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.