WHERE I USED TO LIVE (PART 2): I CRAWL THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
(Originally posted on the website Continuum…)
(This story is dedicated to my Mom, one of my lifelines.)
IN April of 1997, only three months after dismantling my life, shoving it into a moving truck and hauling it all the way to “Nowhere,” West Virginia, I was informed that my services as a husband were no longer needed and I should find employment and lodging elsewhere. There was no severance pay and all retirement arrangements were rendered null and void, along with all promises, vows, and kindnesses heretofore bestowed, implied or faked, either intentionally or accidentally during the previous period of cohabitation. “TaTa! Tootles! Don’t let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya!”
With my books, clothes and 12-string Fender acoustic guitar loaded in my Mercury Villager mini van, I began my reluctant journey back to New Jersey. My heart was so heavy that it would have been easier to carry the van itself for 400 miles than to drive in such a beaten down emotional condition. Mile after slow mile I moved farther away from my two beautiful daughters who I loved with all my heart and away from the woman who I no longer knew. Several times I stopped at pay phones (which would soon become a key means of contact with any type of sanity) to call my mom. Moms are good at bringing you home when you’re hurt. They never say, “I tried to warn you in the first place,” or any heartless things like that. They just say, “I love you. The porch light will be on and I’ll be awake when you get here.”
I stopped so many times on that trip. Steadily the emotional weight of what I was facing pressed down upon me. It was the beginning of a long road that I did not want to travel. I never wanted to be divorced the first time, let alone go through it again. How could I bear it? How could I go through the heartache again? How could I endure living so far from my daughters? How would I ever make it? I could not. Everything inside of me said that I could not do it.
Before it was even very late in the evening, I was as exhausted as if I had been awake for a month. In another call to mom, she insisted that I find a well-lit area to sleep for a little while. Just a few exits down the highway and I spotted a luminous oasis in southern Pennsylvania. At first I thought it was a mirage, a cruel trickery upon my weary eyes. But it was real! It was substantial! I had arrived at the Golden Arches! Thank God for well-lit McDonald’s parking lots!
I slept for possibly an hour there. Yet, when I awoke, the sadness was even harder to bear. For a moment I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. As sleep faded, the reality of my situation was forced upon me again. From that point, this experience repeated itself with nearly perfect consistency for the next several months. At times I dreaded falling asleep because I knew what awaited me on the other side when I awoke.
BACK in New Jersey, I spent the first month at my parents’ house. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I lost 15 pounds in the first few weeks. (If only I could lose 15 pounds so easily now!)
I had called my old boss at Readington Farms before I left West Virginia. He said to give him a call when I was back in Jersey and he would find work for me. For nearly 11 years before I went to WV, I held one of the best positions in the plant as a milk pasteurizer (sung to the tune of “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles). I called when I arrived in NJ. I was told to wait a few weeks until something opened up.
After two weeks they did have a position for me. I was offered a job scrubbing drains, emptying garbage cans, fetching supplies for machine operators – not to mention being made subordinate to one of the laziest guys in the place. Since I had been gone just two weeks over their allowable three-month absence period, I was considered a brand new hire. There would be no uniforms for 90 days. I would have to go through a physical and a drug test. I would have no health coverage for 90 days. I would work three daytime shifts and two late night shifts (every day of the week showed up on my time card one way or another). “Oh, by the way, Mr. Snyder, your pay will be $2 less an hour than you were making three and a half months ago. Glad you’re back!”
Thus began a period of humiliation and practical torture at the hands of some co-workers who were all too happy to see that I had “failed.” “We knew you’d be back! We knew you wouldn’t be able to make it work! Now fetch me a box of plastic caps for these milk bottles!”
I AM sure that you already realize that these were dark and sad days. Admittedly, these were days of heart-broken agony and tears. The only way out was through. I didn’t want to go through. I just wanted out. They were confusing and colorless days. They were days of betrayal and abandonment. Several lines from Psalm 88, arguably the darkest and loneliest piece of poetry ever written (sacred or secular), reflect my state of mind during those days:
“My soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength: Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from Thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and Thou hast afflicted me with all Thy waves. Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; Thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth… Lord, why castest Thou off my soul? Why hidest Thou Thy face from me? Lover and friend hast Thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.” (verses 3 – 8, 14, 18)
I distinctly remember one day when I came home from work, I barely had enough energy to close the door behind me. I literally collapsed on the floor, dropping my lunch box. For some time I lay there and sobbed, “Why? Why? Why?” The sun set. The house became dark. I fell asleep on the floor, awoke in the middle of the night and crawled my way into bed.
I had entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
AFTER the first month back in New Jersey, I received a phone call from my good friend, LeRoy Magyar. He was living in his parents’ home, a large multi-bedroom house in Glen Gardner (in the photo above), all by himself. He offered me a room. I lived there for six months, enjoying the quiet surroundings, until I was finally able to afford my own apartment just around the corner from LeRoy. I was forced out of the first room I occupied at his house by his cat that insisted on pissing on my possessions. (Could things possibly get any worse?) The second room was very small, just enough room for several boxes of books, a mattress, and my ever faithful companion, Elijah Job (see the previous article). It was a tiny room but it afforded the luxury of a door that the cat could not open.
WHILE in West Virginia for three months, I received no money. Oh, there was the promise of money before we moved there. But once we were actually there, everything changed. My mother-in-law (bless her stony heart) even denied ever promising that there would be money for us. Bankruptcy was unavoidable. The mortgage company foreclosed on our house. The bank was hot on my heels to repossess the van. I had left West Virginia without a penny in my pocket. For the first few months back in New Jersey, I borrowed my father’s Exxon card to pay for gas in order to travel see my girls.
Since the bank was seeking to repossess the van, I purchased a car in West Virginia for $800. It looked fine… until I paid for it. The thing barely made it home to New Jersey. One of the back windows fell out a few weeks later. The headliner sagged so that it was resting on my head as I drove. The power steering system leaked fluid and needed to be refilled constantly. LeRoy named it the “Blue Bomb.” It became my “get away car.” It was a way to get around without the bank finding the van. I hid the van at LeRoy’s place. For work I drove the Blue Bomb. I only used the van when I went to West Virginia to see the girls since it was reliable. When the Blue Bomb became too beastly to drive, I gave it to LeRoy’s brother who drove it in the demolition derby at a local fair. It went down in flames of glory.
AFTER a few months apart from my wife, it became apparent that she had determined to go her own way and there would be no reconciliation. To be sure, I continued to hope for at least 18 months that there would be. I trudged through many days of sorrow and dashed expectations. I prayed and held onto at least the idea of hope. There were no hopeful signs that gave any legitimacy to doing so. Desperation will cause a man to pray. Often in the extremities of his desperation a man will find his faith. Again this is reflected in Psalm 88:13, “But unto Thee have I cried, O Lord; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent Thee.” I find it interesting that a glimmer of hope appears even in the midst of the lowest experiences of this writer.
From the beginning of this ordeal I made up my mind that no matter what happened, I would fight to be close to my daughters and spend all of my energies to develop a bond with them. They were only one and three years old at that time. I decided that I would see them every two weeks. Eventually my schedule changed at the dairy and I had Wednesdays and Sundays off. So I would work until 6 PM on a Tuesday, then drive 320 miles from New Jersey to a friend’s house in West Virginia. On Wednesday morning I would drive another 50 miles to pick up my girls. I would then drive the full 370 miles back to New Jersey and go to work the following morning. I did this 20 times in 1997. Nearly 14,000 miles because I loved my daughters.
When I arrived at their house, my wife refused to talk to me or discuss anything. Most of the time she flat out ignored me, not even saying, “Hello,” “Good-bye,” or “Go to hell.” On New Years Day, 1998, I brought a friend along for the ride to retrieve the girls. When we got there she was happy to see my friend (actually a mutual friend of ours). “It’s so great to see you! How’s this? How’s that? How’s the other thing?” She kissed the girls good-bye and went back into the house without even acknowledging that I was there. I begged my friend to punch me as hard as he could so that I would at least know that I existed. Instead, he drove while I collapsed in the passenger seat through West Virginia and half of Maryland.
Most of these trips I made alone. This is when the pay phones became my lifelines. Often I would stop and call Pastor Alan Dunn, using a calling card. Many times he patiently spoke with me, listened to me, prayed with me, and helped me to drive on. Often I would call my mom or a close friend who listened to me over and over, telling the same sad story and asking the same unanswerable questions. All of these people were saints and angels, sources of inspiration and points of sanity in an otherwise crazy and seemingly pointless life. Often they kept me moving. They prevented me from careening off of many emotional cliffs during those days. I thank them.
YOU must know that these details are merely a sampling of the painful experiences that were my life in 1997 and much of 1998. My private journals are full of entries such as these:
“September 3, 1997 – I picked the girls up at 9:15 AM. They were very excited to see me. M went nuts! She reached her hands out towards me and started yelling. I picked her up and she just held on real tightly! I didn’t break down in front of [her]. I got the rest of my clothes. It didn’t seem to bother her at all to see me packing my stuff in the car.”
“September 10, 1997 – I had to cut down a lot of weeds at the house in Easton (see previous entry). Being there really hurt emotionally. The thought that [she] abandoned me is more than I can bear. Going to the house just brings back a flood of memories and a mountain of regret.”
“October 29, 1997 – This morning I woke up around 9:00 or so. I had to force myself to get up because I was so sad and God seemed to be so far away.”
You get the picture.
I HAVE often wished that I were the last of the human race that had to go through such harsh experiences. I have wished that I were the last person who ever had to face betrayal and abandonment. I have desired to be the last to have their heart broken, the last to deal with the stress and frustration of a failed relationship. I would absorb it all if the rest of the human family were at peace with one another and loved one another from their hearts. I will drive the miles for them. I will cry their tears and carry their heartaches. All I need is a pay phone every 100 miles and a friend on the other end of the line to keep me going. Sure, that is unrealistic. But I desire it. Now, when I meet someone who is going through tough times, dark days, and confusing experiences that make them feel alienated from all else around them, I say, “I understand. That’s where I used to live.” In reality that is all I can do. Yet in my heart, I wish that I could make it all better for them, set things right, restore their comfort, wrap my arms around them and protect them. If I say to YOU, “I understand,” look deeper into my eyes. Where once there were tears, there are now depths of compassion and empathy. I know what it is like to be where you are. I’ll do my best to help you through.