Granddaddy Earl passed away on July 4, 1976, from a heart attack right after a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of American independence. He sure could shell the corn, and I’m right glad granddaddy gave the folks that last little bit of speechifyin’ before he left us behind. Grandmama Kathleen suffered a stroke at the age of eighty five that left her blind, but she still got around pretty good for a while after that. She died peacefully in her bed five years later at the age of ninety. Grandmama wore out her body, but her mind was as sharp as ever.
In 2001, not long after my fiftieth birthday, my mom shuffled off this mortal coil. The lung cancer from those cigarettes she liked to smoke finally ate her up from the inside out. Mom married and divorced Harry Ball…twice, and they were both sober as church deacons through the whole damned thing, working their twelve steps. They even asked Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, to bless the second time they jumped broom into marital bliss figuring that would turn the trick, but no go. Mom lived the last thirty five years of her life in El Paso with her third husband, a Jewish fellow from New York City who didn’t want anybody to know he was Jewish.
I was there with her at the hospice when mom died. She encouraged me to read her passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She reckoned with all the shit she’d done in her lifetime, God wasn’t going to get her panties in a wad over a little bit of Buddhist Bible scripture. Mom said she and God liked all kinds of scripture, “So keep on reading, Billy.”
I regret burning our family Bible, a childish thing for an angry teenager to do. The Bible’s a good book filled with wonderful parables, allegories, legends, myths, and other forms of storytelling intended to enlighten and heal. There are a great many other good books too, including the Gnostic Gospels, as well as the Torah, Quran, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist Sutras, and the Tao Te Ching, just to name a few.
Before my mom died, she told me she wanted to be buried in Pair O’ Dice next to granddaddy and grandmama. She’d outlived three husbands, and four marriages, so there were, like she said, “Plenty of places she could park the carcass.” She considered cremation, but decided she’d prefer to be smothered and covered, rather than scorched and scattered. She said, “It probably didn’t matter anyway, because the whole thing sounds like what happens to hash browns at Waffle House.”
I brought mom and her coffin back to Pair O’ Dice from El Paso, a real nice coffin too, kind of an ornate antique looking job with gold embossed trim she picked out herself. The rich old mahogany wood on that coffin reminded me of the distressed front door to our H shaped house in Raleigh from so long ago.
I embarked on my hero’s journey, away from fear, and toward love and forgiveness, beginning with God, then my dad, my mom, and even forgiving myself for not being able to somehow prevent our family tragedy. Finding my way there intellectually was one thing. Accepting and integrating the forgiveness emotionally, and spiritually, proved to be an altogether different, and much higher mountain to climb, my very own Mount Everest.
Peace comes with forgiveness. Joy comes with acceptance. Then there’s another step way past that. I’ve read the Tibetan Book of the Dead Jessup gave me at least nine times over the course of my life, and I may read that book nine more times before I finally get the chance to use my understanding of the time between our incarnations, which is just the larger version of the time between this moment and the next moment. The instant when you decide to go left or go right, up or down, choose to pull back or move forward. That in between moment is the only time that really matters. The only time that really exists. We call it now. I try to live there.
My dad’s life, and death, were a gift to me, and I honor them, and him, as such. After decades of reflection, I realize I had to give up the life I’d planned, so I could live the life God intended for me. In the course of working my way through forgiveness toward acceptance and eventually even honoring the understanding I gained from this pain and suffering in my life, I found my way back to a different concept of God. This new understanding I have of God, a forgiving and inclusive God, the Oneness, the sacred interconnectedness between all living things, sustains me, believes in me and loves me, always, forever and ever amen, no matter what.
God loves me unconditionally, because I love myself unconditionally. God isn’t out there somewhere. God is here, inside me. I am God. You are God. We are all cells in the body of God. So for God’s sake, let’s try and act like it.
Standing there at that gravesite in the Pair O’ Dice Cemetery, those memories came flooding back to me from that seminal time in my life. Hanging out with Jessup during 1967’s Summer of Love remains to this day one of the greatest experiences of my life. He truly was an enlightened being, way different from what I expected mind you, but an enlightened being all the same: sometimes profane, and often profound, equal parts cosmic cowboy and Taoist dude, a carpenter and a fisherman, who loved meditation, Qi Gong, 100% blue agave tequila, sweet Mexican sinsemilla, ice cold Lone Star beer, rock & roll, a hooker with a heart of gold, and Texas high school football.
Bobbie Beth and I did get married. We decided to live in Pair O’ Dice and raised our family in the Old Gates Home. Bobbie Beth went to Baylor and became a doctor. These days she manages a mobile health clinic for migrant farm workers. We have four children, three girls, and one boy, named Jessup. I went to UT to study marine biology. Fish are interesting creatures, but the mammals of the sea absolutely fascinate me. Whales and dolphins seem almost human in my opinion. I think they’re smarter than we are, and I’m certain they could communicate with us if we’d only listen.
A dear friend of mine from North Carolina I’d known since grade school came down with some serious health problems, neuropathy, and constant pain in his legs. The doctors gave him drugs for the pain, and soon those drugs had him sliding down a slippery slope. My friend committed suicide in January of 2006. He blew the top of his head off with a deer rifle. He didn’t see any other way out, I guess. That reopened my little can of worms, and I decided it was finally time to tell my family story. If this story convinces just one person to stay in the game and keep rolling the dice, just keep living, then this endeavor will have been well worth it. Besides, if you’re going open a can of worms, you might as well go fishing.
Every time I go fishing I think about Jessup, and the day we caught that Miracle Marlin. This particular day I’m fishing near that same jetty on the beach over in Port Aransas where he and I caught the big fish. I’m with my son, Jessup, and his son, my grandson, five year old Earl Waters. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll catch one of those Miracle Marlins today.
It’s twilight, so the lightning bugs have arrived to entertain us with their glorious boogie. Maybe the lightning bugs are transforming their Jing to Qi to Shen, and then back again. These divine illuminating creatures shine their light from the inside to the outside world. I guess human beings do the same thing when we get it right, shining the light inside us to the outside world.
“Hand me that can of worms, will you Jessup?” I ask as I turn to my son. I put a worm on Little Earl’s hook and hand him his rod and reel. Then I ease granddaddy’s antique Fish-A- Rator into the water.
“Okay, Little Earl, first we put the Fish-A- Rator in the water. You see, that draws the fishin near the shore where we can catch ‘em. We’ll set the Fish-A Rator on high today because we wanna catch a marlin, a really big fish. Let’s spit on our bait for luck.” I spit on my bait and cast my line as I say, “Don’t forget to spit on your bait, Little Earl. It’s very important.” Little Earl joyously spits on his bait as I ask, “Okay, now what do we say?”
“Let’s hook ‘em,” Little Earl hollers as he rears back with his Junior Shakespeare rod and reel and casts with all his might, heaving his lure about ten feet out into the Gulf of Mexico.
1967’s Summer of Love was not a perfect time. Too many good young men died in a bad war called Vietnam. Racial tensions reached a boiling point and riots erupted in cities all across America. But there was a spirit, a can do feeling in the air that we could change things, and make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren who will inherit the earth. Now, fifty years later, we must rekindle the flame, and rediscover that spirit of change.
We were given this planet for our mutual sustenance and enjoyment. We aren’t supposed to be using this big blue ball for our own selfish purposes, and personal enrichment. Somehow, some way, we’ve got to turn this thing around and leave our world in better shape than we found it. We need to keep opening those Nine Gates so the hinges never rust: embrace change, cross rivers, climb mountains, go fishing, laugh at life, believe in miracles, rock & roll, breathe deeply, and love unconditionally.
As the lightning bugs frolic on the twilight breeze, I gaze at my son and my grandson, and I become keenly aware, we have it pretty good here in Pair O’ Dice. Then I inhale a deep meditative breath, a Buddha’s own laughing belly breath, close my eyes and remember my old friend Jessup said he would come back to visit Pair O’ Dice again someday.
“I’m still here waiting for you, compadre. Let’s go fishing!” I shout to the universe figuring Jessup is out there somewhere, listening. A big fish hits my line and the reel screams. Moments later a huge marlin jumps out of the water and dances on his tailfin.
For a time, I lost faith in God, but she never lost faith in me.
The God I returned to seemed different, a more forgiving God.
Then I realized, God didn’t change at all. I did.