Putting Things Into Perspective
I had the kind of surprise parents hate to receive this week in the mail: a notice from the small-town police department where my son attends college - including a ridiculously high bill for the dozen or so unpaid parking tickets our scholar has accrued this fall.
My first impulse was to blow my stack at his complete irresponsibility.
Then I thought about Bobby and Camden, or rather their parents, and realized how fortunate I really am, all things considered.
Every week I receive perhaps half a dozen letters or e-mails from people who've read my books. Every now and then, one snags hold of my heart and simply won't let go. A remarkable one came last Monday from a man named Tim Fry from Kingstown, R.I.
Tim explained that he'd read several of my books and particularly enjoyed the ones relating to journeys taken with my kids when they were small. There was the young daughter I dragged across America one summer in quest of trout and assorted local characters, with our crusty-tempered golden retriever in tow - and a young son (now a grown-up parking ticket scofflaw) who attempted to see the wonders of the Old World with his old man the summer before 9/11.
Tim told me about graduating from the University of New Hampshire and working for a pump manufacturer in South Carolina.
"I made a good living," he wrote, "had a wife, a beautiful, vibrant and vivacious little girl. We moved to Rhode Island when I took my job and my daughter started to play golf. I was very proud of my 8-year-old knocking it straight up the fairway and getting consistent 8's on her card."
His daughter's name was Camden.
"Her mother liked to say she was named for Camden, Maine," Tim said. "I told everyone she was named for Cam Neely [the legendary Boston Bruins hockey player] who wore No. 8."
Tim and Camden were inseparable. He took her to her first Bruins game and showed her Cam Neely's retired number hanging in the rafters; she took up her father's second-favorite game with girlish gusto.
On Monday night, Aug. 11 of last year, all that changed - vanished in an unthinkable way.
Tim went out for his weekly pick-up hockey game with friends and returned late. In the morning, hearing silence from Camden's room, he went in and found his beautiful daughter lying motionless in her bed. She had no pulse. He frantically phoned 911. A few minutes later, he found his wife in a disoriented, semi-conscious state. After strangling their daughter, she'd taken a cabinet full of medications, apparently aiming to kill herself.
Life Turned Upside-Down
In the space of a few hours, Tim wrote, "I went from a happy, middle-class working husband and father to losing my home, my wife, and - worst of all - my daughter."
His wife recovered, was arrested, and is presently in jail awaiting a possible homicide trial.
"Anyway," he wrote, "I just got to the section in 'Faithful Travelers' last night where you wrote about 'a child's worst fear and a parent's worst nightmare.' I have struggled over the past 14 months to find reasons. Reasons for what happened, reasons for going on. Friends, family, faith - these are the things that have kept me living instead of dying. I am not a wordsmith, so it is hard for me to explain. But I think that the messages I have taken from your works have helped me."
He mentioned that he hated to bother a busy man but he would be in Pinehurst later that week, eager to see a place he'd long wanted to see. He implied that he was considering a fresh start in a new place and wondered if I might have time for a beer and a talk.
In fact, last week was a crazy week for me - all deadlines and ringing phones. I'd agreed to host two two separate fundraisers. But there was no way in this life or the next that I would miss that beer and talk. I postponed lunch with a friend and took Tim - a burly athletic guy who looks exactly like a New England hockey player should - to lunch at Pine Needles.
We sat in a corner and talked for almost two hours. Tim told me about the outpouring he received from friends and neighbors who put together a memorial breakfast that raised $8,888 for the Cam Neely Fund in Camden Fry's name. Four weeks after the tragedy, friends and family mounted a "bike and barbecue" event with local bands that raised scholarship money, also in Camden's name.
The bands and local media figures donated their time free of charge. Parents and kids, friends and neighbors, all came out to celebrate Camden's life and help raise awareness of mental health issues and child abuse. You can Google "Camden Fry Memorial Fund" and see her adorable photograph.
Seeking a Fresh Start
"I never saw any of this coming," her father said quietly as we sat at our table at Pine Needles. "My wife had been struggling with her emotions - possibly depression of some kind - and had recently suffered a pretty serious head injury from a wreck in which our car was totaled. But things were looking up for her, or so it seemed. That very day she went to the store to buy paint for the house, and we'd just bought a new car and were scheduled to pick it up."
He smiled faintly. "I guess the point is, you sometimes never see what is coming at you. It took me months to fully believe this wasn't a bad dream of some kind, that this had really happened to us - that I would never see Camden again."
Loving friends and family helped him through the darkness. A counselor did, too.
"Mostly, though, I had to work through the injustice of it all and a lot of anger directed at - well, I don't know exactly," he said. "My wife is in prison awaiting her trial, and I've worked through my anger at her. Mental illness is such a terrifying thing. I'm better now, have made my peace and am moving on. For instance, I know I'll probably want to relocate and start fresh."
After reading my latest book about Pinehurst and Southern Pines, he decided he had to take a look at The Pines. As Tim said this, I sat looking at the tattoo he had stenciled on the inside of his arm. "Fly on, my sweet Camden Alexis," it read. It struck me that when he folds his arms over his chest at night, the words will lie across his heart.
After lunch, I took Tim across the street to Mid Pines Golf Club to meet pro Bob Esworthy and his assistant Todd Wilson, who generously conveyed Tim to the golf course free of charge on a glorious late Indian summer afternoon, a gift of true Sandhills hospitality. I raced off to another meeting still thinking about Camden and her papa.
After my meeting, an hour before I was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser, I raced back to Mid Pines and caught up with Tim on the 15th hole of the course. The sun was setting in the pines, and he seemed like a man, for the moment at least, at peace with himself. We continued our talk for a couple of holes.
"This place is everything I hoped it might be," he said at one point. "I'm definitely going to think about the Sandhills as a place to start the next phase of life."
I told him I felt sure he would feel very much at home here - even minus a decent hockey rink. The next morning, before he shoved off home to Rhode Island, I sent him off to play the venerable Southern Pines Golf Club, assuring him that on his next visit to the Sandhills I'd be joining him for a game and more conversation.
Sometimes people like Tim come in bunches. I think of them as real-life heroes - people whose courage and grace under fire shows us all the way through times of trial and terrifying darkness. A saint, someone said, is merely a sinner who keeps on trying.
Another one appeared under my nose early Saturday morning. That's when eight of us gathered at the Country Kitchen in Carthage to document life on a particular day in Moore County for an upcoming issue of PineStraw magazine. My assigned photographer for the day was a talented lady named Kelley, who set off with me for the day across the beautifully burnished countryside of northern Moore County in search of real people and ordinary stories of life.
Somewhere along the journey, after I told Kelley about Tim's ordeal, and she told me about her three children, a son who is proudly serving his country in the Marines, a daughter who is teaching middle school in Seven Lakes - and Bobby, her Eagle Scout son, who seemed perfectly happy and well adjusted in life until he went off to college and was struck at age 19 with symptoms that were later diagnosed as schizophrenia.
His terrifying behavior caused him to flee a succession of treatments and hospitals.
"I've learned so much about myself in the past few years, what you can draw from yourself when everything seems its bleakest," Kelley reflected at one point between photographing a stunning fall tableau of horses standing in a pasture ringed by flames of color and a pair of friendly dairy farming brothers in Bear Creek.
She explained how for the past few years she has fought to raise public awareness of mental illness - which strikes one in every eight families in America - and bring her son back from the abyss of loneliness that characterizes the schizophrenic mind. Several times he has been part of encouraging programs to treat his illness, and each time he has abandoned his treatment - or "run," as Kelley calmly put it.
"Schizophrenia is like a death in the family," she explained quietly. "The people you knew - in our case the sweet, loving kid who loved the outdoors and once made me hike the Appalachian Trail with him - has disappeared. He'll come back and disappear again. The cycle of grief is unending, but you eventually learn to live with it and not give up your hopes and prayers."
At the moment, her son is living alone in a town on Cape Cod where he was born, finding solace in a place that's spiritually familiar to him, pretty much alone on the streets.
"He loves to sail," she explained, suddenly brightening. "And when you see him on the water, he's suddenly himself again, the old Bobby."
'You Can Move On'
In a few days, she was headed that way herself to meet local service providers to alert them to Bobby's presence.
"It's frightening not to know where Bobby and how he is day to day," she said, "but I've come to accept that this is the way it is for now. I have hope he will reach the point where he wants the help that is available. So much progress has been made, and attitudes are changing. Meanwhile, I plan to put eyeballs on those caregivers to let them know I am here - and who Bobby really is."
Spoken like a a true mom.
God could not be everywhere, someone else said, so he made mothers. Kelley recently returned from her second trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where she helped bring pictures of the suffering to the outside world. Listening to her talk about this and other things, I realized I'd met my second hero in almost as many days.
"There's always beauty in the midst of this world's turmoil and trouble," Kelley said with a serenity I've seen in people who have stared into the abyss and learned not to let it terrify them, as we were winding along a soulful country road up in Jugtown, more or less heading for home. "I try to count my blessings every day," she added. "You never know what's coming and just have to be grateful for the beauty and happiness you find around the next curve. Then, somehow, you can move on."
When you look at a complex world the way these two special two people do, a dozen expensive parking tickets doesn't like such a big deal.
Still, I plan to speak to that boy.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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