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Excerpt From "My Greatest Teacher"

by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer


The following excerpt is taken from the book My Greatest Teacher by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. It is published by Hay House (Available Feb. 15, 2012) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com .

Chapter 1

Chapel of the Chimes was a one-story beige brick building that looked as if it had once been a bank—there was even a drive-through window, boarded up now, that Ryan Kilgore noticed as he drove around the lot.

He pretended to be searching for a parking spot, but he was actually biding his time. He’d been driving for hours, fueled by some terrible adrenaline. But now that he had arrived, acid filled his stomach, and he was uncertain whether he should even go inside. What he really wanted to do was find a bench and enjoy the warmth of the late summer sun, but there was no time for that now.

At 45, Ryan was lean and clean shaven, with close-cropped silvery blond hair and icy blue eyes that had a melancholy cast. People were always telling him, “Smile, it can’t be that bad!” But from Ryan’s point of view, they didn’t know what they were talking about.

He’d already been in this small Michigan town, a suburb of Detroit, for nearly an hour, searching for a coffee shop after spending the night in a cheap hotel room on the interstate. There was nowhere open for coffee except for a McDonald’s, a site forbidden by his young son, Logan, who knew the very fat grams of a Big Mac. But, desperate for caffeine and salt, Ryan joined the snailing drive-through line, and in an act of desperation, ordered a large coffee, an Egg McMuffin, and hash browns. He wolfed them down in the car, engine still running, dripping grease on his pants. Then, having hidden the bag and the coffee cup under his seat, as if they were drug paraphernalia, he returned to the chapel parking lot, which he had already driven through three times.

When he’d finally parked, Ryan sat inside the car with his windows down, watching elderly mourners inch toward the chapel, canes and walkers in tow. The men wore ill-fitting suits that left in their wake the scent of cedar and mothballs. The women, broad beamed with doughy faces and tinted glasses, wore floral dresses with little jackets or vast pantsuits with brass buttons, the kind of clothing he remembered from attending church as a child.

Before he got out of the car, Ryan took from his pocket a faded photograph, the one he had carried around for so long. For 40-some years, this had been his prime occupation—searching for the face of this man, his lost father.

It was a warm day in mid-August, everything tinged with a golden glow. Ryan peered into his rearview mirror and tried to arrange his features the way he did before he began teaching, mimicking a look of authority and power. He drew in his chin and raised his eyebrows. But somehow he couldn’t pull it off. When he shifted his gaze to the parking mirror, he looked distinctly worse than usual—addled and exhausted.

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” the white type on the mirror said, but he misread it at first as “older than they appear.” He was doing this all the time now, misreading signs and headlines. What was happening to him?

Next to him on the front seat were several open boxes of books that bore his name in large black type on the front and his photo on the back:

DR. RYAN KILGORE, ST. JOHN’S UNIVERSITY. Amorphous Earth: How We Are Destroying a Diverse Planet, One Culture at a Time.

A second book was entitled Data Collection in Tribal Ritual as Expressed Through the Mayoruna of Brazil.

These books constituted the main focus of his scholarly life for the 20-odd years he had taught at St. John’s in Queens, New York, rising from his position as an adjunct with a desk in someone else’s corner to full professor, with an office of his own and a flattering photo on the college website. He’d taught sociology, ecology, and environmental science, but his Ph.D. was in cultural anthropology. The best part of teaching was that he managed a hefty research budget that allowed him to stay in the air and on the road. He also liked the prestige; he used the title Dr. at every opportunity and enjoyed it when people mistook him for a medical doctor, an error he never corrected.

So far, the books he’d written had found only the smallest audience. These were mainly his own students, since he’d made the books required texts for his classes. This may not have been the best form, but he’d done it anyway—just for the thrill of walking into a room and seeing 20 people seated with a book that had his name in large type across the front.

It seemed no one else wanted to spend time contemplating the superiority of obscure tribal groups. But this was just the kind of topic that excited Ryan—how civilization would soon collapse if humans did not recognize the power of ancient knowledge. This was not one of the most compelling conversation starters, according to his wife, Sophie, who during their ten years of marriage had developed the long-suffering look that he remembered from past girlfriends.

Ryan’s hope, optimistic as it seemed now, was that once his books were privately printed, some publisher would emerge and snap them up. This had been the conventional wisdom of several associate professors in the university department where he taught, and he had adopted it himself.

But this had never happened. He had two closets full of books that perhaps 50 people had read. He had the vague notion that he might give a copy to his father, who would—what? Be completely bowled over and overwhelmed at the talent of his abandoned son? This fantasy seemed too pathetic to imagine. Ryan threw a towel over the boxes, as if to hide them even from himself.

His cell phone rang, and he looked down; it was Sophie. When he’d left yesterday, she had been in the elaborate preplanning stages of Logan’s ninth birthday party—and she probably wanted to complain about his “lack of involvement.” He ignored the call, stuffing the phone back into his pocket. He’d deal with it later; he had enough on his plate as it was.

Ryan looked at the faded photo of his father again. At the time it was taken, he’d been a big man in his 50s, handsome in a battered way, as if his very features had been eroded by constant weather. He was standing by a truck in a white cowboy hat, looking out with a belligerent stare. This was Robert Kilgore, the man who had walked out on Ryan and his family.

There were many stories of where his father had gone and what he’d been doing over the years—culled from bits and pieces of overheard conversations and extensive fantasy sessions that Ryan and his brothers entered into once they returned from their foster-care homes.

One possibility was that Robert had crisscrossed the country working for fairs and carnivals; other rumors had him toiling on horse farms in the Midwest, in gravel pits, in salmon-canning plants in the West. “I bet he’s a pilot,” Dave, Ryan’s older brother, had said, as the boys sat together. “He probably works for TWA or one of those big companies. You get to fly free anywhere in the world.”

“I think he’s in law enforcement,” Jim, the eldest brother, had tried. “Probably undercover. Maybe for drugs. I’ll bet he has one of those holsters you wear under your jacket.”

These all sounded equally implausible to Ryan, who had a hard time imagining his father performing work of any kind. But there were certain meager facts that he heard repeatedly—that his father had a hair-trigger temper, a jealous streak, and a fondness for gin—that seemed believable to him. For years, he mother had refused to speak about him, except to verify that he’d deserted them.

Now Ryan took a deep breath and got out of the car and walked to the funeral-home entrance. Inside the chapel, the air was chilled, and there were thick pale carpets and muted organ music. In separate viewing rooms with names like Tranquillity and Serenity, small, hushed herds of people mingled together or sat in folding chairs. Most chapels had a movie screen where images of the deceased flashed in a loop. Ryan peeked into one where the birth, graduation, and marriage photos of a man laid out in a gray suit repeated themselves in a silent homage that no one seemed to be viewing.

Ryan’s grandmother had none of this. As he entered the Tranquillity suite, Ryan saw a bulletin board where only a few faded Polaroids were thumbtacked. Her service was already in progress, and he kept his head low, anxious to remain unnoticed.

Up front, behind a display of flickering candles, a minister was speaking in solemn tones about redemption, maternal fidelity, and piousness, giving the strong impression that he was talking about a generic old woman whom he’d never met.

Ryan picked up a program from a flushed female usher with a brunette flip, a white ruffled blouse, and hoop earrings, who gave him the once-over, as if she might know who he was. At Peace! the program read, with a motif of lilies and a smudged photo of a woman whose face nearly knocked him to his knees.

Anne Mary Kilgore. It was a head shot, probably a church photo. Her pale face, lined with wrinkles, looked out at the camera with a sour expression. This is who I am, the photo seemed to say. Take it or leave it. Ryan sat down abruptly in a back row.

So here she was again, his father’s mother, whom he hadn’t seen in the flesh for over 40 years. She had been at a picnic his mother had taken him to once shortly after his father had abandoned them, as if to provide him with some sort of family. He remembered Anne Mary as bitter and lean, hardly the kind of grandmother he had hoped for. Hugging her had been like wrapping his arms around baling wire.

What was there to say about Anne Mary Kilgore’s life? Not much, according to this church bulletin, except her date of birth and marriage and a list of her children—the second being Ryan’s vanished, ne’er-do-well father.

Gram Anne was on display at the front of the room, her battered face visible even from the back, resting in an elaborate coffin befitting royalty. Ryan stood and shuffled in a line down the aisle, taking it all in. The room was filled with displays of flowers rarely seen in nature, let alone in such combinations: fiery gladiolas, clove-scented carnations, and waxen lilies with a cloying sweetness. Ryan’s stomach roiled with that morning’s coffee and greasy food.

The casket itself looked as if it were the most deluxe of all models—lined in satin and constructed of some titanium-like material, a spaceship designed to propel Gram Anne to another world.

Who had paid for all this and why, for a woman who surely never encountered real satin in all her life? If Ryan remembered correctly, his grandmother wore housedresses and aprons and scuffed shoes.

Why hadn’t someone bought her a fur coat or flowers while she had been living, when she could have enjoyed it? What was the point of swaddling her in satin now—for eternity or whatever came next?

He stopped himself. This is what Sophie said he always did whenever he approached deep feeling—distracted himself with irony and intellectual arguments.

“You act like everyone’s straight out of your anthropology books—like they don’t have anything to do with you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ryan said coolly.

“Ha,” she said. “There it is again. You’re superior about everything. You think you’ve got everybody categorized and that you’re better.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Ryan said, but he couldn’t convince her, and eventually he stopped trying.

In fact, even his wife would have been surprised to discover how little he really thought of himself, how much insecurity lurked underneath his pompous exterior, how much his craving for reassurance fueled his need to prove his point, to get the last word.

Ryan realized that he must have cousins and nephews and great-aunts all over this room. But the truth was, he didn’t care about seeing any of them—he had only one face in mind. If he couldn’t see his father, he didn’t want to see anyone. Except his grandmother, gone now, after 89 years of what he was sure had been a hard and disappointing life.

Then there he was, standing in front of her—the frozen visage, the folded hands of Gram Anne. She was wearing a silky blue dress, a cross, and pearl earrings. Only her top half was visible; the bottom part was covered, as if it were too devastated—or delicate—to be shown.

Her face had softened with time, though it still looked angry, as if someone had taken a knife and etched unhappiness into her very flesh.

No matter what he felt, this woman was his blood; her DNA was proof that his father had existed. She’d been made up by the undertaker with a crown of stiff gray curls and a careless swipe of pink lipstick, her cheeks plumped up by some substance Ryan couldn’t bear to imagine. Alone for a moment, he reached out and touched her arm, then wished he hadn’t. It felt like cool concrete, hard underneath and overlaid with a freezing layer of skin. What was life, after all, but warmth and blood?

He closed his eyes. “Hi, Gram,” some old part of him whispered, as if he expected her to leap up in response. He opened them again, and she looked more unhappy and terrifying than ever.

He turned away and nervously scanned the crowd as he walked by a heart-shaped display of yellow roses that spelled out Mother. Obviously, he should have sent flowers himself.

He had the sense of being observed by someone or something slightly above him—a kind of security camera in the sky. It was the same sensation he had when he was in a dressing room, trying on clothes. His gaze roamed up and around the rafters of the chapel. Nothing.

In the first aisle of a side row, Ryan spotted the back of a large gray-haired man who was fussing with the program. Ryan looked again at the photograph of his father. Could this be him?

He moved closer, trying to get a better view. What would he do if this were his father after all this time? What would he say? Would he make a scene, humiliating him for the pain and suffering he’d caused? Or would he break down in tears, unable to speak or hide his anger and longing?

He wouldn’t find any answers to these questions today.

The man shifted his head, and Ryan saw his crowded features and small dark eyes. Not him, once again.

Ryan continued to scan the crowd as people began to leave.

His eyes fell on a woman on the other side of the aisle. She looked to be in her 60s, with short, feathered hair, a trim figure, and warm eyes that flashed recognition at his face. She smiled faintly. It was Dorothy Stouten, his father’s younger sister. Too emotional to speak to anyone, Ryan quickly turned and headed out of the chapel doors, back toward his car.

Dorothy came up from behind him in the parking lot.

“Ryan, is that you? Wait!”

He stopped and turned to face her.

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said.

Even through his grief, Ryan managed to be offended. What did she mean by that? Surely he was in better shape than most of the other men here, with their bulging guts hanging over their white belts, cigarette packs visible in their pockets.

For 20 years, Ryan had worked out in the college gym as if in preparation for some calamity for which he would have to be fit. He had once believed this provided him with immunity and optimal health, and had not even told Sophie the truth—that for all his exercise, his last physical had showed sky-high cholesterol and elevated triglycerides.

“How could that be?” he asked his doctor.

“So much is hereditary,” the doctor had said, just the thing Ryan didn’t want to hear. The doctor had no idea how poisonous such words were for him. He may have wanted to locate his father, but that didn’t mean he wanted to possess a single one of his traits.

In fact, everything he had done in his life so far—every backbreaking job he’d held in high school, every class he’d taken for his advanced degrees, every dollar he’d saved in his 401(k)—was all in opposition to his father, to prove that he wasn’t shiftless and irresponsible, but an enlightened, educated man. Ryan prided himself on his academic career, his fidelity to Sophie, his money-management skills, and his parenting, which was firm but never what he considered abusive. Sure, he had other traits that were not so admirable. Sophie was glad to remind him of them: he was impatient, irritable, dismissive. But who was perfect? He was doing the best he could with the cards he’d been dealt. Wasn’t he?

Dorothy’s words interrupted his thoughts.

“We had no idea you’d be here, honey,” Dorothy continued. “Everyone’s coming to the house afterward. Why don’t you stop by?”

“I’m sorry, Aunt Dorothy, thanks, but I really can’t. I just came by to pay my respects.”

There was no reason why he couldn’t go back to the house—in fact, that was exactly what he should do, given that he’d driven six hours to arrive at this godforsaken town. But her comment about not recognizing him had completely deflated him.

“Well, your grandmother would be glad to know you came all that way to be here,” Dorothy said. “That’s what’s important.”

Beyond Dorothy, the church doors opened. A wave of anxiety passed over Ryan, but then faded as he saw it was only a teenage girl.

Ryan swallowed and looked at Dorothy. He had to ask. “My father isn’t here, is he? I haven’t seen him anywhere.”

Dorothy looked at him with sympathy. Presumably she’d had her own heartaches regarding her brother.

“No, he’s not here. Is that why you came?”

“Well, I thought maybe even he’d have the decency to show up for his own mother’s funeral. I should have known better.”

Dorothy gave a sad chuckle. “He’s probably afraid, you know?”

“Afraid of what? What the hell does he have to be afraid of?”

“Seeing you, for one.”

“Like he’d even recognize me,” Ryan said.

“Or your brothers,” Dorothy continued. “Or even worse, your mom.”

“He should be afraid of that. She’d have him in jail so fast.”

“How’s she doing, by the way?”

Ryan stood there, as conflicting words warred in his head. He didn’t want to tell the truth—that his mother, married again, was probably as bad off as she’d ever been. “Pretty good,” he lied. “Better off than when she was trying to take care of us with no money.”

“What would you have done if he had been here?” Dorothy asked.

“I’m not sure, exactly. Talked to him, I guess.”

She looked at him as if she didn’t believe a word. “Really? About what?”

Her curiosity was getting on his nerves. “Plenty, believe me.” He scrutinized her face a moment. “Do you know where he is now?”

She shook her head but avoided his eyes.

They stood together in silence as a stream of newcomers passed by, mostly older women carrying foil-covered pans. Ryan thought there must have been three or four funerals going on at the same time. The mingled smell of macaroni and cheese and meat loaf drifted over. The scent took him back to a brief spell of childhood potlucks before he had been placed in a foster home, before his real family had disintegrated.

Dorothy said, “I’m glad you came, Ryan, even if you can’t stay. You know, no one in the family has had any contact with your father in years. Maybe it’s best that way. For everyone.”

“In other words, you know where he is, but you’re not going to tell me? Okay, I get it.” He turned and yanked open his car door.

“Wait a minute. Hold on.” Dorothy sighed, as if making some private decision. “Last time I had any contact with your father, he was out in California.”

Ryan turned to her. “California? Where?“

“He’d just gotten out of prison and was staying with a woman in some small town—Gurn-something. Guerneville, maybe? But that was years ago. Probably seven or eight. Who knows where he is by now.”

“Why was he in jail?”

Dorothy looked away. “Assault and battery, I think. He always did have a tendency to take his anger out on women. At least that’s what I heard.”

Ryan paced around, trying to calm down. Dorothy’s information was no real surprise, yet it filled his throat with bile.

The truth was that after all these years, Ryan still couldn’t believe his father was able to exist without having made some kind of contact with him. One of Ryan’s frequent pastimes was trying to figure out whether there was anything in Robert’s early life that might explain or prefigure his failure and abandonment. Had he been abused or ignored himself? But no one could tell him. Even Dorothy didn’t seem to know.

“Well, our dad drank, and Mom was pretty remote, but they took care of us,” she said when he asked her. “They were always there, though they weren’t that involved. Other than that, there’s really nothing special.”

“All the other kids turned out pretty well, didn’t they?” Ryan asked.

“No one but your dad ever went to jail or even got divorced. I wouldn’t say we’re the happiest people on earth, but we’re pretty normal.”

If his father’s sister couldn’t give him any insight, who in the world ever could?

“Listen, I’m sorry if I’ve been rude to you,” Ryan said now. “I just wish—”

Dorothy held up her hand. “I know. Despite all the horrible things he did, he’s my brother, remember? I have my own hurt feelings.” She touched his arm. “Take care of yourself, honey.”

“I will.” Ryan got into his car, then opened the window. “It’s nice to see you, Aunt Dorothy. I hope it’ll be under happier circumstances next time.”

He started the car and pulled away quickly.


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