Kabuki Strength
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Editor’s note – I would recommend listening to Chris’ reading of this piece via the voice-over video above. In editing this piece I found myself with my stomach in my throat, especially towards the end when Chris’ emotions show in his voice. Having known Chris for a few years and having heard bits and pieces of stories from his childhood, I can say with certainty that him writing this piece was no easy thing. I could tell that Chris struggled processing and sharing some of these experiences. I urge you all to listen open-hearted and take all the good you can from an experience like his. There is no deeper connection in humanity than the empathy and love we can share for one another.

Me and my younger sisters when we were all older, after I had custody of them and raised them.

Writing these pieces has been challenging as I’ve had to dig up memories and emotions that had long ago been shoved into a dark, hidden corner of my heart. It’s especially difficult because I have kids now the same age as when some of these stories take place for me or my siblings.  Looking at my kids while at the same time reflecting on what the past held for me taps deep into that emotional bank and often brings me to tears.  I don’t want to see my kids live through anything like that, yet at the same time I would never, EVER, trade my life and experiences for anything else.  With pain, mistakes, and lows also comes highs, joys, glory and has been a huge part in contributing to the beautiful and blessed life I have lived; a life arc that most can’t fathom.  This is pretty much what this writing is about, Heartbeak and Love.

This piece was composed on the birthday of a dead man.  Someone that caused a ton of pain within our family, but never out of malice.  I called him my father but he was actually just my step father.  He was the biological father of my 3 sisters; sisters that I eventually took custody of and raised myself while finishing my engineering degrees, MBA, and pursuing my career.  While he wasn’t my father, he was the one who raised me and did treat me like his son.

On the birthday in question the youngest of my 3 sisters shared with me a number of letters and drawings he had sent her.  The love and quirkiness displayed in these letters brought back a flood of memories.  Memories that can be hard to come to terms with due to their contrast in nature.  It’s hard to understand how someone who loved his family so deeply could also be the root of so much of its pain.

My sister when she was young.

He certainly wasn’t a bad man like my younger brother’s father was.  It’s very difficult for me to accurately reconstruct the memories from such an early age.  But what I can remember about our exit from his life is that it involved him waking away in a drunken stupor.  He was completely naked and there was blood, but I don’t remember where it was from.  My mother was standing over the top of him holding a hatchet.  Later on he had told my brother while recollecting the incident that he thought he was already on his death bed when he woke up, having been disemboweled.  But that wasn’t the case as she had not actually hurt him.  What she did do is tell him that he would never touch her again and that if he ever came after them she would indeed bury that hatchet in his stomach.  And with that she dropped it by his side and we left.

Playing music.

I’m not sure exactly what happened between those two.  What I do know is that years later when we were taken into custody by the state (read more on this in another story) my brothers father came and got him.  During that time either him or his new wife convinced my brother to claim that he was sexually molested in our household.  And then by the time he was 14 my brother was doing crystal meth in the living room with his father.  From then on it was all downhill and my brother has spent the remainder of his life in and out of jail and prison.  He has been riddled with guilt the rest of his life for lying about the molestation and the path that led him on.  It ruined his life and unfortunately that life has left him a very broken man that even I couldn’t do anything about. He just called me from prison for my birthday and is excited about getting his GED and working on a welding certification.  I am always hopeful. Maybe someday he will be welding Kabuki Strength products.

My brother’s father was a bad man.  My sister’s father was not. He was a kind and loving man, yet he left both gaping scars on those around him and at the same time is big part of who I am today.  And that is the contrast that is so difficult to grasp.   How can you share so much love yet leave so many scars on those around you?

He was a bit crazy genius with his ability to write, draw, philosophize, and play guitar.  He had close to a 150 IQ and played with a number of well-known musicians in his day.   When he began dating my mother he left the music scene because she made him stop using heroin.  Well that and my mother’s penchant for ditching society and living in the woods probably made both those activities difficult to maintain.

Teaching us to fish.

We spent a huge amount of time together when I was a child.  He taught me to fish and hunt which we had to do a lot of to keep food on the table for the family.  Poaching deer to feed the family was an important duty and required skinning, gutting, and quickly quartering it up which I was taught.  And if you want to tell me about your negative views on the morality of hunting or legality of poaching… go fuck yourself.  We needed to eat.  I remember watching one winter when I was in 1st grade as both my father shrunk away from lack of food, yet there was always food on the table for us kids.  He spent time with me working on drawing, sculptures, and jewelry-making together.  We all have remnants of his handcrafted items.  As I grew older we often read the same novels so we could talk about them and he would provide me examples of poetry and writing when I had writers block.  Its hard to describe the love and time he invested in us.   Without regular work or being involved normal society at large, he had more time than most.

Despite the love and time invested in his kids he was also just flat out crazy.  He would climb a tree and hide out with a rifle when my mom’s parents came to visit, just in case they tried to pull something.  After I had left home he had once kicked one of my sisters out in the middle of a snowy winter because he was convinced she had stolen his favorite cereal bowl.

He would do things to play mind games with us frequently in order “to teach us life lessons”.  I’m pretty sure the following story was one such instance, although I’m also sure the financial realities of the situation also played heavily into it as well.  One October he found free rabbits as pets in the nickel ads and each of us kids got one.  Dad and I built a pen out back for them and we spent the next couple months raising and playing with the rabbits.  Thanksgiving morning dad told me that we were not able to afford a turkey, so the two of us had to go out back and twist the necks on all the rabbits.  We then proceeded to gut and skin them so mom could cook them up for dinner.  My sisters were bawling all day long and still had the dried tears running down their faces when they ate dinner that night. But at the same time they did note how good dinner was and cracked a few jokes about it having clearly learned something about life and death.

I also learned quite a bit about work ethic in the early years when he was busy logging and growing crops.  I often tagged along with this work especially when it was woodcutting.  There was never an excuse; work just had to be done.  Interestingly that entire time he was working with a broken arm.  And over the 10-15 years of doing manual labor with a broken arm the bones wore a huge gap between them from the vibration of the chainsaw and general labor.  In later years he mostly watched TV and drank all day while doing sculpture or other artwork.

I could tell lots of stories about his crazy antics to fill the pages but I’ll just finish with the letters to my youngest sister.  She was 12, turning 13 at the time and I had not taken custody of her yet only dealing with the older two at the time.  He sent her regular letters and drawings from jail as she bounced around between friend’s houses.  But along with those letters of love was also a large request of a 12 year old.  He coached her to lie so she didn’t get taken away by the state.  He asked her to pull money from what little she made in the youth conservation corps to pay the mortgage; to go to the house and recover all the precious items he had hidden around the house and property in case our mother came to steal them – like the rocks hidden in the clothes dryer.  I did mention he was crazy, didn’t I?

On one such he ended up putting my little sister in a pretty traumatic situation.  During this period our mother had a mental breakdown and disappeared to eastern Oregon for some time, and then Montana for a few years.  But on this trip to the house my sister found our mom who had boarded herself into my old bedroom like a freaky little studio for herself.  She was consuming her time with being raging drunk and burning our fathers things.  All my sister will tell me is that it was bad and ugly.  This was a lot to ask of a 13 year old.

I just can’t attempt to reconcile how someone can give you so much time and love yet do stupid thinks like getting kicked out of your high school graduation for being drunk.  How, despite his love I had to take his daughters from him because he was incapable of taking care of them himself.

I am glad I got to see him again not to long before he passed away.  While in central Oregon visiting friends I decided to drive down and see him before heading home.  He was still living in the mobile home we had lived in while I was in high school.  Most of it was converted over to growing pot.  He was in a happy place with his simple life where he could grab a couple beers and ride his bike over to a friends cabin, or down to the river to do some fishing.

He never saw an issue with where he was at in life.  He lived in the moment.  He lived with passion and he lived with love.  It didn’t matter that we may be living in tents in the woods…he was happy.  He had his family around him and he got to go out hunting.  In one of his last sentences of one of the last letters he wrote to my sister he said “All I ever wanted was my family.  And well, I guess I blew that.”

And with that he passed into oblivion.  My mother had grown to hate him, the last we heard from his large family was in the 80’s and none of them have ever inquired about him since.  The only thing he had was his home, which the fire department decided to burn to the ground as practice since it was “unlivable”.  He left behind my three sisters and I.  And the 4 of us all loved him dearly while recognizing his innumerable faults.  He could barely take care of himself, and only did so with the support of the state.  He was unable to perform his duties as a father, yet we loved him.

My sister took the last of his remains up to the mountain on this birthday.  And in a stroke of sarcastic justice spread them across the back of the Ski Mountains since he hated both snow and skiing.

I don’t think I will ever understand the man, but without a doubt he taught me to live with passion, love, and to enjoy the moment.

Chris Duffin

A drawing me and him worked on when I was in 6th grade.