CUMBERLAND, Md.—I’m eating crabcakes beneath the afternoon shadow of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the anniversary of my father’s suicide.
The church steeple rises into the sky like a needle, poking into low clouds. It’s magnificent. Cumberland is full of steeples. In fact, it looks like the city was designed by Billy Graham.
My wife and I sit on the curb outside the church. We’re eating genuine crab cakes with our hands. The cakes crumble in our laps, getting grease stains on our clothes. They are rich, hot, buttery, and dangerously high in cholesterol. I’ve eaten four.
Today’s date is typically the worst of my calendar year. How can a calendar day be cursed? I don’t know. But his death was the most pivotal moment of my life. It messed me up, stole my confidence, ended my education, and left me with more issues than an annual subscription to the “Saturday Evening Post.”
Which is why I was feeling a little somber today, rolling into Cumberland on our cycles. We’ve been on the trail for seven days, and I was feeling a little worn.
But then I saw the scenery.
The distant steeples in this picturesque Appalachian valley made hot tears swell behind my eyes. You’ve never seen anything more touching than a dozen churches in the mountains.
I hate that my father can’t be here to see this. But then, he never had time to see the world. He worked like a pack mule, then logged in overtime cutting his grass. I don’t know how he found time to blow his nose.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
Anyway, the first thing I did when we came into Cumberland was buy crab cakes. For one thing, I was starving from days of malnutrition. For another: I’ve heard everyone talk about these things. Crab cakes are a big deal to Marylanders.
And after eating them, I get it. These cakes are sauteed to perfection, light and fluffy, filled with chunks of blue crab so plump they ought to have a PG-13 rating.
I only hope the Episcopal church doesn’t mind me eating this impromptu lunch on their curb.
I’m drawn to churches. This one in particular. This historic building was built upon the foundations of Fort Cumberland. The same fort where a young Virginian named George Washington first began his military career.
I take a short tour of the ancient building’s outside. The chapel contains Tiffany stained-glass windows that will make your breath catch. The brickwork is from another age. The sanctuary is the picture of serenity.
I stare at the brilliant windows and think about Daddy.
He was close to my age when he ended it all. He was tall, goofy, loved baseball, good barbecue, and walked with a forward hunch in his neck. The hunch came from a welding accident. He fell three stories and landed on his hardhat.
After the fall, he awoke in a hospital bed, numb all over. His paralyzed body was covered in scrapes and bruises. Medical men poked his toes with needles. They said he’d never walk again.
My father told me he stared at the hospital ceiling and cried. Then he bargained.
He said, “God, if you let me walk again, I’ll go to church every Sunday.”
Which sounds like a downright ridiculous plea bargain when you think about it. But a man will say anything when he’s in a hospital bed.
In a few weeks, sensation returned to his legs, he was soon walking. His spine healed, and he went back to welding the following year.
My father attended church every Sunday of my life thereafter. Without exception.
What I want to know is, how could a man have such a strong will to live that he bargains with God, but then turns around an ends it all by his own hand? How?
But then, I suppose these questions are ones that remain unanswered. Because he’s up there. And I’m down here. I’m eating crab. I don’t know what he’s doing. Fishing maybe.
I look upward at the steeple, it reaches into the uncloudy day like an open hand. The sunlight hurts my eyes. A flock of geese drifts overhead in tight formation.
I love the way the tall belfry cuts the blueness. I love the strength of the needle, standing high. I know a steeple is just wood and rock, but to me it means something.
The irony here is, no two historians can seem to agree on why exactly mankind puts steeples on his holy places. We’ve been building them since our earliest days of humanhood, but nobody has a good reason.
Some claim steeples were used as community sundials, long before mechanical clocks. Others say the spires are remnants from Pagan days, when people worshiped obelisks.
I have a different theory. I have no evidence to support my cereal-box hypothesis. But I believe it nonetheless.
I think steeples are placed on churches for the same reason red crosses are painted onto hospitals during wartime. I believe a steeple is there because in this confusing, hectic, and bombarded world, sometimes it’s nice to see something tall and strong.
Whenever you need it, it’s there. Whenever you’re having a bad day, there it is. Whenever you’re overloaded with bittersweet memories that burn your eyes and clog your nose, and make you ask questions to the sky, a steeple stabs itself into the air so you can find it.
Today was one of those days for me.
You missed some great crab cakes, Daddy.
Christina - September 15, 2020 6:56 am
Sean, I can relate to the pain you feel, though for different reasons. I too have questions that seem so unanswerable on this side of heaven. I will be looking for the tall and strong steeple. Just wish I had those crab cakes too.
jacobygt1 - September 15, 2020 6:57 am
Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day.
I pray that all your days remain unclouded
Judy - September 15, 2020 7:02 am
Always comforting to awaken to your column. Steeples show us the way home. Pedal on Sean and Jamie….
Ann - September 15, 2020 8:40 am
You always find uplifting out of downsliding…having read your last book and the roller coaster life you’ve had God has given you a beautiful talent and YOU are the one who is sharing it so beautifully. Thank you Sean ( and Jamie)….and this heartwarming/heart wrenching column is visually beautiful and reassuring….( and delicious)!
Steve M. Watkins, III - September 15, 2020 9:52 am
A steeple is a pinnacle, a connection to the beyond.
steve acree - September 15, 2020 9:55 am
Those crab cakes are on my bait bucket list. Maybe one day. Your daddy, like Lewis Grizzard’s and Rick Bragg’s, haunt me still. I had a daddy till I retired. He was always there for me. I like to think I was there for him when I became an adult and even earlier. He taught me how to fish ,play and care about people. Or his DNA did. I love your writing and journey this summer. When I retired writing was my next thing. I have a story about my last day at work but most would say I made it up. Thanks for the daily dose of doing cool stuff………..
Ed Link - September 15, 2020 10:53 am
Thank you once again, Sean and may God continue to bless you and your family. You are making a difference
Diane Toth - September 15, 2020 10:55 am
We all have questions we have no answers for, maybe some day we will….maybe.
April Ellington - September 15, 2020 12:49 pm
Sean, I love your posts. As a person who has struggled with clinical depression, I truly believe a person is not in their right mind when they commit suicide. Not long ago, my 2nd son who is 26 was fighting severe depression. He pulled out his gun and looked down the barrel with the full intention of ending it. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t see any other path. We were blessed that night and got to him in time. He’s doing so much better and today he’s glad his plan was interrupted. As I was reading your post and thinking about the fact that your dad made a bargain with God but later ended his own life, I understood. I love that he made that bargain and kept going to church. I believe God likes bargains. I also know that people can fall into some really dark places through no fault of their own. Some of the best people I know fight mental illness on a daily basis. Keep writing, keep biking on your trike, and most importantly know that your dad did the very best that he could.
Karen Erwin-Brown - September 15, 2020 1:16 pm
East coast seafood. Yum! Prayers for all on the trip. Sounds awesome. My husband and I camped out on the east coast from Durham to Maine when he graduated from Duke. May and lovely. I ate lobster until I grew a claw.
Good to remember our Dads even the really sad times.
Betty McManus - September 15, 2020 1:17 pm
I’m sorry about your Daddy, Sean. He sounds sweet and funny like you.
Betty, San Diego
Brad - September 15, 2020 1:19 pm
Thanks Sean – I can see the steeples and taste the crabcakes – thanks for your words about Daddies
Melinda - September 15, 2020 1:19 pm
Beautifully told stories within stories….writing is evocative, strong and true. Thank you!
Betty F. - September 15, 2020 1:29 pm
So very sorry for your pain, Sean. Wish I could give you a long, strong hug, but thank goodness you have Jamie. You have come a long way- not just on your bike trail.
Charles W Floyd - September 15, 2020 2:01 pm
One of your better writings. I enjoyed it a lot.
And concerning that flock of geese you mention…do you know why one side of that V formation is always longer than the other. Well, it’s because there are more geese on the longer side.
Sorry, but I just had to.
Jane Elder - September 15, 2020 2:15 pm
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this pivotal day. I have one of those too…but somehow we scab over and move on. I am glad that you were in Cumberland…it is an amazing place.
R. K. Martin - September 15, 2020 2:24 pm
The City of Steeples with a crab cake in hand. A perfect day. God Bless your Dad, you, and your family. Fill your eyes with sights he never got to see. My Dad said his kids were his greatest accomplishment, so enjoy his legacy.
R. K. Martin - September 15, 2020 2:28 pm
The City of Steeples with a crab cake in hand. A perfect day. Wish the steam train was running. God bless your Dad, you, and your family. Fill your eyes with things he never got to see. My Dad and Mom said their kids were their greatest accomplishment, so enjoy his legacy.
Larry - September 15, 2020 2:42 pm
Praying for you Sean. Thanks for being open and honest and real.
Patricia Gibson - September 15, 2020 2:45 pm
Well said, Sean❤️❤️
AlaRedClayGirl - September 15, 2020 2:50 pm
When we realize that our Daddys (and Mamas too) made mistakes, that they did the best they could at the time, given the circumstances, then can we truly see them as human and forgive their failings. Thank you for taking us along on this ride.
Leah VanHoose - September 15, 2020 3:05 pm
While youre in Maryland go check out the shore. My old stomping grounds. Easton, Oxford and St. Michaels. It’s worth the drive.
Linda - September 15, 2020 3:27 pm
I am so sorry for your loss, Sean. My Dad died of cancer at 56….I miss him everyday.
I’m happy that you are cycling with Jamie. We are on 81 south In Virginia right now to visit our grandchildren who moved to TN Over the summer .
It’s bittersweet for us as we have been with them for 8 years / 3 miles away….so we will visit and then have to come back home due to medical needs on my part…sadness infiltrates all of us at one time or another ….but without sorrow we probably wouldn’t appreciate the happy times….
Take care !
Linda Moon - September 15, 2020 5:04 pm
My father was always “Daddy”, flawed though he was. Eponymous poetry, pictures, and pieces of my “Daddy’s Chair” are here beside me. Appalachian steeples’ skies will align for the son of a flawed father who will soon be on trails and places you’ve been writing from, Sean. Maybe, just maybe, I know why you told us this today. I’m glad the steeples were there for you and will be there for the other son, too.
Patricia Schwindt - September 15, 2020 5:37 pm
I am speechless. And crying about your daddy.
DiAn - September 15, 2020 5:40 pm
Wow! That’s usually my first feeling after reading on of Sean’s columns. But this one today makes me want to say both: Wow! AND eat a crab cake!
Dang, Sean – you’ve done it again! Cumberland sounds like a bit of heaven on earth.
Keep on writing – I can’t wait to see what flows out of your wonderful brain & this cycling trip next!
Robert M Brenner - September 15, 2020 7:57 pm
I don’t think your daddy missed the crab cakes, he was right there with you watching his sweet thoughtful son enjoy them with his bride… 🦀
Tammy S. - September 15, 2020 10:14 pm
There are no doubts from all of us, your Daddy is so proud of you! Always has been. Big hugs to you, Sean. And thanks for always bringing a smile, even through a few tears, to our faces. God bless you!
Sue Rhodus - September 15, 2020 10:24 pm
I know about the calender days that carry “the curse.” September 11 was my Mom’s 95 th birthday , she celebrated in heaven. It was also the anniversary date of the worst day in US history. Such a bittersweet day. I am at peace that she was in heaven. She would not handle isolation well. I was her only child. Her family has all gone. She spent her last five years in assisted living and she never adjusted to that life style. There are blessings in every tear we cry. Thank you for sharing your ” humanness” .That’s probably not a real word. ❤
Charlie Mathers - September 15, 2020 10:32 pm
I. The olden days before gps or even maps, if you were out wandering around looking for dinner, and the sun started down, getting home was a piece of corn pone! Just climb the tallest tree around, look around and there it would be, a steeple twice as tall as all the trees, leading you home. Works in the woods and on the plains and especially on the sea shore. Steeples will get you home one way or another! Also makes a good aiming point for a man with a cannon, but that’s another story! 😊
MAM - September 15, 2020 11:36 pm
Three adjectives today: yummy, moving and sweet.
Mike P. - September 16, 2020 12:16 am
Welcome to my hometown! I attended one of those churches every Sunday. (Ss. Peter and Paul’s) I spent the first 18 years trying to figure out how to get out of there and the last 40 years trying to figure out how to get back. (still unsuccessful.) I’m sorry that the loss of your father hit you hard there and I hope that the quiet mountain scenery brought you a little peace!
Linda Jo - September 16, 2020 1:55 am
Your father’s passing anniversary is not an easy day. He taught you to write, to sing, to play your music; where would all your followers be everyday if he hadn’t?
Elizabeth - September 16, 2020 4:23 am
that would be a hard day, to understate things…. I am glad you have seen, so clearly, things to hold on to. And that you are aware of how much food can give us pause and comfort. God be with you and your clearly very loved by you wife!
Peggy - September 22, 2020 6:49 pm
My husband did the C&O Canal bike trail a while back. It starts in Cumberland. 183 miles all by himself in the woods. He needed to prove to himself he could do it. Overcome fear. When we picked him up in DC he said “now he understands why cyclist wear those special pants.” The seam around the legs of his underwear rubbed him raw 😂
Susan Marks - October 17, 2020 9:03 pm
If you enjoyed this column, please read Sean’s book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken “. Such a great read and much raw emotion in his writings. I could not put it down…yet, hated for it to end.
I do not know Sean. I’m not his aunt, cousin or former school mate. I’m just a fan of his (and Jamie) trying to keep moving and learning during COVID.
Thank you Sean for sharing yourself with us.