On the description part of this web page you’ll see how the name of this site: Our Story Begins comes from a saying that’s now on the wall of our house with our family photos. The saying there, actually, is “Home: the place your story begins.” That wasn’t quite as intimate as just “Our Story Begins” and my line didn’t seem quite as plagiaristic as using their phrase.
But it would be really simple to just use a saying, thought up by someone else, saying it touched my heart and made me think “yeah, that’s me!” That would be so far from the mark, though, that I would correct anyone who tried to limit what our story is about by simply saying “oh, he found a saying they hang on the wall.” The saying was appropriate because on so many fronts our story really did begin on March 26th, 2011. It’s a strange kind of irony – not bitter or obvious but strange – that my story has so many strange starts and stops on the same days. I was born on July 1st…so was my middle daughter Hannah. I was married on March 26th, but that’s also the day my wife died. Each of those could easily just be a chapter in our lives, but for certain, the biggest change and largest new volumes in the tome that is our life are on the 26th of March.
We started over. There is an outline, a map of sorts, that Andrea left us. I need that map, more of a sketch of the road ahead than an actual accurate depiction of what we’re going to see. It’s also better that way, I think. If we continued on the same path, the one road that she would have traveled, I’m not sure we’d have made it out alive. (You notice I didn’t say unscathed) You can’t go down this road without diverging from the path. Think about it: travelling down the freeway may be the quickest way to get to your destination, but if you never got off in, say, West, Texas you wouldn’t have realized it’s the kolache capitol of the state and some of the best pastries you’ll ever eat. You can’t live your life going down the same path, forever, and never stepping off to see what’s off in the woods or meeting the waitress in the diner a few miles off the path.
I use this as a metaphor because what I’m about to write may come across – particularly to my wife’s friends and family – as a bit harsh and maybe unkind. That’s not at all how it’s meant to be taken.
Andrea wanted the shortcuts on the road. I think she learned that from her father, and I’ve never been and never was fond of it. When I met her she was ambitious, dreaming, and happy. She wanted to be a television anchor – not necessarily Edward R. Murrow, Katie Couric would have been good enough for her – and she was pretty good at it. I’d gone to school for journalism and was behind the camera for the most part. That’s where my career took me as that’s where the opportunities presented themselves. I got to write, make small stories every day, and I loved it. She always thought I should have been a reporter or anchor but life had a way of changing that.
After we got married, even before we had Abbi – which was just over a year after we were married – she wanted to get out. The industry was loathe the break that glass ceiling, particularly for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl. She was one of hundreds, though I would have hired her in a minute. She started to hear the advice of others saying she just needed a stable job. I was too much the dreamer. We couldn’t make a living at this. We weren’t going to make it. Andrea had seen her Dad during her formative years leave his job as an educator and go into real estate because it was fast, big money. He’d been a musician and loved it, even played for the president once, but when he got married his wife hated that he played and was out a lot and not home . . . so he just stopped. That simple. Quit the dream, it’s not worth it.
So Andrea went to pharmacy school. Partly it was because she saw it was helping people. But the main reason, and you can skewer me over this if you want, but her theory was it paid a boatload of money. Pure and simple. She had this wild-eyed theory that once she started working we wouldn’t spend a cent of it and pay off the more than $100,000 in student loans in a year or two. Even I laughed at that theory. We were already in debt, up to our eyeballs. I was working two jobs, delivering newspapers at 2am, and playing gigs every weekend I could get in order to eat. There were weeks I was up for 40 hours straight or more just to make ends meet.
You can see where this is going: we didn’t pay off those loans. We moved, because she wanted to get out of Nebraska. Then instead of renting, we bought a house. All the while I was needled for being a journalist and put down if I brought up the music again, not by her so much as those around her. The neighbors would get something big? She wanted bigger. It was like sometimes she’d absorbed the influences around her more than those in front of her. Once she started making money, we started spending it to support the lifestyle she’d gotten used to.
This was the opposite of my upbringing. My Dad didn’t want me to be a journalist. He didn’t know what he wanted for me, but this wasn’t his idea. Neither was it my Mom’s. When I wanted to go make a go of things as a musician, my Mom was aghast. I never did, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But when I learned to play guitar, joined a band, even started my own band, my folks were always there. My Dad helped me get the PA gear. My brother joined the band. Some nights we would play only to ceiling fans and lights . . . but there in the corner, right in front of the stage, was my Dad. Now, I write, record, and play when I can.
Andrea applied her same desire to get ahead more than be happy to the kids. Abbi came to me tonight with a letter she’d written to her drama teacher. Abbi’s always loved acting, writing, and everything to do with television, film and the stage. She loves it but was never considering going into it because her Mom always told her she had to have a backup and be a pharmacist or another suitable medical field. I told her a million stories about my Dad, my brother, and how long I wanted to fight my Mom for the ability to work in music. When Abbi started to express interest in drama my Mom started in on her, too, much like she did my brother . . . who stopped her dead.
“Let her do it, Mom.”
My mother was incredulous. “She needs to have something stable!”
“And she will, Mom, but you know how many times I’ve kicked myself for not just jumping into it and hitting the road? She’s young. She’ll bounce back from mistakes. Life is really too short and she has the time to go do something else if she fails . . . but at least she can say she tried. Make her go to school for something else and she may never do it.”
My Mom relented. It finally made sense. It never did to Andrea. I had a million arguments with her about this, too. I told her it was most important to be happy. Working is “work” if you’re not happy at what you’re doing. But tonight she showed me the letter she had to write in order to get into her drama class. In it, she talked about how it was always in her, part of her, and what she loved, but never considered it. But when all our lives turned upside down – “on March 26th, 2011, I saw this as a chance to start over, to do it again.” She looked at our lives as a new start, a new beginning . . . where our story begins.
I admit to a slight bit of wishing she’d mentioned how much I’d told her she needed to do this, how I told her I want her to be happy, but informed. How she’ll be making lattes more than reading lines, but as long as she’s aware of what she has to do and believes she’ll do it she’ll be fine. But I’m just happy she’s finally doing what she wants rather than what she thinks she needs. It can all turn on a dime. All of it. If you’re at work staring at the clock then you’re not happy.
Neil Gaiman, an amazing writer, author of American Gods and Coraline, gave a commencement speech recently and in it – I’m paraphrasing here – he said that you are the only person who can do what you do . . . that’s make art. The actor, the musician, the artist, the writer . . . no matter how bad things get, how awful your life is . . . if your Mom dies unexpectedly because of a resistant strain or pneumonia . . . the best thing to do is “…make good art. Wife leaves you for a politician, make good art. Leg gets crushed and eaten by a mutated boa constrictor . . . .make good art. Your cat explodes . . . make . . . good . . . art!” Not only did Abbi laugh at seeing that, but she realized what he was saying. He said the worst tragedy was colleagues who were miserable because now they had to write to maintain a lifestyle, not write because they love to write.
When Andrea died, I was lost. Despair during that time is palpable. I wasn’t just in grief, I was reveling in the grief. I was happy to stew, cry, and be miserable. It’s like a drug, I have to say, and you give yourself to the pain and misery and just let it wash over you like a wave. That’s how far gone I’d been in the first days after losing her. The only thing – the one thing alone – that made sense once I started to see shapes through the fog was picking up my guitar. I wasn’t sleeping. I barely ate. But without having heard Gaiman’s speech, I realize that without having heard his advice I’d done it. At 4am, watching “The Wire” on TV, or staring at the stars through the window, I wrote. I wrote song after song. Some are awful. Others . . . 5 or 6 of them in fact . . . are the best stuff I’ve ever created. Just months after losing my wife I was in the studio with my brother doing one of the best vocal performances I’d ever sung. I wrote a song that was raw and left me far more exposed and naked than the fearful teenager I used to be would ever have considered, but it was good. I made . . . good art.
Abbi’s not there yet, but she wants to be. It’s a turning point that I never thought I’d see. But she’s realizing now what I did a year ago. Our lives didn’t end, though it felt like it. We just began again. We had to. It’s not fun, certainly not easy, and very, very lonely a lot of the time. But today, we’re OK. We’re not rich, in fact we’re struggling a lot. But our home is filled with music. The kids – Hannah and the boys in particular – draw constantly. Abbi is in plays and musicals. Without realizing it, our house is filled with art. We don’t have a lot of money, no, but we do have is wonderful.
Right toward the end, when I had gotten a job in television that paid well – first in Dallas and then here in Sacramento – Andrea looked at me confused one day. “You actually have gotten here, haven’t you? I mean, I went through all that school, did the loans, and I’m making really good money . . . but you never stopped believing you’d be able to do this. Now you are. You were right, weren’t you?”
All I could tell her was yes . . . maybe. But it wasn’t that I was sure, it’s that I wanted to do it. I didn’t have another degree and don’t know how to do anything else but play the guitar – two of the worst-paid professions. But the hard exterior started to crack. I wonder what she would have been like five more years down the road? Would she have done like me and pushed Abbi to do what she wanted, not needed? I kind of doubt it, but she would have been OK with it anyway.
It’s gratifying, in a strange sort of way, that Abbi’s coming to terms with this. But she knows that as long as she’s happy, she will be OK, because I’ll be there. We’re better together than we are apart, my mantra now, and she’ll never be without someone there, not while I’m here and her siblings too.
But most of all, it’s gratifying that they’re all starting to see it: our lives – our stories – haven’t ended. It’s really true.
This is where our story begins.