I’m going to start today where most people end. By saying thank you. For anyone who’s stuck with this rambling disaster of a blog for 31 days, you deserve an award. And I cannot thank you enough for your support. Your wonderfully kind words. You commitment to a ride whose destination I hadn’t yet dreamed. For anyone who stumbled upon any single section of it over the last month, I apologize for the confusion you probably felt. While I’ve tried to make the individual posts digestible, often the words have failed me. Just couldn’t get it right in the few hours I had to tell it. Or I couldn’t find the larger lesson that would have made a better vignette. I have avoided reading the previous posts because of how disappointed I’ll be with the incomplete tellings, how I might have failed to capture the many characters in my life the way I wanted. But all that aside, it’s the audience that makes it all worthwhile. It has been an absolute pleasure to revisit all the things that motivated my writing. All the new stories I heard. All the laughter it generated. All the pictures that were sent to me in hopes that they would help my journey. I was far from alone in telling this. And to all the individuals that assisted me along the way, I am forever indebted to you for your help. Many, many, many thank you’s.
It’s been a whirlwind of a month, writing about my family. About Howard. About Grandma Bonnie. And Pops. The things I shared were often raw, and that left me unsure. But I tried to trust the story. I’ve tried to take what I learned from those trips to Arkansas, to Freeport, and the many others to visit family over the years, and adapt them to some sort of useful wisdom as a parent, a venture that makes very little sense in the day-to-day grind, and more often than not leaves you feeling like you’ve enrolled in a college course far beyond the capacity of your understanding. Like building a tower with cooked spaghetti noodles. Over the last month, just the very act of writing this blog, has been so enjoyable for me. It’s helped me find my writer’s voice again, at least part of it. And so, for a moment, let’s revisit the beginning of my writer voice a few years ago. If only to gain perspective.
I wrote the draft of a novel, once upon a time, though I wasn’t a good enough writer to tell the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t Howard’s story. Just one of my own making. I drooled with anticipation as a professor of mine agreed to look at it. She took a month, and met me at a neighborhood coffee shop near my apartment. My hands were shaking with electricity as I waited for her, wondering what she thought. It was rough. Really rough. A very first draft. Not unlike the posts I’ve put up over the course of the last 31 days. When she arrived, she pulled out the manuscript, slapped it down on the table between us, and said one word.
I’m sure my eyebrows furrowed. My stomach sank. I snatched it up quickly and thumbed through the pages. No markings.
I was frustrated and perplexed by her question. It seemed to be accusatory, as much as it was inquisitive. She was calm. Looked at me without breaking eye contact.
“Think about that while I get my coffee,” she said. Everything faded out around me for a moment. No cappuccino machine. No clinking mugs. No shouting from the baristas. Just me and one word in my head.
Was she questioning the story? Was she questioning my effort? Why what? Was it so poor that she’d failed to finish it? Why had I given it to her? Why did I want her feedback? I swallowed down my irritation. Hell, I’d shared something with her that I hadn’t shown anyone, and I was self-conscious as it was. And this was her response? I wanted to get up and walk out the door, let the jingling bell signal her enough to see my backpack moving quickly down the sidewalk.
And then, in the few seconds to it took her to secure a cup of black coffee, I had figured it out. Or I thought I had.
“It’s awful,” I said as she sat down.
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“No, I get it. There’s no point to it.”
“Ben,” she said. “There’s some beautiful writing in here,” she tapped the manuscript with her fingertip. “Seriously, I mean that. There are some really memorable scenes here.”
“But it still sucks.” She laughed at me, stirring sugar into her coffee while I ground my teeth, looking for answers in my molars.
“You’re looking at it wrong. Think about the story. Tell it to me in one sentence.” I tried. And I failed. “You haven’t told the story you meant to tell in these pages,” she said. “You have developed characters, delightful scenes. But it’s missing the larger picture. It doesn’t tell the reader ‘Why.’”
The word ‘why’ was replaced in my head by the word ‘failure.’ She had identified something I’d been avoiding for the better part of the two years it took me to write the novel. What was its purpose? Why tell this story? The writing was strong. But it had no purpose. Nice story. But so what? I haven’t touched that story since the coffee shop. Not because she ruined my craft with one word, but because I still don’t know how to answer it. Maybe someday.
For this reason, setting out to write about Howard, about my family, concerned me, because I truly wasn’t sure of its purpose. I didn’t know the ‘Why?’ If I couldn’t answer that question over the course of two years of writing a book, how did I ever expect to answer it in a monthly series of blog posts? I’m still not sure it’s going to answer that question. My professor’s question. And I sure as hell can’t do it in a single sentence. But I’ll give it a shot.
When my mother’s father passed away, the pastor shared his worn Bible with the hundreds of people that showed for his funeral. It wasn’t the passages printed so long ago on the weathered paper inside that he shared with us. It was Grandpa’s notes, scrawled into the margins, my grandfather’s beautifully simple lists of knowledge, compiled during his time on this planet, highlighting a handful of tenets he lived by over course of his life. Simple words. Clear points. Complex ideas. About family and faith and peace. I wish I had a clean piece paper to show you, a neatly written list of bullet points about how to live your life, like he did, or what you should learn from the story of the unlikely pairing of Howard and Grandma Bonnie. Instead, this is a pile of strewn papers, scratched with notes and anecdotes. Photographs. Arrows indicating where a sentence might fit. Furious scratch-outs. Dog-eared pages. Coffee stains. Crumpled drafts. Here goes nothin’.
Because the timing’s never gonna be right. Because when you see that someone makes you happy, you should ask her to marry you, even if you’re missing two teeth, and have only known her for a day. Because that story will never be told if you keep waiting until you can tell it the right way.
Because there’s much more to people than meets the eye. Grandma Bonnie knew this. Grandma Bonnie is this. And so was Howard. So much more than the silly description I offered on the 2nd day of this blog. So much more as a father, and a grandfather, and a great-grandfather, than I’ll ever know. Because there’s more to all of us than anyone sees. More to us because of how we’ve been loved and hurt and taught by others who were loved and hurt and taught.
Because you can’t spend your whole life being angry about things you can’t control. Sometimes you have to close doors. Other times, you reconcile it within yourself, like Grandma Bonnie.
“I don’t hold any grudges,” Grandma Bonnie said to Pops a few weeks ago during a conversation that circled around Harold. “I just think about it like, maybe, he was planning ahead.” It’s these attitudes, these choices, that forged her survival in what can be a cruel world. It’s the reason she laughs as hard as she hugs.
Because, sometimes, you just have to skip the funeral. And because other times you have to go, even when you’ve got no real business being there.
Sometimes the pain is just too real, too severe. Too lasting. Too raw. Family is funny like that. Often our reactions can come down to the flip of a coin. We know these people well enough that we can forgive them, defend them to the ends of the earth for even the most horrible offenses. Just as easily, we can turn our backs on them. Such a strange, subtle difference between, “How could you?” and “How can’t you…they’re family?”
Because family runs deeper than the blood in your veins or the accent in your voice.
Because stories are meant to be shared. They bring us together. Like our most distant ancestors huddled around fire. Throw away the phones, computers, and televisions, and you still find stories. They capture us. Summarize us. Teach us about the world. Warn. Advise. Tie us together in a way that looks beyond race and religion and financial means. They educate. Simplify. Complicate. They make us laugh. Cry. Gasp. We see the bigger picture. Narrow in on overlooked truths. They are the fabric of us.
Because you have to let your kids get dirty.
Because they have to know how to deal with being bored.
Because sometimes you have to take the scenic route, even when it makes you want to throw up.
Because sometimes, you just have the throw the damn dishes away and start over.
Because parents are imperfect.
Because children are, too. And so are husbands and wives. But because sometimes, they are exactly what we need.
Because sometimes all you have left when you’ve lost everything, is laughter.
Because you never know where you might feel at home.
Because sometimes we really don’t need any new friends, but that shouldn’t stop us from squeezing the ones we have a little tighter.
Because, as Howard would say, “Sometimes you have to get along, to get along.”
Because you have to love the ones you love.
Because everyone’s life is an adventure, even if they’ve never tried Stumpwater.
Because curiosity and laughter are two of the most important things you can carry with you.
Because someday, when you’re gone, maybe all you can truly hope for is that someone sits down to a birthday cake to blow out the candles, and wants you back.
*I’ve included a link to a short video, patched together with pictures I wasn’t able to include along the way. The audio is pulled from a video of Howard, playing guitar at home, almost exactly one month before he left us. You can hear the oxygen machine in the background, but if you listen close, you can discern the life he’s breathing right into the guitar, even in his mid-90s, even as sick as he was. Music still had something to share with him. And he still had something to share with us.