An except from the book: Bowling with God
The other day, Chase opened the trunk of the car to get his baseball glove and I overheard his friend ask about my walking cane.
“It’s my dad’s?”
“Why does he need it?”
“He’s got something wrong with his brain.”
As you may know, I’ve spent the last few months writing a book about being a father and husband with a degenerative brain condition. A book that contains both new stories and some “blog” stories about the last eight years of my life. A book, that according to Cindy, better be published by Christmas because it will make an excellent stockingstuffer.
This week, I want to share with you a story that I wrote a few years ago, recently revised (with help from my editor), and have included in the book.
The book itself orbits my illness. How I struggled, and still struggle, to communicate both the love and the heartbreak that I carry with me from second to second. The following story attempts to permanently capture, like a photograph, one of the first conversations I had with my son about my illness.
I’m certain Chase has long forgotten this conversation. (I’m sure he has forgotten if he even brushed his teeth today.) But it’s a conversation which pushed me to tears. A conversation which now only exists in a story.
In the last eight years, so much of what I have written attempts to capture my miraculous time with my children. Times that they, only a few years from now, will not remember ever existed.
Of course, as I wrote over those years, time hardened and passed. The kids grew up. My illness progressed. People I loved died. And one spring morning, standing in the driveway with my hands in my pockets, time’s yellow chariot turned the corner, the air brakes exhaled, “bye dad” was said, and as the bus, my children, and a swirl of exhaust smoke disappeared down the street, I realized the irony of my effort. I was trying to preserve time while time was passing like a school bus in the morning.
We can only soften time by doing what we love. Doing the things that make us feel alive. And I have never been more alive than when telling a story.
This story is called, “Bowling with God.”
I hope you enjoy.
Bowling with God
When I grow up, I still want to see the world through childish eyes.
Chase and I were in the car and I’m driving. He’s seven-years-old, tucked in the backseat, and it’s raining. Of course, it’s raining. Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.
With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and a flash of lightning splits the night sky in half.
“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”
“Yes, bud I did know that.”
“How did you know that dad?”
“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”
Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.
The car eases to a traffic light and stops. The rain falls hard and heavy. The windshield fogs at its edges.
“Dad, do you know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”
“Hey buddy, how did you know that?”
The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.
I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.
The light turns green and we go.
The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey. One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead. I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school. I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold? Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?
The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.
I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.
“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”
“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”
“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”
“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”
“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”
“I hope so bud.”
“But if you’re in heaven then you can’t take me to my soccer games.”
We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”
Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.
I want to tell him I don’t want to die. I want to tell him I love him and his siblings and his mom. I want to tell him that I’m scared I will die before I have a chance to say what I need to say.
I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrists, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”
I hope so.
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