When I was in high school, I dated a sweet, shy, super smart redheaded girl for the bulk of my time there. I took her to two proms, gave her bales of flowers, and supplied her with enough chocolate to jumpstart diabetes. I thought I was going to marry her. In fairness, I thought I was going to marry all the girls I dated when I was younger.
As a young man, I had a real problem with falling in love instantly. When I was 16, I went on a date to Sam’s Club with a girl I liked, chaperoned by both her parents. I had never been to Sam’s Club. I had never been to a store you needed a membership to get into. Her parents bought a jar of relish large enough to hold a Labrador. I was going to marry that girl. I hate relish, but I would learn to love it for her. I would do anything for her. She touched my hand. What Sam’s Club had brought together, let no man put asunder.
She dumped me two weeks later…
When I fell in love with Red, it happened fast, like it always did. I was 17; she had red hair, freckles, boobs—all the pertinent stuff. The relationship also lasted longer than a few weeks. Much longer. Years longer. It shouldn’t have lasted as long as it did if we’re honest.
I was too immature in the arts of love to recognize it at the time, but, looking back, I wasn’t so much in love with Red as the idea of what I thought I wanted from life. Red represented everything I wanted at that fork in my developmental road. When I met Red, I’d just gotten “saved/filled with the Holy Spirit” a.k.a., converted to the Christian faith, and felt the need to rebuild my life to suit my new spiritual resident. It was like a fire sale on my old, unsaved behaviors followed by a ravenous accumulation of Christian books, Christian T-shirts, Christian music, and Veggie Tales’ kitsch. Red loved it. Jesus loved it. I loved Red. Red loved Jesus. I loved Jesus. It was a passionate spiritual three-way.
Red was from this massive family. Five natural kids and five adopted kids for a grand total of too many kids. Every evening at Reds was a tribe meeting with hymn singing, story reading, game playing and copious amounts of thanking the Lord for having one another in each other’s life. The kids would sit on my lap like I was their big brother and ask me to read books for them, or fix toys, or pick them up (with one arm ’cause I’m sooo strong) and swing them. Then the kids would go off to bed. Red and I would watch a G-rated movie. Steal a few kisses, pray for forgiveness for the kisses, then steal a few more.
Red and I spent two summers together full of sheet cake and sheet pizza and sheet music. Pool parties and ice cream and squirt guns. Sing-alongs and concerts and cookouts. And I was the eldest boy. The strongest brave. A sports champion who claimed the oldest daughter for his own and always got the big piece of sheet cake.
My parents thought my Christian conversion was a joke. I don’t blame them for feeling that way. It really was a joke in a lot of respects. Most of modern western Christian faith is a joke that no one seems to get. It really needs to face a chorus of mocking laughter and get over itself. In fact, you’d think I’d have heard the laughter, even way back then, considering my extended family, from our immediate family’s vantage point, was divided between two types of religious themed crazy.
One set of grandparents were religious fundamentalists that refused to listen to musical instruments during worship lest God smite yee. The other set was obsessed with the apocalypse, with every political event, gay protest, or democratic (always democratic) scandal a trumpet blast afore the horseman!
And they all fought with each other. Everything was a fight. We Hayhursts used to say, proudly, we are “brutally honest, that’s why we fight: better to be honest than lie.” But mostly we were just brutal, and we did our fair share of lying, too. To ourselves, mostly.
My dad had fallen off the roof of our house a few years before I’d met Red. He was busted up by the fall, miserable and angry a lot. Angry at everything. But you can’t yell at everything, you can only yell at the people who don’t understand, which is everyone when you yourself don’t understand. So he yelled.
My brother was on the fast track to becoming an alcoholic. Booze made him violent and aggressive, often towards me. He didn’t know how to handle himself in the maelstrom of family issues post fall, but the drinking made it easier. So he Drank.
Like me, my mom had a vision of the life she wanted before the fall, and she didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t just accept the state of things now, not without a fight. So she fought.
I was convinced I was destined for something better. Something bigger. I was chosen. I just had to turn my back on this Sodom and Gomorra and run. Run to Jesus. So I ran.
In all, the family mixture was volatile and often explosive.
We’d become the charity case/joke among the rest of our extended family. I was immature at 17, but that fact was still easy to see. When one of my uncles met Red for the first time, he casually asked her, with a chuckle and smirk, “so, what do you think of Sam?” It was meant to be humorous; an inside joke. At the time, my dad, Sam, had quit all pretense and decor. He couldn’t feel his hands or feet or get clothes and shoes on without a struggle, so he just stopped wearing much besides his underwear. A few of my girlfriends met him that way, in his underwear. My wife met him that way. We still meet him that way. But after his fall, when the repercussions of spinal chord damage upon a man’s identity sank in slower than the emergence of my Dad’s gruff, irreverent, lack of social graces, the contrast was, for some, infinitely entertaining in a shock value, oh-to-be-a-fly-on-the-wall, wish I could have seen your face, kinda way. The problem was, the question was asked to Red while in front of me. “So, what do you think of Sam?” Fuck you, pal; that’s what I think.
Both sets of grandparents offered what I’ve come to know as the modern western Christian medicine: money and judgment. Medical bills and job losses put us in a receivership situation, and the worst thing about receivership isn’t the bills, it’s the shame. You’d think lifelong Christians would be better at understanding shame and forgiveness, but my family sucked at it. Most of the time, it was: you come to church with us, more money, less judgment. You don’t come to church, less money, more judgment. We’ll help, but we disapprove. Please note that we are spiritually contracted to disapprove. How sad, but we disapprove. Here is some cash, but we’re washing our hands of this. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers… oh, and, just so you know, if you’d just do more of what the Bible says, it would clear this pain right up. *Cough* should have never married that man *Cough*. He’s a source of all evil *Cough*. He took you away from God *Cough, cough*. Phew, excuse me. Where was I? Oh, yes, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.
Also, just to clarify, we disapprove.
My parents walked away from the faith early, hence the treatment above. They never expected me to walk back, not given what I’d seen. But I did. Even when my grandparents wielded phrases like “this suffering is punishment for your sins” I did. I believed it all. I believed my choice to get saved was how I came to avoid my parents destruction and came to be with Red, eating sheet cake and reading stories and singing songs. It was why I was watching my life unfold so wondrously. College was on the horizon; I had a girl, an adopted family—a better family—happiness, and compassion.
I was going to marry Red. I was going to have this feeling forever and ever and never look back. God had chosen me. Let the dead bury the dead.
That was 17 years ago. I’ve since been a Big League pitcher, a husband, a Best Seller, a graduate twice over, a televised personality, and an offensive, polarizing, hurtful, judgmental religious douche bag in my own jaded right. I’ve built and burned bridges. Rubbed shoulders with plutocrats and peons, and watched my family devolve, evolve, revolve and resolve.
Red and I split up in college, eons ago. Last I heard, her dad passed away. I’d not talked to Red or her family in years, but I was sad when I heard. He was a wonderful man. Wonderful. In fact, I wish I would have been able to thank him for giving me the glimpse of the family life he did. For letting me into his sanctuary when my life was a huge steaming pile of anger, violence, judgment and youthful stupidity. That man could have lived 200 years and would still have died too young.
By now, it should be pretty obvious there are many things I want to pass on to a future child that I did not source from my own family. In fact, most of it is not from my family. Not that I want my house to be a Vacation Bible School singalong every night—no one ever finishes a whole sheet cake, by the way—but I also don’t want it to be drunken boxing ring or full of suicide threats. I don’t want my family to be someone else’s family, and yet I don’t want it to be more of mine. I don’t want to pass on the mess. God help me I don’t want to pass on the mess. I want my kids to be strong and brave and surefooted like me, like I think I am, but I don’t want to pass on the mess. I want them to know and love their family and where they came from, but I don’t want to pass on the mess. I want them to be refined in fire like me, but I don’t want to pass on the mess.
The Mess: a massive beast with many heads: alcoholic, psychotic, depressive, bipolar, rage, hypocrisy, judgement. The sum of all fears. It chases me. At night. At day. Always. I fight it. I fail. I can’t hide from The Mess. It crashes on me like a wave, over and over again. I needs to die here, with me. We’ll go down together because it should never, ever be passed on.
And yet I want to pass it on. I do. I know why Bonnie wanted a little me, a little us. I know because she wasn’t just hoping for more us, she was hoping for more of her mom and dad. My mom and my dad. Our Grandparents. Our beautiful and fucked-up tapestry incarnate, pushing on to the next generation. Our little beast. Our dreams, our hopes, our collection of life changing experiences. Nature and nurture. Our beautiful mess. The worst of us, reborn, redeemed and given the chance to be the best of us.
When you go through the adoption vetting process, your social worker will ask you about your experience with families and children, adopted or otherwise. They will ask about your vision for your own family. They will compare and contrast. They will prod. They will dig. They will sift.
I told our social worker about my experience with Red’s family. About how it changed my life. I told her that I’m married and happy, and I love my wife. But there are days I still want my 17-year-old girlfriend’s family back. Maybe I just want the capacity to feel the way I did then, back. I don’t know if I have it in me anymore. I don’t know how much is me, a dream, or The Mess. I don’t know. How can I know? How can anyone know?
Then I told our social worker about my family. All of it. No sense in lying. I told her about The Mess. My fear of it. My love for it. No sense in lying. No sense. None.
Then I told our social worker how, when I called my family to ask their feelings about not passing on the genetic portion of what made me who I am, they said, “Honey, we’re over it. We’ll love this kid just like we loved you. Hell, probably even more! It’s not about us. In time, you’ll come to realize it’s not even about you. Shit happens during life. You scrap it off; you press forward; you make the best of it. I think we did pretty well with you, all things considered. Or maybe you did pretty well with us, who knows. Point is, we’re proud of you. We support you. We’ll love your kids even if they don’t act like us—especially if they don’t act like us. You’ll be fine. Our feelings aren’t hurt. We’re not disappointed. You do what you have to do.”
Please, God, let me pass on the mess.
-Thank you for reading. More coming. Please click an ad on the site as it does 3 things: helps me fund the Adoption Series, lets me know you like what you’re reading and, hopefully, enables me to put my future adopted child through college.