We have one of those quasi-fancy trash cans in our kitchen. You know, the kind with polished brushed metal and a pedal you step on to raise the lid. One Saturday morning I stepped on the pedal with my bare foot and my toe somehow got jammed and pinched. It hurt like a bleepedy-bleep! “Ooouuch-uh! I hate this stupid trash can!” I bellowed. My wife was standing by the sink and in a childlike tone mocked, “Aahhh, it’s sad to hate.” Her comic genius would only be appreciated later, once my toe stopped throbbing. “It’s sad to hate” has now made it into our repertoire of comedic but true phrases for life. While it may be funny to hate a trash can, it really is sad to hate, at least when talking about people. I guess that makes the following story, a sad one… (Note: Click on images to enlarge)
As a little boy I was not unlike a lot of little boys who idolized their dads. My parents were divorced when I was at an age too young to remember them ever being together. The earliest memories I have of my dad are the weekends he came to pick me up in his super cool ’71 Nova. He was a stud, my dad. He was athletic and involved in all sorts of sports. As a cop, his power, strength and authority were evident, and all the hot chickies seemed to like him. My little cuteness sitting in the front seat of his sweet ride surely only helped his babe-magnetism. In every way imaginable my dad was my hero, my idol – powerful, athletic, attractive, had lots of cool stuff – what kid wouldn’t idolize a dad like this?
In first grade each kid in our class had a week that was all about them. There was a board at the back of the classroom filled with all the stuff you wanted to display during your week. At the end of the week there was a show-and-tell time where you got to show off whatever was most cool or most loved in your life. For my week, I brought in my dad. It was so awesome! He came in wearing his police uniform with his gun in the holster and his shiny badge on his chest, and he told us wide-eyed kids what it was like to be a cop. I don’t remember what he said, but I’m sure there were heroic shoot-em-up stories that wowed the class and made me the coolest first-grader ever! No one had a dad as cool as mine. And my dad truly could kick your dad’s butt!
Not Perfect but Still My Hero
I learned that dad wasn’t perfect sometime during my elementary years. Oh man! How I loved the weekends I got to spend with him. Those Fridays were filled with excitement and anticipation. Dad was coming to get me! But there were times when he didn’t show up for what was going to be a new weekend of unmapped adventure. I remember feeling really cool one particular Friday afternoon because that bad-ass Nova was about to pull up at any moment. Of course, I’d only feel cool if my friends were still hanging around.
The sun moved across the sky, the parking lot emptied, and I sat there… alone… waiting. I still feel the weight of that afternoon as I type this. The mile long walk home from school vividly plays in my head. A little guy’s world is devastated when his dad doesn’t show. And boy, was my mom pissed! After giving me the consoling mama hug, she zipped to the phone and emphatically told my dad a thing or two about a thing or two! But though I was bummed, he was still special. He was still my dad. He was still my hero.
Lookin for the Green…
Both of my parents were remarried while I was still a young’n. I really liked my step-parents during grade school, but then, something changed. As the teen years approached, friction became the norm with my step-dad. I have no idea why it was this way, except that maybe it’s just hard to be a step-parent, especially if you haven’t had your own kids. Nevertheless, home life was a real downer. My teen years were marked by depression, and I often feigned sickness to avoid going to school. Life was a disappointment. Not really an earth-shattering revelation for a teenager, is it? In fact, if you skipped through your teens without making this discovery – you suck! Go away, I don’t want to talk to you.
The grass was gettin kinda brown in our yard, and nobody likes brown grass. At the beginning of my freshman year I had a game-changing idea. I could live with my dad and step-mom. They lived a cool life (at least it seemed much cooler than mine), and they had more money and nicer things. Their yard was definitely filled with plump, juicy green grass! I asked my mom if I could leave, but my request also happened to coincide with her discovering she had breast cancer. Mastectomies, radiation, chemo. This is what life was turning into. My selfish and depressed 14 year-old self didn’t like any of this. So mom said I could move, but she had one condition – I had to see a counselor with her first. She said the counseling sessions were for me, but I’m pretty sure they were for her too. She was going through a lot, and as I look back, I imagine it sucked knowing that her only kid wanted to leave in the middle of the most difficult time of her life.
When my freshman year ended it was time for the big move. This was it! A new life! A new adventure! It was a bummer to leave my friends and mom, but the hope of a depressed-less life was enticing. I was launching into the dream life. I got a bigger house and cool stuff, like a kickin new stereo with dual cassettes and a cd-changer. Oh, and did I mention that my parents owned a ticket agency? This meant that I could get the best seats to concerts and sporting events whenever I wanted. I got front row tickets to some of the best concerts. And within the first 6 months of living the green-grass life, I got to see my Denver Broncos play in Super Bowl XXII in San Diego! Zip-zap-zooie, yabba-dabba-dooie! I was livin large, man! My dreams were coming true!
Whoa there Nelly! (play record scratch here)
Were they really? Let’s talk about this dreamy little Super Bowl trip. Yes, it’s true. It was the trip of a lifetime.
- Travel to San Diego to see Shamoo at SeaWorld for the first time – mukoo bucks.
- Meet Mickey and the gang for a day at Disneyland for the first time – lots more bucks.
- See your favorite team play in the biggest game in the world. Priceless! (except they got an “oops up-side their head” in the second quarter that made them look like a bunch of giant oranges with tutus!)
But there’s just one thing. This was a business trip for my parents. They were selling tickets to the big game, and it was stressful, and they fought… a lot… like the whole damn time. This trip sucked! My attitude went to shit. And I was labeled “ungrateful” because any other kid in the world would kill to be in my shoes! Hell yeah they would! Just knock off the parents, take their money, and my shoes would feel great!
So depression began setting back in. Didn’t take long. My grades began to tank, which meant punishment, which meant more depression, and there’s the cycle. Juicy green grass my ass!
Idolizing a Jackass
But my daddy-as-hero illusion hadn’t been shattered just yet. Until one night, shortly after getting my drivers license, all hell literally broke loose on my butt. It’s the price we pay for love (or lust), I guess. Here’s how it went down. I needed to borrow the car because there was this totally hot girl I had recently met and I had to see her. We were on the phone and she began pulling this teenaged temptress thing on me, and the absolute, number one, nothing-mattered-more priority in that moment was to get my butt over to her house ASAP! Hmm… I didn’t think my parents would go for their newly licensed son borrowing the car on a school night to go see about a girl. So I had to come up with something they would go for.
At the time my best friend and I tossed chicken and baked biscuits at the local KFC a couple miles from my house. (YES! – that just reminded me of the old Sir-Mix-A-Lot song “Buttermilk Biscuits” – hilarious!) My friend was working that night, so I told the ‘rents I was gonna grab a greezy snack and hang out at work for bit. It worked! Yeeesssssss!!! Hot temptress here I come! Talk about heart pounding, blood pumping excitement! Except that I forgot to do one crucial thing. I drove right by KFC on the way to her house. Guess what I didn’t do… Yep, I forgot to stop in to let my friend know what I was up to. These were the olden days before cell phones, and texting wasn’t an option. So while I was all twitterpated with this cute girl, my friend got off work early and stopped by my house. Uh oh.
As I pulled into the garage I was feeling a little nervous, because what should have been a 30 minute trip lasted an hour and a half to two hours. How was I going to explain this one? When stepping into our house from the garage you would come in right behind the sectional sofa. My parents were sitting there watching TV. As I stood behind them I was asked THE question. It wasn’t “where have you been?” Nope, that would have clued me in that something wasn’t right. Instead, they asked how my friend was. As I began to tell them how my good buddy was doing, my dad reached up, still seated, and flipped me over the couch all Jackie Chan-like. Shit! How quickly a night of hormonal-heaven can turn into freakish hell!
My step-mom sprang up and vanished! Actually, I think she was still nearby, but all I could see was the enraged demon before me. Somehow I ended up seated where my parents were just a second before, and dad was standing in front of me with his head spinning like Beetlejuice. Pumpkin was whacking this shit out of me, and…. wait. I need to tell you about Pumpkin. Pumpkin was my step-mom’s fluffy orange cat that hated my guts! As a kitten she had been stuffed in a dryer by some of my step-mom’s college buddies. That cat did not like dudes, and I was the most despised dude of all!
Ok, back to scene.
So as my dad is going off, Pumpkin is gettin in on the game. She was standing on the back of the couch throwing punches like Sugar Ray Leonard. Thankfully she was declawed, or I’d be looking like Scarface today. The attack of the fluffy Pumpkin is the one thing about this night that I can laugh about. The rest of the evening was one of the scariest scenes of my life.
So after being assaulted and battered by dad and cat, my skull was then palmed like a basketball and I was dragged upstairs. As we got near my room he picked me up by my collar and slammed me against the wall several times. Proof of this experience could be found in the shoulder-blade width holes in the wall. Then, and I don’t believe I’m exaggerating here, I was punted like a football onto my bed. Son of a bitch! That didn’t feel so good. But we ain’t done yet.
As dad continued to lose his fricken mind the phone began to ring. I think it was my buddy checking in to see if I was still alive. Too late now my friend, please say some nice things about me at the funeral. Apparently the ring tone really irritated the hell out of my dad, because up to this point he had been relatively calm. He ripped the phone out of the wall and whacked me Pumpkin style until the phone shattered into many beautifully unique pieces. Thanks dad, I always wondered if my phone could be turned into a jigsaw puzzle. Ooh, the phone-shaped bruises are a nice touch too. Jackass!
So this was the night I lost my innocence, or at least the innocent belief that my dad was worth idolizing. I learned or realized at least two things that night: 1) Don’t ever lie to your dad – it could effin kill you! 2) I no longer give a shit what my dad thinks of me.
Experiencing Death… For Real
After living at dad’s house for two years I decided to spend my senior year back at my mom’s. Her battle with cancer was looking like our war with Vietnam. She spent a week in the hospital that summer because her lungs were filled with fluid. As we were leaving the hospital she said she never wanted to go back. Somehow she knew that the next hospital stay would be her last.
That summer back home was a blast, despite death knocking on the door at the little house on the corner of West 7th Place and Yank. It was amazing and life-saving to be hanging out with my old friends again as we jumped into the playground of illicit drugs. Acid, shrooms, ecstasy, pot – it was all readily available, and we readily enjoyed every ounce of it. That fall semester truly became the best of times and the worst of times. It was a shitty semester because I watched my mom wilt away in a painfully slow death. But it was the best of times because I had a great group of friends who showered the love and liked to get high. And holy shit – did we get high!
Pause for a second. I don’t want to glorify drug use here, but it’s true that if drugs didn’t produce some sort of kick-ass pleasure, no one would do them. I’ve learned along the way that fleeting pleasure is much different from lasting joy. In fact, using drugs will rob you of true joy. And there’s nothing more precious than to know this kind of joy. I’ll have much more to say about that another time.
My mom found herself back in a hospital bed two weeks before Christmas. Once again she was there for a week, only this time the lights went out. The day before she died I laid my head on her legs and looked her in the eyes. I told her that I was going to be okay – that my step-dad and I were going to be okay, and I told her I loved her. She had lost the ability to talk several days earlier, but somehow, in that moment, she was able to speak her final words: “I love you.”
And so a week before Christmas in the middle of my senior year, I began a new life without a mom. The person I loved most was gone. It’s one of those things that you know for months is coming, but when it gets there, you’re shocked. Nothing seems real. All of a sudden, whatever was foundational to your life, is gone. Life without my mom was more of an alternate reality than whatever drug I had taken had ever produced. And it sure as hell wasn’t a pleasurable reality.
That’s when sex entered the picture. Just a few short weeks after Christmas I met a girl who introduced me to this entirely new experience of pleasure. Soon I learned of the power of mixing the two – drugs and sex – and my venture into intense pleasure seeking had taken root. Life sucked. Loving anything or anyone deeply hurt like a mother flipper. So doing anything that produced pleasure was all that mattered. And it was all that mattered for many years to come.
My step-dad had also discovered that sex and alcohol were powerful means to deaden intense pain. I often walked into a house filled with loud moans and empty liquor bottles. My mom’s death had drawn us close for about a second, but our relationship quickly returned to shit. He went to Alaska for an internship shortly after I graduated, which meant that I had the entire summer to party it up. But as soon as he returned, the miserable home life continued. We hated each other, and that fall he kicked me out of the house. With my car packed with my few belongings, I headed over to the only place I knew to go.
A Return to Dad….or Not
So this story was supposed to be about my dad’s influence on my life, and I got a little off track. But you know, the whole mom dying thing is sort of a big deal. When I left my dad’s two years earlier our relationship wasn’t exactly peaches n cream. If you had asked me about this once-hero dad of mine, I would have told you that he’s kinduva dick. But after losing mom and home in less than a year, I thought staying with a jerk was better than being homeless.
The door opened, but I didn’t get invited in. Dad came outside and I asked if I could stay there for a while. Denied. It wasn’t going to happen. No second chances at a happy home life for me. So I pulled up a couple of blocks and parked on Lewiston Street, right next to the neighborhood park. I climbed in the back seat and cozied up to a bunched up t-shirt-and-underwear pillow.
Have you ever been in the back seat of a ’79 Camaro? If you have, you weren’t gettin it on, or sleeping! There’s no room back there, plus there’s a spine-bending hump between the seats that ruins any fun you could have in the back of a fast car. But I managed to get tucked in under some clothes and got myself a shitty night’s sleep.
What the hell?? Why am I hearing kids laughing? I peaked out from under my Def Leppard t-shirt to find a couple of little bratty noses pressing against my window. Of all the places to park my house – I had to choose a school bus stop! Ugh. I really had to pee, but I was too humiliated to make the climb to the front seat. Nope, I just needed to hide and wait until that stupid school bus got there. Man! How many kids come to this fricken stop – there must be about 50 of them!
Thankfully, I only had to spend a few nights looking for a good place to park my car. I would have sucked at the homeless lifestyle. Remember my old buddy who worked with me at KFC? His parents took me in, and thank God for that, because soon after I got the Mono bug, and it knocked me out! I had a fever that averaged around 102 for two months. I spent the second month in bed, doing nothing but sleeping, reading, and dying. Maybe this was a taste of what mom had gone through the previous fall.
It was during this time that I had an epiphany. One of the books I was reading sparked that little floating light-bulb above my head. I must have been delirious, because it was one of the dumbest books I’ve ever read! It was now 11 months after my mom died, and I’m thinking I’m about to die, and in a moment I realized or understood who Jesus was. I prayed to that dude and told him I needed him – like pronto! So I think I became a Christian, or something. But I was one of those intense pleasure-seeking/pain-killing Christians who sought life in everything but Christ. But, once again, this is another story for another time.
So in this fine autumn season, just a few short months after nabbing that high school diploma, I was kicked out of the house, denied by my father, homeless, dying a slow sickly death, and having a mind-blowing revelation about the Creator of the universe. How ’bout them apples?
Life’s Harsh Ironies
A few months later, it was February and about 14 months since my mom passed, I got the word that some crazy shit went down. My dad had been arrested in front of our house. Yeah man. I guess he was coming home from the grocery store or something, and as he was pulling up to the house a bunch of squad cars came swooping in Hollywood-style, and they cuffed my dad and hauled his butt to jail. WTF! Are you kidding me? I don’t believe this shit, man.
It was June. About 4 months had passed since life had offered up another not-so-fricken funny alternate reality. I decided it was time to make the trip to the Arapahoe County Jail. This was trippy dude, no acid trip could even compare. The guy that wowed my fellow first graders with his gun and his badge, the guy that was cool and athletic and good looking, the guy that caught the bad guys and locked them up, THAT guy was now sitting in the county jail awaiting his fate.
As the guards led me through various security points, down long cold hallways and through thick metal doors, I stepped into a room with giant sheets of glass. I sat down, and on the other side of the glass comes a man wearing an orange jumpsuit. I gotta tell ya, that outfit was just as menacing as the police uniform was. I wouldn’t want to mess with that dude in prison. He sat down and we proceeded to have one of the most heart-felt, yet poignant father-son conversations we’d ever had.
He told stories of when I was born, and how awful it was to see the doctors twist and crunch my feet into place as I screamed my lungs out (I was born with club feet – notice the casts on my legs in the picture of my dad holding me). He told stories about my mom, funny stories, most of which were new to me. I asked him about the time he shot mom in the butt – it was one of those “funny when you look back” type of stories.
He talked about some of the good times we had when I was little. The moment was a lot like one of those made-for-TV chick flicks you find on LifeTime, or whatever station those sappy movies are on. I cannot overstate what a huge moment this was in our relationship. This was my dad, and although our relationship had soured in recent years, I still hoped, still longed to have that hero-dad I idolized as a little shorty.
After telling the stories of better days, dad looked me squarely in the eye and said he was innocent. They got the wrong guy, or maybe he was set up – whatever the case may be, he didn’t commit the crimes. I asked him what he’d do if they found him guilty. He said there was no way he could survive in prison. He would have to find a way to break out and live a life of hiding. This was all so surreal and unflippin’ believable. How could this be happening?
I believed my dad. Sure, he had done some asshole-ish things, but no way could he have done the things he was charged with. Robbing banks and grocery stores and movie theaters? He was a cop for pete’s sake – he put those types of thugs in jail! Plus, he said he had accepted Christ as his Savior.
Dad had multiple trials to face, because the crimes had been committed in several counties. He was pretty convinced he would win. In his mind there was no way they had evidence to convict him. But the trials came and one by one, he lost. It was getting ugly, and soon he was forced to strike a deal. They gave him 56 years – a stiff penalty meant to set an example. He was now the cop turned inmate, controlled by the Colorado Department of Corrections. He adamantly declared his innocence though, and I still believed him.
I should mention that my dad and step-mom had a son a year before my mom died. My little brother was 2 when our dad was arrested. Not too long after dad was sentenced my step-mom filed for divorce. I couldn’t blame her, I mean, she had gone through some hell with my dad long before he was arrested. This hell was the final straw. I was close to my step-mom, so we stayed connected and I got to watch my little brother grow up through his early years.
About 5 years after dad went to prison my step-mom decided to get married again. This was a big deal, because it was this news that sparked something in my dad. One of his best friends growing up had become a District Attorney. After hearing that my step-mom was getting married, dad wrote a letter to his old friend and confessed that he had committed many of crimes he was charged with. WHAT? He did it! He was guilty! Holy shit! But that wasn’t the worst part of his confession. He also stated that my step-mom knew about the crimes all along – that she was in on it. I may never know for sure if this claim is true, but in some ways it doesn’t even matter.
What matters is that my dad lied his fucking head off for years and pulled his family along for the ride! What matters is that he finally fessed up, but decided to drag my step-mom, someone I loved, down into the pit of hell with him. What matters is that years earlier I got the living shit kicked out of me because I lied about going to see a girl, and my dad sucked me into the biggest bullshitting lie I’ve ever heard. What matters is that I sat across the glass staring at a man in an orange jumpsuit who pulled me hook, line, and sinker into the belief that he was a man worth believing in. What matters is that this man was now the biggest fucking jerk I had ever known. That’s what mattered.
When dad confessed I hadn’t seen him in 5 years – not since that time in the county jail before his trials began. And it would be another 7 years before I’d see him again – 12 years in all. During those years I received quite a few letters from him, but I never responded. I did have the occasional chit-chatty phone conversation with him when he’d call my aunt’s or my grandparent’s house during the holidays. But those years went by, and I never really had anything to say to him.
As the years passed my faith was slowly developing, and I was making an awkward and often stumbling trek towards finding comfort in Christ rather than drugs, alcohol and sex. I was living in Seattle about 10 years after dad went to prison, and I remember telling myself one day, while sitting in my apartment reading my Bible, that I’m over it, and I forgive him. That’s what good Christians do. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. If I’m getting serious about this Christian thing, then I need to forgive. So in my mind I did, and that was that.
When Relationships Die…
About a year later, in the summer of ’02, I moved back to Denver to be close to family and to look for a Bible college to attend. In July I spent some time with my step-mom and little brother. It was great to see them because we had been somewhat disconnected while I lived in Seattle. My brother was on the cusp of puberty, which was a bummer because I felt like I had missed out on his last cute little kid years. I remember being thankful that day, because although my dad was no longer a part of this little family unit, these two people were still very dear to me and very much my family. I need to mention that it later turned out that my little brother wasn’t my brother at all. He was not my dad’s son. Another story for another time (I’ve got lots of those!). But he was my brother, nonetheless.
One beautiful August day I decided to go to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. She was born in August, so I usually tried to bring flowers to her resting place for her birthday. This may seem weird, but her grave is actually in a beautiful and peaceful place, with sweeping views of the mountains, and it’s become a good place to get “centered.” After spending a few minutes having a conversation with my mom I got back into my truck and sat for a while just thinking about life. Then, for whatever reason, I felt like calling my step-mom. That conversation was utter bullshit!
Years earlier my step-mom had decided to keep my brother away from my dad. This wasn’t okay with dad, but I suppose that his guilt kept him from doing anything about it. Well, I guess that started to change. From what I understand, dad was trying to get back into my brother’s life, and my step-mom didn’t like that one bit. So she filed a restraining order. When she did this her lawyer recommended that she cut all ties to the Ridenour family. Uh, guess what. I’m a Ridenour. So in this brief conversation she tearfully told me that she needed to cut me out of her and my brother’s lives.
Picture this. I’m sitting in my truck at the cemetery. I’m pondering life and all of the loss I’ve experienced, and I’m feeling grateful that my step-mom and little brother are in my life. So I decide to give her a call right there, because I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. And in that conversation, she tells me that our 20+ year relationship is over. Now, what’s the next picture in your head?
When I got off the phone I wailed. WTF! Why is this happening! I was so fricken pissed off I started pounding the steering wheel as hard as I could. I yelled at God. I told Him that I wished he had taken my dad’s life and let my mom live. She was a much better person anyway. He’d been dead to me all these years and he was still fucking my life up! I must have sat in that cemetery for another hour, just bawling and punching, bawling and punching. I was pissed. I was pissed at God, I was pissed at my dad, I was pissed at life.
Several months passed. I was still looking into Bible colleges, and discovering that my step-mom was serious about cutting ties with me. We hadn’t had any contact since that phone call in August. A few days before Thanksgiving I received a letter. It was from my dad. I figured it would be the typical letter. It had a Bible verse written on the outside of the envelope, and I was sure it would have the usual small talk about the Denver Broncos, a whole bunch of stuff about how life was going in prison and what the outlook was like for him getting out on parole or something, and then a few questions asking about me. Well, I was right, the letter did have all the typical elements, but this letter had something a little different.
For some reason my dad decided that he thought he knew me. And somehow he had the audacity to believe that he had the right to speak into my life – or to tell me how I ought to be living. As I read his letter, I broiled with the most intense anger I have ever experienced. I was pacing back and forth and shaking uncontrollably as I heard his voice through the words on those pages. This man, in many ways, was dead to me, and yet, I couldn’t escape him. It was like the worst recurring nightmare. Like many times before, I couldn’t help wondering what life might have been like if he had died instead of my mom. I longed for that.
But I know I longed for something else too. Somewhere, lodged deep beneath the concrete wall of bitterness, I hungered for a different kind of dad. Someone who wouldn’t destroy my trust. Someone I could believe in.
When I finished reading his letter, I had to vent my anger in some fashion. So I sat down in front of a computer and typed away for hours. I let it all fly. All of the bitterness and anger that had built up in me for years came rushing onto that screen like a flooded river in a torrential downpour. There was no holding back. It had to come out.
The Letter Says It All…
This is part 1 in the story of how my dad influenced my life. I’m going to pause the story here and leave you with the letter I wrote in response to my dad. I consider this letter the climax of our relationship. I thought about sharing his letter with you – the one that jack-hammered the concrete around my heart, but I think you’ll get the gist of his letter by what I wrote in mine. Next month marks 9 years since I wrote this letter. A lot has happened since then. I’ll share part 2 of this story about my dad sometime in the near future.
Some may wonder why I’d open to the world something that’s so personal. I wont answer that question right now. But I will say this, my purpose is not to drag my dad or anyone else through the mud. Nope, I think my purpose has much greater value than that. Actually, dragging people through the mud has no value.
For those of you who are offended by some of the harsher words in the English language – what in the world are you still doing here, at this point in the story? You may want to move along, because I didn’t hold back on the strong language in the letter. I thought about editing some things out that are a little embarrassing to me now. The foul language doesn’t embarrass me, it’s some of the thoughts and perceptions I had at the time. But I decided to share the whole thing. It is what it is, and that’s where I was at the time. I am omitting names though – to at least give some protection to those who don’t want to be named.
Click on the link below to read the letter.