Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Public Exit

Recently, as many of you might know, the LDS church chose to discipline a select few of its members. For the sake of those unaware of the action and the type of people who are affected, here is a review by someone better educated (both generally and on this particular topic) than me: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/us/two-activists-within-mormon-church-threatened-with-excommunication.html?_r=2 (The link is a little dated at this point since I wrote this a week ago.)

Many years ago, and yet what seems like not so long ago, I made a choice to join the LDS church. It wasn't a choice made with little thought or a light heart. This was a huge deal to me, and a decision that required six months and multiple pairs of missionary companions. I don’t regret the decision, not in the least, but I do regret that I was very secretive about the process. I hid the fact that I was meeting with the missionaries from my best friend, from my parents, from my brother--a short list of the most important people in my life. The eventual revelation of my joining the church strained those relationships needlessly, and stupidly. If I had to make a list of things I’d like to do differently in life there would likely be two items on that list; the manner in which I converted would be foremost on it (for those dying to know, the other would be that I regret to some degree excluding so many of those same people from Robyn’s and my marriage ceremony by getting sealed in the temple). Since that time I've been very open about my participation in the Church and more generally with my emotional state of being both in writing and with my friends and family who have shown a desire to talk about it. While the secret nature of my conversion at best left my most important relationships unaffected and at worst damaged, the very open nature of my thoughts over the past ten years or so have exposed me to some really great relationships with people whom otherwise I would barely know and care very little about, and deepened relationships with friends of many years, and has generally been very self satisfying. However, I know, without a doubt, that this sort of public declaration will disgust a subset of people, but in the words of every basketball coach ever: it is what it is.

For many years now I haven’t entered an LDS ward building (minor exceptions: when children of my friends give talks I tend to show up, I love to be inspired by their courage to get up and talk in front of so many people, a thing I’m so poor at), nor have I given the Church a cent of tithing in even more years than my physical absence. So the practicality of having my name removed from the records are nil to none. Prior to today, I mostly just didn't care about the church. It could do its thing and I could do mine. Maybe one day I’d even change my mind and want to return. Having ones name removed sounded like a hassle. No harm was being done. I still had some hopes that the Church could change for the better.

In some ways these particular people being disciplined is a strange catalyst for me, John in particular. It’s not a point of pride, but I've always found John, for lack of a better word, annoying. The root of that feeling stems from his arrival once upon a time in a private group I belonged to on the Internet (SWAB, Represent!) which he used simply to advertise his wares, at least that’s how it felt to me, and it seemed highly disrespectful to one of my most cherished communities. In addition he was way too much of an apologist toward the church for my comfort. And in my most harsh judgments, which he’s probably not guilty of--who am I to know--and this speaks more about my character than his, I suspect him of vainglory and of being a spotlight seeker.

And yet, there’s no denying the powerful impact he has had upon many, many struggling Mormons, even my own wife. He’s probably kept more fringe Mormons in the church than any other single person out there. Likewise he’s probably simmered the anger of many who left as well. He openly questioned aspects of the church, but it seemed, usually, with the intent to prove the church right if at all possible. He loves (loved?) that institution in ways I don’t think I’d ever be able to do; I don’t think I can even fathom the depths of his love for it.

The Church has deemed his actions inappropriate. They openly state that his thoughts are fine, he just can’t share them or encourage others to have them if he wishes to remain a member of the Church. His concerns, and Kate’s, while not an exact replica of my own, no doubt create a pretty good overlay. It’s safe to assume at this point that the church doesn't also discipline me because I’m lazy--because I lack the motivation, energy (and probably skill set) to put together something as powerful and meaningful as Mormon Stories. But at our core we’re not that different, and at our core the Church wants me no more than it wants John and Kate. While speaking with friends and fellow strugglers I've probably been harsher toward the church than anything either have said publicly, my audience just isn't as broad.

Beyond that, John and Kate seemed to be asking questions in the nicest way possible, without intent of destroying the LDS church, with love and charity in their hearts for those like them that suffer because of the Church’s policies. They were moved to act from a good place. If the Church cannot handle this sort of soft glove criticism and pleas for change, then I, personally, have no hope that it will ever be moved to make the sort of changes that I think are necessary for me to want to continue to be associated with it. I also know there is a subset of people who will say, if I and John and Kate dislike the church so much why don’t you just leave? I can't speak for them, but I will no longer struggle with it. If you have the institution you want, I’ll leave you to it.

Is there hesitation? Yes. Having all of my ordinances revoked by the Church is an interesting dilemma. Even if I believe that the Church has no power to grant those ordinances meaning or take away their meaning after the fact, there is still something very un-poetic about having my sealing to Robyn revoked, even if only in word. I once knelt in a small room surrounded by a few friends and even less family and declared to them that it was my intent to remain with Robyn not just to the end of our mortal days but for all time and eternity. It’s no small thing. And so now--and maybe one day we’ll even have another public ceremony--I state to you, my friends, my family, the Internet in its vastness, and whatever entity out there that has the power to make it happen: I still desire to be with that girl, now, tomorrow, to the end of our days, and through all time and eternity. I pray that whoever has the ability to make that sort of foreverness possible will do so solely based upon my desire and Robyn’s desire. Similarly, though I’ll never be sealed to my children in an LDS Temple, inasmuch as it is also their desire, I hope to always have a place in their lives, always as in forever. In my humble and maybe mistaken understanding of a morality worth mimicking, that shared desire should be sufficient to make it happen if it’s literally possible.

And with that, I will be formally asking the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to remove my name from their records. To resign my membership. Not in a panic or frenzy, but with peace in my heart. With love in my family. With sadness for those still struggling. With finality.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Five Miles from Home

Five Miles from Home
By Shawn Kessler
Copyright 2014

I’d seen plenty of pictures of Tim. Usually he appeared as an unwitting bystander in the background: slightly out of focus, leaning over the exposed engine of a car or playing with his daughter, oblivious to his wife posing with her face close to the camera, showing a little cleavage or a lot of leg depending on the angle. These sorts of pictures filtered into my email account, a treatise on the modern broken home. One hundred years from now I can imagine them excavated from my old hard drive and hung in a museum; modern intellectuals will argue about whether life imitated art or vice versa when the Internet first made this sort of thing easy; they’ll laugh about it, comment on how the people in the pictures are so old fashion, and then they’ll go home, lay in bed, and wonder who their sleeping spouses dream about.
But now, in the present, standing next to Tim, I realize I never appreciated his size. She had told me he was a firefighter and her pictures always made it clear he was no slouch, but the photographs didn't do justice to his broad chest and muscular arms, or the six inches in height he had over me. Or, perhaps had I paid more attention to him and less to her sleek thighs and pursed lips, I might have noticed what was obviously standing beside me now: a powerful man, something pulled straight from the dreams of women and romance novels. When I go home I might again open the pictures and make him the focus of my attention, was all the evidence really there, just behind her lips, thighs and legs?
One thing's for sure, I’m glad he doesn't know who I am. As far as he’s concerned I’m just another guest at a mutual friend’s party; a casual acquaintance of his wife’s. We shake hands and exchange hellos, he is cordial but his muscles have a way of making me uncomfortable, my suit feels suddenly tight and ill-fitting. Fortunately, we three don’t linger together long. I haven’t seen nor heard from her in months; if there is any awkwardness it is between her and I, but it would go unnoticed except to the trained eye--just the awkward meeting between a small diminutive man and a beauty, as all encounters must be between such an unlikely pairing; one side looking up while the other can only look down. He shakes my hand again and squeezes my shoulder before we depart for opposite sides of the room.
I stay near the wall to watch him roam about the crowd. He isn't anything like I’d imagined. He is at ease with everyone. A smile is always quick to his lips upon meeting a new person. He laughs eagerly, holds his wife with an arm around her waist and pecks her cheek with his lips frequently. My eyes aren't the only ones studying him; most of the women give him more than a passing glance. The older ladies seem especially entertained by him. But nothing he does is offensive, he’s not overly flirtatious or obscene; he bares little resemblance to the inattentive, absent husband that haunted the background of her pictures and stories.
When I am absolutely certain he’s fully engaged I let my eyes slip back to her. She’s still beautiful, still tall and stunning, still all legs and grace. She knows how to fit into a dress and pair of high heels. The old fires still burn in me. But so much has changed since then. It’s surprisingly easy to avoid slipping back into my obsessive desire to hold and touch her even though she’s stunning. We’d gone pretty far once upon a time. We’d seen much together, but like two old war veterans from some forgotten, illicit and ill-advised war, we can’t talk about it with anyone, not even with each other. Our crimes are buried deep and out of the way, there would be no digging them up tonight.
They pass behind a large group of people and I turn my attention to the bar. A stiff drink never sounded better. But before long she slides onto the stool next to me. “He’s in the bathroom,” she assures me. And then, like we had never stopped seeing each other, she starts in on him, “Jesus, do you see the way he carries on with all these women? Frankly, it’s disgusting. Don’t you think?”
I look around to make sure he really isn't watching us. “We can’t talk like this,” I say. Suddenly I’m suspicious of her. Why is she even at this event? Did she known I would be here? Is she hoping to get back together? I need to get away from her before he returns.
“I've got to go.” I move away from her just as he exits the bathroom. Is she trying to get me killed?
The party grows steadily louder throughout the night. The natural effect of everyone consuming more alcohol. The DJ increases the pace of the music. A smarter me would have gone home hours ago. I don’t want to interact with her but it certainly feels good to see her. Between the music and alcohol I lose track of her for a while.
Later, I rediscover her yelling at someone. It’s not Tim that has drawn her ire; it’s some other ape of a man, giant and hairy. He stands close to her, pinning her against the bar. A much smaller man, but equally as hairy, stands next to The Ape, spurring him on with words. I find it hard to stay rooted to the floor; I want to run to her rescue but realize the impossibility of it. I can’t be the one who saves her from anyone, much less these two guys. I look around for Tim. He’s cutting a swath through the crowd, roughly pushing people aside. I silently root for him as he approaches the confrontation. From her body language it’s clear The Ape groped her. She’s in tears and is struggling to leave. But The Ape and his little monkey companion won’t let her pass.
When he arrives Tim doesn't ask any questions, he spins The Ape around and slugs him in the gut. The hairy man crumbles to the ground; then it’s chaos. The Monkey slips away as a circle forms around the two combatants. A few people head for the exits but most stick around for the free entertainment. I make my way to the inner edge of the circle that surrounds the men; I survey the crowd for The Monkey. I see him standing between two women; he’s throwing punches at the air--ducking, weaving, and sparing with an invisible opponent.
She’s up on the bar, kneeling with her shoes off and hitting The Ape with her high-heels while he grapples with Tim. The Ape is big but slow. Tim quickly has him on the ground with an arm pinned at a dangerous and painful angle. It’s the moment The Monkey has been waiting for, with Tim’s back toward him, and with his man clearly getting beat, he moves in with a knife. I step from the edge of the circle and throw a wild punch, something graceless and awkward, perfectly appropriate for my first ever fight. I hit the little hairy man in the side of the head. There’s a terrible crunch. He drops to the ground and the knife skips across the floor. She hops down from the counter, pulls Tim off The Ape, and then grabs my hand.
I’m swept up in their movement. Like a three headed beast we move across the room, then through the parking lot and into Tim’s pickup. Sirens can be heard in the distance. People are still spilling from the doorway. The Ape staggers out with The Monkey leaning against his shoulder.
In the truck she sits between us and asks, “Where’s your car?”
“My wife dropped me off. I was going to take a taxi home.”
Tim starts the truck. I notice a throbbing in my hand. “I think I broke something.” He puts the truck in reverse, roughly moving the shifter between her legs. The truck grinds and complains as he puts it back into first gear. Rocks fly behind us as he slams on the gas. We tear out of the parking lot, fleeing the scene before the cops arrive.
“Jesus, you two.” She puts a hand on Tim’s leg. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I’m fine,” Tim says. The streets are dark. The lights on the dashboard cast a pale light on our collective faces. We turn red and green and yellow in silence as the truck pass under traffic lights. This is the first time I have been in one of their vehicles. I've never been in their house either. The cabin of the truck feels cramped and intimate. I feel like I am invading their private space. It’s somehow more offensive than my prior infractions. If I weren't here she’d be fussing about the bruise slowly taking over the side of his face. They’d be talking. She’d applaud him for being her knight in shining armor. And he’d play it down like it was nothing. “You guys can drop me off anywhere. I can still get a taxi.”
“Nonsense,” she says. “Tim will drop me off at home and then he can take you home. He owes you that much.”
“Really it’s not a big deal; I’m fine with a taxi.”
“I’ll take you home.” His words sound like a door slamming shut. I try to decide which is worse: jumping from a moving vehicle or riding alone with him. I decide the latter would be worse but I stay seated and offer no more objections. Jumping would remove me from the situation, and we’re not moving that fast--it would be easy at a stop sign--but it would leave her having to explain why her friend acted so strange. So I stay. I’ll be home in no time. And besides, I did save his life, a knife in the back could kill a man, he probably just wants to thank me.
We pull up to their house without further word. The porch light is on, another illuminates the living room. The upstairs is dark, the children asleep. I get out so that she can too. She kisses Tim and thanks him, then slides out my door.
“I didn't think you had it in you,” she says to me. “Tim owes you one.” She takes her shoes off and pads barefoot to the door, unlocks it, waves at us and then disappears into their home.
“Come on, Buddy.” Tim pats the seat next to him.
I had a dream once, of her and me leaving our spouses, heading off to some nameless town in the Midwest. In that dream I always envisioned her running barefoot across our yard--especially during the early dewy mornings--a long summer dress and little clippings of grass clinging about her ankles. If not for the old rumbling truck idling behind me, with her husband silently waiting, it would have been a lot like this moment. Nearly perfect.
I climb back in the cabin.
“Where to,” he ask.
I tell him to keep going straight.
He grinds the gear into place, this time with nothing but empty air sitting between the two of us. My stomach relocates itself somewhere north of my belly, it makes it clear that if I won’t jump from the car it is willing to disassociate itself from me before it’s too late. Between it and the pain in my hand I’m sure I’m going to be sick.
“You mind if I crack the window?”
“Whatever you like, Buddy.”
The night air helps a little. The anxiety lodged in my gut makes me recall the night she told me she had to “quit this madness.” You spend your whole life thinking you've experienced heartbreak only to realize you've been so wrong.    
Tim fidgets with the radio, scans the stations for anything, but all he’s picking up is static. Suddenly, his hand comes down hard against the dashboard. He bangs it again for good measure before turning the radio off entirely.
He says, “That’s quite the right hook you have there, Buddy. I guess I should thank you.”
I insist it was nothing. He doesn't debate the point.
“Turn here.” The truck makes the turn and we pass under tall trees. My house and family are just seven miles down this road, we live in a little subdivision on the other side of these woods.
Street lights become sparse. I can’t be certain but I think he’s taken his foot off the gas. The engine noise has changed. The truck is definitely slowing. We coast another hundred feet and then he swerves off the road onto the shoulder; his red brake lights illuminate the forest behind us. My door is unlocked. I should bolt now, but instead I try to act like this is normal.
“Did we run out of gas?” I look around as if that will tell me anything about the state of his gas tank.
He doesn't answer. Instead he reaches under his seat and pulls something out. I can’t tell exactly what it is, but it’s long and skinny, it looks to be rope. He kills the ignition and turns off the headlights. The last thing I see clearly before the lights go out are his hands crafting the rope into something, a haphazard noose.
“You know what this is about. Lean over here.”
Unthinking, I do as he asks; he places the loop around my neck. He leaves it loose there but doesn't let go of his end.  
“I know what you did with my wife. Yeah, I know all about it, Buddy.” He wraps his end of the rope tight around one of his hands. He looks at the rope while speaking, as if he’s threatening it instead of me. “In exchange for the little fun you had with her, and for me not telling your wife, you’re going to sit there and let me choke the shit out of you for a while.” He finally looks at me. A car passes by. Maybe they see nothing. Maybe they see two guys talking in a truck on the side of the road. Whatever it is they see, they don’t stop or brake. But their headlights reveal the details of his face for a brief moment and I can see he’s struggling to go through with his plan. Sweat glistens across his forehead; he frowns with confusion; he’s not so much tightening the rope as playing with it, stalling. I have a chance to get out of this. I have to bluff, take advantage of the fact that he’s a good guy.
Like old pals, I playfully hit his chest with the back of my uninjured hand. “Look, Tim, come on. You got to know I've already told my wife. All that was so long ago. I even have a kid now.” I can’t keep talking with the noose around my neck. Although he’s not making it any tighter I can feel it constricting my airway. With every word I speak it presses against my chest like a millstone. Its very presence is smothering my lungs. I slip it off my head.
The cabin of the truck is silent for a moment and then he says, “Put the rope back on, Buddy.”
I keep it off--drumming up nerve I didn't know I had--and say “I can’t do that, Tim. Come on, you’re a nice guy. Just let me out and I’ll walk home from here. I can walk five miles, come on, what do you say, Tim?”
He’s talking to the rope again, this time directly to the noose. “Put the fucking rope back on or I’m driving to your house and telling your wife everything.”
“I told you, Tim, I already told her; I explained the whole thing; she knows it’s over. Come on, you’d just be wasting everyone's time.” I laugh timidly.
“You little shit!” Tim growls the sentence like it’s one word and lunges at me. I probably should have let him hurt me a little with the rope rather than be stuck in the cab of the truck with him going ballistic like some sort of deranged animal, but it’s too late now. I put my hands up to defend my face but the punch never lands. He reaches across me, pushes open my door, and then shoves me out. My elbows and tailbone hit the ground hard, maybe one more broken bone for the night. He slams the door shut and drives off in the direction of my house, leaving me alone in the woods.
I try to remember if I told him my address. The pain in my elbow makes it hard to think. I don’t believe I told him. But maybe I did. I don’t know. Maybe he already knew it. I fumble around in my pocket for my phone. Cell service is always spotty underneath these trees. Two bars. I call home.
My wife picks up, “Where are you? I thought you’d be home already.”
“I’m about five miles from home. I’ll be there soon. Listen, if someone comes to the door, don’t answer.”
I hear some kind of noise in the background, or maybe it’s static on the line. Her voice cuts in and out. One bar. I hobble a few yards down the road hoping to improve reception. The last thing I hear her say is, “What was that? Hold on.” More noise, maybe words, maybe the doorbell. Zero bars.

The End

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


A little short story I've been fiddling with for a long time, too long.

By Shawn Kessler
Copyright 2014

Like most brothers, Dart and Daryl shared a common pool of genes provided by their mother and father; but unlike most brothers, Dart and Daryl took it a step further and shared the exact same set of genes.
The thought of identical twins so unnerved my father that he refused to enter the delivery room until both babies were cleaned and tucked away neatly under my mother’s arms, as if not witnessing the delivery would somehow make it possible for him to believe that they didn't originate from her body. He paced the hospital floor for fifteen hours listening to his wife’s screams and moans. He was filled with joy when the doctor finally came out to tell him they were ready for him, but his joy was soon overcome by dread when he saw both boys suckling at his wife’s tits. She look loaded down like a wild animal and from that day forward he couldn't help but think of Dart and Daryl as a pair of feral dogs, interlopers lasciviously clinging to what he once thought were his wife’s greatest assets.
Before Dart and Daryl were born, Dad was home every night by six and made a point to never work weekends. We played board games in the evenings, went camping on weekends, and the house was always filled with his laughter and the sounds of his heavy feet moving across the hardwood floors. That all went away when Dart and Daryl arrived. Dad became a ghost in his own home; you would only know he had been there because his shoes had moved from the front step and an unrolled, partially read newspaper would be splayed out across the kitchen table next to an empty cup of coffee, the spoon on the table still warm from his touch. A year after the twin’s birth I assumed Dad left us for good as his shoes stopped moving and the coffee and paper ceased being consumed.
Mom never seemed to mind Dad’s departure. As far as I could tell, in her mind, two boys suckling at her breasts were just as good as one full grown man doing it. And so life in our house continued on as normal but with fewer board games, and camping trips, and the sound of laughter replaced with that of crying babies.
Any sane and just court would find that I had every right, and perhaps even a duty, to be angry with the twins, that whatever mean and spiteful ways I acted toward them and my mother would be completely justified and tolerated. However the twins were always such a novelty to me that I never thought to be angry with them (or Mom). Granted I was mean and spiteful in ways that are the prerogative of an older sibling, but I don’t believe I ever overreached precedence set by billions of siblings before us.
My fascination with them largely stemmed from their interchangeability. At birth they were perfectly identical: they weighed the same (6lbs 3ozs), they had the same blond hair, the same blue eyes, the same red birthmark above the right knee that slowly faded and disappeared on the same hour of the same day two years after their birth. The hospital put little bracelets on their wrists, each with a name and shared birth date, but the boys were in such sync that their wristbands would fall off just at the perfect moment, when everyone had their backs turned to them. The first time it happened my mother put the wristband that was closest to each baby back on its wrist but later confessed that she had no clue from that point forward which was originally Dart and which was Daryl. She still made an honest effort to see each as a unique individual and always went out of her way to make distinctions between them. She always dressed them in different outfits, but as soon as they were alone they’d switch half of their outfits, Daryl wearing Dart’s shirt or Dart wearing Daryl’s pants. She tried cutting their hair different styles, but their hair always ended the day sloppily parted to the left side. Then she had the idea to make one of them grow his hair out, but as soon as she cut one of the boys’ hair the others would begin to fall out. She’d find chunks of hair in the bathtub drain, on the pillows in the morning, and stuffed away between books and couch pillows when cleaning up in the afternoon. She hid all the scissors in the house but still the hair appeared and before the week was over they had the same short, sloppily left-parted hairs, this time with matching cowlicks on top.
When the twins went out to play they’d leave the house wearing clean clothes, each in their own unique outfit. When they arrived home hours, or even minutes later they’d both be dirty, with swapped clothes. I always imagined that the first thing they did when out of sight was to furiously rub together like two sticks trying to catch fire.
While growing up, only once did I hear one of them speak while in the others presence. If you could get them apart they would speak in brief broken sentences, usually requesting to be reunited with “my brother.” They never did well in school, although they were good at math and writing, their inability to be apart or to speak when the other was around made them unbearable to most teachers and after the third grade mother decided to home school them. It was at this point that we began shortening their names to Dar; then eventually we referred to the two of them together as Dar-Dar. By the time they were teenagers, they were both called Dar-Dar as a pair and as individuals. If one was in the kitchen with Mom and me, and she asked, “Where is Dar-Dar?” I knew that she meant the other Dar-Dar, not the one sitting in the kitchen with us, and besides, we really had no idea who was Daryl and who was Dart anyway.
The name Dar-Dar only became a problem when Mom would write letters after I moved to Chicago for college. Without the context of a shared life I could no longer determine who she was talking about. I knew she no longer had a way to communicate a distinction between the two of them, and it probably never even occurred to her that I had any trouble knowing who she was talking about (and rarely was their a distinction worth making between the two), so I never bothered to tell her about the difficulty I had reading her letters.
After college I stayed where I was and continued to receive letters from Mom. When I was thirty she sent me a short letter that convinced me to call home.
Hello My Darling,
Your brother Dar-Dar is going to have a sex change.
I don’t know what to do!
Love Always,
I was shocked! Were they both having a sex change? If not, how could only one of them want to? And which one was it? All of the sudden who was Dart and who was Daryl was of utmost importance. I quizzed Mom with these questions but she wasn't sure if both of them wanted to do it or just one. At first she thought it was just one of them because only one of them at any given time would voice the desire but then she realized she didn't actually know if it was the same Dar-Dar each day that was saying he wanted a sex change. They were twenty-four years old now and there wasn’t anything she could do to stop either of them from getting the procedure done. The procedure was scheduled for the day after I called; she would have told me sooner, but she didn't want to worry me needlessly, but it looked like it was really going to happen.
By time I found a flight home and touched down at the airport, Dar-Dar was under the knife. By time I arrived at the hospital, the procedure was done. Dar-Dar was in the recovery room, one lying on a bed asleep, and the other reading a magazine while sitting quietly in a chair next to the bed, both wearing hospital gowns. I asked Mom if they had both had the surgery. She said that they hadn't but Dar-Dar insisted on wearing the gown for as long as his sister had to. I joked that we’d at least be able to tell them apart now. Mother frowned and then cried.
After the surgery Dar-Dar went on medications to adjust her hormone levels to suit her new body’s needs. Gradually a small swell grew in her breasts but true to form brother Dar-Dar’s breasts grew bigger along with our sister’s. When it was all said and done they still looked identical: thin boys, with boyish hair cuts and slightly swollen breasts. I never saw the final plumbing downstairs, so from my point of view nothing had changed—they were still the same Dar-Dar and I still couldn’t tell them apart. After being home for two months I had to return to work. I felt bad leaving Mom alone with them but at the same time I felt that nothing had changed and the three of them could manage without me like they’d done for so many years before.
On the plane ride home I dreamt of Dar-Dar naked, rolling around together in a mass of flesh, they “ohhed” and “ahhed” and whispered “my brother” and “my sister” to each other. I watched through a window and was turned on myself. I was filled with shame, but couldn’t stop watching and enjoying the spectacle. When I arrived home I had another dream of them. This time they had hundreds of small children that looked just like them when they were young. Sister Dar-Dar sat in a rocking chair, angelic and beautiful, while brother Dar-Dar stood behind her combing her long hair, cherishing it like gold. The clone children played silently around their feet. I awoke feeling like someone was sitting on my chest, barely able to breath.
The next day I called Mom to ask what the living arrangements were going to be long term. I couldn't get the image of them together out of my head. She said she hadn't really thought about it but imagined they’d just keep on sharing the same room. I felt sick, but didn't argue with her. I stopped calling home and threw away letters that arrived without opening them. Mom stopped calling too, except once a year at Christmas to let me know everything was alright.
Dar-Dar made it impossible for me to ever want my own children, what if their condition was genetic and I had a pair just like them? I pushed the idea of fatherhood out of my head, and with it went the idea of being a husband.
Mom called out of the blue one year: Dar-Dar has cancer, he’s dying. I found myself once again on an airplane, to visit one of the twins in the hospital.
They still looked near identical, he was thinner and gaunt, but she appeared to be wasting away with him, just not as fast. He was asleep in the hospital bed when I arrived and she sat next to him in a matching hospital gown, quietly reading a magazine.
“Hello brother,” she spoke with a low feminine voice that was entirely alien to me. I didn't know what to say or how to respond to her. I told Mom I needed to go to the house and rest. While I was there, sleeping in my old bed, Dar-Dar died in his sleep. They called to tell me; I assumed that the other Dar-Dar would die too, that we’d soon be reenacting the last half of E.T.
But it didn’t happen. Dar-Dar came home; she didn’t speak to me again. She tells Mom that she’s dying, but it’s not true, she eventually lives to be eighty-one. We bury Dar-Dar in the family plot out at the cemetery. It was a hot sunny day. We were all miserable in our matching black suits and dresses. I’m pretty sure Dad was there too—though I never saw him—dressed in black or buried under some tree of his own, either way still a ghost.
I drove Mom and Dar-Dar home from the funeral. Dar-Dar cried in the back seat. Mom cried in the front seat. I was annoyed with both of them. And grateful, and embarrassed by my gratefulness, because one less twin meant that much less weirdness in our lives. No more Dar-Dar. Just Dar. I looked in the review mirror and tried it out, “I'm sorry Dar.” Although a person was surely there—I had opened the door myself and let her in, closing it behind her—the backseat was a great void, a gaping black and lifeless chasm until I completed her name, “-Dar.” She nodded her head in recognition of my condolence. I returned to Chicago. Mom and Dar-Dar moved to a house more appropriate for two people.
After Mom died Dar-Dar moved again; this time into a home where three warm meals were served each and every day by a paid and trained staff. Here she spent the reminder of her life, putting together puzzles, watching day-time television, and being appreciated by those who ran the home for her brevity and general lack of drama. I received a letter and a box after her death. It read:
As Daryl's lone surviving next-of-kin, he designated you the heir and recipient of all of his worldly belongings. You will find in the accompanying box any possessions that we deemed to hold either monetary—or potential sentimental—value . In addition, a cashiers check for $10,484.54 can be found in the same envelope this letter arrived in along with a full accounting of his expenses and bank statements for the past year. Please accept our deepest condolence and know that your brother was well loved and taken care of at The Sunny Days facility.
I hadn't seen or heard the name Daryl in the context of one of my siblings in such a long time that it took me a moment to realize that some mistaken had not been made. I searched his bank account statements and his little box of possessions for clues about how he became Daryl again, how she had become my brother again. But there was nothing. Had I been wrong about which sibling had died all those years ago? I wrote multiple letters to the home asking for clarification, but they all ended up in the trash or burnt up in the fireplace; there was no way to ask the question without sounding crazy. I placed upon the mantel the only picture that arrived in Daryl's box, a little black-and-white of Dar-Dar and Mom and a man I couldn't recognize, his arm draped across Mom's shoulder with so much familiarity, probably taken while I was in college. Across the back were inscribed four names: Daryl, Dart, Mom and Dad.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Complexity of Math. Or the Conclusion of Jon

The story is he didn't do it.  The cyanide not withstanding, he always maintained his innocence.

His girlfriend, the little girl's mother, stood by his side. Whatever the facts were, at least those presented to the jury, weren't sufficient to save him. On the account of not being there, I have a lot of unknown variables.

Certainly there must be some value in a mother standing with the accused, calling her own daughter a liar. But we know for certain that instances exist where a parent will side with a lover even at the detriment of their children. Is she such a parent? I don't know her. Never set eyes on her. Never heard a story about her other than this one.

From the darker parts of the Internet he did a little research, and God knows how exactly, he managed to put together a small pill and snuck it into his sentencing. He walked in knowing that what he would hear that day was not the difference between freedom and prison but life and death.

As the words dropped, as the verdict was read, the guard reported he saw Jon slip something in his mouth.

Half hour later leaving the courtroom he falls to the ground. Soon he's in a coma. His vital organs shut down. He's put on machines to drag his life out, but a few days later his soul goes off to where ever it goes.

Was he innocent?

Somewhere there is a little girl who can answer that question. Should I feel some relief in his possible innocence?

Her mom says she made the story up because Jon and her wouldn't let the girl date a 21 year old guy (when she was thirteen).

Before me sits two plates. One crawling with spider. The other filled with scorpions. One of which I must eat. Somewhere out there is a little girl who was molested by her mother's boy friend and abandoned by her mother. Somewhere out there is a little girl who invented a lie so dark and terrible it sent a man to the deepest despair. Somewhere out there is a little girl with a heart already filled with a life's worth of pain and sadness. Somewhere out there is a dead man. Somewhere out there is a whole network of people eating plates of poisonous insects.

Does his innocence even matter now? Is the math worth the effort? Or should we just eat?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Growing Bears

Two events with Berkeley have recently brought me unexpected joy. Sometimes it's easy to forget that she's on an ever-changing trajectory toward "adulthood", that even though she's just a little girl she's right in the middle of the process of growing up, that she's changing. You can sense it, like you can sense passing near someone on a foggy night, but until they get close enough, or the fog clears just right, you're not really sure what's out there.

A few nights ago we were out to dinner with a group of friends. Berkeley and Wren were the only children there. Berkeley sat at the table and did her usual things: played with her food before eating it, talking over other people, being loud, just typical three-year old stuff. The conversation amongst the adults turned to where some of them went to high school. There was a brief exchange and a minor pause in the conversation and Berkeley found it the perfect time to interject and said, "I go to school."

Writing about it now I don't know if I can even convey how great I found this. It made me laugh first and then upon reflection it ended up being the highlight of the day. It feels like a milestone. She's following free flowing adult conversation and not only understanding what is being spoken of but attempting to be a part of the conversation in a meaningful and non-destructive way. It felt very grown up to me, and part of the joy I felt stemmed from the moment's unexpectedness. I didn't know she could do it.

A few nights later I went to do some indoor rock climbing, this is a new thing for me and so I was telling Berkeley about it before I went and to help her understand what I was doing I showed her a little video of some kids climbing before she went to bed. I left to go climb while Robyn was in the middle of putting Berkeley to bed and when I came home Robyn was the only one awake. The next morning Berkeley called me into her bedroom. I pulled her out of bed and we went to the kitchen to have breakfast together, just the two of us. After I poured her cereal and sat down next to her she asked, "Papa, how was your rock climbing?"

Again I was taken by surprise. And again I feel inadequate at relaying why I found it extraordinary. The question required more memory and, maybe more importantly, more empathy, or interest in other people's enjoyment, than I expected out of her. It was an incredibly thoughtful question for someone who spends most of her days mostly worried about who is going to keep her entertained and play with her. Her concern, maybe expressed for the first time, wasn't about her enjoyment, but about someone else's.

Even more recently--this post is like three weeks in the making--Robyn went on her first photoshoot since Wren was born. When she returned home Berkeley asked, "How was your picture taking, Mama?" I wasn't taken by surprise this time, but instead I was a little embarrassed. I hadn't gotten around to asking Robyn about the details of her event, and our three-year old had to remind me about the proper way to be excited and interested in those you care the most about.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A HeartBreaking Work of Stagging Heartbreak

I don't know why I chose the particular title I did, other than I could fit the word heartbreak into it twice, the post doesn't really relate to the similarly titled book.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about specific bad events. I've sort of mentally prepared myself for the worst, as much as one can. Maybe we all have. I've thought, what would I do if--heaven forbid--one of my loved ones was seriously hurt or died well before their time? During these contemplative moments I mostly ponder the concept of forgiveness. I hope that if I ever am tasked with the need to give great forgiveness, I'll be equipped to hand it out in abundance. It's hard to know till it happens, but I feel like a) being aware that you hope for it and b) actively visualizing it, will make it more likely when, if ever, it's called for. I feel like an athlete picturing in his mind the three-point shot he'll have to make at the end of the most important game of his life. You can go through it in your mind a thousand times but you still might not hit the shot when the time comes, but hopefully you've upped your odds.

Unfortunately this sort of meditation has left me ill-prepared for an event that took place this week. Actually the event took place a few years ago but my discovery of the event was just this week.

A friend sent me a message over Facebook with a link, he asked, "Did you see this?" I opened the link and found before me a picture of a different friend, a mug shot, and the description of the list of his crimes that included words like "thirteen year old girl" and "sexual assault in the first degree."

These things I can't understand. Honestly, when I think about it for more than a couple seconds I have to fight back the urge to cry. It's such a fucking mess.

There's the obvious, likely life long, pain some little girl will get to grow old with. That's the sort of suffering I feel like I've been preparing myself for. But this is something else, instead of the boogeyman being some stranger, some random act of violence perpetrated on one of my loved ones, it's one of my friends, he has become the perpetrator and it's not a state of affairs that I've equipped myself to deal with.

For redemption to mean anything it has to mean something for this man, he who has fallen the furthest. It has to do so without belittling those he has hurt, the girl in question, her family and his own friends and family. But all I can feel is, "God damn you, Jon! God Damn You!"

And then I feel stupid for even talking or thinking about forgiveness. It's not mine to give here. It belongs to a whole other family if they ever chose to give it. And yet it feels like mine, like it should be all of ours. He's likely ruined his life with these actions. At one point I tried to imagine what it felt like at the moment he had his mug shot taken. The terrible sinking feeling captured forever in a flash that says, "It's over. You're done." His own stupid useless staggering heartbreak. And I was crushed under its imaginary weight; I'm incapable of imagining what horror it must have been. There's more than one tragedy here, but I'm left only knowing how to feel about one of them. God damn you, Jon. I hope one day I'll be able to follow that up with a plea for peace upon your soul, but that day isn't today. God damn you.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Binding Agents

For posterity, especially Wren.

On December 20th, Robyn was ten days past due and went in for her regular stress test for her and the baby's health. While there the doctors noted protein in her urine which is a symptom of preeclampsia.  They also measured her blood pressure and had her do a more thorough 24 hour urine test. Blood pressure was elevated compared to prior measurements but not considered high for a healthy pregnant woman.

The next day, the 21st, we went to the labor and delivery floor of UCSF to turn in the sample and talk to the doctors. They wouldn't have the results right away but they took Robyn's blood pressure again and monitored the baby for about an hour. All seemed well but the doctors pushed for induction because of her still elevated blood pressure, but Robyn greatly wanted to avoid induction. The official diagnosis was gestational hypertension, but they'd have the results from the 24 hour tests in a few hours and at that point they could decide to either call it preeclampsia or stick with hypertension. Either way they wanted to induce but with the preeclampsia they REALLY wanted to induce. Some major risks of preeclampsia: strokes and seizures; delivery of the baby/placenta is the only way to completely avoid the risks.

We decided to not induce at that time but would wait for the test results, hoping it was just hypertension. At midnight they called to tell us that the tests confirmed there were elevated levels of protein and that they were now extra interested in induction. We agreed to come in at 5am so that we could get some sleep prior to starting what we recalled being a very intense and tiring process with Berkeley.

At 4am we woke and had our friend Courtney come over and stay with Berkeley. We had warned Berkeley the last few nights that she might wake up one morning and find Courtney or Grandma Lynn there rather than us so we were sure she'd be fine with the change. We packed our mostly already packed bags and headed off to the hospital once Courtney arrived.

When we arrived at the hospital we called Lynn to tell her to come relieve Courtney whenever was convenient  Also there at the hospital we met our friend Jenny who was going to be with us throughout the labor as a helping and comforting hand. For our prior labor and delivery Leisel took the journey with us, and we were hoping she would be here again, but that little baby cooked too long. But we felt confident and comfortable having Jenny's loving hands and heart there with us.

The trip over to the hospital was so different from when we did it with Berkeley. The first time Robyn had already labored at home for hours and was having mighty contractions. We noticed every bump and stop (her more than me); this time it was a calm drive up the same road with little to no note of the condition of the road.

We were admitted as planned and then assigned to beautiful labor room 2 (which has the best views, maybe in the entire city, not to brag). Robyn's blood pressure had gone up some more, but was still at safe levels. She was hooked up to an IV so that pitocin could be added to her blood stream. Some blood samples were drawn and by 8:30am they started dripping small amounts of the synthetic hormone into her body.

The great difficulty for Robyn was that we had been told that the introduction of pitocin can make labor pains more intense than those that come naturally. She wanted to do the delivery without pain medication, especially no epidural, and she worried that the pitocin would make that task all the harder. The doctors and nurses assured us that they could start off the contractions slowly so to simulate the natural birth process but at the peak strength the contractions would be, and must be, very strong regardless of whether or not pitocin was used or the process was started naturally. So we hoped and prayed that the pain could be managed even with the introduction of the hormone.

At the point of induction I called Jason and let him know that we had started; he planned to join us later that morning. I felt a little out of sorts at that point. Robyn didn't seem to need any specific assistance and even when the contractions started they were pretty minor. The nurse suggested that Jenny and I go get some breakfast. It seemed like a crazy idea to me but everyone else was on board so I assumed it must not be that crazy to leave Robyn on her own at this point. Breakfast was had, and we quickly went back up stairs.

The baby's heartbeat was monitored and the familiar thump thump of the monitoring system started up. It brought a tear to Jenny's eye as she remembered her own pregnancies. I on the other hand dread that sound a little; it was a source of stress for us with Berkeley's delivery. The length of the delivery had the heart rate changing frequently and the doctors worrying about it. This time we barely took note of it. It's so very strange how different the two experiences were starting out.

The pitocin levels were increased and soon the contraction strength matched the new levels of the pitocin. Robyn opted for a spell in the bathtub. She threw-up a lot during Berkeley's delivery and was feeling nauseated this time too. She really didn't want to go through the constant vomiting again. But more of a concern to the doctors was her blood pressure. Recent readings had reached levels too high. So they gave her some meds to try to bring it down. This worked a little but she remained right below the "too high" level for most of the rest of her delivery. Because preeclampsia causes seizures they wanted to put her on magnesium sulfate to help prevent them. It's a very rare symptom but they wanted to be precautious. There didn't appear to be any major side effects to the magnesium sulfate so we consented to it.

The contractions in the tub started being super strong, strong like I remembered seeing with Berkeley. Finally I felt I had something to do besides sit around and stare at my hands or out the window. Jenny seemed much better prepared and equipped for those quiet hours before the labor got really intense. She knew immediately to take a beeping medical device out of the room to avoid bothering Robyn (I just stupidly messed with it trying to figure out how to make it shut up). The muscle memory of lending Robyn my strength through words and body contact came back and I think I did a swell job of coaching her through some very difficult contractions. We did a lot of breathing. A lot of remembering the utility of the pain. And a lot of encouraging.

Jason arrived near the end of the bath. Though I didn't see him in that moment I knew he was there and a certain amount of relief filled my own body.

Once the magnesium sulfate was ready Robyn had to depart the bath. They didn't want her having seizures in the water. We took the long, long trip from the bathtub to the bed. Though the distance was mere tens of feet, the journey felt much longer and was great and trying.

I asked the nurse if Robyn could be checked for progress, she hadn't been checked since we came in that morning but the prior day she had already been at 4 centimeters. They hadn't checked earlier because she hadn't had any contractions between that time and when the induction started.

She laid down on the bed and one of the doctors came in to check her out. Eight centimeters was the determination. Robyn was laboring very strong at that point, I think in her mind she had to already be a ten and nothing less than a nine was going to ease her mind.

Things happened fast from there. Mostly I remember words.

Robyn: "NO NO NO NO NO."
Robyn: "I can't, it can't be only eight."
Robyn: "I can't do it."
Nurse: "The next two will go so fast."
Me: "You can do it. You are doing it."
Nurse: "Doctor don't leave. She's grunting. It will happen soon."

Suddenly someone picked up a phone and then the room was filled with nurses and doctors. They asked Robyn to rollover (there was some cord maneuvering that needed to happen) but she was somewhere else, somewhere primal where words and requests cease to mean what they mean to you and me in our regular waking hours. She arched her back. She howled. She wailed. She reasserted over and over that she didn't know what to do. Did she speak to me or the doctors or the baby or God? I can't say, but oh my heart.

One doctor told me I needed to make Robyn do what they were asking. As if I had super powers or something. As if I was the one who bent rivers and moved mountains. We did eventually get her to make the requested movements and no more than five minutes after she was checked, the baby's head made its first appearance. Nine had come and gone. Ten was here. It was time to push.

When Berkeley was born Robyn pushed for three hours while protected by an epidural. It was a long tiring process, like raising an army. But this baby was nothing like that. In the full throws of her motherly pains she pushed and wailed, exclaimed she did not know what she was doing or what she was suppose to do, when suddenly, at 11:38am, a new life entered the room, the youngest person on the planet for a second or two. I missed the actual exit it happened so fast. But there she was our new little family member. We were fortunate this time to not have any meconium in the delivery so our new baby was placed directly on Robyn's chest and she got to realize the double prize of her struggles (baby and pain relief). And we got to experience again the good and Godly tears of an enlarging family.

One thing that should not be overlooked is the admiration I have for Robyn. She was so strong and determined, and even when she thought she couldn't complete the task she set before herself, she did, and did it amazingly. I'm so proud of her and to be her husband; and so glad to have her be the guiding star for my two little girls to look up to.

Unfortunately our journey was not yet done. Robyn had internal hemorrhaging that the doctors were not able to stop there in the delivery room. After some deliberation we decided to send Robyn to the OR where she could receive some more powerful drugs and they could clear her uterus of blood clots and use a balloon type device to apply internal pressure to stop the bleeding. Robyn consented because her goal was only to deliver the baby without meds but she was more than willing to take as many as necessary once the baby was safely in our arms.

I went with the new baby to the nursery for her initial checkup while Robyn went to the OR. I thought Jason was going to go with her but the doctors wouldn't let anyone accompany her and it broke my heart to find out when I returned from the nursery that she had gone in there all alone. It was a mixed bag of joy for a successful delivery and the stress of having the love of your life go through more pain and I presumed danger. Luckily, for me, Jason was there with me; talking with him distracted my mind somewhat.

I would be remiss to not mention a thought that stayed with me throughout the day, before the day even, and still wanders through my brain now and maybe forever. We are so fortunate, so blessed and so fortunate. A friend of mine a few weeks prior, her little sister's husband had a heart infection that required surgery. After his surgery, maybe the day after, his wife delivered their first baby. He was there for that, he saw his little baby for ten minutes then complained of a headache, passed out and never awoke. Ten minutes. Those two words and so much weighty meaning have been with me since, and were especially there in the delivery room. I'd spent some days watching the clock, wondering what happens in ten minutes? When our baby was born I couldn't help but glance at the clock. Ten minutes went by so fast. The tears I shed that day weren't just for my family, and they weren't just for joy. On that day some sadness traveled with me as well. Those tears were for Baby Logan, his passed father Josh and his grieving mother Erica. What little help it may impart I don't know, but I hope they can one day know that their sorrows are spread far and wide, and maybe that net of humanity will somehow help hold up the weight they feel all around.

Those ten minutes passed so fast. I can't imagine. All I know is we've been unfathomably and unfairly blessed.

Robyn returned from the OR drugged up but in better repair. We waited for some of the fuzz to clear and then had Berkeley and Lynn come meet their new sister and granddaughter. It was a joyous meeting. Berkeley came in with the greatest smile, clearly eager to see us and her sister. She had written a note with the help of grandma telling us that she loved us. She wanted to hold the baby and she knew when the baby cried to rock her. It was a heart softening experience to see her little body bounce up and down in an attempt to soothe an even smaller body.

That night I went home with Berkeley and we played a little before she went to bed. Then exhaustion and stress and adrenaline and the after affects of a great emotional upheaval took their toll on me. I sat in front of the toilet for an hour, waiting for what my stomach told me was inevitable. But it never came, so instead I grabbed a bowl and curled up in a ball in my bed and let stomach pains do battle with an exhausted mind. Eventually the latter won out and I was a sleeping father of two.

The next morning I took a shower. And there something really sunk in that hadn't occur to me explicitly after Berkeley's birth. These little children and these big experiences of labor and delivery, they are great in and of themselves, but they are also mighty binding agents. It's hard to think of moments when I've felt closer to Robyn than during the birth of our two children. Because of that day and because of many days before us, these two little girls will draw Robyn and I so much closer. It's an honor and a privilege and I hope I can always do right by the three of them.

After the shower I had a new experience, so fast upon me, of having the competing interest of a child at home and a recovering wife and new baby at the hospital. I did't expect to have to cope with that point quite so soon. On the morning of the 23rd, I sat at home with Berkeley playing Legos. And there I had to manage what felt like gravity from some great star holding me at Berkeley's side while an infinite desire pulled at my heart to rejoin my wife and new one at the hospital. These shall be interesting and trying times no doubt.

The hospital stay beyond that wasn't too exciting. Robyn ended up staying two nights and had a blood transfusion before we left to get her red blood cell count up, but otherwise it was a good stay and we were ready to go home after the two days.

The hour before leaving the hospital we decided upon the name Frankie Wren Kessler. Robyn has always wanted to name a little girl Wren. We had another name that was up for serious contention that we would have loved to use too (Clementine J.). Robyn still isn't convinced she made the right choice. Frankie is in honor of her Uncle Frank, who we're sure will love her greatly, as he does Berkeley. We'll be calling her Wren when she's young and it will be interesting to see when she decides to discard her middle name in favor of her first name, if ever. Frankie Wren was preferred to Wren Frankie because of the way it rolls off the tongue.

Tonight I was struck by the microcosm of life that labor can represent. In such a compact little space you have necessary pain followed by an explosion of joy. So many other animals seem to produce less painful birth experiences. Somewhere in here, in our suffering, is humanity, perhaps. It too, the labor, in its own way, is a binding agent. To each other, there in the moment, and hopefully way beyond. Somewhere in all that is what it means to be human and to see the face of God.

And lastly, I reviewed my prior rememberance of Berkeley's birth and it's interesting to note how singular that event was. How I had nothing to compare it to. But this one, I can't even talk about it properly without comparing it to the first. They're too entwined. They always will be. Not just the event, but the girls. Somewhere in that is the essence of having a sibling. I hope it's a great experience for both of them.