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HOW TO WIN A FAMILY FIGHT
By WILL CUNNINGHAM
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2006 Will Cunningham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDigging to China
THE GIFT OF PAIN
It's not hard to stay married-all you have to Do is open up an artery and bleed.
No sweeter kisses exist on earth than those of my wife and only pucker-partner until death do us part. But Cindy was not the first person I ever kissed, and if I were able to murder the memory of this one endearment, I would wring its neck vigorously.
It was a cold night in Oklahoma City, and I had just wrecked my father's Buick. In my defense, I was trying to avoid a cat when I struck the patch of black ice, spun three times, demolished a mailbox, and wound up in the south ditch of the Northwest Expressway. The cat was grateful, I'm sure. My date, on the other hand, was not.
An hour later, after trudging through calf-high snow (this was before the invention of the cell phone), we reached her house, only to discover the front door, back door, side door, and every window locked tighter than Scrooge's miserly heart. Now I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure when my date told me she couldn't feel her feet inside her moon boots that we had a problem on our hands.
"Do you have a woodpile?" I asked.
"Y-y-yes," she replied through jackhammering teeth.
"Where is it?"
"Be-be-behind the ga-ga-garage."
"Let's find somematches and get you warmed up a little."
After rifling through the measly twigs that comprised the "woodpile" and discovering a dry book of matches and some old rags in her father's tool chest, we started a fire in an empty birdbath.
My date eyed the anemic flames and stuck out a pouty lip.
"Do you have any lighter fluid?" I asked.
"There's a gasoline can next to the lawn mower."
(This is a good place to insert the text "Will is an idiot.")
The explosion blew a hole in the hedge next to the bird-bath. It was really very enchanting, what with the backyard lit up like the Fourth of July and my date bawling from the sheer horror of it all. Suddenly every lamp in the house came on and her dad started shouting from his bedroom window, "What the heck's going on out there?" (which was not really what he said, but it represents the spirit in which he addressed me).
"Just reenacting the Tet Offensive in your backyard, sir. Don't you love the smell of napalm in the morning? I hope so. Because it's, like ... really early in the morning."
"What kind of nut are you?"
"Just the average kind."
Certain our time together was coming to an end, yet always the gentleman, I took my date's hand and gazed apologetically into her terrified eyes.
"Can I walk you to the door?"
"Please," she begged.
I navigated us both across the frozen lawn, tiptoeing carefully between smoldering leaves and twigs, until we finally reached the back porch. At the top stair, I turned and looked her in the eyes again.
"This has been nice."
"Yeah ... really nice."
"Would you mind if I kissed you?"
For the briefest moment, my date's expression wavered between "Are you a moron?" and "Yes, I think I'd like to get this over with."
Oblivious to the context clues, I stepped closer, turned my head slightly, and placed what I believed was the kiss to end all kisses on the slightly blue lips of my nearly frozen date.
Everything would have been just fine, and I'm sure she would have leaped at the prospect of future dates, had I only left well enough alone. But to this day, I regret the next four words that fairly gushed forth.
"I love you, Jill," I said.
My date's corpselike face turned an angry shade of red. "The name's Lisa," she hissed. "Who is Jill?"
"Did I say Jill?"
"You said Jill."
"Well, what I meant to say was-Will. 'I love you, Will'. You see? 'I love you ... Willll.' Okay? Like, if you think about it, if you look at it from just the right angle ... what I was really saying ... were the words I wanted you to say to me, Jill."
"I mean Lisa."
"Get out of here."
"I'll be going now."
You would think I'd count my losses and slink away into the shadows. But Lisa's back porch possessed no handrail and was elevated six feet above her father's snow-encrusted marigolds. When I turned to make my exit, I landed with a thud in the flowerbed, where for a moment I considered burrowing with my teeth to China just so I wouldn't have to pick my God-forsaken carcass out of the snow and face Jill again, or Lisa, or whatever the heck her name was.
"I'm okay down here! Little cold. Lotta moisture. Good night. Call me." With that, I trudged off in search of my father's Buick.
Several months later I tried to reach Lisa/Jill by phone to see if she had forgiven me, and whether she wanted to enjoy another date, but the recording informed me her number had been changed and the new one was not available to the public.
People are so paranoid.
Undaunted by my early attempts at relating to the opposite sex, I eventually stumbled into love with a woman named Cindy, whose name means "goddess of the moon."
Cindy and I had been working together in a ministry to troubled teens. After months of trying to convince the moon goddess to go out with a mortal like me, I finally talked her into it.
It was 1981-an excellent year for love. We were driving north on Missouri Highway 65, surrounded by the markings of early December: Canada geese landing in Ford Field, fog hovering over Lake Taneycomo, smoke curling from chimneys and resting in the Ozark hollows.
Our destination was Springfield, where we planned to watch a group of high school boys play basketball. Afterwards we had reservations at a nice restaurant. It was our first real date, and I was not going to blow it by calling her the wrong name, or blowing up her father's birdbath, or ... running into that pickup that was driving toward us-in our lane!
Cindy never saw it coming. She was looking down at her lap, reading a card I had made for her. I didn't have time to swerve. The sound of metal on metal woke the morning. Cindy's Honda bounced, spun, careened into the Bee Creek Bridge guardrail, ricocheted off, and finally came to a halt.
Like a marionette with cut strings, I felt limp. I tasted blood. Heard a crunch as I tried to move. Broken glass? Broken teeth? I licked my lips-split clean through from nose to chin, blessedly numb.
My mind registered several sights:
A steering wheel bent into a half-moon ...
Missing windshield ...
Tape deck ...
Glove box ...
Hand brake ...
A woman's hand.
I saw the torn card ...
Ripped jeans, red and wet ...
Legs twisted around the wrecked engine ...
Hot and hissing into her lap.
Cindy turned and moaned, her broken hands clawing for help.
Men shouted orders.
Wind blew through the car, like the devil through a frozen whistle.
Closed my eyes.
Let my head fall back against the bloody seat.
Two weeks after the crash, on Christmas morning, after weeks of morphine, traction, splints, casts, surgeries, stitches, intravenous feeding, blood transfusions, armies of well-wishers, and tubes stuck in every available orifice ... I felt it might be time to wake up.
Happy as hens to have a romantic diversion from their jobs, the nurses wheeled Cindy's and my hospital beds into the sunroom and peered from behind curtains to see what would happen next. Dawn, like an angel, came softly through the windows at the foot of our beds, and out over the valley we saw the highway meandering across the frozen floor of the Ozarks.
"My hands don't look so good, do they?" said Cindy, breaking the silence.
She was right. They were covered with thick purplish scar tissue from the lacerations she received when the windshield exploded in on us.
"I'll always hold your hand, Cindy," I answered. "You've just never given me the chance."
We both burst out laughing-I belly-laughed so hard that my hip, now secured with screws, felt on fire. But if this was courtship, I thought, give me more pain.
Cindy reached across the space between our beds and for the first time held my hand. "I love you, Will Cunningham."
"I love you, too, C."
A single, silver tear appeared in the corner of Cindy's eye, and we both had no idea what to say next. So we just sat there with tubes sticking out of us, Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein holding hands and basking in the weirdness of it all. Eventually the nurses came out of hiding to wheel us back to our rooms, and that was the end of the basking.
It was also the beginning of real healing for our bodies, and the birth of true love for each other-a lifetime of love.
Looking back at our lives since December 5, 1981, I see two things: pain and gain.
There was the pain of loss. I lost the feeling in my entire left side as a result of the crash. Even now as I type, I'm often forced to watch the keys because I cannot feel them beneath my left hand. I also lost my ability to play the guitar and to participate in some of my favorite sports-things I have since relearned, but only after a long road back.
Cindy lost as much as I. Sixteen broken bones robbed her of beloved pastimes-jogging and racquetball. But never once have I heard her complain.
If we could relive the past and escape that pain, but it meant missing out on even a fraction of the gain-a strong, thriving marriage and two really cool sons-then Cindy and I would not cash in a single twinge.
* * *
Saint Augustine once said, "Better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all."
I think what the saint was trying to say was that true love-whether the ridiculous, puppy love kind, or the deep, decades-old kind-will always involve some kind of pain. His quote reminds me of something my high school football coach used to say: No pain, no gain.
It flies in the face of logic, doesn't it? Our bodies ache, our thoughts are in turmoil, our marriages and relationships are worn at the seams. Where's the good that justifies the pain?
Nonetheless, it's true. Even your relational conflicts can be a source of tremendous blessing, if you allow yourself to learn from them.
There is gain in pain.
Lisa/Jill's marigolds suggest it.
Bee Creek Bridge proves it.
All you have to do is believe it.
Excerpted from HOW TO WIN A FAMILY FIGHT by WILL CUNNINGHAM Copyright © 2006 by Will Cunningham. Excerpted by permission.
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