Twenty-three (or) Birthday (or) The perfect father : my dad when I was young

Twenty-three.

Just a number on a birthday cake.

May 24th. Just a date on a calendar. My birthday. The twenty-fourth day of the month of May, in the year of our Lord nineteen eighty-five.

Somehow, though, staring at it on my myspace profile and seeing the words “Male – 23 years old” made it different. Aren’t people who are 23 older than me? Aren’t they usually married, or college graduates, or something? Aren’t they usually Sunday School teachers? And here i am, twenty-three already. I guess that’s a good third or at least a quarter of the average lifespan. Gone.

I don’t want to say I’ve wasted it… but looking back, I don’t see a lot of good done. I see a few stories, a living romance novel gone awry, a couple of rebel years, a hated education finally being over with, a year making sandwiches, a year and a half talking to people who can’t fix their computers or their iPods, six months delivering packages, and another three or four fixing more computers.

I see my own fall, my own being brought to life – again, but as if for the first time. I see a time to love, and a time to pull apart. I see a not knowing what wisdom is. If I did, surely I’d know whether it’s the time to love, or the time to hate; the time to weep or the time to laugh; the time to embrace, or the time to shun embracing. Is it the time to tear apart, or the time to sew… the time for silence, or the time to speak?

Birthdays, I guess, are the times when God reminds us “older” people that life is short. I’ve kind of hit the spot where I realize that life isn’t what I expected. That if I got in a relationship with *the one* *today*, I wouldn’t be married ’till I was twenty-five. …It’s a long time to wait. Except that I have no one to speak of. Everyone says I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me; that I’m young. I feel like I’ve crossed the border. Maybe now I’m an adult. Maybe.

I guess this blog entry is just about how… life didn’t work out the way I’d expected it to. I feel like I’ve always been older. Like every time something happened, even back when I was a kid… Mrs. McLaughlin started a class for kids up to sixth grade. I was in sixth grade when she started it. I love Mrs. McLaughlin. I wanted to stay in that class forever.

I even started Quiz Team late. Four years later than I could’ve. I wished I would’ve known… but maybe God spared me from maybe giving up and never knowing winning six retreats in a row.

Like Switchfoot says,

This is your life
are you who you wanna be?
this is your life
are you who you wanna be?
this is your life
is it everything you dreamed that it would be
when the world was younger
and you had everything to lose?

Honestly? No. I’m not who I wanna be. Nothing is the way I dreamed that it would be. Nothing at all. I live with my grandparents, I write for an audience of zero, I never became a preacher or did anything I thought grown-ups were supposed to do. In the words of that great theologian Kenny Chesney,

Starin’ out into the wild blue yonder
So many thoughts to sit and ponder
‘Bout life and love and lack of
And this emptiness in my heart
Too old to be wild and free still
Too young to be over the hill
Should try to grow up
But who knows where to start?

(Sitting right here and having another beer in Mexico isn’t the answer, by the way). But… but God has good plans for me. Am I supposed to have plans? Am I allowed to have desires? An agenda? An idea? Or do I always ask God for information about everything? Is there such a thing as being too dependent? Does God really have a specific plan, or did he just put me here to see what I would do? Was this life supposed to be… I don’t even know the questions anymore. Was I created with a specific life story in the mind of God? If so, can I botch it?

It just seems that the story of my life that I had written out since I was little… all that stuff that I always assumed would happen when I was older… and I guess I’m older now… none of it happened. The world didn’t turn out to be the perfect place I had imagined it to be. People didn’t turn out to be the perfect people I had imagined them to be. Maybe it was because my best friends lived in novels and adventure stories… and weren’t real. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was my upbringing. The perfect world my parents made for me as a child. Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I saw the world as perfect. One thing’s sure… I can’t believe I’m saying this, even, but I’ll never be able to be the kind of dad I remember mine being when I was a kid. I can’t live up to that kind of legacy – even if I only imagined it.

My dad was awesome when I was little. He bounced us on his bed, gave us bubble baths… I remember one night my mom went to some kind of gathering for ladies. Dad was putting plaster on the wall and let us help. We were perfectly safe because that stapler he used was too hard for even strong little hands like mine to push down. Dad was strong. He was tough. He jammed that stapler down like it was nothing.

He played records for us, of songs by the Lennon Sisters, the Browns… We didn’t understand the words like

there’s a kind of hush
all over the world tonight
all over the world
you can hear the sound
of lovers in love
you know what i mean…

or

if there’s water in the desert
sand down in the sea
if you are not an angel
sweet as you can be
if today can be tomorrow
old things can be new
if you can live without a heartbeat
then i’ll stop loving you

We had no clue. No idea whatsoever. Honestly, I still don’t understand the first one. (And I wish I didn’t understand the second… ’cause there ain’t water in the desert, dangit. Totally off-topic there) But… those were the days of a different sort of life. When my dad was the smartest and the wisest man in the world. When I fit inside of a toy barn. When my mom and dad hung out in the bathroom because it was the only way they could get any privacy. To this day, I still don’t know who me and Maria called while they were in there. I do know it was a man, though.

But that’s the question. How does someone like me live up to someone like that? He was at least consistent, or he seemed to be. I feel like I change all the time, never sure of myself, never sure of God. Maybe my dad did have doubts back in those days. I’ve heard stories about times he might have… and stories of times he made mistakes. Ah, but them thar stories didn’t mess with my image of my dad. He was invincible.

Like this dude named Marty Ball. My mom warned my dad that this dude was bad news and a creep. Did he listen? No. (Go figure: she was right. He stole stuff from my dad). But that didn’t impact my high esteem of my dad. He was a genius. Marty Ball wasn’t better than my dad… he was just a creep who managed to… I don’t even know how I dealt with that reality. Guess I just decided he was a bad dude. Hey, even the devil got God a couple times. That’s how evil works. Like the Fall, for example.

I couldn’t really tell you how my dad became the man he is today. Maybe he always was this way and God let me believe he was perfect for a while. Maybe God built that into little boys. Maybe one day there’ll be another boy with the last name Schell that thinks his daddy is stronger than iron, wiser than Solomon, and more loving than Jesus. Maybe like me, he’ll discard evidence to the contrary.

We were raised poor, my brothers and sisters and me. My mom knew we were poor. We did too, but not in a KNOW way. We had no one with which to compare ourselves. The place we called home was a building in a sleepy coal mining town called Hostetter. It used to be the old company store. I guess sometime after my grandfather bought the place, a junior fireman looking for some excitement set it on fire. For better or worse, it didn’t burn down. It stood, a charred remnant of what it had been. My grandfather and some of my uncles put brown siding and a roof on this huge structure (I think it’s 40 by 70), and my dad bought it off of my grandfather, who was buying it off of the owner.

I don’t even remember the house in Ligonier. I think I was only a year old when we moved from there to Hostetter. My mom saw a snake, and that was the end of it. But I do remember things from the house in Hostetter. A bed. A queen sized mattress and boxsprings… maybe just the mattress… laying on the floor. There was a brass headboard behind this mattress. I took baths in the kitchen sink. There was plaster all over the place that needed stapled, behind which were charred boards and insulation.

For better or for worse, this disaster… was home. My mom hated it and said it was bad, and my dad always said we were poor… but I never understood. It wasn’t a palace, but it was all I knew. We didn’t have a TV. I thought it was normal. It’s funny how normal ends up being just the way you were brought up. Please don’t feel sorry for me because there was lead-based paint all over the stairway, or because the house I grew up in wasn’t perfect. It was home.

Sure, over the years it got better. But it was what I knew. I loved it. It was home.

Ok, it’s getting late… I’ve got to find some way of bringing this all together and putting a tag on this blog that makes it all make sense… ’cause that’s what Christian bloggers do… I guess I could say that we view reality as we remember it, not as it could be… or something like that… but I’d rather go with this one.

Kids were designed to believe that their father loved them perfectly. Was perfect. Was strong. Was anything. Dad was designed to be a hero – a picture of God. And kids will take anything good – they know instinctively what is good somehow – and attribute it to their dad down here. I did.

And then we all grow up and realize our dad isn’t perfect. He’s still a fallen man. And about that time, hopefully we realize too that… that God IS the dad we always thought we had: perfect.

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