After looking for about ten minutes, Laura whispers my name.
“Bert, over here.”
She is standing next to a bronze parapet that surrounds one of the 9/11 Memorial pools. Her fingers are tracing the inscription of his name: Paul W. Ambrose
We hadn’t known him personally, but Paul was a hometown kid, and in Huntington, WV, our social ties are rather enmeshed. We’re all linked by only one or two degrees of separation, and we celebrate people like Paul (there aren’t many like him) because they make us proud. From Marshall University to Dartmouth to Harvard, Paul had pole vaulted over the hillbilly stereotype. Engaging, intelligent, and relentless, Paul planted himself among elite company as a congressional advisor, a champion for public health, and senior advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General. Many expected him to become the nation’s youngest surgeon general.
David is dead.
If I could write that with more poetic flair, I would, but it would be no less piercing to his mother.
His obituary celebrates a theatrical whirling dervish who “loved all he met, cheered on the underdog,” and brightened the world with “an incredible smile, an infectious laugh,” and “the best bear hugs of anyone.”
On the scorecard, however, David is just another tally mark in the Overdose column. We say that addiction killed him, but that’s not true. The drugs, like most addictions, were just self-medication for deeper wounds. They always are. I heard someone say that we live in a world at war, and nobody gets out of here unscathed.
Anyway, David is dead. As Dickens proclaims, that must be acknowledged should anything wonderful come of this tale.
(Heads up, friends. Though I’ve tried to be delicate, there’s some adult stuff in this one. Like most of my work, it’s a true story, just a bit more literary in nature. Tread lightly. Sacred territory here. Thanks for the nudge, Marie.)
From my second floor office window I see her waving to the ice cream truck as it rounds the corner. It slows and pulls to the curb. With an excited hop she breaks into a sprint, off to collect her special treat.
Like a comet’s tail, her flaming red hair trails behind, flowing in the wind. Wide eyes. Mouth agape. Both betray a child’s joyous heart. Alabaster skin covered in a constellation of freckles. Tube socks worn from summertime adventures are bunched around her ankles, revealing bruised shins and scabby knees. Telltale trophies of kickball, hopscotch, and double-dutch jump rope.
A buddy and I once had a regrettably awesome idea: “Let’s have the most unforgettable Fourth of July fireworks display EVER!”
We pooled our resources and headed across the river to smuggle boxes of explosives back into West Virginia. Rockets. Missiles. Screamers. Repeaters. Roman Candles. Dozens of exploding mortars (those are the big, professional ones, kids).
As family and friends filled our yard, we anxiously awaited the cover of darkness so we could light up the night sky. It was going to be … glorious!
Unfortunately, communication along the front line suffered a setback, resulting in a “slight weapons malfunction.” To cut to the chase, a random spark ignited some misplaced mortars and … well, to be honest, all hell broke loose.
That didn’t go as planned (photo from Caddyshack)
Within 60 seconds, nearly $500 worth of fireworks came roaring to life and attacked in all directions. The rockets’ red glare. The bombs burst in the air … and on my house … and next to screaming people running for cover. At one point I saw my wife’s cousin, just home from Iraq and still in uniform, running through the yard, tossing children over his shoulder and extracting them from the battlefield. People were diving in the pool as my wife screamed, “Get under the water! Stay down!”
You know that final scene from Caddyshack when Carl blows up the entire golf course? That was child’s play compared to our epic disaster.
Open your contact lists on your phone and computer. Count the entries. Next add your social media friends and followers. Now, estimate how many people you brush up against on any given day (in both the physical and media realms).
Let’s pretend you actually arrived at a final sum (we’ll call it “Z”).
Head out to your local hardware store. Ask the kid behind the counter to make “Z” copies of your house key. Finally, send one to every person included in “Z”. (Make sure you have extra copies to hand out to random folks throughout the week.)
We wouldn’t give many of our family members that much open access to our homes, not to mention the countless others we encounter. But this is exactly what we do—day in and day out—with our hearts.
Little wonder we feel plundered at the end of most days. Life has a way of breaking-and-entering on its own. We don’t help ourselves by handing out keys like Pez dispensers.
(As seen on The Today Show, Good Housekeeping, HerViewFromHome, ScaryMommy, The Huffington Post, Mamamia, MomsEveryday, and numerous social and news media outlets. UPDATED – 3/3/2017)
Friends, as most of you know, I get to spend an hour each week with a group of young people going through addiction recovery. Yes. Young people. I’m talking teenagers who are locked away for at least six months as they learn to overcome their addictions. I’m always humbled and honored to get this time with these beautiful young souls that have been so incredibly assaulted by a world they have yet to understand. This also comes with the bittersweet knowledge that these kids still have a fighting chance while several of my friends have already had to bury their own children.
Recently I asked these kids a simple question: “How many of you have found yourself in situations where things started happening that you weren’t comfortable with, but you stuck around, mainly because you felt like you didn’t have a way out?”
They all raised their hands.
Every single one of them. Continue reading
We know that art imitates life. Life also imitates art. And somewhere in between, we explore nature’s blueprint as we each try to figure out who—and what—we really are.
Sitting here in my writing sanctuary, I’ve become distracted by movement in the woods just beyond my window. A woodpecker is making his way up a long, slender birch tree, stopping ever so often for some investigative pecks. He visits our woods regularly. I frequently hear his rhythmic knocking, and when I do, I always stop to look for the handsome fellow. He’s a delight to behold. Slender, coal-black body. Fiery red head. Power and grace that would shame most ballerinas. I’m mesmerized by his existence. And I wonder how a bird that can be so beautiful and naturally gifted at locating insects in a tree still can’t retrieve tennis balls like Cleveland and Bruce, our golden retrievers.
Our woodpecker is the worst retriever I’ve ever seen. In fact (pardon the phrase, but there’s no better way to say it), he flat-out sucks. Continue reading
I want to share a painting that hangs on the wall where I do most of my work. When I look up from my desk, this is what I see:
Study the picture for a few minutes. (Okay, give it ten seconds. I know—you’re busy. We all are.)
Now tell me, what happened here? What’s the story?
Whatever yarn you spin will reveal nothing about the painting, but it will suggest a lot about your life, your place in the world, and the impact you’ll have on others.
Friends, is yours a story of destruction and despair, or one of beauty and adventure?
More importantly, how thankful are you for the story you’re living? Continue reading
*Author’s note: I almost didn’t post this today as I feared it might not be appropriate on Veterans’ Day. However, after attending our town’s parade and ceremony this morning, hearing the bands play our patriotic songs, seeing representatives from every military branch, and paying our respects to the courageous men and women who have served our country with dignity and honor, I realized it was more than appropriate. Thanks to the sacrifices of these men and women, we live in the greatest country in the world, where we continue to be free to disagree and wrestle our way through some hard discussions.
God Bless America!
About a quarter-century ago, I was preparing my first student teaching lesson for a West Virginia history class. I remember it well.
Often theatrical, I was rehearsing quotes from John Brown, the crazy-eyed, self-proclaimed instrument-of-God abolitionist whose band of ruffians stormed the armory at Harpers Ferry. Though really not that big of a deal in and of itself, the raid was a spark that helped ignite the powder keg of division that became the American Civil War.
“I am now quite certain,” I quoted Brown in my best gruff, indignant, mountain man voice, “that the crimes of this evil land will never be purged away … [lengthy pause for dramatic effect] … but … with … BLOOOOOOD!” I poured that final word all over the students who were half-amused, half-terrified. Continue reading
I’ve lived most of my life with a longing gaze toward a distant horizon, believing in a mystical something-better out there.
The constant challenge for most folks who grow up around here has always been geography. In West Virginia, the same hills that protect you from the outside world also tend to cripple your chances of seeing beyond the ridge in front of you. Most West Virginians remain semi-affectionately imprisoned in their own little hollers from cradle to grave (save the occasional big trip to Myrtle Beach, laughingly referred to as the Redneck Riviera). A few—our best and brightest—get out as soon as they can, and why wouldn’t they? If your ticket out of West Virginia gets punched, why would you spend one more second in a state that is ranked among the poorest, most depressed, least educated, most drug-addicted, least healthy, and most miserable places in the entire nation? Continue reading