Friday, November 22, 2013

A True "Jeep Girl"

After so many months of working on the restoration of Dad’s Jeep it was finally ready for a test run.  I’d managed to take the rusting hulks of two, 1946 classics and pull them into one beautiful ride and I wanted to make sure it was running well before I delivered it into his care.  Hearing the nearly 70-year-old engine roar to life after she’d sat silent for the better part of 30 years was magical, silent for nearly a generation I was hearing sound that few still living had ever heard.

Anxious to give it a test run in the fields behind the house, I hoisted Bethany up into the passenger seat.   I knew there was no way that she’d ever be able to see enough to navigate over the intricate steps and side cowl of the vehicle so I did a lift-and-toss maneuver like you’d do trying to get an old dog into the back of a truck. At 140 pounds my “hoist” was more of a flailing as legs, feet and arms went in six different directions.  I finally managed to get her butt over the side cowl and figured the rest of the parts would find their way inside eventually.  She had no way of comprehending how to ride in a vehicle that had no doors, no roof, no arm rests and a seat that has no landscape so once in, I immediately buckled her up and scooted myself around to the driver seat.

Me and Bee
I started the Jeep and wrestled it into reverse, backing around to the left in one, quick arc.  Of course, with no landscape to the seat pan which would settle her in and guide her as to which way “upright” was, she naturally gravitated to the right and listed like loose cargo out the door opening.  I grabbed her coat-sleeve and pulled her back to top-dead-center in the seat – through the whole action she never stopped tapping the plastic toy rattle against her teeth, in fact I doubt she even realized that she was at a 45-degree angle to the floor!  We beeped the horn, slapped it into first gear and headed down the driveway.  Once there, I shifted it into low range, knocked the small drive lever into 4-wheel and immediately turned left not onto the road but onto the front lawn.  We went cross-country through my front lawn, over the creeping myrtle undergrowth, through the tree line on my neighbor’s property and across the hills to the open fields.  We jostled hard and fast with me laughing in delight and Bethany laughing at the rough ride.  Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill back in 1898 could have had no more thrill than did I, and while he worried about being shot by Spanish guerillas, I worried about broken welds, snapping drive-shafts and 70 year old metal that was being subject to stresses that it hadn’t felt in decades. My ride was like betting on an old man with a young new bride; which one would disappoint, disable or kill the other one first? 

Bethany?  She just calmly tapped the plastic rattle against her teeth.  She listed left, then right, and then left again.  I’d shift the engine and then shift the Bethany.  Downshift the transmission, upshift Bethany.  Each time I’d yell over the whine of the L-134 engine “hey, you’re fallin’ over again”!  She’d laugh and having no way of knowing where “up” was, wait for me to correct her decline.  She’d then throw her head back and laugh in delight.  We rode around for nearly an hour that way – up hills and down hills, winding out of deep gravel bogs and bouncing over fields that had laid fallow for a decade, our wheels finding the deep contours of the land that the even layer of field grasses hid from our view.  At one point the speed and hidden furrows sent the front end up in the air before the back wheels hit and slammed it back down.  I do believe that was a defining moment; the singular moment when I became her instant, yet temporary, “favorite parent”.

 Bethany has not left my side for the better part of three weeks since that first ride. In her limited vocabulary, a single clear cry of “JEEP” rolls forth from her tongue with the oratorical grace of a 19th century politician.  Even while I did additional work on the vehicle, she demanded to sit in the passenger seat and not understanding the notion of “disabled vehicle”, preceded to scream “JEEP”! while slamming her body against the back of the seat.  For better than 2 hours, this activity continued making me fully aware of the fact that my 17-year-old daughter was now a bona-fide “Jeep Girl”.

While much of the 5-month restoration effort was probably in reality an escape mechanism for me, to see her now enjoy the fruit of that labor was a heartwarming event.  Someone captured that initial ride on video and every time I see it, I well up with tears in my heart.  To see her sitting rigid in the passenger seat, plastic rattle against her teeth, straight black hair with the silver bow on top being tossed around by the contours of the land, the smile on my face as I reach over and right her; reminds me of the joy which the friends of Lazarus must have experienced when he returned from the grave.

I’m unsure if old Jeeps have emotion (I know they have personality), but if they do in fact have emotion, this one must be happy to know that in it’s return from the grave, it’s brought joy and delight to many already and that the unique character it possesses as a result of its shortcomings are the very thing that make it wonderful.  Perhaps that’s exactly why I now know in my heart that Bethany is indeed a true “Jeep Girl.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Art and Emotion

The rubber gasket on the thermos squeals as I tighten the stopper, its echo rattles around the nearly empty office adding to my desolation.  It’s an old office building and I’m constantly reminded of the Edward Hopper painting: “The Office at Night” and the lonely squeal only eggs on my current state of mind.  The painting features enigmatic faces and poses in an overly-lit, late night office from the 1930’s and only provides enough content to give you an emotion, not an opinion.

Perhaps the trigger was last night’s wild night with Bethany.  Perhaps it was the past 4 days with her; 4 days, 4 hours, 4 weeks – they all carry the same exhaustive power that Hopper’s painting does.  While the painting is beautiful, it’s anything but restorative.  Listening to my wife upstairs begging with her, half-scream, half-crying in the middle of the night to “go to sleep” - sucks everything from your life in the same way the Hopper’s color and shape choice draws energy away from you. You want so desperately to find joy but are left with little more than a dry mouth and cold heart.

She’d been strange all day, sleeping one minute, awake and ravenous the next.  Attacking anyone or anything that slowed or got in the way of her eating.  A ravenous appetite followed by sleep, followed by eye-rolling seizures, followed by sleep.  Stumbling around the house she’s the picture of too large an animal sedated by too small a tranquilizer and anything in her path is unwelcome.  My wife carries all of this.  I emotively and physically escape out to the garage for the time being but it comes back in the middle of the night.  While all are finally asleep, I replay all the frustration and failure somehow forgetting the brief moments of beauty and hope.  They are indeed few - rich, marvelous, and sustaining yet few.  “For God’s sake, momma needs sleep!  I worked all day to keep you awake and now I work all night to get you to sleep”!?!  Listening to the tearful, almost begging request and then the smack of a fist against your wife’s flesh seems to underscore the futility of the request, its not being presented to a rational mind.

This is a stark contrast to the evening prior when we sat by a campfire together and hummed her favorite songs.  I knew the fire was a long shot but we figured if we lit it while we still had helpers at our house we could at least sit by it for an hour without having to manage her.  If needed, we could move the fire pit outside the fence so if she mobbed us, we could still sit a safe distance from her fury.  We managed about 28 wonderful minutes by the fire before our helper was done for the day and as Sherry headed into the house for the evening bedtime prep, I managed to coax her out to sit by the fire with me. 

Bare-footed and enticed by the rattle of a snack bag, Bethany approached the lounge chairs we’d set up in the backyard by the fire pit. She humpfed her baggy rump up into the chair and slid back, looking every bit the part of a 17year old who'd acquiesced defeat and sat near her parent.  The fire warmed her brown bare feet and she seemed to find humor and enjoyment in this notion.  Her limited vision seemed to fix on the fire against the backdrop of the darkening eastern sky and watching the orange flame dancing across her eyes was magical.  While only one of those eyes would see the flame, both reflected its beauty.  She sat there for only minutes although I wished it had gone on all night and as she got up to leave, in an attempt to keep the moment alive I asked if she wanted to sit on my lap and sing songs.  Bethany weighs over 140 lbs. and tends to dwarf whomever’s lap she manages to land on; mine was no different.  She giggled as she settled in, her eyes still glowing in the fire.

That beautiful moment remains etched in my memory, right next to the desperate plea from my wife, just behind the sound of fist-to-flesh contact.  The colors of these memories are mostly a stark white, no doubt bleached by harsh light sources and accented by phtalocyanine green hues with analogous hints of brown.  The shapes of them are small and constrained, nearly awkward in my mindscape.  The sounds, as mentioned are enigmatic, showing neither joy, fear, nor sorrow; worse still, showing nothing.  Yet in this vast painting of my life there remains one small corner, an open window with a curtain pull that gently roils in the breeze – soft incandescent light from a streetlight outdoors, shining on the window jamb offering me a bit of comfort and ease.

I put the thermos on the floor and sipped the hot coffee.  Unlike its decanter, the coffee offered no hint of sorrow, no reminder of desolation.  It offered only hope and optimism with a smell and flavor that promises a rich, bright future.  I finished the cup and simply put it and the thermos in my bag, refusing to offer the rubber gasket a second voice.

Monday, July 29, 2013

For Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

I could still feel in the back of my head, the smell of 70-year-old grease and oil.   Even though the garage door was closed and I was good ways off the pungent odor had a way of finding me, magically warming and repulsing me at the same time. 

I’d spent the better part of 2 months with my hands stuck deep in the dark muck of a 1946 Willys Jeep, the rebirthing of which was to be a gift for my father upon his retirement.  It seemed a fitting gift, dad was born in ’41 and this was born in ’46.  He drove one on his first job (that I was old enough to recall), now he can drive one on his last job – the one that I’ll never forget. 

Transmission, transfer case, steering knuckles and axles all were field dressed; disemboweled, reviewed, fiddled with, cleaned and reassembled with amazement and reverence.  She’d been a “field find” which means that my heart ran way ahead of my brain, seeing in that fallow field a vehicle that offered only a vision of finished beauty and not the gnarly and unlikely road between the two.  I became a lover who saw only beauty and was incapable of seeing fault, I fell for her like Sampson falling for Delilah; and now I find myself shorn of golden locks, shackled to a temple wall.

With that image in my mind I began to rummage around my “temple” for a place to “shackle” myself.  It’s an old garage filled with interesting histories; partially filled boxes with bolts, nuts, and nails; numerous paint cans many with lids rusted solid on the top of wall colors that were applied no less than 3 colors ago.  Dusty piles of lumber, tools of every description – all, coming to life under an array of ceiling lights of which no two are the same.  The music wafting through the garage is a mix of country and western and seems to help justify the search for an aluminum lawn chair and the inevitable cold beer that was soon-to-be-grabbed from the fridge.

In a matter of minutes, the image of Sampson fades from my memory and I once again stare lovingly at the task before me.  Her broad and rusted carcass lies belly-up on the floor while her skeleton stands nearby naked and at the ready, like a model waiting for the artist to begin drawing.  The rough slices from the cutting torch have now yielded to more surgically precise incisions from a small cutting wheel as bits and pieces of body are matched and patched back onto the vehicle.  Each weld, each tack, each tap of the hammer is an event that for me seems to turn back the hands of the clock – just a little bit.

Getting back to work, I listen to the sizzle of the welder as it stiches old and new together, yet slowly that sound changes.  It goes from a pleasing flow state to a bit of a stutter, making me think for a moment that the welding tank must be empty. Slowly that threshold of sound changes into the unmistakable wail of Bethany from inside the house and in a moment my joy plummets.  It’s not unlike a rollercoaster ride, one big loop where the adrenaline makes you scream for a moment and then you feel it fade as the ride slows down and the last turn reveals the station; the end of the ride. 

I cut the weld short and lift my hood giving a big blow on the red-hot weld (as if my breath would actually cool hot steel) and admire how rust has turned into something useful again. “It’s not pride or arrogance” I think to myself as I pull my sweaty gloves off.  “It’s more like preservation of historic artifact” as I stand, hearing again the full volume scream from the house.  I reach over and shut the valve off on the tank with the full knowledge that it may be hours before I come back out here.  I brush off my filthy clothes, look at the tiny weld burns on my arms, jeans and shoes and head for the back door.   Her screams now have begun to acoustically match the physical gyrations that she’s accompanying them with  - more drama.  “What’s the issue?” I ask the helper as I walk in the back door.  “She’s upset about her jeans again” she replies.  My heart sinks a little further because I now this a 90 minute issue at best, at worst it can go on for days.  Suddenly the same pants she’s been wearing night and day for 3 consecutive days are clearly not the same ones that she recalls and the endless search for the “right ones” is on.  No level of patience or understanding will suffice – no trickery will work, no logic will soothe.  It’s just a matter of following her around as she screams, punches and throws everything in sight.  My patience is thin, hers; non-existent.

It’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself at this point.  You’ve not had a vacation in years and even that one you did take was only 4 days long.  You’ve been at this for better than 17 years; you’re tired of diapers, tired of arguments, tired of getting punched.  Your idea of a "day off" is that you stay home and work because you have 3 hours where she’ll be gone.  Your wife is spent and your relationship with her is like the rust outline of what used to be a floor brace on the old Willys, offering only the memory of what was once support.  The fact that you’ve not fallen through the floor is proof that God is the only thing supporting you. 

Inwardly, you allow yourself that grief because it’s the most real thing you have in your life.  You can share it with precious few (lest they quickly abandon you) and you find yourself "bottling it up" or “bottling it out” more and more.   Somehow you manage to compassionately find a smile for your workmates as they return from time away and complain that their vacation was difficult because it rained, or they didn’t get the campsite they’d hoped for, or worse still, their kids were bored.  Inwardly, you go home and head back out into that same odor-filled garage to continue working on that old Jeep, patching one rust hole at a time.  It too reflects the same dual qualities as the sword of Damocles does at home with your special daughter, hanging above your head offering you the richest and most horrifying experience at the same time.  You keep coming back to that throne largely because you know it’s your mission, your purpose, the very reason God put you here and keeps you here on this earth.  Doesn’t mean you understand it and it certainly doesn't mean you like or appreciate it or think its unfair; it just means that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.

I pray that the single horsehair holding the sword continues to hold fast.  That the simple fragment of rust that holds the floor together (like our marriage), continues to defy physics.  I pray that this old Jeep soon carries my father on many a joyful trip in this “next job” of his, and I pray that my mind and heart hold steady for just this day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

With Rice Stuck to my Butt...

She woke up happy this morning, I should have known I’d have wet sheets; why else would she be up so early?  As she stood there dancing around, chirping like an early morning bird, I gathered wet bedding happy for the joy in her voice.  The more I dug at the sheets, the more I realized the severity of the watering.  As she turned around I saw the dark outline reaching up to her middle back; “crap” I muttered out loud.  I knew the battle I was in for – a wet sweatshirt, vest, camisole and jeans meant this morning would turn into an epic battle.

I struggled to get her to surrender the ever-present denim vest and hooded sweatshirt, peeling them off with her fighting with every ounce of resistance she could offer.  Pulling that sweatshirt off in her mind is like flaying skin and sometimes I wonder if it hasn’t been on so long that it’s actually attached to her.

I managed to get them all off and summarily marched her to the shower.  Once in, I have 120 seconds in which I can do anything I please.  Drink coffee, read a book, make breakfast.  120 seconds that’s also shared by the need to get her scrubbed, get her new clothes ready for the reassembly process.  Reassembling the front end of a Volkswagen is far easier than dressing this little livewire.

We went through numerous camisoles before she found one that was acceptable, the jeans went easy, and the denim vest however, was a deal breaker.  No power on earth was going to get her to wear a substitute, in fact had my wife not prepared rice for breakfast I’d likely still be fighting with her on that topic.  She settled at the table, minus the favorite vest and sweatshirt although not without making one feeble pull on the washer door and punch at the colored buttons on the control panel.  They offered her no support either so she moved on to breakfast without too much drama.

The bus rumbles down the driveway early.  With Bethany, three minutes on either side of “expected” clearly constitutes early or late, with its rumble comes the fear that they’ll not wait long enough for me to get her harnessed and out the door and I begin to panic.  She’s not cooperating and fully expects the washer to produce a dry vest and sweatshirt. 

For parents with kids who exhibit obsessive/compulsive tendencies, this is a familiar pattern.  A seemingly insignificant change in routine, pattern, expectation, sets off a firestorm of wild behavior.  I did my best to peaceably cope with it but the fear of missing the bus and having to cart her 40 minutes in the “wrong” direction was not appealing so I put the full court press on her.  I grabbed the four-point harness that she wears on the bus and quickly lassoed her with it.  I zipped the back of it up and proceeded to use the excess webbing as a carrying handle.  I stuffed the secondary hooded sweatshirt and vest in to her day bag and directed her out the door.

I felt like Karl Walenda on the high wire, taking her out to the bus without a sweatshirt I felt fearful, liberated, daring, like I was passing a long line of cars on a narrow road.  Adrenaline rushed in my heart at the thought of putting her on the bus “freestyle”.  She stomped her way to the door and bolted up the stairs intent on punching the first human she encountered.  The bus attendant could see the steaming fury coming at her and backed out of the way, I simply offered to guide her to her seat in the back.  Back seat, surrounded by crash pads – that’s my daughter. 

I’m not a person that “throws things over the fence” for others to deal with.  Even when re-roofing houses I rarely ever shingle over an existing roof – that just means someone else will have to take off two layers.  On this occasion, Putting her in that seat and heading towards the front of the bus was the emotional equivalent of putting on a third layer of shingles – its just not right, against code, and nearly unethical.  I did the best I could; I quietly prayed that she’d have a good day in spite of the rough beginning.

Nearly every day is like this and in an odd way, it separates us from the “normal” worries of the world.  One day I’ll likely worry about the clothes I wear to work, whether or not I have her breakfast rice stuck to my butt or drool on my sleeve.  One day the screams of other students on her bus, their conditions and my joy at greeting them in their own little languages (no Chad – no party today; no Robert, you’re not going to church; Mia, you have the most beautiful smile behind that paper mask).  One day that will all seem distant to me, I pray when that day comes that I still love the thought of and cherish the lesson from having breakfast rice stuck to my butt.