I am convinced there is no tragedy greater than to let go of a person’s childhood aspirations, or to not have had them in the first place. This problem is movingly described in Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Outside of the poem I think about my dad and my Cousin Craig in particular when I think of the tragedy of a person walking away from what ought to mean the most to them–though I am sure Hughes meant to portray those who have no choice.
When Dad was young he loved music. He took up playing the clarinet, and could play Jazz better than most amateur’s. He majored in music in college. There he met and married my mom. It all looked as though it could come true: there was a gig in Las Vegas which he could have played as a studio musician. I do not know how long he would play there, but Mom said she was all for it: she could get a job as a public school teacher there and while she worked steadily he could work at different clubs.
Yet he got cold feet at the last moment. Dad was used to his weekly check at Santa Fe. So the dream died. Dad played the music as an avocation, but he never played his clarinet to earn a living. I always felt this was the great tragedy of his life.
Most people wonder about me for caring: my dad was a difficult man to like. In fact, I look back at him as being selfish and self-centered. His love for music was a curse as well as a blessing: I couldn’t get caught dead playing any rock-and-roll around him, and as a child that is difficult because rock-and-roll is what kids like.
Nonetheless, the one gift he had was his music… Dad’s second wife Renae was a flutist. Dad seemed genuinely happy when they were married. However, ten years into their marriage she left–because her biological father convinced her to. Dad went berserk, but one aspect of his tantrum was that he would not play his instrument because “it reminded him of Renae.” Yet two years before he died when his mind was going bad he attempted to play his horn again–but could not. It was his tragedy.
As for Craig… his tragedy was not–to quote Langston Hughes– his “Dream Deferred,” but the fact that he never apparently had any guiding light when he was young. He totaled his first car in high school, and dropped out of high school to marry his wife, Diane. Oddly, he was pleasanter on the surface than my dad–but perhaps most people are. His addiction to alcohol killed him. By the time it killed him he had been in several car wrecks and the courts had told him to go to AA. Realistically, though, his mind was rendered unable to get well… or so I believe. Anyway, one night driving home from a bar he smashed into a car–he was killed, the other driver was unharmed. I remember feeling as though Craig’s life had no meaning. It wasn’t as if I didn’t feel bad for him… it was as though his self-destructive urges caught up to him in the end, and outweighed what was good. Yet I could not blame him. It was really like a suicide. We all knew Craig wanted to die.
What did these two men have in common? It was that they gave up on themselves. I won’t go far into the “why’s”–perhaps I have said too much already. It is just that I have come to believe in my life that a person has to have some kernel of life in them that belongs to them, and that they must suffer–if they suffer–for that kernel. I believe my writing is my kernel. Even my religion is not quite that kernel… it is my desire to–to borrow Teddy Roosevelt’s words–“climb mighty mountains and win glorious prizes,” except that my mountains and prizes are a life in which my written work can pay my bills. I know this must look selfish to outsiders, who notice that I still live with my mom and pay my bills using my Disability Check.
I have a friend who personifies–I think–the idea that a person can be the person they want to be. My rabbi is that person. His parents are two Hollywood-types. Truthfully I do not know much about them, except that they did not take their Judaism seriously. Well, Rabbi decided that he did not want to do the Hollywood thing–not that he would have had a chance of being more than a script writer. He wanted to put his faith first and believe in God first. So he did. He is eccentric, but I like to believe he has a heart of gold. He has talked to me some about my health troubles, and I believe he cares about all of us at the synagogue.