An excerpt from Chapter 1 of “Bedtime Stories for the Living”: The Phone Call
Twenty minutes before varsity soccer practice begins, I’m in my classroom watching Danny write a potential roster for the upcoming season on the white board.
“Coach, do you really want to put four freshmen on varsity?”
“No. I don’t.” I check the clock. “But do we have a choice?”
Danny and I look over the list of names in silence.
“This is going to be a rough season.”
I look at him and smile, “I might be doing a lot of drinking this year.”
“Cool. I’m down with getting drunk.”
Danny is twenty-two, one of my former players, and now my unpaid assistant coach. In his four years as a student, I never taught Danny, mainly because I taught AP English classes. However, Danny would frequent my AP class, knowing that since the smart kids like to read and talk quietly about what Danny called “English stuff,” the corners of my classroom made perfect crannies for Danny to curl in and take a midday nap.
After high school, Danny became a host at TGI Friday’s and the self-proclaimed “Dopest Host on the East Coast.” Though doughier than he was four years ago, he is a good kid. Dependable and always happy. But Danny is locked in that awkward stage of development, acting like an eighteen-year-old while trying to present himself as an adult.
I’m thirty-four and have the same problem. Maybe that’s why we get along so well.
My cell phone rings. It’s my general practitioner Dr. Thomas. The sight of his phone number makes my skin jump and stomach bottom out. Call it intuition or being in tune with Verizon but somehow I knew bad news lurked on the other line. It’s funny how that works. How a “bad news phone call” seems to have a slightly distorted ring that makes your skin jump and your belly bottom out in fear. It was that electric, sinking sensation that overcame me as Danny continued to write and erase names on the board.
“Jason, this is Dr. Thomas.”
“Hey. How are you?”
“We got your test results back.” His voice was flat and his use of declarative sentences scared me.
“Jason, your blood tests came back fine. However, your MRI revealed something significant. Do you have a minute?”
“Significant?” It’s also funny how memory works. How some things stick and other things don’t. I remember hearing the word significant and thinking, significant, that’s a good thing. Like saying, “My significant other makes the best burritos,” or “Sorry the bed is so lumpy, I stuffed a significant amount of money under the mattress.”
“Jason, your images show significant cerebellar atrophy. Are you familiar with the term ‘cerebellar atrophy?’”
I thought, then spoke, “I know the cerebellum is part of the brain. I know atrophy means to shrink. Are you saying my cerebellum has shrunk, doctor?”
“Yes. Your images reveal a significant thinning of your cerebellum, which occurs when brain cells die.” I somehow forgot significant can also have negative denotations.
Danny stares at me, pointing to the list of names on the board and proudly mouths, “I got it.”
Dr. Thomas continued, “Jason, this is serious. Since this is the baseline image, we don’t know the rate in which the atrophy is occurring. The cerebellum controls muscle movement, balance, coordination, and eye movement, and you’re having complications in those areas, suffice to say that your cerebellum has atrophied significantly.”
Neither of us said anything. His silence made me believe he had delivered bad news over the phone before. There was grace in his silence. He was giving me a few breaths to digest the immediate facts of my life.
“Jason, I went ahead and made an appointment for you with Dr. Paul Simon tomorrow at 10 a.m. He is a local neurologist and a friend of mine who will be able to answer your questions better than I can. I urge you to rearrange your plans to make that appointment.”
Dr. Thomas gave me Dr. Simon’s address. He said a few other things but all I heard was “Good luck and God bless.”
Dr. Thomas hung up and with the phone still against my ear. I look over at Danny. He is laughing. He just wrote the word “poop” on the board. Danny loves the word poop. I have found poop printed on Post-its on my desk, on my game-day lineup card, and etched into the Styrofoam of my Dunkin Donuts coffee cup. And when Danny feels extra creative, he follows the word with a steaming illustration.
I want to call Cindy.
I pull the phone from my ear, punch up her phone number and stare at her name. I picture her at home in the backyard watching the kids splash around in the kiddie pool. She is wearing sunglasses and is stretched across a blue blanket with a glass of iced tea alongside her smooth brown thighs. She is smiling with our young children. And they are happy. Life, as they know it, is perfect.
I look at Danny and force a smile and hang up the phone before Cindy can answer.
“Let’s go to practice, Danny.”
“Hey, Coach, check out the board.”
“Poop is right Danny.”
Poop is right.
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