26 June 2016

And When You Stand Before The Candles On A Cake

Eight years ago today, on 26 June 2008, on what should have been my daddy's 79th birthday, I posted What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? which details a few extraordinary hours spent in my Rehoboth Beach house on 13 June 2008. Although unrelated to the piece, the 13th also happened to be my sister Sharon's 56th birthday - so sadly, as it turned out, her last.

Unlike the sudden, Rain Man-like realization on that day that I was exactly the same age as my mother when she died (48 years + assorted months and days), I knew well in advance that on this just-past 14 May, I would equal Sharon's time on earth. Some snicker at my compulsion to quantify things, but numbers and symmetry have always served to inject calm and order into the aftermath of the extreme dis-order thrust upon my family in 1973. Whatever coping mechanisms we developed, I am proud to say that at least they did not include drugs or drink.

As eight is a Mobius - an endless ribbon representing infinity - it seemed impossible NOT to post again today, on what should have been my daddy's 87th birthday, about something that happened on 13 June, on what should have been Sharon's 64th birthday.

After seeing the 3 April New York Times Book Review article on Alligator Candy, written by David Kushner, who was four when his brother was murdered and mutilated in 1973, I did not rush out to read it. Without meaning to dismiss - at all - what happened to his brother, or rate its effect, I am nonetheless positive that the sensational slaughter of my father that same year, when I was 13, and the four heartbreaking weeks after, and the development of cancer that ate away close to half of my mother's face, and the death of my grandmother, and a very public trial (all within a year), and my mother's hideous death a few years later, and the decades of dysfunction, couldn't help but affect me in a more profound manner. Maybe it was that three years earlier, after inhaling After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey, who was six when his father died of natural, yet mysterious, causes, I finally found the voice and the courage to break my 40-year silence. Maybe it was enough and I was done?

I didn't even plan on attending Mr. Kushner's talk at the Baltimore Sun on 14 June. But the nagging knowledge that Honor Thy Mother And Thy Father oddly put to rest only my mother issues, plus curiosity about Mr. Kushner and who would attend his talk - people who weirdly thrill to true crime stories or people, like me, who could write the same story? - got the best of me on 12 June, resulting in a late-evening purchase, and then a non-stop read the next morning, crowding out thoughts that it was Sharon's birthday.

With both books running approximately the same length, I noted 28 pages in After Visiting Friends where Mr. Hainey and I shared exact thoughts and words, but Mr. Kushner and I were parallel on more than 90 pages - including page 171, where he shared a letter his father wrote, asking - can't make this up - "What shall I do with the rest of my life?" Elation, eight years to the day, in finding a few other humans who spoke the same language became the catalyst to neatly tie up this 43-year-old tale.

What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? by musical geniuses Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman, was covered by multiple major recording artists, most notably (to me) Barbra Streisand. I used the second line, "North and south and east and west of your life," to title a post written seven years ago today in my East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) blog, Changing East Baltimore Together. Things come in threes, so today I've borrowed "And when you stand before the candles on a cake" because in July, I will celebrate 57 years, having received three months ago an early, most unexpected gift of at least some sort of closure.

When the assistant state's attorney rang my phone on 28 March, I expected to hear yet another twist or turn in the latest of the unending (not an exaggeration), always lame attempts of my father's confessed murderer-cum-jailhouse lawyer to get out of prison - charades that I could only silently witness in post-conviction hearings, literally multiple dozens of times over decades, from my seat but a few feet from where he sat shackled. If only Maryland taxpayers knew prisoners are entitled to such shenanigans.

Or worse, maybe I'd hear he had filed for his Unger case, where a new trial could be granted because of a technicality in juror instructions in the 1970s and 1980s. Many convicted beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt murderers now walk free among us because of Unger - some without trials, because witnesses and/or survivors died and evidence was destroyed and/or lost.

But instead, I was stunned to learn the animal had died the day before in jail. It simply never occurred to me that I would be released from the particular hell of attending court sometimes up to seven times a year or that I'd wouldn't have to endure a new trial and the attendant media circus.

I am often asked to consider turning what I have learned over 43 years into a book, but Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father, and now this, is pretty much all I want to say about the journey from unfathomable tragedy and sorrow to acceptance and everything in between and after. While Mr. Hainey and Mr. Kushner felt free to share, I still question if this genre is merely attention-getting and needy, narcissistic and pathetic - or, maybe, just possibly, brave. Whatever. Enough. Dayenu.

And anyway, to paraphrase my words of eight years ago today, I'm busy being grateful for surpassing my parents' (and Sharon's) days on earth and the ability to joyfully greet the future. Bring it on.