The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or Learning to Fly)

This week’s post was inspired by writer Victoria Griffin’s  Flooded: A Creative Anthology of Brain Injuries.

Victoria was kind enough to invite me on her blog tour to further educate on the realities on brain injuries. I encourage you to checkout Victoria’s Kickstarter Campaign and support her awesome cause!


The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump (or Learning to Fly)

For M.

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump.

“Jay, I want you to jump.”

“Like up and down?”

“Yes, like jump up and down.”

I smile and look around the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. There are three other patients in the activity center with me. Two women, both walking slow on a treadmill and Bill, a former Navy Captain, who is the proud owner of a new titanium hip. Bill is pedaling a stationary bike and according St. Lawrence lore, Bill has never smiled. Ever.

I’m the youngest one in the activity center by at least 20 years. This is problematic because comparison naturally feeds fiction. Surveying the room, like the true gym class hero I still think I am, I swell with pride believing I’m the most able body in the room.

“Denise, need I remind you that I’m an athlete. A collegiate soccer player. I’ve been jumping my whole life.”

Denise playfully rolls her eyes. This is only my third appointment at St. Lawrence but Denise and I already share a chemistry. It’s December. Football season. I’m an Eagles fan. She’s a Giants fan. In between sets of squats and leg raises I tell her Eli Manning is overrated. She tells me that the stereotypes regarding the jerkiness of Eagles fans is apparently true. She is a turtleneck conservative. No earrings, no rings just a silver cross pinned to her sweatshirt. But she is funny and real and in just our few hours together I stake her as the most compassionate person I ever met.

During a set of lunges Denise tells me that Bill just lost his wife of 40 years to breast cancer. Her brown eyes swell, and then tells me she lost her grandmother to the same disease. Denise and I both look at Bill, we watch him slowly pedal. She tells me it’s her goal to make him smile today.

To be honest, I’ve avoided writing this story for some time now. I guess by writing it, by pinning down its facts, I’m forced to further accept certain truths. I assume I did what most of us do when we don’t have the energy, courage, conviction to deal with truth.  We tuck it away, like a debt, in the darkness of a desk drawer and do our best to forget about it.  But memories, with just the right stimulus, can resurrect without warning. They sit up, blink, open the drawer and leak into the light and remind you that memories, like debts, can be avoided for only so long before they must be attended to.

The stimulus today was a basketball bouncing off the concrete. My son, Chase, is in the backyard, dribbling the length of the patio and shooting on a little net he received for his 4th birthday.  He’s six now and he’s getting good. Dribbling, jump shots, layups. And he’s quickly learning about the earthly battle between the human body and gravity.

Chase makes a jump shot and celebrates. As it often happens with sons, he feels me–his father’s eyes looming because he looks up, with his own blue eyes and finds me framed in the window.

“Come out and play Dad!”

I smile and wave and a trapdoor in my stomach swings open and my heart falls through and keeps falling because but I can’t play. Not now. Not today. Because some days my body aches too much. Because some days my brain does weird things. Like some days it convinces myself that I’m trapped on the Tilt-a-Whirl or I’m buckled to the back of a big black bird or I’m a sneaker in the dryer or I’m frat party drunk. Because some days the fixed world spins, glides, tumbles and wobbles off its axis at speeds beyond what my eyes, my undamaged brain can comprehend. And I guess, some days, I just don’t play because…because I simply cannot risk the embarrassment.

For this story, I need you need to suspend reality. I need you to believe the unbelievable. But the unbelievable is the truth. Truth that the National Institute of Health, the epicenter of rare and novel diseases, couldn’t believe.

Before my diagnosis, I believed that I would do physically heroic dad things, like carrying all three children off to bed like footballs, each tucked under my arm, after the fall asleep on the couch. I believed I would be the MVP of father-son baseball games. I believed my children and I would run 5k’s together and I believed on a perfect summer morning, when the sky was veined with golden light we would ride bikes along the New Jersey coastline.

But we age and learn that real life always falls incredibly short of the one we imagined, of the one we planned.  And yet despite our protests, it’s the unplanned life that teaches more then our fantasies ever will.

“Jay are you ready?”

“Eagles are always ready to fly.”

“Ok, but I’ll be right here, beside you just in case.”

Bill rides a stationary bike. He is straight-faced and staring at me.

“Hey Denise, can you go make Bill smile? He’s freaking me out.”

“Just concentrate on what your doing.”

“Denise, I got this. Need I remind you again, I’m an athlete.”

Cerebellar degeneration is exactly as it sounds. There is massive cell loss in the cerebellum, known as the little brain. The little brain controls motor skills: coordination, vision, and balance. After examinations from some of the top neurologist in the country, not one knows if I was born with a gaping hole in my cerebellum and had been able to compensate my whole life (remember, I’m an athlete) or if a civil war erupted in my little brain where cells attacked and killed each other. And as I write this, as Chase drills a jump shot, no one knows if the war is over.

brain1
Image #1 (Above). This is an image of a healthy cerebellum. Notice the plump, circled area at the rear of the skull.
brain2
Image #2 (Above). This is an image of my brain. Take a look at my poor excuse of a cerebellum.

In the last few months my coordination, vision, balance and motor skills have all deteriorated. Not at breakneck speed, but slowly, methodically. Little things, things I’ve taken for granted– handwriting, climbing stairs, and carrying a few bags of groceries have become difficult.  The doctors are surprise how well I look, speak and still function given the size of the hole in my brain. For a brief time doctors thought I had ALS. Then they thought Huntington’s Disease. Then MS. Then, after six months of testing, they simply shrugged their collective shoulders and said they didn’t know. They told me, as if they were riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or the giant bird with me to, “just hold on.”

Denise levels her eyes at me.

“I want you to jump.”

“How high?”

“As high as you can.”

I bend my knees, swing my arms back and forth and try to jump. I try and try and try and try but I just can’t do it. I just can’t force my feet to leave the floor.  My big brain screams at my little brain , “Jump!” But the message is not delivered as if some internal chord that transmits important messages had been severed. To Denise, Bill and the two ladies on the treadmill I must have looked ridiculous, like a wide-eyed field mouse fixed in a glue trap.

I shake my head. “Jump!”  “Jump!”

“Its ok Jay. You don’t have to do it.”

“No Denise. I can jump. I have to jump.”

“Relax. Take a seat. Let me check on Bill”.

Denise returns, tells me she offered Bill her best joke about a priest, a rabbi and a monk playing Monopoly in Mexico and he didn’t crack. Didn’t even flinch

“Denise, I’ve had enough for today.”

When you think of your future self you envision your best self. Happy and unblemished. Your the hero of your own movie. You convince yourself that you, unlike everyone else, won’t end up a tragedy. And in those great moments of fantasy you believe, with a swelled heart, in your own fiction.

I limp into the locker room, find a folding chair, stare into my lap and began to digest the fact that I had lost the ability to jump.  It occurred to me, right there in that empty locker room, on that folding chair that I would not be the man, the father I envisioned myself to be. A father running, jumping through life with his children. A father playing basketball in the backyard with his son. A father who is fast and coordinated and who teaches his boy the aerodynamics of a layup as the evening sun vanishes from the suburban sky.

I open the locker room door to find Bill in the hallway, sitting in his wheel chair, as if waiting for me.

I offer a little half-smile and before I can turn Bill speaks, “Hey,” he still had those steely grey Navy captain eyes, eyes that didn’t look at you, eyes that looked through you. Bill clears his throat, shifts his weight on his God-given hip and says, “Don’t give up kid.”

“Thanks.”

And then, in a very subtle, a very unprovoked way, he smiles.

 

Be well,

Jay

Help Support WoFo’s Upcoming Write-a -Thon!!!

On November 22nd, WoFo will be sponsoring its semi-annual Write-a-Thon at Robbinsville High School in Robbinsville, New Jersey.write

The Write-a-Thon is a communal writing event that offers young writers a unique opportunity to discover their writing voice.

All proceeds from the event will be donated to the Special Olympics of New Jersey.

Click the on the Booster campaign below and support the cause. Shirts are American Apparel. They are soft and totally comfortable.

Thanks for your continued support!

Be well,

Jay

http://www.booster.com/the-wofo-write-a-thon?ref=copy-link_social_desktop-campaign-page-share-top-v2&utm_campaign=desktop-campaign-page-share-top-v2&utm_content=the-wofo-write-a-thon&utm_medium=social&utm_source=copy-link&type=1&side=front

shirt1shirt-2

 

 

In Good Company

wf3

A student recently asked me, “Hey Mr. Armstrong, what do you think about before you write?”

I curved my eyebrows inward, adopted a deep, contemplative look, held a silence for a second too long and replied,  “Words.”

The student rolled their their eyes, shook their head as if to say “Sorry I asked, you pretentious jerk” then turned away and moved on with their life.

Writers are often considered guarded, cantankerous folk. Often aloof and indifferent while sitting cross-legged in Starbucks, wearing tweed jackets and sporting wire-rimmed glasses.

So what do I think about before I write?

Well, I thought it might be interesting to unlocked that world for you. To share my mental geography. A geography I often disappear in while driving, coaching soccer, eating Golden Grahams, sitting through meetings or digesting the news that my 6 year old now knows the “f” word.

For me, the process is pretty simple. It involves a bar, Brenda, fried mushrooms and most importantly, you.

So, before I get more pretentious, let us go then…

You and I are at a bar. A local bar. A simple place with a simple name. Pat’s Pub or Mike’s Tavern. They serve American draft beers in thick handled mugs. The menu is limited to deep fried and pickled foods. The walls are dark wood paneled. The bartender’s name is Brenda. She is divorced, has a son in prison, a smoker’s cough and a faded rose tattoo on her forearm. 

There is a pool table in one corner and a jukebox that plays mostly southern rock in the other.  In the windows hang neon beer signs. Miller High Life. Coors Light. We are on our first beer and watching a 30 minute replay of Superbowl XXV on ESPN 2 when you ask me how I ‘m feeling. I tell you  I have good days and bad days. I don’t tell you good days are when I don’t think about dying until lunch.  I don’t tell you bad days begin when I think about dying before the coffee meets my morning mug. You ask what it’s called. Cerebellar Degeneration. You ask if there is a cure. No. You ask if the degeneration will stop on its own. Maybe. But the brain damage is permanent. You ask if I should be drinking beer. Probably not. You ask how I have been dealing with this. I drum my fingers on the bar. I want to cry. But I muscle it down. I look at you and smile and say I write stories. What kind of stories? My stories. Stories of my success and failure. Of my disease. Of my childhood and adulthood and fatherhood. Funny stories. Sad stories.  Embarrassing stories. Stories to remind me that I’m still alive.

I take a drink.

The Buffalo Bills kick off under a burst of a million flashbulbs. You know some nights, when Cindy and the kids sleep, I sit at my computer and stare through the words and watch my life play out on the screen like a movie.  Through stories we can make sense of the past which somehow alleviates the pain of the present. Because writing is easier then forgetting. Because writing is now a  therapy for me. More than any pill I have been prescribed, I have found real, human comfort in the re-imagined past. It’s like each story I write is a puzzle piece to my life. But the healing power lies in the fact that I can dull or sharpen the edges to each piece to fit my design.

I take a swig of beer and squint at the TV. We watch Phil Simms march the Giants down the field on their opening drive and kick a field goal. Giants 3 Bills 0. When the TV cuts to commercial you ask if I would share some stories I’m writing. I’m flattered and a bit unprepared but we’re friends. Sure. You smile, motion to Brenda and order  another round. I tell you that these stories are true. For the most part. memory is never completely accurate and that over time stories change shape. And with the fusion of time and repetition, and now alcohol, some of the facts may, at times, dissolve into fiction. I assert that I’m not a liar. I may inject hyperbole but that’s only for your entertainment. You concur.  I remind you that you asked me to tell a story not report the news. You concur. I tell you that though I may bend the truth, the themes of the story are true. You tell me to stop being an English teacher.

We get our beers and you pick at your fried mushrooms. You take a drink and I tell you that stories are like bookmarks to our lives. Stories remind us of where we have been and how far we have to go. I tell you that when we retell a story the past collapses into the present. And when we experience that collapse, we can learn deep and profound things about ourselves. Stories inspire us…

You wave your hand.

You tell me to shut the fuck up and get on with it already. I don’t take offense. We are old friends remember. We’ve been telling each other to shut the fuck up for years. I smile. You smile. We both take a swig of beer. I put my mug down and clear my throat and look at you and smile and say, “Ok, here is a something I’ve never told anyone before…”

Be well,

Jay

When Your Child Says the “F” Word

 

I wasn’t ready for it. Not yet. I mean, I knew it would come one day like something in the mail, like something I sent away for.

But I just didn’t think it would happen on a nondescript morning like this. But parenthood is funny like that.

One moment you’re cruising along, one hand on the wheel, window down, sunglasses on and then, like a sucker punch to the temple, you’re reminded that you’re not in control, and probably never have been. So with a pair of mangled sunglasses dangling off an ear, you straighten up and attempt to piece together what just happened.

Sunday morning.

I wake the coffee maker, the laptop and move to the kitchen sink and watch slivers of morning light break the dark veil of day and think about you. I think about what I want to say to you this week.

For the past three weeks I wrote about my son Chase, choking to death in my arms. Over that time, through the vehicles of imagination and memory, I’ve been traversing into the heart of my most unnerving experience.

Frankly, I needed a break.

I wanted to lighten the mood around here. And plus, with this Killer Clown Craze and the Presidential Election ( two unrelated yet often confused headlines) dominating our nightly news, we could use it.

The coffee maker burps, grunts and  beeps. I pour a cup and move to the living room.

I park myself on the couch, sip, stare into the glowing face of the laptop and wait. I wait for the barrel-chested ghost of Ernest Hemingway to appear and inspire me, remind me that all I have to do is “write one true sentence” but instead of Ernie H., Chase turns the corner sporting glassy eyes, a spiky tuft of bedhead and his faded green Ninja Turtle pajamas. Pajamas that have been machine-washed too many times. Pajamas that fit him nicely in June but are now thread-stretched to its limits, forcing the brave Donatello to beg for mercy.

Chase curls next to me. He rests his head on my shoulder.

The TV is off yet we watch it like its on. The sun is rising behind me, filling the windows, warming my back.

“Hey dad, do I have a soccer game today?”

“Yes you do buddy.”

“Hey dad, do you think when I’m older I could be a soccer player? Like the kind that plays on TV.”

I tussled his bedhead. Smile and in a hearty dad voice offer my son the most unoriginal dad response I could, “Son, you can be anything you want to be.”

Things were perfectly quit between us. Just a father and his son enjoying the company of each other in the slow of a Sunday morning.

“Hey dad?”

“Yes, buddy?’

Do you know the “f” word?”

Pow! Sucker punch to the temple. Chew on that dad.

“Uh, um, uh…yeah? What? I mean, do you?”

“Yeah. Fuck.”

I cocked my head like a little dog when he hears his name and held that angled position for some time wondering– wondering why my temple hurt so bad.

“Bud, where did you learn that?”

“School.”

“That’s a bad word. We don’t say that word.”

“Ok Dad I won’t say it.”

But I know he will. I can’t expect him to unlearn the word. I didn’t. You didn’t.  The word is now forever buzzing about his brain, waiting for its chance to shoot out his mouth, accentuating simple thoughts, simple sentences constructed by a child who still can’t tie his shoes.

Fuck me these pajamas are tight!

The sun warmed the windows and my coffee cooled and I held Chase close feeling that weird mix of hilarity and sadness that is parenthood.

Hearing my son, with aggressive bedhead and tight Ninja Turtle pajamas, drop the “f” bomb was– funny. But I understand its significance. It’s gravity and weight. It’s a sad indication that the world has sunk its grimy fangs into him. And there is nothing I can do.

Look, Cindy and I police our language around the kids. We save the four letter words for truck-stops and for the occasional blog post.  But here’s the scary parental truth– we can only protect, shelter our children for so long. Sooner or later their little bodies will be at the mercy of the world. And yet, as parents we know that we must send our children off into that tumult — to learn, to discover, to get hurt.  Like us, they will be damaged and they will return home gaunt-eyed and talking dirty. It’s just the price we all must pay.

So what do we do when our children learn the “f” word?

Cut out their tongues?

Of course not.

Reinforce that it’s a bad word? That’s what I did. And if he says it again I will correct him again.

But I can’t be naive. By identifying words as “bad” I’m only planting seeds of curiosity. Chase will surely lie in bed at night, further stretching out the Turtles, and wonder what other bad words loom out in the darkness, where the killer clowns and presidential candidates reside.

Things were quiet. With Chase’s head still on my shoulder I thought about how growing up, losing innocence, vilifying your vocabulary are as natural and normal as the rising sun.

Hey Dad?

Yeah?

“What do you call a skunk driving a helicopter?”

“What?”

” A smell-a-copter.”

I smiled, tussled his bedhead again and felt the warm reassurance that I still have plenty more quiet mornings with my little boy.

Be well,

Jay


 

A Hard Story to Tell – Part 3

A Hard Story to Tell  is a work of creative nonfiction that recounts the most unnerving experience of my life. The story was released in serial format. This is Part 3.      

  Part 1.            Part 2.


For A.–

“Balloons and lollipops. That’s what most kids choke to death on.”

That’s what Officer James said through panted breath. A breath lost when he sprang from his squad car, sprinted the up the driveway and exploded into our little house. Our little house, remember, where only good things happen.

Like some shiny tumor, the purple Dum-Dum head sat saliva-wet and heavy on the kitchen floor.

“Did you do the heimllich?

I nodded.

My polo shirt and khakis were ringed with sweat. My hands dripped with blue ink.  The rain had stopped but the air seemed to grow hotter, soupier, weighing on the world like an unseen blanket.

“You know… I’ve been a cop for 8 years. And…those are the worst calls. I couldn’t tell you how many…”

His voice tailed away as he wiped his brow and toed the candied tumor.

I sat rocking, sweating, sizzling with that electric brittleness feeling you get when driving the wrong way down a one-way street, when Officer James, found my eyes and in a steadier voice said, “I’m a father myself. Got two kids. A boy and a girl. I couldn’t imagine….”

We–strangers, fathers– shared a quiet look, Officer James and I, both feeling sorry for each other in our own private ways.

Cindy was kneeling, stroking Chase’s head as Haley stood at the edge of the kitchen, hands still cupping her mouth still fascinated and horrified by this whole scene and my neighbor, Angel, stood shirtless in the doorway.

When my eyes moved to Angel’s big brown eyes, he broke into immediate apology for not wearing a shirt, “I’m really sorry for not wearing a shirt.”.

Two young looking EMTs arrived in the doorway. They were calm and unimpressed by the purple tumor on the floor. The taller one pointed his nose north.

“Is something burning?”

Cindy sprang up, “shit the cupcakes”, and rushed to the oven. The shorter EMT joked about calling the fire department.

No one laughed.

The EMTs looked over Chase, asked him some questions, poked around his ribs, took a few notes and left.

Officer James, lingered for a few more minutes talking to Angel.

Cindy and I began piecing together our afternoon, our lives. Officer James left. Angel apologized again, “I heard someone pounding on the door, crying. I just didn’t have time to grab a shirt.”

I smiled, thanked him and told him not to worry about it.

family

This is a hard story to tell because Cindy doesn’t want me to tell you. In fact, whenever this story emerges her eyes glaze and adopt this for away look. A can-we-change-the-subject look. Maybe she’s embarrassed. Maybe ashamed because she left to get help. I want to privately remind her that when Haley fell in the pool, I barely moved.

I understand. Chase choking to death on our kitchen floor was horrifying. It that does need to be replayed, repeated or even told.

But I can’t let it go.

The story has too many triggers — Dum-Dums, balloons, cupcakes, blue ink, a siren, a driving rain, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. And when the story does rise up in my memory, I’m like my daughter, I don’t want to look, but I have to look. I need to look.  And when I look into the book of memory I remember and remembering leads to writing.

And for me writing is, and always has been, easier then forgetting.

It’s a hard story to tell because, in the end, children are naturally short on memory and parents are not.

Later that day I took Chase to Party City to get a birthday pin.

Chase and I walk into the store. Balloons everywhere. Some inflated and stringed. Others flat and stretched and graced with Elmo, Elsa, and Lighting McQueen tacked high across the wall. Chase’s eyes buzz about the shinny Mylar. A bored teenage girl leans on the counter. Below the counter are rows of candy.

I scoop Chase up, kissed him on his little apple-shaped head, slip him into the shopping cart seat. We pass the bored teen, the balloons, the candy and reach the edge of the counter when Chase looks up at me with his gentle blue eyes, smiles and says, ” Dad, can I please have a lollipop?”

chase-and-me


If you enjoyed this serial story, please share with your circle of humans!

Give a listen to my latest appearance on the “Set Lusting Bruce” podcast. In this episode I analyze the power and meaning behind the iconic “Thunder Road”– an analysis that host Jesse Jackson describes as “mind blowing”. Enjoy!

Checkout my recent appearance on the Set Lusting Bruce Podcast!

$$$-Springsteen-0

“In today’s episode of Set Lusting Bruce Jesse and 3 time guest Jay Armstrong take a trip down Thunder Road.  Jay brings his background as a English teacher and as a writer to explore one of Bruce’s most popular songs. Jay and Jesse consider Thunder Road to be a modern classic both as a song and as a poem.  Robert Frost, Romeo and Juliet, and the movie Notting Hill are just some of the references that are brought up in the discussion.  Jay also pops Jesse’s bubble and points out that Jesse’s been listening to the song wrong all his life!”

http://directory.libsyn.com/episode/index/show/setlustingbruce/id/4717985