The King and I

Elvis Presley, the noted King of Rock and Roll, was like a member of our family. Mom worshipped him and owned several of his albums and 45s that I wore out playing and dancing to when I was little. And we never missed his movies on TV. Both of us planted ourselves firmly in front of the set, Mom on the couch, I on the floor on my belly, not budging an inch lest we miss a glimpse of our sultry heartthrob. I melted as he crooned to one of his dewy-eyed ladyloves, envying the dazzling beauty while wondering what it was he saw in her. To me, they didn’t hold a candle to his gorgeous wife, Priscilla. I believed she was the luckiest woman on the planet, and I often daydreamed about her idyllic, fairy-tale life with the King. The birth of their little princess, Lisa Marie, completed the fairy tale.

The similarities between Dad and Elvis were eerie. With birth dates only one day apart—Dad’s on January 7 and Elvis’s on January 8—they were both Southern born and bred—Dad in Kentucky and Elvis in Mississippi. Both of them had jet-black, slicked-back hair, had a thin, wiry build (in their youth), and stood close to the same height. Dad and Elvis adored and were adored by their mothers, doted on their daughters, and were divorced from the love of their lives within months of each other—Dad from Mom in June 1973 and Elvis from Priscilla in October 1973.

The similarities didn’t stop there. Gossip rags had it that Elvis suffered from severe depression after his divorce from Priscilla, as did Dad after his divorce from Mom.

“I can understand Elvis’s not wanting to go on anymore after losing his wife and daughter,” Dad said to me as we were driving in his car sometime in early 1974. He looked at me, his black eyes wild with panic. “I wouldn’t want to go on if I lost you!”

His desperation was palpable in the tiny, enclosed space. I stared back at him, wide-eyed, as my heart jackhammered in my chest. “Dad! Don’t say that!”

“I’m serious! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you! I couldn’t handle that!”

“Dad, stop it! I’m only twelve years old!”

“Well, I can’t help it! I couldn’t handle it!”

“This is way too much pressure for me, Dad! You’re making me responsible for whether you live or die!” Now I was panicked. I felt the walls closing in, sucking all the oxygen out of the car. I grabbed the car door and breathed deeply, trying to get my bearings.

“Well, that’s how I feel! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you!”

In that moment, I realized in the most visceral sense that not only had I lost my mom a few short months earlier in the divorce, I had also lost the dad I had prior to it—stable, calm, and strong, the one I depended on for safety, security, and love. Now he was depending on me, his child, to be stable, calm, and strong for him, the one he depended on for safety, security, and love. At twelve years old, I was now the parent to the only parent I had left. This was all too much to take in–all too much to bear.

Trying to make Dad’s life easier was one thing, but feeling responsible for his life was another. Now I not only needed to fend for myself physically and emotionally, as Dad had escaped into working twelve- to thirteen-hour days, I also had to keep Dad afloat emotionally. I had to be okay so he would be okay. As I saw it, both of our lives depended on that. Such a heavy burden on my young shoulders.

Turns out, Priscilla’s life with the King wasn’t such an idyllic fairy tale after all. And four years after their divorce, their beloved Lisa Marie, only nine years old, lost her dad to death.

In one way or another, addiction ultimately makes orphans of us all.

 

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A Lesson in Self-Defense: Lights! Camera! Action!

About one year after Mom and Dad’s divorce, during one of Stevie’s weekends with Dad and me, Dad set up his tripod, movie camera, and floodlights in the middle of the living room. Dad was a photography nut, and Stevie and I had grown up with a camera shoved in our faces, but this was the first time any of Dad’s cameras had seen daylight since the divorce.

“We’re going to make a movie about two kids being home alone at night and an intruder tries to break in,” Dad announced.

Whoa . . . this was way too close to the bone for me since I stayed home alone every night Dad was at work. But I recognized that creative glint in Dad’s eye and knew better than to argue. It was either play along or be cajoled senseless. Plus it was good having Dad somewhat back to himself again. He’d been but a shell of himself since Mom left with Stevie.

Dad slid open the utility closet door in the living room around the corner from the kitchen. “The scene will start with you two watching TV from the couch. Then you’re going to hear someone trying to break in the back door.” He paused for dramatic effect; his black eyes were round with suspense. “You then run in here to hide.” He pointed to the closet. “Close the door, leaving only a crack to peek through. Now—I’m the intruder, of course—I’m going to walk into the living room from the kitchen looking around for you kids, but I won’t notice the closet. When I get to this spot on the floor . . .” he walked to the center of the living room, “I want you, honey bun,” he pointed at me, “to run out and beat me over the head with a broom.”

“I can’t beat you over the head! Won’t that hurt?”

Dad waved dismissively. “Not the bristles.”

He walked over to the movie camera and peered into it again, making sure it was positioned and focused properly. Satisfied, he switched on the two floodlights. Instantly blinded, Stevie and I squinted until our eyes adjusted.

“Okay, honey bun. When I tap three times on the back door, turn the camera on.”

Having been Dad’s filming assistant over the years, I was familiar with the various buttons on his cameras as well as his stage cues. Dad raised his thick black eyebrows and fixed Stevie with a serious look.

“Now you listen to Diane, Son. Once she turns the camera on, we’re rolling, so you remember your part.”

Stevie giggled, nodding like a bobblehead.

Dad walked out the back door, shutting it tight behind him. Total silence filled the house. Then tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

I switched the camera on and checked to make sure the red light on the top was lit, indicating that the camera was rolling. I made eye contact with Stevie, held my pointer finger to my lips, and we took our places on the couch.

We pretended to be engrossed in the TV show. Within a couple of minutes, we heard strange sounds coming from the back door.

“What was that?” Stevie’s green eyes were wide in mock fear but his lips twitched from stifled laughter.

“I don’t know!”

We both feigned seriousness as we strained to listen.

“It sounds like someone is trying to get in the back door!” I said. My heart stopped as a terrifying thought popped into my head. What if Stevie realizes that this could really happen? My maternal instinct to protect my four-year-old brother kicked in, but I pushed it aside and stayed in character. “We’ll hide in here.” I ushered Stevie into the closet, squeezed in next to him, and shut the door.

The searing floodlights baking the living room made the cramped, two-by-two foot compartment in the closet feel like a rotisserie. A nervous giggle escaped from Stevie as we anxiously waited for the “intruder” to appear. I held my pointer finger to my lips again while holding the broom in my other hand. Stevie clamped his hand tight over his mouth, shoulders heaving with laughter.

I peeked out the door. Nothing.

Time stopped as we continued to wait. Dead silence and stillness enveloped the house; my heart hammered in my ears as I strained to hear any movement. Stevie wiggled impatiently in the cramped space but straightened up when I shot him a stern look.

I peered out again. A black-haired man in a long black trench coat with the collar pulled up around his face skulked past the closet, slowly swiveling his head from side to side, scanning the living room.

When the intruder reached the spot in the middle of the living room, something inside me snapped. I exploded out of the closet, brandishing the broom with every ounce of strength I had, Stevie hot on my heels whooping war calls.

Thwopp!! I slammed the broom down hard on top of the intruder’s head. He staggered, trying to catch his balance, as he tried fleeing from me.

“GET HIM, DIANE! GET HIM!” Stevie hollered.

I swung the broom again—thwack!—planting another wallop alongside the intruder’s head.

“OW!” he yelped, ducking his head into his shoulders as he fled toward the front door, his arms flailing to ward off the blows.

“HARDER, DIANE! HARDER!” Stevie yelled.

Adrenaline surging, I swung again. Thud!

“OW!! DIANE, STOP! STOP!!”

Hearing Dad’s voice saying my name snapped me back to my senses. I stopped in mid-swing, the broom poised over my head.

Dad ran to the camera and switched it off. Stevie and I looked at him, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What’s wrong?? You damned near killed me, that’s what’s wrong!”

“You told me to beat you over the head with the broom!”

“With the bristles, not the handle! Didn’t you hear me yell?”

“Yeah, but I thought that was part of the act. And I did not hit you with the handle!”

“Give me that.” Dad grabbed the broom out of my hands. “Here are the bristles.” He strummed his fingers through the straw. “You were hitting me with this!” He knocked on the wood where the bristles connected to the handle.

In my adrenaline rush, fanned by Stevie’s cheers, I’d forgotten that we were pretending. I was so caught up in the scene—and the fact that this could really happen—all that mattered was protecting Stevie and myself. “Oh . . . well . . . sorry, Dad. I’ll remember next time.”

“There’s not going to be a next time.” Dad rubbed his head and turned to me, his black eyes the size of silver dollars. “I’ve got a goose egg on the top of my head! You damned near knocked me out! No more. That’s it.” He switched off the floodlights and started dismantling the camera from the tripod. “I don’t think we have to worry about you not being able to defend yourself!”

Nope, that was pretty clear. And poor Dad had the lumps to prove it.

But I still turned on the yard lights and triple-checked the locks every night, just in case.

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence

For a while, I felt secure and comforted nestled within the familiar four walls of our house, now quiet as a mausoleum. The shambles of my former life lay strewn around me, but at least now there was no more name-calling, backbiting, or seething, rage-laden tension.

But there was one thing I hadn’t anticipated: the silence made me aware of every creak and pop in my surroundings. Not a good thing with my Technicolor imagination.

As soon as dusk fell each night, I flipped on the outside lights that illuminated three sides of our house to discourage any would-be lurkers in our bushes. I made sure the doors were locked at least a hundred times every hour, and although I rarely used the gas stove, I checked and rechecked that the burners were off lest the house blow up. Only when Dad finally walked through the back door did I breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through one more night alone. If my instincts were accurate, Dad did too.

The silence also magnified the yammering inner fear that haunted me every waking second:  Dad leaving me too. I tried to drown it out with blasting the TV or stereo until the windows rattled and my obsessive focus on the door locks and stove burners and, in the winter, the thermostat. On top of that, I became the model daughter–agreeable, obedient, and sympathetic to Dad’s pain and problems (not a stretch since I had been Daddy’s girl from my first breath)–so as to not give him a reason to leave. Yet for all my efforts, my fear and anxiety deepened rather than waned.

Many nights I tossed and turned, terrorized by the thought of Dad leaving me and wondering, Who will take care of me if I can’t take care of myself? I racked my brain, but kept coming up empty. I certainly couldn’t get a job yet, as I was only twelve years old. I reasoned that even if Grandma and I managed to call a truce–as likely as hell freezing over–she was raising two daughters of her own and certainly didn’t need one more. Despite our animosity, I didn’t want to be a burden to Grandma. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.

And Mom wasn’t an option. I had never felt loved by Mom, and as a young child I often wondered why she hated me. Her leaving without a word to me convinced me that my perception was right. Dad had told me that he thought Mom left without saying goodbye to me because she couldn’t face me. My shattered heart told me that I didn’t matter to her and was easy to leave behind.

What will I do if Dad leaves too? Fear and panic were my constant companions.

I wasn’t yet aware that I was never alone, and that no matter what happened, I would always be loved and taken care of.

 

Scrambling

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had begun running.

In what seemed like overnight, Dad took a second job, leaving at 6:30 a.m. and not getting home until 8:00 p.m. during the week. He explained that he had no choice, as he was buried under a mountain of debt from the addition to and complete renovation of our home the year before and now the legal bills from the divorce and child support payments. As Dad became more and more focused on work–ultimately becoming a principal in the business of his second job–I became more and more focused on Dad and Stevie. As a natural nurturer, I worried myself sick about them and hovered over them, trying to ensure their health, comfort, and safety, as well as trying to hold together what semblance of family I had left. What I didn’t realize until four decades later was that as long as I kept my focus on them I was able to run away from my own grief, confusion, terror, and panic over the implosion of my home and family and the resulting abandonment of both of my parents. We were all running away: Dad through his work, Mom through her new relationship, and I through obsessing over and mothering Dad and Stevie.

Dad and I had always been close. He was a constant physical and emotional presence to me, even, and especially, through the divorce. But after the divorce everything changed. Prior to the divorce, Dad was home by 5:15 p.m., Monday through Friday, and home all weekend, available and game for fun things like watching the silly movies of W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, or to just hang out, cutting up and acting just as silly as the movies we watched. But after the divorce, in addition to getting home later in the evenings during the week, Dad worked at his second job every other Saturday, when we didn’t have Stevie. When he was home, he was often tired and preoccupied. Still he was far more available to me than Mom was, whom I hardly ever saw or talked to, and when I did, we were at each other’s throats. (This was not a new development between Mom and me; we had been adversaries for as long as I had memory. The divorce only made it a million times worse, particularly because I blamed her for it and she targeted me when enraged at Dad.) Now Dad was only home long enough to eat dinner, shower, shave, and sleep, and Sundays were for grocery shopping and other errands. The only constant that remained of my former life was our house. Even though three-quarters of the furniture was missing, leaving the newly renovated living room downright cavernous, our house itself was the only thing that hadn’t disappeared.

For a while, I went to my grandma Rose’s when Dad was working, but I stopped when Grandma’s and my bitter fighting over Mom and Dad’s divorce escalated. She blamed Dad and I blamed Mom, and neither one of us could let it go or were willing to give an inch. Unable to stand any longer the incessant strife and Grandma’s sniping about Dad, who was still my hero, I refused to go back.

Being home alone was not as much of an adjustment as I had thought. After the daily, ongoing combat between Mom and Dad during their divorce–they lived together until the day it was finalized–and the hostility between Grandma and me in the months that followed, the silence and tranquility of our tiny house on West Fourth Street, now my refuge, was balm for my traumatized, battle-weary soul. At twelve years old, I had discovered the blessed peace of solitude.

 

 

Confessions of a Recovering Runner

I ran, every day of my life since July 1973, just two months short of my twelfth birthday. And I didn’t stop running until September 2016, when I was 55. For 43 years I ran–and I was good at it. So good that had I not stopped running when I did, it would have destroyed me.

I’m not referring to marathon running or even daily jogging. My body is simply not wired for that, which I discovered after graduating from high school. The thud-thud-thud of each jarring footfall on the pavement rattled rather than soothed my already jangled psyche, and I suffered from horrendous shin splints no matter how much I stretched or paced myself or what kind of shoes I wore. But my running was just as debilitating, even more so, except the effects weren’t obvious for four decades, which made it potentially more lethal.

You see, I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.

On a steamy summer night in July 1973, at 2:00 a.m., my mom, recently divorced from my dad, showed up to get my two-year-old brother, Stevie, of whom she was granted custody. Peeking around the corner, I saw her pick up the sleeping bundle from his crib. Clutching his beloved “ToTo,” a drooled-on, puked-on, gnawed-on, now fur-less stuffed Tony the Tiger, Stevie’s heavy head bobbed on Mom’s shoulder as she strode past Dad, who stood frozen and mute, to the front door. From my bedroom, I heard my little brother’s sleepy voice.

“Bye, Daddy.”

“Bye, Son,” Dad said, his voice cracking.

I crept down the hall and peered around the corner as the storm door swung shut. Dad, still as stone, watched Mom and Stevie drive away until the red taillights disappeared around the corner. Closing the front door, he turned the latch and locked it. I tiptoed back to my bedroom, slipped into bed, and pulled the covers up to my nose.

The hall light, which had served as Stevie’s night-light, switched off, and Dad’s shadowy figure drifted past my door into his bedroom. Seconds later, I heard his bed squeak as he crawled into it.

The silent stillness echoed like a death knell. Unable to breathe or swallow, my heart hammering in my chest and ears, I stared into the darkness, clutching my pillow, as I listened to Dad cry himself to sleep.

In that moment, I vowed that I would not be a burden to Dad, who was already in such pain. I would take care of him, and Stevie, too, when he came to visit. It never occurred to me to wonder who would take care of me.

My running had begun.

 

Our Journey Begins . . .

And continues, One. Day. At. A. Time. That slowly. That deliberately. That mindfully. I need this reminder and this discipline every single day, and perhaps you do, too. I hope that my experiences encourage you to begin–or to continue–Living Your Life rather than focusing and obsessing on someone else’s. I’ve been there. Oh boy, have I. So join me! None of us can do this alone, and I would love the company.

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