Thursday, October 26, 2017

Goodbye...


 Last night I found out that one of my best friends as a child…in fact, the first friend I made when we moved into our house on Monroe Avenue, passed away unexpectedly yesterday.           Tommy was three years older than me, and by the time he reached high school, he wasn’t as interested in hanging out with “little kids” anymore. But those first five or six years I lived in that neighborhood, he was part brother, part hero, and all friend. We were such a close group of kids on Monroe Avenue. You don’t see that anymore. We did almost everything together, as a group. Tommy was a funny, cantankerous, mischievous kid…like all boys were at time and at that age. I have so many memories, but a few stand out more than others.
Like the time he was walking outside of his house with what looked like a long piece of thread, just magically floating in front of him. My mother asked him “What are you doing, Tommy?” To which he responded, “Walking my pet June Bug” upon closer inspection, he had captured an enormous June Beetle and tied a thread around it’s back leg. (The patience this must have taken is, in retrospect, incredible) and he was walking along behind and beneath it as it flew, connected to Tommy by this six-foot-long piece of sewing thread.
     He was the engineer and architect of all our tree forts. From the first one we built together in Mr. Ferraro’s tree, to the last one. The one with the fireplace that the dads on the block made us tear down because they felt it was dangerous.
Yeah…a fireplace.
     He rode with us, jammed into my mom’s 1968 VW Beetle, heading to Elk Neck State Park to swim in the Chesapeake or to the movies on a summer Friday night. He slept over on weekends and we watched scary movies on channel 17 and ate pizza.
     There was one special memory I have of Tommy, and it’s the most treasured one of all. I wrote this story in “Remembering America” a book I published in 2013. It is making me both laugh and cry this morning, as I mourn the loss of my old friend.
     Tommy and I grew up in the age where astronauts were heroes, where the moon was the goal of our nation, and where flight…any kind of flight, was a mystical dream to young boys. We all wanted to fly, somehow, and one summer, Tommy and I did something about it. This is probably the only memory I have of he and I doing anything without the other boys on the block. For whatever reason, it was just Tommy and I on this project.
We tried to build a real, working airplane. Here is the story, as I told it in my book. Keep I mind, he was probably 11 and I was 8:
     “We were always fascinated with flight, and one summer, Tommy Riccio and I decided to build a real, full-sized glider. Big enough for us both to sit in and fly. We had no building plans and only what material we could scavenge. We managed to get the frame of the wing built in a few days and decided to go ahead and lay on the fabric. We were building this thing like they built the old biplanes back in the day, with a wooden frame overlaid with starched fabric. We didn’t have any canvas so Tommy took some of his mom’s old bed-sheets and we scraped some money together to buy two gallons of heavy starch… the stuff they used to call “dope”.
     We stretched the sheets over the wing frame and pulled it as tight as we could and stapled it with heavy duty staples. Then we brushed on several thick coats of heavy dope and let it dry. The dope would shrink the fabric and make it as stiff as plywood but still very light weight. In one weekend, we had our finished wing. It was about 8 feet long, 2 and a half feet wide and had a nice arched shape to it for lift.   The middle had an opening of about two square feet where we figured we’d attach it to the body we were going to build.
     After about two weeks, we gave up on scrounging together enough wood to build an entire airplane and decided to just have fun with the wing. Tommy and I toted it to the top of the hill in Chelsea Manor Park and took turns trying to get airborne. We laid the wing on the ground, stepped into the two-by-two opening in the middle and pulled the wing up around our chest like an inner tube in a swimming pool. Then we took off running down the hill as fast as we could, trying to feel some lift under our wing.
     Believe it or not you could feel yourself getting lifted a bit. We knew nothing about aerodynamics or lift calculations. We never actually got off the ground, but for a fleeting second, when the undersized wing felt like it might, just might get us into the air… we were Icarus, soaring into the sun on wings of our own making. We fell and tumbled down the hill and laughed at each other, and the whole thing looked like those old black and white silent movies about man’s first comical efforts at flying.
     We weren’t the Wright brothers as much as we were the Marx brothers in this effort, but we were brothers of another sort, and we did this ourselves with our own ingenuity and imagination.  I doubt a kid today would even bother trying to grasp lift, and wing shaping or even know that once, not so long ago… airplanes were made by hand from wood and canvas.                                                      
                                                                  …and dreams.”

     There are days when I just know that I am meant to write. Today, reading this story and remembering my dear friend, is one of those days. Tommy’s mom was like another mother for me and I never went home without visiting her and Mr. Riccio. She passed away earlier this year and to be honest…I haven’t even been able to deal with that yet. I have a letter I started to her family, and haven’t yet been able to finish and to mail, because I can’t get through writing it. They weren’t just my neighbors; they were an extension of my family. They all were on Monroe Avenue, but the Riccio’s especially. When “Mrs. Ric” as I affectionately called her, passed, I felt something in my heart close like a vault. Some living, breathing piece of my past, something that literally made me who I am, was gone and I was not, and still am not ready to say that out loud.
    Now her son, the first friend I had when I moved onto Monroe Avenue and I was a seven-year-old little boy faced with the awkwardness of meeting new kids in a new town, and being “the new kid” is gone. I can still see him on that February morning, walking across the street to where I was standing on the wall that enclosed our front yard. The wall that would become the gathering place for our group of friends for 15 years. He came over and said Hi and introduced me to the rest of the “Monroe Avenue Gang” and, after a thorough inspection, they made me one of their own.
     Now he is gone. But those memories, those wonderful, sweet, funny, comical memories will never die. Tommy will always be 11 years old in my heart, walking his June Bug, or running down the big hill with a homemade wing around his chest, trying to fly.
                                                       You’re flying now, old friend.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Never Too Old To Need Her Dad

My daughter was sick last night.
She woke me at 2 A.M. needing her dad. She has been trying a new medication and it made her terribly nauseated. She’s nineteen. She knows how to take care of herself when something like this happens. But she still needed her dad to get her downstairs to the couch, get her some water, and feel her forehead with the back of his hand. She needed to be reminded that she isn’t alone.
In truth…I needed this too.
We’ve been here in Lynchburg for three and a half years now. That’s the longest uninterrupted period of living in the same house that we’ve had since she was born. Her mom left when Daisy was only eighteen months old. From that point on, it was once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer. Even the two months were broken up with her mom having my visitation schedule.
I never fully felt like a dad. I felt like my entire fatherhood was broken into bits and pieces, like Morse code. Dot, dot, dot…dash, dash, dash…dot, dot, dot. The thirteen years between our divorce and her moving here with me felt like I was lost at sea, trying desperately to swim against the tide, struggling beneath the waves and only catching a gasping breath whenever she was with me and I could breathe. As soon as I’d take her back to her mom’s, I’d disappear under the turbulent waters again. Drowning. Sinking.
I came across a picture on Facebook yesterday. It popped up on that “Your memories From ____ Years Ago” thing. It was my daughter back home at St. Anthony’s Italian Festival. She was nine years old, smiling brightly, clutching a stuffed penguin she’d won at some midway game and waiting to get on the Ferris Wheel with me.
Smiling.
My daughter doesn’t smile much now. She stopped smiling and being a bubbly, outgoing, happy kid when her mom’s second husband took off his mask of decency and showed the monster he really is. From age twelve, until we escaped Nashville and moved here to Lynchburg when she was sixteen, she endured mental and physical abuse enough to drive that bubbly, smiling girl into hiding. He wore her down with every kind of cruelty. He killed her pet. He destroyed her property, including things I gave her on birthdays and holidays. Things shared between a daddy and his little girl. Notes I would include in birthday cards. He would “edit” them and mark them up. He intruded on my fatherhood every chance he got. He stopped short of sexual assault –or he’d be a missing person on the back of a milk carton right now—but everything else was on the table in his sick mind.
Her mom did nothing to stop this. She was too concerned with her own life. She often sided with her husband, against our daughter, in order to keep the peace. She essentially sacrificed Daisy’s well-being, for her own.
It finally got bad enough and I took a job in Virginia and she left with me. She escaped the remnants of her childhood.
This was not the life I wanted for my child. Or for me. I wanted a happy home and a house and peace. I wanted my daughter to be healthy and happy and to reach her potential. I wanted to be the best dad anyone ever had, and to experience fatherhood from the adult side and hopefully make up for how fatherhood looked from the child’s view that I had when I was her age. Instead I got sawdust fatherhood. The fragments that remain after the whole has been cut into pieces, again and again until nothing remains but the shavings and dust that stand as evidence that there really was something there once.
All of which brings me to last night. There are a lot of men who would be upset over losing a half night’s sleep with a sick nineteen-year-old child. “I have to work in the morning.” “I get up at 4:45 am!” “You’re an adult, you can take care of yourself.”
And she can.
But there were so many times over those thirteen years, when she was sick, and hurting, and often in real danger, and I couldn’t help her. My fragmented time with her leaves me aching for those days when she was that smiling little nine-year-old girl in the photo. Times when I would have loved nothing more than to have carried her downstairs to the couch, felt her forehead with the back of my hand, and stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
But I had to settle for phone calls and five days a month.
So, I don’t mind when she needs me now. I don’t rue the lost sleep or the groggy feeling when the alarm went off this morning at 4:45 and I was seriously thinking of taking a sick day. This would have been my life a dozen years ago, and instead it’s my life now. I’m okay with that. It’s what dads do. Good ones anyway.
I nurse her back to health daily as it is. Back to emotional health. I’ve laid the back of my hand to her forehead and felt the cold, clammy feeling of a broken spirit. I’ve comforted the tears and frustration that she’s cried over the neglect and indifference that her mom has shown, both while she was being so abused in her mom’s home, and especially since we’ve moved here. They don’t talk much. Her mom has been here once in almost four years, and that was a brief, overnight visit. Nineteen-year-old women process that as abandonment. That’s because it is abandonment. I’ve held her hand as she’s been nauseated in her soul over the childhood she lost. Over the time we missed together. I’m doing my best to nurse her back to health.
So, no…I don’t mind losing half a night of sleep to take care of my adult daughter. Because in truth, nursing her back to health is also nursing me back. Every chance I get to act like the dad I am inside, goes a long way toward healing the loss I’ve felt over the years after the divorce. And maybe, to heal the loss I felt long before that, in the deep hole that existed in my own heart, because of my own father and his abandonment.
I’ve never felt his hand on my fevered forehead. Never heard his voice speak in the soft tones that dads use when their child is sick. Never felt his fingers brush my hair aside or his lips kiss my forehead as I drifted off to sleep, comforted in my illness by the presence of a loving, caring father.
I know what it means to my daughter, because I needed it too.
I could have quit. During those hard years after our divorce when my heart broke daily because I missed my daughter so much, and those five brief days each month were not even remotely enough to assuage my pain.
I could have packed it in when I lost my career in 2008 and had to live in my car for six years, because there was no work. I could have left to find a job somewhere else and just dutifully sent money and called once a week.
But I stayed. I stayed, and kept her trust, even though I was so limited in my ability to act on that trust. I stayed. And when the time came that she could take no more and had to get away…I was still there, ready to take her out of that hell and move her to safety.
You dads who are reading this, (it’s posted on both my personal website and my divorced dads blog) I encourage you not to quit. I encourage you to look squarely at the hell you must endure, stiffen your shoulders, brush aside your tears, and stand your ground.
Take whatever your ex, her husband, and the courts throw at you and stand your ground. The day will come. The day will come when the only knight left in the kingdom who can slay the dragon that pursues your child…is you. If you aren’t there –even with battered armor and a rusty sword—the dragon wins.

Never, never let that happen.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Christian's Thoughts on the Las Vegas Massacre

There was a lot I wanted to write about Las Vegas. But I find myself economizing my thoughts tonight.
I could write about the guns, or the gun laws or the necessity of being able to defend yourself when faced with something so horrible. I could write about the need for better mental health care, or the need for people to simply step up and say something when people start acting nuts.
But none of those things have been on my mind at all since Sunday. What has been on my mind since Sunday…what has occupied my thoughts and prayers, has been the reality of evil in this world and the absolute necessity of Christians to battle back against it.
Stephen Paddock was under the guidance of pure evil. Make no mistake. The question keeps arising; “How could this man do this?” He was “normal.” He was wealthy, successful, and bore none of the typical markings of a crazed killer. Yet when the time came, he “snapped” and murdered 59 people and wounded over 500 more.
I was thinking about the story in the Bible of when Jesus cast out the demons in a man and they ran into a herd of swine. The entire herd ran down a hill and drown in the sea. Over 2000 pigs went to their death that way. Does that mean there were 2000 demons in the man, or does it mean that the several demons that were in him, (The demon had said “My name is Legion, for we are many.”) had such influence that they started a stampede and killed all the pigs, even those not possessed? (I tend to believe this idea)
Satan comes to kill, steal, and destroy. Period. Demons never bring life. They never bring joy. It’s never pleasant. He possesses one but thousands live in fear as a result.
Paul warned us in Ephesians 6:12 “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
We are not at war with other men, even though it takes on that form. We are fighting against demonic powers wrapped in human flesh. We are fighting against sin itself.
Jesus told us in a complex teaching in Matthew 11: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.”
The battle is ongoing. Satan keeps trying, even though he knows he has been defeated. The obligation of the saints is to roll up our sleeves and engage this enemy in the spiritual realm, before he manifests his evil in human form and kills people from a hotel in Las Vegas.
I was troubled in my soul as I thought about this. I am horribly guilty of not praying as I ought. I am guilty of not taking the fight to the enemy. Like most other believers, I pray for my needs, my family’s needs, the needs of friends and loved ones. I recite the prayer list from my church, or for a coworker going through a hard time. I’ll pray for the occasional missionary or world event. But I have never –not in 48 years of Christianity- stepped into my prayer closet, taken a step back to gain a larger view, and went to war on the spiritual level for the souls of men. I’ve prayed for those heartbreaking souls trapped in human trafficking, but never rattled the Sword of the Spirit against the real evil behind it. I’ve raged on my knees against the abortion industry, but never against the Father of Lies who convinces man that destroying life is a good thing, because life comes from God and therefore is the object of Satan’s unbridled hatred. I’ve prayed for someone trapped by addiction, but never prayed down the strongholds that bind him.
I’ve never once prayed against the seeming tidal wave epidemic of mental health crises that are behind killings like Las Vegas, Columbine, Aurora, Orlando…
I’ve ground my teeth at Islam and its inherent violence, but never prayed against the spirits behind it.
We are here for that very reason. We are here to take back the ground the enemy has tried to gain. We are here to beat back those “violent men who take hold of the Kingdom of Heaven.” We are commanded to take up our armor, to learn to skillfully handle the word of God, to wield the sword of the Spirit with authority and power. We are called to push back against the darkness of this world.
When have I last spent the night in prayer over the lost? When have I last wept in sorrow over the high cost of sin in this world? This morning as I read from Ravenhill, he related a story about the preacher Thomas Cook. Cook was on board a train, travelling across South Africa when he opened the door to the Club car. Inside was a haze of cigarette smoke, and the smell of liquor. Men sat at the tables gambling. Foul language filled the air. Cook, under the command of the Holy Spirit, opened the door of the car and walked silently through its length. He did not speak a word. As he walked past, men hid their cards, and their liquor under the tables so he would not see them. Silence filled the room. He walked to the other end of the car and exited without speaking a word. The men suddenly realized that they had hidden their vices from his sight, and they could not grasp why. “Why did we do this?” they asked themselves. To a man, they concluded that it was simply because of the sight of his face. This man who had spent so much time in the presence of God, was physically changed and reflected the very holiness he had been present in. They could not help but feel the need to hide their sin in embarrassment when he walked past.
Has anyone ever said this of us? Has my life ever…even once, so reflected Jesus that sinners felt the burning desire to repent just because of the appearance of my face? Would this world be different if I had? Would a Godly man have possibly halted the events of Las Vegas with the mere presence of his person? Can we still be changed by the proximity of God as Moses was? If not, why not? Do I believe the Bible or not? Do I believe the power of the word of God and of His Spirit, or don’t I?
The hope of this world is not in stricter gun laws, or even in the elimination of guns altogether. It’s not in more religion or less of it. Peace is simply impossible for humanity outside of a right relationship with God. History bears this out.
Voting for the right candidate (whomever that might be) won’t do it. Attending the right church won’t do it. Being “Missional” and “relevant” and “Authentic” won’t do it.
The only hope this world has is for Christian people to read the bible, believe what it says without question, and pray accordingly.
I would love to say I have renewed my vow to do so, but sadly, I am just discovering this truth at 54 years old. I know how to pray in the Spirit. But I don’t do it enough. I understand the concept of “spiritual wickedness in high places” but until recently I never saw the need for this to be my battleground. I never saw the prayer closet as something with a much larger scope than just my world, my needs, and my requests.
I am here to beat back the enemy of man. I’m not talking about being some sort of Spiritual-warfare-Rambo. Some sort of cartoonish warrior quoting lyrics from a Carmen record. I’m talking about duking it out on my knees. In total surrender to a Holy God, realizing that in my flesh I am a lamb to slaughter in Satan’s hands, but yielded to God I am a vessel for victory. It’s the Spirit’s sword…not mine. I am just here to wield it as He wills.
However weak and vulnerable I may be in the flesh, surrendered and spirit-filled, I am a powerful force in God’s kingdom. My heart breaks over the events in Vegas. It has driven me to my knees, praying that even now as the next attack is being hatched in hell, the poor human conduit that Satan might use would be reached with the Gospel. I am praying now against human trafficking on the spiritual level. Against war. Against the evil of Islam that would murder my Christian brothers in the Middle East. Against parents who would abuse their children, under the influence of Hell. I pray against everything that might restrict the freedom of the Gospel.
This is war, brothers and sisters. War in places we can’t see. War in the souls of men,  for the souls of men. I am praying for revival. My prayers have moved from repetition to desperation. I am literally begging God, through tears, for a move of the Spirit. I pray that He lets me see those lost men and women. See those children stolen and sold into the most unthinkable kinds of slavery. I am praying that my righteous rage is refocused away from the humans who I can see operating under this demonic power, and toward those powers themselves.
I want to be broken and poured out. I want God to put a hand to his ear when I hit my knees. I want Satan to grind his teeth in anger because at long last…I have learned not only how to pray…but who to pray against. I want to stake my claim to a piece of the Kingdom and from my prayer closet bellow out, “This far and NO FARTHER shall you go!”
I want to finally, after all these years, “pray as I ought.”
The souls of this world hang in the balance.