Let’s just sit here.
When I began this letter, one of my favorite and one of the most influential writers I ever read Cormac McCarthy was alive. In fact, the foundation of this letter was poured days earlier when my daughter, Haley, and I had lunch at a local pizza shop.
“And what would you like to drink?,” asked the waiter with a pencil tucked behind his right ear, wearing a black Pearl Jam t-shirt, and a white apron smeared with dried pizza sauce around his waist.
” Umm…I think I’ll have a Coke,” I said.
After the waiter left, Haley bent her eyebrows and leaned across the table and whispered, “Dad, you never drink soda.”
“I know, weird. For some reason I just felt like a Coke.”
Haley picks up her phone and begins typing.
“What are you doing?”
“Snapchat. I’m snapping you ordered a soda.”
I stare at my daughter like she was a time traveler sent from the future wearing a tinfoil suit, speaking in tongues, and performing quick alien acts with her fingers.
“Kids these days are so weird.”
When we got home from lunch, Haley went to her room and a mysterious compulsion lead me into the living room to pull my tattered copy of Cormac McCarthy’s most famous novel, The Road from the book shelf, move to the couch, and begin leafing through a book I had taught in my English course for ten years.
Handwritten notes wedged in the margins. Fluorescent pink Post-Its marked important pages.
When I was an high school English teacher, in what now seems lifetime ago, I assigned my incoming 12th graders to read, The Road over the summer. Most hated it. With it’s erudite prose and pervasive tone of hopelessness and despair it was not, on the surface, a feel-good beach read.
For years, on the first day of school, I would sit in front of the class, with the novel face down on the desk, recite entire passages from the novel to show off and establish my literary dominance to a class of unimpressed, tanned teenagers.
But on this day, a day when Cormac McCarthy was alive, the simple act of drinking a Coke with my daughter bubbled up a scene I never taught and hadn’t memorized.
I knew there was a scene involving Coke, but couldn’t remember where in the novel the scene happened. Frustrated, I pulled my phone from my pocket, opened Google, and typed “the scene in The Road where the boys drinks a Coke.”
After surfing the internet and leafing through the curled pages of my book, I found the scene. It’s a short, sweet scene early in the book that I never taught and was free of pretentious marginal notes.
As the scene goes: The father and son seek momentary refuge from the bitter cold and the hungry cannibals stalking them in a ramshackle supermarket. As they snake the aisles searching for a scrap of food, they discover a turned over Coke machine in the front of the store. The father reaches deep into the guts of the machine and pulls out an unopened can of Coke.
“What is it, Papa?” the boy asked.
The father opens the can, leans his nose into the fizz, and hands it to his boy and tells him to drink.
The scene ends with the father saying, “Let’s just sit here.”
A few days after I ordered a Coke, had reread the “Coke” scene, began this letter to you about how sometimes our unappreciativeness is caused by our unwillingness, our stubbornness to just sit still for a moment, my phone buzzed with the news that Cormac McCarthy, 89 years-old, had died of natural causes in his New Mexico home.
Disturbing and shocking, bleak and beautiful, The Road is the best parenting book I ever read—affirming life is short and brutal and the parent-child relationship is a survival unit gifted to help each other cope with all its challenges. And how being together, no matter how difficult life gets, is simply enough.
“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.” ~ The Road
Even though I have read it multiple times and taught it for years, The Road still hums with mystery.
It’s a book, like my children, I am forever grateful for but will never fully understand.
Greetings to everyone who found me on the University of Pennsylvania’s Ataxia Clinic’s website! Thanks for stopping by. Though I’m not a doctor, I hope my words comfort, encourage, empower, and serve as good company on your journey.
Recent letters you may enjoy:
Jay Armstrong is a speaker and an award-winning author. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. The leader of the Philadelphia Ataxia Support Group, he hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life.
For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents or a drink with his friends)
Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time.
You can also visit Jay at jayarmstrongwrites.com