Before the Parade…

From left to right: Jason, Aunt Annie, me, mom, Laura, Mark, Ann Sydney, Aunt Ann (my Uncle Larry’s first wife) and Erin.

I remember this day.  This is before the parade.  I am six years old.

I remember things vividly.  I see scenes from my past like some people watch Technicolor films.  Both blessing and curse, my memory makes it impossible to ignore things.  It’s like a huge game of Mahjong: matching and placing, recognizing patterns, and hoping for a winning hand as random chance creates new memories.  The memories are almost always linear, but I can jump from face-to-face and connect events.

On this particular day, I felt unsafe.

With me, I have my sister Laura, my brother Mark, my mom, Aunt Ann (my Uncle Larry’s first wife), Aunt Annie, cousin Erin, cousin Ann Sydney, and cousin Jason.  I remember wanting to stay close to my mother and my Aunt Ann.  I sat next to one or the other throughout the day.

In a year, I would be begin skipping school, because my first grade teacher, Mrs. Wehling, openly despised me.  I was inattentive and daydreaming.  I resisted her authority.  In another year, I would have a teacher I loved, Mrs. Blume, who would “punish” me by making me sit next to her.  Sitting next to that loving woman made me feel safe.  And safety is what I lacked…

Before the parade, before we drove to Harper Woods, my father had a meltdown about getting ready and being on time.  I dressed quickly.  I refused to comb my hair (yes, I had blond hair as a little boy).  We were going to see a very small parade, but, for some reason, my father was already upset and yelling.  We were supposed to meet my grandparents (his parents) at 11:00am on a Thursday.

It was a rare day off for my dad.  He once worked double shifts at the GM Fort Street Plant as the maintenance manager.  

Unfortunately, the energy crisis began shutting things down in the city several months earlier.  In the middle of winter, I remembered watching the evening news with my father and my mother and hearing him say that he was “laid off” and would get a new job at Kelsey-Hayes where he would work “midnights and days”.  For months, he came home from Kelsey-Hayes at 2pm.  At the plant, they machined wheels and transmission parts for GM and other automakers.  Dad would return from his job exhausted and would slump in his black vinyl chair near the fireplace.  I would pick metal shavings from his curly hair, gathering them in a pile in my small hand.  I would be careful not to wake him.

 

I dressed myself before the parade, while my sister Laura dressed herself and Mark.  Mark slept in Laura’s room, and she was constantly caring for him.

Before we left Harper Woods for the parade, my dad insisted on taking the picture above.  I didn’t “do” fake smiles well.  I never was able to pretend that everything was fine.

At the parade, I sat between Erin and my Aunt Ann.  I sat quietly, unobtrusively. My father sat behind me next to his father, Grandpa Portell, Sr.–a man as serious as the heart attack that would eventually kill him during my senior year of high school.  My father decided to tease Grandpa George by making a “babushka” of his shirt.  My grandfather fussed at him.  My father smiled and said it helped keep the sun from burning his head.  Eventually, Grandpa Portell decided to pretend the “babushka” didn’t exist.

As the veterans walked past–older men in their 50s–my father made jokes about random things, continuing to dig at his father.  A restored Sherman drove past us.  I had seen them before.  One was outside my favorite military surplus store on Groesbeck.

But my mind returned to before the parade, and I was unsafe.  My father had one of his meltdowns and grabbed my hair, shaking my head violently because I wasn’t moving quickly enough.  Mark saw this and started crying.  Laura cried, because she thought she was next.  My older brother George was downstairs.  My mother was behind my dad, begging him to calm down and let me go.  She told him to set me down.  I cried.  I could not stop sobbing.  This made my dad angrier.  He yelled loader.  He reached for his belt, and my hands shot to my feet to tie my shoes quickly, haphazardly.

My teachers always wondered why I never could learn to tie my shoes like other children.  I wish I could have told them why.  I did not have the words or the courage.  I felt small.  I was small.  To this day, I tie my shoes in the same screwed up way.

A little boy’s memories and experiences forge the man-to-be.  At the parade, feeling unsafe, I turned to watch my father.  Dad was alone.

I realized that my dad was always alone.  Then, I realized he was isolated and lonely.

And, suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt very sorry for him.  He was a terrifying presence.  A violent, sad and unpredictable presence.  In moments of silence or on holidays, he became extremely loving, charitable and gentle.  When we went to 6am Mass at St. Malachy, I was the only one with him.  Sometimes, he would turn to me and say, through his own tears, that he was sorry.  We both knew why.  We would then sometimes go to amateur radio swapfests together, and he would buy me doughnuts and ride me through the crowds of cigar-smoking men.  He would buy me anything I wanted from the old men who talked about the wars.  In those moments, I still did not feel safe–only confused.  My father was a kind/violent/generous/angry/loving mystery to me.  I didn’t know how to reach him.  And he didn’t seem to know how to reach me.  He was huge.  I was small.

Donovan sometimes reminds of this moment in my moral development.  On that day, I awakened to a new understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Everything after that parade was different for me.  Not better.  Different.

Peace & Love,

STP

A Harley-Davidson Wedding…

STP and Mom

My mother and I traveled to Milwaukee for a wedding between my cousin and a member of the Davidson family (one half of the Harley-Davidson company).  Now, when my mother and my Aunt Jane got together, a few little “drinkie poos” were enjoyed, and their filters were turned off.  Completely off.

Mom, Aunt Jane and drunk ladies.

Some of the Davidson clan showed up in motorcycle leathers.  However, most of the wedding party was in traditional garb.

Tom and Jessica and Mom

At one point late in the evening, my mother and I finished dancing and sat down for a drink.  Aunt Jane floated over.  She leaned over and whispered something in my mother’s ear.  Mom, in a volume that only a drunk person possesses, says,”Well, there’s a lot of in-breeding in that family!”  As she practically shouts this, she gestures with her drink at a cluster of leather-clad Davidsons.  Some of them heard her and looked over.  I thought it was on like Donkey Kong.  I smiled and nodded.  They turned back to their conversation.

I can laugh about it now…

Cheers from Mom!

STP the Cross-Dressing Witch!

In 7th grade, I was invited by Kelly Phillips (now Kelly Shulz) to her house for a Halloween party with the really good looking girls in Carter Junior High (yes, Cathy Currie, I am talking about you).  My costume?  I dressed up as Gandalf the Grey from the Lord of the Rings.

I had read the trilogy about four times at that point, and Gandalf was BY FAR my favorite character.  The Servant of the Secret Fire of Arnor?  Coming back from death after defeating a Balrog?  Are you kidding me?  Nobody rocks harder than Gandalf.  Or so I thought…

There were a couple of problems with my plan.  First, nobody had read the Lord of the Rings except from some pot-smoking dudes in college my brother’s age.  Nobody knew who the hell Gandalf was.  Second, the costume was poorly executed, so, instead of looking like a bad ass wizard with the power of FIRE, I looked like a cross-dressing witch.  Third, did I mention I was trying to IMPRESS the cute girls?

So, I ride my blue moped in the wizard/witch costume.  I am precariously carrying a staff I made from a tree from a “across 14 Mile Road”–an empty forest where my older brother and his friends would go to enjoy some “Mother Nature”.

I made it to Kelly’s house and was ushered to the basement.  Kelly went all out.  We had a blast.  We watched the movie “Halloween” and pitied poor Jamie Lee Curtis.  We drank too much soda and ate too much sugar.  I spent most of the night explaining to all of the cute girls that I was NOT, in fact, a cross-dressing witch–I was this REALLY cool and tough dude named Gandalf.  If I had been smart, I could have claimed to be dressed up as David Bowie or Simon Le Bon, but, no, I doubled-down on the Gandalf bit and stridently insisted he was extremely cool.  Nevertheless, it was a great time.  Although, it was a LONG time before I was ever invited to another party.  Hmmmm…

Anyway, as I was cleaning out my parent’s house, I am came across boxes of old photos.  Imagine my amusement when I found this one of my great uncle from Malta, Oliver St. John.  This photo is at least 110 years old:

Yes, cross-dressing apparently runs in the Maltese side of the family.  Or, at least, a wacky sense of humor.

Smile today and think of a crazy kid on a moped unintentionally cross-dressing as a witch.  “You shall not pass!”

The Gifts…

Shortly after my baby brother, Mark, died on April 6, 2016, I reached out to my friends.  Brian Loose gave my nephew’s fund an extremely generous donation and then took the time and effort to retouch a faded photo of Mark as I will always remember him.

I keep this photo with me everyday.  On some days, the grief overwhelms me.  I want to hear his voice.  And darkness closes in. And then this photo brings me back from the abyss.  Brian’s simple act of generosity and kindness has kept me moving forward.

I am also grateful to the gift of music and friendship of Danny Hudson.  Yes, he taught me how to drink Jim Beam and hold a grudge against the asshats in our middle school.  He also imparted a sense of honor and recklessness and courage that were/are truly unique and admirable.  However, his enduring gift was introducing me to the music of Rush “Subdivisions” and “2112”.  The band’s music became something I shared with Mark through his adolescence, taking Mark to concerts at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Two months before he was diagnosed with cancer, Mark took what little money he had and bought us nosebleed tickets to R40 at The Palace.  He called me and told me, “It’s my turn to take YOU to see Rush!”  The concert was in June of 2015.  I told him I would be there.  I hung up and found second row seats, front and center.  They were pricey, but I couldn’t wait to see his face when we got there.

With her boys…

Unfortunately, our mother was put into hospice and died of lung cancer on April 26, 2015.  We had a few sweet days with her, but they were never going to be enough.  After mom died on Sunday morning, Mark was bereft.  He was grief-stricken, as he held the side of his face and complained about his “toothache”.  The next day he was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer.

To buoy his spirits a few weeks later before the chemo and radiation started, I sent him copies of the tickets and told him we would be close enough to see Neil Peart’s sweat.  Mark was ecstatic.

The day came, June 14, 2015.  We made it to the main floor.  Mark’s eyes where wide.  He spotted Randy Johnson, the famous World Series pitcher for the Arizona DiamondBacks, and yelled out, “Big Unit!”  Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded at Mark.  Johnson was there as a photographer and a friend of Geddy Lee.  Mark was beside himself with the chance meeting.  And then the concert started.

 

All I can say is that EVERY expectation Mark had (or that I had) was blown away.  Rush kicked it…hard.  When “Closer to the Heart” came on, Mark put his big bear arm around my shoulder and squeezed me tight.  We sang together.  He turned to me and whispered through his tears, “Thank you, big brother.”  I knew that moment would be on our highlight reel.  For most of the concert, Mark held his cheek and suffered with the pain.

Fast forward through the chemo, radiation and surgery.  My sister, Laura, and older brother, George, cared for Mark, while I cared for my dad who was dying of Alzheimer’s.  I visited Mark on the Christmas break and bought him a Microsoft Surface, so he could write messages to me and everyone else.  The surgeons removed his tongue in a vain attempt to save his life.  Nevertheless, we went to the movies and laughed together.  Lots of big bear hugs and barely audible “I love you’s” through radiation-swollen cheeks.

I returned to Arizona January 1, 2016.  I got a call from the memory care facility as I was leaving the East Economy Lot at SkyHarbor.  The nurses told me that Dad was going to pass in the next week or so.  I went to see him.  I hugged him.  He looked at me with vacant eyes, and then a light went on.  Dad said, “You’re my son, Stephen, and I love you.”  And then he asked how Mark was doing.  Dad died the next day on January 2, 2016.

Mark’s death was drawing near at the end of March.  We all knew it.  Laura witnessed an awful hemorrhaging incident that almost killed Mark instantly.  George and I took over and kept a vigil at Mark’s bedside for days.  We both slept in the room next to him.  We played his favorite music (Rush, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones) and told him crazy stories that kept him in stitches of laughter.  He typed on the Surface tablet that he wanted fewer visitors.  When everyone left, he pulled me close.  He pulled out a piece of paper.  He wrote simply, “I don’t want to die.”  All my days of being a brave, supportive BIG brother came crashing down.  I held him in my arms–the little that was left of his large frame.  He was burning with fever and pain.  I sobbed.  I told him, “I don’t want you to die either.”  It’s all we could say.  And we knew that “wanting” wouldn’t make any difference.  Months earlier, Mark had e-mailed me where he wanted me to bury him and that he wanted me to do his eulogy,  because I “had so much experience.”  It was a stinky little brother joke, and we laughed.  On April 4, 2016, Mark became non-responsive.  Two days later, after a desperate fight to hang on, Mark died.

I gave his eulogy:

A few months ago, when my brother’s cancer took a turn for the worse, we had a serious “big-brother-little-brother” e-mail exchange. I urged him to make some plans. I told him that, in law school, I learned one important fact: if you sign a will, you will live to a ripe old boring age. If you don’t, a cartoon piano will drop from the sky on you. We never did get to that will, but Mark made other important decisions.

Among them, my little brother asked me to honor him with a eulogy. He joked that I had had a lot of practice recently. Such was the nature of our relationship. Playful and light-hearted to the very end. Mark met every moment, every challenge with humor and a sharp wit. He never failed to make me laugh.

However, I know that—in this moment—you will forgive me if the laughter has died on my lips.

But, his laughter lives on in my heart.

You see…Mark was a gift to us all. And he was deeply loved by his family.

His sister, Laura, practically raised him the first four years of his life and helped him get through the chemo and radiation. This is the protective and loving big sister who cleaned, decorated and furnished his apartment so he came back to A HOME after his surgery. Thank you, Laura.

Mark is deeply loved by his brother, George, who also helped him with the chemo and radiation and hospital issues. More importantly, George was Mark’s kindred spirit, providing levity and laughter. They leaned on each other during the dark hours. They kept a vigil through this cancer nightmare. Thank you, George.

Anna, who also deeply loves “Marky”, handled all of his accounts and insurance issues. She knew Mark practically all of his life, and, if you know the woman I affectionately call the “House Elf”, you would not be surprised to learn that she did EVERYTHING humanly possible to comfort and care for her brother-in-law. Thank you, Anna.

Mark is also loved by his other sister-in-law, Melissa, my wife. She never forgot his birthdays. Melissa never let holidays pass without gifts and notes of love and remembrance. Mark appreciated you more than he could ever say—he was overwhelmed by your generosity and thoughtfulness. Thank you for being with me today, and, thank you for showing my baby brother love and kindness when he felt forgotten and alone.

And I do not have time to mention Mark’s many friends—all of whom found comfort, protection and loyalty from this gentle giant.

I leave myself last.

Mark was a special gift to me. I am redeemed by my brother’s loving example. I am redeemed by his warmth and gentleness. I am redeemed by his intelligence and laughter. Mark and I couldn’t resist being irreverent and making light of the things that life threw at us. We loved all of the same movies. We could practically read each other smart alec comments like thought bubbles above each other’s heads.

Two days before he died, my brother still tried to make me laugh, making funny faces and obscene gestures.

We will all miss Mark’s hugs. Believe me. When Mark hugged you—you stayed hugged!

But, we are all flawed. And eulogies that attempt to re-write history or perpetuate lies are a dishonor to the one we have lost.

It should come as no surprise that Mark made mistakes like the rest of us. However, he never compounded those mistakes through arrogance or pride. Mark owned his mistakes. He learned from them. More than that, Mark was quick to forgive all things, suffer all things and allow his heart to lead him back, unerringly, to the righteous path. And that path is called love.

Mark’s love was never more clearly manifested than the young man he leaves in our care: Thomas Portell, Mark’s only child.

Tommy, to you, I say simply this:

We are your family, and you are not alone. You will never be alone again. You will feel the echo of your father in our laughter, our hugs and our love for you. We cannot undo your loss, but consider you Mark’s lasting gift to us, your family. You are Mark’s perfect expression of love in this life. You are treasured by us all.

Now, if Mark could speak now, he would deflate my considerable ego with a whispered “wrap it up” from the first pew.

So, I will.

I honor my brother today with a simple truth: he was a far better person than I could ever hope to be. He showed me how to live a life rooted in tenderness and kindness. As Christians, we are exhorted by St. Paul to be ambitious for the higher gifts but warned that the highest, the most urgent, the most important gift is love. All other pursuits are vanity in the absence of love.

My brother knew this. Mark lived this powerful truth. Mark loved you all. He loved me.

Please pray with me today that God will accept Mark with boundless love. And I will struggle to be a better person in a world that needs more people like my brother, Mark.

And that eulogy was the gift I tried to give back.  And the words continue to haunt me.  I want to be better, but my anger and grief are crushing burdens.

So, I answer the grief with the two things my baby brother taught me: kindness and gratitude.  Thank you, Brian.  I keep that photo close by.  Thank you, Danny.  I play the music we shared.  Most of all, thank you, Mark, for being the best little brother you could be and teaching me all of things I needed to know about the gritty and unforgiving ways life will test us.  And how you rose above it all without arrogance or pride (like I would).  You did it simply and lovingly.

I am humbled and unworthy of these gifts.  I will try to be a better man.

Peace & Love,

STP

P.S.  “The Garden” is the song that reminds me the most of my baby brother.

Wisdom of the Ride…

After taking a 30 day sabbatical this summer and riding 7000 miles on “Superman” (my 2016 BMW K1600GTL), I tried to distill the lessons learned along the way:

  1. “Relax. The worst has already happened.”
  2. I do not want to live forever.
  3. I am not afraid of death, but I do not want to leave until my work is done.
  4. Kindness is infectious, but fear and hatred can go viral, too.
  5. Flies are drawn to shit. Small-minded people are drawn to gossip. This is not a coincidence.
  6. Love is the most powerful force in life.
  7. Love is the most powerful force in death.
  8. Curiosity did not kill the cat, and it probably won’t kill you.
  9. Friendship is the fabric of all human society.
  10. Demand loyalty as the condition of your friendship.
  11. Denying a problem does not make it go away—it makes it worse.
  12. Your problems will travel with you like unwelcome luggage.
  13. Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.
  14. If your truth is a function of religious faith, you should examine your beliefs. If your facts are nothing more than an article of belief, you need to read more.
  15. Arguments can be won, but there is always a cost of winning.
  16. The most desolate place in the world is the western panhandle of Oklahoma with abandoned farms and endless fields of wild crops.
  17. You can ride through a storm, but it’s probably better to sleep in and let it pass.

Peace & Love,

STP

My Mother’s Voice…

I heard my mother’s voice twice yesterday.

I was walking past an old perfectly restored Dodge that reminded me of the car she drove as a teenager—a car that had a Yogi Bear decal on the rear trunk. She loved that old car. Somewhere inside, I heard her say, “Look at that! It’s just like my old Yogi!” I could feel her smile. I couldn’t help but indulge in a goofy grin and stood close to the car. I had an impulse to pickup the phone and call my mom to tell her what I saw—to call her and make her laugh at my foolishness and sentimentality. I could always make her laugh. And entertaining her was one of my life’s purest pleasures.

The second time I heard her voice was in a dream. Her voice was so real it startled me awake a few minutes ago. It was a long distance call.   Mom was laughing and telling me about her day. I couldn’t respond. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it was damn frustrating. I felt the warmth of her voice. The same voice I would hear in the still hours of the night when I was sick and called out for her. She would sit next to me, stroke my hair and tell me everything was going to be better in the morning. That voice always made me feel small and innocent, but hopeful and stronger. It made me feel loved.

Echoes of her voice…resound in my soul. Thanks, Mom.

A Life Wish…

Friends have reacted to my motorcycle riding with grave concern. I don’t know if the fear surrounding this election has something to do with the sudden outpouring. Some have written heart felt notes after losing loved ones to accidents. Some have written posts on Facebook, shaming me (with loving intentions) for engaging in risky behavior. The refrain is usually “think about how your death will impact your family and your friends.” That is EXACTLY why I ride.

Let me explain. As I sat on my brother’s deathbed, holding his shaking body in my arms, feeling the fever and pain consuming him, he wrote an almost illegible note (he had his tongue removed three months earlier to “cure” his cancer). He wrote simply, “I don’t want to die.” I held my baby brother. He died three days later.

My job involves life and death. True story: about 15 years ago, a father told his teenage daughter, Brittany, she could take off her seat belt as he planned to take an exit off I-40. A rear tire lost its tread. The SUV rolled. Brittany was ejected and had her head crushed during the accident. The DPS trooper who first arrived at the scene saw a father cradling his daughter, yelling for her to come back to him. In that DPS Trooper’s deposition, we ALL wept.

Dying and living are intertwined. Riding is life. It is acknowledging risk and using skill, awareness and luck to make it home. That is life.

The question is simply this: what risks will you recognize and tolerate in your life? Will you make decisions out of fear? Will you make decisions, knowing that you cannot possibly control every outcome?

Of my heroes throughout history—some are personal, some are famous—almost none of them had the courtesy of premonition. George Patton broke his neck in a low speed car/truck collision shortly after WWII. Abe got assassinated. So did JFK, RFK, MLK and Ghandi. Winston Churchill died quietly in old age, having written a definitive six volume history of WWII.

My cousin, Mark Dewey, and I on Rock Island in August of 2016.
Uncle Thomas Dewey

My Uncle Thomas Dewey died from a brain tumor at 36 after achieving remarkable (and still classified) feats of computer engineering brilliance for the NSA. I have spent time at his grave in Arlington, and I am grateful for the gift of his son, Mark, my cousin, my anchor, the captain, the pilot, the nurse, the EMT.  I am, of course, grateful to have all of his children as my cousins, but this one buys me drinks on a regular basis and knows CPR.

Visiting Uncle Tom’s grave in Arlington. It was the only place I ever saw my mother cry in public.
Visiting RFK’s grave at Arlington. I cried a lot that day.
The Eternal Flame for JFK

My mother smoked herself to death and said “Well, that sucks” when I told her that she had terminal lung cancer with only days or weeks to live.

My friend George Pickering died in his sleep from heart failure (he was found with a huge smile on his face). Loren, a Vietnam war hero and helicopter pilot, came home to do search and rescue in Arizona. Weeks before Loren was to retire (a third time), a sudden gust of wind on a lonely mountaintop pushed his rotor into a rock. He saved his passengers, but he died hanging from his harness on a remote cliff. My friend Gene Morkin died quietly in his 80s after years of ground-breaking research in cardiology. At his memorial at UMC, his colleagues talked about his “body of work”—I wanted to stand up and scream that his life of love and loyalty to his friends was far more important. My dear friend, Jennifer, died during heart surgery at 41. The day before she died, Jennifer asked Sister Simone to pray for both of us, because we were undergoing surgeries. Jennifer’s prayer was answered…about 50%…

Dad on one of his motorcycles in 1971.

As my father said to me when we heard he had late stage Alzheimer’s, “I didn’t think I would go out this way.” Nobody ever does.

Then, I have living heroes. Most of them are veterans of WWII, the Korean War or Vietnam. Or the struggle for civil rights. One WWII vet still goes ice fishing alone on Wisconsin lakes in the dead of winter. Art survived the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. He had lunch with a hundred men one minute, left to get something and came back to find ALL of them blown to pieces by German artillery. Another WWII vet in Iowa works his farm—with only one lung after a piece of German shrapnel tore his chest apart. Field medics saved Don’s left lung, but poor conditions in an English hospital gave him a terrible infection that destroyed his injured lung. A Vietnam vet lives around the corner and is a wicked left-handed tennis player. A famous piano player down the street survived segregation and bloody civil rights protests to finally enjoy a life of appreciation for his artistry in a tolerant and loving Tucson communityThe point is this, and it may sound Gumpian (as in “Forrest Gump”). There is a nexus between destiny and random chance. In between, there are choices. I will make mine. And I will not let fear rule me.

That is why I try to give with both hands, hug people tighter, say “I love you” frequently and show gratitude consistently. I don’t get to keep doing ALL of those things indefinitely, so I will do them purposefully. I will do them now. I will live in the moment.

A young married couple had breakfast near me in my favorite breakfast spot. I could not help overhearing these young people worrying about the world. I paid for their breakfast. The server pointed to me when they asked who had paid for them. The man looked at me and asked why. I said (verbatim): “’Why’ is not the question. ‘Why not’ is the question.”

So, I ride. It is meditation. It is skillful. It is a loving act of nostalgia. It is risky. However, it is no riskier—theologically and philosophically—than pretending that we don’t face death EVERY day.

Happiness is embracing life (and the risks attendant). Running from death is the opposite. It will not make you happy—it will make you tired and fearful. And, in all probability, you will not live one moment longer. And, if you do, what kind of “living” is that?

I do not have a death wish, my dear friends. I have a life wish.

Peace & Love,

STP