The Sad Man

*This piece was first published on Kelly Sundberg’s blog: No Apology Accepted.

No one knows what it's like

To be the bad man

To be the sad man

Behind blue eyes

-The Who

It finally clicked, I’ve had it. No more excuses, it’s time to go….

Michelle hurriedly packed the kid’s bags in agreeance. We’d visited for nearly a week. A week punctuated with melancholy, suppressed memories, familial pain and unhealthy interaction. I loaded our things in the car, without a backward glance, and just like that--the rich green alfalfa field and golden log house, I called home for 25 years disappeared behind me.

I propelled our rental car in a daze. Fleeing, speedily, I motored our family down the dirt road that cuts its way through the sagebrush covered foothills. Putting distance between us and this place was my only concern. Michelle clenched my hand, with courageous support, as the car fishtailed along the symmetrical washboards of the road, adding a dramatic sense of urgency to our escape.

The vibrations of this old road, which I’d traveled for years, kept the noise in my head silent. As we hit the pavement of the highway and crossed the threshold to civilization the car stopped shaking. We are all, however, still shaking. The noise from the tires transforms from a rolling crunch to a calming hum, allowing my pesky inner voice to ask, “are you sure about this?” Yes. I’m sure. I have all the loving support I need; I’m done with this shit.

Our family of four travels southbound on Highway 93 on our way to Boise where the airport awaits to take us far away from here. Why had we come? A sense of obligation? A child’s hope that things would somehow be different? That my family would somehow be functional? Perhaps it was my naïve desire for acceptance. Some misguided need for them to see me on my own terms, with my own family, and somehow feel a sense of pride? I now felt foolish for all these thoughts.

The voice in my head asks, “should I say goodbye to Mom?” I careen my neck to see the parking lot of the Fish & Game. Mom’s place of employment of 30-plus years, to find that her car is gone. Still holding my hand, in loving support, my wife asks, “Is she there?” I shake my head, as my eyes pull focus back onto the highway towards town, the inner voice tries to sooth my decision by telling me “she’s probably at the parade, you’ll find her.”

Our girls have been sitting quietly in the backseat attuned to what Daddy and Mommy are trying to do. No matter what, they have proved time and time again that they are the staunchest survivors of life’s difficulties.

We arrive in Salmon, a small town located in central Idaho, surrounded by rugged mountain landscapes and inhabited by staunchly self-reliant, rugged people.

It’s July the 4th 2012 and the old-fashioned town parade highlights everything good about small communities. It’s quaint and sweet—the tractors, and high school kids on floats. A couple hundred people are in attendance, unconsciously waving flags while small children run into the street collecting rations of thrown smarties and saltwater taffy.

“We don’t have to stop you know, Boise is waiting with open arms. Just send them a text, you are justif…” Just then, I spotted my Uncle Randy’s fireworks booth which sat outside of his cellphone business, (prime real estate) off the main street, next to Salmon’s most popular and only modern attraction: Burger King. I pulled the rental car in and parked. I told Michelle that we would just be a minute, I wanted to say goodbye to my favorite Uncle.

Aunt Terri is facilitating the sale of fireworks as she sees our family arrive and greets us with a smiling hello. Uncle Randy comes over and shakes my hand just like he always has, dating back to my earliest memory of him, when I was probably six. We talk about our plans as a family and I told him that we were heading back to Japan to get our house packed for our next move to Germany, where Michelle’s career as an international English teacher awaits. As usual, in the cool and collective style of “UR” he expressed his support with such affirmations that I temporarily forgot about my impeding worry, and the acid in my stomach was temporarily neutralized through the normalcy and supportive response of this beloved uncle.

Aunt Terri is taking pictures with the girls as they excitedly throw poppers against the pavement, shrieking in joy at each tiny combustion. Michelle, ever vigilant to the situation at hand, looks at me and says, “You should go look for your Mom, I’ll wait here with the girls.” I agreed and told her I’d be back in 10 minutes, so we could go.

My Mom was, and still is, a beauty. I’ve always loved her. We supported each other through numerous occasions where, he, unloaded his raucous fits of rage upon us. Once bright and vibrant as a newly bloomed sunflower, the years of mental and physical abuse suffered, in order to keep the status quo, wilted her flower until it matched in resigned subjugation the rotting blackness of her husband’s soul.

Both Mom and I stayed with him through multiple altercations including name calling, hair pulling, hitting, and his favorite for me and my “mouth” -- strangulation.

The names I was called varied. He had a plethora of hurtful terms aimed at “putting me in my place.” I was commonly bellowed for as, “Tubby”, “Chubs”, “Mouth”, and “Dumbass.” These “terms of endearment” confirmed my existence in the family.

What hurt much more than the belittling name calling was the physical hatred expressed in the regular choking, which cut off the air to my brain, and left me gasping, dizzy and sometimes unconscious. My amygdala jumps in caution as I involuntarily recall a traumatic memory of chocking inflicted on my nine year old self. I was savagely strangled for the audacious crime of peeking in a box of crayons before Christmas.

The back of my head had been shaped by being slammed up against several backdrops, including but not limited to: walls, cars, and horse trailers while he suffocated me with those cold, gnarled, vice like hands. I was forced to look into those eyes even as the air from my windpipe was cut. What I saw in his eyes, for me, his child, was pure and unadulterated hatred. I never knew where this hate came from, and my child-self assumed that I was worthless and not entitled to his goodwill. Often before losing consciousness, I faintly heard the muttered threats and wishes for my demise that punctuated my childhood. Choking seemed to be his favorite form of interaction with me.

There was always the constant threat of being mercilessly whipped, with the old thick leather belt, which he kept hanging in the closet for the express purpose of discipline. Hearing him yell the words “BEND OVER AND TOUCH YOUR TOES” still makes me cringe. He always stepped into his swings to deliver his message with maximum impact. It was as if he wanted the belt to beat my soul from the outside in. When I jumped up in white hot agony I would often get thrashed against my back for standing up and not taking it like a man.

I tried often to make friends with him to avoid beatings, but always to no avail. At eight years old, I was backhanded so hard across the face that the blow launched me into the air. I landed flat on my back, knocking the air out of my body. This response was elicited, for buddying up beside him while lightly teasing Mom that she couldn’t fish as well as us. She smiled at the joke, and the next thing I remember is being on my back looking up in disoriented shame while hearing him proclaim, “that is your mother, she deserves respect.”

She deserves respect.

The irony of his words is a bitter pill. My mother was and is a prisoner. My mother was often brutally beaten for being a part of our small community theater where she often played the lead actress. She could really sing and relished the creative outlet. She enjoyed the attention from the community and was regarded as a talented performer. The sad man would pick fights with her, jealous of all the attention she was receiving for her performances. Over the years I witnessed hair pulling, hitting, teasing, and continuous name calling for any number of imagined “offenses.” I do not wish to imagine what happened alone between them, when I was not present. Over the years she has endured physical and mental torment which has forced her into hopeless submission. Eventually, she quit performing and organized her life in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid his wrath.

Mom and I bonded through the degradation suffered at the emotional whim of the sad man.

Fast forward to the strange events of the night before, which set our current escape in motion; when I bore witness to how far my mother had gone in order to cope with her circumstances, living in a prison of abuse.

Michelle and I were tidying up in the kitchen after dinner, when Mom came down stairs wearing a very conservative, ugly night gown that was three sizes too large, covering everything from her neck to her toes, without showing a shred of shapeliness. My eyebrows raised in a haunt when she told me that the gown was “Oomom’s”- the mother of my mother. Oomom had passed away eight years prior to this bizarrely depressing fashion show.

Mom came into the kitchen to fill a large ceramic wash bowl which seemed to match the washbowls of old, in the days before indoor plumbing. She then took the bowl over to where the sad man was sitting in his recliner.

The sad man sat on his plush throne staring at an arbitrary T.V. show with his typical scowl. It’s a look that has set for so long that it has permanently disfigured his face with deep wrinkles that burrow into his cheeks where the corners of his mouth have been pressing downwards for decades. His forehead is forever furrowed in annoyance while he sits angrily perturbed for having to exist in this form, in front of the people living in his house.

Mother kneeled in front of him. What I saw next was appalling.

She picked up the sad man’s crusty and decrepit cloven hooves, and placed them into the washbowl where she proceeded to wash. Carefully, gingerly she wiped dirt and grime from his disgusting feet. Never once did she look up, but kept her eyes lowered as she engaged in her gruesome task. As Michelle and I watched this spectacle, with petrified confusion, we felt trapped in a time vortex that took us to some backward Puritanical subjugation. The sad man’s face never acknowledged this gesture, in fact, his steel blue eyes never came away from the screen. He sat slumped in paralyzed misery, vaguely disguised as lordship--as if, this act of servitude was owed to him.

We went to bed shortly after witnessing this act. Later Michelle correlated the strange spectacle we witnessed to its biblical allusion. Mom was acting as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples, washing away the sad man’s sins. She hoped somehow to wash away this man’s sins, and with it all the pain, and hurt his existence had inflicted.

My wife and I could not endorse this behavior. We couldn’t shake the eerie discomfort of watching the continued degradation of a beaten woman. So far gone was my poor mother that I don’t believe she had any thought for herself, or ability to comprehend that she would never wash away his pain, anger, hatred, or self-loathing. She would never save the sad man for he did not wish to be saved. His existence was one so bitter he could only communicate through the pain of others. As much as it hurt me to admit, I could do nothing for my mother and it was time to go.

But not before trying to say goodbye.

My search continued.

I expeditiously shuffled through the dense and festive crowd of locals, keeping my head down so as not to get noticed while sidestepping a unique mix of Salmon “lifers,” various hard candies, and the omnipresent pyramids of horseshit. No sign of Mom, but I ran into my dear friend Denise, a motherly figure whom I admire and love.

After a hug and some small talk, she compassionately spoke straight to my soul in a way no other “Salmonite” has, expressing her fondness for the people here, but adding that many circles lack the compassion and emotional fortitude needed to acknowledge the way the rest of the world operates.

My inner voice interpreted our frank chat as, “They’ll never understand you, just go and be yourself for the sake of you and your family.” I was so touched that I teared up and hugged Denise while the parade provided a continuum of background noise. I finally had spoken permission to leave this place.

Now.

I start the small trek back to the car. The noise in my head is abruptly silenced by the arrival of the upcoming demolition derby participants, each clamoring for the crowd’s attention. The processions of once dead cars, now welded together with spare parts, sloppily tagged with spray paint, and nurtured with gasoline, are brought to life for both the sake of hometown glory, and the proverbial key to seemingly everlasting happiness for the winner of the contest: free beer.

Each of these metal bodies is inhabited and operated by its own Dr. Frankenstein. Powered with Fords, GMCs and GEDs this gaggle of motor heads collaborate their cubic inches together in order to ignite a chorus line of rip-roaring power burps while ejaculating toxic fumes into the once fresh mountain air. Their mechanical screams for praise disorient me to the point of nervousness, but I endeavor onward.

Finally, I arrive back at the fireworks stand where a large group of other locals was congregating and chatting--what Salmonites call “bullshittin’” or “shootin’ the shit.”

My brother, Rhett showed up with his wife and three young kiddos, who were all playing with the girls, throwing poppers, laughing, and carrying on. Rhett asked me about my plans and was a bit shocked that I was leaving town, abruptly. Rhett is a good man, with a sense of humor, but lacks the sensitivity needed to understand our situation. I told him we were looking for Mom to say goodbye, so he put in a call—to someone, I’m not sure who.

I was talking to Uncle Randy when the real fireworks started.

The sad man’s signature dirty blue Dodge diesel roared up, careening onto the sidewalk where 20 plus people scampered to get out of the way.

This sad man made a living, during my time with him and presently, by drilling wells--some 30 years, now. The trademark of this career is that you’re constantly covered in a grimy amalgam of dirt, clay, assorted greases, and diesel fuel. His other signature was his black cowboy hat. He always, and I mean ALWAYS, wore this thing. The hat almost comically matched his personality and outlaw reputation.

Years of hard labor punctuated his strained gait. Multiple back, knee and shoulder surgeries and arthritis plagued the sad man’s physical being. His huge and heavy calloused hands have been torn and patched together with duct tape a thousand times over. The softness of my neck will never forget the galvanized steel grip of those hands. Choking incidences dictated my strict attention. If I was to survive I must not fight back. I had to try to relax my neck under the pressure of those vice like hands. The only aspect of his battered countenance which kept him upright was the prideful male ego borne from the western code that plagues the sensitivity of men with the words, “cowboy up.���

Infuriated, in a complete rage, the sad man rushed toward Uncle Randy and I. He dug his dirty index finger into his bottom lip shoveling his Copenhagen out onto the pavement. He then used that same finger to ferociously demand my attention by pointing it directly at my head as if it were a loaded pistol, then wordlessly signaling to me that we go away from the crowd. “You, here, now” --was a silent command that everyone heard. I was instantaneously mortified and enraged by his behavior.

I knew we weren’t going to talk, (the man has always been incapable of conversation), I also knew from years of training that I was about to be publicly abused. Misplaced guilt and shame welled up in me, as if I were a beaten teenager, yet again.

My normal instinct was to oblige, but just then a miracle happened. I felt empowered enough to stand my ground, directly replying “No, if there is anything you need to say to me, you can do it right here in front of me.” I was terrified. I actually said that to his face!

We were now in new territory. I made a stand. To this day I am not sure where I found the strength, in that moment, to end a lifetime cycle of abuse with him. Perhaps it was the presence of my wife and kids, and my need to protect them from this. Perhaps it was all the eyes on this spectacle. Maybe I had just reached my breaking point.

He thrust his barrel chest against mine and got right in my face. His eyes were blood-shot crimson and boiling. His scowling face was highlighted in a red fury indicating the years of alcohol abuse. His tobacco breath smelled like a rotting corpse and overpowered my senses. He growled, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

He was trying to provoke me and it was working. The adrenaline was running its intense course through my body, tensing my muscles. Fight or flight mode was in full possession of my facilities. I growled back in the affirmative, that I did know what I was doing. I was getting us the hell out of here.

He paused for a brief instant, possibly startled. Almost immediately the familiar face of disgust reappeared, and then it happened. He inhaled deeply and spit directly into my face.

The velocity of the Copenhagen-infused slime sent my head reeling backwards. It was in my eyes, my nose, and my mouth. This had to be what death smelled like. If dark seething hate had a smell, this was it. My eyes watered with emotion and stinging, searing pain. I was unaware of the sharp intake of breath all around me as the bystanders watched this macabre drama unfold.

Unbelievably humiliated, I was set off, I’d really had it. The moment had arrived. The vessel of decency that had carried this relationship over thousands of miles of ignorance had finally docked itself in the harbor of indignation. I reared back ready to kill or be killed. A thousand instances of soul shattering abuse were about to air their ugly heads and I would kill.

I pushed him—hard. Uncle Randy moved like lightning between us and his deep voice warned, “SPENCE, don’t…”

The old bull started circling the young bull as we looked to square off with one another. I remember my peripherals sensing a growing crowd, I heard children crying among the gasps of the other adults, but this was secondary in this moment. My focus was on him.

Thirty plus years of verbal and physical abuse suffered at the hands this sad man had come to a head and exploded like a volcano. I would rather he hit me again than spit on me. In fact, I begged and egged him on, taunting him so that he would have to punch me. I stuck my chin out, pointing at it, as if to say “right here asshole, put it right here.”

He didn’t.

I was out of my mind with fear, anger, and confusion. My adrenals helped me communicate my distain in a prominently shouted F*CK YOU! Internally, the impact of these words was the same as if I had given humanitarian aid to ten thousand desert dwellers. Honestly, it felt amazingly liberating to have him know that I was through and that I would stand up for myself.

He looked at me, astonished. Like the dark Emperor did when he oversaw Luke fighting Vader, in pure hatred, as if to say “good, let the hate flow through you.” I had watched a lot of T.V. growing up in an attempt to stay out of this man’s way.

He uttered a dumbfounded, “Are you for real?” Separated, now, by a safe distance with my favorite Uncle between us, I proclaimed that I was as real as it gets. We were still shouting in inaudible guttural grunts, circling, waiting for a moment to strike.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only moments, the sad man turned his back to me and gimped back to his trustworthy blue Dodge, fired it up, and revved it, as if to drown the noise of this hellish mental torture. He left in a sprayed shower of dust, careening out, just as he had come in.

I was shaking uncontrollably as onlookers did their looking, children communicated through cries, and family members shook their heads in united disapproval over what had just transpired.

Michelle and the girls rushed to my side to provide aid in the form of hugs and a napkin to wipe the spit that was dripping from my face. I assured them I was alright, though I felt eerily electric and far from alright.

I remember Rhett, my brother, and his family being supremely upset, and rightfully so. No one should have to see that, let alone children. I tried to tell him goodbye though he barely mustered enough energy to reply and half hugged me while looking away as if to say, “get out of here.” Abuse in our family in not something you defy. He did not approve.

I walked over to the Burger King bathroom to wash the spit off of my face, still shaking. The stench of putrid soul decay is forever tattooed deep into my epidermis, reminding me that this nightmare had played out into a reality.

I looked into the mirror and braved a smile. Just then, a clip from the movie, American Beauty aired in my thoughts. In the movie, upon realizing his wife was cheating on him, Kevin Spacey’s voice mouthed the line promising, “No, no…you…don’t get to tell me what to do…ever…again.”

I gathered myself and tried my best to put on a nice face when walking back out into the world of rugged landscape and rugged people. My stunned family finished saying our goodbyes, loaded back into the rental car, to trek back to Boise and onward to Japan.

Mom never showed up. We tried calling, but no answer. I thought she would send an email to ask if we were alright. I was sure she would hear about what had transpired. It’s a small town, after all.

Nothing. No text either. In fact, we weren’t to hear anything from her for over eight months. You don’t defy abuse from the sad man was the message I received—loud and clear.

Driving in stunned silence I realized that I was now freed from years of humiliation. I felt free of the guilt and shame for existing as an imperfect human.

I was now independent of my namesake family; freedom forever timestamped on July the 4th. Now and forever my personal Independence Day.

I haven’t spoken to anyone in that family for close to five years.

Some four months after the spitting incident while visiting Prague for the first time, I observed the gloomy Czech tradition of beggars perched upon their knees, hands clasped in a prayer, and head bowed down, so as not to look anyone directly in the face. The beggar’s single paper cup, dug from the trash, precariously balanced, on the uneven cobblestone and anchored with couple of coins to keep the cup from blowing away, in the harsh East European wind, breaks my heart in its testimony of their melancholy existence.

The spectacle personified a synopsis of the heart’s condition.

I thought of the sad man.

What once beat boldly with braveness and gargantuan goodness--a human life--is now demoted to begging on the street. With knees shamefully bent to the cold, stained rock, I can see the sad man looking up with those, steel-blue eyes, glazed now with tears tugging on the coattails of anyone decent as if to cry out:

“help me,

I was once good,

help me,

I can’t bear the end,

help me,

I want to wake up fresh,

help me,

I want my heart and mind to mesh,

help me...”

Through this strange visualization brought on by the beggar I wonder if the sad man would ever want my forgiveness? Her forgiveness? His own forgiveness? Did he even acknowledge wrong doing? It must have hurt him. Even raising my voice to my beloved wife hurts me and I am truly ashamed.

I am deeply moved and quickly empty the contents of my meager pocket into the beggar’s cup, walking confusedly on.

After writing this I called my Mom. She answered. She sounds good. She’s still with him. I have come to accept that she always will be.

I like to think that the man who beat me, who beat her, who made me hate myself, who made me hurt, so badly I wished to die--feels sadness. I like to think he is sad. I like to think he wants help but doesn’t know how to accept the love we tried to give. I like to think I will not be him, despite my anger, I like to think…

It’s time to start a new chapter.

Author Bio

Spencer Harber works in personal health practices. He offers a combined 18 years’ experience in a variety of healing mediums. He is a certified coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF) and holds both a Master’s of Arts and Post Baccalaureate Certificate in health & wellness coaching. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Complementary & Alternative Health and is a certified massage therapist. Spencer is a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance USA, after completing yoga studies in Rishikesh, India. As a healer, he has crafted a unique massage practice utilizing acupressure, aromatherapy, Reiki, and myofascial release allowing patients to get reacquainted with their bodies. Through yoga, he works with clients to heal any number of disorders. With the medium of plants, he has found health through nutrition. Writing has opened new doors allowing Spencer to share and coach through the written word, as well. He is currently following his passions for uniting humor and wellness together in a variety of forms.