Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Book

It was Christmas Eve. I was working in the shop at the back of the house sanding a box I'd made for Alex. It was a small wooden box with dovetail joints made from padouk, walnut, curly maple and a bead of purple heart. It was raining hard with an occasional bolt of lightning to adorn the sky. I'd just started to finish the wood with orange oil and bee's wax.

Alex drove in the driveway and pulled up near the door of the house. He sat in his car for a bit and my calling to him was useless - the rain dampening any effort. And in an instant he jumped out of his car and darted for the door carrying a long thin Christmas present wrapped with a card. He leaned it up against the door of the house. I yelled again and got his attention. He ran through the rain and up to the shop. He then got a chance to see his finished box. I think he was a bit astonished that I was able to make such a thing.

We made our way to the house where it was warm and talked for a bit on the couch. Alex laid his Christmas gift for me on the pool table. Christmas is, of course, a time for reflection and it was not unusual for me to talk about important things. I suppose that it is difficult for me to describe my relationship with him - part friend, part father, part mentor, part brother. And I have not taken my responsibility in those unique roles lightly. But at this particular moment, I talked about some of the psychological studies I'd been reading about kids like him who grew up in survivor mode. It seems that kids like Alex when forced by circumstance to live on the street, to beg for food, to sleep on a heater grate during developmental years, living harshly for their daily survival - it creates a different neuropsychological template in his brain that is tuned to the hunter, gatherer sort of existence. So too is there is the fight and flight and/or predator and prey component built in. It is therefor not unusual for someone like Alex to have difficulty instilling trust and loyalty, or in thinking long term, or in making long term plans - stuck in the here and now sort of living pattern of behavior - to get while the gettin is good. And so for me, it is suggested, that to be most successful in helping him toward a meaningful and self sufficient life, I need to be always considerate of how he thinks and why he does what he does and to make every experience for him meaningful, educational and esteem building. So too, not to demand certain things from him I might be accustomed to expect in a Western culture, or from a young person who grew up in a less challenging circumstance or even a normal circumstance. In four years now, we have not argued, nor been cross with one another even once.

On this day, after explaining to him my studied effort to make the best for him out of every experience or time we were able to spend together, I also talked about our long term destiny. Alex is not exactly a good communicator. He goes on his way doing what young people do and doesn't very often check in - even with the people who care about him the most. This is not unusual for him, and is indeed sort of who he is, but it is exceedingly difficult as a parent or caregiver to be left hanging all the time. It dampens the spirit, the enthusiasm and always calls into question one's dedication. It's easy to say to yourself, "what's the point", and not so easy to remain steadfastly dedicated and committed to his long term welfare whether you get any feedback or not.

Of late, he has been particularly difficult to pin down. He'd been stressed out by his mom and forged a few detrimental exploits in response. And so, pointedly, I had the come to Jesus meeting about our friendship and my waining enthusiasm - and that it was a consequence of his unchallenging and unsophisticated behavior - and in short, the taking for granted of well established reliable resources. In few words I said something to the effect and quite frankly that if we were going to make our friendship a life long affair, that it wasn't a simple matter and that a lot of work as well as consideration had to go into sustaining it. I told him that him bailing was not an option and that talking about small issues before they became big ones was always the best way to keep peace and a mutual understanding. He smirked a bit and asked me what I was saying. I repeated that if we were going to make this a life long thing we needed to communicate that and that if we weren't, that we both needed to rethink things and make different plans. He'd known that I have been concerned. He smirked again and smiled - saying, "I won't bail on you if you don't bail on me. Don't you ever bail on me. I wan't this thing to be forever." I paused, reluctant to smile or to feel as though I'd accomplished something in having this conversation, for I'd been in this boat before with him. He's a hard person to get a commitment out of that is succinctly followed by meaningful action. Even though I think his mom's approach with him is just the wrong approach, I can certainly empathize with her for being in the same boat as I. You have to be your own cheerleader and to continually convince yourself, on your own, that you doing the right thing and that you are making a difference.

With this discussion, Alex's smirk changed to a smile. He pointed toward the pool table and said that he wanted me to open my present now. As we walked in the next room, he said, read the card first. And on a single sheet of white notebook paper was a note to me from Alex. He'd written it with his left hand, for his right hand was broken and in a cast. As I opened it, he complained about how difficult it had been to write with his left hand. The note said the following:

"Merry Christmas to you my brother.
The present I want this year is to be
sure that our friendship is everlasting,
that we will be brothers for life
and even in the next life.
You have been an amazing
friend to me, taken care of me,
and looked out for me.
That's all I wanted for all my life
and you are the one who gave me that.
Love you brotha
Merry Christmas,

Well. it did bring tears to my eyes. I have sat quietly at times since reflecting on this exchange and recognize indeed how important it is.

A time has passed since, and Alex continues to do what he does, but today for instance, he called me three times. In each case it was for me to walk to his house and give him a hand working on a 1976 Mercedes he's trying to restore. With a little help from my pal Chris. we got the alternator repaired and the reverse gear back in operation, cleaned the motor and made a plan for the next set of fixes. Each time Alex would smile, feeling accomplished, good about himself and happy. And for me, it is enough for me to know, that he knows, that he can always count on me for my support - no matter what. And so this afternoon, I spoke with Alex about my tireless desire to do something meaningful. I have for a long time thought that documenting Alex's life would be an important thing, for certainly, his story is a remarkable one. And tonight, Alex agreed to help me write a book about his life. Although his Christmas card to me represents a "bronze plaque" of notable distinction, his story documented simply for history's sake, will free me to rest in peace.

Carl Deal

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