I stood on the steps of Sacred Heart Church on Mellen Street, lost in thought. A stream of somber faces trickled past me, offering encouraging smiles. I felt like I should do more. Like I should be someone to offer hugs and sentimental anecdotes to help lighten the mood, but I just sort of stood there frozen.
A long time family friend approached me, “how you doing honey?”. I gazed down the hill towards the pond at the Deering Oaks, “I feel angry. Wildly, lividly angry. It just doesn’t make sense to me.” I struggled to get the words out, eyes burning, “I’m so sick of things like this happening to our family. When is enough, enough?”
I felt a pain in my chest like a fire burning in my heart, I was desperate to find meaning in the latest of untimely deaths to hit my family. I had seen firsthand the painful and lasting effects that the loss of loved ones had left on us.
A beautiful, heroic 11-year-old cousin and a saintly, graceful grandmother taken too soon by cancer. Another cousin lost to a heroin overdose after a lifetime of personal struggle and yet another to suicide resulting from mental illness and severe depression. Two beloved uncles passed away in their 50s due to long-term health complications, and now this. These are just the losses in my immediate family since my childhood. They’ve taken their toll on us collectively and I felt I had reached the end of my rope with trying to understand God’s plan.
The morning brought a chill breeze whipping up Mellen Street and slapping me in the face, biting through my thin black sweater. I turned and looked towards the crowd of people gathering below on the sidewalk. There was a low murmur of condolences splashed with the occasional soft hearted chuckle. I thought of all the wonderful qualities possessed by my late family members and I felt ashamed.
When a loved one passes away, we often comfort ourselves by saying we will live to make the departed proud. We assign meaning to death to help ourselves cope with our own grief. We strive to help somebody’s memory live on through the way that we carry ourselves to reflect that person’s best qualities. It’s comforting to think of them smiling down on us, proud of the way that we’re carrying on in their name.
If it is our task as the still living to show appreciation for the lessons learned from those who pass on as a way to honor their memories- I was falling short of the mark. I needed to be kinder, more compassionate, determined, and hard working. I needed to find a way to make my life matter in the ways that their’s had, a way not just to make my own life better but also to help improve the lives of others.
It’s not that I hadn’t wanted to up to that point, I just had always felt so powerless. Confined by the restraints of poverty, depression, and a lack of hope for true happiness I had allowed myself to drift through my twenties taking what life would give but never working to create the change that I delusionally dreamed might one day be dropped in my lap.
I stood on those steps to the church, eyes still cast towards the park. Trying to wrap my head around the reality of the situation, thinking about the other times I had stood in that same spot grieving after other funerals. It was as if I had been hardened by the past tragedies, and now was only able to look at the events of the past couple days through a cold, red lens.
My Uncle John had struggled with dependency issues related to alcoholism for as long as I could remember. He was a bear of a man, six foot four with broad shoulders and big strong hands. He was soft spoken and humble, encouraging and stern. He had a heart of gold and wouldn’t have hurt a fly, but he had a really hard time letting other people see what a great guy he was. He struggled to tap into his potential, a character flaw that many of the men in my family possess myself included.
When I was a kid he stayed on my mom’s couch for several months in her apartment. His massive frame would hang off the couch so my mom would offer to switch places with him and let him sleep in her bed. Or she’d offer to let him stay in my bed when me and my siblings were at our father’s. He’d always give her the same quiet response, “I don’t mind the couch, it’s good for my back. Don’t worry about me, I’m alright”.
His two daughters, then toddlers, would stay at my mom’s occasionally during that time. When they were there he’d let them sleep on the couch and he’d sleep on the floor beside them. He never wanted to be a burden on anyone else, just himself.
John was a hero in the sense of persistence and determination, but it was difficult to see those qualities in him without peeling back several layers of guardedness and social anxiety.
I’m not proud of this, but I’ll admit there were times in my adult life when I’d see his big frame coming towards me on Congress Street looking like he’d been drinking — or just simply lost — and I’d duck into a shop or take a quick turn down a side street to avoid the interaction with him.
I’d take moments like that back now if I could, but I guess in my youthful arrogance I didn’t like being confronted with the realities of who I really was or where I really came from. I didn’t like seeing so much of myself in him. Regretfully I was blind to his admirable qualities until I understood his struggle more clearly.
It wouldn’t be until his death that I came to realize how foolish I had been to judge the man for the staggering figure wandering down the sidewalk rather than accept and appreciate him for the kind hearted, hard working gentle giant with rough edges that he so perfectly embodied.
A couple of days after his death, another uncle and I went up to Auburn to witness the scene of the accident. John had been working construction, and by all accounts from his saddened co-workers was one hell of a worker. He was up on some scaffolding with a jack hammer and for one reason or another lost his balance. He landed on his head in a window well ten feet below and died instantly.
I stood at the work site looking down into the window well at the blood stained cement. A pile of bricks lay next to the spot where he had landed, no doubt the very bricks he had been jack hammering moments before his fall. All I could think about was what must have been going through his mind on his way down from the scaffolding. Did his life flash before his eyes? Did he see his daughters or grand kids as he drifted away into eternity? Did he feel any sort of peace? I hoped so, because I was rip roaring angry and all I could do about it was to kneel sobbing next to the window well, cursing the universe.
The man had struggled his entire life. He battled demons that would have destroyed most of us. He toiled away at laborious, low wage jobs. He marched on as life threw him one curveball after another, and for what? To die in some dirty window well without the chance to say goodbye to anyone? I was ready to give up hope.
After the crowd had cleared from the church I strolled down through the park thinking about my Uncle, wondering what I could do to honor his memory. I came around the northern side of the pond facing east just as the sun crested City Hall up the hill and shined across the water pointing right at me. It was beautiful, I felt a breath of fresh air enter my lungs and the hair stood up on my neck. Right then and there I made a promise to myself to start moving in a positive direction.
Anyone of us could die tomorrow, it was time to start righting my conscience. I was sick of selfishly withering my life away giving nothing to the world. The best way to honor my Uncle John, and all my other family members both living and deceased, was to start living each day to the fullest with a focus on becoming someone who makes the world a better place.
The hull of the boat slapped against the waves, spraying me with cold water as I prepared for the day on the steam out to the first buoy. The summer months can be trying on a lobster boat- more work, less pay, earlier mornings, grumpy crew.
For most of the year it’s just me and the Captain, but when school gets out a high school kid named DJ joins us. He’s 16 now but he’s been hauling traps since he was 12. Cappy’s been hauling since he was seven, and he’s almost 70. He’s the quintessential hardcore old timer lobsterman, not one to be messed with but a very fair, hilarious, intelligent man (he’s going to get a kick out of me calling him intelligent).
On this particular day I could tell Cap was in a rough mood. The price for lobsters had dropped again, the forecast was calling for a windy day, and we had a lot of gear to get through. Cap leafed through his notepad plotting out the day while DJ and I hustled through our preparations- hooking up the lobster barrels to the hose, pitching the bait into the trays, stacking up the trays for bait and banding, filling up the hot tank, getting the bait needles baited, etc.
DJ is the hardest working kid I’ve ever met. He owns his own boat and his own truck that he paid for himself. Lobstering in Maine is one of the hardest, most deadly jobs on Earth and he busts his hump all summer long and then some when he could be laying on the beach or playing video games. He usually loves joking around, but I could tell he was down about something. I asked him what was wrong. “I dunno” he said, “I’m just sick of working so hard and the price keeps dropping.”
I thought about the day ahead, with the wind picking up it was gonna be a long one. Every now and then I see a chance to try and enlighten DJ so I carefully responded “Look man, I hear what you’re saying, but it’s all about perspective. Before I started on the boat I was clearing less than $300 a week working full time building traps. Before then I was serving snotty tourists eggs Benedict and coffee in that hell hole hotel back there in the skyline. Before then I was pushing and lifting about 40,000 pounds of frozen chicken every day for near minimum wage in a freezer surrounded by deadly machinery. So maybe we won’t make as much money as we’d like today, but it’s a lot better than minimum wage, and it’s way better than getting berated by some jerk from away because his yolk wasn’t runny enough and taking it just because you’re hoping for a $2 tip, and I’d take this any day over being stuck in some windowless freezer or stuffy trap shop. We get to see the sun rise over the horizon man. We get to see seals and porpoises and whales. We get to tell stories and swear and show up to work unshaven and unshowered. It might be wicked rugged work, but we’re the cowboys of New England and you know something? There’s a lot of pain and frustration in life but every time I look around out here the natural beauty just sweeps me off my feet. Out here I feel connected to God and loved ones lost. Out here I feel like I have a purpose, and it helps me to believe that if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other things will work out…..”
I looked over at DJ, we were sitting on the stern of the boat and he was staring off into the distance. “You know what I’m talking about dude?” I asked. “Oh what,” he turned to me startled, “sorry man, I wasn’t listening to you. I was thinking about this girl that sits next to me in class. She’s so hot.”
Just then we heard the unmistakable tone of a Captain about to lose it, “usually stern men get hired to work, not sit around and gab like schoolgirls!” Cappy stood at the hauler holding the first buoy in the gaffe. DJ ran up to help him. I took one more look at the brilliant red orange sunrise and thought about the promise that I made to myself at the pond that day a couple years prior with a smile, knowing it’d be a good day.
Now here I sit, almost finished with my first blog entry for the Bangor Daily News. Looking back on the past few years it really has been a whirlwind. I see the events that unfolded following my Uncle John’s death as a real turning point in my life, and I think about him often.
I decided to run for City Council this past election because I wanted to try and make a difference. I wasn’t surprised when I lost the race, but was really encouraged with the amount of support and the number of votes that I wound up with.
After the race was over (and a couple weeks of getting back to normal), I started thinking of other ways to stay involved and make a difference. This led me to explore the possibility of blogging for the BDN, and I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity now that they’ve given me the thumbs up. I hope this initial entry will help explain who I am, where I come from, and what I stand for. Thanks for reading.