DEAR YOUNGER ME
Of all the painful memories still running through my head, I wonder how much different things would be, Dear younger me.
— MercyMe, "Dear Younger Me," from Welcome to the New (2014)
My dad was Arthur Millard Jr., son of Arthur Millard Sr. When Dad was around ten years old, and his brother, Mike, was about seven, my grandfather left the family, divorced my grandmother, and quickly remarried. Because of Arthur Sr.'s devastating choices, my dad took on the immense pressure of suddenly being head of the household, a horribly premature responsibility that birthed an anger and bitterness in his heart that would affect him throughout his life.
As a young man, my father was a star football player at Greenville High School. Greenville is a small town in Texas, about forty-five miles northeast of Dallas. He became an All-American at the position of center. For you non-sports folks, that is the player in the middle of the offensive line who snaps the football to the quarterback, then blocks the defense away from the man with the ball. Needless to say, guys who play center are big, tough dudes, brutes you do not want to mess with or make angry. My dad was no exception.
He was offered football scholarships to several schools, but by the time Dad graduated from high school in 1961, he chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas so he could stay close to home. Another important factor in this decision was that he was dating a young lady named Adele. Adele, known to her family and friends as Dell, would eventually become my mom. She was the daughter of a pastor who had planted a new church in Greenville.
When a Dream Dies
By his sophomore year in college, Dad was playing center for the SMU Mustangs and had dreams of going on to play pro football. But with all the time and energy demanded by his sports schedule, coupled with a full slate of classes, he deeply missed his sweetheart, Dell. He also struggled with a strong sense of responsibility to take care of his mom, so Dad made the difficult decision to let go of his dream, leave school, and move back home.
From that day when he drove away from SMU's campus back into Greenville's city limits, Dad never lived anywhere else and rarely ever left town. He and my mom soon married, and, in 1968, they welcomed their first child, Stephen. Once again, Dad had the responsibility of supporting a family.
The decision to walk away from his opportunity to play football would haunt my dad for a very long time, and a deep regret festered in him, eventually turning into a cancerous case of the what-ifs. As a result, sports were a constant focus in our family, and soon that near-obsession demanded that my brother and I get involved too. Whenever Stephen and I were playing sports, things were always a little better at home.
Several years after leaving SMU, Dad got together with some of his old teammates. They told him that the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Colts had been considering him in the draft, but when he quit college ball, he fell off both teams' radars. Evidently, he had never known that possibility was forming behind the scenes. That kind of information can be hard for any man to take, especially when disappointment is already a constant companion. This was one of many little slices of life that caused my dad to become a realist, always insisting that people have to give up their dreams to have any sort of family stability.
So many people have told me over the years how in that season of his life, when he had just come home from college, Dad was a "big ol' teddy bear." Everybody liked Arthur and wanted to be his friend. In the Greenville area, he was the local sports hero, popular everywhere he went. Dad was the proverbial "big fish in a small pond," which can be a blessing but also a curse, because fish live in glass houses.
My mom tells me that back then, he was the greatest guy you could ever know. But that was before I was born.
Waking Up in a Different World
In order to make a dependable living for his new family, Dad got a job with the Texas Highway Department. The Lone Star State has long been fiscally solid, so stability, pay, and benefits were all available for their workers, from new hires straight up the steps of the organizational ladder to retirement. When he first started, Dad was a flagman, directing traffic in construction zones. While this job may look like a boring one, it is actually quite dangerous because of the necessity of being in such close proximity to the traffic.
One particular day in 1969, as he was flagging cars, a driver in a diesel truck struck Dad, launching him at least fifty feet into the air and knocking him unconscious. After the ambulance took him to the hospital and the doctors had run a gamut of tests, they told Mom that, miraculously, he had no broken bones, but he was in a coma and the prognosis was uncertain.
There were many days when Mom prepared herself that he would not make it through. But to say my father was tough would be an understatement. He was always a fighter.
It's likely that he had some sort of brain trauma, possibly a major frontal lobe injury. No one has ever been completely certain. And, of course, he'd played at a high level of football for years, likely suffering repeated concussions, way before these issues were ever on the radar of coaches and trainers. This was also before the invention of MRIs and the sophisticated equipment available today, so the exact details and state of Dad's medical issues went undetected and untreated.
To everyone's surprise, Dad regained consciousness eight weeks after the accident. But he woke up in a different world and in a different life, with a new personality, an altered state of thinking. He was not the same man who'd been Greenville's favorite son.
Family members and a few friends told me that when my dad woke from the coma, he was a monster. The teddy bear of days past had become a grizzly. He had to be restrained in the hospital bed. It took several orderlies to hold him down. He was incredibly strong, which gave his anger so much more to work with. A guy who could manhandle college varsity linebackers had no problem overpowering a few nurses, regardless of their gender or size. Even his attitude and mouth were affected. He was crude and rude with the nurses, something he would never have done before.
Mom said my dad never showed any temper before the accident, except for occasionally on the football field. He never even raised his voice. The family doctor who delivered me was the physician treating him, and to this day he tells me how different Dad was before the accident.
But the new Arthur Millard Jr. was the only one I would know for the first fifteen years of my life.
The husband my mom took home from the hospital was not the one who had left for work on that fateful morning just two months prior, and the day he was discharged began the countdown to Mom leaving him. Anger and rage moved into their home and became permanent residents. But, oddly, when Dad was out in public, he managed to keep it all in check and hide it from everyone who loved the local football hero. Who knows? Maybe people did see the change in him but just looked the other way to not get involved. After all, that's the small-town way — mind your own business while staying in everyone else's.
Our house had that classic 1960s front sitting room, the place you kept immaculate and never touched, just in case the pastor or some other local VIP dropped by. It was the one room that looked like June Cleaver's or Aunt Bea's entire house, and Mom would do everything in her power to keep visitors there so as to not see that the rest of our home was a wreck. That space was a metaphor for my family's life: the immaculate and perfect setting we allowed everyone to see, while the rest of the house was kept private and isolated from view. Where we actually lived became a mess that none of us knew how to clean up. So no one ever did, and then it was too late.
For example, Mom said that one day she came home from shopping alone and Dad asked her who she had been with. She told him no one. But possessive paranoia got the best of him, and he launched into a rant and berated her, accusing her of lying and cheating.
Now, my mom was what I would call a lady's lady. She always looked her absolute best and enjoyed nice dresses and jewelry. In moments like this, while Dad wouldn't touch her, he would go get one of her best necklaces — anything he knew she enjoyed or was precious to Mom — and rip it apart right in front of her as a form of punishment. Then he'd leave the pieces on the floor and walk away in a huff.
Jealous rage became a regular event at our house. My mom stayed afraid for her life until the day she left — and even some days afterward. It was definitely a Jekyll-and-Hyde story. Was Dad's behavior due to a brain injury or chemical imbalance caused by the accident, or was he just a tortured soul because of his own family's broken past? We'll never know.
By the way, just to be clear, he never drank alcohol. No drugs. The fire of Dad's anger never needed any such fuel. Who knows what may have happened if he had resorted to any of those vices?
Those closest to Mom would have understood if she had left Dad much sooner, though back in that day such a decision was not at all common. I think she stuck around as long as she did and endured all she could because she truly believed the man she fell in love with and married was still in there ... somewhere.
Years ago I saw the movie Regarding Henry, starring Harrison Ford. It's the fictional tale of a narcissistic, wealthy surgeon who gets shot in the head during a robbery and, due to the injury, becomes very childlike and loving — the opposite of who he had been before. The point of the movie was that the tragedy actually saved his personal life. I remember thinking how the truck that hit Dad was like that movie gunshot, except the plot was flipped. Dad's tragedy devastated his life.
But my father's script was still being written, and there was much more plot in God's pen.
Ready or Not, Here I Come!
In the midst of all this madness, Mom became pregnant with me. On December 1, 1972, I came into the world: Bart Marshall Millard, named after the legendary Packers quarterback, Bart Starr. (So why isn't my middle name Starr?) Likely my dad was hoping I would be the football savior of the family, so he decided to kick this kid off right with a proper namesake.
In spite of my name, Dad decided he already had the sports-buddy son in Stephen, and he didn't need another one. Plus, it didn't help that I was a mama's boy who often cried when she wasn't around. As I became a mischievous toddler, my spankings slowly escalated from normal discipline to verbal and physical abuse. I would eventually become his only target.
One day, in a single conversation, everything changed for my family. Not in any sort of heated argument at all, out of nowhere Dad popped off with, "Dell, why don't you just get the hell out?" Mom saw that backhanded question as his permission for her to leave. So she told him she would do just that. And she followed through with Dad's hateful suggestion.
I often wonder how many times she had decided to leave, only to break down and give him another shot. All too often, you hear of women in these circumstances being horribly hurt or even dying because of the just-one-more-chance syndrome. Regardless, this time she told my dad that she was leaving and taking Stephen and me with her. I was three years old.
One of the first vivid childhood memories I have is of the day we moved out. Not at all understanding the depth of what was actually happening, I helped Mom carry whatever I could manage at my young age out to the car. Dad just sat in his living room chair the entire time, staring forward, prideful, acting stoic, appearing to ignore that his life was coming apart at the seams. It's so strange how arrogance can convince people not to lift a finger to try to stop the reality that they are losing everything.
I remember him asking me in a sarcastic tone, "Where are you going with my stuff, boy?" That's a confusing question for a toddler, especially when you're just carrying your toys to the car.
Broken Home, Broken Hearts
Very few people knew how much my dad had changed after his accident, because our family kept this intense and volatile fact a secret. So when Mom left my dad, she became the one at whom everyone would point the finger. Everyone loved Arthur Millard Jr., and this was small-town USA. Public opinion was that my mom was the problem. People assumed she had done something wrong or had chosen to leave for no good reason, which of course was not true. Everyone thought if Arthur had been at fault, then he would have been the one to go. But he was staying in the house, and she was apparently moving out on her own accord. Folks said, "How bad can it be, Dell? Why don't you just grin and bear it? Just stick it out."
Often when private problems become public knowledge, people make a lot of poor assumptions and ask all the wrong questions. The age-old clichés and social lessons that we all must be reminded of, even today, is to never judge a book by its cover and also not to speak ill against others until you have walked a mile in their shoes. My mom didn't speak up to defend herself because she felt no one would believe her.
At some point in all this drama, Mom filed for divorce. When we left Dad and moved into a rental house, a deep depression overcame her. She may have escaped the fear, but she walked right into a hopeless life. She still loved Dad and wanted so badly for her marriage to work. Mom just wanted back the man she'd married, the husband she'd had before the accident.
Struggling with her new life, Mom often wouldn't get out of bed when she didn't have to be at work. My brother and I had to fend for and feed ourselves, as well as take care of each other the best we could. We would even tuck her in at night and then be on our own. She rarely cooked, so she would bring home fast food. I have distinct memories of sitting in the living room, eating Taco Bell, and watching the evening sitcoms on TV.
While that may sound awesome for an occasional binge, believe me, it's not that great on a regular basis. But it was the best Mom could do under the circumstances. Stephen and I ate a lot of toast, one of the only "meals" a little kid can fix. We also figured out that if we could get canned food open, we could eat it as is.
This was our new reality: a single mom who felt forced out into life with two young boys, struggling to survive. Life was tough for us all.
Sometimes when Mom was gone to work, out running errands, or still in bed, Stephen and I would get hungry with no food in the house, and we would call our grandmothers, who lived nearby. One of them would either bring us a meal or come get us and take us to her house. During this season we spent a lot of nights at one of their homes. Both were strong Christian women who provided stability for us when we needed it most.
When I was just beginning to talk, I started calling both of my grandmothers by the name of Mammaw. I wasn't yet able to distinguish them by different names, so, as is often the case with grandkids and their grandparents, their new names were at the mercy of the strange pronunciation of a toddler. So there was Mammaw Lindsey, Mom's mom, who was the godliest woman I ever knew, and then Mammaw Millard, Dad's mom, who was the funniest woman I ever knew. (She was godly, too, but super comical.) Thank the Lord for the prayers and provision of grandmas! I'm not sure what would have happened to Stephen and me without those two sweet saints being the constants in our lives.
Even though we saw my dad and he had custody of us every other weekend, he would sometimes drive by Mom's house, yell out, and ridicule her for leaving him. He would call our home phone and do the same. This only increased the fear.
Anytime Dad would upset or scare me, I would cry and ask for Mom, especially when we were with him for the entire weekend. One time when I was in third grade, I started bawling and calling for her. Dad would normally just yell at me and tell me to stop. But on this one occasion, he started crying and told me that he missed her too. In later years, I would see this was much more of the deep truth in Dad's heart than any of us ever realized.
Eventually, Mom started dating again. I have an early memory of the explosive level of my dad's violent temper from around the time when she was just starting to date Gary, her first boyfriend after the divorce. Gary had spanked me once, and when Dad found out, he filed that little detail away for when he saw him again.
Dad came to pick Stephen and me up from Mom's house, and Gary arrived around the same time. As Mom's new guy came up the stairs to her house, Dad grabbed him, threw him onto the hood of Gary's own car, and said, "If you ever lay a hand on either of my boys again, I will rip your throat out." I remember the shock of watching that happen. As we drove away, Gary just lay there on the hood. I didn't think he was dead, but I never saw him move either.