Coming June 2017
All I want is 20-20 vision
A total portrait with no omissions
All I want is a vision of you.
– Debbie Harry
In the Beginning
It was strangely warm and humid that winter day. The pretty, 20 year-old girl with brown hair and matching eyes looked as though she might burst from the life kicking inside her. She occupied herself with chores around the humble mobile home that was our abode in the tiny hamlet of Mineral Wells, Texas.
And she waited.
The date was January 15th 1982, and there was hope. Hope and optimism were ever present on that unusually warm winter day.
And we waited.
A warm meal, a night of television, and a warm blanket filled the time as we noticed a sudden shift in the temperature. This is a common phenomenon in Texas. It’s not unusual for the weather to turn on a dime. An undeniable maxim in Texas is that if the weather is balmy in winter, a glacial freeze is coming—and come it did.
That night ushered in a cold front dubbed the Siberian Express, a record breaking Blue Norther that sent temperatures plummeting across the Midwest and into Texas. And with it, early the next morning, came the new life: our first born, Timothy Evans Oliver.
His first day outside the warmth and protection of his mother’s womb, the temperature was a chillingly raw 15 degrees. Looking back, it now seems like an omen. A child born to lower middle-class parents, who would know difficulty most of his life, but one who would also eventually overcome life’s adversity.
It is this tension of strained adversity and the unending struggle to overcome it that built the frame of notability that characterizes his story. It is a story of redemption although it ends so uncharacteristic of most redemptive stories. And it is that uncharacteristic ending that makes his story worth telling because it was only after witnessing the end, that we could step back and understand precisely what had been wrought.
The frame was decorated with a fabric containing patterns so heart wrenching in the making, yet so uplifting when we were able to retreat a few paces and witness his life in its entirety.
Most redemptive stories end with something akin to “And they all lived happily ever after.”—but in a few, the protagonist does not survive and the supporting characters must go on without him. They must go on living and in so doing they must find meaning in the gain of the life they knew with him and the loss of his departure. For this is where true redemption lies. It is hidden in the understanding of the protagonist in the aftermath of his demise.
We do not live perfect lives but when our lives are complete, those we leave behind begin, little by little, to understand the redemption of all our mistakes and shortcomings through the gift of our existence.
The life Tim lived is just such a story.
To the world at large, Tim is seen as a ne’er-do-well. A common meth addict with seven felony convictions. A low-life thief who stole from his own family and refused to work for a living. A thing to be discarded on the heap of our so-called justice system. That unforgiving lens is how we justify our treatment of these people as refuse. I know the lens well; I once wore those spectacles.
Long before his passing I said on several occasions that “If he were anyone else’s son, I would say ‘Lock him up and throw away the key.’ But he isn’t someone else’s son. He’s my son.”
In a moment of reflection in the wake of Tim’s passing, I lamented to my friend Lacey who saw me through so many dark moments, about the throw-away attitude of our society regarding our prisoners, our addicts, and our mentally infirm. Her reply was that of a mother:
“When I see someone abused in the name of justice, I always think ‘That’s someone’s baby. Someone rocked that person as a child. That person mattered to someone.'”
Tim did matter. But he mattered not simply because he was my son. He mattered because of what he was capable of and all the lost potential of what could be. We all witnessed the tender heart that compelled him to do anything in his power for anyone in need. The moments of lucidity and clarity when the veil of drug induced madness would be lifted, albeit less frequently and more briefly as time passed, reminded us of the person Tim actually was.
We were fondly reminded in those moments of the little boy with the big heart, the misguided teen who lost his way, and the grown man who ultimately mattered, and this is his story.
And although it is a story of redemption, it is also a story of destruction, for there can be no redemption without destruction. In the wake of his passing I have spent countless hours recounting the good and the bad, the vice and virtue, the purity and depravity not only of his life, but of my own.
The unexpected death of a loved one, especially that of a child, demands self-examination. You aren’t given the option of ignoring your contribution to such an event. You are forced to look at yourself and the way you have conducted your life with respect to such an event. You are compelled to ask questions theretofore unconsidered.
And while the questions are innumerable, the answers are unforthcoming. What materializes instead is the realization that, ultimately, you are mortal. Finite. Human. Ultimately, you realize you have very little control over the outcome of such a thing as the untimely end of a life. Yet you examine your role, and this reality compounds the perplexity that asserts itself as you endlessly search for answers.
In the case of Tim’s passing we were all forced to allow acceptance to subsume unanswerable questions, and I suspect that is the norm for any such loss.
I have a friend who some time ago had to put down a dog she had raised from a puppy. I listened as she described the experience of going through the decision process of actively ending the life of her beloved companion. The highest hurdle she was forced to traverse was the notion of playing God, and I think that aspect was the most difficult because we aren’t meant to play God. Irony being what it is, though, not being able to play God is the most difficult aspect of unexpectedly losing a loved one. We are left with a sense of injustice and absence of control.
We want to play God. We want to bring back the deceased or miraculously prevent the circumstance that ended their existence here with us. Yet we know we are powerless to do so, and madness often ensues. A kind of knowing in a sea of disbelief that the event has befallen us.
Ultimately, the mind of the bereaved creates a story around that person and his life. What it meant, why it mattered, and who it touched.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
This over-quoted line from It’s a Wonderful Life is eloquent in both its brevity and meaning. How many lives did Tim touch in a meaningful way? We cannot know, but in attempting to achieve that understanding we overlook a more important question. In the horrible aftermath of losing a loved one, we should also ask, “How many lives have I touched?” For we are still among the living.
Our mission should be to matter to everyone in our lives, and tragic events such as losing a loved one, should underscore the importance of every life, not just that of the deceased. You matter. You matter because of the opportunity your life represents and the people you touch every day.
In the beginning, Tim mattered for many reasons, not the least of which was his position as the first born of my generation within my family and that of my wife’s. As such, the hope and optimism that embraced us all, as Tim came into the world, was infectious.
When a new life first appears, it is always a time of joy not only for parents, but for everyone they touch. In this circumstance, friends and family celebrate together with gatherings and phone calls and letters from distant loved ones. Such events are universally celebrated, and as I considered this book, I wondered what story I would tell.
There is nothing unique about the advent of a child. The joy, happiness, and excitement is universally present in every culture. What, then, is special here at the place I find myself, trying to tell his story?
The conclusion I drew surprised me, for it was a cliché. And that is that everyone is unique. One of the many non-universal elements of my son’s story were the many unique facets of his initial circumstance—the circumstance of his birth and existence.
They drove a sense that he was something special. The truth is, though, he is special only to us. My family; his friends; the people who love me; the people he touched. Only we knew him and, as such, were the only ones who could deem him special. In the acknowledgement of his own unique circumstance, though, I hope to underscore the truth that each of us is special and deserving of celebration.
As with my sense of the person Tim is and was, all of us should be celebrated for who we are in the context of those we love, those who love us in return, and the lives we touch.
In Tim’s case, it was as though this first life of a new generation was a harbinger of rebirth. Someone who called out to us through the mere force of his existence that a regeneration had begun. More than just the act of bringing a new life into the world, we all had the sense that a dying family was itself being reborn.
Unlike my wife and her family, my heritage is largely unknown. My parents’ roots were in a rural community just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a place inhabited by proud people who held the social status of peasants. In my youth I had a handful of aunts and uncles, and even fewer cousins in addition to my four grandparents—all of whom were born and remained in and around Tulsa.
My recollection of these people, their homes, and even their surroundings were iconic, symbolic of the age and disrepair that seemed to characterize the lives of most of my Tulsa kin.
“Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.”
This descriptive excerpt of rural Kansas from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is very much how I recall my infrequent visits to extended family. Of course there was color, yet my memories lie to me and yield only the greyscale of decay and age.
My recollection comprised dry fields of dead grass, blistering paint, rusty, abandoned oilfield equipment, and cemeteries with graves of past individuals I was told were my forebears. Everywhere I looked at every place I visited, yielded nothing but the evidence of the dead and dying. And the living, it seemed, I hardly knew at all.
My father, desperate to escape what was for him the rural prison of a small unknown town, joined the Army. He then married my mother, a native of the same area, a year later after having known her only ten days. The Army brought him to Washington D.C. and later he moved my family to a Maryland suburb as he attempted to cobble together an education and make his way in the world.
This was the life my father embraced as he attempted to divorce his rural identity. As I grew older, there would be what seemed dutiful trips to my parents’ past, and always there was a sense that these were not really my people. That they were part of some aging past with no relevance to my present.
When I would ask about my heritage I was offered only speculation. There were tales of small-time ranchers, horse traders, and Native Americans of tribes I’d never heard of. My entire life I have been envious of those who knew their roots as I wondered about my own.
Compounding that reality was the sense that only my father could carry on the family name. He had two sisters, no brothers, and none of his paternal uncles had children. The birth of my son gave everyone a hopeful sense that the family name would continue. For without a boy, the name would die with me and my brothers—a sentiment that settled within everyone and that went completely unacknowledged.
As I wrote that last passage, it gave me pause, as though I were uttering some politically incorrect edict that only male children have value and, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Truth being what it is, though, the symbolism in the moment of Tim’s birth was quite remarkable.
In our culture, as in most others, the family name continues to be passed down through the father, and my son represented a kind of regeneration for a family ever diminishing in numbers. That a transplanted root was taking hold.
It is not at all lost on me nor should it surprise anyone that my father moved to a metropolitan environment to escape his rural roots, only to transplant his family to rural Texas. Some things, it seems, are inescapable despite our best efforts.
And in the outlying gateway to West Texas, what we couldn’t know at the time was the truth of the symbolism. Like my father, Tim would eventually be the only viable option for passing on the family name in the traditional sense. My biological siblings, who carried the name, had girls. There was no one else from whom the name could be passed. Only Tim.
Thus, the matter of Tim in the beginning was that he was ours. The symbolism of renewal beamed through and swamped the frigid greeting Mother Nature offered. The cold and darkness were warmed and lighted by the greeting our family offered. And like any other family with a first newborn we began the journey of raising the next generation.
Tim was well suited for his role as first born. He came into this world with an innate love for children and as the oldest, he cared for, held, and even fed his younger siblings and cousins. There would be so many; 17 of that generation in all.
As he grew and as others were added, it was Tim who showed a genuine sense of nurturing to the newcomers. Just as he mattered to us as our first experience of having and raising children, he began to matter to those who came after him.
He taught them games. He taught them songs. He read to them. He was the one who could be counted on to watch over them and care for them. To me, it was so rare to see a young boy put so much effort into caring for the little ones around him. And as he did, it fostered the nurturing proclivity that came to him so naturally.
This concern for others and putting their needs before his own became his way of being—his approach to the world. And as he grew I repeated to him, over and over “Remember that your obligation, more than anything else, is to leave the world better than you found it.” And I could see in his ever expressive eyes how that exhortation resonated with him so much more than with my daughters when I would say it to them.
He would return my gaze and smile. And in those moments a connection was formed and strengthened between us through the understanding of a simple concept: that we are all part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.
That we are here to serve others both collectively and individually, and that service comes in many forms. Service begins with learning and then with teaching. Begin by understanding how to do for yourself and then to do for others. What it means to care for yourself and then to care for others. To ultimately learn to protect yourself so that you can protect others.
More than anything else, though, Tim learned the value of physical and verbal affection. A sensitive child, he deftly learned to channel that sensitivity into a nurturing and considerate focus on first his siblings, then his cousins, and then his friends. All of this from the confluence of the gift of nurturing with the gentle exhortation of externalizing that gift.
As the child grew from newborn to toddler to adolescent, he embraced a sense that because he mattered, everyone else around him mattered as well. He never saw himself as greater than or above anyone. He saw everyone as an equal, never shunning others, rather embracing them as companions.
Tim was that little boy who innately knew what many of us take years to learn. He knew that, ultimately, everybody matters.
It’s not a surprise to me that Tim’s sense that everyone mattered drove much of his behavior, both constructive and destructive. You can’t instinctively understand the value of others without an intrinsic sensitivity, which most of us associate with an equally intrinsic goodness. But it can also be a curse.
Sensitive individuals are often tormented by demons invisible to the rest of us, because the sword of sensitivity has two edges. We easily see the emotional sweetness in a child who is sensitive, but we often miss how easily they bleed with a cutting word.
We recognize the value when we see a child spontaneously come to the aid of another, or, unprompted, shares what he has with a child he just met. What we sometimes miss is the sudden dim of the eye when we lose our patience with him. We often overlook the sudden withdrawn demeanor after a difficult day. We grow annoyed with the ease with which laughter suddenly turns to tears. We don’t always understand what is behind the sudden outbursts.
We often forget or perhaps just don’t know that these might be symptoms of something much deeper. What’s deep below the surface can be something confusing and frightening to the child who is sensitive. The feelings that induce the empathy in him that we find so charming sometimes creates a dark, cold place—a place we cannot see and which, the child cannot understand.
And there in the cold, unsympathetic void far from the bright world we try so hard to provide, uncertainty can begin to fester. The very sensitivity that benefits others can begin to nourish a self-image of doubt about his own place in the world, his place in the family, and his worth to those around him. Positive and negative feedback alike can have a lasting impact on all children—but the more sensitive the child the more exaggerated the effect can be.
It is not my intention to dwell on the darkness in some men’s minds, which sometimes begins in childhood. I am, however, compelled to explain at this juncture that sometimes the thing we love about someone is the very thing that can bewilder us and drive him from us.
As parents we want to do right by our children, but we can’t always know or even fully grasp what might be in their minds when we act.
This is very much my assessment of my time with Tim as his mother and I raised him. That there was something inside him feeding doubts about his place in the world. He wanted desperately to always do the right thing but something inside him began slowly but surely to draw him away.
Where, I can’t say. Why, I’m not sure. I have only an inkling. It is a guess that I hazard as I recall that moment when I knew I lost him.
As his father I viewed most events as learning opportunities. I believed it was my obligation.
When asked why the sky is blue I would offer an age-appropriate answer but, eventually, I had the opportunity to explain refraction. After a discussion of cloud shapes in which we all exercised our imaginations that included dogs and bunnies and elephants, I was asked “what are clouds daddy?” I explained the water cycle. And as we read together, we would sometimes encounter a new word, and I would explain what it meant, its etymology, and why it was used in that particular context. I tried to help them understand what was in the mind of the writer.
All of this for the purpose of fomenting curiosity, for that is how children ultimately learn about the world. As parents, we intuitively understand that this is one of the many joys of parenting: the opportunity to pass on what we have to offer in a way that inspires curiosity about the world around them. It’s one of the many pay-offs for the work and the effort and the frustration that comes with the all too brief job of raising children.
These memories are not romantic, but they are joyful.
It was one of the greatest joys I had in raising little ones. Watching them take what I and others offered them, and then watching each become his and her own person, each one unique, and each still so much like me in so many ways.
And then came the day when I lost him, the day his path was suddenly and noticeably divergent from our walk together as father and son. That journey on which he initially took my hand and I showed him the world, slowly became two journeys: mine and his.
From my path I could see his and it was clear to me our paths would be different from that moment forward.
At that time, I commuted from Fort Worth to Plano, Texas and back every day, 50 miles each way. And every day I would come home exhausted. One evening, when the sky was clear, I could see Venus brightly shining. My father taught me how to identify certain of the stars and planets and I saw this as an opportunity to pass this knowledge on to my son.
He was eight.
I came home awash in excitement at the new discovery I was about to reveal to him. I imagined that look in his eye, the familiar twinkle complemented by his beautiful smile and so many questions about the endless, mottled heavens.
I pulled into the driveway and made my way to the living room threshold. He was playing there, some game I don’t recall. A highly charged bundle of energy, a toy in-hand running to and fro, his activity punctuated by shouts as his sisters looked on.
“Tim! Let me show you something.”
“I can see that. This will only take a second. I have something to show you.”
He stopped for a moment and looked at me.
“Come on; it’s neat.” I smiled.
And then a look I didn’t recognize. His momentary gaze came from somewhere between annoyance and defiance. As though he were tired of being shown things, and that this was somehow a disruption of his time.
“What now?” he demanded, a flash of anger in his eyes that precluded the look of curiosity and excitement I imagined. Something I’d never seen in him before. A look so alien and disconcerting.
“Nothing, son. Finish your game with your sisters. We’ll talk about it later.”
And, of course, later never came.
It’s so easy to look back on that circumstance with a sense of blame. Blame the child for asserting his will in a moment you imagined would be so sweet but, which, never materialized. Blame yourself for not being gently insistent and to nudge him past the jarring he felt in that moment of interruption, because you know better and he doesn’t.
But, in the end, it was not the moment that mattered. It was what the moment told me about his station. All children rebel. They must. Pushing against authority is how they establish their way in the world. This is the gateway to adolescence—but in that moment, I sensed something different.
“I just lost him.” I thought.
I could sense a sudden shift in our relationship. Something was gone. Something I would not regain for another two and a half decades.
The hope and optimism I recall so clearly from the the night of his birth showed its first crack that night. What his mother and I felt on the night of Tim’s birth stood in stark contrast to what I felt in that moment. It was the first time I was given a glimpse of the darkness. It was the darkness spawned from a seed that took root at some point I do not know where or when, yet it was there. It was so subtle—so invisible to everyone around me, but I knew. God help me, I knew.
There are moments when you want to be wrong and for that reason I tried to dismiss the sense that I was right about something I so desperately wanted to be wrong about. Time would eventually confirm what I knew, but we all lived in denial about Tim’s sense of self for a very long time and, for me, it was the proverbial elephant in the room.
The darkness had come and as time marched on, no word or action on my part, nor on the part of his mother and his sisters would be formidable enough to combat it. Only Tim would be able to overcome the demons with which he struggled for most of his life.
The redemption would come but not for a very long time. He would eventually vanquish the darkness but his path would be long and anguished, and a lot of people would be hurt along the way.
“The people who are trying to make the world worse never take a day off, why should I? Light up the darkness.”
– Bob Marley
Ultimately, I believe this was Tim’s mission: to light up the darkness.
For when the veneer of darkness is stripped away and the light is revealed, we are able to see, that everyone does, in fact, matter. From my vantage point, this fact is both undeniable and immutable.
And as I consider immutable truths, it occurs to me that such a truth cannot be told except in its entirety. To truly understand a thing it must be examined from every perspective. Such is the case with the story of my son.
Life is complicated and, for that reason, we want to distill it to a few digestible talking points; I suspect that is nothing new. I suspect with equal certainty, though, that this proclivity is compounded by the ease with which both information and possessions are both available and discardable.
We live in a time, place, and culture in which things are acquired, consumed, and discarded in brief moments that afford no real meaning in the aftermath. We order take-out and delivery and consume it in front of a lighted box displaying the edited lives of people we don’t know. We consume information about the complex world around us through 24-hour news outlets, which offer us one-dimensional bullet lists. We offer our children ready-made juice in a throw-away box, and teach them from text books that offer very little critical analysis of complex subjects.
With each passing decade we are asked to do more in a given day. To earn more. To buy more. To shuttle kids from home to school to daycare to practice and back home again. Everyone must be fed and clothed and educated and socialized.
The resulting cacophony of competing demands feeds the desire to scan CNN or Fox News or MSNBC for 15 minutes to understand what’s happening in the world. We steal a few minutes to check in on social media to understand what’s happening in the lives of friends and family. And we begin to think in bullet lists.
My son’s story cannot rightly be told in such a fashion.
There is more to each of us than a collection of sentence fragments—a simple subject coupled to an incomplete predicate. If the story of a life is to be told and the immutable truth of what that life meant is to be understood, there must be color, detail, and texture.
It is wholly inadequate simply to say that Tim was born under a ray of hope with the backdrop of a dark omen, to begin a fall from grace at age eight from which he would ultimately redeem himself.
So this is the texture of my son’s life: in addition to the tormented soul who contended with darkness, he was also a happy little boy, a thoughtful teen, and a man who routinely celebrated the people in his life. He was more than the demons and doubts that would eventually overtake him and, at that, only for a moment.
The dichotomy of Tim was the stark contrast of his light in spite of the darkness that seemed to pursue him. It was the light shown through the impish grin that would be his way to light up the darkness. It was his sense of goodness in everyone around him that attracted others to him. His sense of the goodness in you was a beacon that would draw you to him, and the beacon was manifest through something no more complicated than a smile and a welcoming demeanor.
It was this simple, unassuming approach to others coupled with his belief that you are deserving of comfort and happiness yourself that drove every action—first in the beginning and again at the end.
And he would invite you in.
Had I been more aware of this fact in that moment when I felt I lost him that evening when Venus shown so brightly, I could have participated with him in his game rather than insisting that he participate in mine. I have no doubt that the moment would have been just as sweet and, perhaps, our paths would not have diverged so soon.
I cannot recall a day with my son that did not begin with smiles and laughter—and he would invite you to laugh with him; that was simply what he did. It was who he was.
I came home one evening to the melody of a familiar, terrible song—a cassette tape blaring a children’s rhyme set to music he played over and over again. My wife’s mother was a Christian bookstore consultant, and as such she would often receive promotional materials, which she would then pass on to her grandchildren.
This particular piece was an album designed for Sunday school teachers called “I’m Something Special.” The album included a song Tim loved called “Kids under Construction” and I was, frankly, surprised that the cassette still functioned because of the number of times Tim had played it for his sisters. Try as I might, I cannot forget that chorus, so repetitively played:
We’re kids under construction;
Maybe the paint is still wet.
We’re kids under construction;
The Lord might not be finished yet.
As Tim, age four at this point, ran to greet me that evening, I picked him up and a brief conversation ensued
“So; music today?”
“Kids under construction!”
“I recognize it. You play that one a lot.”
“Nana called. She told me to listen to it and stand *up* for Jesus and look out for my sisters!”
“She did, did she? Well, you listen to your Nana. She’s full of good advice.”
I set him down and watched as he ran back into his bedroom. In that moment, as it would be four years hence, what was said mattered not at all. Rather, what mattered was what I saw in the moment and what it told me about where he was: a place of light. The exhortation of his maternal grandmother had nudged him into a place that fostered happiness, excitement, and emotional well-being. And, as in that later moment of loss, I felt alone in my awareness of the poignant nature of it.
Here was a happy child. A child not yet burdened with conflict and strife. A child of the light. It is so easy to remember the darkness because of the pain it brings. Negative thoughts and feelings are so easy to recall because pain is a powerful motivator. Pain teaches and relief reinforces Life’s lessons. But it is the pain that is memorable. And if we’re not careful, we can be forever fixed in the mire of the pain when freedom from it is but a thought away. Actively recalling the light liberates us from the darkness, and that’s what makes choosing to recall the light so important.
This simple moment was but one example in a sea of examples that serve to remind me that, although there was so much difficulty for Tim, there were at least an equal number of relaxed moments. Moments he and I shared in which we could effortlessly navigate the river of life together.
The way he orchestrated playtime.
The way he loved to sing in church.
How his teachers looked forward to seeing him.
His sense of right and wrong.
How he loved everyone he ever met.
These memories are critical to the truth and texture of Tim’s life but, to leave the thought there, compounds the injustice of his untimely departure.
It is also a reminder to me that with each life we encounter, we negotiate a relationship, however brief. And in those relationships we can choose darkness or light. People will make mistakes. There will be misunderstandings. Others will sometimes lash out at us, needing a whipping boy, no doubt because they themselves were abused at someone else’s hand.
And in that moment we choose whether to return their actions in kind or to choose something else, an undeserved act of kindness and understanding. More importantly, we choose what we remember—what we decide to take away from our dealings with others.
We can choose to remember the difficulty, the ugliness, and the moments in which we were hurt. In the process we can blame and judge and explain to ourselves the wrongness of others. Our alternative is to choose to recall the kindness, the beauty, and the connection we made with that person and to remember the thing of value that moment brought to us.
This is one of the many things I learned from Tim, both in my life with him and in the moments of thoughtful contemplation since his departure. That we, above any living being in God’s creation, have the capacity to choose our view of both the world and that of our human family who inhabits it.
Unlike God, who has an omniscient, unalterable view of the world, we are given an equally divine capacity to see a moment, a circumstance, or a person as good or bad. In my contemplation I have resolved that most of the time, the way we assess such things has less to do with the circumstance or the person and more to do with how we choose to perceive either.
Tim did not always choose to see each circumstance as something positive and worthwhile, for he was human. But he did choose to see each person as good and worthy of his love and affection. And in this way, in a manner of speaking led each of us by way of his own organic example.
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
As parents, we expect and are expected to teach our children but, sometimes, if we are paying attention, we can also learn from them. Tim was incapable, it seems, of seeing the worst in others and, in observing him, I learned mercy, compassion, and acceptance. And that, in itself, is quite a thing.
Yet so much time and so many events have passed since those moments when my son, as a child, spoke to me, taught me, and reminded me of the important things. The decades have blurred the memories, which have become malleable thoughts that suit me, now, some 30 years later.
The challenge of writing the story of a life you knew well is the fact that at some point it ceases to be a factual continuum. The story devolves into a series of points, some of which refuse to obey the very chronology of time itself. We remember a thing decades after it happened and we can’t quite place it properly on the timeline next to the other spotty memories. We can’t be certain whether the thing came before or after our next memory as we have since organized it in our minds.
As I began to write this book, one vexing thought overrode all others; it taunts me even now as I try to draw this chapter of my son’s life to a close. The problem, you see, is that I wasn’t taking notes.
Today, it seems, we live life behind the watchful lens of a smart phone, dutifully recording the lives of friends and family as events unfold. The events are compressed and time-stamped and stored like so many books in the libraries of our minds. We display them on social media outlets and share them with others who weren’t able to live it in the moment as it happened.
In this, endeavor, as I struggle to make sense of my son’s life and explain it to you, I regret not having access to that technology. The regret gives me pause, however. In the regret, I find myself wondering what might I have missed if I spent my time recording these moments rather than being forced to experience them.
I recall a moment when he and I walked on the beach of Lake Travis, just the two of us. As is typical, I cannot recall the occasion, the time of day, or the circumstance—only that we were there together. He was about eleven and we still had some time left.
I like to imagine that it was early one Saturday morning, and work seemed far away, perhaps after a MacDonald’s drive-through breakfast. We never spoke, as I recall. We simply enjoyed the sand seeping between our toes, the water lapping at our feet, and the bright Texas Sun reflecting off the water.
He mentioned fishing—but there was no time to purchase fishing gear that morning. I didn’t plan for this outing. In a rare moment of spontaneity, we simply went.
And we walked.
Rather, I walked. He danced. He was so happy just to spend time with me and to be in the outdoors on the bank of a man-made lake in the Hill Country of Central Texas.
And he danced, singing some song I can’t recall while running forward into the water and then retreating again. Back and forth, like a puppy discovering free water for the first time.
The images I recall clearly, but every other detail escapes me. I failed to record the details of the event to satisfy my mind at a later time—but the image of the event is forever written on my heart. And that was the character of this event.
It was a moment between father and son that could never be replicated; it was never to be repeated in exactly that way. There would be other moments, good and bad, but this moment, just like all the other temporal points on the timeline of Tim’s life, was unique and separate.
And what is the point, I ask myself. Why write of this moment? Why include it in this story?
The answer, quite simply, is because of what’s missing. The dearth of clarity and detail in this memory says so much more to me about this chapter in my walk with Tim than any recording I might have viewed in an attempt to recall it. Life cannot be experienced through an AVI file, or a GIF, or a JPG.
A time-stamp. Regurgitated dialog. The reason for the outing. All of these things cry out for a voice as I try to recall a simple moment I spent with my child—but in the end they matter not one whit. What matters is nothing more than the walk with my son as he danced. He danced, and I walked, and in so doing, we danced together.
He was still at a station in which he had the luxury of dancing through life. He had not yet reached a moment where it was time to walk with purpose. My retrospective view speaks to me and says “Such things were premature.” It was not a time to be an adult. It was a time to be a child. And what technology can capture such a thing—being a child, or any other human experience for that matter?
How can we know by reviewing an event, captured through the lens of a device, our human experience in that moment? The question is, of course, rhetorical. The device tells the mind the sequence of events, but the heart tells the soul the meaning of the experience.
Would I suggest to you that recording such events is folly? No. Rather, I would remind you that time is fleeting. It never stops, it does not tire, and it will not wait. It will instead demand that you immerse yourself in the moment and with all the humility I can muster, I exhort you to heed the demand.
For as I watched the little boy dance along the bank of Lake Travis, I witnessed the heart of a child.
A child born to lower-middle-class parents, who would know difficulty most of his life, but one who would also eventually overcome life’s adversity.