Setting My Past on Fire 3:
I didn’t know what to expect. While I had been to Cleveland many times, I had never been to Shaker Heights, an idyllic affluent suburb just east of the city, oozing with history and dotted with beautiful homes with perfect lawns and sprawling parks, thick with towering oaks, maples and cottonwood trees. John D. Rockefeller himself had once called the area home before donating his family’s 700-acre estate to the city. But I wasn’t here for a history lesson. Not exactly. However, I felt like the first step in discovering a new future was a visit to my past.
I grew up in a small town not far away in northeastern Indiana, just five miles from the Ohio border, where I and my 10 siblings, (yes, my Father was Catholic) were engrained with the values of a Midwest work ethic, doing whatever it took to get ahead. My nephew, Jason, my oldest sister’s son, lives in Shaker Heights along with his wife and two young sons, whom I had never met. The last time I had seen Jason and his wife was more than 10 years before, at a funeral. He was ten years younger than I was and, as a cancer research scientist and professor at Case Western, he was already ten times more accomplished.
Visiting my family had been a rare thing since my late wife, Jennair, and I had married. And I can count on one hand the number of times my family had come to Indianapolis to visit us. That was more than okay with Jennair. She had never wanted a relationship with my family. In fact, she hadn’t seen nor spoken to any of my family for almost 10 years. Let’s just say there was a falling out. A long story for another time. But now, 15 months after the death of my wife, I had no excuse for not visiting and getting reacquainted with all my family, and I was looking forward to it.
I had tried to connect with my nephew the day before I hit the road in Philly. “Let’s get together,” I messaged his wife. “I’d love to see you guys.” But it wasn’t meant to be. While there are benefits to not planning a trip, there are also disadvantages. It turned out that my nephew and his family were out of town, on their way to Ocean City, Maryland for a summer beach trip. But I wasn’t about to let missing them curb my enthusiasm for my first stop.
I checked into the quaint yellow English tudor with brown trim I had rented for the evening, just a few blocks from Jason’s home. I quickly threw on my running gear, determined to get in an evening run before the sun went down completely. After being on the road all day, I was eager to burn off my pent-up energy and took off at an unusually enthusiastic pace.
It was just after 6:30, and by the third or fourth block, the neighborhood came alive with activity as working moms and dads arrived home from work. Just up ahead, to my right, I saw a young mother, maybe 30, and her two little girls sitting in their front lawn in bright pink and orange lawn chairs, dressed in matching blue sundresses. As I passed by and offered a friendly wave, the youngest girl began to squeal impatiently.
“I want to walk now,” she bellowed.
“We have to wait ’til Daddy gets home,” the mother said lovingly in a conciliatory tone.
I couldn’t help but smile out loud. But that moment of pure joy didn’t last long. At the stop sign at the end of the block, I stopped in my tracks and bent over, grabbing my knees, trying to catch my breath. The beautiful houses. The perfect lawns. The precious girls. It was all too familiar. It was all too much, especially after the life I’d recently lost with the death—and crimes—of my wife. I braced myself for a full-blown panic attack.
As I strained to catch my breath, my mind became flooded with memories. It was 1999 and Jennair and I were sitting under a honey locust tree with our golden retriever, in the front lawn of our first home in Fishers, Indiana. Out of nowhere two young girls we had seen before at their home three doors down, apprehensively walked up the sidewalk toward us. The older one, probably sevenish, piped up confidently, “Hi, I’m Celia and this is my sister Ophelia,” she said.
“I have a cat,” four-year-old Ophelia announced, rather loudly. “Her name is Kate.”
Jennair and I looked at each other, smiling, trying to keep it together and not laugh.
“This is Mesa,” Jennair said, tussling the soft fur on Mesa’s white belly. “Would you like to pet her?”
Without saying a word, they both nodded and then eagerly stepped through the thick dewy grass in their bare feet. After an hour of small talk and giggles with the girls, Jennair and I locked eyes. We didn’t say a word, but we knew what the other was thinking. “Wouldn’t this be incredible?”
We both wanted kids and that was always the plan back then. At least that’s what we told each other. But after a year, and then another, and soon ten, it was one excuse after the other from Jennair. Our careers. Money. Health concerns. And then it became something else. “We wouldn’t be good parents,” she’d say. “I’d always be the bad cop while you spoiled them, letting them get away with everything.” But it was more than that, I suspected. This was about the same time she began to peak in her career. Advancing or pivoting directions would mean more school, taking on more responsibility, applying for new opportunities. “What if I’m not good enough? Not smart enough? Don’t make enough money?” she’d ponder worriedly. Soon she became paralyzed with fear about the future, unable to make any decisions at all.
And so the hope of having kids got kicked down the road, and she stayed in the same job for eight years, until she was let go. By then in her forties, finding a new job proved much more difficult than she’d anticipated. As she tried to find new work and instead found silence or outright rejection, her self-confidence began a downward spiral, and she was soon listening to an echo chamber of her own self-defeating thoughts. “Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not young enough.”
I always told her, “Do what you love and the money will come.” But she wouldn’t listen. And now I wish I had done more. Now I know she needed professional help. She became more and more depressed and I did nothing, growing angry with her for not trying hard enough, growing weary of her depressing attitude where once she had been full of optimism and life. And as a result of my resentment, she became resentful, angry and intensely controlling of my life—as if it was the last thing she could control.
Almost 20 years later, now fighting my own depression more than a year after her suicide, I stood there, still gripping my knees, sweat dripping onto my shadow on the sidewalk. “What if I’m too old?” I thought. “What if I don’t get better? What if…” Just then I looked up as a car with a sharply dressed man in his thirties stopped and then pulled through the intersection. I turned to watch as he drove by with a smile on his face and then turned into the driveway where his wife and girls greeted him with uncontrolled excitement. My own smile returned to my face.
“No,” I said out loud and then stood up. I unpaused my running app, cranked up Nirvana, and ran through the intersection. At the end of the next block, I turned toward a park, running faster and faster on a gravel-covered path that followed the twists and turns of a picturesque brook. It was day one of my journey forward and I wasn’t about to let the ghosts of the past hold me back or slow me down. The path ahead was a long and winding one, but I was more determined than ever to see where it led.