Sunday, December 9, 2018

Forgiveness and Football: Hugh Freeze's Second Chance


Please note: I work for Liberty University in the IT department, and I am an alumnus. I do not speak on their behalf, and the opinions of my blogs, and social media pages are my own.**

     This week my employer, Liberty University, who also happens to be my alma mater, hired their ninth football coach in our 47-year history. We hired Hugh Freeze, formerly the coach at Ole Miss.
     Coach Freeze had some serious issues while at Ole Miss. Both NCAA, and personal failings. It’s because of those failings that our hiring immediately came under fire by many, both alumni and those outside the Liberty family.
     I’m not here to defend Coach Freeze’s indiscretions. Nor do I wish to minimize them. It was bad. It was embarrassing for the school, his family, and himself. There is no excuse for what happened, and Hugh Freeze has -to my knowledge at least—never tried to make any.
     I’m only a moderate football fan. (I am a hockey player at heart.) I grew up a Penn State fan, by reason of my Philadelphia birth. I adored Joe Paterno and, if pressed, I would tell you I still cheer for PSU where college football is concerned. So, this isn’t driven by some mad desire to defend the hiring of our new coach, a man who-by any standard of measurement—is an incredibly talented football mind. I’m not writing these thoughts because I am a wild-haired zealot from the heart of “Flames Nation,” who sees this hire as a coup of sorts. (I mean, the guy beat Nick Saban and the mighty Crimson Tide, twice in his four years at UM.)
     No, I’m happy for our program, because he’s a good coach and this move makes sense if you want to win football games. But there’s more to it than that. Since the announcement of Freeze’s hiring, the catcalls and wailing and gnashing of teeth has been incredible. From LU students, who -being not yet 22 years old-- know best how to run the world, starting with how to run Liberty, (I know…I was once in their shoes and I thought I knew better than Doc back in the day. It’s a phase) to alumni who scream that this man and his well-known sins should not be representing our school.
     Of course, the national media weighed in. Dan Wetzel, who never met a redemption story he didn’t despise, led the charge, lambasting Freeze and Liberty and decrying the hire as merely an extension of President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsing Trump three years ago. Wetzel can say what he wants, of course, he writes an opinion column. What bothers me is those believers who have attacked my school because of this.
     For once, it’s not Liberty I’m defending, per se, (I am very protective of my alma mater, as many alumni are, and I’m known to knock heads with those who attack her) it’s believers who attack the idea of forgiveness. What Hugh Freeze did was dreadful. I get it. I understand casting a jaundiced eye in his direction where matters of trust are concerned, especially at a Christian school. But I also understand forgiveness, and how it works, and how it’s needed. I know this first hand.
     In 1989, I was twenty-six years old and had been in the construction business for about three years. I started small. So small that I had to do my first vinyl siding job, working from my car. I used the profits from that job to buy my first pickup truck. I did okay for myself and by the time 1989 rolled around I had a decent business going and had recently taken a partner. There’s a lot to the story but the long and short of it is that he embezzled funds while I was out of town at a wedding, and when I got back, we were overdrawn by almost $10,000. He had vanished, and I was left to clean up the mess.
     Since Lindsey had never wanted to sign the checks, (I sadly understood why after he pulled his stunt) I was on the hook for all the money. Checks bounced all over town and while I did everything I could to make them all good, including selling off all but my own truck and tools, I couldn’t pay it all back fast enough. I was arrested eleven times in two weeks, mostly for checks totaling $250 or less but three of those checks were over $500, the largest being $1100. In Delaware, where I was at the time, that is a felony.
     I had paid everything back by the time we went to trial, the judge said in court that he felt for me because I was a victim as much as the venders who had received the bad checks, but the law is the law and I was a felon.
     The final court date was in April of 1990. I had to sell my beloved shotgun. The gun I took my first deer with. The gun I spent so many hours in the fields with, along with my best friend, hunting for whatever was in season. Hunting and the outdoors are part of my DNA and losing the right to own a firearm was heartbreaking.
     I could not vote any longer. I cast my last vote in 1988, for President Bush. After this mess, I could not participate in what I believe to be the greatest obligation and privilege this country affords her citizens. It broke my heart, especially as politics became more important to me and affected my life more with each passing year.
     My “adopted dad,” Poppa John Iorizzo passed away before we ever got to hunt together. It was always a goal of ours and a dream of mine and I never got the chance. When I filled out job applications, I felt the crimson rush to my face each time I came to the box that asks whether I had ever been convicted of a felony. I had to try to explain what happened, and then pray silently that the potential employer would believe me and would offer me the job despite the dreaded black mark.
     I can tell you that there are some failings that haunt you day and night. Sometimes in the middle of a day, out of nowhere, I would remember “You are a felon.” I had friends ask me to come shooting with them and had to make excuses why I couldn’t go. I have not been in the field with my best friend since the winter of 1988. Hunting together was one of the trademarks of our childhood and we seldom spent a weekend during the winter without being in the woods or fields at least part of the time. If you’ve ever had a best friend, you understand what I mean when I tell you my heart ached.
     I carried this around inside me for 27 years. I told no one unless I absolutely had to. My own daughter didn’t know until this summer. I was burdened by so much shame and so much disappointment. The sad thing is I think I merely accepted it and didn’t see how it affected me. Besides being an avid sportsman, I am also politically engaged and to not be able to vote, when so much was on the line for so many years, wore at me.
     This past year, beginning in August 2017, I began the process of getting a pardon from the State of Delaware. It is a grueling, tedious process, involving a lot of forms, letter writing, responding to questions, culminating with a hearing before the Board of Pardons. Once they decide on their recommendation, they inform the Governor who renders his final decision.
     I started the process in August of last year and submitted my completed paperwork in December of 2017. (Almost a year to the day from my writing this now) Then came the waiting period. In February, I was informed that my hearing date would be June 28th, 2018. So, for the next four months I waited. I waited and dreamed of the day when I could legally own a firearm again. I dreamed of hunting again. My voting rights had been restored by an act of the Delaware State Congress in 2013, so I could already vote. (As a sidebar, since the day I left court in 1990 I have not had a gun in my hand. Ever. Gun laws work only when people choose to obey them.)
     My appearance before the Delaware Board of Pardons was a revelation. The long and short of it is that, I arrived prepared to answer questions before the board and be grilled on my life, my failings and what I was doing to make sure this never happened again. I was surprised to find that once I got there, and my name was called, I did not have to testify at all. They had done their due diligence and based on the time passed, my life since the crimes, and my willingness to take responsibility for what happened, they were recommending me for a full pardon and the State AG office had no objections.
     I literally thought they were joking with me. They smiled and said “No, we only needed you to show up today to see that you are sincere. We’re recommending in your behalf. Good luck to you.” There were four others in the group who received the same wonderful news.
     I walked through the huge oak doors and a security guard smiled and shook my hand and said “Congratulations!” (I think they have one group at each pardon hearing that they do this for and it’s become something of a “feel-good” moment for them) I have to tell you that I barely made it out of the courthouse before I felt tears come to my eyes. I walked two blocks to my car in the stifling late-June heat and finally broke down in sobs. I only realized how much shame and guilt I was carrying after I received forgiveness. The governor still had the right to deny my request and I spent three months on pins and needles until I got that embossed letter in the mail with the words “Pardon” on the second page.
     This fall I’ve been out deer hunting again for the first time since 1982. Thirty-six years came and went and each year the love for it waned just a little more. Or so I thought. I’ve found myself seeing things differently out there. Appreciating things more. I love hunting even more now, since I know what it’s like not to be able to hunt.
     I’ve wondered, as I watched this all unfold at Liberty this week, if Coach Freeze doesn’t feel this way. David wrote after his sin with Bathsheba, “My sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:3) David saw and felt his grief, shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing at every turn. “No matter where I turn, I see the awful things I’ve done,” is what he was really saying.
     I imagine that for the last two years -especially during football season, or anytime he interacted with his wife and children—he saw his sins all over again. I imagine that for a time, there seemed to be no escape from them. That he would never be able to forgive himself and move on.
     Coach Freeze spoke here at Liberty almost a year ago. He was honest, forthcoming, contrite, and broken. He owned what he’d done and made no excuses. For those who refuse to forgive him; his wife has forgiven him. Since she was the one sinned against the most, what right does anyone else have not to forgive him?
     Maybe it’s that I understand having some of the things I treasure most stripped from me as a result of my actions (whether I was stolen from or not, it was my signature on the checks) I know what it feels like to see a season coming, a season that used to be among my favorites, and to feel the embarrassed, hollow, shameful feeling in my gut that reminded me “you can’t do that anymore…remember?” I also know how life-giving restoration is. My co-workers would tell you they have noticed a tangible change for the positive in my overall demeanor since receiving that letter in the mail, and especially since my first day in the field.
     I imagine Coach Freeze is already experiencing some of that. He is a coach again. Coaches must coach. I imagine the sights and sounds and the smells of the film room and the training room and the practice field are already stirring his heart. I imagine that our home opener next fall will be one of the most emotional moments in his life. I know. I’ve been there. Someone was going to hire Coach Freeze, he’s too talented to not get back in the game. I’m glad it was us. Liberty will surround him with godly men who will help him remain true to what he believes. As opposed to some other school who might have wanted a great coach and couldn’t have cared less about the man.
    Liberty is peppered with people needing second chances. There are stories of people, from professors to janitors, who needed a second chance and for whom Liberty provided exactly that. Forgiveness and restoration are essential in the Christian faith.
For those who ask, “How could Liberty hire a man who has done those things?” I ask; “How could they not?”


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Beth Moore and her "Sorry" drummer


Dear Beth,
     I’ve kicked this around for over a week now. I thought maybe I just didn’t care about you, or your BS ramblings and misandry enough to respond to your kneeling-drummer trick. But I thought about it and decided I needed to vent. Men are under attack these days and sadly, you’re leading the charge.
     I’ll spare you a lot of bible verses about men and women and the way God ordained the relationship between the two. I mean it’s not like you care very much what the Bible says about that stuff. You’ve picked and chosen what to obey and what to ignore and made quite a cottage industry out of it. You’ve made a boatload of money for yourself and for Lifeway, which is -as we all know—what really counts. You must be “anointed” otherwise your materials wouldn’t sell like they do. In the evangelical world, we know that pastors with big churches and authors with big sales numbers achieve these things only because God blesses them. It’s a sign of His hand upon them, right?
     Let’s skip all that and talk about that emasculated drummer of yours, and this rampant man-hate thing you have going on. That and the “But Ricky…I’m a victim tooooo! Waaahhhhh!” that you’ve served up as a narrative for the last three years or so.
     When I heard that your drummer – an alleged male of the species—dropped to his knees and “apologized on behalf of all men…” I vacillated between wanting to vomit and wanting to find that little candy-xxx and punch him in the throat. All men don’t owe women an apology, princess, and it’s best you realize that and stop milking this school of thought to sell more books.
     Let me tell you about one such man.
This guy was deeply in love with his wife. They were married three years. Almost to the day. She divorced him, not because he abused her, not because he had affairs or didn’t go to church or didn’t show her enough attention. He adored her. He set aside every dream he ever had, (except, of course, the dreams of a wife and family and a home and a fiftieth wedding anniversary) and he devoted himself to making her dreams come true. And if it meant that none of his did, then he was okay with that, so long as her’s did.
But she got better offers from wealthy doctors and eventually she left with the highest bidder.
      This guy was devastated. They had an eighteen-month-old daughter who he absolutely adored. He was a devoted father. His daily life that once revolved around his little princess was reduced to once a week and every other weekend.
     Without his family he was lost. He roamed his house like a ghost. He would wake up many nights in the fetal position on the living room floor, with his fingertips bleeding, because he’d fallen asleep there, after sobbing for hours and clutching the carpet fibers so tightly that they cut into his fingertips. He sat alone in church every Sunday, feeling as if everyone was staring at him and yet not even seeing him. There were support groups for the women going through divorces, but not for the men. He was relegated to the shadows. He wore his sorrow like a trench coat.
     He endured almost yearly court battles because his wife, who remarried after a few years and was making plenty of money, would take him to court for increased child support if he showed even the slightest hint of success. The judge who heard each case, was herself, a five-time divorcee. Five times. Yet nobody dared question her objectivity. They didn’t dare. She ran her courtroom like a dictator and jailed any man who dared speak up.
     There were no books in Lifeway to help him find his way across this lonely sea. None. Not one. Nobody in Christian publishing cared about his plight, because men don’t buy books the way women do, and even though there is a screaming need…a dollar is a dollar.
     His ex-wife’s new husband was a drug-addled monster. He attacked their daughter in vicious, cruel ways. He killed one of her pets. He destroyed her property. He tried everything he could think of to come between my friend and his daughter. Yet my friend endured, because he loved his daughter and because that’s what good dads do. His ex-wife sided with her new husband, even to the point of siding against her own daughter. My friend lost his job in 2008 when the market collapsed. He tried to find work but could not. He could not move to a city where employment was better because his daughter was at risk. So, he stayed, even though that meant living in his car.
     By 45 years of age he was homeless. He shivered in the winter and sweltered in the summer. Six years of this could not dim his love for his daughter, or his fierce determination to remain in her life. He protected her from the deepening horrors at her mom’s house as best he could. Finally, when his little girl could not take it anymore, and her mom finally saw things for what they were, she let him take their child and move to another state.
     He’s been a single dad for almost five years now. He has lost many a night’s sleep over the pain his little girl has been suffering. He thought he was going to lose her about two years ago. He has shelved all his own dreams and accepted a job that pays not nearly enough, but it provides her college tuition and so he endures every day and works a side job in virtually every spare hour, just to make sure she has enough.
     He does this willingly, because that’s what good men, good dads, do. It was nine years before his ex-wife would even admit to her sins that led to their marriage dissolving. He held no grudge. He speaks no ill of her to their daughter, even though there is ill to speak if he wanted to. He chooses to show her respect.
     In the twenty years since they divorced, he has never had a woman over to his house. Never dated seriously. He chose to remain single because he knew his daughter needed to know that at least one of her parents was going to put her first. He did it because he was afraid a woman would not understand his devotion to his child. Most of them did not.
     He has never left his daughter home while he spent the night with a woman. Even though she is almost 21 and could certainly stay home alone. He has never allowed another woman to intrude on his ex-wife’s sacred motherhood. (Even though for so many years she did not return this courtesy.)
     This man has always treated women with respect. He did this for his daughter. He did this because he is a man.
     By now, Beth, you’ve likely guessed that this man is me. I endured homelessness. I sobbed many nights on my living room floor because my heart was shattered. I sat alone in church every Sunday, because nobody knows how to reach a man in the midst of a divorce…and they don’t care.
     If anyone wanted to play the victim card, I certainly could. If anyone wanted to develop a severe case of woman-hate, I could have. Maybe even should have. But I did not. I behaved like a grown-up and refused to affix blame to all woman.
In view of this, where your beta-male drummer and his embarrassing “apology for all men” is concerned…count me out. I don’t owe you any apology. I don’t owe you sXXX!
You’ve grown amazingly wealthy playing this victim card of yours and writing book after book teaching other women how victimized they really are too. You’ve developed your own army of brittle, bitter Bettys who refuse to drop their claim of victimization and relinquish their man-hate. To do so would require them to grow the hell up and God knows we can’t have that. God knows we can’t put that stuff behind us, because we might actually be forced to be responsible for our actions…you know, like big people. Then who would you sell books to?
     Your drummer owes me an apology. He doesn’t speak for me and to lump me in with abusive men…to lump any other men in with abusers, is an outrage.
Until you address the sins of woman with the same outrage and venom that you do the alleged sins of men, you have no validity. None.
     Your drummer was wrong. And whatever “fell on you” at that meeting was not the Holy Spirit. The truth is that women wound men at least as much as men wound women. To say otherwise is to lie. To perpetuate your man-hate issues and teach them to another generation is a sin.
Where’s my apology?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I Still Cry. 9/11--seventeen years later


                                                                    
     Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in my office in Franklin, TN. I was a single dad, two years into a painful divorce. My office had become my refuge on those days when my daughter was not with me. I spent a lot of time there, waiting for the next Thursday visit, or “My weekend” in the every-other-weekend carousel.
     That’s where I was on September 11, 2001. My morning routine was to get up at 5:30, go to the gym, and then be at my desk at 8:15. I had forty-five minutes to prepare my day, review the current files, and my sales plan, and be ready for 9 a.m. when the underwriters began their day, and the banks opened, and I discovered which fires needed to be put out, and which ones needed to be lit.
     I was watching the headlines on my computer when the first plane hit the tower. That’s all they said at first…that a plane had hit the tower. Nobody said whether it was a commercial jet, or a Piper Cub. Being a history buff, I instantly recalled that a B-25 had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, so there was a precedent for this being an accident.
But it wasn’t.
     While they were still trying to sort out the details and figure out what happened in the first crash, another plane hit the other tower. This time I saw it in real time. We all did. There was no mistaking it. The stress load on the wings as the demonic hijacker veered the craft into the building at high speed was ominous. This was no mistake. This was hitting a target.
     Before I could blink, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine in town who immediately said, “Jesus…we’re under attack.” I’d already thought the same thing but couldn’t put it into a sentence. We’re under attack. Once I’d accepted this, I knew who it was who’d done it. They’d already tried this eight years earlier, and these particular devils aren’t the kind to give up easily. They are pure evil. You hear that term a lot…”pure evil,” but you don’t see it as often. Manson was pure evil. Hitler was pure evil. The Muslim attackers on 9/11 were pure evil.
     I sat there at my desk, in a trance. “The people,” I thought, “All those people.” I thought of the people in the buildings. I thought of the people on the planes. How horrifying were their final moments? How much pain did they feel? What about their children? Their families?
     I called my ex-wife and talked to her about what we were going to do about our daughter. She is a nurse and worked at a hospital at the time. She told me they were already on lockdown, that there had been rumors of threats in Nashville as well. I told her I would sit tight for another thirty minutes to see what was happening and then if I needed to, I’d go get Daisy at the day-care. She agreed and we hung up.
     My attention turned back to the screen. I sat there in tears, watching two iconic buildings burn. I prayed for my country, through those tears. I prayed for the victims and their families. Then the horror got even worse. At first I thought they were pieces of the building falling to the ground. Then it became clearer, and the commentators confirmed it: those were people. People jumping from the windows of their offices, because they would rather fall to their death than burn.
     I remember rocking back and forth in my chair, sobbing now. Thinking about someone’s daddy, making that terrible choice, maybe calling to say goodbye first, and then leaping to their death. Or someone’s mom. Or someone’s fiancĂ©, or son, or daughter.
     It was hitting me full force now. These were my family. By right of their citizenship in the US and further…by their very humanity. Those were my brothers and sisters, hurtling to their death, because to not do so was to suffer an even more gruesome end. Twenty minutes later, the scene exploded into a nightmarish, twisted, surreal vision of ash, and glass, and molten steel, and fluttering papers, raining down on white-faced survivors fleeing for their lives, and brave first responders, running the other way, into the danger, to do what they do willingly.
     The first tower collapsed in forever-slow-motion. I can still see it in my mind. I’ll never stop seeing it in my mind. Never. I can feel the temperature of the office I sat in, the warmth of the sun on that picture perfect morning, flooding my office with a light that suddenly didn’t seem to be appropriate.
     There was no chance now. No chance for survival for the thousands in that building. I knew it as I watched. And I sobbed again. “What are they doing to my beloved country?” I thought. “Is this happening anywhere else? Are we safe here in the South?” By the time news broke of Flight 93 missing in Pennsylvania, and the plane hitting the Pentagon, I’d already decided to go get my daughter. “Maybe they’ll target daycare centers” I thought. “These people are animals, really. They want to inflict maximum pain. What would be more painful than attacking children?”
     I was already in my car and on my way to my daughter’s daycare when the second tower fell. I heard it on the radio. I could barely see to drive, for the tears. I called Daisy’s mom on my way across town and told her I’d have her with me, and we’ll coordinate later. Again she agreed. She was scared. The hospital was a rumor mill and she’d heard them all.
     I called my family to check in. Everybody was okay. All accounted for. I turned into my daughter’s daycare and saw the line of cars. I parked in the lot and walked to the front doors. I punched in the special code and walked in the lobby. The same fear and anger and sorrow I was feeling was on every face. The moms and dads who, like me, had decided that the best place for their kids was with them, protected and safe, all had the same look in our eyes. “What in Hell was happening?” That wasn’t a figurative or a colloquialism. It was what we really felt. Only Hell itself could have cooked up a plan like this. Were they done? Was there more?
     I walked toward the big room where the 3 and 4 year old kids played together. My little girl was three-and-a-half at the time. The apple of my eye. I paused outside the room as other parents went in. I spotted my daughter in the corner, playing with some of her friends, oblivious to what had happened.
She was still just a child.
     I waited. I watched her playing. Something deep inside told me to let her play just a few more minutes. The other parents instinctively knew not to mention what was going on and not to scare the children. We all put on a smile and pretended that we were just there to pick them up for a special day together. I let Daisy play for maybe three minutes or so…while I thought.
     I thought about the world she was now living in. How in one ten minute span, her entire future was changed. I didn’t know just how much, but I knew that after today, things could never be the same. And I cried again. I cried because I knew that somehow, the childhood I’d dreamed of giving her; the one I was working for, and planning for, was not possible now. This evil monster would always be there. From now until eternity.
     I finally walked in the room and she ran to me as she always did. Because she was a daddy’s girl. I scooped her up and hugged her as tightly as I could. I was trying to shield her. To block the evil from affecting her life. Like maybe if I squeezed her enough, the morning would be undone and she could just have a normal childhood. But that could never be.
     The day was a blur after that. We went to get breakfast and then we went grocery shopping. I called her mom and she talked to our daughter for a minute, just to hear her voice. We went to my home, which was ten minutes into the countryside, where we felt like it was safer. But was it? She played outside in the sunshine oblivious to what was happening, while I listened to the radio and pushed her on her swing.
     By the end of that long day, with the sky empty of planes, except for the occasional military jet, patrolling, and with the stunned sorrow beginning to turn into righteous rage, I wept again.
     I thought of my grandparents. Was this what they felt on December 7, 1941? Was this how it felt that Sunday evening, after the smoke had settled and the body counting had begun?
     I cried a lot more the next day, seeing the smoke and fire where to works of art in building form had been. When the reports came in of the brave 343 first responders who willingly ran into the buildings and died when they fell.
     Seventeen years later and I still can’t see those pictures. I still can’t see the stills of the ones who chose to jump. I still can’t see the flag, flying from a mast still attached to a piece of the building now laying in the street. I can’t see any of that without crying. In fact, I think that if I ever relive that day in my mind and don’t cry, I’ll question my own humanity, my patriotism, and my compassion.
     When I see people who don’t get emotional it angers me. When I see that in some pockets of this country, people who openly espouse the kind of sick evil are actually running for elected office –and in some cases winning—I am sickened and seething.
I will never fully trust those who belong to the sect who did this to us. Sorry…that’s life. That’s what happens when you attack us. There is going to be a bit of guilt by association and you had better just understand it. You’d better just understand my distrust and my holding you at arm’s length and you’re having to prove yourself to me and to my country.
     Because I still cry.




Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I Was Here...Saying a long goodbye to a dear friend


     This is a hard week. It’s been a hard few months, bookended within a hard year. Just hard. I turn fifty-five this week. It’s been hard for me. It’s not the number…it’s the regrets.
I hate my birthday. I think I always have. There are reasons why and I won’t go into them here. But by the time I was thirty, I stopped celebrating my birthday at all. I just chose to go to work or school and act like it was just another day, until it finally became just another day.
     But this week is hard. Harder than usual. In the midst of my usual self-assessment and subsequent sadness over all that should have been, might have been, and probably never will be, I’m also now forced to begin the grieving process for one of the dearest friends I have ever had.
     My friend Rick has terminal cancer. I can’t even look at the words as I type them. I can’t accept this and I can’t believe it. Rick has been my friend for almost thirty years now. He was a Christian musician and I began as just a fan, met him almost by accident, and we became friends. I am the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother. But I had Rick.
     I am watching him fight bravely. Fight the disease and fight the prognosis, and fight the sadness and the unrelenting assault of the illness. Cancer doesn’t have a game plan. It has no time limits. It can move slowly or invade like a lightning strike. It doesn’t care. It’s just a bunch of unfeeling cells with only one thing programmed into its code.
     My friend is doing his best to refuse surrender. He will find ways to make me laugh when I call. He’ll joke about his plight. He’s good at this…good enough that I can’t tell if he’s just being brave for everyone else, or if he’s really this hopeful. Like maybe he knows something we don’t. Like they found a cure and it’s being rolled out thirteen days from now and he is number three on the list and everything is secretly going to be just fine. Like he’s just holding this card close to his chest until a day or so beforehand and then he’ll tell us all, and we’ll go have dinner together and celebrate.
     I know none of this is true but Rick’s humor and ease makes me wish, and believe just a little. I’m in denial. I know it. But I can’t bring myself to accepting this. I can’t grasp a world without Rick Elias and the music, and the conversations, and the Christmas Party, and the Superbowl commentary. (Rick’s father-in-law was an NFL coach and his wife can take over a football viewing party like no other woman)
     There is a certain self-satisfaction with being a fan of someone who exists slightly on the outside of a genre. It’s like a badge of honor that tells the world that your tastes are a little more discriminating. My musical tastes were always this way. My record collection was, for the most part, made up of names you know, but you don’t know any of their stuff. I reveled in converting my friends to the sounds of Southside Johnny, Little Steven, Willy Deville…and Rick Elias.
Usually the first response was “That’s Christian music? That’s way too good to be Christian music.”
And it was. It was because, for the last twenty years or so, especially since the plague of “praise and worship” took over everything on the airwaves, Christian music has been horrible. Horrible like “I’d rather hear the “Brady-Kids-singing” horrible. The last record I cared about was Rick’s “Job” album and before that, “The Jesus Record” which was Rich Mullins’ posthumous masterpiece. I stopped listening to the genre…then I stopped caring about it. That’s sad. And that’s why we needed Rick in the first place.
     This is weighing on me as I have dealt with this terrible illness that my friend has and with the inevitable goodbye, and with the gaping hole in my heart, and with the snapshots of all the moments we’ve shared. I can’t stop the movie that plays in my soul, and I don’t want to. But sometimes watching it hurts even more.
     Three weeks ago I wrote him a letter. I debated sending it because I was afraid it was sounding like I was eulogizing my friend before he was gone. Like I was giving up. But I wanted…I desperately needed, to know that he heard my words sooner, not later. I wanted to be certain that he knew I loved him. That I was honored by his friendship. That I bore witness to this life of his. That someone stood up and said “I see you.” That he knew that others knew he was here.
     That’s really the point of this piece today. Because Rick is facing something that ultimately we all face, and for me it has only served to emphasize the internal wrestling I’ve been experiencing for over a year now. I’m getting older. Certainly not old, but I’m older. And I wonder, as fifty-five approaches in a few days, did anyone know I was here?
My daughter knows, of course. A few of my friends I suppose. But otherwise I wonder about the value of the life I’ve led so far. If I was somehow undone from history, what would the world look like?
     I’ve walked most of this walk of mine alone. That’s simply a fact. I didn’t grow up in a home where I was valued very much and I learned early on to just make my own way. That’s great for survival, but in the long term, it doesn’t lend itself to the feeling that somehow, someone in the crowd of six billion humans saw you. I’m questioning this now as I turn fifty-five, and as my friend faces eternity. Who saw me? Who saw Rick?
     I wrote him that long letter and sent it last week, after a few days of debating it in my heart. I hoped he would understand what I was saying, and what I was not. I wanted him to know that I saw him. That I see the footprints of his life and his work and some of those prints are on the sacred ground of my own heart. I saw the man he is and the dad he is and the husband he is and the Christian he is. I’ve seen the good and the bad and the in-between. And I stand as a witness to a life well lived. A job well done. A body of work that is superior to many who have achieved more fame, on far less talent.
     He’s been my friend. My friend when I was flying high and when I crashed on his couch. My friend when we disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and my friend when we were in complete unity. He read my writing and laughed at my jokes. He’d send me an email with a new song inside. “Don’t share this yet, but what do you think?” or he’d call me and ask me to come over and just hang out, because he knew I was a new divorcee, and I was his friend, and his friend was hurting.
     I am angry with myself that I have not learned this lesson already by now. This lesson of telling people you love them while there is plenty of time for them to accept it, and process it, and live in the truth of it, and let it inspire them. Rick and I –thankfully—kept short accounts. Twice I remember us disagreeing so passionately that we stopped speaking. In both cases the silence ended fairly soon and we were sorry it happened at all.
     My friend’s life and death battle has taught me, reminded me really, that nothing is forever and nothing should be taken for granted. If you love someone…tell them. Whether you love them as a friend or romantically or whatever, tell them. Tell them what they've meant to you, and why. Tell them how bland and boring life would be without them. Tell them what they've added to your life. Give examples. Remember moments. Thank them for making your life better. Hold on tightly. Laugh at yourselves. Tell them you love them. Make sure they know. Make sure they know how invaluable their life was to yours. How flavorless your banquet would have been without the dish they brought. Go ahead and cry. It's in those tears, and in that brokenness that the love you hold for them can escape the bonds of safety and propriety, and you can feel it in all its depth.
     Say it. Go ahead and SAY IT! I love you, my dear friend. You have meant more to me than all these words of mine can ever express. You have brought me laughter, tears, joy, depth, anger, connection, hope, despair, a glimpse of the Holy, the faint scent of the profane, and the soft flutter of the occasional angel wing. The steps we took together covered more ground than all my steps alone ever could.
     Hold nothing back. Because ultimately, in this crowded world of six billion people, it’s hard to be seen. Hard to be recognized. Hard to feel that someone, anyone, can pick your face out of the maddening crowd.
     Friends are that for each other. The witness to the life each other has led and the chronicler of the victories and defeats and the ground gained and lost. I am determined, more than ever now, to not let even one of my friends go through this life without them hearing me tell them I love them. And why. And what that love has done in this hard heart of mine.
     Maybe in that way, this long goodbye I am saying to my dear friend Rick, will have meaning and purpose that extends beyond his life, and into the concentric circles where his life and mine have overlapped.
     That, and the wonderful music he has bestowed on us all, will keep him fresh in my heart, painful as it will be, until I see him again.
Tell them you love them


* If you would like to help my friend Rick and his family please consider giving here:
Go Fund Me for Rick Elias

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Birthday America...


I never met either of my paternal grandparents. Both were long deceased by the time I came along. But I do know that they were both immigrants to this wonderful country. My grandfather Joseph, lied about his age and stowed away aboard a freighter and wound up outside of Philadelphia. My grandmother and her family all came here together and wound up in South Philly. My mom's father was born on the boat on the way here from the Ukraine. My mom's mother was the only one of my grandparents born on US soil, but even that only by a year or two. Her parents emigrated from England and Holland not many years before she was born.
My maternal grandfather was a SeaBee in WWII in the Pacific Theater. I have a picture of him as a very young man, posing with to fellow sailors in New Guinea around 1942.
Maybe that's where I get it from...my love for this country. My heritage is found in countries not nearly as wonderful or blessed as this one. Not that those nations aren't wonderful themselves...but they aren't America. I've heard the stories -some first hand and some second hand-- about the hardships they faced and how much this country meant to them. Among my grandparents, on either side, there was not a handout to be found. Not a government gift or a social program freebie. They came with nothing, they worked hard, and they became parents, business people and homeowners. They weren't perfect, by any means. They were rough, somewhat uneducated because of their standing in society, maybe rough around the edges. They were also hard working, people of Faith, good neighbors, good citizens, good people.
And they were AMERICANS.
From what I understand, my grandfather didn't bother teaching Italian to his children. Because they were "Medicones." Not that they didn't pick it up along the way, but his first command to them was that they were Americans and would behave like Americans.
They were proud of who they had been, but far more proud of who they were. Americans.
I've always been a history buff and always an unabashed Yankee Doodle Dandy. But as I've gotten older, and more worn by the years, (and hopefully wiser) I am even more so. I didn't know about my Italian heritage until I was 21 and didn't meet my family until 2007 at age 43. There was a period, when that was new and exciting, where I was self-hyphenating. I was Italian American or American Italian, depending on how you divvy up the whole percentages thing. But in the last eight or ten years I stopped doing that. I am fiercely proud of my Italian heritage and especially of my family and our story. The longer I've known my cousins and siblings the more I've grown to really love them, and I hope they feel that way about me. I'm LUCKY to be a Daliessio.
But I'm far luckier still -blessed by God in fact-- to be an American. My heritage on either side takes a backseat to my citizenship and birthright as an American.
As years pass I've grown more and more sentimental, more unashamedly patriotic, more fiercely loyal and protective of this land of mine. There are place in this world I want to visit...but none as much as the wonderful places inside our own borders. I want to go to my grandfather's hometown of Montecassino someday. But probably not until I have seen more of OUR mountains. Or met more of my fellow Americans. Instead of backpacking across Europe, I dream of traveling this country, without a roadmap or an itinerary, and just see what is out there.
If it were possible, I would find the center of this great land...the place where her heart is...and fall on that sacred ground and pull her to my chest. I love her that much. She has given me and my family everything...by giving us nothing more than a chance. 242 years ago, 56 great men closed out this day by signing a document that got this all rolling. Their signatures almost invariably guaranteed their own personal ruin. Less than a third of them would survive the Revolution with their fortunes, or their lives, intact. But that was a sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of the promise that this new country held. If The United States of America could take root. If she could survive. Then the promise of her founding would be there for the children and grandchildren of these noble men, and that was enough for them to risk it all.
I just can't look at a sacrifice like that and simply go on about my day. I owe them. I owe them diligence and vigilance. I owe them my best, to keep this nation always functioning at IT'S best. I owe them my best efforts at being a great AMERICAN citizen, a great neighbor, a great friend, and a great patriot.
I'm trying. Every day.
Happy Birthday America.
God Bless you still