Closure

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June 22, 2020
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At 1:58 this past Tuesday I closed all legal proceedings on my late father’s estate. It was a quietly bitter-sweet victory in a long and emotionally-charged process that I don’t wish on anyone who has lost someone they truly care for.

To quickly recap, my father was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in the spring of 2018. He fought it but lost his fight October 18th of that same year. At the time, he lived with a wealthy but (and I say this without any humor) evil woman who refused to share him with his family and who constantly lied to her friends and family about our (lack of) concern for him. She was the widow of a fairly wealthy financial wizard who left her a more-than-tidy sum. She had two daughters whom she had put through school and who, according to my father, she annual presented with approximately $30K – $50K in cash and/or gifts. Her house was about 6000 sq. feet and had a garage large enough to hold her $250K Winnebago, which she was only able to enjoy thanks to my father who did all the driving and maintenance, which was not insubstantial.

The truth is, she was a sick woman. Sicker than she would admit, according to my father who had confessed to me that her memory was increasingly a problem. But she was so dependent on him that she wouldn’t let him out of her sight unless it was to have him do something benefitting her. Her dependence also meant she was extremely selfish. For example, despite being quite wealthy, she refused to pay for garbage pick-up. Instead, she required my father to drive their trash to the local dump. Once when I was visiting about 3 months before he died, she made him “take out the trash,” at which point, I discovered the first of many eccentricities. To say I was incredulous is an understatement. Here he was, a very sick man, and he’s hauling the trash to the dump to save her a few dollars.

For a time, the family tried very hard to include her in things despite our feelings towards her. Both she and my father were invited to family get-togethers, but either she would come and act terribly put-upon, or she would beg off and implore my father not to leave her. I invited them once to my home, only to have her make passive-aggressive comments about our financial situation (which is fine) and how having to climb the stairs in our home made her legs hurt. The latter was the excuse my father gave for neither of them ever coming again. When I invited just him, he said he couldn’t leave her because she got too upset when he left her for any length of time.

Eventually, she aliented the entire family, at which point most of us gave up any pretense of liking her and tried our best to open my father’s eyes to the truth. A point of note here; towards the end, I did manage to have a few moments alone with him at his house and when I begged him to leave and come with us, he looked at me with what appeared to be complete resignation in his eyes and simply said, “No.”  I don’t know how much of his refusal was out of loyalty to her for having provided for him for a decade, or how much of it was his not wanting to be a burden on me and my family. Possibly a bit of both. Either way, I knew then I wouldn’t see him again.

Before he died, he signed a Will turning over his meager belongings to me with a gentlemen’s agreement that all of his money would go towards college funds for my three children. But, when he died, a new Will was released. The new Will did that exact same thing, only it forced the issue through Trusts. This was “her” doing. She didn’t trust her own family, so she didn’t think my dad should either. And of course, he went along with it to make her happy.

Little did he know how much this legal framework was going to cost his “estate,” eating deeply into an already meager final financial reckoning. Not to mention how much additional work it put on me, the Administrator, setting up estate accounts, then trusts, selling property and moving assets around, even coming out of my own pocket to pay for things the courts required upfront and which, if I funded it out of the Trust, which is my legal right, would further eat into what was designated as “college money” for my children.

I cursed my father often. I hated him for what he’d done and not just “what” he had done, but that he had done it at all. To be honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about what he did. I understand the situation he was in, but I also can’t imagine doing the same thing to one of my children.

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Completed on 12.31.2021

It’s been more than a year since I wrote the first part of this blog. I have largely moved past anger into acceptance. Acceptance that my father was just a man. A flawed and possibly haunted man. Haunted by a past of choices made, promises kept, and loyalties misplaced. Today, I think I mostly feel betrayed. Though I’m adopted, my father never treated me like an adopted child. At least, not until he died. He wasn’t an emotional, touchy-feely man, but I had always felt that he would do anything for me if I just asked.

Which is what made his passing so devastating for me, and the rest of the family frankly. A lifetime of loyalty–ours to him and vice versa–tossed away and handed to some “Johnny come lately” in his life. Betrayal and disappointment. Those are my feelings. I doubt they will ever go away.

My father didn’t “die” of lung cancer. Though he did have terminal Stage 3 cancer, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The irony is that I had taken his old rifles and shotgun home with me a couple of months before. The one he used was one of his newer ones that, I’m assuming, his partner bought him, which he didn’t feel obligated to give me.

So far as I know, and I admittedly don’t know much, there was no note left. I spoke with the ME and he believes it was self-inflicted; something I did question. When he died, his partner didn’t call any of the family. Most of my family in NC has a long history of volunteer work at the Fire Department and even those that are retired from it now still keep a police scanner running in their homes, day and night.

My cousin who is retired from the Dept. heard the call come over the radio. She called me as soon as she knew what had happened. Two of my other cousins  (still active) were dispatched to the home. I’m told his partner was very blase’ and told them, “If you want to see him, he’s in there,” referring to his body, lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom. She showed no remorse; no pity; no emotion, according to them.

Living in Atlanta, it took me three hours to get there. By the time I arrived, his body was gone and the police were pulling away. Since she was his wife, all of the rights and decisions were hers to make. His partner refused me entry into her home, as I had discussed with my father that she probably would. Obviously upset, I yelled at the closed door about what a horrible person she was. As I did, a neighbor came over and made a derogatory comment, asking if I was the son, “Who never came to see him in ten years.” I laugh-cried, partly at the absurdity of the statement, and partly at the audacity his partner showed lying to everyone about what had really been going on. But she had them all fooled.

When I drove away from her house that day, it was the last time I would see her. The “second Will” named me the Executor of his estate, and blessedly, he had also already made arrangements for his body to be cremated. I was thankful that, at least, his wife/partner would not be allowed to dictate the terms of his final wishes.

Why did he do it? I’ll never know for sure. What I suspect is that he reached a conclusion. After months of irreversible lung cancer eating at him, and I believe, facing the cruel reality of his family (myself included) finally having given up after years of calls and two-hour visits, which always resulted in his partner even further alienating him from us, he reached a decision. That decision being that he was not going to get better. He was only going to get worse and without admitting himself into Hospice–something he would rather die than do–he made the decision to unburden this world and those around him of his existence. He once confided to me that his partner had told him she wished he’d just go into Hospice care. He didn’t want to ever be that helpless.

A couple of weeks after his passing, I got a call from my lawyer. My father’s widow had suffered a mild heart attack and while at the hospital, called her lawyer and said that I had caused her illness. My lawyer called to find out if, in fact, I had spoken to his widow and if so, what had transpired.

I told my lawyer the truth; I hated the woman but I had not seen or spoken to her since I pulled away from her house the day my father died. My lawyer laughed, told me to keep doing the same, and that was the last I heard from his widow, or her lawyer.

Never in a million years could I have imagined an ending like this. Even today, knowing my father’s religious beliefs about suicide, I have trouble believing he took his own life. But I understand. I believe he felt that it was the last decision he could make that was truly his. If he had stayed and gotten sicker, which he would have, he knew his partner would send him to Hospice as soon as it was apparent he was no longer capable of self-care. And he knew that, being his wife, there was absolutely nothing the rest of us could do about it.

And since he had made it clear he would accept no help from the family unless it was us coming to him and having to deal with his partner, something we had all tried at one point or another only to have our help thrown back in our faces later, he knew he was on his own. By marrying “her,” he had sealed his own fate. She was now and forever, his lifeblood and legal decision maker.

There’s more to my father’s story, post-death, and maybe I’ll include it in later blogs. But, I felt this one needed an ending, a little closure. If for no one else, but me. I only wish I felt a satisfactory closure to my father’s life, but I’ll have to accept that some things will forever remain uncertain and unsatisfactorily resolved.

A Dust Pan for Dad – A Fish Out of Water Story

The other day I was picking up a few items at the grocery store, walking through the produce aisle, selecting some bell peppers here, a few (overly) expensive mangos there. Coming towards me was a middle-aged man and what appeared to be his two children–a boy and a girl. Nothing unusual in that. If anything, it’s always good to see the continued debunking of the media myth that men don’t contribute in the home.

As I selected a few lemons, I couldn’t help but notice the father. Slumped over his cart as he was, it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable in whatever “this” role was, probably a new one for him. Seeing that, I started paying a bit closer attention to the situation surrounding him and his children.

I caught one of the kids talking about the apples and I heard the man say something like, “But do we really need them?”

I didn’t catch the rest; probably because I was immediately swept away into a memory from my childhood. One that included another middle-aged man–my father–also with his child–me–and also clearly not entirely in his element.

I was probably 13. After 11 years of what seemed to be a stable, if perhaps uneventful, marriage, my stepmom announced she wanted to separate from my father for a while. As usual, my father seemed caught completely unaware, a trend that he appeared to have ignored much of his life. But, it being the 80s and divorce trends on a steep trajectory upwards, while I wasn’t unfamiliar with divorce, I didn’t know what a “separation” meant and I found myself at a complete loss as to how we were going to make it without her at home.

Even at that young age, I recognized that it was very selfish of me to immediately jump to concerns of self when my parents were clearly having problems. But the last time my father had to care for me (and my brother at the time) by himself, he was not good at it and it only last about a year because he quickly met someone who stepped in and took over everyday home-making.

At 13, I needed little supervision. I got myself up in the mornings; made my own breakfast and got myself out the door with no intervention from my parents. Dad was gone to work long before I even got up and my step-mother stayed in her room getting ready for work until after I left.

My father was not a “household chore” kind of guy. He was a builder. Tell him something needed fixing and he was on it. Tell him he needed to cook dinner, however, and he was at a total loss unless it meant cutting up and boiling some vegetables.

I very clearly remember our first trip to the grocery store. It had probably been two weeks since my stepmother had packed up her things and moved out. She had rented, and furnished, a nice apartment about 30 minutes away. Any hopes I had that her moving out was just a temporary thing were dashed the first weekend I spent at her place. I remember looking around thinking, “She has every piece of furniture someone who is single would have.” It didn’t occur to me then that she had clearly been planning this, if not actively setting it in motion without anyone knowing it, for quite some time and was planning on it lasting more than a few days. I also saw a pack of cigarettes sticking out of her purse. So far as I knew, both she and my father had quit smoking years ago, so this was (also) a new development.

But, “visiting” your parent is awkward. There I was, a pre-teen and a middle-aged step-parent stuck inside a nondescript apartment for two days. No money. Nothing to do really. And frankly, if we were at home, we wouldn’t have much day-to-day interaction anyway, so suddenly being forced to interact just because it’s “your weekend” made for some awkward moments. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end.

Back at home; after a couple of weeks of my having to come up with meal ideas for my father and me, not to mention that I’d not had anything to pack for my school lunch in days, a grocery-run was unavoidable and so I broached the subject with my father one Saturday morning. He was not enthused.

Now, I had no idea of my parents’ financial situation; not really. We had a comfortable house, but there were little things that led me to believe we weren’t doing all that well. So, I was very cognizant of money. Much like the children of the Great Depression, still today I’m a saver “just in case” and I’m confident much of my tendencies stem from the lean times of my youth when I spent my school lunch period pretending to study in the library so I didn’t have to explain to my friends that I wasn’t eating because my parents always “forgot” to give me any lunch money. And other small financial crises.

We drove to the store together. I’d shopped with my stepmother enough to know the drill. I grabbed a cart and headed right. In truth, I don’t remember much about the actual grocery store, but one particular selection impressed itself in my memories, again further cementing the fact that money was tight and this whole “on our own” thing was not going to be easy.

With “mom” gone, I had picked up the bulk of the housekeeping duties. I lightly cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. I dry-mopped the downstairs floors and vacuumed the carpets in all but my parents’ room. I did our laundry. In short, I did most of the housework.

I remember that the dustpan we had, had seen better days. The edge was chipped and dulled and it was difficult to get fine dirt and debris into it and so as we passed the aisle with household cleaning supplies, I told my father we needed a new dustpan. Of all the things we needed, why a dustpan? It’s one of those things. One of those battles upon whose hill you know you will die on while defending. But it needed to be done.

The dustpan selection ran the gamut from a super-cheap aluminum pan, similar to the crap-tastic plastic one we currently had, to a more expensive glossy white plastic unit with a small brush attachment. I picked up the latter and my father immediately said, “Why do we need that one? This other one (the cheaper alternative) is just fine.”

l remember making the argument that the cheap one is just going to get brittle and break like the one we already had, so we should buy the more expensive, but durable, one. I remember the look on my father’s face before he put the dustpan in our cart. For a brief moment, a pained expression passed over his eyes. I remember seeing him about to argue and then immediately change his mind. And I remember the resignation that fixed itself on his expression as he placed the shiny, white dustpan with the attachable broom into the cart.

That day, upon that hill, I’d won and he’d given up. Maybe that was why my step-mom left. Maybe at some point, he got tired of fighting and just stopped trying, or caring. And I guess she did too.

Like the dad in my recent shopping experience, my father was just as uncomfortable playing the homemaker. Back in the present, while watching the dad at the grocery, I experienced a momentary pang of empathy for what he was having to deal with. Whatever situation led to him being there, he was doing what he needed to do despite his inexperience and discomfort. For that, I gave him credit. Maybe, like my father from long ago, he too was going through something in his relationship. Or maybe his wife just had other plans that day and asked him to do this thing he didn’t normally do. I hope for his kids’ sake that’s what it was.

I don’t know what all happened between my father and stepmother back then. She did eventually come home, but it was six months or more later. When I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, less than a year later my step-mother divorced my father, and once again, he claimed complete ignorance of any issues and was completely taken by surprise by the whole thing.

She will tell you she divorced because he ignored her despite her trying everything to get him to pay attention to her. If the never-opened bottle of Jack Daniels that sat in the back of their closet my entire teen years, or the nearly-pristine, lone Playboy I found in the back of my father’s dresser drawer, which surely my step-mother knew about, are any indication of the lengths she went to, none of it worked.

My dad was many things. And he was NOT many things. But of this about him I will admit, he was loyal. Perhaps too loyal. Once he committed to something, it was a done deal, for better or for worse. At 40, he adopted two young boys–one with documented mental issues–and when he and his young wife, who was 11 years his junior, divorced a few years later, he took us with him and did the best he knew how.

But my father’s Achilles’ was women. So far as I can tell, he never told a woman in need, “No.” The bigger the hard-luck story, the harder he pursued them. Lord knows I wish he hadn’t. I’ll never stop regretting the last time he couldn’t stop himself from getting involved, and never walking away, even as the relationship cost him quite literally everything. But he was loyal.

Not too long after his death, we found out something that turned everything we thought we knew about my father on its ear. And the more I think about it, perhaps that is the reason he turned out to be so loyal later in life.

Maybe that’s all any of us can or should ever try to be. Even when life goes sideways and things aren’t ideal, maybe the best you can be remembered for is having always being there for the people who needed you most. Even if it ends up costing you your own happiness.

Finding Your Calling (Hint: It’s probably not behind a desk)

Growing up, my dad never sat still. Or if he did, it was only because he needed to be sitting down so he could finish sketching out the dimensions of his latest obsession. When we were building our house in Semmes, even before the house foundation was started, he’d built a shed for his tools. Later, that shed would become more of a storage unit than a shop, but I believe he would have spent more hours there than in the house if he knew he wouldn’t catch hell for ignoring the family.

When my dad got sick back in 2018, we all put on a brave face and told ourselves that he could get better. He had a great bunch of doctors and nurses and for a man in his early 80s, he was amazingly spry and active. But, deep down, I think we all knew the odds were against him.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more like him. Despite my being adopted, his “always stay busy” attitude, coupled with an innate need to create, are alive and well in me. If nothing else, of that I think he’d be proud. And I too have my own shop-slash-storage unit, but unlike his, mine is in the basement of my house and habitable throughout the year, impervious as it is to the heat of summer and the frigidity of the winter months. There are also a lot fewer cockroaches, which is nice.

Forty years later, I can tell you almost exactly how many steps it was from the door of my dad’s shed to his toolbox; I made the trip enough times. I can also tell you which drawer of my dad’s old toolbox he kept the screwdrivers in. It was the first drawer. Beneath that, his pliers. Beneath that, his electrical tools, such as his meters and soldering iron. I know because I organized my own toolbox the same way. If it works, and you remember what’s where because you had to “go fetch” tools from it a thousand times while working with your dad, why change it? Most of the memories I have of my dad involve some kind of work–either us working together, or me doing something he’d tasked me with. So, to say that I have a more than passing interest in preserving those memories, is a fair statement.

As dad got sicker–and my relationship with his girlfriend followed suit–I realized that unless I took preemptive action, when he passed, I wasn’t going to get any of these things. I even told him once that I would be surprised if she even let me in the house after he was gone, to which he agreed. Most of his “things” I couldn’t have cared less about; but, his tools were something else entirely. I grew up using those tools. I watched my father build our house and two dog houses with them. I can still remember trying to anticipate where he needed the flashlight or which screwdriver or pair of plyers he’d need next. I can still remember how dark it got on us the night he helped me rig up my car stereo amp (that was the days before they had prebuilt harnesses). And I can still feel the smooth surety of the hickory handle of that old ax I swung a million times while clearing out the back-five acres behind the house (btw – If you haven’t read that story, here you go). I have a million memories of those times working with him and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to his girlfriend’s early-onset dementia and her paranoid belief that I was trying to take my father away from her.

And to be fair, my father had told me that he wanted me to come up and take some things back home. I think he too realized the truth about his partner, but was just too sick to care to do anything about it. So one Saturday morning, I drove up to his home in Mills River, NC and we went through some of his old tools. I didn’t take much really, just some odds and ends hand tools and some fishing poles. In truth, I left 10x as much as I took home with me. He’d become a bit of a packrat in his old age; finally able to afford the tools he’d longed for in his youth. And so, of a weekend, he would visit garage sales and pick up random tools, even if he had two or three of the same thing at home already.

I think we both understood the finality of my coming up to go through his tools. Up to that point, I would never have even broached the idea of him sharing some of his handyman largess with me. It would have been like asking to drive another man’s motorcycle–you just don’t do it. But as he so bluntly put it that warm Saturday morning, “I can’t keep up this place like I used to. I don’t have any need for most of this stuff now. I want you to have it.”

I made the trip in one day. I refused to stay in the house with his partner and, while her northern upbringing wouldn’t allow her to say it out loud, it was clear I wasn’t welcome anyway. He would pass about two and a half months later. It was a messy death–misunderstood and incomprehensible–like much of his life was to those around him.

His tools now reside in my own matching red and black Craftsman toolbox. His old claw hammer with the dark brown wooden handle, made nigh impermeable from decades of sweat and heat, now hangs from a nail inside my shop over the door. It watches over me with a critical eye, a reminder of a legacy of an insatiable desire to tear down and build anew, and a need to create from nothing. Every time I see it I’m reminded of how short my own accomplishments have fallen compared to his.

At 48, I still have a lot of good years ahead of me; though maybe not as many as I like to think. My manual labor Saturdays end earlier and my joints ache more every year. All of these tools and memories I have will one day be someone else’s to make decisions about. And as it stands now, none of my own kids seem headed in my “handy” direction, so it will probably be the Estate Sale for most of my stuff; a headache for my wife and children. They will disperse it to someone else, never understanding how much I loved the ache and bone-tiredness resulting from many a Saturday and weeknight’s work.

All of this busy-ness is fleeting. Those projects I skipped soccer matches to finish, which seemed so important then, will be nothing more than part of an aggregate dollar amount on a real-estate sales contract when I’m gone–if I’m lucky I’ll be gone.

But the work made my dad happy, and when I’m busily working on a project, particularly one that will improve our house or the yard, I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s all any of us can really ask for once we’ve had children of our own and our reason for existence changes from satisfying self, to providing for others. In many ways, my little projects offer a bit of both.

Towards the end, my dad expressed regrets. Regrets about the way he raised me, the things he said and did, or didn’t. He never talked specifics, but I always figured he knew how hard on me he was. There was only ever one way to do something–his way. There was no “down time” and had it not been for my step-mom, there would have never been anything but school and work, which was how he was raised, as was his father before him.

I’ve probably gone the opposite direction with my own kids and I wonder if it’s too late now to course-correct. Only time will tell, I suppose. But, if any of them find their inner handy-person calling late in life, I hope my tools–and memories–are still here for them.

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Boys Will Be Boys, But Bullies Ruin it for Everyone

I was in 5th grade. After that thing my brother did, which resulted in his being forcefully removed from our house and becoming a ward of the state, life changed for us. At the time, I went to a good school; we lived in a great neighborhood for riding bicycles; I had my own room. Life was not bad, for me.

But after my brother left home, it went downhill fast. I was too young to understand the adult complexities that come with your child doing something horrible, but from the cautionary, muffled conversations I heard between my step-mom and my dad, and other family, I know there was a lot of embarrassment and general unease in our community, both within our neighborhood and our church.

I guess I can understand my parents’ decision to sell our house and move to another town. It wasn’t too far away, but far enough that we would no longer see any of our old neighbors or friends, and far enough away that I had to change schools right when I was starting the 6th grade.

In short, we moved to the country (more on it in this blog about our house and my friend, Joe). While I wasn’t exactly a city-boy, I might as well have been from Saturn with glowing eyes and antennae coming out of my head. The established boys in my new neighborhood took an immediate and distinct dislike to me from the get-go. In fact, it wasn’t just the boys in my neighborhood, but a number of boys in my grade.

Today, society has a low tolerance for bullies. But back then, “bullying” was just boys being boys and if you didn’t want to be bullied, then you’d better learn how to avoid them or learn how to fight. At the time, I weighed in at a mere 60 pounds in 6th grade, so the best option for me seemed to be avoidance.

Every day I walked behind the portable classrooms to avoid the two boys who always used the well-traveled walkway behind the cafeteria and who, if they saw me, liked to physically push me around and tell me about all the horrible things they would do to me if they ever caught me off campus. There was the boy in P.E. who also hated me for some unknown reason. This particular bully kept at it for nigh on a year until one day I snapped, threw him down, grabbled his legs and began dragging him all over the football field. Yeah, I don’t understand why I did that either versus just straddling him and pummeling his face. I think it was over fear of actually hitting him, which I get into later.

To avoid all confrontation, I helped out just about anyone who asked, with their homework or with a “loaned” pencil or some paper that I never got back. In general, I did everything I could to stay under the radar and avoid a pummeling. But you know, boys will be boys. Bullies can smell fear and nothing makes them feel bigger than to see a kid they’ve picked on, running scared.

By far the worst of the lot, was a kid in my neighborhood named “Craig.” Craig was a little taller than me, but he outweighed me by about 20 pounds. He and I were about like Ralphie and the bigger Farcus brother from “A Christmas Story.” Now, I didn’t have any classes with Craig, probably because he wasn’t very smart and I was mostly in advanced classes (read: Nerd), but I did have to ride the bus with him every morning and evening.

In the mornings I rode my bike over to another boys house (Greg) in the neighborhood to catch the bus, which didn’t actually come into the neighborhood but rather stopped on the main road at the entrance to it. For some reason, this kid whose house I left my bike at, liked me well enough. Not enough that he took up for me over Craig and his cronies, but he was a big enough kid and he had a very large older brother named “Boogie” who never wore a long-sleeved shirt or coat even in the winter. Greg was the Canada of the neighborhood–at least politically–so when I was with him and his massive redneck brother (and I say that with fondness), everyone basically left me alone.

After dropping my bike off at Greg’s house of a morning, I’d wait for him to finish getting ready and then we would head out to the bus stop where I did my best to avoid looking at Craig, or his cronies. Because, like anyone in jail can tell you, eye-contact is a form of aggression and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

Still, I knew they watched me, and whispered about me, and shot daggers from their eyes at me while I looked at anything BUT them. And the name-calling, man I heard it all. Mostly, it was words you can’t say these days without getting nailed with a hate-crime, but back then it was just standard bully-fare.

Afternoon bus rides home were more of the same except I only had to avoid Craig and his bunch as they boarded the bus and moved to the back. Once we got off the bus my Canada protection-neutrality vanished once I got my bike, or on the unfortunate rainy days when I had to walk because my bike couldn’t make it through the 6-inches of muddy slush created by a freshly grated dirt road and an inch of rain.

After about a year of taunting, even Craig’s lackies became emboldened and started following me for about 1/10 of a mile off the bus, yelling obscenities and pushing me in the back. One particular boy, who became the worst of the non-Craig boys, was smaller than me but what he lacked in stature he made up in colorful language and bravado. And he was merciless.

Now, I had always been taught not to start fights. It was particularly stressed in my house because of my brother, who, before he was taken away, started–and won–more fights than I’ve ever been in. It was my genuine belief that if I got into a fight, whether I won or got my butt whipped, I’d face a certain butt-whipping from my father when I got home. And my father favored belts.

So, I put up with Craig and his ilk for far longer than I would have preferred. But little did I know that one summer day in 1985, I was about to do something that would at least grant me a reprieve for a time.

It started off typically. I got off the bus and for some reason that I can’t remember, I was walking home that day, which always extended the length of the taunting because it was easy for them to keep up with me. I remember vividly cutting through someone’s yard, which opened up into a wooded field where no houses had been built. This particular day, Craig, was staying back and letting his minions handle the taunting.

This smaller boy I mentioned was walking just behind me and off my right shoulder. He had been calling me names for a good two or three minutes and there were several other boys walking behind him, egging him on as he worked me like a prize-fighter. As he got right up behind me to yell in my ear again, “fight or flight” took over and I spun around with a backhand, hoping to connect with his head. I missed. He may have been little, but the kid was quick and he dropped to the ground as I came around.

Though I didn’t connect with my would-be Joey LaRusso roundabout spin-move, it impressed upon him that maybe today wasn’t the day to pick on someone willing to fight and who happened to be bigger than you. I kept on walking and though they continued the name-calling and yelling, it lacked the usual vehemence it usually had and they stopped following me. A moral victory.

For a while, things quieted down. Sometimes with boys all they need to see is a willingness to stand up for yourself. Once they realize you’re not quite the victim they thought, self-preservation forces self-introspection, which inevitably leads to a decision to find an easier target.

About a year later, after a relatively quiet period of non-violence, Craig decided to start up on me again. I don’t know why, or what the catalyst was, but it was if nothing had ever happened and almost literally overnight, we were back to being sworn enemies.

By this time, the bus route had changed and instead of our having to get off at the front of the neighborhood and me riding or walking back to my house, the bus stopped about two-tenths of a mile from my house. One day on the ride home, Craig and his friends wouldn’t stop threatening me quietly on the bus. They told me they were going to get off at my stop. I figured they were bluffing until they didn’t get off at their stop, at which point I knew I had troubles.

My adrenaline pumping and my heart racing, I stepped off the bus. Not stopping to see who else got off, I began walking back to my house. I could hear the bus pull away and then rocks began whizzing by my head, thumping into the red dirt as the boys pelted me with quarter-sized pebbles.

I don’t know what made me turn around that day. Maybe I’d finally just gotten tired of living in fear–of them and my father–or maybe it was the fact that I had gotten a little bigger and felt that I actually had a chance of winning a fight. As I got nearer, a few more rocks flew at me but even those stopped as I approached their group. I was standing just a few feet away from Craig as he stood there glowering, I dropped by backpack on the ground; my heart beating out of my chest. I knew today was the day. It was him or me. No matter how it turned out, and no matter what my dad did to me when he found out, I knew that if I didn’t face Craig today, I’d have to live in fear the rest of my days there.

I looked at Craig and said, “Come on. Hit me.”

I believed that if I could get him to swing at me first, then maybe I could get some leniency with my father. He stood there glaring, not saying a word. So, I taunted him more, “Come on, hit me! You’ve been picking on me for years. Let’s do this!”

Craig just stood there. He didn’t say a word. He just stood there.

Finally, I pursed my lips, turned around, picked up my bag and headed home, fully expecting someone to come crashing down on my back and for the pummeling to begin.

It never came.

After that, Craig and his friends left me alone. There were still sneers and dirty looks, but the days of picking were mostly over. I suppose they realized there was some fight in me and in the last couple of years, I’d managed to close the size gap between Craig and me and I probably wasn’t quite as easy a victim as they’d once thought. Maybe once I was actually standing in front of him at eye-level, he realized he might not come out of the fight as well as he thought. And losing to this city kid was something his reputation would never recover from.

Not long after, we were having a family get-together at my house and it came out that I had been dealing with, not only Craig, but other bullies at school. My dad was furious. Not at me, but at the situation. The school knew I was being bullied and offered no help and never reported it to my parents. When my father asked me why I didn’t stand up for myself, I told him I was afraid of what would happen at home. When he heard that, he immediately started showing me a few “moves” that could help me at least hold my own.

There was still an admonition to never “start a fight,” but my father wanted to make sure I didn’t have to continue living in fear. He told me that if someone else starts it, he wouldn’t be mad at me for standing up for myself, no matter what happened. It was a small turning point in my relationship with him, but an important one.

To this day, nothing chaps me more than a bully. It doesn’t have to someone like Craig, either. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are physical bullies while others verbally bully people, usually through coersion and fear, or by withholding something they know you need. I’ve run into a few of them in my professional career.

But not matter the method, they’re all the same to me–bullies. And maybe part of my having beat my body up in the gym, and running until the joints in my feet fused, is because I regret the years I lived in fear. I never want that for my own kids and so I’ve continued my father’s “don’t start it, but finish it” philosophy with them. They know I don’t want them to start a fight, but they also know I don’t want them walking away from one, or encouraging others to continuing bullying by ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Boys will be boys, or at least some of them will be. No amount of gender-neutrality can take away the biological desire to eliminate the competition. We can teach our children right or wrong, however; and when diplomacy fails, I expect them to protect themselves and their families. I consider it part of my responsibility as a father and I think my father did too.