In Loving Memory of Duane Howard Cushman Jr….

On Saturday we held a celebration of life for my grandpa, Duane Howard Cushman Jr., who passed on April 11th of this year. In honor of him, we ate a Thanksgiving meal (turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, stuffing, fruit salad, etc., etc.) and simply enjoyed each other’s company – as my grandpa had done more often than not. I had written a few words to share with the group on Saturday, but when the time came I suddenly felt they were more appropriate for a later day and in a different format. Below are those words.

To many of us, my grandpa was a brother, a friend, and a grandfather. But to at least two of us (probably more), he was a father.

In many ways he was a father figure, but I’ve had several of those. They come and go depending on where I am, when I’m there, and what I’m doing: a baseball coach, a teacher, or simply a friend’s dad. When you grow up without ever knowing your own father, you tend to borrow father figures from pretty much anyone, anywhere. What makes my grandpa more than a father figure is that I didn’t choose him; he chose me.

Father figures can be helpful, instructive, and a wise guidance. But it is never expected of any of them to stick around when things get difficult – like when you’re scared in the middle of the night because of a bad dream, sad because your best friend just moved away, feeling homesick after being away at college a few weeks, or when you aren’t sure of what you want to do after graduation. Yes, in many ways my grandpa filled the void of an actual father despite knowing just how much it would cost him financially, emotionally, and physically – and, who knows, maybe even spiritually.

It is because of my grandpa that I know how to write a check and balance my checkbook; that I know how to drive a car; that I know how to keep working until the job gets done; that I know when and how to say “I’m sorry” when I’ve done something wrong and “Thank you” when someone (anyone) has helped me; that I know how to beat just about anyone – yes, Jamie and Aunt Linda, just about anyone – at cribbage; that I know how to be friendly and kind to people I might meet despite what they look like or how they vote; that I know putting aside my own agenda to help someone else is something I should do frequently; and that I know true family means sticking together when no one else will.

Grandpa did more than I ever expected or asked of any father figure and it is because of him that I even had a fighting chance at a life well lived. Celebrating his life, to me, is celebrating the life of an adoptive father who just so happened to be my grandfather.

Thank you to everyone who could make the trip for coming to Saturday’s gathering; my Grandpa would appreciate and enjoy your presence… mostly the food’s presence, but yours as well. And to those who couldn’t make it, my Grandpa would have missed your presence… just like he missed the presence of the forgotten apple pie last Christmas Eve…

If anyone has any stories about my grandpa that they would like to share, send me a Facebook message or an email and I would be happy to read them.

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Dear Grandpa…

Dear Grandpa,

Four weeks ago today, I watched you breathe your last. In the moments that followed, I somehow managed to do something I had never done before: pray with my brother and my aunt over you. As painful as it was, to watch you struggle for hours just to breathe and then to subsequently watch you relax once and for all, it was beautiful. Not in my entire lifetime had I ever seen you so calm – not grunting in pain while shuffling in your seat or cursing at the TV because the Blazers blew another fourth quarter lead. To know that you had finally found such a deep relaxation before you passed along to another world, with your closest family and friends seeing you one last time, it was beautiful. And with my brother, I cried the hardest I have ever cried feeling the weight of your passing.

Seeing as I can no longer call you to update you on life, I figured I’d write. So you better stop smooching on grandma long enough to read… please. I got into a car accident on my way back to Tigard after we loaded the stuff from your apartment into a storage unit. Don’t worry; it wasn’t my fault. I had stopped at a crosswalk when a rather large truck (not a semi) slammed into the back of my car. I had hoped the mechanics would be able to fix it, but they apparently weren’t, so yes, it was totaled. Insurance has been helping out as much as they can, but unfortunately I have some negative equity heading into my next car purchase, which will hopefully be within the next couple of days. But don’t worry, my finances have been as good as they have ever been, thanks to you. I will be okay.

In other news, there is a girl I’ve been seeing for  a few weeks. Furthermore, I have a list of witnesses to her existence so that you will know she is not a figment of my imagination. We don’t really know where it’s going, but we’re enjoying where we are and talking to each other every day. Unfortunately, due to our schedules, we don’t get to see each other as much as we would like, but we have been able to hang out almost twice a week. You’d like her, Grandpa.

All my grades from Spring semester have come out; all A’s. Even though I watched more TV than my fair share this semester, I somehow managed to pull out  a 4.0. I’m only taking four credits this summer semester so as to allow a little more time to breathe and enjoy a bit of life. I’ll also be working, as I told you before, roughly 20 hours a week transcribing Ethiopic manuscripts. Monday was my first day and yesterday my second. It’s actually a very fun gig and I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer. I’ve also already signed up for my fall classes, but they haven’t been finalized as of yet. There are a couple classes I might want to take in stead of the ones I’m currently signed up for. I’ll let you know, though.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you this when you were in the hospital, but I really did cherish the role of being your interpreter. We all knew that you hated having to work so hard for each word only not to be misunderstood, so for me to have a hand in helping you… it just means the world to me, Grandpa. And yes, every bit of what I told you is true: you showed me a kind of an adopting love that echoes that of God’s. Despite being nearly 60 years younger than you, you welcomed us in, gave us our own beds, showered us with toys and Legos that our friends still envy us for, and paid for us to go to school, play sports, and try our hands at anything and everything we could – in as much as you could afford. When the world dealt us a crappy hand, you slipped us a few aces and taught us how to play them. You gave us a better chance in life than anybody else ever could have. That, Grandpa, resembles the God I know and love.

I still have all your most recent voicemails – as many as I could keep. And yes, I’ve deleted everyone else’s messages before I even considered deleting yours. Hearing your voice has always been, and always will be, a reminder of home – a place where bills, car troubles, schoolwork, and even the side effects of being fatherless didn’t matter. All that mattered in your house were Skip-Bo, Cribbage, sharing good food, and having a good laugh. No matter how shitty life becomes for me in the future, I will always have your voice to remind me of the things that really matter – being together with people you love.

I cannot believe it has been four weeks – I really can’t. What I can believe, however, is that all you had taught us will not go to waste. We will still say “Thank you” to every server in every restaurant we visit – even if they only hold the door for us. We will still do all that we can for our guests to make them feel as at-home and comfortable as they possibly could. And we will still place games with our families above the demands of our jobs. You may not have known you were teaching us all those things, but there is no doubt in my mind that they came from you.

As I told you the day you passed, you were more than a father to me – more than I had ever asked or dreamed of. As my brother and I were the sons you never had, you were the father we never had. You were the answer to our prayers before we had the chance to pray them. Everything we have, all that we are, and all that is to come is only possible because of the chance you gave us. Because you first loved us, we will love those around us.

Finally, I come to the most important matter. You better be practicing your Cribbage game because when I join you, I will have no mercy. You old hag…

With love,

Your second (grand)son,

“Bug”

P.S. S’awright!

Dads, Car Troubles, and Peace…

Cars are fun.

That’s what I’ve learned over the past month or so. Especially those moments when they stall at a car dealership and you have to push them back into a parking spot while a family of four awkwardly watch only fifteen feet away while they wait for their brand new minivan. Those moments are a blast.

Or when you’re convinced to buy a car that is nearly double your price range and it only goes three weeks without a breakdown? And then, after you’ve taken it in and gotten it “repaired,” it breaks down exactly one week later? Crazy awesome.

Seriously, you should try it some time.

Bitter sarcasm aside, I’m really not as upset about my car situation (or lack thereof – you have to actually have a car to have a car situation) as I might seem – definitely not as much as I should be. And it’s really puzzling. I should be near livid that I spent more money than I’ve ever had for something that has broken down almost as many times as my old car. I should be screaming my lungs out at the dealership and throwing things. And yet – be it the jazzy music I’m listening to or the three dollar wine I’m drinking – I’m not.

I’m not happy about how things have gone, but my mind has not been lost (yet) and I haven’t kicked any kittens (…yet).

I wish I could say it’s all because I’ve become a secret Zen master meditating in the wee hours of the morning on how to become one with the butterfly, but I can’t. Well, I can say I do the meditating part; my eyes are definitely closed in the wee hours of the morning. But I can’t say that my relative calmness in the chaos of car breakdowns is due to some extra inner-peace-keeping regiment. I’ve done nothing out of the ordinary to prepare for the mess I’ve been tossed into.

What I am genuinely more surprised about is what I didn’t do (unlike the cars I drive): breakdown. A few years ago I wrote a post about how I was afraid of my car breaking down mostly because I wouldn’t know what to do. I was paranoid of failing cars not because I’d be without a car for a while and would have to figure out a way to get to and from work, but because of the scars that would be ripped open.

Like I said in that post, I kind of wish I had had a dad to show me the ropes on cars – even just the basics would have been fine. Instead, I’ve had to learn the way I’ve learned in the last 30 days; when my car stalls, sputters, and makes strange noises. In those cases I have to ask a friend or a coworker to check it out and offer what knowledge they have because any knowledge about cars would be helpful. What I didn’t notice until today, when my car wouldn’t start before work this morning, was that throughout this process of asking those closest to me in physical proximity, I’m no longer paranoid of when my car breaks down.

Again, I’m not happy, but that’s a far cry from being paranoid.

What I think is even cooler than not being paranoid, though, is discovering that I’m not alone in my lack of knowledge of cars. You see when you start to ask around to see who is and who isn’t knowledgeable about cars, you implicitly admit to those whom you’re asking that you don’t know much, which then enables them to admit it, too.

Fatherless kids – even the ones who were privileged enough to have their grandpas raise them instead – oftentimes feel alone. Donald Miller describes it best in Blue Like Jazz; it’s like there’s a secret knowledge about how to be a man that only kids with dads get to learn. If you don’t have a dad, tough luck in being a man.

And yet what Christianity says is that everyone has a Dad – the Dad. He may not teach you face to face or show you with His own hands how to do something. But if you’re patient and get quiet enough to listen, He will teach you. It might hurt the pride a bit and you might have to ask someone you’ve never really talked to before, but He will teach you.

No, God’s Fatherhood is not reserved only for men; women are as much His daughters as men are His sons. I only know what it’s like from the guys’ side and more specifically, the fatherless guys who had an odd assortment of father figures throughout their lives as replacements. But no matter how the demographics break down or where the lines of perspective are drawn, there is never anyone who is truly alone. We’ve all experienced the discomfort of not knowing something.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,”  – Philippians 4:6-7

As my previous month has shown, this passage applies to the simple things like learning about cars. When I was terrified of my car breaking down, God sent person after person after person to teach me one little thing after another about my car. And thinking back over these last couple of weeks, I could have reacted much worse than I did and not because my car broke down. Instead, I treated God as He is: my Dad. As a result, I was able to experience His peace in moments that are typically anything but peaceful.

Drive safe and God bless.

(And check your spark plugs and wires)

The Importance of Family…

I miss my grandma.

Tonight I watched a movie I had never seen before: Antwone Fisher. Since I don’t appreciate movies being spoiled for me, I’m going to warn all readers that if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I suggest you do. It’s available for rent on iTunes. For those who have seen it, please continue reading.

Throughout the movie, I felt the tears welling up. At any point where Antwone was bullied and remained quiet to try and stifle the anger, any time he was asked about his father, or anytime he was made fun of for “not being with a woman,” I was clenching my fists and gritting my teeth. No, his story isn’t the same as mine. But I know what that kind of anger feels like. And even though, my anger never got me into trouble, I have often found myself ready to punch something until my hands bled.

Antwone didn’t meet his mother until much later in the movie. I’ve known my mother my whole life. Antwone never knew his father and neither have I known my father, but for him, he got to meet his father’s family. He met aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., etc., but the one person he met that really stood out to me – the one relative I broke down weeping over – was his grandma.

I miss my grandma so much. She passed when I was ten years old. At the time I didn’t know how to deal with the loss. My school gave me that whole week off and since I didn’t know what to do with myself, I spent every day in the church parking lot nearby playing roller hockey by myself. What I felt then is what I feel now. But the one difference between then and now is I know why I feel this way.

I miss my grandma because she never intimidated me. Instead, she would play cards with me. Cribbage, Go Fish, UNO, Skip Bo – whatever the game was, she’d play with me until she wanted to sleep, eat, or watch her TV shows. And sometimes, when she didn’t like what she was watching, she’d ask if I was bored with my Legos and would want to try to beat her again at cribbage. While I was in out of my mother’s custody and unsure about whether or not my grandpa loved me, my grandma taught me the most important thing I have ever learned about this world: There can be peace. Peace within yourself.

I will never meet my father. At the very least, the odds of actually meeting him are overwhelmingly not in my favor. His name isn’t on my birth certificate. He never called to check up on my mother. And, try as she might, my mother simply cannot remember his last name with much certainty. And believe me, she has tried.

It really does eat at me that I won’t be able to shake his hand or play a game of cribbage with him. When I think of why it bothers me, thousands of words come to mind and to spill them all here might take days – that’s if I can even make sentences out of them. I’ve asked God for help, too; I’ve asked Him so many times for the privilege of meeting my other half. But with whatever effort I or others have given – weak or strong – I come up with nothing but dead ends. If I only have a first name, I can’t even get started.

Instead of praying for that privilege again tonight, I prayed for something else: The privilege of meeting his family. I prayed that I might be able to shake hands with his brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and – most importantly – his mother. I prayed for the privilege of having her aged hands cup my face and say, “Welcome.” As I wept, I prayed.

In all honesty, it will probably never happen – at least, not in this life. In the meantime, though, I can appreciate the honor and privilege of knowing the family I have now – no matter how irregular we may be. I can appreciate my mother for never missing an opportunity to say, “I love you.” I can appreciate my grandfather for teaching me the importance of taking responsibility, even when you don’t want to. I can appreciate my brother for teaching me what it means to take pride in a family name, even if it didn’t come from our fathers. And I can appreciate the sweet, but short time I had with my grandmother for bringing peace in the hurricane that is life.

I’m glad my roommate wasn’t home tonight. I don’t like it when others see me cry – especially over my father issues, which happens nearly every time I watch a movie about a kid who never knew his father. It isn’t pretty. Trust me. I go through hundreds of tissues trying to clean up the snotty, teary mess running down my face. It’s disgusting.

But I’m glad I watched that movie. And I’m glad, above all else, to have God as my own Father.

God bless.

Extracting the Poison…

“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers,” – Proverbs 17:6

As much as I don’t like writing about my father issues (or rather, my fatherless issues), I have found that the closer I’ve grown with God, the more open this wound becomes. I know it doesn’t sound like a good thing; it seems contrary to the character of God to inflict pain on his children. Someone once suggested that my faith was doing more harm to me than good. But yet I – the one who is going through this emotional pain – do not see it that way at all.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” – Luke 5:31

Like a bite from a cobra, not having anyone to call “dad” has poisoned my heart. And also like a snake bite, the venom must be removed. This is an exceedingly painful process, which could lead one to believe that since Jesus is the physician – that Jesus is the one, the only one, who could properly treat this wound – then He’s the one inflicting the pain on me. Given this light, it would seem that my faith is actually harming me. But what we rarely consider is the end result: true healing.

Yes, extracting the venom is painful, but it beats being poisoned. Unlike a snake bite, the venom our Enemy injects into us is slow-moving. Oftentimes you feel fine – as if you will be okay, as if you don’t need a doctor. And little by little, you grow comfortable with that bite – you find ways to work with it so you don’t have to feel the pain. “If I just keep this to myself, I’ll be alright.” But then someone notices your wound and tells you that you need a doctor immediately. And so you react by pushing your friends away. You intentionally avoid the crowds, intentionally isolate yourself, intentionally keep the poison inside of you. And yet what none of us are very good at remembering is that no matter how deep our wounds go and how deep that poison runs; Jesus dives deeper.

Simply put, this is my life story. I recognized early on that something wasn’t right, that I desperately needed help, but I closed myself off. I stopped hanging out with my friends, kept church relationships to a minimum, and ignored it at all costs whenever I was alone. Ignorance is bliss, right?

God knows that we can only run so far before we bring our worlds crashing down on top of us.

Thankfully, it didn’t have to come to that for me. Why I cited Proverbs 17:6 at the top was because it hits home to me; I have never known my father, but I was fathered by my grandpa. Little did I know that as I was ignoring the issues brought on by my absent father, God had given me someone to lead, teach, and guide me. As Jesus waited to treat the venom in my wound, He gave me my grandpa; my IV-drip sustaining me until I let Jesus in.

“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged.”

When the government puts you with foster parents, there’s a sense of rejection you feel. Not only do you feel rejected by the people who left you to the state, but you feel like a burden to the new people designated to take care of you. This is how I often felt living with my grandparents. No, not at all the time; in fact, I’d say most of the time it felt like a long visit. But sometimes when my grandpa would get mad and yell at me, I thought he was annoyed with me. I thought he didn’t want me to be there. And yet this Proverb suggests something else.

The footnote to 17: 6 in my NIV study Bible says this; “To live to see one’s grandchildren was considered a great blessing.” Not only has my grandfather gotten to see me; but he’s taken care of me. I got to be one of the sons he never had. And when I think of my childhood with my grandpa in light of this Proverb, I recall all the moments where my grandpa showed his delight in me; like when he’d rub his beard in my face before I went to bed or how he’d pretend to hug me then unleash a sneak tickle-attack on my ribs. Those moments, as odd as they might sound, were moments when I felt loved.

As I talked about a week ago, I’m going through a major transition in my life that I wish I had a father for guidance and advice. Last night, after watching Pirates of the Caribbean 4, it really hit me. It hit me that my college life is over, that I’m truly on my own from this point on, and that I alone must figure out what I’m going to do. It’s terrifying – so terrifying that I wept for half an hour last night. Shaking, trembling, and pouring out tears, I longed for those moments with my grandpa – those moments when there were no worries, but instead nothing but love. And I wished that I had a dad if for no other purpose but to hold me as I cried.

I know, it sounds dreadful, but I’m still in surgery. Jesus is still digging deep into my wound to get every last bit of that poison. It hurts and I often feel like it’s never going to get better, but I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, which means I believe death, pain, and suffering can and will be wiped out. At any point in my life, I could turn away from Him. But the venom is only going to run deeper and cause more damage – so much so that the wound I was inflicted by will be the wound I inflict my children with. History will continue to repeat itself unless we let Jesus in – unless we let Him extract the poison.

Embracing the Difficulty…

I got kind of an emotional slap in the face this morning. I woke up plenty early; early enough to go to class. But for some reason I didn’t feel like it. Senioritis is definitely setting in right about now. I think it’s even worse since I’m technically a “super senior”; it’s as if I saved up all the lethargy and procrastination until this term. At any rate, I knew Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would be on at 10, so around 10:15, I threw on some clothes, started some coffee and sat down to watch. In a matter of ten minutes I was weeping.

It was another father episode; Will finally saw his dad again and wanted to leave with him for the summer. But, as he had done before, Will’s father let him down. Uncle Phil had been arguing with Will’s dad about abandoning him again and how Will was going to feel crushed at the news. Will’s dad didn’t even have the courage to tell Will himself, but he eventually ended up doing so – Will just happened to walk in just as his dad was walking out. Anyhow, after Will’s dad turned around and left for good, Phil tried to comfort him.

“Will, it’s okay to be mad.”

But Will tried to play it off as if it wasn’t a big deal. Little by little, you could see the emotions within him begin to stir. I almost started hyperventilating. No, I don’t know what it’s like to meet my dad and get let down by him again. But I recognize Will’s mixed emotions and how he tried to mask it all. I’ve paced around my room trying to convince myself that it was okay for my father to choose another life besides me; that there was nothing wrong with him leaving before I was born; and that there was never any pain from him. It’s like trying to tell the doctor that the stab wound in the middle of your chest isn’t really there.

“I don’t need him! To hell with him!” Will then yelled in anger. A moment later, he broke down weeping, “Why doesn’t he want me? Why?… Why?” I lost it.

I’m at a point in my life where guidance is scarce. In hanging out with many other college students my age, I realize I’m not alone. But yet, because my dad wasn’t ever there, I feel as if there is a source of guidance that everyone else has but me. I feel like I’m going to receive my diploma, move out of my apartment, and then fall apart in the “real world” because my dad was never there to get my head straight.

My fatherless wound was ripped open in a matter of ten minutes this morning. And the one thing I immediately realized after my tears had dried was that this isn’t going to be the last time, either. I’m going to have these moments where I break down weeping simply because I’m venturing into uncharted territory; I’m arriving to a place physically, spiritually, and emotionally that I don’t know how to handle. I don’t know when these moments will hit exactly, but I have a good idea; my wedding, the birth of my first child, struggles with raising my children, and then sending my own kids off to college. I’m pretty sure those will be break down moments because I never had that fatherly voice grounding me in wisdom so well that when the storms rage, I’d keep my cool and bear it.

I’m at a point in my life where I won’t have anyone holding my hand to cross the street or wrapping me up in his arms when a storm thunders and roars through town. Not knowing my next step in life is one thing; not having anyone to keep me secure until I figure it out is entirely another.

The harsh reality that guys like Will and I have to face is that our dads are never going to be the dads we want them to be. Sure they could change; but we can’t waste our time holding our breath. We have to sit there and watch them walk out of our lives and learn to completely let go. And the only positive thing guys like Will and I have are the guys like Uncle Phil; the guys who father children who aren’t their own in order to give them a fighting chance at this life – guys like Duane Howard Cushman (my grandpa).

And yet I’ve found more than any father could offer: God. In the deepest of ways, God has been slowly but surely working on the fatherless wound in me; something that no one person could ever really do. God brought together a bunch of different guys to help keep me from following the path of my dad. I would not be here without them. But even with the mentors I’ve had, I’m still in uncharted territory; I’m still the one who has to call his own plays as he goes. No one else is going to do it for me.

Unlike Will in Fresh Prince, though, I will probably never meet my biological father. Accepting that fact at face-value was easy. It was like telling myself that I will never meet Santa Claus. But accepting that fact when I go through each major step in life will not be so easy. And whether I like it or not, I have to embrace the difficulty.

Eldrick…

The first half of this post was written for my Creative Writing Non-Fiction class two years ago, well before the controversy began.

His face is frozen intensity. He is the personification of passion; one moment uncontrollably angry and the next punching the air in triumphant joy. His hair, when seen without a hat, is balding slightly at the front. Although it isn’t quite defined, you can see how much sun his head doesn’t receive compared to the rest of his face. His dark brown, short and curly hair is almost always shaped to the specific hat he wears. His African American/Vietnamese skin stands out amongst his coworkers.

“When he was a kid, the other students would tie him up to a fence with chains and start beating him with sticks,” his father informs all the viewers in a documentary. A photo of his Vietnamese mother and African-American father flashes on the screen while some white guy explains its significance. There’s no need for words; this picture informs us all we need to know to his background.

“When he was two years old, I saw him do something I have never seen before; he stopped in the middle of the back swing, switched from a left-handed stance to a right-handed one and swung away,” his father continues about early signs of his son’s success.

“But I knew I had something special when he did something extraordinary: he switched from a left-handed grip to a right-handed one without asking how to do it.”

His facial features weren’t what I paid most of my attention to, but they were very distinct. His eyes were wide like his mother’s and big like his father’s. His head is wide at the top and slightly narrowed as you worked your way to his chin. His smile is rare, only on good shots and victories, but his grimace isn’t. After taking several practice swings, his face goes from calm and collected to deeply introspective with the eyebrows at a slight frown. His pearl-white teeth are clenched in such a way you can see his jaw muscles flex. His ears are really the first thing you notice, but the last to have any emotion. They rise when he smiles and lower when he strikes the ball.

Back in his college days, his body was a toothpick. But ever since he has worked harder than any of his colleagues and he even invented a new way of practicing the game. He’d take his regular eighteen tee shots, eighteen approach shots and thirty six putts, but unlike anyone else, would venture over to the weight room to max out on the bench at nearly 300 pounds. In most of my memories of him, his arms were thick and his upper torso was trim. Many have doubted why he puts so much effort and spends so much time in the weight room, but his actions are proven wise with his 320+ yards per drive average and his 90+ wins. His legs don’t look like legs at all but rather tree trunks that were attached to him, even though his constant slack-wearing style doesn’t reveal them much. I am pretty sure they’d kick him out of the league once they discovered the trees.

“What’s second place? It’s the first loser,” his words reverberate off the walls of my memory and drive me to hit one more ball, take one more putt and try one more chip shot. I’ve watched so many of his tournaments that I no longer need to be reminded of what his swing looks like; slow and steady as the club reaches beyond parallel and then violent and destructive as he unleashes 125 mph worth of energy in a downward swoop at a little white ball. As I practice, I envision not just his swing and his playing strategies, but his emotionless game face as well. The key to defeating your opponents is not just in the score that you shoot, but also in how you don’t reveal what you’re really feeling. It’s most commonly referred to as the poker face; trying to not let your opponents read your mind. He has the perfect poker face. If I want to win anything at all, I must first be able to mimic that poker face.

I would not have gotten far in life had it not been for the fame of this man. His status as not only a top-of-the-world athlete but also as an icon for the racially-marginalized propelled me through the rough spots. My brown skin may not be as dark is his, but it was definitely dark enough to receive comments like “spick” or “beaner” or even sometimes “nigger.” The way that this man held his poker face against the kids beating him up against a fence with sticks years ago was an act of defiance to any social conformity. Civil Disobedience personified. Who is he? His full name is Eldrick Tont Woods, but he is famous with the name Tiger.

He taught me how to golf.

He taught me how to live.

***

I realize that it’s been roughly a year and a half since Tiger Woods’ controversial lifestyle came to light and that it might be still a taboo subject in the minds of many. But I’ve been thinking of my role-models lately and he definitely comes up. When you grow up without of father, you gravitate towards certain icons as role-models even if you don’t exactly understand why. My case was a little different; I was a brown kid growing up in a white family. Finding my place in it all was a little difficult.

I guess this is why I was such a big Tiger Woods fan in high school. I found some kind of inexplicable comfort in watching such an athlete as Tiger dominate in a predominantly-white crowd. This didn’t encourage a sort of racist attitude in me, as if I was somehow better than my white peers. But it did give me, in an odd way, a sense of confidence; that I could compete in golf, but more so in life.

No, my family isn’t a bunch of racists and if there was any prejudice as I was growing up, I didn’t really notice it. But what I had a difficult time dealing with was looking in the mirror, seeing my brown skin (and face and hair and eyes), and finding no match in any part of my family. It added a slightly different dimension to being adopted than just a different last name; I often felt out place merely by my skin color. I remember picturing myself in all my day dreams as a kid as a white boy with blue eyes and black hair. It wasn’t until about middle school that I really start to accept the fact that my skin color was not white.

Is it just because Tiger Woods has dark skin that I followed him closely going through high school? No; it’s also how he handled it. What he greatly disliked when the question of his skin color came up was the label “African American.” Why? Because his mother is Vietnamese and to label him as only half his bloodline was disrespecting his mother. In a like manner, I am white, too – not just Cherokee. Accepting that bit of truth as well helped me to truly identify with the last name “Cushman” because it wasn’t given to me through my father.

My father’s absence did a lot of things to me. But I think it did a lot of things for me; it forced me to pay attention. I couldn’t ignore my brown skin in a white family. And in answering the “Why” question, I was forced to search. I could have hidden behind the identity of a partier or druggy or something else entirely. But thinking about what those identities did to my parents, I knew it wasn’t something worth doing. My mother has often told me so.

Tiger Woods remains a popular figure and talented athlete in the eyes of many. But for me he stands as something more: A role model in battling issues of race and identity. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but when I was taking notes on his approach to golf, I was also taking notes on his approach to life: full throttle, focused, and as a societal equal. He was marginalized, but he wasn’t defeated. In my battles with depression and searching for my own identity, his story encouraged me to keep going regardless of the pain – to keep that game face strong as the world beat my heart with sticks.