fatherlyFIRE, Chapter 3
phan·tasm. A perception of something that has no physical reality; figment of the mind; esp., a specter, or ghost; a deceptive likeness; a mental impression of a real person or thing.
Phantasm. Apparition. Ghost. Demon. Poltergeist. All created with excellence at any number of haunted houses and amusement parks around Halloween. Amusement? Not for me. You see, I believe in ghosts. More specifically, one ghost, the ghost of William Norman Boggs Senior. Let me explain, lest you think the final flimsy piece of rotted scaffolding holding up my brain has finally splintered and caused a splat. Craaaaack! Booooom!
Though my father abandoned me physically, emotionally, and financially when I was six years old, William Norman Boggs Senior was and is an ever-present “phantasm” in my life. That is, he stands in my way, tries to block my path, and often causes me to swerve around him, even though he was and is never physically there. Though I never saw or heard from him again after the divorce, he influences my choices and direction, and herds me to well-worn paths. To cope with the ghost sightings, I have to realize that unless I choose differently, I’m about to become a guest at some suck-egg seance as it were. I have to consciously stop, and make a decision to either take my easy seat in his haunted world or go down the difficult road to mo’ betta. It’s easy to go his way; difficult to break ranks and forge a new trail. Sometimes I choose wisely. Thankfully these days, many times I choose wisely. Dealing with this has made me into what I am today. It is the “primary narrative” of my life.
A phantasm was all William Norman Boggs Senior ever really was to me. No, I don’t actually see him; they have medicine for that. And I can’t detect him with my official mental PKE Meter (PsychoKinetic Energy) either. But there he is. A spooky sperm donor. A spirit filled with distilled spirits. An ignoble influence. A monster. As Dr. Theresa Carilli put it, I am talking here about “the presence of absence.” It’s a powerful concept. My father wasn’t there but his presence was and still is. I was shaped as surely by his absence as I was by his presence. Untangle that one.
As the capstone of my Master of Arts in Communication and Creative Arts degree at Purdue, I wrote, directed, produced, stage-managed, promoted, picked the pre- and post-show music, recruited the eleven actors, gathered the props, and acted in my play, “fatherlyFIRE.” It was a one-act show with six scenes, each depicting a point in my life as a child, then adult child of an alcoholic. Each of my three sons portrayed me at different ages, and I created a role for my daughter, too. Several of the chapters I write here became scripts for scenes. We presented this play only once, at the beautiful Towle Theater in downtown Hammond, Indiana. We had a full house with an audience of about 150, even during a snowstorm.
With full creative control, I tried some different methods on and off stage to reach my audience. As I worked on the script, I decided to keep the actor who played my father on stage throughout the production. He was featured in scene one, “June Bug’s House,” but after that, as in real life, he was gone. But he was there, on stage in my play and on stage in my life. Always. Why did I leave him on stage?
After scene one of fatherlyFIRE, I moved William Norman Boggs Senior off to the far edge of stage left, and left him dimly lit throughout the other five scenes. He had no lines, but was instead quietly in his own world, demonstrating his drunken, malignant narcissism—drinking, admiring himself in the mirror, splashing on Old Spice (I encouraged the actor to splash liberally, since I wanted the audience to use their sense of smell), combing his hair, etc. Though the story continued through five more scenes, none directly involving Bill Boggs Senior, I left him quietly on stage to illustrate his presence in my life, haunting me, if you will.
There is a boatload of academic research confirming what I know well to be true. I endured a triple A father–Abuse, Alcoholism, and Abandonment. Any one of those things can harm a child’s adult perspective, but all three? Any child subjected to that environment growing up is going to have ongoing struggles and setbacks. Fear of abandonment became crippling in my life, rendering me a puddle of ghost gak on more than one occasion, damaging my personal relationships and my career. I concluded I must be worthless and therefore abandon-able. And hearing that “You’re not good enough” message by word and action of those around me, from childhood to today can easily bring back all the pain. After being abandoned by my father, and then my mother (through an early death), and then by my former wife (on several occasions), I nearly died. The pain grew.
While I do not blame my father for my own bad choices, I understand many of my own life difficulties then and now can be traced to having to cope with abuse, alcoholism, and finally abandonment by my namesake. It helps to know this, and to look for it as I go through life today.
Of course, to be fair, during the six years I lived with my father and family intact, sometimes he was more like Casper the Friendly Ghost than Slag Pile Annie. Gone well before my childhood memory developed enough to store the precious few positive moments with my father, I’m left with a handful of good feelings rather than actual memories. I do have a few photographs. Balance is good.
Indeed, I even remember a couple of pleasant times with my father. Bill Boggs Senior was a tall, thin handsome man when I knew him. Always nicely dressed and very concerned about his appearance, Bill Boggs, on the front edge of his narcissistic slide, saw himself as a player, an incessant womanizer. Many of the photos I have seen of him also feature some shiny, impeccably clean car (how can that be hereditary?).
There was a little fishing trip to Music Lake near our home in Kentucky. He helped me catch several little catfish, and gave in when I insisted on taking them home in a bucket as pets. Nice. That’s one.
One job I remember my father having was milk truck driver. Bill Boggs Senior came home for lunch one day and I bounced outside with him as he was leaving, a typical young son admiring his father. He hauled me up into the big milk truck and gave me an ice-cold chocolate milk from the back. Wow! I rode with him in the truck down to the corner of our street…an unparalleled adventure for little Billy. That’s two.
And that’s it, the only actual positive memories I have of my father, ol’ Casper the Friendly Ghost. I do also have a few photographs with my dad and me. My favorite is this one; at my second birthday party, November 1958. Everything looks so blasted normal. Because that was a positive moment, I was delighted to find that Mattel Popeye the Sailor jack-in-the-box from 1958 at an antique toy show. It makes me smile. Anything prompting a smile from me regarding my dad gets a place of honor.
And not all lessons I learned from Bill Boggs have been negative. I’m sure the man never actually intended to teach me anything. Still, through the darkness he created, the land of black and gray, I have gathered strength and an unshakable, stubborn resolve to fight that darkness, to refuse to give up on myself. Oh, I’ve found myself pushed to the edge of quitting several times, but I haven’t, and I won’t. My father’s intensely perfect negative example made it simple in theory, certainly not in practice, to simply reverse that example for a different result. He did leave me with an unflappable steadfastness to keep trying to live well. Unshakable resolve, yes, and dogged determination. I have faced the potential cost of allowing my demons to dominate and have decided I’ll do whatever it takes to stop it. Whatever it takes. When I find a flaw in myself, I move heaven and earth to get help. Nothing halfway. And all in. Thanks, Dad.
My father isolated himself and embraced his demons rather than seek help for them. I have struggled much with a tendency toward personal isolationism myself but I now stay closely connected to my wife, Patty, my family, my friends, and a dear personal counselor I go see periodically just for a “check-up.” Charlie Alcorn has been a lifeline for me, a grand example of a good and godly man. Charlie helped save my life several times in years past, when I was nearly drowning in emotional ectoplasm. Who ya gonna call? Charlie is definitely one of my small team of personal Ghostbusters.
Yes, looking back I can identify several positive areas that grew out of my father’s influence. One rises above the others—my role as father and grandfather.
Kane Brown, country singer, has a song I love. It’s called “For My Daughter.” It has a chorus that goes “They say history repeats itself but I guess that’s up to me. I grew up without a dad, I’m going to be the best one I can be….” Yes, I am. I will never stop loving my family with all the strength God puts into me. Take that, fatherly fantasm. Hmmm. I like that. All aboard the Alliteration Train, with the Poetic License Caboose.
My father abandoned his three children in every sense of the word. I will never leave my four children. They are all doing well in life, and are great parents themselves. Because of me? No. It’s purely the grace of God. I’m so very proud of them, and I’ve been able to look each of them in the eye on a regular basis and tell them I love them and I’m proud of them. And they know it. Hearing “I love you” and “I am pleased with you” were simple things I never experienced from my father. This is my greatest “accomplishment,” to stay present with my wife, kids and grandkids despite the example I saw.
In my “fatherlyFIRE” final scene, I, appearing as my adult self, moved over to face my father. I struggled with what I as writer and director was trying to communicate with that. Forgiveness? Maybe. I have forgiven him. For my own sake, not his. Reconciliation? No. Not possible. He died at age 48, cirrhosis of the liver, before I could find him.
I don’t know, the ending I originally wrote was just too Disney. Nothing in my life was tidily wrapped up by that point (or now, for that matter) though I conveyed that half-truth to my audience. At the minimum, I wanted to assert at the end of my play that I know William Norman Boggs Senior has a ghostly presence in my life. I haven’t always known that. I felt his obstacle in my path many times without realizing what it was. I’m thankful for the insight God gives me to spot the trail of salacious slime my father leaves, then capture the ghostly figure in my Official Ghostbusters Ghost Trap.
As I think back on the play, if I could do it over, as the scenes presented me as a little boy, teenager, young man, and today, I would have moved the Bill Boggs Senior actor to center stage, forcing all action to have to maneuver around him, like some invisible obstacle. I’d put him smack in the way. That is how it was. Still is, to some degree.
Okay. Let me stop here. I want to tell you what my life is like today. Hold on. Let me clean off some other-worldly ooze. There.
I still struggle with depression and feelings of worthlessness. These mental battles impact all I do, often operating in tandem. I’m depressed, then I get a message that I’m not good enough, or I’m worthless. That message may be real or it may be something I’ve catastrophized or otherwise misinterpreted that isn’t true at all. I actually have gotten that message steadily over the last five or six years. Not from my family. I hear “you’re worthless” and the depression increases.
Sometimes it seems the harder I work at overcoming the bad-message banshees, the more difficult it gets. And the more I struggle, the more depressed I get and the more prone I am to the “you’re not good enough” messages. A very disheartening cycle. But I don’t quit. I’m a Marine. That means I know how to salute. The Corps intended that skill to keep me alive in combat. It has kept me alive in the daily life. I have simply lower my head and plow forward, giving my whole heart to whatever I’m given to do. An ancient proverb says, “whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with thy might.” I won’t give in to any depression, discouragement, or fear. I keep moving forward and I keep finding a way. I get help when I need it and I do whatever it takes. Nothing halfway. Thanks, Dad.
From his disappearance when I was age six through the present, my absent father remains on the stage in my life. It doesn’t matter that he died many years ago. He’s there. A phantasm. A ghost. A wraith. I’ve got my mental PKE meter on all the time to detect his ghostly presence, mostly manifesting itself as fear of abandonment or feelings of worthlessness. When I spot the ghost, I can catch him before much damage is done. When I can’t, I call for help. Usually, now, it doesn’t take long to put down the poltergeist.
“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”
Cue Ghostbusters theme.