The Cat’s in the Cradle

My son (who is no longer on Facebook and thus can’t be embarrassed by this anecdote) is not overly-affectionate. As a child, he was a hugger, but by adolescence, a side-armed squeeze of the shoulder was the most I could expect as the Christmas party or hospital visit wound down.

I make this observation not as a criticism, but rather as an acknowledgement that people process emotion differently. Did I miss the little boy who would climb into my lap and wrap his arms around my neck, holding me in his embrace until my heart had re-filled with love? Yes, of course. But I wouldn’t trade him for the insatiably curious, determined, good-hearted young man he has grown into.

That said, about six months ago, after my last serious hospitalization, his hugs began gripping tighter and lasting longer.
Today he came to see me for his final visit before returning to college.

We’re both determined to see one another when he returns for Christmas break at the end of this year–but planned this visit ‘just-in-case.’

He sat down next to me on the bed and wrapped his arm somewhat uneasily around my shoulder. I was so stunned by the unusual gesture that I didn’t know what to do. For a moment, two decades dropped away, and I was certain that–were I to turn and look at him–I would see the churubic face he wore as a toddler instead of the guarded but angularly handsome face that is his now.

His arm on my shoulder made me feel so warm and complete and full of love and I’d just begun to move my hand upward to grasp his when, overcome with the weirdness of it all, he withdrew his arm as I stared at my shoes, too stunned by unfamiliarity to react in a meaningful way.

We talked for a couple hours afterward. It was a good visit. He’s a good man and a good person.

But the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder what it might have been like had I managed to reach up and clasp his hand in time.

You have to act in the moments. They’re all we have.

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.

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.

Continue reading A Little Something in My Throat

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.

Continue reading First One’s Free