August 17, 2018

Ghosts of August…

Category: News — admin @ 5:36 pm

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Return. Oh, lost and by the wind grieved ghost, come back again.

—Thomas Wolfe
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The voices always call from the shadows of the past in early August. And this year was no different. There were two major events that happened a day apart, plus eighteen years. August third and fourth. And this year I thought about them both, as my mind went down the path of each memory. But I only journeyed back to one. In detail, in my head, I mean. Went back and saw it again, one of those two days. It’s too much, it’s too intense, to try to go down both roads that close together. So you go down the one that beckons most. And you stay on that road until you get to where it’s going.

Of the two big things that happened a day and eighteen years apart, the telling of the last one comes first, I guess. This time, it does. On August 4th, 2000, there was a wedding ceremony down in the beautiful hills and hollows around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Smoky Mountains. And that day, an excited young (well, relatively speaking, young) couple had invited a handful of family and friends to join them. In a little chapel there, out in the mountains, it happened. Ellen and I got married. One of those short, pre-packaged wedding ceremonies, but it was still beautiful and special to us. The rented preacher intoned a brief rote sermon from the Love Chapter in the Bible, like he’d done a thousand times before for eager and excited couples he never saw again. He made it sound like he meant it, and I’m sure he did. The sun shone bright around the rough-hewn little chapel that afternoon. The world was ours, made for us alone, in that moment. It was our day, it was our time.

August 4th, eighteen years ago. It used to be a dark and fearful date that I saw coming like an approaching thundercloud, with a lot of heaviness and dread. Early on, after we split up, that’s how it was. You felt the sadness seeping in, a little bit ahead of time. And you tried to calm your heart to absorb it. Then there was less and less darkness and fear, as the years flowed on and the day came at me. And in the last few years, it barely blipped on my radar. There were a couple of times, there, when I never even thought about the date until a week after it had passed. And then it hit me. Oh, my. I was supposed to feel bad, back there on the fourth. I guess I’ll have to wait until next year and see how it goes by then.

This year, for reasons that may or may not be what I think they are, the memory of that day came poking at me well ahead of time. And this year, I looked at it, walked right up to it. And poked right back. Oh, yeah? You think that’s gonna freak me out? How about you give me all you got? I can take it. And I saw and felt that day and all that it was in a new way. There were no flashbacks, and no stark and haunting memories came knocking on the door. It had long been a settled thing in my head, and now that calmness settled cleanly in my heart.

The thought echoed like a silent whisper in my subconscious mind. It’s OK. This is the date it happened, a long time ago. Look at all it was, look at it clearly in the face. And then speak, if it needs to be spoken. Maybe in a future blog. Or maybe save it for the book. Next August, next year, it’ll come poking back at me. But it will never again be anything other than a reality that once was and now is no more. My heart is calm, and my head is clear. I am at peace with all that August 4th ever was in the past. And yeah, I remind myself. No one can know what dreams may come. No one can know the loneliness and bitter sorrow I saw, getting here. Whatever those dreams are, I will walk through them. And I figure to be at peace with all the ghosts from that day that might come knocking in the future, too.

So there’s that. The one day, of the two. And this year, it was the other event that played out a lot harder in my head, the thing that happened on August third, half a lifetime ago. On a sultry summer night, back in Bloomfield, the Old Bloomfield of my youth. A Tuesday at dusk, close to sundown. That’s when the dark thing came. And this year, the specter of that night came calling strong.

Thirty-six years ago on that early August evening, my brother Titus walked across a field with friends to go swimming in a farm pond. It was the last time he ever walked anywhere. In an instant, normal life changed dramatically for him and for those of us who were in his world at that time. The fateful dive, the crushed vertebrae, and the resulting brutal and almost incomprehensible reality. At just shy of twenty-four years old, Titus was felled like a sturdy oak tree in its prime. He would never walk another step on this earth.

I remember that night very well. I wrote about it in the book, how it went. It was a quiet, normal evening at home. But out there on the banks of that farm pond, five miles to the east, things were going on. The vivid scenes are seared forever in the minds and memories of the people who were there. They can tell you exactly what they saw and exactly how they felt, all these years later. I remember some of the events as they were told and written at the time.

Titus was pulled from the pond by his good friends, Marvin and Rudy. He had been under water for almost two minutes. Another thirty seconds, I always figured, and he would have been gone. Still. There he was, stretched on the banks of the pond, on his back. He choked and coughed and gulped in great draughts of fresh, life-giving air. Water gushed from his mouth and lungs. He coughed and sputtered and coughed some more. And he gasped the desperate question. “What took you so long to pull me out?”

The boys instantly saw that something was dreadfully wrong with Titus. He could not move his legs. He could not feel them. Marvin’s little brother, Elmer, was the one who raced up through the fields back to the house. He was so overwhelmed and excited that he could barely get it told, what had happened. The men all rose and dashed out to the pond. Someone rushed to the schoolhouse phone to call the ambulance. Soon, approaching sirens wailed in the distance. On the banks of the pond, a tight knot of people had gathered round.

In all the days and years since that fateful evening, I have always been grateful that I was not present, not there that night when my brother got hurt. I don’t know how I would have reacted, what I would have said, or what I would have done. I just don’t know. It would have been intense.

From all the stories that were told, one scene stayed burned deep in my memory. Ruth. She came running through the field, up to the banks of the pond. The men who were huddled around Titus separated like the parting of the sea. It seemed like time had stopped as she walked the open path to where her betrothed lay, stretched motionless on the ground. She knelt beside him. And she calmly spoke his name. “Titus.”

They were so young then, Titus and Ruth. In their early twenties. And there, that night, beside a farm pond in a pasture field in southern Iowa, there unfolded one of the defining moments in all their lives. She spoke to him, calmly. She hovered close always, as the medics arrived and transported her man onto a stretcher, then into the waiting ambulance. She rode by his side to the hospital and stayed by his side all through that eternally long first night. It was the most terrifying moment of the entire journey, there early on, when no one knew what was or what was to come. And Ruth stayed there by his side, that night and the days and nights that followed. For better or for worse.

It’s been written before, in my father’s book and later in my own. The blur of days and weeks that slowly stretched into months and years. Titus and Ruth married a few years after his accident. He would live the rest of his days on a wheelchair. All of life, and all that life was for Titus, was viewed from a wheelchair. They settled into their little new house there south of my parents’ homestead, well within the parameters of the region north of West Grove that was the Wagler empire in Bloomfield. I did not share much of that time with them, or see their uninterrupted lives, because I was running hard, pushing out into far boundaries such as I had never seen before.

Titus and Ruth settled into the Bloomfield Amish world as a young married couple. The timeline of events is a bit foggy in my memory, but at some point they moved from their little nest of a house. Moved over east about five miles, to a forty-acre tract of land just down and across the road from Ruth’s parents. And just down the road from the little farm pond where both their lives had changed so drastically, back in 1982. There, Titus built a nice new house. And he started a business with a couple of Ruth’s brothers. A little truss manufacturing shop, they started. And Titus and Ruth dreamed of one day raising a family of their own.

That dream was realized in 2002 when they came out to Pennsylvania, close to where I live in Lancaster, and adopted an infant child. A boy they named Robert. A few years later, Robert’s birth mother had another child, another son. Tragically, the mother then died. Titus and Ruth were notified. Your son’s full brother is also available for adoption. They traveled to Pennsylvania again. And this time they returned home with another baby, a son they named Thomas. They settled into the Amish world of Bloomfield, just another normal couple with two children. Two sons. And all was about as well as it could have been, I suppose. Considering everything.

Life is life for everyone, and into every life some sadness must fall. And for Titus, some of that sadness was watching his family pack up and move away. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, all of his married siblings who lived in Bloomfield moved out with their families. All except Joseph. My parents lived in the Daudy house on the farm where Joseph and Iva lived along Drakesville Road. It seemed like this was where my parents would be laid to rest after their journeys on this earth were over. But that was not to be. Early in 2008, Joseph resettled his family to May’s Lick, Kentucky. Dad and Mom moved with him. They had little choice in the matter. It just was what it was. And Titus remained in Bloomfield, the lone stalwart Wagler from what once was a vast and proud and far-flung clan. Those had to be some sad days for my brother.

And life went on, then. Over the years, I stopped by to see my brother when I came around anywhere close. I was always welcomed into their home, now ever lively with their two young sons. Like my father, Titus had a natural knack for business, and the little truss plant he founded with his brothers-in-law, that little business prospered greatly. The community there in Bloomfield grew and prospered, too. Until it became the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi, a distinction that remains today. Currently, there are thirteen districts in Bloomfield, and the settlement generates its own economy. It’s certainly a vastly different world than the one I knew decades ago, when people scratched and clawed to extract a meager and hardscrabble living from the land.

All that to say. Titus and his family were an integral part of the world I knew in all the time since I left the Amish long ago. They were just there. Titus stayed in regular contact. He still does. He has to make that effort, because we can only contact him in his phone shack. We never know when he’ll be there. So he just calls us, all his siblings, when he’s at his phone. And I don’t get out to that part of the world much these days. But if I get anywhere close to Bloomfield, I’ll stop by to see my brother. I am always welcomed. I have always been welcomed.

We’re just little boys again, my brother and me, when I stop by. For a few brief and fleeting moments, we are. Little boys, playing barefoot in the creek. We relive the old memories and we page through some of the old books from our childhood that the man has preserved. The actual books, from our actual childhoods. You hold such a thing in your hands and you talk about it with someone who held that same thing, way back, well, that’s just a special connection. Not a lot of words are necessary, and not a lot are spoken.

And there was another place where not a lot of words were spoken, too. We went there only a few times, in all the years since the night of that fateful dive. I brought it up, those times, during my infrequent visits at my brother’s home. I brought it up, kind of shyly. And I told him. I still can’t believe, sometimes, when I stop and really think about it. I still can’t believe that you can’t walk. Titus leaned forward in his wheelchair, hooking his arm around one of the handles on the back, like he always does. He looked at me and smiled back, kind of shyly, too. And he told me, those few times we went there. “Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about how it would be to get up from this chair and walk. I think about it. Every single day.” And there, in that brief sliver of time, we absorbed the pain of the reality that was his world, we absorbed it together in silence.

Titus has been concerned about certain stretches of the road I chose to walk over the years. This I know without him telling me. He never said much, really. I just knew. But he always respected where I was, and he always let me know in subtle ways how proud he was of the positive things I somehow got accomplished. Going to college. He was proud of me for that. And then law school. No one saw that coming. And there were some really, really rocky patches, then, after law school. My life was a huge mess, seemed like, way more than it wasn’t. And things just went the way they did. But Titus quietly offered his support, always, and he let me know how proud he was that I was writing. After that got triggered, I mean, by all the crap that was going on around me. He let me know. He reads my blogs faithfully. He’s read every single one that was ever posted. That doesn’t mean he always agrees with me, of course. He’s Amish, so he sees things a little different than I do. He’s had some issues with some of the stuff I’ve written over the years. Which is fine. But he has never, never told me to stop writing or asked me to change my voice.

It was kind of funny. The day after the anniversary of his accident, Titus called me. That Saturday. And I told him. I sure thought of you this year, when yesterday came. And now, today it’s eighteen years since Ellen and I got married. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that used to mess with my head. But it doesn’t, anymore. Now, it’s just a thing that was. So, anyway, how did it go for you, yesterday? Were you OK?

He chuckled. And I knew he had been OK. “Yes, I thought about it yesterday. And today, it’s eighteen years since you and Ellen got married. I got hurt thirty-six years ago. Eighteen is halfway to where I am.” And I chuckled, too. Wow, I said. That is kind of a wild realization, right there. And we chatted, then, about other things. He asked how the book is coming along.

I don’t know, really, I said. It’s definitely going to be delayed a little, because the first tentative deadline was this summer. Well, it ain’t happening, partly because some of the stuff that has to be in the book keeps happening around me right now. Like that trip up to see Dad. I’ve got a lot of writing to get done, yet. I figure to know a bit more about the schedule, soon. And we wrapped it up, then. Said so long and hung up.

And I thought of that night way back there in the past when a young man brimming with hope and confidence and the simple dreams of his fathers, when a man such as that went walking across a field to go swimming with his friends. That night, when the bright future of youth was so cruelly and senselessly shattered, by any human standard that made a lick of sense. That night, when the end of the innocence came for the way so much of life had always been. That night. That night…

And now, thirty-six years have passed. That’s a long, long time. And there is no question. Titus has lived a productive and fruitful life in his wheelchair. He has seen an abundance of the joy and sorrow and pain that life brings, with maybe a little bit of emphasis on the sorrow and pain. But joy was present, too, on his journey. Today, he is a respected Amish elder, a patriarch in his community, with a long and noble beard. A very successful businessman with a loving wife and family. I deeply admire his faith and courage and strength and persistent good cheer.

Still. Over the years, I have often thought of how Jesus spoke to the blind beggar who kept calling his name as he was passing by. “What do you want from me?” Jesus asked. The beggar cried out from the darkness with all the deep and hopeless longing that had burned in his heart for decades. “Lord, that I may see.”

The blind man got his wish. His eyes were healed. He could behold his world. And I have often imagined a similar scene if Jesus strolled by today and asked Titus that same question. “My child, what do you want from me?”

And I can hear my brother’s voice, echoing the yearning and sorrow and fear and loss and heartbreak that he has seen and felt and lived on the long, hard road that was the last thirty-six years. “Lord, that I may walk.”

It won’t be on this earth, but one day that scene will happen.

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