Saturdays are for seizing

Someone once told me Saturdays are for sleeping.

At 22 I agreed. At 38,  I couldn’t disagree more.

You aren’t going to work. You aren’t going to school.

You have a few errands to do. Maybe your children have soccer games this afternoon.

Besides that, Saturdays are for seizing.

For seizing all the reading, writing, exercising, eating, fishing, gardening, painting, dancing, and lovemaking you missed during the week.

Except for sleeping.

If you’re properly alive, you will never, ever seize enough sleep.

Be well,

Jay

Candy Land – Student Voices (Guest Post)

Once you’re alive, can you ever really be dead? 

Candy Land is a personal narrative written by one of my students, Kayla Paterson. This story, Kayla intertwines the past and the present to explore the power of life, death memories, and board games. 


Meet the Writer

Kayla Patterson is a 12th grade student at Robbinsville High School (New Jersey). She plans on attending Hampton University and majoring in Computer Science.


Dedication: To my cousin, Aliya, who will be forever missed and who will live forever in my heart, in the Candy Land Castle.

Over a sea of black dresses and suits the Pastor took a deep breath, “You may proceed to the casket.”

Rising from the red velvet church benches, tissue in hand, I managed to take a few steps to the casket. Listening to the hymns in the background, I remembered playing Candy Land with her.

Ten years ago, I was seven and all I ever wanted to do was play Candy Land.

I was meeting my cousin Aliya for the first time too, so in my mind all I could think about was having a play buddy and hoping she like Candy Land as much as I did.

Ding dong.

I ran to the door and reached for the knob. My face turned with confusion when the door didn’t open. My mom came running down the hallway with one hand covered with an oven mitt. She unlocked the door and I smiled and pulled, wondering what I would see on the other side.

Standing was a tall girl with a round face. Her big brown eyes took the frame of her dark glasses. Her braids swayed right above her hips, the smell of strawberry perfumed lingering in the doorway.

“Hey Kayla,”Aliya said while scooping down to my level. “So what are we going to do?”

Being seven and meeting people for the first time always scared, but Aliya was different.

I took her hand with a smile and led her to the family room. I told her how to play the game Candy Land and she was eager to start the game, we both sat right across from each other with the board in between us.

I took Princess Frostine – the blue princess and Aliya choose King Kandy.

I took the die and rolled it with all of my force. Five spaces. I moved my Princess Frostine closer to the Candy Castle.

Five spaces to the casket.

I could see the outline of her body. Silky black curls fallen on her ruby red dress. Her eyes shut, as if dreaming about her plans after college. Just 23. Just a girl with a dream.

Aliya, took the next card from the deck and eyed me down. My serious, seven year old eyes told her that I was not playing around.

“Ha, it looks like you need to move your Princess Frostine four spaces back, and you thought you were close to winning this game,” she said with a smile.

I took my Princess Frostine and moved it back four spaces, staring down my cousin while I did it.

Four spaces away from the casket.

I see her face. Silver eyeshadow, red lipstick, some blush here and there. She was beautiful to be dead.

“You think you can beat the master at this game?” I questioned my cousin.

I yanked the card from the deck and smiled realizing I just gained three forward spaces. Taking my Princess Frostine and moving it through Candy Cane Forest, I was almost to the Candy Castle. Aliya stared at me and she knew I was about to win this game.

Three spaces away from the casket.

I started to cry. I was close to reaching her. So close of touching her hand. Touching the hands she helped me deal cards with at a young age, trying to explain gambling to me. Touching the hands that were sticky from the lemonade we tried to make in the kitchen.

“Ha, I’m two spaces away Kayla,” Aliya said. Her big brown eyes followed the smooth movement of King Kandy jumping spaces between my Princess Frostine.

Two spaces between me and the casket.

The flowers she held were edged in gold. She was so similar to me. She was an only child, she wore glasses and she just wanted a good life.

“Not so fast cousin!” I only needed one more space to win the Candy Land Game.

I grabbed the die, shook it and released it with all my might. Our eyes lunged at the twirl of the die.

The die slowly spun to a halt.

My face slowly lit up when I saw one dot. I grabbed my Princess Frostine piece and did a small victory lap before I made it into the Candy Land Castle.

“And the victory goes to me! Take that cousin!”

Aliya laughed, “Nice game.”

One more space between me and the casket.

I step forward.

I touched her hand and I closed my eyes imagining her with me, imagining her breathing, alive, and well. She still smelled like strawberries.

“I’ll meet you again Aliya. One day, at the Gumdrop Castle.” 

We cleaned up the board game and as she left, she smiled, “Don’t worry you’ll see me again. You owe me a rematch.”

My uncle looked down at his daughter for one last time and kissed her forehead. The casket closed and I watched it rolled down the aisle, out the church and into the morning light.

My big 7 years old eyes stared at her and said, “Next time we’ll have that rematch. But until next time”

Until next time.

~Afterword~

I stared at my uncle. Though I ached with absolute sadness, I felt Aliya alive my heart. I knew that as long as I stoke the memories of her she will always be alive.

On that day I learned no one is ever really dead.

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

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

A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s tucked in the backseat and it’s raining.

Of course it’s raining.

Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.

With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.

thunder-953118_960_720

“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”

“Yes, bud I did know that.”

“How did you know that dad?”

“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”

Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.

The car eases to a traffic light and stops.  The rain falls hard and heavy.  The windshield fogs at its edges.

“Dad, do know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”

( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)

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

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

The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.

I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.

The light turns green and we go.

The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey.  One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was a happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead.  I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school.  I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold?  Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?

The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.

I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.

“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“What?”

“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”

“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”

“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Kind of.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”

“No.”

“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”

“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”

“I hope so bud.”

“But if you’re in heaven than you can’t take me to my soccer games.”

We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”

Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.

Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”

I hope so.

Be well,

Jay

PS–If you enjoyed this story and think others might as well don’t’ be shy, click a button below and share!

What’s the one message about life you would share with your family?

I recently packed up the suitcase, left Cindy and the kids behind (with her permission, of course) and met up with a bunch of long-time friends in Puerto Rico for our buddy Marc’s wedding.

It was a stunning little ceremony, staged outside on a horse farm nestled in the lush Puerto Rican rain forest.

wedding1My friend Jack, a world-renown scientific program manager, a guest on the Power of Creativity podcast, and possibility the world’s worst basketball player delivered a mic-dropping best man speech. A speech fused with the right amount of humor, honesty, and whimsical little narratives to give the Puerto Rican cicadas pause.

wedding2As the speech unfolded, Jack recounted the subjects of the late conversations he and Marc had shared over the years. Dream cars, dream girls, million dollar inventions they should invent ( but never did).

He also relayed to the reception how he and Marc, both who had lost a parent to the ugly antagonist known as cancer, would often discuss the poignant question of…

“What’s the one message about life you would share with your family?”

In March of 2014, after I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy, Cindy and I flew to Las Vegas to attend the National Ataxia Foundation convention for medical professionals as well as patients of neurological disorders and their caregivers.

The NAF is tremendous organization dedicated to the “improving the lives of persons affected by ataxia through support, education, and research” and their conference provided Cindy and I, both green in the gray world of neurological disorders, a wealth of valuable information.

Ataxia is neurological disorder, of known (cancer,  MS, ALS) and unknown origins that causes incoordinations, tremors, weakness in all areas of the body.

My ataxia which effects my eyes, hands and legs is attributed to my cerebellar atrophy. And what caused my cerebellar atrophy? That’s the unknown. That’s the question no neurologist, psychic, or holyman as been able to answer.

Like hundreds of others, Cindy and I descended upon the desert looking for answers, harboring hope. A hope of hitting a jackpot of sorts.

Many people at the convention had been living with ataxia much longer then I had. Some were stricken to wheel chairs, some had gone blind, others had lost the ability to articulate words, their speech as inaudible as an tequila fueled wedding crasher.

At one point in the program Cindy and I were assigned to a conference room with people whose genesis of their ataxia was unknown.

We held hands, cleared our throats and listened to people share their stories of their eroding motor skills. How they feared leaving their house. How they lost their job. How ataxia ruined their marriage. How they can’t have sex. How they can’t hold their grandchildren. How they can’t tie their shoes. How they suffer from depression. How they tried to kill themselves.

And as I listened to their stories, watched the confusion and frustration and utter desperation snake across their face, bend the corners of their mouth and fill their eyes with tears, I began to wonder– if this was my future, was life worth living?

Three years later.

A warm, light breeze sweeps across a marble dance floor.

And I’m dancing.  

Or doing something that resembles dancing.

As Ice Ice Baby  fills the DJ’s speakers, as a full moon shifts through a leafy canopy and pulses a hard white light across the night sky, as I’m met by the unsolicited smiles of my friends in the heart of the Puerto Rican rain forest, it’s clear in that moment– a moment mixed with just enough absurdity and transcendence to make it seem like something I dreamt– that the one message I would share with my family is that life is absolutely, positively worth living.wedding3

Be well,
Jay

 

The four words that changed my life forever (or all the motivation you need right now)

For me, this whole writing business began when a doctor looked at an MRI of my brain, then at the floor, then hard into my eyes and said, “You should be dead.”

He then told me there was nothing he, or anyone could do for me.

“I’m sorry Mr. Armstrong, you should be dead.”

I remember leaving his office. I remember the long train ride home. I remember the watching the world shift its colors through the lens of a train window. I remember getting off the train, walking to a bar and over a pint of Guiness wondering if dying was going to hurt.

Three years later and everyday later, I remember those four words the doctor offered me on that warm September afternoon.

Everyday.

audience-868074_960_720And three years later, I consider myself lucky. Not because I’m alive but because I was told with unflinching certainty that I should be dead. Something I think we should all hear once in awhile.

Between the car crashes and plane crashes. Between cancer and icy staircases and the stray bullets and stray dogs. Between anthrax and heroin and terrorist and earthquakes and forest fires and black mold and meteors and whole grapes– you should be dead too.

But alas, we’re not.

Sure, maybe we’re a confused and downtrodden and disenfranchised and ultimately tragic bunch but we’re alive.

And that should be all the motivation you need right now.

Be well,

Jay