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Tuesday, November 22, 2022

"The Other Ones at Christmas"

                                      The Other Ones at Christmas
I absolutely love this time of year. Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. Second only to Independence Day. And my daughter’s birthday.
I love everything about it. I love the songs, the TV specials, the way we all seem to be nicer and friendlier and more hopeful.
Sometimes I go outside on those long cold December nights and remember when I was a little boy, staring up into the sky at night to see if I could see the Bethlehem Star. Or Rudolph’s nose blinking.
Everywhere you look, there is joy, and happiness and smiles. Even under the stress of the season…buying the right gifts, planning the menu, where is grandpa going to sleep, there is an undercurrent of the awareness of what this season really means.
But there are others at Christmas…and I find myself perched precariously between both worlds.
There are others at Christmas for whom this season tears at the soul. Because on the one hand we want to celebrate with all the joy and gusto that everyone else does. We feel it in our hearts. We see it in the store windows, and we hear it in the jingle of the Salvation Army bell ringers at the kettles in the Mall. We are as excited as everyone else for this wonderful season.
But for us…the “other ones at Christmas,” there is another feeling. Another part of the picture that not everyone sees.
There are some of us who have lost someone dear at Christmas and the season will always be bittersweet for us, no matter how much time goes by. Or maybe we lost someone, and their birthday is near Christmas, or they really really loved Christmas and the season -while joyous and festive—reminds us that they aren’t here. There are friends who experienced loss around this time and every blinking light, every shining bauble, every Christmas carol, calls out the name and reflects the face of the person they miss so much.
A sister (in my case) a wife, a husband, a mom, or dad. They are supposed to be here, and they aren’t, and we feel it. We feel it in the quiet moments between shopping madness and food prep and travel and putting up lights and trees and Church Christmas plays. In the early hours…or late at night when we turn off the Christmas lights and head to bed, we feel their absence.
Some of us (and I find myself at the top of this list) love this season deeply, and yet, we painted a picture of how it was going to be when we were “grown-ups” at Christmas, and it hasn’t turned out the way we saw it. When I was a kid I vowed to have the best Christmases ever, with my wife and kids. I would be Clark W. Griswald, and my family would fashion memories that would last a lifetime.
But it’s my 23rd Christmas post-divorce now. I have only one child, and I haven’t spent Christmas with “someone” in all that time. I am a romantic, especially at Christmas. I want to give the perfect gift, that she opens and says, “You really know me…this is perfect.” I want to get that same perfect gift. The one that says “I have spent these years with you, and I really know you and I really love you and I just knew you’d love this…” And she’d be right because she really does know me.
I’m not known.  Not in that sense. And as Holy and sacred as Christmas is, it is also very romantic. And I feel the absence very deeply. Maybe making it worse is the fact that I know who I would spend my Christmas with, if I could make it happen. But I can’t, try as I may. Though the eternal optimist in me prays every day that it will happen. It’s Christmas when I feel it a little more. Long for it more deeply. I want family at Christmas. Not extended family…I have that and love them dearly. But I want to feel like the other half of my heart has come home for Christmas and is still hasn’t.
I miss my daughter being little at Christmas. I miss waiting until she had gone to bed and was almost- but not quite—asleep and climbing up on the roof and stomping around and calling out “Ho Ho Ho!” and jingling the sleighbells I kept hidden in my closet, so she’d never find them and realize it was me up there.
I miss the little advent calendars we did together and the Christmas cards she’d sign in quivering hand as she was just learning to write. I miss her joy at opening presents and her thankfulness. She was always so appreciative for everything. I miss her being little and still believing and being caught up in the almost overwhelming rush of Christmas spirit.
I’m one of the “Other Ones at Christmas.” For whom this wonderful, joyous season leaves just a trace of sadness and longing. You can see it if you look in my eyes, if you look past the reflection of the Christmas lights and the flash of the smile the season brings me. If you hear me singing a Christmas carol or harmonizing with Frank Sinatra or Bing on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It will be unmistakable if you happen to glance at me when Chrissy Hynde sings “2000 Miles,” and thinking how I want someone who longs for me like that.
You’ll see that longing. The dream of what it was going to look like if it had all gone according to plan.
So forgive me…forgive us, The Other Ones at Christmas, if you happen to glance at us and see us- for just an instant—seeming a little sad. It’s because we are. It’s because Christmas has the possibility, each year, to be the most perfect few weeks, the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as the song says. And it could be for us. If just a couple things had worked out differently. We still love this season. We still celebrate. We’re still happy and joyful and none of the magic is lost on us. But underneath it…we feel something a little extra. And it tempers our joy. Please bear with us. All of us believe we’re only one more Christmas away from it being like we dreamed it would.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Thoughts on losing my dad...


                                                           I lost my father yesterday.

     He passed away at 79 years old. He would have been 80 in November.
The truth of the matter is…I lost him before I was even born.
I’ll spare you the details, but the thumbnail is this; He was 20 and my mother was 19. They met while he was home from college on Christmas break. They dated a bit, did the deed and I was born the following September.
     He had no desire to marry my mother, something for which I have never blamed him.
My guess is he had no desire to be eternally connected to someone so toxic. I wouldn’t have married her either and I told him so in the only conversation we ever had, 43 years after I was born.
     He chose, instead, to drop out of college and join the Army. He decided that the hell of Vietnam was better than the hell she was putting him through. I know how she is. I can completely understand choosing a likely death in war over a life with her.
My father did two tours. When he enlisted, tours were 18 months then they were cut down to 12. He did one of each. He spent thirty months in country, was wounded twice and won three Purple Hearts. He was a hero.
     He came home and within ten days was hit with a court order from my mother, requesting he terminate his parental rights. She was getting married and had convinced her husband (I don’t like to use the term “stepfather” when describing him. A stepfather, to me, is one who “steps in” and at least tries to be a father to a child. Tom didn’t even like me, much less try to be fatherly.) to adopt me.
My gut feeling is she was still in love with my father and was hoping this would shake him up and he’d marry her instead.
     My father, instead, called her bluff yet again and signed me over. He agreed to pay the $700 adoption fees in exchange for being rid of this blemish on his life once and for all.
I never knew any of this, of course, since I was five when this all happened. I was simply told that Tom was my father. Bob was never mentioned at all, until I was 21.
I asked my mother once why I had no memories of “dad” (Tom) until I was 5. She said it was because he sailed on oil tankers and was never home. This was actually true…but it had nothing to do with why I don’t remember him. It’s because he didn’t meet my mother until I was almost five. But lying to me about my father was sort of the rule of the house by that point.
     Fast forward to Christmas 1984. I was a freshman in college and was home for Christmas break. I had bought my parents an anniversary card because their anniversary was December 10. I was sitting in the rec room talking to my mother. I told her I didn’t know if it was their 22nd or 23rd anniversary so I didn’t get one of those specific cards. I was 21, so I figured they had to have been married at least 22 years.
My mother says, “It’s our 17th.” And starts crying.
     She immediately starts telling me how Tom isn’t my father, and my real father was Bob and she filled me in on as much as she knew about him. I was in disbelief and had to drive to Philly and confirm it with my grandmother before I would believe it. When my grandmother started to cry as soon as I told her what happened…I knew it was true.
     I was 21. I immediately felt relief. At least Tom wasn’t my father. At least now I understand why my father hates me…he’s not actually my father.  But then I felt something else. I didn’t know I was feeling it, but I felt it. I felt betrayed. I felt like I was the subject of the biggest con job in the world. I doubted everything I knew about myself from that moment on. Who I was. What I was. My mother had lied to me about my father…what else did she lie to me about?
     I tell people it’s like you go to work on Monday morning and find out someone reached into your laptop and ripped out the hard drive while you were working on an important document. And to make it worse…they replaced your Windows operating system with an Apple. It won’t even work. You’d have to sort out code and wires just to get it to boot up. Your files are all gone. Everything on your memory cards is now “corrupted” by doubt. Nothing you “saved” can be trusted. Including everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Six years.
     It took me six years to sort through that enough to even try contacting Bob. Six years of figuring out who I really was. Things I thought I “got from my father” that I didn’t. Things about me that were so very different from my siblings, that I often wondered about but wrote off as me just being different.
     Underneath all of it, I was scavenging for anything I could find out about my father. In those days, before the internet, there wasn’t any real way of researching someone. Unless you had mutual acquaintances or they had made the papers somehow, you had no chance of learning about them.
     I did manage to get his address. He was in the Pennsylvania phone book. I drove by his house two or three times one summer. Each time I thought about knocking on the door. Each time I was too afraid.
My father was intimidating to me, and I had never even met him.
I wondered if he somehow had been keeping tabs on me. Would he be proud of me. Would he be embarrassed?
I couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door.
     It was six years before I wrote him the first letter. I don’t remember what I said. I just told him who I was. Who my mother was. And I was explicit in my position that I wanted nothing from him financially. I wasn’t looking for money or a claim to the estate. I told him I would sign any legal waiver stating that. I just wanted to know my dad. I wanted to know who I was and who he was. Who my family was. I needed to know the other half of me.
I mailed the letter in Spring of 1989. In August of that year, I came home to his voice on my answering machine. I was almost 27 and was hearing my dad’s voice for the first time.
“Hi Craig. It’s Bob. I got your letter. Just calling to check on you. I’ll call again.”
My knees went weak, and I sat in a chair with tears in my eyes. “That’s my dad…” I said to my girlfriend at the time, who was with me that day for a Phillies game and came over for dinner afterward.
     I talked to him about a week later. He called me on a Sunday evening. I guess it was surreal at first…I was 27 and hearing my father’s voice for the first time. He filled me in on his side of things. He refused to speak ill of my mother…something I always respected him for. Even though I told him how I felt and that I never blamed him for not marrying her. I wouldn’t have married her either. I know her. He tried to convince me not to feel that way, but I reminded him I had been with her all my life…I know her. I know what she is capable of, and I can only imagine what sort of hell she put him through. To his credit…he never said a harsh word about her, even when I gave him permission to do so.
     We had one cobbled attempt at a face to face meeting when I was thirty. And that failed We both showed up at the restaurant we had decided upon, but in typical man fashion, neither of us described ourselves to the other and since we had no idea who we were looking for, we both left thinking the other had stood them up. In reality, we were about ten feet apart, waiting for a face we would not recognize because we never described ourselves.
     After that, something changed. He stopped taking calls from me…infrequent as they were. I put it on the back burner until I got married. I think I needed my dad to know I was getting married. I was a man. Taking a wife. Maybe he’d be proud of me. Maybe he’d have some nugget of wisdom. But he wouldn’t answer when I called.
     I got married. We moved to Nashville. A year later we found out we were pregnant. “Maybe now…” I thought. “Maybe now my dad will want a relationship. He’s about to have a granddaughter.” I called him the day after Daisy was born. I told him about his granddaughter, and he told me “Well you’re on an island now. Just you and your wife and your daughter. Nobody is there for you but you.”
That was it. Not “Congratulations” not “I’m happy for you” not “Send me some pictures of her.” Nothing. His rejection now included his own granddaughter.
And still I couldn’t hate him, and still he intimidated me and still I wanted a relationship with him.
     I waited nine more years. Some events within my family, some of whom I had come to know and love by this point, caused me to reach out one more time. This time, though, I forced his hand. He finally called me. He actually drove from Pennsylvania to Franklin TN where I lived. We met and talked for three hours. I was elated. I felt like I had finally met my dad. He made it clear I didn’t need to be ashamed anymore. I was welcome at family events (He was one of 14 children and family gatherings were huge affairs) I was free to claim who I was. (I had changed my name back to “Daliessio” in 1997 before my daughter was born. That was my name at birth and for the first five years of my life. I didn’t want to perpetuate the lie for another generation)
     And then…almost inexplicably, he turned on me again. He began denying he was my father. He demanded a DNA paternity test…but he would never actually submit to one. I scheduled a test at least six times and he never showed.
He would tell everyone I wasn’t his son but would never take a single step to prove it. To me this was simple. If someone is claiming to be your child and you are that sure you are not his father…you take the test! But he would not.
     From 2007 until 2012 I pursued him and the test. I finally gave up.
I called him the summer of 2012. I knew he wouldn’t answer the phone, but I called anyway. I left him a voice message. I told him; “Bob this is Craig. I want you to know I am done. Done with you and your bullshit (I was pretty upset).” “I don’t care about the test anymore. I know the truth. And you know it too, or else you’d get the damned test done and prove me wrong. I want you to know, you missed out on a wonderful granddaughter. Neither of us wanted a thing from you, only a connection. To me, you’re no hero. You’re not a great man. Your medals and your honors and your Doctoral degree are all bullshit. You’re a coward in my eyes. I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be, and it has nothing to do with you. I know how that test will turn out and you do too. Or else you’d get it done. I know you’re my father and YOU know you’re my father. And I don’t even care anymore. It’s YOUR turn to hide. YOUR turn to be embarrassed at family get togethers. I’m not going to hide in the shadows anymore, afraid of you and afraid of making you uncomfortable. I’ve been uncomfortable for 25 years now. I’m done.”
I hung up.
I’d love to tell you I felt better but I didn’t. I felt like it was final. I felt like I said my peace. But it still hurt.
     The truth is I still needed my dad. I’ve never seen him smile. I never told a joke and made him laugh. I would have liked to have heard him tell me, just one time, that he was proud of me. That I was a great dad. That my ex-wife was wrong. That I was doing well.
My dad was a college football player. I played hockey in college. There were times I would instinctively look in the stands for a fleeting second, hoping to see my father there, watching me play.
     I wanted him to know my daughter. To hear her amazing singing voice. To bestow some sort of blessing on her. To let her know she too was part of this family. But none of this happened. In fact, on two occasions he went out of his way to reject us openly in front of the rest of the family.  Once was just me. But the second time, my daughter was there too. That was as close as I came to hating him. Reject me all you want, but don’t reject her. Don’t embarrass my daughter.
We never spoke again. Not after that three hour conversation in Tennessee.
He died yesterday.
     I would like to tell you it doesn’t matter. One of my friends said “Why do you care? He had no impact on your life.” But he did. He impacted me from before I was even born.
He is half of who I am. The half I had to discover at age 21. His absence left me lonely for a father figure. My stepfather never wanted that job. I barely existed in his eyes. They say you can’t miss what you never had. But you can. You do. I missed my dad every day of my life.
     When I was alone at Little League games without a parent in the stands. When I was funny, and gregarious, and intellectual and intelligent…all the things my father was. All the things I was not allowed to be in the home I grew up in. I missed him when I had a burning desire to go to college, like he did, but it was forbidden in my home. (I had to wait until I was 21 and go without my parents blessing)
     I missed him telling me I was a good dad. Giving me marriage advice or fatherhood advice or lawn care advice. I missed having him watch an Eagles game with me or going out for a beer and talking about life.
I missed seeing him smile. I never heard my dad tell me he loves me. Not once.
I missed seeing him grow old. I missed his war stories. I never saw him be a grandfather to my daughter. I missed those things.
I’ve chased his ghost since I was 21.
Now he’s gone and I fear I’ll chase his ghost until I, myself, an a ghost.
I have it in perspective. I long ago stopped thinking his rejection was because of anything I did. That helps a little. But not much.
I’d always hoped that something would happen…some event would shake him from his tree and make him reach out and we’d have the relationship a 59 year old man has with his 79 year old father. Whatever that looks like. But that isn’t coming. Not ever.
     I could hate him if I was so inclined and let myself be bitter. But I know bitter people and it takes more out of you than it does the person who is the object of your bitterness. So, I never hated my dad. I never spoke evil of him. I was mad at him for the way he treated me these last year’s especially. But I never hated him. And I still don’t.
I prayed for him when I found out he was sick. I forgave him and I prayed that God would make sure he was right with Him. Maybe we can have a relationship in Heaven one day.
     My dad did impact me. His rejection of me and the gaping hole he left in me, is what drove me to be a great dad to my daughter. It’s why I loved coaching. It’s why I still have a deep tenderness for fatherless children…especially fatherless boys. I look at my daughter and I see what an impact I had on her life, simply by being there. Being involved. Making sure she knew…come hell or highwater…her daddy loved her, and he would fight hell itself for her.
     I shudder to think of what might have happened had I chosen to be the dad my father was to me. The world is frightening. It’s even more so without your dad.
So, if he left me a legacy, it was the determination to be a better dad than he was. And I think I did the job. And I think it makes me a better man than he was too.
The funny thing is, It still hurts.
Rest in peace, dad. I forgive you. You didn’t break me. But you did hurt me. I forgive you for that too.
Because I’m the better man.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Year Three...

Three years.
It’s been three years since that fateful day and still, sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like a dream, and maybe it never happened, and it’s just been a while since our last phone call. But reality is always a cold cruel mistress and I remember that day. That day three years ago.
I had just pulled up into my driveway. The driveway of the new house I had closed on only two weeks before. Rick had been so happy for me and my daughter Daisy. He and Linda had been there with me through every hard mile of the previous ten years. He’d encouraged me, given me advice, prayed for me, and as was his style...helped me laugh through the hardest times.
Rick was more than simply a musician whose music I was a devoted fan of. I was more than just a fan who had managed to strike up a conversation with my favorite artist. Rick had become my “big brother.” He was the closest friend I had in Nashville and one of the closest friends in my life. He and Linda were a family to me when I needed one.
Rick and I got each other. Our similar upbringing and Italian heritage bound us in moments of wildly hysterical storytelling, and also the unspoken brotherhood of both of us having grown up without any interaction with our fathers. There were things we could talk about with each other that we couldn’t talk about with very many other people in the world.
I could talk about Rick’s career and his body of work. I could rank his albums in order of my personal liking. I could tell you about the best show I ever saw him play or the people in his universe that he introduced me to. People who were recognizable stars in their genre. I could have done that if I had only remained a fan for the 32 years, I knew Rick.
But a funny thing happened...
Somewhere along the way -and it happened rather early in our relationship—Rick stopped being a musician, or a celebrity in the world of CCM, or the brilliant writer and producer of the “That Thing You Do!” soundtrack.
Rick just became my friend. My dear, beloved friend. My brother.
I was wanting to post some pictures of Rick and I together and I realized that I really only have one. It was taken at the “Creation 91” festival in Pennsylvania. Taken when I was still more fan than friend. Taken when it was somehow a cool thing to be in a picture with Rick Elias.
I am bad about remembering to take pictures with my friends. I guess it’s because I see them all the time and I have so many pictures in my heart that a picture on my phone, or in a scrapbook seems almost ridiculous. I wish I had more pictures of Rick and me. Pictures at the annual Elias Christmas party would be great. Those parties were epic, and nobody was funnier than Rick...except for Tom Howard’s annual gift of “Butterfly Kugen.”
But I only have this thirty-one-year-old picture of a mullet wearing Craig and a very weary Rick...arm in arm and the backstage area of Creation. He had driven all night, with his band, from a gig in Illinois, to play the early evening show. Oddly enough the soundcheck always sticks with me. It was typical Rick...
The stage guys were trying to get Linda’s mic levels right and the guy kept saying “Linda Linda, Linda,” in her mic while the engineer adjusted. Then he sort of started making up stuff to give the engineer more to work with. “Linda, Linda Linda...Linda Lou...Linda...” It went on like this for a while. I think they might even had changed out her mic.
They finally got it right and then moved on to Rick’s mic. The guy asked Rick to talk into the mic so they could set his levels and Rick -never missing a chance to demonstrate his acerbic wit—said.
“Linda Linda Linda...
Linda is my wife!
All you single guys.
Better look the other way.”
It was half song and half military cadence and funny as heck in the moment.
It was typical Rick.
I drove out to New Castle PA to see him at a little church where he was playing a solo gig. He didn’t know I was coming, and I surprised him as he was setting up his gear. It was a wonderful concert. That was the night I heard him play “Man Of No Reputation” for the first time. I sat there in silence when the song ended. I couldn’t move. I had been brought face-to-face with Jesus Christ, in song, more clearly than any other song had ever done in my life.
After the show I helped him pack his gear and we drove to Shoney’s for a very late dinner. New Castle is a small little town and we joked and made “The Deer Hunter” references. If you knew Rick, you knew that quoting movie lines at the perfect moment was one of his great gifts.
We sat down to eat, and he told me that Linda had called him when he got to town and informed him that she was pregnant with Zach, their youngest. Rick was excited and concerned all at once. Excited because he loved being a dad. Concerned because he was a musician and he took his responsibilities as a husband and father seriously, and a musician isn’t always the most stable employment option when you have a family.
We finished dinner and said goodbye and I drove back home the next morning.
I remember that morning when I heard the news that Rich Mullins had died. I knew how close he and Rick were and I knew that Rick treasured his friends. I called the house to let him know how sorry I was and to tell him I was there. Rick was shaken and it was hard for him to talk but he appreciated the call and he let me know that.
We moved to Nashville in 1997, and it helped having friends there already. Rick was swamped at the time...” That Thing You Do” he created a world of soundtrack opportunities for him, and he was busy with producing “The Jesus Record” for his late friend Rich Mullins. And he was raising a family and being a husband. But we made time to chat from time to time.
One of the other great memories I have of Rick is his deep abiding love for his friends. He didn’t throw his arms open to the world, but if you made it to his inner circle, he loved you deeply. Late one night he had gotten word that a friend from back in California had passed away. Rick wrote the most heart wrenching post on FB, detailing how he found out this friend had died, and how it hurt him, and how much his friends meant to him. He tagged me and Bob Sale, and Tom Howard, and a few other guys I can’t remember at the moment. He told us specifically, “I love you guys. I mean it. We never say this enough to those we love.” I was floored. And honored. I loved Rick as a brother and now I realized he felt the same way. Rick loved his friends and his family with everything he had. If anything marked him as a man...that, was it.
I remember the phone call in July of 2018, telling me of his illness. I walked outside the building so I could hear him better. I felt my knees buckle when he told me he had a brain tumor. He told me the story of what had been happening leading up to the doctors discovering what was wrong. And -as was his way—he spoke of his love and concern for Linda. He wanted her to be okay. He wanted the kids to be okay. He wanted Reese and Mazy to be okay. He wanted to live. Live for them. But if he couldn’t, he wanted them to be okay when he was gone.
The next nine months were a painful blur. I kept in contact as best I could, while trying to respect his time and the need to be with his family as much as he could. I was in Nashville in October of 2018 and called to see if I could stop to see him, but they were walking out the door to go to the airport and fly to Florida for one final family vacation together. So, we chatted for a minute and planned on getting together another time.
Time was the enemy all along. We talked a lot. I tried putting together a fund raiser here in Lynchburg. Those plans were altered when we tried to arrange flying him and Linda up here to speak at Liberty. But his health, and the preparations for the Ragamuffin show in January 2019 never opened that door.
So, all we had were phone calls. We talked about once a week or once every ten days. We ended every call with “I love you.” The last call we had, I sensed something had changed. He had worsened. Rick was always optimistic, at least publicly with his friends, about his illness. But something in his voice sounded the slightest bit resigned. I was sitting in the Kroger parking lot, about to go grocery shopping and I had called him on the drive to the store and sat there in my truck until we said our goodbyes.
I told him what he meant to me through the years. I recounted some great stories we’d shared. He made me laugh, as usual. But there was sadness under it all. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d talk to him...but I knew.
About a week later, I got a text from our mutual friend Paul. Rick was back in the hospital, and it was grave. Then at 5:30 that afternoon, as I pulled into my driveway, Paul texted me again. Rick was gone.
I sat in my truck and cried. The movie of our friendship played in my head as I tried to sort out my world without Rick Elias.
I went in the house and told my daughter. She cried too. She loved Rick because she is a musician and a gifted singer and Rick had taken time and shown interest in her through the years. Her dream was to take his songwriting class at Belmont one day. Now that was not to be.
It’s been three years. Three years and some days it’s like it just happened. I still have a hard time listening to Rick’s music. It is too full of memories. And it’s too final. There isn’t any more of it and because of that, it reminds me he is gone.
I miss my friend. I miss funny conversations and watching the Superbowl with him and Linda, and, he loved Christmas!
I miss his deep love for Jesus. His sensitivity and his occasional profanity. His surgeon-precise truthfulness, his acerbic wit, his hysterical rants...and the amazing depth of his heart. I miss the love he had for his friends.
I wish I had more pictures with Rick. But I have a million of them in my heart and that will have to do.
Three years gone and I still miss you like it was yesterday, my brother.
Thank you for all you gave this world. Thanks for loving me back.
See you soon...