realizing it, I’ve been slowly becoming a man, and now I have a stable template to work from. I’ve adopted a few surrogate fathers over the years, but here is a model that I can observe on a daily basis, and who isn’t going to vanish as friends come and go. He’s dependable. Hard working. Honest. I don’t even know it yet, but Dave is shaping me just by living under the same roof.
My sister Ruth is born. The new family begins to solidify. Babies are a taxing burden in those early months, and the challenge brings us together. She’s something we all have in common: We love the baby. Mom, Patrick and I all had a certain degree of damage and mutually inflicted scars left over from The Dark Year, and Ruth gives us a way to set all those things aside and move on. She gives us a way to connect with Dave. She’s the glue that holds this new family together.
In less than a year we move out of the city, away from the bad kids and our industrial playground.
As we move into the new house, I see another boy standing at the end of the lane, watching the adults haul furniture and debate about what rooms things ought to go in. For no reason, I abandon my introverted ways and go over to meet him. This is David, and he will be my best friend from this point, until my wife steals the title of “best friend” away from him in a couple of decades. Quiet, introspective, and intelligent, David just happens to be my age and share a lot of the same interests. He’s even a Christian, and also like me he diverges from a lot of the doctrines and preferences of his parents. (Although for him it’s much more deliberate. A lot of my ideas are still simmering in my sub-conscious. It will be several years before I have the knowledge to begin articulating these views, and longer still before I have the audacity to do so.)
I don’t have any pictures of David, and I don’t know that it would be right to share them if I did, but as an adult David looks a bit like Paul Saunders from Loading Ready Run. He even has a similar low, mellow voice and speaking cadence.
David is an ideal friend for me. We operate on a very similar wavelength. We’re fellow nerds, and I’ve never had another nerd as a friend. He’s a music nerd (keyboards now, but someday he’ll add the trumpet and the guitar to his skill set) and an excellent student. He’s patient and completely accepting of my eccentricities and verbal tics. He’s validation that I am not some sort of mutant. His friendship proves that I am love-able to people outside my family.
Dad returns, for good. He rents a place in town, and Patrick and I begin visiting him every Sunday. After church, Mom drops us off at his dismal, run-down basement apartment and we spend the afternoon playing chess, watching TV, and joking around. We never really got to know him before, and these steady weekly visits allow us to remedy that. He seems somehow different than what I remember. More lucid, and stable.
Dad has a habit that I will emulate once I’m out on my own: His kitchen table is one giant inbox of eternally neglected items. Bits of writing, mail, magazines, shopping lists, open books, and newspapers cover the surface except for the one spot where he eats, which always has his utensils.
“What’s this?” I ask, holding up some sort of chip or marker I find floating around in the pile.
Dad explains that this was given to him as a memento after achieving six consecutive months of sobriety. I don’t get it. He doesn’t elaborate, and I don’t ask. I’ll eventually learn more about what he’s been doing for the last ten years, but not yet. Healing first, then understanding.
Dad makes us do his dishes when we visit. This bugs me. It looks like he lets them pile up all week, and then sets us to the task as soon as we arrive. It’s not a lot of dishes – he seems to re-use the same utensils and plates a great deal – but I do wonder why he lets them pile up like this. It doesn’t occur to me that he does this because it’s incredibly difficult to do dishes with one hand. I don’t really think about his disability. In fact, I sometimes wonder why he gives me these goofy one-armed half-hugs before I remember. Oh yeah! Right. The arm thing.
This is the only time his coffee mug is cleaned, and it shows. The inside of the white cup is brown. “There’s… there’s coffee matter inside of this cup,” I complain. (I guess the word “residue” hasn’t worked its way into my vocabulary yet.)
He throws his head back and – to my great annoyance – looses out one of his deep, slow laughs. “Coffee matter!” he says when he’s caught his breath.
For years he will rib me about this, and a decade from now we’ll still be joking about “coffee matter”, like I discovered some sort of new caffeinated, bean-based atom.
So this has been a pivotal eighteen months or so:
- We became Christians, causing Mom to leave behind (or be left by) her old circle of friends, who had done so much damage to us.
- Dave entered my life as a stable role-model.
- I reconnected with my biological father and began healing old wounds.
- We left behind the bad kids and worse playgrounds in town for the relative peace and safety of the suburbs.
- Patrick and I were deemed old enough to look after ourselves, and the entire miserable babysitter system is dropped.
- My sister was born.
- I made an important friend.
- I went off of most of the drugs I’d been taking.
I normally hate change, but all of this upheaval comes as a long-awaited sigh of relief. It felt like dropping an immense burden and simply walking away from it. For years I’d just accepted that scorn, fear, uncertainty, and isolation were just a normal part of life, and I took it for granted that things would be like that forever. I found myself suddenly relieved of pains so old that I didn’t even have names for them. I was released from problems that stretched back further than my own memories.
I start school in a month or so. I’ll be going into sixth grade. For the first time, I’ll be starting the school year with resignation instead of loathing and dread.
The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.
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