Monday, December 28, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
I've also been wanting to post a request for all of you who were dedicated readers before last April and who continue to check on a regular basis. There are any number things about Whit I could post, but I just don't know what you would find interesting or rewarding. Letters he wrote? More photos? More background about Whit? Anything at all? I feel almost guilty that so many of you keep checking only to find nothing new. Or if it's something you'd like me to respond to privately, please feel free to send me an email: jeff.transtech "at" gmail.com.
Here is the text of my letter to Obama:
Dear President Obama,
This past April 4, 2009 Whitney Smith, my only son, apparently took his life. He would have turned 25 on April 10. At the time he was an inmate at the Federal prison in Terre Haute. I say "apparently" because in the intervening 6 months I have tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the Bureau of Prisons investigation of his death. I asked the warden. I wrote the offices of Sherrod Brown and Steve Driehaus, my Senator and Congressman respectively. They eventually informed me I would have to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I did so, and the BOP has refused to share the report of my son's death.
I am not writing to ask your help on obtaining the report, but rather to request an opportunity to sit down with you for 30 minutes or less and tell you about what's wrong with our Federal penal system, and how inhumane at worst and arbitrary at best the treatment of prisoners is, beginning as early as the decision as to where to place a just sentenced individual.
I would like to add that Whit had been in solitary confinement for the 15 months prior to his death, and allowed no visits or phone calls. There is more to that than you can possibly imagine.
Full disclosure: I am a registered and liberal Democrat, but I do believe that some people belong in prison and a smaller number should probably never see the outside again. Whit and I knew his incarceration was appropriate. But he was supposed to come home in 3 more years. The old law-and-order refrain "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" disturbs me. Those people have no idea what doing the time really means in a Federal prison, nor do they care.
I would be grateful for the opportunity to share not only my grief, but also my experiences with the Bureau of Prisons. I would fly to Washington at any time.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Tiny writes the following in his latest note:
Hi! I just want to write and let you know I appreciate you coming to visit. It let me get away from this place for a while and it was good to be able to talk about Smitty instead of just having things keep bouncing around in my head. I got the latest blog entries yesterday and it gives me something to look forward to, which isn't always possible in a place like this. Reading the blog I found out something I didn't know: Smitty had told me his mom had been killed, but the blog explains all that, I just assumed it was true.
Well, that's about all for now. I hope you have a safe trip to Vermont and back. Write soon.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Photo of Whit taken at a homecoming party given for him by his friend Steve Novotni in January 2005. This was his first night home after release from Dayton Correctional Institution. This was the photo James Remington used to create the drawing he made of Whit.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I was shocked to learn that Tiny hadn't heard through the grapevine, and writing the letter telling him what happened was a hard thing. I told Tiny that any friend of Whit's is a friend of mine, and that I hoped he would stay in touch and even look me up when he gets out. This is what Tiny wrote today:
You have my deepest sympathies, I can't imagine how hard this has been on you. I got your letter today, during our rec time and I'm reading it in the day room and I broke down crying. I am numb right now. Smitty was like a brother to me. We carried each other through a lot of stuff. Smitty was one of those people that didn't belong where he was at. I have done a lot of time, Jeff, and some people you meet in prison need to be exactly where they are, but not Smitty. He was a good person who just made a few mistakes. I think that is why we got so close, in Smitty I saw myself 20 years ago and I knew he wasn't going to end up like me, not if I could help it. He used to get mad because he thought I was preaching to him, and in reality I guess I was trying to get him to see what life would be like if he didn't wake up and see that this was no way to live. He is my buddy and I am going to miss him a lot. Maybe what you said in your letter was true and he just needed to move on.
If you can, please forward my address and prison number to Doliboa, I still know some staff up there that he might be able to find out something from. You're right when you said that a father deserves an accounting of what happened to his son. My advice on that is to contact your state Representative or Senator in Washington and maybe they can pursue it for you. I have seen several times where that was the way families got their questions answered.
Jeff, I am going to end this by letting you know that you are in my thoughts and that I would like to keep in contact with you if possible.
As it happens, I have already contacted both Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to ask for assistance in obtaining the report of the Bureau of Prisons investigation of Whit's death; I am waiting to hear the results of their efforts. Otherwise I have been unsuccessful, even with the aid of a lawyer who knows an Assistant United States Attorney; the AUSA yesterday indicated that he "cannot comply" with my request, and so I still do not know anything about the circumstances of Whit's death. Either the BOP has something to hide, or it is their general practice to be secretive and uncooperative. In either case it seems unconscionable to add such a bureaucratic nightmare to the grief a parent already feels. On the other hand, based on Whit's 3 years in the "care" of the BOP, it shouldn't surprise me in the least.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Just yesterday I got a letter from a good friend here in Cincinnati who had met Whit only once or twice between his time at Dayton Correctional Institution and Terre Haute, but knows me and and Whit's course very well. She gives weight to the first of the two factors, and in a way that I have thought about but hadn't yet put down on paper so clearly and insightfully. I offer it here to perhaps help some of you who knew him only through the blog understand what happened, and I welcome your comments. I'll reproduce the entire letter here:
This is what I imagine…. Whit was ready to move on. He’d reached a point in his young adulthood where he totally understood it was time for him to grow, to no longer make the same choices and spin the same wheels.
We all reached that at some point in our 20’s, didn’t we? The difference being that Whit was in a system that would not allow him to grow, to change, to move on to another level of maturity and understanding. Whit wanted “to be whole” but there was nothing “whole” in the entire prison system to assist him. The guards weren’t “whole,” the prisoners weren’t “whole,” the system is fractured. And he knew this …. He was ready to grow and evolve. He knew it in every cell of his being. To wait another 8 or 10 years, this was incomprehensible to a 25-year old who was on the cusp, and knew it, but shackled in ways no other 25-year old is.
I’m sorry I haven’t stayed in touch Jeff. I pray you are doing okay.
I will add that these days when I feel self-pity, or stress over job or mortgage etc…. I remind myself that these were the mundane problems in life that Whit prayed for, everyday. These daily stressors of “normal life” were all he wanted in life – just a chance.
I love you Jeff and think of you and Whit frequently,
… and remember, Whit is no longer suffering. He is free and whole!
Thursday, May 14, 2009
And so for now I'll put this entry up and open it to comments. Or if anyone has a letter from Whit they'd like to share in whole or in part, feel free to either include the text in your comment or send it to me in an e-mail. And any suggestions for how to get Whit's voice heard in a larger way would be most welcome.
Thanks to all of you for your understanding of what my son was doing, and your appreciation of what he was trying so hard to become under such horrific circumstances and conditions.
I've been asked to make the contact information for memorial donations more conspicuous, in case people missed it in the other folder.
Circle Tail, Inc.
8834 Carey Lane
Pleasant Plain, OH 45162
Of course you don't have to fully sponsor a dog, donations of any amount are very much appreciated by Circle Tail. You can specify that it go towards the prison dog program.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
This is from the last series of photos I took of Whit before Terre Haute. For his birthday I took him gliding - the first time for both of us. For his actual birthday Diane and I planned a few things like seeing a live acoustic band at a local record store, lunch and frisbee in the park, but Whit said afterwards he really wanted just the two of us to do something. This did the trick. Unsure of the exact date, but around 4 or 5 days after his actual birthday of April 10. The instructor is showing him the controls here. I know I took a lot of photos that afternoon, but this is the only one I can come up with.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Read at Whit's memorial:
Hands holding hands, arms embraced, lives entwined, the fabric we share as a human race
In all things done boundaries stretched, each path pursued the soul will test
Heart’s twisted from forces unseen, unnamed; rend from us tears of love and pain
Given sight we stumble, seeing through a prism, given freedom we hesitate and ourselves imprison
What is death’s share of the bargain we make
Wings or flesh, does it give or take
Answers hidden, knowledge in a language unspoken, humanity rises in waves unbroken
Timed to a silent metronome, each wave of life crashes on death’s shore
Breakers uncovering crystals of sparkling sand sliding back into Mother Sea once more
In the face of this spectacle, as answers are sought, there is reawakening to my sense of purpose and thought
A time of remembrance that I am not the sand, the wave nor the sea, but rather, they are me
So we are not Whitney but now he is us. He has been consumed and integrated into each of us that know him. He is nourishing to our beings isn’t he? Between the moments of anguish and ecstasy isn’t life a magnificent struggle? Clarity of purpose and meaning are gifts bestowed to few of us. Questions will always outnumber answers. Pain often outpaces pleasure. It can be hard to feel, let alone measure the benefits that we earn through hardship. While clothed in these human forms we’ll never fully understand what lies behind life’s curtain. But I often think that this life is a lesson in love. In giving, receiving, sharing and expanding our capacity to love under the most trying circumstancesAnd I could thank you all for joining us today and sharing your love for Whitney and our family, but I only have to open my eyes a little wider to see that there is no ‘you’ and ‘us’. WE are all one family here; all Whit’s family. And I wish the best of luck to each of us in our personal lessons of love.
Friday, April 17, 2009
What's crackin'? Another great call today. Hopefully you enjoyed it at least half as much as I did. What's kind of weird is the fact that in situations like that when there are a hundred different things to talk about, conversation is sometimes the toughest because I never know what is important enough to justify spending one of those fifteen precious minutes talking about. You sounded good. Glad you were able to get out in the yard today (or a few days ago, by the time this arrives.) I know it's looking like a fantastic day out this way.
Sounded like things are running pretty smoothly back home, which is really great to know. Actually, without attempting to make myself sound self-pitying or whatever, it seems almost inconceivable to me to live a life where for weeks and often months no major dramas occur either to me or at least within my vicinity. Yet another thing I'm looking forward to when coming home.
Hey! I noticed the U.S. dollar has been taking a major pounding lately! Yay! I know on Thursday, the last rate I've seen, it was back to well over $1.30 versus the Euro. Seems kind of unusual when our stock markets are strengthening. Why is that? Does it have to do with all the new money the Fed. Reserve is pumping into the country? This is another reason why I'm looking forward so much to doing an economics course or two from O.U. Even if I don't do exceptionally well with the material, I should at least have a decent understanding of it which should mean the things I read in the money section of the newspaper take on a whole new meaning. Well, if not NEW than at least a greater meaning.
Thanks for explaining the situation with your investments/IRA a little more. You mentioned that you've lost 1/3 to 1/2 of the value compared to 2 years ago. Can you elaborate on that a little more? For a simple example, let's say your IRA was worthy $10,000 two years ago and then... oh, reading that passage again I understand now so no need to elaborate. Wow, that sucks. Such a considerable loss seems astounding when I consider the fact that Grandpa was managing your portfolio throughout this entire time. That means that either he made some seriously bad decisions or I guess it means that a lot of other people came out a lot worse than you. What a depressing topic, though. Moving on...
I really like your idea of converting your backyard into a landscaped garden. Yeah, it's not a whole lot of space but then again, I learned from our tomato growing adventures that sometimes it only takes a few plants to produce quite a bit of food at certain times. Those tomatoes were definitely delicious, although even with oregano, six or seven a day got to be a little much. Well, whenever your garden plan happens to come to fruition, I do have one request - sugar snap peas, and lots of them.
Great pictures!! Of downtown and Hyde Park Square. I'd forgotten that the fountains wouldn't have actually been turned on, though. Oh well, it was still a refreshing sight. I've got two of them taped up to The Wall next to my bunk.
[Whit had recently asked me to take and send photographs of two locations in Cincinnati that had special meaning for him.]
It's nice that you went to Esme's memorial. Were there very many people there who didn't actually know Tom, Lisa or Esme and were just there to show support? Reading about the drawings she'd done as a kid hanging from the walls at the memorial at first made me consider how, despite what difficulties we had (and still have, sometimes), things could still be worse. But then I realized the condition Esme's parents must be in having endured the worst-case scenario. The way you described your state during the service was vivid. I'm trying to find a way to empathize but it seems impossible. You've endured an incredible amount during your life and now this tragedy which, even at its distance, is much too close for comfort. I wish I could offer some advice or say something hopeful. You're the Dad, though - that's your job :-). You're in my mind all the time, whatever that's worth. Hopefully you're able to keep in mind how much good you've done in your life and how much success you've had. Without even mentioning the obvious things like a Ph.D., a great house with friends who care a lot about you, and just generally being a man someone should strive to be, there's also me. The fact that I've been in quite a bit of trouble throughout my life is a reflection of my failures as a son. But the fact that a kid like me who dropped out after 9 years of school can be at least moderately intelligent and open-minded as I am is a concrete example of your success as a father. I've been incredibly lucky to have the father I do.
Alright, I'm going to let you go now. Hopefully this finds you in much better spirits than you were in when you wrote this letter of the 12th. Thank you for being so open with me, though. I miss you and love you.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
When I first arrived at USP Terre Haute I knew there was not going to be a lot of people that I could count on. In a place where you always have to watch your back and automatically know to trust no one you have to be careful who you become friends with. Smitty was one of the first people I met. From the very beginning he looked out for me, giving me my first pair of shoes and shorts, and ultimately preparing me for what to expect as I settled into a place where I would be spending the next few years of my life. We continued being friends after that, but got a lot closer when we were placed into a cell in solitary confinement together. If you read his blogs I am referred to as Brad. Having the life of a prisoner is not easy and laughter rarely occurs, but if you have read his blogs it is something Smitty and I did a lot together. Prison may not be the life that either of us planned or wanted, but we tried to make the best of it and got through each day the best we could. I can honestly say he will probably be the only person I meet in my life that can make Christmas cookies out of candy bars, but hey, we were not going to miss out on holiday goodies just because we were in prison... ha ha. He was always good for creating a good laugh and turning something negative into a positive. Smitty is the most honorable person I have ever met. He was honest, smart, respectful, and an amazing writer. Out of 1500 men in this place I can truthfully admit to only having two good friends that I can trust and depend on, and sadly now that number has decreased to one. I will never forget the many memories of the times we had together or the amazing person he was and always will be. So many people want to look down on prisoners like we are not people. We have all made mistakes, but that does not define us. I wish everyone could have had the opportunity to get to know the person I knew, not Whitney Smith the criminal, but Whitney Smith the person, because we would all be better people. I am privileged to know him and to have the opportunity to call him my friend. Smitty, you will not be forgotten and may your voice continue to tell your story, for you, and for all of us here at USP Terre Haute.
I love you and I will miss you man!
And this "from Vroom and Whitney's many friends at USP Terre Haute":
SMITTY - What happened is such a tragedy. You were always there for us. You are an amazing guy and we will always remember the time we spent together. Your homeboys love you and miss you man. We will never forget you.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I have been among the closest to Jeff during Whit's years in prison. I am in awe of his steadfast love and belief and hope for Whit. There have been times of anguish and despair - and for me, my primary experiences of Whit have been through some of the darkest times and the pain these caused to Jeff. But being with him through those times told me what I needed to know about what kind of man I had here - deeply sensitive, fiercely loyal, and never wavering in his hope that his son and his daughter Maryl would find their ways in the world, would find good lives and their own measure of happiness.
Whit and I corresponded somewhat regularly throughout his incarceration. I would like to read a letter I received recently - after my sweet dog Adelaide was struck by a car and killed.
9 February, 2009
Thirty seconds ago I received a letter letting me know that Adelaide was hit by a car. As I sit on my bunk with this paper and pen in my hands I find myself at a loss for words. While my ideal outcome with this letter would be to cheer you up, attempting any sort of humor would be inappropriate. Plus, more than a week has passed since Adelaide's passing, so guessing what your state is is impossible. In spite of my inability to give you the comfort I'd so much like to be able to provide, I hope that you will be at least somewhat positively affected by the knowledge that there is a man in a room in Indiana who has absolutely no more important task than to think about you and send positive thoughts and is doing exactly that his every waking hour.
I miss you terribly and hope this finds you well.
Monday, April 13, 2009
I am the family guitar maker. Some years ago I built a guitar for Jeff which later figured in one of Whit's "escapades." When Jeff told me about that, the conversation led quite clearly into an important friendship with both father and son.
Whit and I wrote many, many letters to each other over the last four years. Until last year when he was placed in solitary confinement, we enjoyed as many phone calls as he was allowed. I was also lucky enough to be able to visit him at Terre Haute once. I'm sure he got a lot of flack from his fellow inmates about hugging that grizzly geezer when I was leaving.
I am speaking today because Whit's Dad has asked that I do so, this from his belief that somehow I understood Whit fully. I am honored.
I love Whit Smith.
The almost universal questions are "Why?" and "What might I have done to change this?" We've all asked; many of us are still asking.
Whit is someone for whom I have enormous admiration. He was thoughtful, generous and kind. He was brilliant, curious, and magnificently creative. Please.....examine his body of writing. He was courageous beyond my ability to comprehend.
When I met Whit, he had really begun to ask himself (as a grown man), "So, what IS it with me?" He saw the trail behind and asked "Why?" He did NOT Understand. He asked these things fully and honestly. There was no "right answer"; he wanted the truth. And he did most of the work of understanding the why and wherefore of his life, which most of us do between the ages of 25 and 50 years, in the four years from 20 to 25. He began, in all facets of his life, to take full responsibility for himself, his choices, and his actions.
If you need any measure of the quality of the man, I ask you to envision a 20-year old learning this in the context of the hell which is Terre Haute F.C.C. This is an extraordinary human being.
But even the most extraordinary of us have our doubts, that place wherein we ask ourselves and all creation: "Am I worthwhile, a WORTHY human being?" There must be enough unconditional love in a child's existence to fight off the doubt that each of us will eventually encounter in life.
Over the last year, I watched Whit as it became possible to him that he might spend a very long time in prison. In light of that, I believe he chose the only option he had. He did this bravely, with dignity, and, I believe, with as much kindness as he could toward those he loved.
Whit and I talked a lot about death over the last year. My father had been very ill for some time. He died five days before Whit took his own life. In Whit's death I see nothing unkind, no parting harshness to anyone, simply an acknowledgment that what he had in store did not give him what he needed.
This is a man who knows himself very, very, well, perhaps better than many persons several times his age.
For Jeff and Kathy:
We practice Forgiveness awkwardly, sometimes desperately, on others, usually in the silent unrecognized hope that we can come to forgive ourselves.
I know you well, my friend. There will come a time when you will hold your grief as a sacred duty. Please, let it pass. Be kind to yourself, to your amazing family, and to Diane. Perhaps most of all, to Whit. Take Joy in who your son is. You deserve nothing less, and he was, and is, a miracle.
Circle Tail, Inc.
8834 Carey Lane
Pleasant Plain, OH 45162
Their main Web page is here.
As a general note, regular mail contact for Jeff is:
2835 McKinley Ave.
Cincinnati, OH 45211
Sunday, April 12, 2009
April 8, 2009
Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Scott Ainslie. I have been asked to say a few words now and to help facilitate the service this afternoon.
I am grateful to be among you today – to mourn the loss, and to celebrate and honor the life of Whitney Smith.
Three years ago, our mutual friend, Michael Millard, gave me Whit’s address along with a very gentle, but unmistakable nudge to write.
Whit and I became friends the old fashioned way: through letters.
A gifted writer, Whit began – and ended – our correspondence with candor and intelligence, humor, humility, and always with his characteristic clear-eyed and openhearted gratitude.
Not a month ago, on an early Spring day not unlike today, he wrote:
“Looking around me, it’s amazing to see how the glory of Spring is able to permeate the thickest of walls and highest of fences. Drainage pipes stretching across the ceilings of the coops provide a perfectly secure nook for robins and doves to build their nests, which they are already busy doing. And the troops of ants, beetles and caterpillars, which at most times would be an offensive sight to behold, at this moment are a welcome sign of the changing season, as they cautiously venture from the cracks in the concrete.”
We feel his absence keenly. Today – our grief is new. And sharp. It can turn on us.
But the very clear message that Whit sent out to us, before he lay his body down, was meant to encourage us not to use his life – or his death – to do ourselves or each other harm (something that in the chaos and disorientation of new grief often too easily happens, and something that would be a profound misuse of his life and memory). Something that he very consciously and deliberately tried to prevent us from doing.
So, today – together, we will begin the process of filling in the space – long held for Whit – with our memories and love for him: honoring the steps and missteps, paying careful attention to one and other, and to his Spirit.
Today, in stories and songs, in his words and ours, we offer to one another our gratitude for having had time here – under this sun and these stars – with him.
Climbing out of adolescence to adulthood is never easy. But, Whit’s particular mountain was higher than most.
Whit became a man – a kind, thoughtful, and loving man – while confined in the Federal Pen. at
And he did what the very best of us too rarely do: he lifted himself up out of the brutal circumstances surrounding him and became, in his own words, “a man who values and protects his sense of honor and duty” – to his friends, to his family, to himself.
Let us all remember – as has been noted by others here today – that Grief is not a medal, a commemorative souvenir of the battle to be worn on the chest or preserved on display in a shadow box on the wall. It is the process by which we reassemble our lives.
Time does not heal all wounds. (Left alone, Time makes many of them worse.) But healing takes time – and a strange combination of indulgence and attention.
We are mapping a new world – under unfamiliar stars – without Whit.
As they become familiar we must let Grief – that Dark Horse – wander a little and mark where it goes. We must learn the lay of the land, taking care neither to rein it in too soon, nor to let it get away from us altogether.
Patience, awareness, and compassion are our tools – for ourselves, and for each other.
Today, we have begun well. Let us continue together, offering each other our ears and our support – and being grateful for Whit’s presence in our lives – as he was so openly grateful for each of us.
A man and his son were lost at sea in a small boat. They passed the time talking of things they would do after reaching the shore or being rescued. But the days were sad and arduous, there was little joy and the constant fear they would never reach land.
One morning the father awoke to find the son dead from the hunger and exposure. In his grief he fell into the sea. The boat quickly moved out of reach. He struggled as the sea began to swallow him. It was cold. Sobbing and shivering, he soon felt it pointless to fight the inevitable fate. He drifted off into unconsciousness.
Next, he awoke to find himself in the same situation, but making a weak, almost involuntary effort to stay above water. Soon, he drifted off into unconsciousness. Again he awoke, still anguished at the loss of his son, but once again making just enough effort to breathe.
This repeated over and over, overwhelmed with cold, despair and loneliness he couldn't understand why he kept awaking. Death would be merciful in his situation. After what seemed like dozens of tortuous hours he again drifted off into his sea of despair. The next time he awoke, he felt different somehow, with clearer thoughts of his son and their dreams. He began to tread water. Still cold, hungry and in pain, sometimes sinking below the surface, then kicking just enough to arise again, he lapsed into unconsciousness.
When he awoke it was as if the fish around him had transferred strength to his legs and arms. He began to swim a little. Just a little time spent swimming, then treading water again. Of course in time he was again exhausted; crying out to his son he fell silent.
So it went for the next few days. Miraculously, always re-awakening with a little more strength in his body, but no less miserable, empty, and alone. One morning he awoke with land in sight. Not sure whether it was an illusion, he began swimming towards it until exhaustion closed his eyes.
The next time he awoke he was on the shore; an unlikely event for someone who had succumbed to drowning. Alone now on land, he looked longingly at the sea which could only remind him of his son. A more time passed, he began to accept his situation with a mixture of sadness and acceptance. Each evening he would walk along the beach, smelling the salt air, being sprayed by the cold sea spray. And each night as he lay on the beach, fish would gather at the shore line, and watch him sleep.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Thursday, April 9, 2009
It's hard to describe this as a piece of fiction, even though the literary conceit of a narrator sitting in the cemetery takes place only in his own heart and mind. Spring Grove Cemetery is where he attended the burial of his maternal grandmother; he was given leave from the military school where he attended 8th grade. As far as I know, it is the only time he was ever there. The death he refers here to is the death of an old self, or rather just part of a self, and in no way was a conscious anticipation of what has now happened. It gave me even more reason to believe that he was finding a path that, once home with family and friends, would never lead back to prison.
Every single recollection of Whit the narrator in this piece actually happened, and even his recall of the exact words is completely full and accurate. I know, because I was there. Only the literary device of the setting, with all the creative symbolism, is fictional.
As it happens, Whitney will be buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, next to his grandmother, on Saturday, the day after his birthday. For each of the past 3 years, he has asked me to go to this cemetery and take photographs of spring as it arrives in this beautiful setting, so that he could post them on his wall. This is the weekend I had planned to go out on this year's photographic stroll through the grounds.
His gift reads as follows:
Gazing across the rolling terrain of the cemetery, I realize how appropriate a place like Spring Grove is for the deceased to do what I assume the dead desire most: To rest in peace. I suppose graveyards in general are known for having atmospheres in accord with, or even encouraging, solemn reverie. But this one in particular seems to me to be at such a height of serenity, all others simply fall short. A fact only emphasized by that cloudless Sunday afternoon in June. On that Father's Day.
In what seems to be a slightly bizarre counterpoint to what those grass covered acres represent, I can't remember ever seeing so many living, breathing birds and squirrels and hares and other vibrant creatures. All of them completely unaware of the significance we humans attach to those stone and marble blocks they dart around. Likely unaware of the concept of death altogether. Wouldn't that be nice.
It is on a marble bench where I sit. An overly expensive and extravagant tribute to a man or woman's existence. A lifetime of experiences culminated in a few lines of chiseled letters on glossy rock. From this vantage point I can see hundreds of markers, sculptures and gravestones, each with their own stories. But there's only one with any significance to me.
At first glance this one seems like all the others around it. To me it looks bland. And a little smaller, maybe.
'That's only appropriate,' I think.
It seems like some sort of emotion should be swelling up inside me. Grief, regret, sorrow. Anger. Or even happiness. But there's nothing. How can that be when the stories and experiences those grooved letters represent are so much a part of my life. Or were a part, I should say.
In the distance the gargling hum of a lawnmower carries in the breeze. I find myself being drawn into its gentle rumble. I came to this place to mourn. But in order to mourn something I must first have a feeling of loss. So it is there on that bench where I sit in my introspective haze trying to determine what, if anything, I lost.
Our relationship was always bittersweet. Not that any relationship isn't; I think our bitter and sweet was just more polarized than most. Although one common ground we shared, the one thing neither party will dispute, is that we both did what we thought was best for me. It still boggles my mind how polluted a person's judgment can be. But sure enough, he would dig me into one hole after another, each one was promised to be my true path to success and happiness. It's really my fault for allowing myself to be controlled like that. And I'm sure any harm done was unintentional; he just didn't know any better. Yes, he meant well.
At the same time, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In 1999 I was in my mid-teens. Already no stranger to the Juvenile Detention Center, silly things like school and work didn't take up too much space in my day planner. It's tough to schedule that stuff around important activities like stealing and partying.
One day, with a duffle bag packed full of clothes and a determined look at the front door, my father asked 'Where are you going?'
'I'm moving to Pittsburgh.'
'No you're not,' Dad said, blocking the door.
'Yes I am!' A very educated retort, I know, but what do you expect from a rebellious teenager?
There was a short foot chase around the house until downstairs in the basement, halfway out of the back door, Dad caught up. A wrestling match ensued. Today in similar circumstances things may have had different results, but Pops didn't have too much trouble then.
'Let me go!'
'I'm not living here anymore, let me go!'
'No,' Dad said, 'I will never let go.'
And then there were the robberies. What was supposed to be an exciting way to spend Monday night turned out to be nothing more than a forfeiture of three years of my life.
Seeming to be a figure either directly or spiritually present in every major happening of my life, true to form Pops was there in the hours after my arrest. The officers told him he could come down to the station to visit with me before I was booked. So there I sat, a shamed and, I reluctantly admit, terrified 17-year old kid when Dad comes in with two sodas and a bag of McDonald's.
For over an hour we sat there talking and eating chicken nuggets. There was almost no mention of the robberies. We did our best to dance around that topic, instead talking about movies or memories. Casual bullshitting. I suppose we just both knew that these were our last moments together as the father and son we were then. We did our best to spend those last minutes together with as much normalcy as possible.
I was born in 1984. Sometime in 1989 a little boy was being dropped off by his father at daycare. Every morning that boy would get out of the car and run as fast as he could to the window in time to watch his dad drive off. Five days a week that kid would zoom to that window and smile as 5 days a week his dad would smile back at him and wave good-bye. Until one day he didn't. No smile, no wave, not even a glance. And so as that car pulled back into traffic there was a little boy who had just realized that his father no longer loved or wanted him and who had just been abandoned in this daycare where he would spend the rest of his youth eating canned peas and Wonder bread. When asked by a woman why he was crying so hard, it must have seemed a little confusing to hear 'He didn't wave' as a response.
Behind me the once-distant lawnmower crests the small hill where I sit, the shrill chugging of its engine pulling me back to the present.
Refocusing my eyes, I read the name on that slightly inadequate gravestone one more time.
What had I been thinking about? Oh yeah, loss. Mourning.
As connected as we were for so long, I feel no loss. No more than I would feel the loss of a virus purged from my body. And after being such a poison to my well-being, maybe that's truly what has happened, a sickness cured.
Rising from my bench's cool stone I walk to the grave and look one last time at the name neatly scribed on the molded concrete.
'Whitney Smith,' it reads.
For all our memories, there is no longing for what lies buried in the earth where I stand. The impulsiveness that steals and lies, the brashness that scorns a loving father, the childishness that feels abandonment: It is all better off laid to rest here in the ground.
The rest of me turns and walks away. I've got to meet up with my father and have lunch. It's Father's Day after all.