They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.
“We would hide in the closet.”
“Really? That’s all?”
“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”
I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.
I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.
Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.
As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.
Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, spinning their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.
In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.
I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.
We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.
It couldn’t. This was America.
On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.
“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”
The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.
The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.
“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”
My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born. There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.
Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”
As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.
I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”
“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”
“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”
These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.
What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?
The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.
With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.
Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.
Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.
She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.
The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.
It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.
And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.
The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.
The following post is the first entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.
“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story
In a world of Nicholas Sparks it’s hard to write something original about love.
Love is a well-traveled topic. One, I’m sure, you’ve taken plenty of notes on.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is engraved your heart and scrolled among the stars.
Love is in air. Love is an open door. And, if you find the right station, love is a battlefield.
Anytime you write about love you ink a fine line between cliche’ and Nicholas Sparks. So, in my attempt to avoid such fate, the only thing I can offer is a secret love story about love. So secret that when my wife reads this, she will know it for the first time.
I’ve written about my health issues and personal shame and failure but writing about love is something I’ve avoided. For me, writing about love is a little embarrassing. A little too revealing.
And plus, how do I write about love in such an authentic yet impenetrable way that it’s not the subject of dissection, comparison and judgment?
Truth is– you can’t.
It’s simple emotional physics (which should’ve totally been a 90’s emo band name).
To love is to want. And to want is to have weakness. Therefore, you can’t open yourself to love without subjecting yourself to dissection, comparison and judgment.
I fell in love with a girl when I was 16.
The first time I saw her standing in the blue painted threshold of the doorway to her biology class I just knew, with an absolute bone-certainty that I would marry her one day.
And 10 years later I did.
Even though that story is absolutely true, I understand you’re skepticism. And I don’t blame you. It seems too easy and yet, at the same time, too impossible. Too Nicholas Sparks.
So I’ll tell you another story that’s more believable. Yet, in some ways, just as fantastical.
Cindy and I are sitting at large round table, the kind guests sit around at weddings. We’re in the back of a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, the kind couples rent for weddings.
Except instead of a DJ, there’s a UCLA professor at the far end of the ballroom. He’s standing on a stage, behind a podium. To his right is a movie screen holding an MRI of a human brain. A brain whose cerebellum is damaged. A cerebellum that looks a lot like mine.
The room is filled with people of all ages. Some people in wheelchairs. Some people clutching canes and walking sticks. The same haunted glow in everyone’s eyes.
We’re in Las Vegas attending the National Ataxia Federation’s annual conference for patients with neurological disease because seven months earlier I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy.
Cindy and I are surrounded by people of all ages stricken with rare neurological diseases. ALS. MS. Huntington’s Disease. Brain tumors.
Some people sit with their spouse. Some sit their parents. Some sit alone.
The UCLA professor is discussing advancements in stem cell research as a way of improving and repairing brain growth.
Cindy is beside me taking notes.
Her hand moves in small yet amazing ways. She is writing down what the professor is saying as fast as he is saying it.
Her penmanship is catholic school perfect. Her notes are well-spaced and organized and her margins are aligned.
It was a secret moment in my history. One I’ve never told Cindy about.
A moment of enormous fear yet as my eyes trace the ink-curls of her words, a small moment of enormous comfort and safety. A moment where love was learned. A moment when I finally realized I was lucky enough to find a woman who cared more for me than I could possibly care for myself.
A moment that gifted me the eventual courage to roll my shoulders and write these sentences–
Let my cerebellum soften to oatmeal. Let my brain cells explode. Let my eyes go blind. Because there’s girl with green eyes standing in the blue doorway and she’s not moving. And she never will.
And that is what love becomes. After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.
But even that seems Sparksian.
A chronically sick man whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.
And yet she still takes notes.
As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
“Text me when you land?”
“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.
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)
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.
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.”
“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.”
And then, in a very subtle, a very unprovoked way, he smiles.
“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?
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.
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?”
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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!