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The International Writers Magazine:

Here’s My Takeaway
• Tyrel Nelson
Images: Sarah Schneiderwind.

This hole in my soul has taken a mighty toll. Nothing, certainly not this tall one I’m nursing, remotely fills the overwhelming void of losing my hero, my best friend, my dad.


I feel alone in this world, not to mention this dive. I look around and realize I’m solo at the bar. My peepers fix on the TV high above the spirits, but my spirits are low, and I’m not watching. I’m so anxious to be in public that I can’t even make eye contact with my reflection in the mirror behind the bottles. I don’t know what else to do besides sip on my brew and pretend to follow the baseball game. I keep peeking left, seeing if any of the faces on the sidewalk belong to the person I hesitantly agreed to meet. I return to the screen when someone slaps me on the back.

“Hey dude,” Paul says while occupying the stool on my right.
“Hey man.”
“How’s life? Everything good?”
“Uh … not really.” I’m irritated.
“Who’s winning?”
I shrug. “I think the Twins are losing again.”

The annoying small talk continues for several minutes. Already sick of shooting the bull on topics like the humid July weather, beer league softball, and his job (I’m unemployed), I begin to wonder why Paul requested to meet in the first place. I haven’t seen in him six months—before my pop died—so I assume he wants to know how I’m doing.

Life has been bleak since my father departed. I’m numb most of the time. I merely go through the motions from sunup till sundown. Because I’m the oldest, my dreadful routine has primarily consisted of tying up the loose ends Dad left behind. He didn’t have much in the material sense, so his debts aren’t too many. Still, closing down his estate has evoked the one emotion I do display with regularity: anger. No one cares that Pop passed away; everybody just wants their money. It’s been rare to even get an “I’m sorry” on the opposite end of line. When I explain why it’s me calling and not Jay W. Nelson, the collectors usually respond with silence, a due date, or a few seconds of dead air preceding a due date. Never before did I believe others could be so heartless. At least I have a pal like Paul who’ll listen. He’ll understand.

He’s distracted though. He keeps squinting past me, more concerned with the activity on the street than his struggling friend of six years. A bell abruptly rings. The glass door swings open.

“There she is!” Paul exclaims.
“Stephanie,” he answers. “She wanted to meet you.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind.”

My fists clench. I instantly want to bolt. I didn’t force myself from the safe confines of home to meet Paul’s new girlfriend. I wish he would have told me she’d be stopping by. I thought Paul and I were going to discuss my father and the hell I’ve been through after his death. Instead, lovey-dovey is introducing me to his lady. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to talk about my dad with some gal I don’t even know. I wouldn’t have agreed to this outing had I known all of the details.

Appalled by Paul’s selfishness, I shut down. They speak, I nod, yet I don’t hear a word. I can’t really remember the rest of my time at the pub except for the color red. What I do recall, however, is that was the last occasion I ever hung out with him.

It’s actually the final straw when Paul fails me. In truth, he’s the latest in a long line of disappointers. Not only have I been met with apathy when dealing with my pop’s estate, but I’ve also been utterly dismayed by most of my “friends” since my father succumbed to pancreatic cancer. I vow not to get hurt again. I put my walls up. Over the next year and a half I keep people at arm’s length. I ignore everyone who has let me down.

Walls Socializing is infrequent at best. At work, my conversations are strictly about my job. I basically become the neighbor who will chat with you from across the fence. I’m polite. I can even blab for quite a while as long as the conversation remains at the surface. I just won’t come over nor will I ever invite you in.

I also must escape. Having been an avid traveler for well over a decade, the fact that I haven’t left the country in three years has been getting to me. Even more so, the ghosts of my hometown are too much. I’m constantly sad because everywhere I glance—the buildings we worked on, the parks we visited, the greasy spoons we frequented— reminds me of my old man.

So I spend hours upon hours each week searching for ways to flee Minnesota. Unfortunately, my endless surfing doesn’t catch anything that seems right. Then I get an email this past February. It’s from my girlfriend Alyssa. All she writes is “What about this?”

Below her question is a forwarded message, an invitation from Habitat for Humanity Guatemala. I read the following sentence: “From April 22 to 26, join us alongside hundreds of national and international volunteers for the construction of 20 homes in Usumatlán, Zacapa, with which we will reach our Casa 50,000.”

I am sold. Alyssa knows me all too well. This trip would satisfy my longing for adventure, and it would bring me back to a place I associate with much happiness, something I haven’t felt in forever. Alyssa and I actually met on a Habitat trip to Guatemala in January 2010. Some of my fondest memories come from the country where we fell in love. It would be nice to go back.

Be that as it may, Alyssa can’t join me on account of her hectic work and school schedules. Moreover, I have become so reticent that she believes it’s probably better for me to go to Guatemala alone. Without her there, I’d have to reach out to others. “You gotta do this,” she insists. “You need to let loose, have fun. You need to live again.”

Two months later I’m in Guatemala getting acquainted with my fellow volunteers, dynamic individuals from all parts of the United States and all walks of life. We put in an exhausting week laboring in the hellacious 120°F lowlands of Zacapa. Assigned to adjacent sites, we help the local masons and families make great progress on their houses. Notwithstanding, the build, unlike my three previous Habitat trips, might be the last thing I consider.

What immediately come to mind from this experience are the new friends I made. I remember all of the meals, the laughs, the dancing. I shake my head at the nights I should have turned in early for I was run down, but stayed out late because I enjoyed my pals’ company too much. I replay the engaging conversations about life and all of the wisdom shared with me during our many bus rides. I also sigh recalling the moments I opened up about Dad. I still feel the weight floating off my shoulders.

Before we all fly our separate ways, I am asked more than once for my biggest takeaway from the week, especially since I was completing my fourth Habitat International trip. My answer is vague. Without sufficient time to process the experience, all I muster is that each excursion was rewarding, yet unique and that I can’t fairly compare them. Now that I’ve had several days to reflect, however, I have to admit that this most recent go-around has personally changed me more than the others.

What I realized is that I’m tired of always holding my guard up. I don’t want to go out a lonely old man who pushed everyone away his whole life. In Guatemala, my fellow volunteers let me in, offered their friendship, which, in turn, began to break down my walls. They taught me how to be present again, have fun, and, most important, they showed me that there are individuals out there who do care.

Pop always told me you change the world through people, but through people I will change my world too.

© Tyrel Nelson June 2013
Photos: Sarah Schneiderwind.


The Old Man and the GMC
Tyrel Nelson

I’m looking left, waiting to go right. The traffic of the two-lane highway steadily races by. I lean over the dash and squint to discern if there are any gaps amongst the leadfooters. The oncoming halogens, however, are rapid and relentless.

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