Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Memoir of Learning to Believe You’re Gonna be Ok
© 2020 Sean Dietrich
A memoir about a boy growing up in the deep shadow cast by his father’s suicide has no right to be this funny. Given the profundity of this event – its psychological toll, and the sudden poverty it thrust Sean’s family into – it’s come up in Sean’s other collections, but Will the Circle be Unbroken brings it center stage, a bit like The Prince of Frogtown did for Rick Bragg’s own father. Although some of these pieces may have appeared in other collections, this is not a hodgepodge: they’re tightly knit together, telling the lifelong story of Sean’s struggles with pain, sorrow, anger, and self-doubt, always haunted by the gangly red-head taking up permanent residence in his head. Despite this pain, it carries Sean’s hallmarks of charm, sweetness, and humor, and I suspect I will remember it as one of my favorite books of 2023.
We encounter Sean’s father first an idolized hero, young Sean watching him pitch and listening to the old folks wonder at his arm – but later having to regard him with fear, as psychological turmoil sets the stage for Sean’s father to recreating the same horrors of his own childhood, anger and abuse. The sudden loss forces Sean and his mother to work constantly to keep themselves and his sister fed: Sean helps his mother deliver papers, and drops out of high school to work construction, while also developing his skills with the guitar. The early parts of this memoir are saturated with deep emotion: Sean tells us of a young girl friend who he comforted after she’s orphaned comforting him in turn, when he flees his father’s funeral. Sean took deep comfort in the Baptist community he was raised in, though when their family leaves Kansas – and the painful memories thereof – behind, they are forced to draw more on their own reserves. As Sean grows, he continues to struggle with sorrow, anger, and confusion: his dad haunts him at pivotal moments both good and ill, often in the form of a bird but once appearing as a stranger in a bar. I realize mirages abound in the realm of memory, but they make for a powerful story, especially as we witness Sean’s refusal to give in to self-pity, and his realization that each of us suffers in unique ways but are here to help support one another along. The book culminates in Sean reaching a triumphant adulthood – finding himself a musician, a writer, and most importantly a husband, and someone who at long last can love and forgive his father despite the pain his suicide bathed Sean’s life in.
Will the Circle be Unbroken is wonderful in every way.
She was the first girl I ever kissed. We were first graders at the time, and she tasted like Nehi soda because that’s what she’d been drinking. After she kissed me, she punched me in the stomach to remind me who was boss. Marriage, I would discover years later, is not all that different.
“Were you a pitcher?”
“Sorta. When I was a young’un, I wanted to be the next Walter Johnson.”
“Who’s that?” My father stopped stretching.
“You don’t know who Walter Johnson is? What dipstick raised you?”
The feeling was one I had never had before. It is the feeling you get when you lie in the surf and relax your body. The waves lift you, then drop you, and something works beneath you that you can’t explain. And it is as though all your experiences, the hell you’ve gone through, the minor triumphs, the pain, the self-doubt, they have been leading to this seemingly irrelevant moment. But this moment is not meaningless. It’s everything. You sense this, right when it’s happening. The veil is pulled back, and this morsel of time is perhaps one of the most important moments in your life. It is when you realize that your sole purpose is not just to survive but to help others survive. I kissed her forehead. I hugged her like she was family. And I said words I once heard a blind man say: “You’re gonna be alright.”
The girl scooted so close to me that her thigh was touching mine. I could smell her shampoo. “Oh, please,” she said. “Play us something.” A boy will do all sorts of things when he smells shampoo.
I rang the doorbell. I straightened my collar. I heard footsteps. I started to tremble. I felt like a groveling fool. I saw someone peek out the window. And I finally understood. I knew I wasn’t on that doorstep because of love. I was there because I was afraid of not being loved, and those two things are very different. Fatherless kids will do odd things to avoid being unloved. They will pretend to be people they aren’t. They’ll lie if need be. They’ll squeeze their fat feet into thrift-store shoes, buy bouquets, and spend money they don’t have. But you can’t make something true just because you want it to be. You can’t be someone you aren’t, and you can’t make people feel things they won’t.
“You ain’t gonna cry for that girl, is you?”
“Well, you shouldn’t. God just saved you from a mistake. That’s how God do, save us from mistakes. Hurts like the devil, but the mistake woulda hurt a lot worse.”
“I’m not sure God has anything to do with me.”
“Oh, he do.”
I’ve been a Baptist my whole life. My father converted to fundamentalism when I was a baby. He became evangelical because, as he once said, “It’s more fun to drink beer when your friends are teetotalers.”
Everything was off-limits. Most of the people within our congregation didn’t drink, and if they did, they at least had the decency to keep their beer in the garage refrigerator.
“Oh, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’m gonna go to college.”
“You dang right.”
“Isn’t it expensive?”
“Yeah, but so is being poor.”
One day you realize that your life is one whole page of problems, and nothing ever gets solved—one ongoing equation with no equal sign at the end. But it occurred to me, beneath the canopy of a starlit heaven, that I’d been looking at my life all wrong. It wasn’t a math equation. Things weren’t supposed to add up. There was no solution. In fact, there was no problem. Life’s variables and numbers and pages of chicken scratch weren’t mathematical marks. They were art. A drawing, an abstract painting. It was meant to be beautiful, not sensical. And embedded within the mess of it all were miracles. Small ones. I had never paid attention to them because I was too busy, but it didn’t make them less real.
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