These were the pictures I really wanted. The one above is stunning. Toward the front are my grandfather and uncle Pete. Their hands are not raised to the spirit of the Lord. They are miserable.
My uncle Pete is on the left here, talking to my uncle Evan and Evan's wife, Gwen. To me, this picture sums up the year's between 1968 and 1976, not only for my family, but for America, part of it anyway.
The church where my dad lived and died in Minatitlan, Vera Cruz, Mexico. His room was on the second floor, behind the big window.
The grave site of Carl S. Miller, Jr., my father.
From an earlier post on this blog:
After touring southern Mexico my friend dropped me off in Minatitlan, Vera Cruz, where my father is buried, and God spoke to me there. His words were clear, though not verbal, and they convinced me that Christ is my true salvation. Within a couple years I didn't believe any more.
While roaming the Mexican countryside with my friend, stopping to gaze at ruins and nudist beaches and jungle trees with spindly orchids clutching their bark, I'd thought long and hard about sacrifice. I was newly born again, the story of the crucifixion fresh in my mind. It was comforting to know that God would so love me that he'd stuff himself into a body like mine and offer his hands out to have nails driven through them. "Know" isn't the right word, really; I didn't actually believe it, not in the way that I believe that my cat is lying on my desk right now or that the sun rises in the east. I was 24 years old at the time, and in those 24 years I'd never known a person who was God compacted into flesh. So I simply couldn't believe, in the way I could never believe a person possesses the power of hurricanes or can drool fresh tomato juice. There's just no precedence on which to hang such beliefs.
But I believe in stories, the messages they convey, and the message of this God-As-Man-Dying-God-Awful-Death was one I liked, at least at the time, because I was young and lonely and I wanted to know that, if nothing else, God loves me.
Yet my tour of Mayan ruins obscured the free-pass notion of Christ, had shattered its simplicity. I'd heard the old "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?" discussion before. But this notion of sacrifice, in all its uncensored gore, was a lot to absorb. Particularly in Mexico, where injustices are stark, where my father fell to his death when he was just 27 years old. During my stay in Minatitlan I traveled with my hosts to a small village an hour or so inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It was just a cluster of cement homes, each smaller than a one-car garage, with corrugated tin roofs. There was a tiny clinic there, a government operation bearing posters with Spanish words that reminded people how to wash their hands and where to go to the bathroom and what shots their children should receive. It had a small cabinet full of medicine, and the place was very clean. The man who worked there, a nurse, had yellow eyes and he kept licking his lips because his mouth was very dry. I talked with him for a while, asking him questions in rugged Spanish, and he answered proudly, as though his clinic was a beacon of health. I assumed he had a terrible disease; he was so skinny and his eyes were yellow enough for a monster film. I didn't ask him about his eyes, though. I nodded a lot and smiled approvingly. He seemed happier than I. Everyone in the village seemed happier, even though the kids were all running around naked and the doors on the homes had no doors and the windows no glass and when it got dark it was black dark because most of the homes had no electricity and a canopy of palms blotted out the moon. I thought that I would die if I had to live there, in such a happy place.
My father's death hurt my grandparents deeply. Even all these years later, nearly two decades at the time of my Mexican tour, they would weep if they thought of him too much. My grandpa would say, Sons are supposed to bury their fathers, not the other way around. My dad was his first son. I was eight years old when it happened. I cried when I heard the news, of course, and I cried harder when I saw him in his casket, all bruised up at the front of a humid church, with a blob of slimy green preservative oozing out of his mouth. But it was easy for me to move on. He'd left my mother and I when I was barely two. We'd detached before we could form a solid bond. By my early twenties I could revisit his death as a third-party observer, study it like a story, something in the public domain from which to derive a theme.
The story as I was rewriting it was simple, a cliched drama of good arrising from bad: A young man goes off to serve God and dies young. His death leaves an aching hole in his family, one that can never be filled because the hole was there before he died. These were the seventies. My grandparents' children, three boys, were on the final stages of their runs through an America that had gone crazy. My father was the first one out of the gate. He got my mom pregnant while they were in high school, in the late 1960s. They married, and I was born, and my mom put up a picket fence. My dad rolled a joint, then another, then he dropped some acid and then he was gone, driving across the West in a pickup with an absurd, homemade camper sitting cockeyed in the bed. Along the way he got another woman pregnant, ditched her and then lost his mind. Family legend has it that he came home, got a job on some sort of farm and, one day, while his mind seethed with voices, he sprinted back and forth across a cornfield and cried to God: If You can make this stop I'll devote my life to You! He joined a church, one that was too conservative even for my grandparents' taste, and he was off again, in El Salvador and Nicaragua and Honduras and, finally, Mexico, to serve the Lord. Then he fell through a roof and landed head first on a concrete floor.
Then Good came. My grandparents started carrying on my father's work in Mexico. They bought a large for the preacher my dad worked with. They helped pay for the construction of a Bible school in a nearby town, which my father dreamt of doing before he died. They took many trips to Mexico, always to Minatitlan, a homely and hot PeMex town thick with oil industry waste, and these trips made their faith in Jesus stronger.
And there I was, by myself, at 24, newly reborn, thinking about all this. The questions spun: Are those villagers better for being desperately poor? Are my grandparents better off for having their son die? Are his brothers? Are the people in Mexico? The pastor's family? The people, God knows how many, who attended the Bible college? Am I? Did my dad die so that sixteen years later I would come to Mexico to hear The Story in just the right way, while I was in just the right funk, and be saved?
I sat by his graveside. His was a cheap headstone, made of cement, with his name and dates painted on it in a black paint that was starting to fade. My eyes scanned the words and numbers for several minutes before they registered. He died in October, 1976, I noticed, on the same day that I would, twelve years later, quit drinking and using drugs. I was 20 years old in 1988. One night after a relatively light guzzling of booze and smoking of pot, all alone, I was suddenly seized from my sleep. It was as though a firm hand had reached out of the darkness, yanked me up and slapped me on the face. Though it was two or three in the morning, I wasn't groggy: my mind was clear. I had three choices: quit partying, check into an insane asylum, or kill myself. The third option was the surest bet. I lived then in a place with high rafters, and I pictured myself tossing a rope over one and looping it around my neck. The ease of this scared the hell out of me, and I prayed then, though I didn't really believe in God. I said, If You help me get back to sleep, I promise I will stop partying tomorrow. I picked up a copy of the newspaper and read a story about the cook in the county jail. I was asleep before I reached the end.
In the back of my mind, I had long believed, unreasonably, I admit, that my father had yanked me out of bed that night. It's not unusual to believe such things, that deceased loved ones look over us. And, unlike the notion of Men Who Are Really God, there's enough precedence to give such believe credence: people receive messages from lost loved ones all the time, and they're relatively credible, though they could just as easily be written off as coincidence.
So I was thinking about all this at my father's graveside, marveling at the coincidence of the numbers -- same date, 12 years apart, one year for each step in the program I'd joined to quit drinks and drugs -- when all of a sudden I noticed a tree growing out of the side of my dad's grave. It was sort of a jungle cemetery, stuff was growing wildly all over the place, and it's easy to understand why I'd not noticed it. But my awareness was so immediate, and, coming as it did just as I was marveling at the numerology of my dad's death and the commencement of my sobriety, it was as if the tree had grown at that very moment, like one of those miracles in the Bible, like God's answer to all those questions that were spinning through my head.
I wandered back to the place where I was staying, where one of the pastor's kids was talking on the phone. She and I had plans to attend a movie in town. I wanted to tell her about my graveside experience, to ask if she thought it was a miracle, a message from God. While she talked on the phone, she handed me a greeting card that was sitting on the desk. It was a sappy religious card, the kind I wouldn't ordinarily give a second thought, with a misty photo of a baby under the caption, in Spanish: Because your father in heaven is watching over you. And I sunk back in my chair. All doubt disappeared. I was, in that moment, an avowed Christian with unshakable faith. God had spoken to me, three times, and told me it's true, true, true.
This sort of testimony is the stuff of Christian book store anthologies, where folks from North Carolina and Rhode Island write about how their lives were altered in a moment, and they've never gone back. But my faith began decaying almost immediately. Within a couple of years, I would barely believe in God, much less the story of Him coming to earth as a man to show that He cares about every little thing I do.