Bowling with God (or a curious conversation with my son about death)

When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes.

A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s 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 flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.

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“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 know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”

( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)

“The wrestler?”
“Yeah.”
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“I know.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”

“Hey buddy, how did you know that?”                                                                           “Youtube.”

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 a 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?”
“What?”

“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.”
“Kind of.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”

“No.”

“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 than 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.

Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, 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.

Be well,

Jay

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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.

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Image #1 (Above). This is an image of a healthy cerebellum. Notice the plump, circled area at the rear of the skull.
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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

An Incident on North 20th Street

For D.–

If I had to offer you a hardened number, I would say 30.

I would say 30 uninterrupted feet was the space between me and author Tim O’Brien, one of my few living literary heroes. His groundbreaking Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried  inspired me to pursue a writer’s life. His novel entertained me, challenged me and forged my ideologies on writing and further reinforced my romantic belief that stories have the medicine to heal.

I’m standing on the North 20th Street sidewalk with a nasty wind snapping at my shoulders. Holding copy of O’Brien’s novel in my hand, I watch Tim watch the smoke from his cigarette curl and vanish in the cold March air. I take a step toward him. 29 feet.

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A Septa bus turns the corner and chugs by. It’s Philadelphia. It’s the fifth largest city in America. 1.5 million residents and no one is around. As I tell you this, the night has all the fuzziness of a dream. The lines blurred. The sounds muffled.  But it’s not a dream. It’s real. And it’s me and it’s Tim O’Brien, author of arguably the most important modern novel, alone together, on the same street. A giddy heat rushes up me chest. I step forward. 28 feet.

It’s 2010. I’m 30 years old. So far, my life has gone according to plan. I married my high school sweetheart. We bought a little house in the suburbs. We have a blonde hair, blue eyed daughter. I don’t know it,  but I’m tinkering a tin mythology.  I’m not building a life of passion and risk. My life is orderly. My life makes sense.

At 22, after he had graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Political Science,  O’Brien’s plan was smashed. He was drafted into the Vietnam War. Courtesy of the United States government,  Tim O’Brien was shuttled from the Minnesota prairies to jungles of Vietnam where he took orders, conducted ambushes, burned villages, kicked corpses and listened to final screams of men who became suddenly aware of the absolute and unflinching truth that they were about to die.

O’Brien had fought his unwanted war and now some 40 years later he’s staring into an immense Philadelphia sky, smoking a cigarette and still fighting, still trying to make sense of it all.

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Of course, I didn’t know it that night, but my unwanted war was still some three years away.  I was three years away from  MRI tubes and CAT scans and confused doctors. From the fine print of life insurance policies and mornings full of medication. I was three years away from discovering that writing would become my life raft, my means of survival. A vehicle for traversing my personal terrain in an attempt to pin down certain truths before it was too late. I step forward. 27 feet.

The wind snaps again and Tim snuffs out his cigarette and sits on a cement step. I’m holding his book and thinking about how to introduce myself like a self-respecting man, not some gushy fanboy.

It’s peculiar. I didn’t read or write much in high school.  I mean, I secretly liked reading and writing but I had sports to play and girls to talk to. And yet, for no good reason,  I went to college, declared myself an English major and hoped, which seemed much easier to do in those days, one day I might become a writer.

I now understand my life has been a subway ride to this March night. Meeting new faces, accumulating memories. Gliding along, aimlessly watching miles click by, never really in control, never full-heartily doing the thing that I really wanted to do. Never believing I had a story worth telling. Worth reading. 26 feet.

It’s funny how memory works.

How a circumstance, a smell, a passing glance can rip a chord– cause the past to sputter, growl, zoom into the present, only to stall in your brain in both odd and ordinary hours. 26 feet away from Tim O’Brien I was suddenly reminded of something my college journalism professor, Dr. Breslin, told me some eight years prior.

Earlier that evening I sat in the Philadelphia Public Library’s auditorium listening to Tim, with a gravel voice and steely stare speak eloquently about writing, the haunting nature of memory, the Vietnam War, the ambiguity of truth, how imagination helps him cope and how storytelling saved his life.

I’m 30 years old. The writer seeds are in me, under the soil,  but I’m not tending to them. I busy living an uninspired life. Tim’s words, his stories help but I’m not ready. The seeds are rooting, slowly, still five years away for producing fruit. Fruit that will ripen when my life spoils. When doctors tell me I might die soon.

Tim finishes, the auditorium claps and I exit the library. I walk along Vine Street, turned up North 20th street. The library is on my right. Author Tim O’Brien steps out a side door of the library, lights up a cigarette. He smokes slowly under a yellow lamp light and watches the smoke curl and disappear into the cold night sky.

I freeze. It feels like a odd, cold dream. One of my heroes stands 30 uninterrupted feet from me. I smile and take a step forward. Then another.

I hear the voice of my college professor warning me to never interview my heroes.

“Why?

She smiles, walks out from behind her desk and says, “Because you’re never ready to interview your heroes.”

Tim sits down on a little cement step and snubs out his cigarette. I take another step forward. Then another.  After the war he didn’t know what to do. So he wrote. He found solitude and hope and love and redemption in words. It’s not Vietnam, but my private apocalypse awaits– gnawing at the edges of my future days.

At 26 feet,  I submit. I’m not ready. Not yet.

I tuck The Things They Carried into my messenger bag. I retreat. 27. 28. Tim stares into the night sky. I have nothing to say to him. Nothing to provoke meaningful, authentic conversation. Nothing he would appreciate.

29. 30.

I turn away and walk along North 20th Street. With shoulders hunched, I leave Tim O’Brien behind, probably forever, yet forever carrying him with me.

I’m walking into a darkness. I’m three years from the start of my unwanted war and five years away from becoming a writer. I’m still five years away from having something real, something authentic to say to Tim O’Brien, to say to you.

Be well,

Jay

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