March, 1991 + Virginia and San Jose
Sarah, my friend Bob, and I loaded up my van and headed to Texas. The plan was to drop Sarah off at an Ashram in Virginia. She had previously arranged to stay there for four months to continue her spiritual journey and figure some things out. Bob and I would then motor on to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. There I would begin my farm worker attorney job. Bob would go back to Maine.
The trip down was fun for Bob and me. As usual, I was full of myself. I was on the road again, moving into a new chapter of my life. I had come up and out of deep depression. I felt newly revived, energetic, and full of excitement. The trip was uneventful, other than the gloriousness of traveling south through the rebirth of spring. My future looked rich and challenging. Could i make it in Texas? Would I pass the Texas Bar Exam? Would the people accept me?
Sarah seldom spoke. When she did she seemed unsure of herself and apprehensive, like a young, untested recruit facing battle for the first time. I did next to nothing to reassure her or even talk to her. I should have seen the train wreck coming.
We got to Virginia and the Ashram. Sarah became quieter than ever. I remained oblivious. She checked into what seemed to me cool digs. The place was situated in a quiet, rural setting. It resembled a huge and lovingly tended park. There were helpful people about. Sarah's room was clean and neat.
As I was saying my goodbyes, Sarah started weeping and then crying. She was anguished beyond words. She felt she was being abandoned yet again by one of the two people she loved and needed most. "How can you leave me alone in this place, where I'm a complete stranger?" she sobbed. "You left me when you fell, when you went to law school, when you went to the VA. You're always leaving me. I'm you're daughter. I need you. Don't I matter?"
Every word was a stab in my heart. Here we were again. I was leaving the one person on earth I had vowed to give my last breath and whose welfare was supposed to mean the most to me. I felt helpless, weak, and trapped. There was nothing for it but to play out this recurring nightmare to its bitter end.
I tried to explain why I had to leave. My words sounded hollow and stupid. I comforted her as I could. I left her lying on her bed, distraught and sobbing. Sarah had laid out her youthful heart to me. She had been open exposed, and totally vulnerable. She needed the same from me. I wouldn't come out from behind my defenses, take my armor off, as she had done.
She was absolutely right. My initial instinct was to deny, defend, and strike back. Her tears and her words finally reached me. She had seen into and through her youth. Every one of her words rang true. Memories of coming up short as a father and friend poured in on me. There would be a reckoning between us down the road.
July, 1991 + San Juan, Texas
"Oh, I got a letter on a lonesome day..."
The reckoning between Sarah and me came in the form of a letter. Sarah had been doing Inner Child Work at the Ashram. In the process she had confronted her upbringing, her disappointments and failures, and her deepest feelings. She had been empowered to squarely face and hopefully come to terms with the people, forces and events that had shaped her life.
During her stay there we had, of course, been in touch. She wrote breezy letters about the beauty of the Virginia spring and the friends she was making. She would usually add a note or two about the work she was doing uncovering and discovering things inside her. I was very involved in my new life. I was learning Spanish and studying for the Texas Bar Exam. I was busy. I didn't see it coming.
I opened the letter, expecting more of the same. What it said shocked me. Her letter was a heart-wrenching testimonial of her pain. My little girl had become a courageous and articulate young woman. Her letter spoke in plain language.
She confronted the damage years of living in a family that was broken. She was groping, partly in the dark, to come to terms with love gone wrong. She wrestled with her inability to square my deeds with my words. She knew I loved her yet, I had left her time after time. She knew I loved our family yet, I had betrayed Linda and her with Kate. Although i had oftentimes said that openness was important to me, I had grown emotionally distant and inaccessible. She knew I was strong, yet I was weak and withdrawn during her high school years. I has a lot to answer for.
Once I got past my defensive, "No, No, No," I sat quietly gazing out across the Rio Grande Valley landscape, which was flat, parched, and treeless. The years rolled through my mind: Sarah's birth, Wellington, my injury, Kate, law school, divorce, Waterville, Virginia, Texas, to this letter. I thought of all the people along the way. I thought of the pain, ever at hand. Loss, sadness, and shame welled up in me, like a geyser preparing to overflow. As in that Waterville apartment when, "I just reached a place, where the willow don't bend..." I let go. Tears rolled down my contorted face without restraint. I wept until I was out of tears.
I realized then that I had been presented an opening. Sarah had given me an opportunity to reach across the miles and over the years to recover what had been lost. I resolved to be as courageous as she. I could not face knowing i had failed her again. I would not shut her out or go half way.
I wrote her back owning it all:
"Yes many times I have been weak when you needed me strong,
away when you needed me there, cowardly when you needed me valiant,
and self absorbed when you simply needed me.
I made our home a battleground for no reason but my anger.
I fell for another woman. I betrayed our family.
I erected barriers between us."
All of this was true,
"Through all the pain, hurtful words, and failures,
through the dissolution of our family, your Mom,
you, and I were looking out for each other.
We were trying in our own way to take care of each other.
Despite the heartache, we continued loving each other.
Sweetheart, we are still doing this today."
With that, I closed. I felt released. I knew at last the healing had begun.
LINDA, SARAH, AND I
Circa 1989-1990 + Waterville, Maine
Our family had come undone; we each moved far apart: Linda in Texas, Sarah in college in New York, then Costa Rica, and me in Maine. This geographical scheme was a manifestation of a much deeper reality. We were emotionally scarred by five years of anger, resentment, and retribution. Linda, Sarah, and I had retreated to safer ground. As long as we stayed detached, we could try to make sense of how we each felt.
Although Sarah and I lived together during her high school years, we were miles apart emotionally. This is laid out above. Suffice it to say we existed in two armed camps: she struggled with the radioactive fallout while making her way through the minefields of adolescence. I was a father in name only during most of those days. Depressed, I could only with the greatest effort drag myself to the supermarket, deal with bills, and otherwise run our household. This was hardly a recipe for helping my daughter find herself.
She and I did make it through. Sarah graduated from high school and was accepted at the college of her choice. I landed a great job which I came to love. Sarah and I became friends, although a deeper experience was to come.
Wat of Linda? How could we three become a family again?
By 1989 or so, my efforts to punish her had dissipated. I had forbidden her entrance into our Waterville home. I had imposed a frigid silent treatment, which I knew lacerated her gentle and loving heart. The time had come to retrieve our family from the ashes, and our love from the barriers I had erected.
In that year I welcomed Linda into Sarah and I's home. This was a monumental event. Our family was together again. In unspoken agreement we committed to living in peace with one another. We knew this would require mutual love and respect. We succeeded at last. This is what loving families do.
As I write I am happy to say Linda is Sarah's best friend and a close friend of mine. When we are together, it is very sweet to watch we three ministering to each other. We share a profound love for each other and for our reunited family.
Shangri-La has been placed into the hands and care of younger strengths. They are raising a family and living out their homestead dream. Bitter and Sweet.
THE SOUTH TEXAS PROJECT
January, 1991 + Augusta, Maine and Austin, Texas
My job search took a much longer time than I expected. I stayed diligently on it. I loved my position and co-workers at the Maine Commission for Human Rights. The Commission job was not necessarily a lawyer position. Being an attorney certainly helped, but the other four investigators were not lawyers. I wanted to test my mettle in the legal arena.
I dusted off my resume, wrote a letter of interest, and sent them to a host of potential employers. I even considered social work in Africa. The wheel chair got in the way of some, I'm sure. Month after month passed, and I still had no possibilities. A friend told me about a peace and freedom publication that listed job searches on behalf of like-minded folk. i thanked her, thinking it was a waste of time. I didn't bother to try.
All other avenues ended in dead ends. After four months, I decided to send my stuff to the magazine, thinking it couldn't hurt. Several more months went by and I received no letters or calls. I gave up on the magazine.
On a cold, winter Friday, I got a call from Austin, Texas. One of my co-workers said it was about an ad in a magazine. I was astounded. I picked up my phone. My caller was named Jim. The conversation went like this:
Jim: "I read your ad in such and such magazine. I have the perfect job for you."
Me: (getting excited) "Go on."
Jim: "You would be a lawyer for the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez' Union.
You would be the Director of the South Texas Civil Rights Project."
Me: (very excited) "Where is it?"
Jim: "The Rio Grande Valley of Texas, across the Rio Grande River from Mexico.
Are you interested?"
Me: (very, very excited) "Yes, I'm inters ted."
Jim: "Good. Fly down to Austin. We'll talk. Then you go south to be interviewed
by the people you will be working with. If all goes well, we'll all know
before you return to Maine."
Me: "When should I meet you?"
Jim: "As soon as you can get here."
Me: (very, very, very excited) "I'll see you tomorrow."
Just like that! I landed the perfect job because Jim happened to glance at my ad in a magazine I hadn't known existed a few months prior. The position was for a full time attorney who would be Director of a Civil Rights Project in South Texas representing farm workers and other low-income folk and marching with the UFW and Cesar Chavez' people. maybe I could get to meet him. Talk about PERFECT!!
Within a few days I was in Austin. Jim and I got on right off. Soon I was in the Rio Grande Valley. This is a story in its own right:
HOME IS WHERE YOU FIND IT
January, 1991 + San Juan, Texas
This was all happening very fast. I loved it. The following day Linda, Sarah, I drove from Austin due south to the Rio Grande Valley and arrived at the UFW center. I was to be interviewed pronto.
I made my way into the lobby of the UFW (United Farm Worker) building in extreme South Texas (and I do mean extreme). This was a long, long way from Maine. The land was almost perfectly flat and treeless. The population was approximately 85% Latino. Spanish was spoken everywhere. This was a land apart.
I had resolved to move from Maine where it was always winter and never Christmas. I had, had enough of pushing my manual wheelchair through ice, snow, sand, and salt. My fingers were always so cold I could hardly use them. For me it seemed a relentless, never-ending winter. Maine could be cool in July.
I had been working in Augusta continually from February, 1986-1991. Every work day I drove thirty miles each way to and from my job. On one occasion, I was on an AAA tow truck hook from Augusta to Waterville with me in the vehicle. I went through one winter in my old van without a heater.
Day after day I felt like the cold was freezing my nuts off. I was getting home so chilled it took all evening to warm back up. Next day, I would be up early and back on the tundra for yet another Arctic day. It was time to head out, west or south, but definitely not north or east. I even went so far as to consider Africa. The unending unpleasantness just got to be too much. A brief digression will make my point:
[Brief Digression: January, 1990, Maine Legislature, early afternoon--This was a classic winter day in Maine--weather dominating everything. It was cold with a howling wind. Heavy wet snow flakes poured down from the slate gray sky.
I had prepared an address to a committee of Maine legislature on a disability discrimination issue. After parking my van, I got down to the ground on my electric lift. I had landed in the teeth of a blasting, frigid headwind blowing snow in horizontal sheets directly into my face. This was a nor'easter of Maine Yankee proportions:
"Now, I rememba the winta of nintey, why it blowed
so haad, the snow come right through the baan wall,
I'm a tellin ya,
froze Chesta right theya, it did"
Fifty feet in front of me was the mammoth State Office Building, with its myriad windows. The place was full of the faces of warm, dry, and happy State employees looking in my direction. I wore only a dress shirt and tie. I had no coat or jacket on because it was a short and quick roll into the building and out of the weather. As I was maneuvering my chair off the vehicle's lift platform, the right front tire got badly stuck on the platform lip. I mean, I was jammed. I couldn't move forward and I couldn't move backward. The harder I tried to move, the stucker I got. I had to get help, and fast. I sat there freezing and becoming rapidly obscured by the snow.
I thought, 'Not to worry, there is a host of State workers looking right at me.' I waved, gestured, and gesticulated. I mimicked my dilemma and their rescue, as if I were a French mime. The people at the windows, who had witnessed the entire episode, waved back. They smiled at me, as they watched me frantically struggle. I was disappearing under a blanket of snow. Just then--I decided to move south (or west or both). Eventually someone came from somewhere (else) and released me, buried and frozen.]
Meanwhile, back at the Texas interview:
You recall that I was being interviewed for the South Texas Legal Rights Project Director/Attorney position. Other than myself, there were three people present: Juanita (UFW represenative), Barbara (former Project Director), and Dr. Nelson (local activist/professor).
Barbara was a lawyer in her mid thirties. She wore thick glasses and squinted, as though searching for something she had lost. She was thin and angular and fidgeted. She asked a lot of legal questions. Dr. Nelson, who was in his mid fifties was tall and thin. He said he was a political activist and organizer and that was about all he said. The interviewer was Juanita.
She was the star of the show. She very easily and naturally commanded respect and attention. Juanita was in her early forties. She had olive colored skin, like many Latinos and Latinas everywhere. I would soon come to see that she was a combination Cesar Chavez, Carmen Miranda, and Madonna. She had flowing, long, jet-black hair. Her soulful brown eyes were bright and piercing. her manner was firm yet gentle.
Over the next ten years I would come to admire, respect, and emulate her as the living incarnation of all I strived to be. She was really something--a person who would add immeasurably to my life. She did this simply by being herself, without more.
I looked around me. The Rio Grande Valley UFW hall was a low level, one storey, plain cement block building. This community center was set on ten acres fifteen miles from Mexico. We were in the lobby, which measured fifteen by twenty foot. The entrance led directly to a long and unadorned front desk. Folding chairs, a large sofa, and one overstuffed easy chair welcomed farm workers and visitors. Pamphlets, posters with the UFW motto, 'VIVA LA UNION', placards, and pictures were everywhere.
Colorful English and Spanish notices decorated the walls. This dusty room was replete with bright colors. The decor seemed to be thrown together with liveliness the motif. Movement, progress, hope and passion were proudly on display.
When I set foot in that lobby, I felt I was home. I felt it instantly. I knew beyond doubt that this place was for me. It exuded low-budget, political funk. I loved it!
I chattered on about something or other, trying to sell myself. Then, apropos of nothing, Juanita looked straight into my very soul with her piercing, Madonna eyes that held me spellbound. Straight from her heart, she said, "We really need you here".
"OK, THAT'S IT. SHUT IT DOWN. NO MORE NEED BE SAID. I'M IN. SHOW ME WHERE TO SIGN". From that instant I was there. I didn't care about money, working conditions, how I'd get there, or living arrangements. All of that didn't matter now. Juanita had said the magic words. The incantation had been spoken. Words fall woefully short, now that I've come to the heart of it all. Juanita's five word statement convinced me how right this job in this place with these people was for me. Juanita had cleanly cut through the clutter and gotten right to my need to be needed and valued.