Advice from the Dead

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.–Cicero

Recently, while cleaning out the garage, while rummaging through stacks of dusty boxes I came across a brown, unmarked envelope.

Intrigued, I quit rummaging, opened the envelope door and found my grandfather smiling on the other side.

Inside the envelope it’s 1954 and Pop was still years away from being Pop.

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Mike “Pop” is centered. His right hand holding a pilsner glass. To his right stands his Uncle Al.

Right now he’s Mike and he’s 25 years old and just bought at bar on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey.

He renamed the place “Mike and Ed’s” and he’s serving drinks to a row of rowdy Philadelphians who escaped the tightness of their row home lives for the weekend promise of some New Jersey shore magic.

It’s early evening and the bar, like the decade itself is based with thick,  masculine laughter which overpowers the bouncy doo-wop rhythm of  “Life Could Be a Dream” frisking out the jukebox.

It smells of a different time. Of Old Spice and cigarettes.

I move across the checkered floor to an open seat at the end of the bar and watch Pop make small talk with a few sunburned necks. He laughs and it’s hearty and deep just like I remember.

Pop looks up and nods as if he’s been expecting me.

He turns to the tap, pours a beer in a short pilsner glass and brings it my way. His skinniness surprises me. But the eyes, the smile, the roundness of his shoulders are all there, like they’ve always been.

Pop puts the glass down in front of me. His blue eyes meet my blue eyes and he lays his hand on top of my hand and tells me how he appreciated the funeral, how he appreciated the eulogy I delivered even though it was a bit brief. An entire life in 1,337 words? He thought I should’ve stretched it to at least 1,700.

He winks.

Then his face gets serious.  He tells me he’s disappointed we paid full price for the luncheon after the funeral. He tells me knows an Italian who rents a little room behind the scrap yard along the Delaware River. He tells me the Italian would’ve catered the whole thing, funeral and luncheon, for half the cost.

He tells me he doesn’t have long because other people need him.

He tells me that death is a lot like life in that sense. Someone always needs you.  Someone is always failing to listen. But death, he says, brings infinite patience. Sadly, life does not.

A drunk wearing a tilted fedora calls out, “Mike, Mikey boy bring me over another one. I told the old lady I’d be home by 7 and it’s quarter of!”

Pop shoots the old man a “wait your damn turn old man” look. A look he perfects when, in a few years he becomes a police officer and spends late hours working the fanged streets of southwest Philadelphia.

He returns to me, “See what I mean, no patience.”

Then he gets serious again. Hard lines form around his eyes.

“You know what the living say about the dead? About how, at least, the dead are in a better place.”

I nod.

“Wrong. What the living fail realize is that even though your setting changes, you do not. When you die you take yourself, for better or worse, with you to the other side.  Look around. All these men came here thinking things would somehow be better. But they’re miserable laying bricks in Philly and they’re miserable drinking beer in Jersey. Fools. They thought by crossing the river, by shifting states their life would magically improve. Life, death they don’t work that way.”

He tightens his grip on my hand and says, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are that matters. The same holds true for the afterlife. And you’re going to mess a lot of things up. But if can let love lead your way you might do just enough to get it right. And if you can understand this while you’re alive, I promise when your time comes, you’ll cross that bridge a happy man.”

He loosens his grip and the other hand drums its fingers on the bar and he looks out the window. His brow bent like mine when I’m contemplating something big.

I study his profile the way I did when I was a kid tucked in the front seat of his white pickup truck.

I remember how he would be driving and singing with Frank Sinatra and his profile would be glowing against the shifting sunlight and when the chorus hit he flashed a hard earned smile, a smile of a man who made peace with his life, with the world. A smile I can’t quite forget.

When his eyes return to mine he tells me the beer was on the house. But that was it. No more freebies. This isn’t a soup kitchen. And if I wanted another I would have to pay for it or wash dishes.

Pop takes his hand from mine. He steps back, smiles like someone about to board a plane and somehow, defying the laws earthly physics I still feel the pressure of his hand resting on mine as he drifts away, down the length of the bar, tending to the others who need him.

A bead of sweat rolls down the glass.

A heavy, hollow laughter steamrolls across the bar.

Something sits in my throat.

I want to call him back.

I want to breathe with him again.

I want to tell him I write stories about him so he doesn’t seem so dead.

I want to tell him how I missed him just a little more around Christmas. How I wish he could hold my children. How I wish they could experience his smile and hear his advice and feel the gentle pressure of his hand against theirs.

But I don’t.

Because you can’t.

Because you can’t tell the dead what they already know.

Because when you open an envelope and you’re greeted by the dead and they squint and smile and speak, all you can do is listen, consider your mortal ways and do your best to heed their eternal advice.

Be well,

Jay

 

What My Stand-Up Comedy “Career” Taught Me about Fear

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It’s 2005 and I’m sitting at the kitchen table leafing through The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mom is at the stove whipping eggs. The coffee percolates and the TV weather man urges us to keep the umbrellas handy.

Mom whirls around, offers me a plate of bacon and eggs and tussles my hair. I’m 25 and in a few weeks Cindy and I make settlement on a little house to start our little lives together.

It’s a scary and exciting season in my life. And as seasons go, you never understand their significance until many seasons have passed. Until you realize that your past experiences were preparing you to deal with future problems.

As I eat my eggs, my eyes find an advertisement in the paper for an amateur stand-up comedy contest for teachers sponsor by Chuckles Comedy Club. The contest boasts a $1000 grand prize and the honor of being crown “Philadelphia’s Funniest Teacher.”

It happens to all of us–when the gleam of a possibility arrives we’re electrified by the “What if…?”. Our heart quickens, our speech is fast and light and our imagination is seduced by the promise of grandiose achievements.

I see my name in big black letters stamped on a glowing theater marquee. Jay-Z is standing behind a microphone. He calls my name and “Big Pimpin” breaks over the speakers that causes a thunderous cacophony of applause and screams and women faint and men nod in respect and admiration as I saunter across the glossy stage. There are fireworks and acrobats. Beyonce is there.  I’m standing behind a microphone basking under a solitary stage light. My jokes inspire walls of riotous laughter that roll in like waves. I smile, my eyes glint in the spotlight and as I slide my hand in pocket I realize that I’m the envy of everyone in the room.

I snap open my flip phone (remember it’s 2005) and dial but before I punch in the last number something happens. Something always happens in the moments before you leap, before you dive into an unknown world.

“What if I fail?”

My heart quickens.

“What if no one laughs?”

A nervousness flutters in my stomach.

“What if I’m booed off stage like B Rabbit the first time he’s at The Shelter?”

I see the black letters of my name melting like wax on the marquee. I’m on a glossy stage, behind a microphone, under a column of light. My eyes are wide, darting. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I’m sweating and shifting my weight and there’s silence. A hard, loud silence that you feel more then hear. I look to my right and Jay -Z storms toward me, stops and pegs me in the ear with Beyonce’s sparkled stiletto. The spotlight clicks off and I’m alone on stage, cupping the side of my head, drowning in silent darkness of my failure.

I’m looking at the incomplete phone number and I feel the Four Horsemen of Failure: Concern, Doubt, Distrust, and  Fear charging hard towards me.

I tighten my lips, snap close the phone, finish my eggs and convince myself it was a dumb idea and I would’ve failed miserably and I’m better off not risking the embarrassment.

For the next few days, between eating eggs and packing boxes I was gnawed by the familiar “What if..?” paradigm.

“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And then, hours before the sign-up deadline, in a fit of either insanity or brilliance, I simply thought, “Fuck it. Even if I fail, mom will still make me eggs and Cindy will (hopefully) still marry me.”

This time, I snapped open my phone with confidence, punched in all seven numbers, left a message and a few hours later, a gruff voice called me and told me I was to report to Timothy’s Bar and Grill in West Chester, Pennsylvania next Saturday at 8 pm and that I would be the first comedian of the night.  Gruff voice explained that the contest was a single elimination, three round contest. The best comedian advancing each week until the final round.

Shit.

My stomach bottomed out. A streak of hot panic blazed up my chest.

For the next few days I jousted with the Horsemen. I wrote jokes, erased jokes, and threw out jokes. I watched hours of stand-up which only ballooned my self-doubt. I listened intently to the cackles of my inner critic. I entertained the idea of not showing up. Calling it off. Running away to Mexico. And I was convincing myself I was going to fail and that this simply wasn’t worth the effort or the embarrassment.

Days before the show all I had was a trashcan full of unfunny quips about relationships, politics, drive-thru windows and old people.

I’m 25 but look like I’m 18. In fact, as a teacher I was often mistaken as a student by both teachers and students. So I thought if I filleted my insecurities, if I had the courage to make fun of myself that people may laugh, at me or with me, either way I didn’t care.

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Just a couple of kids. No this is not our Sophomore Spring Mixer, this is our wedding rehearsal dinner. June 24, 2005. Apparently, I’m 25 years old.

So I committed to writing a 3 minute set about my insecurities.

My boyish looks, my fear of Victoria’s Secret and my pubic hair.

I felt that if I had the audacity to talk about the most private of things  in public I had a good chance on winning or at least earn the “Effort Award.”

But then the strangest thing happened– my self-deprecating jokes were not only good enough to win the first round, I road them all the way to the final where (triumphant trumpet sound) I was but crowned “Philadelphia’s  Funniest Teacher.”

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Comedy Gold! While writing this post I found some of my material. And yes bottom left is my ultrasound, the centerpiece of my gut-busting, mic- dropping finale.

I spent the next few months doing open mic nights, earning a little stage time, bombing some nights, killing others but ultimately I decided to hang up the microphone.

12 years later, when I hear the galloping Horsemen I return to the lessons learned that season. I’m reminded that despite my initial fear I didn’t die.

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time but my experience with stand-up comedy was laying the foundation for what I attempt do every week on this blog (without the 2 drink minimum). I attempt to tell my story truthfully, unadorned to entertain anyone who’s awesome enough to stop by and listen.

We often forget we’re just animals in fancy clothes and funny hats. When we sense fear, our primal instincts kick in and we run. But as the smartest animal in the schoolyard, we know that avoiding fear will only compound fear. And we also know that those who avoid risks will spend their entire lives just dangling from the monkey bars.

Be well,

Jay

So You’re on a Plane and There’s a “CODE RED!!!”

 

airplane-918916_960_720 I’m on Flight 1990 from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico and in the middle of reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson when a panicked voice breaks over the intercom, “CODE RED, CODE RED!!!”

A worried stewardess rushes up the aisle.

A nervous current catches and spreads across the cabin.

Passengers rise from their seats, careening necks out into the aisle.

“CODE RED! CODE RED!”

My buddy Pete, is on my left, middle seat, slips out his ear buds, looks around then looks at me.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s a CODE RED.”

“What’s a CODE RED?”

I don’t know but…

Another stewardess hustles down the aisle, passes our row and disappears into the back of the plane.

The cabin air turns soupy. The muddled passenger chatter becomes clearer in pitch and panic.

“What’s going on?”

“What’s a CODE RED?”

The stewardess who disappeared reemerges in the aisle. She is holding a red duffel bag.  Her eyes are wide and she’s out of breath, “Just stay in your seats, PLEASE!”

Pete’s eyes grow wide, “CODE RED. That doesn’t sound good.”

~

A few hours earlier, Cindy is watching me pack a suitcase, arms crossed, and chewing her bottom lip.

“Jay, what time is your flight again?”

“8:20 am.”

“Text me when you land?”

“Of course.”

“You’re going to be ok? Right?”

I jam a few t-shirts in the suitcase, look up and smile, “Relax, I’ll be fine.And plus, if something goes wrong while we’re 10,000 feet in the air there’s not a lot I can do.”

“Stop it! Don’t say that. You know how I hate planes.”

Cindy moves across the room, her eyes fill and she hugs me as I wonder if I packed enough t-shirts to last me through the trip.

~
Another nervous stewardess rushes past us with a red duffel bag in her hand. Pete and I look at each other.

I turn toward the window. A blast of pale white light slices through the clouds, through my little window and I hear Cindy’s distant, nervous voice asking, “You’re going to be ok? Right?”

As CODE RED chaos swirls about the cabin, I attempt to distract myself by leafing through The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and conveniently find the line…

 I see practical enlightenment as becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable–no matter what you do, life is comprised of failure, loss, regrets and even death.

I scan the cabin, look out the window into the blinding pale light, listen to the nervous twang of my fellow passengers and privately ask, “Is this one of those times? Should I get comfortable?”

The last few years of my life have taught me that sometimes a lot of times things get, as Manson writes, “fucked up” –like a “CODE RED” on an airplane floating 10,00 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.

And in these moments,when you’re at the mercy of fate and circumstance, our power resides simply in how we respond to such circumstances. Consequently, this is both empowering and unnerving.

Life is like this flight I’m on. It’s expensive and uncomfortable and suddenly when everything seems to be gliding along, you’ve got a CODE RED on you’re hands.  You panic. You sweat. You loss your breath. There’s nothing you can really do about it.  And you realize that you and this plane ride is a beautiful metaphor.

Because most of my pain (and probably your’s) is caused when we try, with all our human strength, to control the uncontrollable.

Manson attests that life would be much more fulfilling and joyful if we simply stopped, “giving a fuck about things beyond our control”. Like people’s opinions, or how much money our neighbor makes, or if your plane is experiencing a CODE RED.

If you don’t mind obscenity, if you’re looking for some honest, tough-love  perspective that will both tug at your heart strings and punch you in the gut, then I would recommend Manson’s book.

And in case your flying American Airlines in the future, a CODE RED is a medical emergency. In the case of Flight 1990, a girl fainted. I saw her at baggage claim. She was fine.

Maybe screaming “CODE RED” over an airplane intercom  is a bit excessive.

Because, “CODE RED” translates to ” WE’RE UNDER ATTACK… SAVE YOURSELVES!!!” ( Or at least it does in my mind.)

Also A.A.– maybe you should consider changing CODE RED to something less alarming, something less likely to cause mid-air heart palpitations, something subtle and unassuming like “Elmer Fudd” or “Banana Pancakes.” or better yet, “Elmer Fudd eating banana pancakes.” Just a thought.

Be well,

Jay

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

A Hard Story to Tell – Part 3

A Hard Story to Tell  is a work of creative nonfiction that recounts the most unnerving experience of my life. The story was released in serial format. This is Part 3.      

  Part 1.            Part 2.


For A.–

“Balloons and lollipops. That’s what most kids choke to death on.”

That’s what Officer James said through panted breath. A breath lost when he sprang from his squad car, sprinted the up the driveway and exploded into our little house. Our little house, remember, where only good things happen.

Like some shiny tumor, the purple Dum-Dum head sat saliva-wet and heavy on the kitchen floor.

“Did you do the heimllich?

I nodded.

My polo shirt and khakis were ringed with sweat. My hands dripped with blue ink.  The rain had stopped but the air seemed to grow hotter, soupier, weighing on the world like an unseen blanket.

“You know… I’ve been a cop for 8 years. And…those are the worst calls. I couldn’t tell you how many…”

His voice tailed away as he wiped his brow and toed the candied tumor.

I sat rocking, sweating, sizzling with that electric brittleness feeling you get when driving the wrong way down a one-way street, when Officer James, found my eyes and in a steadier voice said, “I’m a father myself. Got two kids. A boy and a girl. I couldn’t imagine….”

We–strangers, fathers– shared a quiet look, Officer James and I, both feeling sorry for each other in our own private ways.

Cindy was kneeling, stroking Chase’s head as Haley stood at the edge of the kitchen, hands still cupping her mouth still fascinated and horrified by this whole scene and my neighbor, Angel, stood shirtless in the doorway.

When my eyes moved to Angel’s big brown eyes, he broke into immediate apology for not wearing a shirt, “I’m really sorry for not wearing a shirt.”.

Two young looking EMTs arrived in the doorway. They were calm and unimpressed by the purple tumor on the floor. The taller one pointed his nose north.

“Is something burning?”

Cindy sprang up, “shit the cupcakes”, and rushed to the oven. The shorter EMT joked about calling the fire department.

No one laughed.

The EMTs looked over Chase, asked him some questions, poked around his ribs, took a few notes and left.

Officer James, lingered for a few more minutes talking to Angel.

Cindy and I began piecing together our afternoon, our lives. Officer James left. Angel apologized again, “I heard someone pounding on the door, crying. I just didn’t have time to grab a shirt.”

I smiled, thanked him and told him not to worry about it.

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This is a hard story to tell because Cindy doesn’t want me to tell you. In fact, whenever this story emerges her eyes glaze and adopt this for away look. A can-we-change-the-subject look. Maybe she’s embarrassed. Maybe ashamed because she left to get help. I want to privately remind her that when Haley fell in the pool, I barely moved.

I understand. Chase choking to death on our kitchen floor was horrifying. It that does need to be replayed, repeated or even told.

But I can’t let it go.

The story has too many triggers — Dum-Dums, balloons, cupcakes, blue ink, a siren, a driving rain, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. And when the story does rise up in my memory, I’m like my daughter, I don’t want to look, but I have to look. I need to look.  And when I look into the book of memory I remember and remembering leads to writing.

And for me writing is, and always has been, easier then forgetting.

It’s a hard story to tell because, in the end, children are naturally short on memory and parents are not.

Later that day I took Chase to Party City to get a birthday pin.

Chase and I walk into the store. Balloons everywhere. Some inflated and stringed. Others flat and stretched and graced with Elmo, Elsa, and Lighting McQueen tacked high across the wall. Chase’s eyes buzz about the shinny Mylar. A bored teenage girl leans on the counter. Below the counter are rows of candy.

I scoop Chase up, kissed him on his little apple-shaped head, slip him into the shopping cart seat. We pass the bored teen, the balloons, the candy and reach the edge of the counter when Chase looks up at me with his gentle blue eyes, smiles and says, ” Dad, can I please have a lollipop?”

chase-and-me


If you enjoyed this serial story, please share with your circle of humans!

Give a listen to my latest appearance on the “Set Lusting Bruce” podcast. In this episode I analyze the power and meaning behind the iconic “Thunder Road”– an analysis that host Jesse Jackson describes as “mind blowing”. Enjoy!

A Hard Story to Tell-Part 2

A Hard Story to Tell  is a work of creative nonfiction that will be released in serial format. This is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1.

For M.–

Two years before Chase started choking, Haley, unfamiliar with the theories of gravity and buoyancy waddled up to the edge of a pool deck, took an innocent, unassuming step and sunk like a little stone.

Before I could spring my hands loose from my pockets, Cindy was in the pool fetching Haley and with my hands just barely out of my pockets Cindy was standing on the pool deck, holding Haley both dripping and shaking like leaves in the heart of a hurricane.

If you were passing by, you wouldn’t have thought much of me and my inertia. I guess, we’d like to believe in moments of peril, when we are wedged into moments of necessary decisiveness, of life and death, especially when our children are involved, we will act with great valor and courage like they do in the movies. Or at least that is what we want to believe.

Chase is choking.

Cindy screams. I grab him by his shoulder and spin him around.

Should I call 911? Should I call 911?

Breath Chase! Breath!

Should I call 911?

Come on breath!

Haley creeps into the kitchen. Her little eyes are wide and blue and confused. And she’s shaking like she’s on the pool deck again. “Death” has not penciled itself into her vocabulary book, yet her eyes announce that the definition is felt and somehow understood.

I smack Chase between his shoulders.

He’s choking! My son is choking!

There’s a rush of heat. The oven door is closed but I assume it’s open. And I assume we are stuffed inside and the heat stings my eyes and boils my organs and the blue ink on my hands, the stains of my labor, is starting to run across the folds of my fingers.

Hurry–!

515 Stonybrook Drive–

Hurry—!

Cindy drops the phone, looks at me and sprints out the front door.

I slam Chase’s back again. A hard, heavy slam charged with violent intent. Haley is in front of me. Half-covering her eyes. Afraid to watch. Afraid to look away.

I slam his back again.

Come on bud!

Outside.The rain pounds our little roof. God is somewhere, far away, tipping buckets of water on us. Move inside. The sharpness of the rain is muffled and there comes a silence that is sudden and fat like something you could almost feel, like the hand of God when he’s not far away tipping buckets of water on you.

It’s strange the things you think in moments of sheer panic. When thought, which usually unfurls like a finely packaged sheet is suddenly working in hot quick machine-gun bursts. This is a hard story to tell because even now, two years later, I can’t forget the bursts–a black limousine, a little blue suit, yellow roses, a silver casket and a huddle of balloons rising like rainbows, then drifting and vanishing in the brilliance of a pure blue sky.

Hold on buddy!

Chase is deflating in my arms.

Don’t let go buddy! Don’t let go!

I told you earlier, this story has a happy ending. In fact, as I tell you this now, Chase in the backyard. He’s swinging on a swing. Breathing. Smiling. Rising and returning to us.  But it’s still a hard story to tell. Because imagination can be an absolute killer. Because sometimes when I walk the yard, I see that swing empty. No promise of motion or force. Just hanging, waiting for his body to fill its seat. And I find myself fighting tears, thinking of the emptiness he would have left.

swing

I pull Chase tight against to my chest, his back to my belly and wedge my right fist between his ribs, cup it with my left and it barely fits and I worry about hurting him.

A few years earlier I spent a Saturday afternoon at a Red Cross site learning safety procedures. The instructor was an older woman with thick ankles and serious eyes. She told us that if you ever had to perform the heimlich on a child don’t be afraid to break their ribs. Consider it collateral damage.

“You may have to hurt the child to save the child.”

The air is thick and wet and boiling my organs.

I pump my fist between his little ribs.

Nothing.

“Hurt the child to save the child.”

I pump my fist deep into my son’s chest, splitting his ribs, hitting the important things inside.  Nothing.

“Hurt the child to save the child.”

Haley is watching and not watching. Cindy is gone. God is gone. I kiss my son on his cheek and whisper, “I’m sorry. I love you buddy.”

~~~

Be sure to check back next Friday for Part 3 of A Hard Story to Tell.

If you enjoyed this serial story, please share with your circle of humans!

Also checkout “An Incident on North 20th Street”. This is another work of creative nonfiction. “An Incident…” recounts the time I found myself alone on a Philadelphia city with my favorite author, Tim O’Brien.

An Incident on North 20th Street

 

A Hard Story to Tell-Part 1

A Hard Story to Tell is a work of creative nonfiction that will be released in serial format.This is Part 1.

For F.–

Start here: Cindy is in the kitchen twirling along the counter’s edge– cracking eggs, whipping batter. The oven is on. She is smiling. And all is well in suburbia.

Most of this story is set in our old house. Our first house. Where our wedding picture hung above the fireplace. Where we made Christmas ornaments together. Where we carried with care all three of our children home from the hospital. The little house was where our life, our family took roots. It’s where our big dreams and big plans, gained tangible mass and weight.

familyAs the weatherman predicted, it’s raining and on cue I rush the scene, just before 4 p.m., through the front door with a messenger bag hanging on my shoulder and blue ink stains on my hands.

Haley and Chase are off stage in the living room. They’re doing what kids do after school– eating lollipops, ignoring their parents, watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Dylan is further offstage sleeping down the hall.

I drop my soggy messenger bag by the front door. It’s filled with my senior’s final high school essays– ever. Their assignment was to write a series of personal narratives detailing memorable moments from the ordeal known as high school.

“Smells good in here.”

“Of course it does!”

Cindy smiles and I smile. I move to her. Hug her, kiss her cheek and swipe a finger full of cake batter from the bowl.

If you’ve been following my blog or you’ve had the privilege/misfortune of having me as a teacher, you know I love telling stories. In fact, I’ve been criticized by my superiors for telling too many stories. But I can’t apologize. I enjoy the whole intimate process too much: the bending of words, the fleshing of characters, the building of suspense, the playing with structure, the bond that is forged between audience and storyteller. I’m addicted to it all.

Yet there are some stories I hesitate to tell. This is one of those stories. Not because it’s spiked with embarrassment or regret or failure. In fact, this is a success story.  I’m a hero. In fact, you may, if you stick with this story until the end– you may look at me with favor, with admiration.

Even still, this is a hard story to tell.

Because in order to tell it properly, I had to relieve an experience I want to forget. Because every time I tell it, I feel fragile and am reminded that choices and consequences are a package deal, that life can seem so certain, as if galvanized with such unbreakable stuff, then suddenly splinter and split like driftwood.

And every time I tell this story, the smell cupcakes trigger the shrill of Cindy’s razored screams.

I lean against the counter and Cindy and I talk about work. How students never listen. How June is a educational wasteland. How teachers are not babysitters and deserve more money, more respect, more of everything.

Cindy opens the oven and a hot breath sweeps across the stage. The rain quickens, thunders down and Cindy and I both look upward sure that God is emptying his change jar on our little roof.

Everything is normal about the scene. As predicted, it’s raining. There’s cupcakes rising in the oven. It’s Tuesday. I’m smiling. Cindy is smiling. Offstage, in the living room, our children are eating lollipops, smiling and watching Mickey Mouse two-step with Pluto. Further offstage our youngest child sleeps.

But that’s how stories often begin. Things are normal and then they are not. It’s that simple.

Chase, whose 4th birthday is two days away and whose last day of preschool is tomorrow, enters the scene without a lollipop, holding that look every parent knows. That look that vacuums out your insides and leaves just a quick streak of hot panic in your parental chest as your boy’s mouth is strained painfully wide, as if trying to unhinge itself.

Your child is choking.

There’s a trapdoor under his nose letting everything in and letting nothing out.  And in his eyes unfold the fear of a thousand infant crucifixions on what was scheduled to be a normal afternoon.

An egg waddles across the counter and falls– until it explodes across the floor. God is busy making more rain. Cindy sees her son, her blue-eyed boy choking and screams.  Her scream annunciates everything I can’t say.

Get help now.

Do something now.

Oh fuck sweet God.

~~~

Be sure to check back next Friday for Part 2 of A Hard Story to Tell.

If you enjoyed this serial story, please like on Facebook and share with your circle of humans!