Not everyone can point to a single year and claim that year above all others as their most significant. Many, of course can. Some can narrow it even further. To a day, even.
There’ve been dozens of days that have proven to be powerful agents of change in my life. Spread out over the course of a lifetime, as days of great change usually are, I found this particular year to be a distilled representation of the ebb and flow of my life, and this is an attempt to put in perspective 1990’s impact, to show what led up to it, and what was spawned by it. The attempt to define something as fluid as the most significant year in your life can be interpreted as thumbing ones nose at fate, naively assuming the biggest punch, best kiss, worst fall, greatest ascension, have already happened, But that’s not what I hope to cull from this endeavor. I sincerely hope the biggest and best etc. are ahead of me, but given my inherent skepticism, it’s difficult for me to bank on that. So looking back at 1990 and assessing its impact on my ensuing life is an exercise, ultimately, in futility. But necessary at this stage 22 years later, to make a damage and growth assessment. Of course, it all could change tomorrow. Part of me hopes it does, and part of me rues the day.
Until, or if, that change occurs, however, 1990 wears the championship ring. It was a year filled with more cosmic-altering events than any five year span in my life thus far.
There had already been some 8.5 on the Richter scale earthquakes in my life before 1990, the year in which I would turn 30. They were spread out, at least in comparison to 1990. Given a chance to absorb, analyze, and grow from these events was a blessing.
In 1979, my dad committed suicide after my mom divorced him, then rebuffed several of his ham-handed attempts to get back together. This is not to be glossed over. Looking back, I am torn by what I see as some good fortune that came from this tragedy; I was 19, strong and in my prime, just beginning to grow intellectually, and though hit squarely in the back of the skull by his death, maybe especially the method of his death, I did not go down. Staggered, lurching, yet somehow able to let guilt slide out of my pores and allow this sinister yet accurate thought to slide back in; my life could now truly begin, as the 19 year yoke my father had placed on me was gone. I had yet to learn of the power a father could retain, even from the grave.
My dad’s subsequent spiritual orchestration of my mom’s death, reaching from his grave and lighting her cigarettes and pouring her drinks, would grow into an entity of realness over the years, as guilt over his suicide would prompt my mom into her own less direct taking of her life.
Two years later mom passed away from emphysema and related issues. Her death was nothing like the out-of-nowhere stomach punch that accompanied my dad's suicide. She died rather slowly, but no less surely. We buried her with a vague sense of inevitability.
A year later I married my first wife. Four choppy years later we were divorced, putting perhaps the biggest dent to date in my usual burgeoning idealism. Spiritual death is haunting. You can’t put your hands on it; there is no recourse, no official lowering of a casket. No closure.
In 1987, after a year of healing, with the help of wine coolers and Travis McGee, I quickly and luckily found a job with Communication Arts Magazine in Palo Alto, which turned out to be the best job I would ever have. If only I knew that then.
At the start of 1990, I quit that job, sold all of my belongings, and loaded what I felt were necessities in my Camaro, leaving California, destination unknown. I was literally running away from home at the age of 30.
The reasons for this radical step were anywhere I chose to look. After my divorce in 1986, I’d fallen in love with a woman at the magazine who was coming out of a bad marriage with two kids. That didn’t work, though we gave it a brief shot. She chose quickly to marry my boss. Think about that. An in-my-face, right in front of me in a small office, double betrayal.
As you might imagine, that soured my work environment. The only saving grace, the only ‘phew’ aspect, was that I was not the one to marry this lost woman. She was scared for even a second to be on her own. Our union would have made Kim Kardashian look like Joanne Woodward.
I was not necessarily estranged from my family, but the Rayburn mirror was fractured and all shapes and images were distorted for me. Though eleven years removed from our father’s suicide, and mom’s sad, desultory final steps, none of us had recovered to the point we were solidly back on two feet. I had virtually no relationship with my three sisters, and my younger brother and I were showing signs of fraying, as our intellectual paths diverged and we began venturing down a road that would lead us to be more strangers than brothers.
For the first time in years, I was not in love with a woman. I felt nothing but distance with my family. Both parents had been dead for years; my once promising job had become heartbreakingly painful. I was disillusioned, questioning almost everything, doubting myself, feeling intellectually isolated and wondering what ever happened to the concept of fairness.
When I think back, running away was the only real option.
Notice I call it an option, and not a solution. I was under no illusion about fixing what was wrong. I was smart enough to realize that a zip code change had virtually no effect on whether or not your baggage would follow. It would. Just because it didn’t fit in the small trunk of my Camaro didn’t mean it wasn’t reclining on a lounge in my soul. Oh, yes. My ex wife, my parents, my brother; they were with me on that cross country journey.
I didn’t KNOW what was wrong, just that everything appeared to have become screwed up. I wasn’t disavowing responsibility, I never looked skyward, hands raised, questioning the fates as to ‘why’.
I’d fucked things up. Instead of being paralyzed into inactivity by fear or frustration however, I took the Camaro by the horns and got the hell out of Dodge.
We’ve all had garage sales. They’re fun, and often profitable.
But have you ever sold everything? The sum total of your life’s accumulations? Things you loved still, years after buying? Not just sold, but HAD to sell, had to acquiesce to any reasonable or unreasonable offer on items that vacated my driveway with a piece of my heart and soul attached to them like a lamprey. I felt as if my life was being stripped away from me.
I had a jazz record collection some lucky stiff walked out of my driveway with for $50 that would bring me thousands of dollars today. Sports paintings, furniture, clothes. All the things that I myself had bought at garage sales, swap meets and flea markets over the years, were now going to giddy people who knew they were getting a bargain. I had to sell. I was leaving the next day.
One gentle soul, and everybody knows a cat like this; the quiet gray haired guy, glasses, hair kind of long, ex-hippie, hands in pockets, probably had $10 on him, spent an hour mulling over everything. He wandered by me finally, fingering a Coleman Hawkins double album.
“Are you leaving?”, he asked quietly.
“Yeah, tomorrow. I’ve lived here over ten years, but it’s time to go. Whatever fits in that trunk and back seat,” and I nodded toward my 1972 two door Camaro, “is all that goes with me.”
“Good luck to you, man. Maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for,” and he raised the album, “I did.”
I gave it to him.
At one point I felt my heart move south in my chest cavity as I watched a favorite Marcus Allen painting walk out of my life, carried casually under the arm of a smirking thief, having paid 1/20th of what it was worth. I cursed under my breath.
There was a severing occurring on multiple levels, many of which I had trouble identifying. Emotional, sentimental ties to material things was one thing, but leaving this neighborhood, my home for ten of the more formidable years a person lives, their 20s, and home to two different women, was hitting me harder than I’d anticipated. Many neighbors strolled by, discovering for the first time I was leaving. They were shocked and expressed dismay. I felt a twinge of regret, as I’d kept mostly to myself during my stay, not really reaching out except when approached. I was never rude, just tended to my own path, not straying far. They knew little of my travails, the hills I’d climbed, and the mountains I’d merely gazed up at.
One skill honed in my twenties was keeping my flaws under cover from casual acquaintances. It was partially vanity, and also my distaste for full disclosure, which seemed to be infuriatingly imbuing itself into the fabric of our culture. I didn’t want others to reassure me that I was alright, a good man. Such sentiments held little weight; for I knew I was not. Their kind words would have died on the vine.
My sojourn began with a whirlwind farewell tour up and down California, with my Camaro laden with books, music and some clothes and not much else. Though harboring an aching soul, there was an overwhelming sense of freedom that often pressed to the surface.
First stop was Sonoma for a couple of days debriefing with my most significant friend and sometime mentor. It was an almost merry time, good food and drink, hearty toasts and hugs, and an unwillingness to focus on the fact we might never see each other again.
Then, on to Chico to say goodbye to my sister.
Chico would never be the same for me.
Though never close, my sister and I subsisted on enough commonalities to get us through a couple of days. Sports mostly. The evening before my departure, we were dining in the kitchen. The phone rang. Her husband went to answer.
He came back around the corner and told her our nephew from Southern California was on the phone. She looked at me oddly. I shrugged, and she left the kitchen.
I eaves dropped.
“No, Bobby. Don’t SAY that. Don’t SAY that.”
I heard the phone fall from her hand and she started sobbing. I was at her side almost immediately. I picked up the phone, but the line was dead. Bobby was the son of our oldest brother Bob, who lived in Los Angeles.
“Patty, what happened?” I shook her and sat her on the couch. “Patty! Tell me, what happened?”
She looked at me, tears streaming down her face. For the second time in my life, she was about to tell me the most influential man in my life had killed himself.
“Bob…he shot himself. He’s dead!”
I collapsed beside her on the couch. Tears did not appear. The shock of the moment was almost immediately replaced by the knowledge that I knew this day was forthcoming.
Battling an onslaught of guilt, confusion and pain, I chose to hold her and focus on calming her down. It took an hour, but we got ourselves gathered together enough to make some of the most difficult phone calls a human being could ever make.
Afterward, we returned to the couch with a bottle of wine. Her husband took their four year old son and left us alone.
I began to tell her how and why I was not shocked at my brother’s death.
For almost two years, and eerily mirroring the demise of my father, Bob had been battling loneliness caused by his wife of 24 years leaving him. In the past half year, he’d taken to calling me late at night, drunk and distraught, often crying to the point of being unable to speak. He even drove up to the Bay Area to visit me, though I’m sure I provided little or no succor. I was wrestling with my own demons, obviously.
Toward the end of the past year, when he learned of my impending exit, talk of suicide began to creep sinisterly into his late night ramblings. Given our history, I could not dismiss talk of this nature due to the time of night or the amount of alcohol he’d imbibed. Suicide was and always will be the most loaded word in the Rayburn vernacular.
But what concerned me most was his rationale. Even drunk, the way he painted how his life had devolved and how he saw no sun rising on the dark horizon gave me pause to think. Logically, he didn’t have much to live for. He was overweight, set in his ways, creeping further and further into debt, increasingly bitter, and embroiled in a snake-like embrace of self pity, I saw no way out for him. Of course I shared none of these thoughts with him, but at that point the seeds in my mind as to the potential for him taking his own life were planted. Looking back, I’m certain his plight and downward spiral hastened my departure.
And vice versa.
My brother’s suicide prompted a gathering at my sister’s home in Chico of the immediate family and some of their extended families.
The irony was not lost on me. Here I was in full flight from my kin, and now we were to be together, all of us, with a common goal. To figure out:
How in the fuck could this happen to us again?
There was, of course, no answer forthcoming.
From there, my farewell tour took on quite a different flavor. I returned to Sonoma, this time not cloaking my need and reliance on him as anything other than just that. He did not let me down. We talked for hours. It was what I needed. It didn’t heal any wounds, but identified a handful of them. I left Sonoma with less wobble in my gait.
Oddly, though we had remained close since our divorce, I felt it important that I reconnect with Susie in Southern California before leaving the state. Odd in that, though we continued to have sex after our separation for almost a year, we had not seen each other in the three years since our divorce was finalized. I needed some succor…some of THAT succor.
I got it. It helped. Making love is good for the soul.
The final and toughest leg on my goodbye parade originally planned as a final visit with my brother now would be with his 20 year old son and Boib's ex-wife Billie. There was little or no impulse on my part to focus any attention on my leaving. There were much more pressing matters, as it turned out.
Like selling my brother’s belongings at a local swap meet, organized efficiently by his Billie. Bob had left severe debt, and though she was not technically liable, she wanted a cushion in case creditors came after her or her son.
So, one week after his death, and 12 days after gutting my own household of my belongings, I was back at it, negotiating with strangers for my brother’s golf clubs. Billie dispassionately orchestrated this two day sell-off, while I moved about in an almost stunned silence.
I was familiar with the dynamics of divorce, obviously. But my divorce had been completely without rancor. The overwhelming emotion was simply sadness. We did not fall out of love; we simply realized we were not compatible enough to sustain our relationship. My brother’s divorce had been played out across a landscape of rumored infidelity (hers), and he never got past that.
Seeing her implacable demeanor as she readily took money for her dead husband’s belongings made me glad for what Susie and I did not have to endure. Divorce is painful enough.
This sounds odd to me now, but my next stop was Las Vegas. It was my original plan, hatched well before my brother’s suicide, and I saw no reason to change my itinerary. So Sin City welcomed me with open arms. Though relatively flush with cash from my sale, I’d already decided to stay in cheap motels. I needed no fancy digs and I felt staying in some of the seedier parts of the towns I would travel to would scratch my writer’s itch.
The drive eastward through the desert to Vegas provided me ample time to turn my music up and think about things.
My life; my exit from that life. My brother’s life and his subsequently more dramatic exit. How does one wrestle with such heavily clawed demons without getting sliced to ribbons?
How was it I found myself back in a similar boat, trying to figure out the concept of suicide? What might motivate a person to take their own life, and what could I have done to possibly prevent it? Those were just of few of the emotions clouding my brain as Tom Petty sang to me of his own free fall. The desert seemed a perfect venue to battle solitary thoughts.
Vegas offered no succor, just a city oozing one sensation after another from every single pore, with the people crowding the strip pursuing the same goal. There was no concept, just desire. I think Vegas was always that way, and remains so to this day.
From there, Salt Lake City beckoned, a vague homage to my ex-wife, who was Mormon. Spent a couple of hours strolling around BYU and the Temple. A very clean, orderly town, but not an atmosphere that encouraged the long range thinking I needed to be doing. I passed the Great Salt Lake as I sped out of town, remembering vaguely my father’s tale of swimming in it on a business trip.
Next stop, a more serious, genuine homage to a great man, Ernest Hemingway. I was going to the city of Ketchum, Idaho, were Ernest lived, and then killed himself July 2, 1961, 17 months after I was born.
The impact on me was almost immediate as I slowly drove down the main street in Ketchum. Pedestrians clearly had the right of way, the speed limit was 15 mph, and I adjusted to the almost somnambulant pace with enthusiasm. This is where a man’s mind could roam. A town where distractions existed only if you caused them. Within hours I understood why Ernest had chosen this magnificent, gorgeous slice of earth to finish his life.
After a couple of beers at a tavern, toasting Ernest silently, I strode up the hill to his home. It was carved into a hillside overlooking the beautiful Wood River, surrounded by trees. It sat there, 10 feet in front of me. No security. No sign, no touristy demarcation. Stripped of any pretense other than being the final place America’s greatest writer took a breath.
I stood and let my mind wander. Ernest’s suicide made more sense to me than my fathers for the simple fact that, after the Mayo Clinic treated Ernest for depression with electroshock therapy, he realized his memory had been compromised and his writing would never be the same. He looked to the future and did not see Ernest Hemingway. Without his identity, he was lost.
After about an hour of sitting in front of the home, a woman wandered out. She was a caretaker and expressed appreciation that I had respected the unspoken, unwritten rules of not engaging with the actual property. I was rewarded with a brief, but very revealing tour of the house, including the alcove where he had shot himself. Powerful stuff.
Her gesture, likely made out of boredom as opposed to generosity, stays with me to this day. I had been nowhere near as close to the suicide scenes of my father and brother.
I returned to the tavern and thought and drank till nightfall.
I extended my stay to four days in Ketchum. Each morning I arose and simply did not want to leave. I discovered, unrelated to Hemingway or Ketchum, a life-altering feeling. Each morning, I could go anywhere I wanted to go. That freedom was intoxicating, narcotic and all encompassing. I was limited only by my imagination, my conscience and my atlas.
I gained more ground as to ruffling through my baggage in those four days in Ketchum than I would the entire month and a half crossing the United States.
With a solemn goodbye to Ernest in my rear view mirror, I decided to give the length of Wyoming my full attention.
For this city boy, the Wyoming leg of my journey was almost surreal. Along the interstate wild horses ran free, no fence to keep them from veering, if they so chose, right up onto the macadam. These were clearly wild horses, and some of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The sky in Wyoming that late spring was home to violent, spectacular thunder and lightening storms, hail that could crack a windshield, and gunmetal gray skies housing huge plumy dark sinister rain swollen clouds. The contrasts were mind boggling. I’d never associated weather with the word ‘powerful’ before, but I understood now the full fury Mother Nature could unleash when she desired.
I chose to drive through all of this, as its newness and novelty for me was compelling. I ended up in eastern Wyoming in Laramie for an evening, discovering a dinghy little dive cowboy bar next to the flea bag motel I was staying. Even got to dance with a rather shapely denizen who spoke very little and made eye contact almost constantly. It was a day that began with consuming thoughts of life and death, and ended with a dance.
I’ve had worse days.
Skirting the city of Denver sporting California plates and a brash Oakland Raiders bumper sticker seemed the prudent route, so circumvent the Mile High City I did, skipping south on the western side of the city on I-25, and then angling back west for a night in Leadville, and old mining town 10,000 feet above sea level, and the subject of some Jimmy Buffett lyrics. I wasn’t pretending to be Magellan on this trip.
After a lonely, cold night 2 miles into the sky, the warmth and sound of heading south drew me to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where this architecturally ignorant Bay Area boy learned a thing or two about adobe structuring and yellows and greens and limes. It was a bright town that lifted my mood and provided some of the best Mexican food I’d ever had.
To the strains of Amarillo by Morning by George Strait, that’s exactly what I did the next day, cruising dead east on Route 40 into the home of the 40oz. steak. There was a town faire going on and cruising through the fairgrounds gave me an insider’s look at some of the makeup of the denizens of this West Texas town. Lots of Stetsons, visible pistols, boots and chubby children seemed to be the typical family. It was hot and muggy and the wind was like being under a big hairdryer turned up high, offering no respite from the heat.
The following day I drove into hell.
Oklahoma City has air so thick you can chew it. The color of cheap bourbon, the air quality of OKC rivals that of Mexico City. Upper respiratory disease is more common than water, and the level of cultural sophistication, in my brief evening there, appeared equal to that of the Appalachian Mountains, but without the banjo.
I holed up in my little motel room and kept the AC cranked high, and loud, and tried not to cough up a lung. I was suddenly longing for Little Rock, Arkansas, tomorrow’s destination, more than I had planned.
Arkansas is a gorgeous state, though the percentage of road kill dotting the sides of the interstate was higher than that of Texas and Oklahoma combined. I never got a clear explanation for this phenomenon.
****end of part one****
© Copyright 2017 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
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