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HALF-LIFE / DIE ALREADY
HOW I DIED & LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT
By MARK STEELE
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Mark Steele
All rights reserved.
LOVE OF THE DOG
Without a care in the world.
These are words that describe me as I enjoy the June sun, leaning into a particularly warm square foot of my yard. I have crosswords in hand; the smell of donuts is nearby. My wife, Kaysie, is convincing a stranger to purchase a ten-year-old alarm clock sitting on a table in our driveway. It is early summer 2005, and I am basking. Basking in the warmth of the weather, basking in the thought that the most soul-sucking parts of this God-forsaken garage sale are almost over. Basking in the thought that my dog is resting peacefully at my feet. Basking in the sheer joy of it all—of life, of this moment.
In three hours, all of that is going to change.
But, for the time being, I suckle a Krispy Kreme while Hero (the dog) licks my ankle. I have no earthly idea why the ankle. This is just the sort of thing that dogs choose to do. Their love is gross. Especially hers. Most people assume Hero is a he because of the Die-Hard-esque name that insinuates she has just given a smaller dog CPR. And because she is big and dark. But Hero is a she. Still, people try to argue otherwise.
Seven hours ago I was rousing myself from the eighty-seven minutes of slumber a husband gets the evening prior to a garage sale. Now, I am witnessing a subculture of Midwest Americana that I did not know existed—the morning-dwellers who hunt mercilessly for dime-priced tchotchkes no human has ever or will ever find use for.
[check] Used batteries.
[check] Books that have clearly fallen into the toilet.
[check] Remote controls that don't come with anything to control.
[check] A headless Barbie.
[check] One chopstick.
They purchase these items in Sam's Club quantities. I believe we have sold three hundred coat hangers. And at least eighty-seven of them had the little white cardboard tube at the bottom broken in half. I am having difficulty deciding which is more troubling: the fact that someone would need three hundred additional coat hangers, or the evidence that my clothing is hefty enough to damage eighty-seven of them permanently.
I am not a fan of garage sales because I do not want to purchase, or even browse through, anything that an unknown person has manhandled in the privacy of their home. This is because people are bizarre and they tend to use items with designated purposes for undesignated purposes. That butterfly net may have captured a rabid hamster. That suit may have been soiled in front of the President. And yet, strangers are snapping up bathing suits, bed sheets, old mattresses, a plunger, and what could very well be the most personal item of all.
I spent many years courting Kaysie with my uncanny mix-tape abilities. My music awareness is widespread, and my collection is vast. I spend an unhealthy amount of thought considering not just what songs I want to include, but what song would sound both perfect and unexpected before and after that song. I have made her mix-tapes that covered the gamut from declaring my love to celebrating a road trip. From chilling out on a snowy day to anticipating morning sickness. It's practically my love language. When Wilco and Beck are preceded by Lizz Wright and followed by the Love Boat theme it somehow makes a day practically perfect in every way.
One of my favorite mixes ever was from 1994 (the year we were married). The track list went like this:
1. "My Sharona" (The Knack)
2. "Brother" (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
3. "Cantaloop-Flip Fantasia" (US3)
4. "The Brady Bunch" (Greg soundbite)
5. "Evenflow" (Pearl Jam)
6. "Get Ready 4 This" (Jock Jams)
7. "Crazy" (Seal)
8. "Tempted" (Squeeze)
9. "Got No Shame" (Brother Cane)
10. "Maniac" (Michael Sembello)
11. "Sweetest Thing" (U2)
12. "Return to Innocence" (Enigma)
1. "Seven Days" (Sting)
2. "Throw the R Away" (The Proclaimers)
3. "This Time" (Bryan Adams)
4. "Linger" (The Cranberries)
5. "Happy Happy Joy Joy" (Ren & Stimpy)
6. "Under My Skin" (Frank Sinatra and Bono)
7. "Mr. Jones" (Counting Crows)
8. "Locked Out" (Crowded House)
9. "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (The Police)
10. "Thief of Your Heart" (Sinead O'Connor)
11. "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" (Spin Doctors)
12. "The-Evening-Wore-On" (speech from Harvey)
13. "Your Love" (The Outfield)
Kaysie loved that tape. Every minute of it was constructed with care and love and knowledge that the tape-mixer knew the listener inside and out.
Just like life should be.
And, unless I'm mistaken, we just sold that tape to the fellow walking away with our old headboard.
* * *
Wow. Hero is really going to town on my ankle. Perhaps it's lunch. I cannot complain. I mean, I could. And I do. I do complain about the dog. I don't know why. She adores me and lives only to comfort me. As a matter of fact, I expect that her life would be quite meaningless without the constant need to coddle me. She has the loyalty of a concubine and absolutely no respect for personal space. Her joy comes only from providing me joy. And I don't even have to return the favor.
I like this.
Hero did not begin life as my dog. She originally belonged to my brother-in-law who had trained Hero, a beautiful black labrador/rottweiler mix, from a puppy—running her up Colorado mountain trails, keeping her in shape and refining her into a regal specimen of dogness. When he moved his family to a smaller space in Boston, Hero was passed on to my household, and as I was the only one in the house willing to handle and dispose of feces, my brother-in-law's Hero became mine.
Certainly her affection for me is reciprocated, but this is not challenging because Hero has become quite old. When she first joined our household, I ran her and walked her and threw the tennis ball back and forth, but time passed and she can no longer move as quickly as me. This truly redefines slow. My brother-in-law owned Hero in the days she sprinted up hills while I own her in the days she licks whatever is closest.
So, right this moment—the sun, the breeze, the dog, I feel complete.
Well, only partially complete.
For a while now, something has been missing. Or, rather, something feels unsettled. I cannot wrap my mind around things. I cannot absorb. I almost reach an epiphany but then lose what I was trying to grasp. It's a strange place to be.
Lately I have felt my love becoming lazy. I am quick to make someone laugh or offer an encouraging word, but it never crosses my mind to do something that actually requires effort—to grieve alongside them, or help move their furniture. My love has become a sort of form letter: the same words and motions for everyone regardless of what they might, in fact, need. I have become junk mail.
These flaws are, of course, not evident to me at the moments they should be. I want to be a good person. Most of the time, I dupe myself into believing that I actually am a good person. I long to lead others to Christ, but MAN, if I don't have a dickens of a time following through with all those good intentions when it comes down to actually doing right. Goodness constantly argues with myselfness and myselfness always rips goodness a new one. So, instead, I spew all of my flaws and inconsistencies on paper. Lucky you. I'm actually quite charming in person.
It begins to rain. This is a problem as hordes of clothing, books, and furniture are strewn about the driveway and yard unprotected. You would think I would have noticed the storm clouds coming as I am a planner. And yet, sometimes (often) the dark clouds roll in and cover my sunshine while I am otherwise preoccupied with that spaghetti smudge on my collar.
We scurry to cover what we can, shoving most of it back into the garage. It is clear that the call has been made. God has canceled our garage sale, which makes sense. He doesn't have a use for that remote control either.
* * *
There is a reference in the Bible to "the least of these." Jesus tells us that what we do to those we consider least important in our lives is actually extremely important because it is as if we are doing those things to Jesus. This turns the whole idea of status on its head and is very stressful to people like myself. It took me a while to realize that this rule also applies to moments in our lives. The moments that we sometimes deem insignificant are often extremely significant. A seemingly trivial occurrence might just become the apex of our half-life.
This is definitely true of my life. For instance, I deem it extremely insignificant when Kaysie wants the boxes of clothes put back into our attic. But, in the light of this story, it was extremely significant.
I do not want to return the clothing to the attic.
I have prearranged multiple excuses to keep me from having to do so. But Kaysie wants the clothes separated and stored and in the attic. This stems from the fact that Kaysie wants events maximized while I want them finished. I am fueled by knowing that something is over while she is energized by things potentially never ending.
It is hot and I am tired, but that doesn't matter. There is future money to be made by re-storing, rediscovering, rearranging, repricing, and re-garage-selling these items that we just finished storing, discovering, arranging, pricing, and garage-selling. I do my best to argue this point. But I lose.
So, I will box all of the items back up and carry them upstairs into the sauna of our attic. Even though I have a headache. Even though I am angry because my mix-tape has been sold to a stranger. And even though I have soreness in my back and fingers.
Because I am a husband. And because I love my wife.
* * *
Kaysie and I met in the middle of one of those warehouse churches that looks as though it is desperately trying to avoid the appearance of a church. You'd be less surprised to discover a sale on a twelve-pack of salsa in the aisles than you would be to find a hymnal. It was ten o'clock at night and she was finishing up music practice. I had just driven twelve hours in for a job and I was laying down on a row of seats (not pews—that would look like a church, wouldn't it?). My hair was as long as it has ever been—down to the small of my back, which in my case was never exceptionally small. I was worn and certainly grumpy and somehow at that moment introduced to her.
She was not impressed.
In my defense, it would not have been plausible to impress her. It was late, I smelled of Mazda, and I looked like Billy Ray Cyrus collapsing of exhaustion at the end of the official Achy Breaky dance. She reminds me of this even now, almost twelve years later as if to say "see how much you impressed me eventually," or perhaps to say "you almost didn't get me," or possibly "you still smell like that now."
It wasn't until we met the second time that things heated up.
And by "heated up," I mean that she was not impressed the second time either. I returned to her church several months later to lead a group of junior high students on a mission trip only to discover—lo and behold—that I had been paired up with Kaysie to colead. It doesn't take a Rorschach test to discover that the only thing I enjoy less than coleading is coleading with a stranger, so I was all business and very little personality. By the time we loaded the bus for the all-night drive across the border, Kaysie was not my biggest fan.
This was a problem for me because in the Midwest I was an actor and a stand-up comedian and I had what a desperate person might call fans. Not real ones. Just frightening ones. The sort of individuals that flailed towards me at the mall in a sprint, skin-folds flapping like Old Glory. But their love was easy. In a crowded store, they might call my name out, which would please me because people who were not crazy might hear this and decide that they wanted to be my fans also. I highly recommend fans: tons of attention without any genuine knowing. And the adoration will continue even if you never see the individual again. No risk on your part—just tons of ego-stroking. You might even get your ankle licked.
So, it was difficult for me that Kaysie did not choose to be my fan. What had gotten into her? Didn't she know all the important things I had done with my life—especially the jokes? Didn't she know there were dozens of (potentially two) other girls who would kill for a date with the guy they thought I was, however incorrect the assumption? I was certainly put out. Kaysie had been assigned as my coleader, which meant that she should be, on some level, asking for my autograph. But NO.
We arrived in Mexico after an exhausting all-night drive (these were becoming de facto in my life), but despite hunger and heavy eyelids, we decided to have a worship service in my favorite room on the planet.
The room is located at Hogar de Niños Emmanuel, an orphanage at the top of one of the tallest hills in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The church built a meeting room at the highest corner of the building, two of its walls' windows facing the city of El Paso and the mountains. The room is always surrounded with the clang and clatter of the orphan children, laughing and living their days toward an unknown something. And, in the dark of night, you can look out those windows and see the lonely lights of two nations blending together. The intersection of sorrow and hope. It is a powerful place. And, whenever I have taken groups there, God meets us in that room.
Then again, maybe He is always there just waiting for us to come meet Him.
We turned down the lights and due to a lack of both an instrument and talent to play an instrument, worshipped with only our voices. I would love to say that the worship was anointed, but that would be avoiding the fact that few in the room knew the actual lyrics to the songs. This encouraged an awkward combination of humming and mumbling with an occasional whispered, "yes Lord" to cover where one perhaps knew most of a chorus, but was missing a word. I, on the other hand, simply mouthed the names of farm produce. But, either way, it was the opposite of bombast: still and quiet. We sang song after song until, finally, a moment of silence.
Heavy silence. Like something was about to happen.
I, being the resident moron, decided to break the silence with a song. Couldn't tell you why. Maybe I felt led by God. Maybe I felt the silence was awkward. Maybe just a bad taco. But nonetheless, I began: voice only, with one of my favorite refrains.
Oh God, You are my God, and I will ever praise You I will seek You in the morning, and I will learn to walk in Your ways
And as I sang, Kaysie heard an audible voice speak to her.
You first must understand that we are not those freaky-deaky "the spirit summoned a leopard and put him under my shirt so I must ROAR" sort of followers of Christ. Kaysie and I have seen so much and been disillusioned by so many people (including ourselves) in our walk toward Christ, that we are very hesitant to jump to the conclusion that the voice in one's head is God. But this was unmistakable. It was the furthest thing from her mind. She was simply standing there silently loving God. And He dropped the bomb.
You can't live without this man.
Wowzers. Me likey when He gets detailed. Tears start pouring down Kaysie's face and I assume I have kept her awake too long against her will. She begins to wrestle through these thoughts with God as I send the group to bed. Kaysie remains silent. And we head off to our respective floors until morning.
The sun rises early on that high hill, but we rise ahead of it, beginning our first day of rebuilding portions of the orphanage with a time of prayer. We converge in the same great room and now look out over the horizon to see how these two cities intermingle in the daytime.
I am tired. The room is silent. I have my coffee. I am staring out the window at an ice cream truck selling propane to the tune of a musical horn playing "La Cucaracha." I sip my java and mouth something indiscernible that I hope by sheer will becomes a prayer for someone. And then suddenly.
You can't live without this woman.
This concerns me as all the women in the room are twelve years old. But I instantly know Who is speaking—and who He is speaking of. I freak out. I remain silent. I say nothing.
This marked our relationship for years. A deep knowing. A certainty that we were for one another. As a matter of fact, as the Juarez Legend of the Steeles grew, we reveled in others' fascination with us—their joy that our discovery of one another was so effortless, so pain-free. The world deemed us made-for-each-other and to this day, I know that we were.
But neither of us realized how long it would take to truly understand one another. We loved others' ideas of our perfection so much and for so long that it did not dawn on us that there was a great deal of work to be done. Perhaps the façade of perfection was actually enabling us to dodge our issues.
I, of course, was willing to dodge. Because I needed a fan. I wanted someone who believed she was created for me and that our union was some miraculous intervention of the Almighty. Something that epic would mean that I was special and that she was lucky. I would be validated, and our union would be a symbol of happiness for those poor slobs who make up the rest of the world.
Excerpted from HALF-LIFE / DIE ALREADY by MARK STEELE. Copyright © 2008 Mark Steele. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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