(This is Part II of VI of a series of entries that chronicle my experience of Faith, from my early understanding of it as a kid and my acceptance of it as a teenager, my rejection of it as a young adult and my struggles with it as a parent of a child with multiple disabilities, and what I have come to know and appreciate about it through the acts of others.)
Part I of VI: Richard
Part II of VI: Mark
Part III of VI: Meighan
Part IV of VI: Jennifer
Part V of VI: Bennett
Part VI of VI: You All, Everybody
I had just received my temporary driver's permit, and I was at the White Marsh Mall with my parents. My Dad (this is my Step-Father...the Biological Father has LONG since split completely from my existence) tossed the keys at me and bellowed 'Why don't YOU drive!'.
I nearly shat my pants.
I had never driven on the interstate before, and White Marsh Mall was nestled right off of Interstate 95, around 17 miles from our house in Forest Hill, Maryland. I stood there in front of our family car, mouth agape.
I guess it was time to nut up or shut up. But I was only 15, and my nuts were not very mature. I don't think they had ever been 'used', if you know what I mean. But I had to accept the challenge and eventually I'm doing my very best Miss Daisy in the far right lane, and the Old Man was very far from impressed, a displeasure he expressed from the seat directly behind me by 'thunking' me in the back of the head.
My term for this form of one of his punitive torments. He had huge hands. Enormous, gigantic, meaty digits. He would take his middle finger, as if to emphasize his 'Fuck You' to me, curl it back (as if to cock it like a pistol) with his thumb, and unleash it's power into some part of Yours Truly.
This was usually into an area of my chest just above the sternum, which made a reverberating THUD. Especially in a room with just the right acoustics. In this case, since he was seated directly to my South, the back of my head was his only available target.
'Speed up! Drive straight! You're all over the place, you fuckin' idiot!'
No fuckin' shit! You try driving straight with Hammy McFingers wailing at the back of your favorite skull! Of course, I didn't say that out loud. I may be an idiot, but I'm not an idiot. I enjoyed living. Instead, I pulled over. It's then that his voice took on that icy chill, that Emperor Palpatine creepiness, as I heard 'Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey toward...'
Oh wait. That's not right.
I heard, instead, 'Either drive...or get out of the car.'
I did what any 'Thunking-weary' kid would do. I got out of the car.
He moved to the front seat, didn't even offer me a casual glance, shuffled his beefy ass into position, and drove off. My Mom, in a state of absolute shock at this point, mouth open, watched in horror as the car pulled away.
The sun had just set, and I was on a major highway...alone.
I was 17 miles from home, but only 13 from the house of my best friend, Mark. That was my destination. Why bother going home? It was way too far of a walk, and besides, Mark's house was the place I escaped to most of the time in situations like these.
I didn't cry, I was beyond tears by this point in my existence when it came to my Old Man. I put my hands in my pockets and started walking. All I could do. My plan was to keep walking until I could get off the interstate at the next exit and then take the back roads to Mark's. I could probably make it, if I kept up a decent pace, in a couple of hours.
You know, through a lot of those mid-teen years, there was Mark.
Mark, who reached out to the freaky new kid in Biology class, fresh from Texas.
Mark, who stuck by me through the darkest of the Dark Times.
Mark, who helped place more bricks on a foundation of Faith.
Mark was a member of the Episcopal Church, and his spiritual flavor was very different than Richard, which is very interesting, because these two guys both entered my life in my teens and are still two of my very best friends today. Yet as circumstances would have it, they have never met, they are total opposites, and yet they are both like brothers to me.
That by itself could be a post even longer than this entire week.
Mark's role, other than holding the other seat to the pair of Orioles season tickets we shared, or spending long nights playing computer baseball games, or playing pick-up games of tennis ball/baseball at his house, was being a guide through these types of abusive situations, nurturing me through as my friend certainly, but also showing me an alternative family life I had never really seen before.
Richard's Mom and Dad were divorced, but the Biggerman's were all still together. And while there were the usual battles that families all have, they were not the wars that were being fought on my home soil.
I often would find myself at his house, naturally, to escape the sickness that bled from my Old Man, and since I could ride my bicycle to get there, even before I was able to drive, you can imagine that I spent a great deal of time with their family.
My only regret obviously was the impression that this left on my Mom. Since she didn't really know what was going on between me and my Dad, she thought I just preferred the Biggerman's over our family, and in particularly Mark's Mom over her. Again, it was only years, decades later when truths come out that I was able to communicate with her about all of this and let her know that Mark's home was my Fortress of Solitude, I felt safe there, protected from what I was going through, and had nothing to do with how I felt about her.
Since I spent many a Saturday night at the Biggerman's, I naturally spent many a Sunday morning attending Church with the Biggerman's. I would say that this was the first time I started to attend any kind of Church services on a regular basis.
And while Richard was the kind of person who can, almost on command, recite any passage from the Bible at any time and truly has missed his calling as a Minister, Mark is, like I said, at the polar opposite.
Mark's Faith is just as solid, it is simply expressed differently. But in many ways it is also very...irreverent, more jovial, more filled with humor. Like giggling and making jokes in Church, stuff like that. It's very relaxed, it's very flexible, very 'open to interpretation'.
But I consider that to be a reflection of the Episcopal Faith overall, which I considered joining quite a bit...which is in many ways born as a response to some of the rigidities of Catholicism. And I also consider that to be some of Mark's personality coming through...because that is his nature and his expression of Faith reflects that nature.
Just as my nature would lead me, eventually, to an exploration of Catholicism.
I needed more structure, I needed more order.
Especially in my life at that time.
I like things to have a specific design and since my whole early life was lived in a rather chaotic way, moving from place to place, dodging arms and legs and belts and switches, it is absolutely no surprise whatsoever that when I finally decided that I truly believed in God and that I wanted to worship Him, officially, that I would choose Catholicism as the means by which to do it.
So when I was 17 years old, I decided to become a Roman Catholic. But making the decision is only the first step. The first formal step to becoming a Roman Catholic takes place with the rite of reception into the Order of Catechumens, in which the unbaptized express a desire/intention to become Christians. 'Catechumen' is a term the early Christians used for people preparing to be baptized.
The second formal step is the Rite of Election, where the Catechumen expresses the intention to become a Christian, and the Church determines the Catechumen is ready. Normally, that Rite occurs on the first Sunday of Lent, the forty day period of preparation for Easter.
After that, the Catechumen participates in a period of more intense reflection, purification, and enlightenment, in which they deepen their committment to repentance and conversion to the Christian faith. During this period the candidates, now known as the Elect, participate in further rituals.
There are three main rituals, known as 'scrutinies', and these are typically celebrated at Mass on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent. The 'scrutinies' are Rites for self-searching and repentance. They are meant to bring out qualities of our soul, to heal that which is weak or sinful, and to strengthen that which is positive and good.
During this period, the candidates are also presented with the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer, both of which will be recited on the night of Initiation.
The Initiation usually happens on Easter Vigil, the night before Easter. That night a special Mass is celebrated and the candidates are baptized, then given Confirmation, and finally they receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. At this point the candidates become Roman Catholics and are received into full Communion with the Church.
Having just read those few paragraphs, and having read any of my previous material, do you see how, at 17, a fledgling ME would gravitate to that shit? :)
Yet, as I walked down the dark, chilly pavement of Interstate 95, headlights cutting through the night like laser beams, I only wondered if I would even MAKE it to 17. The thought of standing in front of a priest and receiving the Sacrament would be the last thing to enter my mind.
Survival was my only concern that night.
Fifteen minutes into my trek to Mark's, my first problem shows up. A car pulls over on the side of the road and unfortunately, it is NOT a police car, which was going to be the only vehicle that would alter my Mark-centric plan.
The passenger side window rolls down, and I walked over. I did a quick assessment of the guy inside.
Now granted, I was 15...I did not have the assessment skills I have today. Wish I did, but I didn't. He seemed like a very respectable, decent fellow. And I also have a vivid recollection of a strong after shave smell emanating from the car. Though this is probably just because our cars smelled like ash trays, and this was a nice change of pace.
'What are you doing out here? You do know it is illegal to hitchhike on a highway right?'
'Did I have my thumb out?'
'OK...why are you walking on an interstate?'
'It's a nice night for a walk, don't you think?'
'Yeah, but on a highway?'
'Well, that wasn't actually planned for. I got stranded.'
'Can I give you a lift?'
'Well, the off-ramp isn't very far, I can walk from here.'
'You know, if a cop comes by, you'll be arrested.'
'To be honest, that thought doesn't bother me.'
'C'mon, hop in. I'm not someone you need to be scared of, I can understand why you might be, but I promise I won't hurt you.'
I wondered if that's what victims of other predators heard right before they were killed when I said 'OK' and, for some unexplained reason, opened the door and got into this stranger's car. Or I had other, more fanciful visions of what strange fate might befall me that night.
He asked me which exit. I told him. He asked me how I ended up on the highway. I told him. He asked me where I lived. I told him. He asked me if my Dad was an alcoholic. I said no.
That was always the first question. It was so much easier for people to believe that, or want to look for that as the answer, even other people, later in life when I would tell them these stories. No, he wasn't, I told the stranger.
Is he in the military?
I have never fully understood why he asked me that. Because he was not the first, nor was he the last. I've asked other military people why, they don't know. I don't either. But it has always bugged me. Still does. Guess I'll never have an answer that satisfies me.
So this man, this complete stranger, a guy whose name I never knew, decided to drive me WELL out of his way, all the way to my front door. We skipped Mark's house completely. He was not a predator, not someone I needed to fear after all.
As I was about to get out of the car he puts his hand on my arm and stops me and asks me a fairly simple question.
'Do you pray?'
He asked me if I would mind if he said a prayer for me. I said sure, go ahead. And when he did, I felt that 'spark' again, that same feeling I had felt years ago, on that median strip, and I was watching the two of us, our faces dimly lit by the green glow of his dashboard, from almost outside the car, as he prayed for God to watch over me and for me to be safe.
And I was safe. At least that night.
But was it because of this man and his prayer? Or was it because my Mom finally saw my Dad commit an act that was truly heinous? See, he had kept so much of this shit hidden from her, and I had kept it hidden also out of fear, that she was oblivious to all of it.
But this was different. She was THERE. And although he hadn't outright beaten me this was a fairly callous and neglectful act, and she was monumentally pissed.
Hammer One? Laid down.
Hammer Two would fall about a month or so later, when I finally found within me something I never had been able to find before. The strength of will to fight back. Shortly after my 16th birthday, he pounced on me for something, and I decided that I had finally had enough.
The ferociousness with which I counter-attacked him was not unlike that experienced by Ralphie Parker when he beat the shit out of Scut Farkus. 'He had yellow eyes! So, help me, God! Yellow eyes!' The fight was so vicious, so brutal, by the end of it I had pulled a Jim Kirk and half my shirt was hanging off of my body.
But my point had been made, and this was one beating I took that did NOT go unnoticed. It couldn't.
For years I believed that my actions of standing up to him are what stopped him from ever laying a hand on me again. YEARS later, my Mom told me that she had gone up to him and said if she ever saw him or knew of him touching me...EVER...she'd serve him his balls for breakfast, or something along those lines, and THEN divorce him and from then on she was looking for a way out. Just took a while because of some financial shenanigans on his part, and a stroke. But that's a WHOLE nutha story, people.
As I rounded the corner into the following year, two things happened that were both fairly pivotal in regards to Faith, and my life overall. At the suggestion of my friend Mike Kutcher, I attended my first event of and eventually joined the Youth Group at the St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Bel Air, MD, but in doing so I also began to reject Mark's friendship. Eventually, I shut him out of my life.
Why I did this, I will never, ever know.
I mean, I know the REASON I did it, I was a stupid kid and sat in judgment of someone else wrongfully based on trying to please someone else, and that was just idiotic. I was unable to figure out how to wear multiple hats, and I didn't know who I was half the time. That's no excuse, I'm just trying, 25 years or so later, to figure out why in the world I sucker-punched my best friend.
He didn't deserve it.
He did show me, with his actions about a year and a half later, what it means to truly BE Christian, when he forgave me, no questions asked. It was a remarkable aspect of his character that resonates even today. It's one of the many reasons why his telephone number is in my cell phone amongst so few others, and why he is the person I talk to for a few minutes almost every single day of my life.
Since that reconciliation, we have had an unrelenting commitment of friendship to each other. He stood at my side when I took my vows, and I at his. Were a bullet whizzing in his direction, I'd happily push him aside and take it instead.
Well, maybe not HAPPILY.
But when I was young, I had trouble with commitment. With girls, with friends, with groups. Holy crap I really hurt a lot of people I cared a great deal about. I bounced around...a LOT. My background was probably responsible for that. I always had trouble feeling like I fit in. Like I belonged. Anywhere.
But not at St. Margaret's.
I felt totally at peace there. For the first time. Ever. I felt whole.
So I entered the Catechumen program and decided to try to finally MAKE a commitment to something and stick with it. I made a commitment to the Catholic Church.
When my time came for my own Initiation, on Easter Vigil, my family was there as were many of my friends like Robb, Melissa, Vic, Paula, Britta, Mike, Karen, Eileen, Beth, Kim, Maureen, Teri, Mark P., Jeff, Laura and on and on and on. Seemingly an endless sea of faces, all there to celebrate my worthless ass. It was mind-boggling to someone with such low self-esteem.
Ironically the two people who had the most to do with leading me to that point were not there. Richard lived too far away, and I had pushed Mark so far away by this point we were no longer speaking to each other.
It is the only regret I have about that experience.
When I received the Sacrament that night, when I became a Neophyte, I felt that 'divine spark' again, and it was immensely powerful. It remains one of the most treasured, most memorable experiences in my entire life.
Also in attendance that night was my dear friend Meighan Grassey, a girl with whom I had been romantically linked previously but at this time in my life we were just friends.
When I was at the reception that followed, she walked up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss that probably lingered on a little longer than it should have (much to the surprise of some of the people in the room) and she hugged me again, not letting go.
'I'm so very proud of you...I'm so very proud of you.' She kept saying over and over with tears in her eyes.
I knew she meant it.
This had a lot of meaning to her, too, as she had helped me study for this, she had helped guide me through much of this, and as much as we had our difficulties with the 'dating' part of our relationship, we were, at the core, still such good friends with each other.
'I'm so very proud of you.'
I was proud of me, too. And I kept the Faith, with conviction, and fortitude, as these classes and Rites were not easy. They aren't supposed to be. You have to WANT to be Catholic to become a Catholic. And I continued to keep the Faith, even after my first year as a Neophyte.
And I kept it still, even after Life kept handing me additional struggles.
Even after being told I did not have to save money for college, that it was going to be covered, and busting my ass in high school to be in the National Honor Society and applying to 14 prestigious art schools and getting accepted to all of them, only to find out that my Dad had pissed away my College Fund on a botched business deal without telling anyone and so I found myself with no cash no time left to earn it when high school was over.
I went to Community College instead, with Mom's help, and eventually to St. Mary's College of Maryland.
And I still kept the Faith, despite watching Mom struggle with Dad and his bullshit and his stroke, and my huge amount of personal problems, an attempted suicide and a lot of other crap that to go into too much detail would only turn this already too long series of posts into a novel.
But yeah, I kept the Faith. Like any good Catholic boy should.
As long as I could.
And Meighan played a big part in that.
To Be Continued...