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Tim Madigan is an award-winning newspaper journalist and the author of two critically acclaimed books, See No Evil: Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh’s Holy War and The Burning: Massacre Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. He lives in Arlington, Texas.
I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers - Chapter One
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, in that bleak season of 1997, I knelt in the front yard of my suburban Texas home, in a mood anything but festive, trying to arrange Christmas lights. Inside that home, my marriage was falling apart. I knew these might be the last holidays I would ever spend in this home, with this family. And as I worked, my mind raced with questions, all of them painful.
When would Catherine and I break the news to our two children, Melanie, who had just turned eighteen, and six-year-old Patrick? What words could we possibly use to soften the blow? Should we wait until after the holidays to tell them? Could we hold it together until then? What would my parents and Catherine's family think when they heard? How much could I afford to pay for an apartment? Where would I find furniture?
There was also this question that day, one that caused as much shame and dread in me as the rest. How could I possibly tell my famous friend in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers, the gentle icon of public television's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, that my wife and I were about to split up?
It seemed such a wildly unlikely predicament then, having to share that news with Fred. It still seems remarkable today that he and I would have known each other at all. But I had indeed met him, traveling from Texas to Pittsburgh two years before to profile Mister Rogers for my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then embracing his surprising invitation to friendship.
Looking back, it seems no coincidence that our unlikely acquaintance would come when it did, in the darkest, most difficult period of my life — five years or so when I wrestled with profound depression and self-loathing, complex and painful feelings about my father (Fred called these various struggles my "Furies"), and finally, the catastrophic illness and heroic spiritual journey of my younger brother, Steve. In any event, within a few months of our meeting in the fall of 1995, in a series of e-mail messages and telephone calls, and in several visits to Pittsburgh, I began to share with Fred the tattered state of my insides.
Each time I did, he responded with what can only be described as supernatural love, wholly without judgment, and with perfect clarity, wisdom, and compassion. "Anything mentionable is manageable," he would say, inviting me to share further. Or he would paraphrase his good friend, the Roman Catholic priest and celebrated author Henri Nouwen, by saying, "That which is most personal is most universal." As I poured out my heart to Fred, beginning in those early days of our friendship, it began to seem like I was testing him, searching for a foible, for something I could say or do that would finally render him incapable of unconditional regard.
And on that sunny December afternoon in 1997, I was sure I had finally found it. He was a man who had devoted his life to children and their families, and I was a man about to destroy his own. After the lights were finished, I finally summoned my nerve, went inside to our computer, and typed out a letter to my friend, tears of remorse streaming down my cheeks. After years of counseling and struggle, my marriage was probably ending and I was the one ending it, I told Mister Rogers in my letter that day. Could he forgive such a person? Could he continue to love such a man?
His reply arrived within the week, dated December 20, 1997, two full pages on the stationery of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, written in Fred's pinched, meticulous, highly distinctive hand. I did not make it through the first paragraph before I again began to cry.
My dear Tim,
Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I'd get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and, when you answered I'd hug you tight.
You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain...As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I'm fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of "powerlessness." Join the club; we are not in control: God is.
Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers-now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me...
...You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God's beloved son.
Reprinted from I'm Proud of You by Tim Madigan by permission of Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright © 2006 by Tim Madigan. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.