On a crisp, clear Saturday morning in spring, twenty years ago, I spent the better part of the day fighting off multiple attackers.
I was seventeen when I took up Tae Kwon Do. Like almost everyone starting out in the Martial Arts, that elusive black belt was my end goal. “Once I get my black, I’ll know everything there is to know,” I thought.
A few years later, and I had switched from Tae Kwon Do to a street fighting based mixed Martial Arts. The day I tested for my red belt, everything came together for me: My forms, my strength, my flexibility, my ability to learn and employ new techniques. That day stands out in my memory as an excellent day. I was at my prime and knew it. Nothing was going wrong for me. Other students apparently noticed as well .
At one point when my instructor, Mr. Smith, took the other black belts out of the gym in order to discuss everyone’s performance, one of the other students came up to me and said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were talking about skipping red and advancing you straight to black.” I was honestly stunned. I felt good about my performance that day, but not to the point where I felt I had earned the rank of black. Moreover, I thought, but I’m not ready. I don’t know everything about the Martial Arts yet.
And that’s also when a prior comment by Mr. Smith came back to me, that when a Martial Arts student attains his or her black belt, that that is when the real learning —the real work — begins. Of course, most forms of Martial Arts have more than one level of black belt, usually ten. And this is when I realized that there’s a reason for this — everything up to that point is basics.
On a damp, slightly overcast Saturday morning one year ago, I pledged myself to the woman I intend to spend the rest of my life with.
And that was the day that, even though we had already been together for more than five years and had lived together for the majority of that time, I knew the real work in our relationship would begin.
Looking back, I realize that dating is really just the training phase for marriage. It’s when you discover your strengths and weaknesses as well as what you look for in a partner, what qualities you like and don’t like. Dating is belt levels white through red. This is the time to make your mistakes, look for guidance, pay attention, learn from your peers, take your hits. And then, when you’re ready to take the next step, that’s when the real work begins.
When you say “I do,” you advance from learning what makes up a relationship to how to sustain one. And that takes care, patience, understanding, and a willingness to continue to learn. After all, you can’t earn your second degree black belt if you stop learning once that first black is around your waist. Nor your third, nor your fourth.
I won’t lie. It’s hard. It takes commitment. It tests you in ways you’ve never been tested before. And, yes, you’ll still take some hits. Harder ones, in some cases, because the difficulty level has been amped up. This isn’t something for amateurs. A lot of marriages fail for a lot of reasons, just like a lot of Martial Arts students drop out before and after attaining their black belts. In many cases, they’re simply not prepared for how difficult it is. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s supposed to be. And you have to commit to it every single day.
As for me, I was happy to receive my red belt that day I tested. I wasn’t ready for black and my instructors and I all knew it. I still had a lot of training to do.
A year ago today, I said “I do,” and entered that next level in my relationship. This time, I was ready. It’s something that still overwhelms me at times (in a good way). I won’t say I have all the answers, that I know everything there is to know about marriage, but simply by knowing this and by treating each day as an opportunity to learn and grow, I’m confident that we’ll both succeed in the many years to come.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with this space, I know. In my defense, the last year and a half have been challenging, to say the least. I’ll fill you in, but I’m going to start at the end and work backward through subsequent blogs.
My last blog entry was posted on Mother’s Day last year, celebrating the strong, intelligent, capable woman my mother was, highlighting the challenges she had been through and the battles she’d had to fight, including multiple recurrences of breast cancer.
Today is the one-month anniversary of her passing. After 18 years, the cancer finally won.
The end came sooner and quicker than expected — at least in part because her cancer was further advanced than we knew (we knew about the mets to the bone, but not those to the brain or the liver involvement. She had recently found out but hadn’t told anyone). Still, even though her passing was ultimately expected, it didn’t make it easier to say goodbye to one of the most important and influential people in my life and one of my main role models.
I mean, seriously, I wouldn’t be on this earth without her. She was a part of my daily life. She was there for all of my successes and many of my failures. She got me through some of the most difficult times of my life. And now she’s gone. Just…gone.
This isn’t meant to be a pity party, rather an introspection. Because it’s been a month and I feel like I’m doing better than I should be. Likely, this has at least something to do with the relief that the long hike toward the inevitable is over and that she’s no longer in pain (for the last couple of years, she had severe neuropathy in her legs from both the chemo and the bone metastasis, which made it extremely difficult for her to do much of anything, including walking) and knowing that she’s in a better place.
Possibly it has to do with the fact that I was forced to go through all the stages of grief in the week before she passed (boy, that was ugly), up to and including the acceptance stage.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that my wife, step-father, and step-sister were going through it with me and that I had some really amazing friends to lean on, some of whom had also laid parents to rest, including a couple of good friends who had also lost their mothers to cancer. They did an absolutely amazing job escorting me through my own personal transition, just as the hospice facility did an excellent job escorting my mother through her final transition.
And maybe that’s another part of it. From the moment she entered the hospital on Tuesday, September 6th, until the time she passed the following Tuesday, Mom was in outstanding hands. She spent most of her final week at Hospice of Dayton and they took exceptional care of her. Even though she was all but unresponsive, they still maintained her privacy and dignity (by shutting the blinds in her room whenever they moved or cleaned her, for example) and still announced themselves and talked to her, telling her what they were going to do before they did it if it involved personal contact.
Because Mom was a nurse — even having worked home hospice early in her career – the facility held an honor guard ceremony for her, honoring her work and thanking her for her service. I had been told early that morning by the nurse leading the ceremony that due to a scheduling mix-up on her end, it would likely be only her and one other nurse performing the ceremony. I told her that was fine, as long as we were still able to do it. I was shocked, however, when she came into my mother’s room in full traditional nursing regalia — think Florence Nightingale, complete with nursing hat and cape — trailed by no less than eight nurses. Between me, my wife, my step-father and his brother, my step-sister, and one of Mom’s nursing friends who was able to make it, the room was packed.
The ceremony was brief, but beautiful. Several of those performing it, including the nurse leading it, got choked up. They recited Mom’s successes, accolades, and the impact she had on her patients, nurses, family, and friends, after which they recited the poem She Was There, by Duane Jaeger, RN, MSN, followed by the nursing pledge. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room at the end. I just wish Mom could have seen.
She passed away peacefully around 5:30 that same evening.
Like I said, that was a month ago today. It’s strange for me to think that I haven’t seen or spoken to my mom in the last month, when we used to talk on the phone several times a week. It seems like I just spoke to her a few days ago.
I’ve been told that the months following the passing of someone close can be harder than the period of time immediately after. While I’m not looking forward to that if it happens, it is nice to know because I can be ready for it and recognize it if and when I experience it.
That’s not to say that I don’t miss Mom, because I absolutely do. There are little moments that sneak in, when I get home from doing a 5K or something, where I briefly think “I need to call Mom and tell her about this” and then immediately realize I can’t. Or when my wife and I are making plans and I have the thought that it’s something Mom would enjoy doing…except she can’t. Little moments like that are tough, but pass quickly. Not like the raging, screaming, crying fits when I realized that Mom wasn’t coming home from the hospital this time.
And I’m not looking forward to the upcoming holidays, Christmas in particular – that was always her favorite and remains my favorite holiday. It’s just not going to be the same. Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day, her birthday. Even my birthday because no longer will I get that phone call at 10:54 in the morning – the time I was born – with her singing “happy birthday” to me on the other end of the line. I used to give her a hard time about it, but I secretly enjoyed it. And I know she knew I did.
I know the next year is going to be rough. But for now, I’m doing okay. If that changes, I’ll let you know. I think experiences like this warrant sharing, especially if one person who’s going through something similar happens to stumble upon this and finds it helpful.
Below is the full text of She Was There, by Duane Jaeger, RN, MSN, which perfectly suits my mom:
When a calming, quiet presence was all that was needed, She was there.
In the excitement and miracle of birth or in the mystery and loss of life, She was there.
When a silent glance could uplift a patient, family member or friend, She was there.
At those times when the unexplainable needed explained, She was there.
When the situation demanded a swift foot and sharp mind, She was there.
When a gentle touch, a firm push, or an encouraging word was needed, She was there.
In choosing the best one from a family’s “thank you box of chocolates,” She was there.
To witness humanity – its beauty, in good times and bad, without judgement, She was there.
And now that it is time to be at the Greater One’s side She is there!
If you can, call your mom, tell her you love her. Call your dad, your sisters, your brothers. Hug tight your husband or wife, your children. Take a moment to appreciate all they’ve done — and continue to do — for you and what they mean in your life and let them know how important they are. It only takes a moment, but makes all the difference.
Today is a day for honoring mothers. Because, really, where would any of us be without them?
I’ve never told her this, but I admire my mother greatly. She may not have been a perfect mother, but she did her best and I think, looking back, she did pretty OK. She all but raised 3 kids by herself (my dad was around throughout my childhood, but wasn’t exactly present). She’s the one who sat me on her lap from as early on as I can remember and read to me, everything from books to comics to the Sunday comics. She told me when I was older that she was actually disappointed when I learned how to read for myself because she knew she would miss that time with me.
She’s the one who donated her Sunday mornings to spreading God’s word by teaching Sunday school at the Methodist church. I still have friends who had her for their Sunday school teacher who say she was their favorite.
She’s the one who worked evenings making appliances for a local orthodontist for something like $7 an hour.
She’s the one who made sure Santa came every Christmas, staying up until the wee hours to make sure everything was perfect for that one magical morning.
She’s the one who made the tough decision to go back to school at age 40 to get her RN degree in order to be able to provide better for herself as well as her children because she was tired of struggling to make ends meet because it was more important for my dad to go to bowling tournaments in Reno than make sure his family was provided for.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, subsequently underwent a mastectomy, and then had her first recurrence about ten years later. On the same side she had had it in the first time, which should have been impossible because everything including her lymph nodes had been removed.
She’s the one who sponsored a trip to Disney World a few years ago with my family as well as my stepsister’s so that she could share the experience with her grandkids.
She’s the one who fought hard for the privilege of caring for her own mother in her old age, which she was able to do for about three years before that choice was taken away from her by family members with an agenda.
She’s the one who tries to make sure that her granddaughters are exposed to positive female influences.
Then, after working as a nurse for close to 25 years and earning several awards for the quality of care she provided, last fall Mom was finally forced to step away from the job she loves due to the third recurrence of her cancer, this time with metastases to her bones. Still, though, she’s a fighter and still plans on hanging around for some time to come.
I’m honored to call her my mother because she’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. She’s a role model not just for what a mother should be, but what a daughter, grandmother, nurse, and woman of God ought to be.
I’m extremely proud to announce the release of a new horror anthology, The Horror Society Presents: Forgotten Places, featuring my short story “Moonville.” In it, a family goes searching for a ghost town in Southern Ohio and stumbles upon a century-old murder scene. Then they get a hands-on history lesson.
Moonville is a real location in Southern Ohio, which I’ve visited several times. The town itself no longer exists except for a few building foundations if you know where to look, but the tiny town cemetery and the train tunnel are still there, landmarks for the curious. The train tracks that used to pass by this fly-speck of a town (there were scarcely more than 100 people living there at its peak in the 1870s) are long gone, as is the trestle across Racoon Creek. Where the tracks used to run is now a designated hiking/riding path that takes you right through the locally well-known tunnel.
The area was particularly dangerous, especially as residents had to walk the rails in order to get anywhere. This was made exponentially more dangerous by two long trestles and the tunnel itself, which was just wide enough to accommodate a train. It’s estimated that no less than 5 or 6 people, including a 10-year-old girl, lost their lives to locomotives along that stretch of tracks. In addition, it’s known that several men who worked on the railroad lost their lives as well. Back then, it was a difficult and dangerous profession, as there were few, if any, safety protocols in place. Working as a brakeman, for example, required one to traverse the top of the train as it was moving. One unexpected turn or jolt could send him tumbling between the cars or beneath the wheels of the locomotive.
And then, of course, there was the murder of David “Baldie” Keeton (or possibly “Baldy Keaton” — there’s some disagreement on the spelling of his name), who liked to get drunk at the local tavern and start fights. One night he picked a fight with the wrong men and was told to leave. He left eventually — with some heavy persuasion — but then on his way home, Baldie was waylaid outside the tunnel entrance. When he was found, it looked as if he had been hit by at least three trains. No one was ever convicted of the murder. Baldie’s angry spirit is said to rest atop the tunnel and throw rocks and pebbles at those who pass underneath, which is consistent with his bullying personality in life.
Other ghost stories naturally surround the place as well: an engineer with a lamp, a woman in white, a female ghost who smells of lavender, an 8-foot tall black figure, among others, are all said to haunt the place.
With such a rich and interesting history — not to mention the fact that my mother’s side of the family is originally from the Athens area, which isn’t a far drive — it was just too good an opportunity to pass up writing a horror story about the place, incorporating the history, the people, and the spirits. I consider myself lucky that I was able to find such a perfect home for it.
Below, I’ve included a short excerpt from the story itself. For orientation purposes, Dan and Laura are the parents, Erik and Jennifer their teenage kids. We pick up just as Laura enters the tunnel and decides to test its unique acoustic properties.
Laura stood in front of the tunnel entrance, which dwarfed the short, stocky woman. She raised her arms, palms upward. The tunnel beyond was lost in darkness. The opening at other end was a small spot of bright light that could easily be blocked out by Erik’s fist held at arm’s length.
“Can you feel it?” The excitement in Laura’s voice was clear.
“Feel what?” Dan asked in a bored tone.
“The energy! It’s so…vibrant! It’s like the ground is humming. I can practically feel the trains passing by us, the spirits of the people who used to live here. It’s amazing!”
“Mm-hmm,” Dan said.
“So much energy here,” Laura said to no one in particular. Then she stepped forward. As she passed through the entrance, a shower of pebbles fell around her. Laura jumped and gasped, then turned excitedly to her family. “Did you see that?” she said. “That was Baldie Keeton! Baldie Keeton just dropped stones on me!”
Dan shook his head. “Laura,” he said. “It’s an old train tunnel in the woods. It was probably an animal or maybe the ground settling.”
“Oh,” Laura replied. “Yes, I’m sure that’s it. Still, though. The timing was odd. It was just as I entered the tunnel.”
“Yes, Dear. That was odd.”
“Hey!” Laura exclaimed. “Stay here, you guys! I want to try something.” Dan, Erik, and Jennifer all exchanged puzzled glances as Laura made her way to the other end of the tunnel, but they did what she asked and waited. Once at the other end, Laura, a small, dark silhouette against the bright daylight beyond, spoke. And the others heard her clearly, just as if she were standing right next to them.
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes!” Dan shouted.
Laura shouted back, “You don’t have to yell! Just talk in a normal tone!”
“Okay,” Dan yelled. Then he dropped his voice. “Can you hear me?”
“I heard you!” Laura exclaimed. “That is so cool!” Erik had to admit it was a neat trick being able to talk to one another from better than fifty yards away without raising their voices. They each tried it. Once they got bored with that, they made their way to the center of the tunnel. As their eyes adjusted, they discovered that it wasn’t as dark as it looked from outside. Again, vandals had tagged the brick walls. There was also evidence of at least one campfire. A pentagram had been spray-painted on the ground in the middle of the tunnel with arcane symbols around it. Melted candles suggested a séance, or perhaps something more nefarious had been attempted in this spot. Erik wondered aloud if whoever was responsible had actually made contact with the other side. They four of them then moved on toward the other end of the tunnel, pointedly ignoring the more explicit graffiti.
At one point, Laura, Dan, and Jennifer all jumped and brushed off their faces and shoulders, saying something about walking through a spider web. Looking for it, though, they were unable to see it. Erik felt it, too, as he walked forward, a sensation of tiny fibers catching on his skin and clothes. He likewise brushed at his face and shoulders, but he couldn’t find the spider web either.
Suddenly, Laura stopped, her curly hair bobbing as she did so. “Did you hear that?” she asked. The others listened.
“Hear what?” Dan asked.
“Shhh! Listen!” They did. And then they heard it too—a far off train whistle. “There! That! Did you hear it?”
Dan replied, “It was just a train.”
“But there aren’t any trains within miles of here,” Laura said, frowning.
“The way the acoustics are around here,” Dan said, “It could be echoing off the hills, for all we know. There certainly aren’t any trains out here, though, that’s for sure.”
“But then why can I hear it running on the tracks?” Laura asked.
Dan frowned, listening. Then his eyes widened. At that moment, Erik and Jennifer heard it, too—the distinct sound of a train running on rails. The whistle sounded again, louder this time.
“Uh, guys?” Jennifer said, her voice quiet.
“What, Jennifer?” Dan replied, the annoyance plain in his voice. “We’re listening to something.”
“I hear it, too,” she said. “And it sounds like it’s getting closer.”
“Yeah,” Erik said softly, starting to freak out a little. “It does. It really does.”
“And were these tracks here before?” Jennifer asked.
Startled, they all looked down. At their feet was a set of train tracks that Erik was certain hadn’t been there a moment before.
“Okayyyy,” Erik said, stepping away from the rails. “Those definitely weren’t there a second ago. I’m getting pretty freaked out here.”
“No,” Dan said in a quiet voice. “No, they weren’t. However, I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this. There has to be. But it doesn’t matter, because we’re leaving.” And he started walking back the way they had come. The others followed.
But they didn’t get very far when they heard the train again. And this time it was close. Very close. In fact, it was coming toward them.
Just beyond the entrance of the tunnel, on the very same tracks they were standing on, an enormous black steam locomotive was bearing down on them, a great black cloud of smoke belching from the smokestack. The cowcatcher on the front grinned malevolently. The whistle screamed again. Carried to them by the perfect acoustics of the tunnel, the sound was deafening.
My daughters were about 3 and 5 years old when it became blatantly apparent that my marriage to their mother wasn’t working. My divorce wasn’t final until 2012, but I haven’t lived in that house, or even that state, since early 2010. Making the decision to move from Western New York to Southwest Ohio, 300 miles away from my girls, back to where I had grown up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t think a day has gone by since that I haven’t wondered whether they’ll grow up to resent me for it.
But this Valentine’s Day, I think I finally breathed a sigh of relief that we may come out of this alright. My girls made me the absolute best cards I could have hoped for.
The inside reads: “Hope you have a Valentines day as sweet as you. Happy Valentines day dad. Kaitlyn.”
The inside reads: “I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day as great as you and that’s pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty great! You are the best Dad in the world so you deserev a fantastic Valentine’s Day So I made a gift for you. Look on back.”
My eyes were getting misty at this point. It reads: “Dad you are the best Dad ever and you are the Dad I love Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, Sarah.”
I couldn’t stand it. I tried not to get teary-eyed, but I’m pretty sure I failed. But my girls gave me the absolute best gifts ever and didn’t even know it; they let me know I was doing a pretty okay job as their dad and that despite the distance and the obstacles, we actually have a pretty great relationship. Melanie has told me more times than I can count that having left that place and that bad situation, I made it possible to actually be their dad, whereas that wouldn’t have been possible there.
It stings when I think that Katie will probably only remember me being there to a very limited degree and that Sarah will probably never remember me living there. But I’m getting to the point where I’m okay with that because now we can make our own memories. As a result, rather than associate me with a place where I was miserable, they’ll now associate me with this place, this beautiful house, this home we’re trying to build for them in Ohio, and all the memories we create here. And honestly, I think I’d prefer that. I’m just lucky as hell that I have such an amazing support system between my mother, step-father, step-sister, and Melanie, not to mention all the friends I’ve made in the last few years who have become like family to me (*ahem* Chelly) because I really couldn’t have done all this on my own.
I won’t say that depression and ennui didn’t weigh me down, because for a long time I felt like a huge failure; I couldn’t even keep my family together, for God’s sake. And there were times I wished there was a support group for dads who lived 300 miles away from their kids because I didn’t know how to do that. But in the end, I came to understand that I wasn’t meant to be there. I had to find my own path and figure out who I was, not just as a person, but as a father, which, again, I never really would have had the opportunity to do in that relationship on either count. So, basically, we needed this in order to be a stronger family. And it’s nice, too, that the girls have accepted Melanie so well (I figure there will come a time when they can’t really remember when she wasn’t in the picture). In fact, they each made her a Valentine’s Day card, too.
“Roses are red Violets are blue. Hope you have a Valentines as sweet as a bowl of you.”
“Hope you have a Valentine’s Day as sweet as a flower. Hope you like this card I’m makeing you and you have a great Valentine’s Day as great as you and thats really really really really great.”
Last weekend, while Melanie and I were in Western New York visiting my daughters, we got some terrible news – a friend of my younger daughter Sarah had been killed in a car accident along with her mother. The events surrounding the accident aren’t clear. All we know is that the vehicle they were in hit the back of a semi parked on the side of the highway. The father, who was driving, and two sisters got out of it with relatively minor injuries.
At first, we didn’t know that Sarah knew the girl involved, who was only 9 years old. We were at the hotel swimming pool, which has a direct view of the Thruway, and noticed that traffic was barely moving. We guessed that there had been a bad accident, but didn’t actually see the news article until later in the afternoon.
It wasn’t until the following morning, though, that I learned the rest of the details from my ex-wife, who was understandably upset. She had sent me a text asking me to call her when I got a few moments away from the girls. I figured it was about some other business that we’re working on concluding, so didn’t worry too much about it. But when I did talk to her and discovered that the girl was one of Sarah’s best friends, I was devastated for that family, even though I didn’t know the girl or her family personally. Even more, though, I dreaded having to tell Sarah.
How do you tell an 8-year-old that her friend died? How do you explain that she’ll never see or play with her again? How do you help a child through the grieving process? How was Sarah going to react?
At first, I wasn’t sure if Sarah really understood what death is or what it means. Then I remembered that a few years ago, my ex-wife had had to put our cat Thomas to sleep because he had become very ill. We’d had Tommy since before either of the girls was born (in fact, I had had him before I even met my now ex) and Sarah had grown up with him. Plus, she has been to a couple of funerals. So I realized that she probably had a pretty good understanding of what it means to die.
The rest of that day was difficult. It was our last full day together and Melanie, my ex, and I all agreed that it the most appropriate thing to do would be to break the difficult news the following morning when I took the girls home, so that they could have the most emotional support possible. But as I said, it was difficult rest of the day, knowing what was coming and yet not really knowing how things would go.
That afternoon, we took the kids to see a movie (Paddington, for the curious, which was a fantastic family movie and a perfect afternoon distraction) and then we spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool again, followed by some Batman ’66 (which we introduced to the girls over the Holidays and which they absolutely love because we can all enjoy its campiness and silliness together). All-in-all, it was otherwise a really good day. And I’ll freely admit that I stole a few extra hugs when I could.
The next morning I had butterflies in my stomach. I was dreading delivering the bad news to my daughters. We had breakfast, cleaned up, finished packing the car, and then we were off. I felt sick for the entire 10-minute drive and I suspect I was pretty distracted, although I really don’t remember much else of those few minutes.
When we got there, we took the girls into the living room, sat down with them, and their mother delivered the bad news. At first, Sarah acted as if she didn’t understand what she had just heard. A moment later, it sank in. “She’s dead?” was all Sarah asked, and then she broke down.
She cried on her mother for several minutes, then came to me for what little comfort I could give. I did my best to reassure her, although I honestly don’t remember what I said.
My other daughter, Kaitlyn, took the news well, although she wasn’t as close to the girl as Sarah was. Still, she was visibly upset. She did her best to comfort her sister. When she told her simply, “I’m sorry, Sarah,” I was so proud of her for reaching out and, even though there’s really nothing one can say in that situation, saying the right thing.
I’m not really sure I’ve completely processed this situation. I can’t imagine what that father is going through, being forced to deal with not only his wife’s death, but the death of a young daughter as well. It kills me to hear stories like that and I hate the thought that children can get hurt.
On a personal level, I realized at some point in the middle of it all that my daughters have experienced something that I (thankfully) never have – at least, not at so young an age. As a result, I can’t completely understand or relate to what they’re going through. And I can’t escape the thought that they were forced to grow up a little bit this weekend, that they had another piece of their childhoods chipped away. It killed me to to have to witness my daughter’s heart break and be helpless to do anything about it.
Still, I did everything I could – held them, did my best to console them, and dried their tears. And now all I can do is be there for them to answer any questions they may have and try to reassure them about any fears that may develop.
No matter what happens, though, I’ve been reminded once again how precious my girls are and I plan to thank God every single day for them.