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Journal

The Comforting Roar of Eternity

Sometimes, usually at night, when the tide comes in, I’ll be sitting here in my living room, windows open, watching TV, wondering,

“What the hell is that roaring noise?”

Then I remember it’s the Pacific, just over the berm, clawing at the beach, just like it has for 200 million years –long before any of my kind were around to hear it. It puts me in my place, this ocean.

So I mute the TV and listen to the closest I’ll ever get to eternity whisper in my ear.

“You don’t matter.” It says. “You are nothing. This is all nothing. None of this means anything. I will be clawing at this beach 200 million years from now, long after your kind are gone.”

There are people I know who would consider this discouraging, or terrifying, or even heresy or blasphemy. But for me? It is a comfort like a mother’s embrace.

“It’s all been OK.” It says. “All you’ve worried about, and fretted over, and tortured yourself because of during long nights of doubt? It’s as insignificant as beach sand. It all gets washed away, eventually.”

And some part of me wishes that it weren’t true –that I’d mattered somehow. But I’ve seen enough of death to know that the ocean isn’t lying.

We fade within two generations, often sooner. We are sparks from a bonfire: beautiful, blazing, unique, and soon forgotten.

But that’s OK. It’s OK to be a spark that is born, rises, touches nothing, and fades away. That is the cycle. That is life.

That’s the truth the Pacific knows.

And sometimes, when I mute my TV, it whispers it in my ear.

Categories
Memoir

Drowning On Air

I was twenty-nine years old when the doctor gave me three-to-five years to live. I had a rare genetic illness called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency that, in it’s worst form, caused early-onset emphysema. I had the worst form. A lung transplant could prolong my life, I was told, but it was a very risky with a mortality rate of around 80%, five years after the operation, and an eventual failure rate of 100%. Not to mention that the lung transplant was far from a cure: with the associated medications, lifestyle changes, a certainty of organ rejection, and still-present disability looming over transplant recipients, it is often described as trading one chronic illness for another.

There was no possible happy ending to my story. One way or another, my illness was going to cut my life short.

It was June, 2002 –over eighteen years ago– that I had to start trying to wrap my head around that fact. My children (now grown college students) were infants. Looking back on my twenty-nine year-old self from the perspective of the forty-seven year-old man I am today, it feels like I was not much more than an infant myself. In the time that has elapsed between then and now, I lived a life and tried to realize some dreams. I had highs and lows, successes and failures, wins and losses that I could not have imagined, sitting there in the doctor’s office, eighteen years ago.

And now it’s all coming to an end.

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Journal

In Dreams

I just awoke from a dream. In it, I had been strolling lazily through a crowd of friends and family and strangers. We were all gathered under and around a sort of tin-roofed pavillion, that sat on a concrete pad, in a lovely green park by a river. As I was walking, an instrumental track of Ray Lamontagne’s “Jolene” began to play, and I began to sing. My voice reverberated under the pavilion, and it sounded beautiful –much more beautiful than when I actually used to sing the song.

Soon, people stopped chatting and milling about, and everyone began to listen to me, my voice booming out across the crowd. When I was done, the crowd went wild. People cheered and applauded and patted me on the back. My friend Ruben Gonzales came up and hugged me.

“So good to hear you sing again, brother! I always loved how you did that song!” He said.

“I can still pull it off sometimes!” I replied.

The crowd gathered ’round, and people hugged me, and I felt warm and loved and complete and whole.

Then I woke up, and my heart broke, because dream-Brian is a liar, and he does this to me frequently.

I can’t still do it sometimes, and I’ll never do it again. Neither can I run along the dusty trails of Area J, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, ticking off easy miles on effortless jogs –another common lie he weaves for me in dreams. Nor can I sail boats, or stroll city streets, or cook lavish meals.

Most cruelly, Gloria will never reappear and whisper in my ear that it has all been a bad dream, and that she still loves me –a little fantasy that dream-Brian likes to trot out a few times a month.

I don’t blame the guy. Dreams are the only venue I have to experience normal human activities, and it only makes sense that he would continually return me to the things and people I have loved best. I know he’s not trying to break my heart. But, still, every time I wake up from one of these lovely little lies, it does.

It isn’t the dying that’s hardest, it’s the disability. It’s the loss of identity that occurs from having abilities and activities and relationships stripped ruthlessly away, until there is hardly anything left of yourself, and you are left alone to try and find a meaningful path forward in a life now devoid of meaning.

That’s the hardest part of all of this.

I don’t believe in any sort of heaven or afterlife, but if there is some part of my consciousness that persists, I hope it is in the reality I’ve concocted in my dreams, where I run miles easily, sing songs to rapturous applause, and feel the warm embrace of love once again. That is all the heaven I’ll ever need –a dream from which I don’t have to awake.

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Journal

Lock and Load

The first mass shooting I remember happened in 1984, at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. It was far from the first mass shooting in America, it is simply the first one that I remember clearly. I remember being so distressed by the news coverage that I felt nauseated and near tears. The shooter, 41-year-old James Huberty, killed 21 people and wounded 19. I recall trying, in vain, to relate to my mother how deeply it distressed me. Years later, in 1995, when I was attending the U.S. Army Airborne School, at Fort Benning, Georgia, we would sing a cadence about that particular massacre that made light of the dead children. I always felt grubby and ashamed, chanting along to those verses that turned a heartbreaking and distinctly American tragedy into a joke that its troops used as a marching song.

The second mass shooting I remember happened in Stockton, California, in 1989, just before my 16th birthday. I’m sure that, America being what it is, there was at least one more mass shooting in between the two, but Stockton is simply the next one that I recall vividly. Patrick Purdy shot and killed 5 children and wounded 32 others at Cleveland Elementary School. For years, I couldn’t hear “Stockton” without thinking of the tragedy.

Somewhere in between the two, I began to have a recurring nightmare that plagued me for years. In the dream, I was standing on the cement pad that had passed as a playground behind the Christian school I attended. Somewhere beyond the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot, a gunman would open fire, and I would watch in horror as kids and teachers were mowed down around me. In some versions of the dream, I was able to make it to a dumpster in the corner of the lot, behind which I would cower. In other versions, I could only stand, leaden-footed, on the spot as people were cut down around me. The dream became so pervasive that I would often daydream about it while I sat on the playground where I dreamed about it happening.

Even after I left school, I would have the dream at least a few times a month, startling myself awake when it became too intense and terrifying for my sleeping brain to handle. I might have been able to leave the dream behind, but America kept providing fuel for the nighttime fire: Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991; The Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993; the Fairchild Air Force Base shootings in Spokane, Washington, in 1994 –to name but a very few that I remember well.

I suppose I might have continued having the dream had I not been assigned to the 4th Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment after I left Airborne school. I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in August of 1995, not long after the unit had returned from a deployment to the Sinai. My platoon leader was still telling stories about a paratrooper he’d had in his platoon that he called “Crazy Kreutzer”. I’d never met him, but I remember my PL finishing a story one day with the words “If I had to vote for the most likely guy to shoot up a McDonald’s, it would be Kreutzer.”

He was far from the only person with this opinion.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a McDonald’s, it was a football field, and it was scarily similar to my dream.

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Journal

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Journal Memoir Oregon Rockaway Beach terminal illness

The Banshee

“You’ve got this!” was the last thing I texted her before she was rolled into the operating room.

We had been friends decades before, when we had both attended the same small, Southern high school, but had lost touch after I had joined the Army and she had gone on to college. We had reunited through the magic of social media about a dozen years ago, and had re-established something like a virtual friendship in the intervening years. I admired her ribald humor, her caustic wit, her genuine heart, and her devotion to helping others. For her part, she was always supportive of my writing, my music, and encouraging in my darkest times. We saw the world in much the same way and it drew us to one another.

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Journal

Get Up And Do It Anyway

One of the most frustrating things about my disease is how unpredictably variable it is. I never know, day-to-day, how my breathing is going to be. A few weeks ago things were relatively easy and a positive outlook was easy to maintain. I could even summon some optimism about the future. The last week-and-a-half, things have been viciously hard. Walking just a few steps leaves me gasping for long minutes afterward. Something as insignificant as brushing my teeth is absolutely panic-inducing and leaves me trembling. Showering feels like being water-boarded. Even the smallest tasks leave me exhausted. It’s so easy to give in to despair; to want to quit; to want it all to stop; to want all this excruciatingly hard work to be over.

But then I remember all the other times when it was so hard I wanted to give up: that Christmas in a wheelchair, watching cancer take my hospital roommates, one by one, as my body tore itself open like an over-ripe banana; another Christmas in another hospital, staring at the grain of the tile, an inch from my eye, suffocating and certain it was the last thing I’d ever see; another hospital bed and a doctor telling me that if I didn’t start fighting, I was going on a ventilator that night, and probably never coming off.

Dozens of times more, I’ve wanted to give up, because this disease makes everything so goddamn hard. Hard like it’s been the last week-and-a-half.

But I don’t give up. I breath in and out, as best I can, and tell myself to make it to the next second, then the next minute. Minutes build hours, hours build days, and if you put enough days together, things will get better than they are now.

A lot of us –maybe most of us– are going through hard times of one sort or another. None of us know what each new day will bring. If your today is worse than your yesterday, dig in and fight for tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, until things get better –and things will get better– so don’t quit. Build those seconds into minutes, into hours, into days. Accept that it’s hard. Accept that it’s excruciating. Accept that it’s terrifying.

Then get up and do it anyway.

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News & Updates

Housekeeping: #NaNoWriMo

There likely won’t be many long pieces from now through the end of November, as I’m gearing up to participate in my first National Novel Writing Month –an Internet-based creative writing event which challenges writers to create a novel-length (50,000 words) manuscript in thirty days. I’ll still be posting, but they will be shorter, less substantive pieces than, say, Hair-Trigger Nation, or First One’s Free. Expect more content like The Comforting Roar of Eternity or NFQ –short little observational blurbs that I can hopefully imbue with a little craft and poetry.

Sincere thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and/or commented in the past two months. I really appreciate it.

Here’s hoping that I end November with something publishable!

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Journal

A Little Something in My Throat

When I finally coughed it up, it was no bigger than the head of a pin. It was a minuscule bit of cheeseburger that I had accidentally aspirated while polishing off dinner over Futurama re-runs. All that panic over something so small; all that terror in such a tiny package.

All day, I’d been telling myself to attempt to walk the four hundred yards to the beach. I’d been going to pulmonary therapy for a couple weeks, so I was trying to push myself physically in ways I wouldn’t have before. I’d decided to try it after I swallowed that last bite, so maybe I was rushing it a bit.

I have to pay unusually close attention when I swallow –even just saliva– because I have to time it carefully with when I breathe –to which I also have pay unusually close attention.

It’s a dance that feels increasingly fraught as my disease gets worse. Nearly every breath feels as if it’s the first one after staying underwater just a bit too long, so I don’t have a lot of time to play around if something goes awry.

Categories
Memoir

First One’s Free

‘…Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.’

The America I grew up in was dusted in ash and studded with cigarette butts. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time: hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, high schools  –and no one thought a thing about it.

By the end of the 1970’s, when I was a boy, the entire country was like an over-flowing ashtray that had been filling up since Prohibition. The public spaces looked like a morning-after coffee table, and people just didn’t give a damn anymore.

They stubbed out cigarettes on shopping cart handles, on grocery store shelves, on the carpeted floors of department stores, on the tabletops at restaurants and bars. Nearly any flat surface was a socially acceptable option when it came to snuffing out your coffin-nail.

Part of it was just the times. America was grubbier then. There was a sort of gray film that coated everything and the whole nation had the feeling of being worn and lived-in, like a building that had seen too many tenants.

It was completely normal to see someone answer a telephone, pick up a pencil, and start writing on the wall as if it were a notepad. People tossed garbage from car windows without a second thought. People poured used motor oil straight on the ground.

It was like we were all just renting the place.

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Journal

NFQ

When I decided to start this blog a couple months ago, it was out of desperation. The sense that I was running out of time was palpable. I had butterflies in my stomach constantly and I was an emotional wreck, being crushed under the weight of impending doom. I had no hope and didn’t expect to get any.

In just a few weeks, my outlook has improved dramatically, even if my situation hasn’t.

Writing has been a big part of that. I had things inside that needed to be outside, even if I didn’t know it, and finally getting them down on ‘paper’ has really improved my mental health.

A bigger part, though, has probably been starting pulmonary therapy two weeks ago.

When I started, it had been years since I’d done any sustained physical activity, and I just didn’t think I had the ability anymore. I envisioned nothing in my future but a rapid, unchecked decline in my lung function that would eventually lead to my death.

But in just four sessions at the gym, I’ve already seen improvement. Slight, it’s true, but improvement nonetheless.

More important than the measurable (if minor) physical improvement, has been the immeasurable boost to my confidence that has come from being able to push myself past my limitations –to exceed what I believed to be possible.

That boost in confidence has given me hope and a renewed desire to keep pushing, to keep fighting, and to Never Fucking Quit.

So, tonight, I’ll watch the sun drop down into the sea, basking in the last rays of the day, and luxuriate in the beauty of my lazy little town.

Then, tomorrow, I’m gonna drive that hour-and-a-half up to Astoria, walk into the therapy gym, and I’m gonna get to work.

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Journal

Letter from Facebook Jail

I just finished up my first Facebook jail sentence, and I have a couple thoughts.

First, I deserved it. No doubt about it, I earned my sentence. In fact, I’m surprised it took so long for me to get put in the virtual hoosegow.

I feel like the Internet I started on back in the early 90’s was the Wild West –anything went. You could say whatever you wanted.

The first time I logged onto Prodigy (that’s right, Prodigy!), it took approximately 4 seconds for someone to insult me in chat (I was typing in all caps). I don’t remember exactly what was said –something about my parents, rat poison, and a slow death– but I recall being impressed by the wit, vocabulary, and vicious beauty of the well-crafted barb. It stung, but it was also funny.

“Oh!” I thought. “Words are weapons here!”

Being good with words, I loved that idea. Within a few months I was jumping into Internet arguments with both guns blazing -my barrels spitting out cutting, witty, and deliciously profane clauses.

In this world, I was a gunslinger.