The Story of Us
Since I am a rookie author here in the realm of book writing, or a greenhorn, in cowboy terms, I have tinkered around with several different ways to begin the book. Maybe a funny story? Perhaps a touching story of the first time I finally bonded with Abby, my then-new eleven-year-old step-daughter? Or possibly the time I sent Emma to school wearing only pantyhose. Trust me, I’ve got a lot of options. But I guess before I can tell you about any of that, I have to tell you how we got here in the first place. So I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning (duh). I’m asked this question quite often, “How did the story of you and April begin?” And that’s a pretty good story actually, so that’s how I’ll get things started.
Even though we have only been together now for seven years, our story started long before that. I grew up in a little place called Murphy, Oklahoma. It’s between Locust Grove and Chouteau, off of Highway 412. Growing up, I lived in two different houses, and they were only about four hundred yards from each other. No matter how long I’ve been gone, when I think of home, I think of Murphy.
When I was ten years old, this little girl and her family moved in just down the road a ways. She was just over a year younger than me. A little brunette with a few freckles. And she was spunky—coincidentally, a lot like my daughter Emma. This little girl’s name was April Skinner. We rode bus number five to school together, then back home, every day. She started going to church at Murphy Church of God, where my family and I went and where my grandpa was the preacher. So we saw each other almost every day. We became friends.
But here’s the deal. She had a wicked mad crush on me, and she wasn’t subtle about it. She flirted with me constantly. We have a close mutual friend who was always the mediator, and even into our teenage years they were always plotting. They think I didn’t know what was going on, but I did. When we went on trips with the church, it was always the three of us together, with April in the middle. One time, we went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to watch the passion play, and it was freezing. “Hey, Stoney, we’ve got a blanket we could cover up with. But we’ll need to cuddle, you know, for the warmth.” Wow, how convenient. And as usual, April was in the middle.
I remember another example from the time our church had a lock-in for the youth group. Now a lock-in is basically just a big sleepover in the church building, and you play games and watch movies and stuff all night long. I was fourteen, almost fifteen, and April was thirteen. After several hours of activities at the lock-in, most of the kids started winding down around three or four in the morning. The sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and such were spread out on the floor to make pallets for us all to lie on. April and I ended up “near” each other. Wow, how convenient. Actually, very near. Too near. Near enough that we probably should’ve been reprimanded because of the nearness that we shared in the house of the Lord. And we almost kissed. Almost. We were having a moment, and the fourteen-year-old me choked. I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I thought Jesus was watching. Or maybe it was because we were in a church. Of course, it may have been that I was just chicken. Yeah, that’s probably it. Anyway, we didn’t kiss, and April turned fourteen not long after. And then she moved away.
I don’t think I saw April again until our crafty old friend Jennifer got married. April was a bridesmaid, and I was an usher. April wasn’t fourteen any longer. She looked more grown up, and very pretty. Except she had this weird, short haircut, and it was maroon. But hey, it was the nineties. We all had some funky haircuts back then, so no big deal. But get this. At the wedding, I could hardly even get her to pay attention to me. I tried smiling, saying hello. Yes, she was undoubtedly doing her best to ignore me. She’ll even admit to it now, she was trying to be cool. So I saw April for a bit, sort of, and then not again for another twelve long years.
Then one day I got a friend request on Facebook. It was from a lady named April Johnston. Her profile picture looked fairly familiar, but different. Yet I swear I knew those eyes and smile. I messaged her and asked, “Is this April Skinner?” To which she emphatically replied, “YES!” We chatted briefly, and then a few months went by with no contact. One afternoon, I was enjoying a much-needed break on a patio in Fort Worth, Texas, and posted a picture on Facebook of me giving a thumbs-up. She saw it, thought I looked cute (I guess), and liked the picture. And then she proceeded to like every other picture I had on Facebook. My phone pretty much exploded and melted down from all the notifications. Now from a guy’s perspective, you’ve got to weigh your options here. From looking at her pictures, I knew she was a very attractive woman. But after she liked all my photos, I got a little worried she might have a bit of the Single White Female in her. Or maybe even the lady in Fatal Attraction who boiled the bunny rabbit. Yeah, scary. But thankfully there were no rabbits or single white men harmed in this story, and April turned out to be the most awesome woman I’ve ever known.
It’s been almost thirty years now since we first met. I could’ve never imagined back then the impact she would someday have on my life. That we’d someday be married and have three beautiful daughters. That we’d live in a beautiful spot in Texas. I couldn’t have guessed any of that. But I guess that’s the cool part about life. It has a tendency to work itself out if you’ll just have a little faith and let it. I spent at least a dozen years chasing this elusive happiness. I looked for it in my job. I looked for it in relationships that were completely wrong for me. I moved to Florida for a few years. I moved to Virginia for a few more after that. I drove a Mercedes and wore a Rolex because that’s what everyone around me drove and wore. I gradually became someone I didn’t really like, someone who was so far from who he was raised to be. I felt completely lost. But then one day, as if it were a prayer I didn’t know I was praying, the happiness I’d been chasing landed right in my lap. It wasn’t in Florida, laying on the beach. It wasn’t in Virginia, driving fancy cars or wearing expensive watches. It was living on a little farm in East Texas, with one wife, three daughters, and tons of animals. And absolutely having the time of my life, with the very best friend I have ever had.
Over the Hill
My back hurts. Actually, my back has hurt for about three years now. Honestly, I have had back problems for about eighteen years, following a pretty bad accident I had in 2000. An eleven-thousand-pound horse trailer fell on top of me, literally. It’s a long story for another day, but it definitely left its mark on my body.
Usually after visiting a chiropractor and getting a cortisone shot or two I can get things back to normal, or at least what I consider normal. But this one day in November, on Thanksgiving Day of all days, I woke up with a backache. Nothing out of the ordinary, so I limped around my mother-in-law’s house all day, took some Advil, and moved around as slowly as possible. A week later I went to the chiropractor and got twisted and popped and cracked, but I was still having a really hard time. The steroid shots that generally got me over the hump did absolutely nothing. The pain in my back and the pain shooting down my right leg was different than it had been in the past, and was excruciating. The doctor decided I should get some X-rays and an MRI, so I did. After the MRI, they said they’d call me in the following week with the results. However, before I even got home that day, they called to tell me I had a severely herniated L4-L5 disk. And not only had it herniated, but it had fragmented, so there was a random piece of my disk floating around loose in my spinal canal. Although it was a relief to find out what was wrong, having back problems of this magnitude is a very scary thing. I mean, I know I am getting older, but I am not exactly ready to hang up my spurs just yet. I am an extremely active person. The best parts of my days aren’t spent inside. My favorite things to do are to work outside on our property—building fences, cutting brush, working horses, mowing, weed-eating. Anything outside is where I find my happy place.
So as April and I sat in the surgeon’s office listening to him tell me the seriousness of my back issues, a huge dose of reality came crashing down on me like an eleven-thousand-pound horse trailer. He told me, “You’ll never be 100 percent again. You’ve got a lot of damage in there, and we can make you better. However, you are going to have to slow down. You aren’t going to be as strong as you once were.” Maybe I am a little bit slow, but it wasn’t until he said these words to me that I realized exactly what was happening to me. I was getting old.
Getting old! I had always heard my parents and grandparents talk about it but had never knowingly felt it firsthand. All my life, I have pushed myself to the limit in just about anything I have ever done. I’ve broken bones. I have had concussions. I have pulled muscles and gotten stitches. I wrestled, played baseball and football, and ran track. As an adult, before I married April and had kids, I lived hard. I spent too much time in saloons, with late nights and little to no sleep. And as they always do, people would tell me I needed to slow down. My parents and siblings worried about me, but I would always laugh and shrug off their advice as nonsense. I knew what my body could handle better than they did, right? One of my coworkers once said about me, “Stoney doesn’t burn the candle at both ends. Stoney just throws the whole candle into a bonfire.” We all laughed.
But now, as I sit here typing this, I can feel my hip aching. It’s a dull ache that stems from that horse trailer accident years ago, and I think to myself, “It’s going to rain today. My joints are aching.” Goodness, I am getting old. The life expectancy of an American male is seventy-eight years old, and by those numbers, I am almost exactly middle aged. My best days are behind me. Now, I know I’m not that old. But by the same token, I know I’ll never again be quite as strong as I once was. I know I can’t work eighteen hours out in the sun, hauling thousands upon thousands of bales of hay, like I once could. And if I get bucked off a horse, I won’t bounce back quite as quickly as I used to. Of course, this hurts my cowboy pride. It’s hard to admit to myself that I am not the man I was ten years ago.
And then I think back to all the times I was told to “slow down” or to “be careful” or that I was going to “regret that when you’re older.” And sure, I can see how that may have been wise advice, judging from the scars and aches and pains I have. But I wouldn’t change a single thing. I cannot imagine a life where I was more careful. I cannot fathom a younger me slowing down or playing it safe. Going all in, 110 percent is who I am at my core, and I wouldn’t trade that for a million dollars, because I know I have been true to myself and lived my life exactly how I have wanted to, even if it wasn’t always smart. Besides, if I didn’t do all those stupid things when I was young, then I wouldn’t have any funny stories to tell when I am old. And there’s nothing I enjoy more than telling funny stories.
So yesterday, I watched my crazy little daughter Gracee run 110 miles per hour around the backyard. Now a responsible adult, I hollered, “You need to slow down!” And when she climbed up on top of the patio furniture, I knew there was about a 90 percent chance that she would fall off. So I said to her, “You’d better get down from there. You’re going to hurt yourself.” And guess what? She ignored me, just like I ignored my parents. Then I grinned and watched as she jumped around like those monkeys on the bed, until the inevitable happened and she fell to the ground. Still grinning, I limped my beaten-up body over to her, dusted her off, and gave her a kiss. Want to make a guess as to what I said? “You’ve got to be careful. You’ll wish you’d listened to me someday.” Because apparently that’s what you’re supposed to say when you get old. Something tells me Gracee’s probably not going to realize how true that is. Until she’s older, like me. But that’s just a hunch.