Poop, Paul Simon, and Finding Fat Nemo
Twenty minutes before varsity soccer practice begins, I’m in my classroom watching my assistant coach, Danny, write a potential roster for the upcoming season on the white board.
“Coach do you really want to take 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 looked at him and chuckled, “I might be doing a lot of drinking this year.”
“Cool. I’m down with getting drunk.”
Danny is 22 and one of my former players and now my unpaid assistant coach. In his four years as a student at Robbinsville High School I never taught Danny. Mainly because I teach AP English classes. However, Danny would frequent my AP class, knowing that since the smart kids like to read and quietly talk about “English stuff” the corners of my classroom were perfect crannies for Danny to curl up and take naps.
After high school graduation Danny became a host at TGI Friday’s and the self-proclaimed “Dopest Host on the East Coast.” He is a good kid, dependable and always happy. Though doughier then he was 4 years ago, Danny is locked in that awkward stage of development, acting like an 18 year old while trying to present himself as an adult.
I’m 34 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 bottoms 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 and you are mixed with fear and anticipation. It was that electric, sinking sensation that danced in me as Danny continued to erase and write names on the board.
“Jason, this is Dr. Thomas.”
“Hey doctor 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 doesn’t sound so bad. Like, my significant other just got a boob job and they are significantly bigger.
“Jason, your images show significant cerebellar atrophy. Are you familiar with the cerebellar atrophy?”
I thought for a second then spoke. “Well Doctor. 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.” I forgot about significant as a negative. My significant other (yes, the one with the big boobs) took a significant amount of my money in the divorce. And now I’m significantly broke.
Dr. Thomas, continued, “The thinning occurs when brain cells die.”
I looked over at Danny. He was staring back, pointing to the list of names on the board proudly mouthing “I got it.”
Dr. Thomas continued, “Jason this is serious. Since this is the baseline image we don’t know how rapidly the atrophy is occurring. But since the cerebellum controls muscle movement, balance, coordination, and eye movement it is suffice to say that your cerebellum as shrunk considerably. Which is why you are having such symptoms. You still with me?”
“I went ahead and made an appointment with Dr. Paul Simon tomorrow at 10 am. He is a local neurologist and a friend of mine who will be able to better answer your questions then 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 remember was “good luck”.
Dr. Thomas hung up and I sat with the dial tone, comprehending the immediate facts of my life.
With the phone still snug against my ear, I looked over at Danny who is laughing as he had just wrote the word “poop” on the board. Danny loves the word poop. I have found it scratched 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 is feeling extra creative he follows the word with a steaming illustration of his favorite word.
Danny is laughing. The dial tone is flat-lining.
My first thought was to call Cindy.
I pull the phone from my ear, punch up her phone number and stare at her name. I pictured her at home in the backyard watching the kids splash around in the kiddie pool. She is wearing sunglasses and is stretched out on a blue blanket with a glass of ice tea alongside her smooth brown thighs.
I hear her phone ring. A new age digital number known as “dew drop step” except the “dew drop” is slightly distorted just enough to make her skin jump and her belly bottom out. It’s a cruel feeling.
I want to call my wife.
I look at Danny and force a smile.
“Lets go to practice Danny.”
“Hey coach check out the board.”
“Poop is right Danny.”
Poop is right.
It was business as usual at Robbinsville soccer practice. The players moaned through sprints and did drills and I barked orders and I criticized and encouraged them all in the same. Then practice was over and I remember walking to my car and thinking, “Christ, now I have to tell my wife about my atrophying brain.” Considering I often call her for less pressing issues on my way home from work like “what’s for dinner?” and “are we doing anything next Saturday?” I felt, well, kind of poopy.
As I drove home, I had the free falling feeling in my gut that Tom Petty presumably sung about while waiting for the call to connect and Cindy’s phone to ring and for her to pick up.
I retell the conversation with Dr. Thomas to her. At one point her voice quivers as she asks me to spell cerebellar atrophy and I know she is writing it down. I can hear Dylan crying. He is about 6 weeks old. I tell Cindy I will be home soon and hang up. I know she is now crying and I began to do this weird crying /hyperventilating thing. Not a sobbing- oh Nicholas Sparks’ stop pulling at my heart strings -cry just hard manly chest chokes.
I get home and since we are 21st century beings who, when we don’t understand something like how to grout tile or make banana bread, Cindy and I retreat to the computer and Google cerebellar atrophy. There is nothing like that first google search regarding your degenerative brain condition. The .18 seconds it takes the internet to produce 1.2 million results is agonizing. Amazingly it only take 5.3 seconds of scanning the results to scare the poop shit out of you. I think it was after I announced words like irreversible, and paralysis and death when Cindy gripped my hand and said, “Let’s see the doctor before you start diagnosing yourself.”
I closed the laptop and hugged her and we cried– Nicholas Sparks style.
Later that night, after the kids were asleep, Cindy and I had one of those adult conversations regarding the news of the day. We decided that she would take the kids to school the next day and go to work and that my mom would accompany me to the appointment with Dr. Simon. It is amazing how the spectrum of your life can change so drastically in a matter of hours. One minute you are discussing feces with Danny and the next you are on the couch with your wife, tracing her nervous knuckles with your thumb, talking quietly about your degenerative brain condition. And that’s the thing. If the news of the day was Danny’s poop fixation Cindy would have listened. We have been together since we were 16. And in that time she has listened to me tell hundreds of stories–some funny, some sad. Trite stories about work. Booze fueled degenerate stories that only the four people involved would find funny. Stories that aren’t really stories, more like Seinfeldian musings on life. But she listened. Always has.
Humbly, my wife has taught me about the power of listening. How the act of listening has nothing to do with the topic and everything to do with the honoring the relationship. Look, I’m no Dr. Phil (nor do I want to be) but I have come to believe that listening, truly listening to someone, is the greatest compliment you can give them. It’s like saying, “hey pal, you and I are both tragic creatures but for this nugget of time I’m going push aside my worries to focus on yours”, without actually saying it.
I believe we all want to be heard. (Why do you think I wrote this story?). And if we can find people- spouses, friends, colleagues, doctors…especially doctors, who are willing to honestly listen to you, I implore you dear reader to hold them close because sooner or later we all need someone to talk to.
Dr. Paul Simon’s office was in a nondescript office complex that I had spent most of my life driving by. Mom and I entered the building and into a poorly light long hallway and found Dr. Simon’s office. We entered the office and stepped into 1976. Cherry wood paneled walls and an orangey matted carpet. Framed pictures of waterfalls and hand painted horses tacked randomly on the walls. A receptionist sat with her back to us in what looked like a penalty box with sliding glass partitions. Beyond the penalty box was another little room stacked floor to ceiling with manila patient file folders. Old school files before hard drives and flash drives and computers. In the penalty box sat a women who looked like a teacher out of 1976 high school yearbook. High gray hair, purple turtle neck. She was clanging away on a typewriter even though there seemed to be a perfectly good computer with an aquarium screen saver right next to her on the desk. I would have not been surprised if Doc Brown and Marty McFly were in the waiting room discussing Flux Capacitors.
The vintage receptionist took my name and my $15 co-pay and told us to have a seat. The waiting room was empty and may have been so since 1976. The pleather chairs presented themselves as yard sale left-overs and the coffee table looked like the one in my grandmother’s living room. Good Day Philadelphia was on a tube TV. The dopey modern morning show was running a segment on fall fashion trends for men. This fashionister told me that colored capri’s are in and khaki colored khakis are so last year which makes sense since I bought the khaki colored khakis I’m wearing last year. Everything in the office, even my khakis, were from another time.
Mom sat with the back of her head pressed against the panel wall. Her eyes were closed. She looked tired and I had a feeling the last few hours had been tougher on her then on me.
A nurse entered the waiting room and called me name. She was wearing modern scrubs and had a rose tattooed on her forearm. And she looked from this decade and I felt a little more at ease.
She led us down a hallway an into an examination room. The room was bigger than I expected. It had an examination table, two chairs, a changing closet, and a fish tank with a Fat Nemo looking clownfish floating inside.
Apparently this Nemo was found at a Golden Corral.
There was a hi-fi record player with wooden speakers that shared a shelf with gift shop knickknacks- a mug pronouncing Virginia is for Lovers, a miniature Statue of Liberty, a snow globe with the Goldengate Bridge inside, and a glass ashtray from St. Louis. It was all very weird and the tacky Americana décor only magnified the absurdity of the last 24 hours of my life.
Dr. Simon rushed into the room with his eyes glued to the prints of my MRI. He stood in the middle of the room with his eyes still on the MRI as Mom, Fat Nemo and I waited. He picked his head up to reveal Paul Simon in a lab coat. Okay his name is not Dr. Paul Simon but he looked just like the little Jewish, reggae influence musician Paul Simon. He introduced himself and asked me “So when did these symptoms start?”
“Well you see Doctor”, I looked and mom and gave her a little half smile, “Me and Julio were down by the school yard…”J
No I didn’t say that. But really I wanted too.
I told him about my symptoms and he stood listening, arms folded and every so often he would scribble something down on a yellow notepad.
His demeanor was professional and reserved until I explained how since I learned that my crazy cerebellum was packing up its cells and going home, I had been doing some research on my own.
This apparently offended him. He cut me off. “So you’re playing doctor?”
I was standing on a bridge over troubled water (see what I did there ) and completely turned off by Dr. Simon’s unwillingness to listen. In that instant I decided that this would be my last visit with him.
“No. I was just curious.”
“Okay so what do you think you have?”
“From your googling what do you think you have? And I will tell you if you have it or not.”
I was suddenly thrown into a game of diagnosis roulette.
I looked at mom. I looked at Fat Nemo.
The sound of silence. ( Oh no he didn’t ).
“No. Guess again.”
“Look doctor this is not a fun game.”
“I understand. Do you want to know what I think you have?”
Sheepishly I answered, “ yes”.
“Based on your MRI photos I would say you either have early onset of Parkinson’s or a form of Spinoocerebellar Ataxia or SCA for short.”
Thanks to Marty McFly I knew about Parkinson’s. Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA) sounded scary and I didn’t ask. But mom did. Dr. Simon gave a general explanation of SCA to which Mom, Fat Nemo and I all nodded.
Dr. Simon wrote a few scripts for me to get some tests and bloodwork done immediately. He also said he wanted me to go see Dr. Daniel Kremens at Jefferson Hospital.
Mom and I left the office. We crossed the parking lot but mom slipped her arm through mine and rested her head on my shoulder. A mother and child reunion (Too Easy). We got into the car and headed to the testing center. I googled Spinocerebellar Ataxia on my phone.
Homeward Bound, I wish I was.