Tag Archives: marriage

EPILOGUE

PART 5

“Woo-Hoo!”

-Blur

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The Cancer was gone but—as far as I could tell—nothing had changed. When I got in the car, I still felt sick and we had to pull over twice on the way home for me to throw up. Upon arriving back at the house, I sat in My Yellow Chair and slept wearing my heavy green parka (with a smile on my face).

My wife set the celebratory chocolate cake on the counter with plans to stick it in the freezer, but while I was asleep and while Jade was in the shower and while my mother was outside, my dog pulled it down and ate two-thirds of it.

I never got to taste the cake that I suffered so much for, but my dog looked very happy and slept very well that night.

Slowly, over the course of the next few weeks, my appetite did begin to return and I found myself slowly eating more and more, slowly scooping larger and larger portions onto my place, slowly starting to say things like, “In-N-Out for dinner? Steak? Chicken sounds good,” although I refused to touch any type of alcohol, and for years afterward, was terrified to put anything in my body that wasn’t for purely nutritional value. In fact, I became so entirely hyperconscious of the state and condition of my food that I insisted we get rid of the microwave.

My wife approaches me one night and says that a friend of ours from high school who was now living in Oregon had given us an open invitation to visit her. We jointly decided that this was an ideal point to begin our If Not Now, When? Adventures.

My mother agreed to stay at our home for an additional week to watch our dogs and we hit the road. It was a beautiful and memorable journey up the coast. I look back at photos from that particular road trip and it amazes me to see that it literally looks like my wife was traveling with another man; someone who smiled and laughed but was emaciated and pale. While I was eating better, the weight simply wasn’t pouring back on. Even after gaining ten pounds I was still six feet tall and weighing in at a buck forty.

On our journey we began to talk about baby names and, when we got back, it was that conversation that finally led us to take the paternal plunge. After speaking with the fertility clinic, they informed us that we had eleven completely fertilized eggs that were frozen and ready to implant. I stare at the phone as a single phrase that I’d heard from a woman at church months and months ago echoes through my mind. “I see babies. Lots and lots of babies.”

In February 2010 we began the initial stages of in vitro fertilization and three months later we found out we were pregnant.

With twins.

The pregnancy and delivery were both textbook. Jade went full term and on January 6, 2011, Quinn Marie was born two minutes before her brother, Rory James.

Becoming a father and raising twins has been an adventure in its own right that could (and maybe will?) fill a book. My children are wild and savage and inquisitive beings. Their personalities could not be further apart and every day with them is living life in a full, bright spectrum of color.

Every single day with them has been completely insane in the best way possible, and I have Cancer to thank. Without Cancer I never would have banked. Without Cancer we never would have done IVF. Without Cancer we never would have implanted two eggs.

And now, knowing the life I have, knowing what Cancer brought me, I would roll through it all again if it meant being given the opportunity to raise the two of them together.

Just after the Twinkies turned two, we decided to revisit the fertility clinic and walk through the process again. This time, out of fear that we would become the parents of two sets of twins we only implanted a single egg, which stuck temporarily before we suffered a miscarriage several weeks later.

Tragedies cannot be compared and I can’t tell you that a miscarriage is worse than cancer is worse than my grandfather passing. They are not better or worse, they are simply different perspectives of loss. Each tragedy a unique experience that calls out to us and seems to embed itself in the very threads of our DNA, forcing us to carry it around for the rest of our time on the planet.

A few months later we tried a second time for a third child, again with only a single egg. The results came back positive and for the next nine months we held our baited breaths nervously until October 7, 2013, when Bryce Alison entered the universe.

And then, four years later, we went back for one more family upgrade. On Nov. 14, 2017 Beau Natalie arrived with ten fingers, ten toes, and an opinion about everything.

Every day I have on this Earth, with my wife, with my children, with my family, with myself, is an absolute gift and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. Everything is beautiful and every day is an adventure. I have had the rare gift to glimpse death in the face, see what my life is worth to me, and then stand up from the table and walk away.

Thoughts of cancer follow me everywhere and the reminders are constant; every time I hear The Ice-Cream truck drive down the street, every time I see the reality show about the family with all the kids, every time I drive past the Wiltern in LA where we saw Ben Folds Five, every time I hear the music of Ben Folds Five, every time someone says the word Arcadia, every time someone mentions Las Vegas or Kings of Leon or the words saline solution or ninjas or George Harrison or the word flood. These things and many, many more are all instant triggers and not a day goes by that something doesn’t drop a red flag and send me back to It. And I’d have it no other way. My baggage is a constant reminder that every day is not a good day to die. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t my day to die. Because it just might be. Death opens its arms wide and simply pulls in what it can, like an enormous whale consuming krill.

Every day I hug my children. Every day I say “Yes” to opportunity. Every day I embrace the unknown. Everyday I contemplate and cast wonder at the magnificent and magical world around me, the good and the evil, all wrapped up together, living in all things around us, breathing, eating and existing in beautiful and marvelous complexity.

I look at my life—I look at what has come before cancer and I see all the things I wanted to do. When I was in high school I had hoped to someday buy a van and just head out, to drive without direction or purpose. I wanted to write things and create things and live a life that pushed my boundaries of experience and culture and . . . then I got a job that locked up my time and helped to strangle my ambitions.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that, yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was ninety or eighty or seventy or thirty-five, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain only random and asinine things like “Eat a pizza from the inside out” because I planned to live the rest of my days chasing daily adventure.

I told myself that I would start a family. And I have. I told myself I would pursue directing. And I have. I’ve directed short films and music videos and have worked with musicians whose work inspires me and have gotten my work into film festivals and my music videos featured on Rolling Stone. I’ve started a production company and created commercial spots that air nationally on broadcast television. I chased that dream and I caught it. I told myself I would read Moby Dick. And I have. And it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up. I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath. And I have. And it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up. I told myself I would start camping. And I have. I’ve taken my family on meandering, aimless, vacations in a minivan and I can finally high five that teenage version of myself.

I’ve written television pilots and recorded podcasts and learned to cook and had ’80s-themed parties and made new friends that have become my family and have started a blog and am learning to play the guitar and the ukulele and I play hide and seek at least once a week. I’ve started playing Frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I have learned that I prefer a revolver to a pistol but my accuracy is superior with a rifle. I recently killed and cleaned my first fish and by the light of three headlamps, I gutted and cooked it with my bare hands before feeding it to my tribe. I flew to Nicaragua, slept at the base of a volcano, went zip lining, and helped a woman who was being mugged.

I read. Every day. Sometimes out loud with my wife. I write. Almost every day. I keep a journal but I almost never read it. I go to concerts and the theater and I say yes to any strange food that happens across my plate, which is how I ended up eating blood sausage and frog meat. I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done a pretty decent job of sticking to it. I love those around me every day because I almost lost each and every one of them.

My mantra has become Year of the Yes. Whenever someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done the answer is yes, yes, yes, always yes. I want to live strong and loud and uncomfortable. I want to find my boundaries and push past them and expand my culture and thoughts and experiences and love for all of humanity and the energy of life itself.

I never want to say that I am too old or too tired or too busy to go attempt something or to succeed at something or to fail at something. Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition. Age is relative. Time is relative. Even success is relative. But what we do with our time is not. Every move counts.

Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly. When Death finally knocks on my front door, beckoning me home, I want to smile broadly, look at my to-do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death. You did everything.”

 

 

And here is the beautiful lady herself.

Jade, thank you so much for standing by me through the most difficult time of my life. You are amazing and brave and kind and incredible and I can never pay you back.

I can never pay you back. And I hope that the opportunity to do so never arises.

Thank you for supporting me through this entire insane book. Thank you for continuing to support my wild ideas, dreams and goals over the last 15 years. We have gone to the ends of the earth together and I could not have done any of this alone.

Your spirit is beautiful.

Thank you for standing next to me.

-Johnny

 

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BIRTHDAY PRESENT: CHAPTER 5

Welcome back to the on-going serial auto-biography Cancer? But I’m a Virgo. We’re blasting out chapter 5 today after a late start this week. If you haven’t had a chance to jump in yet, it’s not too late! Just click here to start from the beginning! C’mon! You know that one of your resolutions was to read more books this year.

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PART 2

“What is to give light, must endure burning.”

-Viktor E. Frankl . . . whoever he is

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I’m sitting in a waiting room somewhere in Pasadena, staring at a magazine that is listing the 100 most influential people of the year. Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Bill Gates are all in attendance. I do a quick scan but don’t see any glossy celebrity snapshots of Jesus.

The waiting room is empty. The couch I’m sitting on is leather and cold. I touch it with my finger and wonder if the cow that this skin belonged to had a nice personality. I touch my tumor by squeezing it between my thighs. It’s still there. Maybe this doctor will simply give me some pills, and I can wipe all the sweat off my brow.

The woman behind the bulletproof glass calls my name, and I walk through a locked door. They weigh me, measure me, etc., etc. The nurse leaves, and I’m sitting alone in the Examination Room. The walls are covered in pictures that children have drawn in crayons, all with personalized messages addressed to a man named Dr. Odegaard.

“Thanks for fixing my arm,” wrote James, 7, with a drawing of himself in a cast, standing in front of a tree. The drawing is so bad I have to wonder if he had to create it with his lesser-used hand.

“You’re the best. Thank you for the Band-Aids,” wrote Tiffany, 6, who decided to draw birds flying over a rainbow.

I try to imagine what my drawing would look like. There would be a picture of a smiling rooster. Above it, in bubble typeface, it would read, “Thanks for saving my dick. I owe you one.” –Johnny, 26.

The doctor enters and asks me a few questions. First the preliminary stuff because it’s my first visit to see him, followed by the more intimate inquiries. “What seems to be the problem?” And, “Describe the lump.” And, “Which testicle is it on?” And this is where I sort of mumble something about a trick question. Mumble something about my uni-testicle. Mumble some off-colored joke that he doesn’t laugh at. He asks me to pull my pants down, and I ask him if the door is locked. He tells me that no one will come in, and I comply.

He snaps on a rubber glove and fondles me in a professional manner. He hums and grunts a couple times, makes the sort of noise you might make after seeing a two-headed turtle—not absolute shock but more of an idle fascination.

He tells me to pull my pants up and that he definitely feels something. He tells me that he’s recommending me to a good friend of his, a urologist (penis doctor; see also dick doc) named Dr. Honda. It’s the 11th of September, and it will be six more days with this thing growing inside of me before I get any real answers.

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On September 17, 2008, I turned 26 years old. My wife and I spent it indoors, she having made me a cake and purchased me a few books. The day was regular enough, the cake was regular enough, the weather was regular enough and, as far as birthdays go, it would forever be branded in my brain as the most irregular day I had ever experienced.

We arrive at Dr. Honda’s office, a nice brick building in Arcadia, just after noon. My wife and I sit down in the lobby and she immediately picks up a Better Homes magazine and begins scouring it for ideas to, presumably, make our home . . . better.

Everyone in the room with us is old. Really old. Nursing-home old. They’re so old, that they each have some kind of caretaker visiting the facility with them. I try to imagine the day, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, when I’ll be too weak to take care of myself. The day, thousands of years from now when I can’t bathe myself any longer. The day when I eat more pills than food. Millions of years away.

My wife turns to me and says, “What do you think he’s going to say?” and I say, “You know what I think,” and she just laughs and shrugs. She still thinks it’s a cyst or an ingrown hair or an extraterrestrial’s tracking device, all things that are more realistic possibilities than that cancer-thing-that-other-people-get-and-it-never-happens-to-you disease.

They call my name, and I walk back through the door, alone. Every step I take, I am closer to understanding what this thing is. Closer to knowing that it’s either cancer (which I know it is) or an alien GPS system (which it probably isn’t but in many ways would be easier to deal with).

I jump up on that bed-table-thing with the giant roll of single-ply toilet paper covering it and glance around the room. There are no children’s drawings. Instead there are just diagrams of penises and vaginas that go on and on, wall to wall. Dongs that have been split in half lengthwise to show me what the inside looks like. Uteruses and ovaries that resemble cow heads. Black arrows pointing to the dangly bits, informing me what is in my pants. A part of me wants to examine them closer, wants to read all the scientific jargon, but the other, louder side of me doesn’t want to get caught staring at a drawing of a 16-inch schlong.

The door creaks, and Dr. Honda enters the room. He’s a slim Asian man with a mustache and a big smile. He immediately makes me feel welcome and, as I will come to shortly learn, this is not a professional trait of all doctors. He has bedside manner, a characteristic and skill that cannot be taught.

He shakes my hand and introduces himself. He asks me a few questions about life, what do I do, am I married, do I have kids, where am I from, and then my pants are suddenly at my ankles yet again and I’m Porky-Piggin’ it, naked from the waist down.

As he’s squeezing my GPS tracking system with a rubber-gloved hand, I hear footsteps fast approaching in the hallway and quickly ask if the door is locked. He says they’ll knock first. Yeah, I think, But I’m sure it’ll be that knock-knock-open that people are so wont to do.

“My ultrasound guy is here today. I’m gonna have him check you out.” I ask if I can pull up my pants.

You’ve read all this before. You know what happens. I know what happens. The story is inevitable.

I have Cancer.

That thing that makes people go bald and look sick and thin and tired. That thing that sucks the life out of individuals and kills kids and evaporates old folks. That thing I hear about on TV and in movies and sometimes in books. It’s me. It’s on me. It’s in me. Growing. Slowly.

I picture it looking like the black goo that Venom is made out of in the popular Spider-Man films; it’s not quite a gel but it’s not quite a liquid. It’s just a mess of sticky tar that attaches and grows and builds and pulls and destroys until it has encompassed your very being and turned you into someone else. No more Peter Parker. No more Eddie Brock.

Venom.

Cancer.

I’m staring at the ceiling, cold jelly on my testicle. Now I know. Now I know that I was right. Everything I thought I knew was correct. My gut was dead on. Dead. On.

Dead.

Without looking at the Indian man who’s given me my diagnosis, I ask, “Can I pull my pants up?” and he says, “Yes.”

Pamphlets are spread out in front of me. Every single person on every single cover is happier than the last. Everyone is so happy. They’re all so happy about their Cancer . . . and . . . I am just . . . .

. . . .

Dr. Honda tells me that I have two options in regard to the tumor. My Tumor. First, there is a surgery wherein they will cut me open and split my remaining testicle in half, removing the bad stuff but leaving me fertile. I tell him that I cannot fathom anything that sounds more painful. I ask him what the second option is.

He succinctly states, “Full removal.”

I sigh and ask what the third option is. He stares back at me. Nobody says anything. After a moment he tells me that if they miss even one single cell during the nutcracker operation the cancer will simply return, and they’d have to perform a second surgery in order to take the remaining half. I assume this is supposed to make my decision easier.

I look at the ground. At my feet. At my pants. I tell him to take it all. He smiles, and it’s a very kind face looking back at me. You can tell that he doesn’t want to tell me these things. You can see his compassion, and I’m thankful for it.

He pokes the pamphlets and says, “You’re going to want to bank your sperm,” and I nod. I am going to be sterile. Unable to reproduce. There is something very damaging to me about this thought, and the memory of me lying in a hospital bed talking to a doctor when I am eight is at the forefront of my mind.

I shake his hand and walk out of his office. I walk down the hall. I walk back through the door and to my wife, surrounded by old people. She puts down her Better Homes magazine and stands up, smiles. We walk out of the office, down the steps and out the front door into the parking lot and the warm sunshine.

It has not crossed my mind how blissfully ignorant she currently is.

She looks at me and, with her complete confidence with the ingrown hair theory asks, “Well, what did he say?” and, without missing a beat, I respond, “I have a tumor.”

She takes one more step before collapsing onto a parking block and begins weeping. This is when the reality all hits me, and I weep as well.

 

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Thank you so much for reading another chapter this week. Please click FOLLOW down below to stay up-to-date as we’re releasing one chapter a week until the very end!

Next Monday is PARENTS: Chapter 6.

 

 

 

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PLAGUED BY PLAGUES: CHAPTER 3

 

Welcome back for Chapter 3, which is the final chapter before everything starts to slide out of control. Take a deep breath with me and enjoy this last bite. Chew slowly. It’s going to be a full year before we come out the other side together. Next Monday we’re going to receive some very bad news.

But we’re not supposed to know about that yet, are we?

If you’re new, click HERE to go to the beginning. As you can see, we’re only 3 chapters in (and they’re very, very short!) so jump in with us and read a chapter a week all year long as we explore what it looks like to have dick cancer at 26.

 

See you all at the bottom of the slide!

 

 

 

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Eczema. Ring worms. Food poisoning. Poison poisoning. West Nile. Airborne toxins. Flu, cold, constipation, diarrhea. I have suffered from it all, both real and imaginary. My wife points an accusing finger at me and says, “You’re a hypochondriac!” and I casually walk into the other room, get online, and look up the disease to see if I am actually exhibiting symptoms.

 

Illnesses are my passion and I collect them like stickers in a book. In elementary school, I had ulcers. In junior high, insomnia. In high school, I became convinced that I had acquired early onset Alzheimer’s because I couldn’t remember any of the mathematical equations that help you solve endless rows of meaningless problems. It seemed to come so easily to everyone else. . . .

Years later, a friend will tell me that his son can’t seem to get a grasp on numeric sequences. More than just a few in a row and “Poof,” he says, “they’re gone.” He tells me the disease is called dyscalculia and it simply sounds too similar to Dracula for me to pass up. I’m positive I have it. I wear it on my sleeve, displaying the fact proudly. I won’t let my handicap hold me back. I won’t box it up in some closet. Plus, I’ve always been a bit more of a words guy and less of a digits person anyway so I feel like there is something strangely poetic in my illness, my disease, my burden.

My wife says, “You don’t have dyscalculia. You’re just an idiot.” I look up the term idiot on Web MD betting that she’s right but no results return. Further research is required.

 

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My stomach rolls over, and I vomit into a toilet, beads of sweat dripping down my forehead. My knees are raw from kneeling on the bathroom tiles. My wife circles the door frame, blocking the light shining dramatically on my face and says, uncaringly, “You’re going to be late for work.”

“I can’t go to work! Look at me! I’m sick!” I plead, desperately trying to make her understand. It’s not cancer, not yet (this is still years and years earlier), but it’s definitely something.

“You’re not sick.” I puke again just to reinforce my point and then elaborately throw myself onto the bathroom floor, the back of my hand pressed against my sort-of-hot forehead. Not sick? Not sick? Has she heard of the norovirus?! Because I have it on good account (my friend’s friend is pre-med) that it’s making rounds this year. A couple people died in Missouri. Didn’t my wife hear about this? Doesn’t she watch the news on Comedy Central? Doesn’t she read The Onion?

She tells me that I don’t have the norovirus. She tells me that I have the moron virus and then she laughs at her own dumb little joke while I just dry heave twice in a row. I tell her to look away. I tell her that the norovirus is really taking its toll on me when suddenly my chest is racked with a pinching suffocation. It feels like someone is pulling the membrane off my lungs every time I inhale. Jade raises an eyebrow and says, “Pleurisy again?”

I just hold up a hand for her to “be silent” while I bare my cross. She says, “Oh, geeeeez.” After the pain passes I explain that, “I have pleurisy,” and she says, “I know you think you do,” and I say, “It’s an inflammation of the lining on the lungs,” and she says, “You’ve told me the definition,” and I say, “My mom has it too,” and my wife says, “I’m sure she believes she does.”

Is there nothing I can do to convince her of my various conditions? Is it my fault I have an immune system that is susceptible to such attacks? Someday, I tell myself, someday I’ll get something and she’ll believe me.

Jade says, “Are you day dreaming about your illnesses?” and I say, “Huh? What?” and she says, “Wishing someone would believe that your fake thing was real?” and I say, “My fake thing is real. Remember The Blood Shit Incident?”

Jade says, “I remember The Blood Shit Incident. I wonder if you remember it.” I say, “Of course I remember it. I was there. I wrote it.” And she says, “Every piece of good fiction needs an author.”

 

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I’m sitting on the toilet in my mom’s house and I’m staring at a piece of toilet paper covered in brown and red. I’m shitting blood. It’s been happening for a couple days. Not a lot. Just a little. Just a few drops. Just enough to fill a vile. Or two.

I’m nineteen and I try to weigh my options—the possibilities, the probabilities, the causes, the outcomes. “Why would my ass be bleeding?” I ask myself. “I don’t stick things up it. I swear.”

Who do I approach? Who do I ask for advice? Not my dad. Definitely not my mother; I don’t want to see the sequel to The Nut Sack Situation. No, I’ll handle this one myself. How to proceed, how to proceed. The Internet? Too traceable. The search engines all have a way of remembering things I type in, and I’m no good with PCs. I don’t understand how to clear the cash or eat the cookies or whatever. The library? Absolutely not. The idea of checking out a book about anal fissures will certainly get me on some Pervert of the Week list.

Finally, after meditating on the rhythmic drip-drip-drip, the answer comes to me clearly, like a comet in the night sky. It is a moment of what some may call divine clarity. It is so simple I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

I will simply ignore the problem and hope it fixes itself.

I am a human body! I get scratches and cuts all the time and what happens? Blood clotting, scabbing . . . something . . . something else, science, etc., and there you have it, back to normal! My inner ass cavern will be the same! I just need to leave it be and give it some time to heal. I’ll eat soft foods. I’ll push very, very gently. Or maybe not at all. I’ll practice Zen meditation and just let the fecal matter slither from my rectum like a snake shedding skin.

This could work. This could definitely work.

Two weeks later, I’m still shitting blood. It’s not slowing down. What was I thinking?! Scabs?! Inside my ass?! What if there are ruptures and the blood ruptures are being infected by feces? Don’t people die when their shit and blood begin to mix?

My stomach hurts. My head hurts. IT’S HAPPENING!

Could I bring this to my girlfriend? Could I ask Jade about this? Yeah! She’s really smart. A grade-A student through and through, she was studying to become a neonatologist and you know anyone with the suffix -ologist in their job title is legit.

She knows things I don’t know. She understands things about blood and bile and positrons and neutrons and Klingons and she pretty much just knows everything! She’ll know . . . she’ll know. But how do I breach the topic? This is touchy stuff, and it’s important not to make it weird. Then the answer comes to me clearly, like a comet in the night sky. It is a moment of what some may call divine clarity. It is so simple I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. The words come to me with such smooth precision it is as though a greater entity is speaking directly through me.

We’re sitting at the table, alone, at my house, eating jam-covered waffles. She smiles at me and I say, “I’ve been shitting blood for three weeks now. What do you suppose this—“ she drops her fork, but I finish my thought anyway, “—could mean?”

Coming from a world where it took eight years to get my missing testicle examined by a doctor, I was made strangely uncomfortable by the speed at which Jade scheduled an appointment for me later that same day. Neither of us knew it then, me nineteen, she just turning eighteen, but we were being given a small glimpse into our future, more than a decade away: The Caretaker and The Ass Bleeder.

I love her. I am nineteen and I know this. I love her for all of the fantastic things she is, says, and does, but I love her because I can tell her that I’m shitting blood and she is willing to get her hands (figuratively) dirty to solve it. She’s had commitment from day one. She’s a barnacle. She’s not letting go.

The next day, sitting again in the stagnant, falsely fresh smelling waiting room of my local clinic, I find myself staring at those same Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and wondering, “Where do they come from? Who is Georgia O’Keeffe? Why do all hospitals and clinics insist on using her work?”

I lean over to Jade and I ask (since she knows everything), “What do you think they’ll do? Do you think I’ll just get some pills or cream?” and Jade answers, “He’s probably going to take a speculum—” and I cut her off.

“Sorry. A what?”

“A speculum.”

“What’s a speculum?”

“Oh, it’s like this thing they put in your vagina and they turn this crank and it opens you up so they can get a really good view. They’ll probably do that to your ass.”

My face goes white. My blood turns to ice. She knows everything.

I say to her, “They’ve done this to you?” and she says, “Yeah. Couple times,” and I say, “And you think they’re going to—are you messing with me?” and she says, “No. They’re checking to see if you have blood fissures. They need to look. So they need to spread.”

I stand up. I am done. I will go with Plan B: The Scabbing Over Plan. But Jade grabs my hand before I can run and tells me to sit down. I think she’s going to say she’s just joking but instead she says, “Bleeding from your butt can mean colon cancer and men eighteen and up need to be getting checked regularly.”[*]

I say, “But the speculum . . . ?” and she finishes with, “Oh yeah, they’re shoving that thing way up there and parting you like the Red Sea.”

I stand up and begin heading toward the door when the nurse calls me, “Johnny . . . Buh . . . rookbag?” Every eye in the room lands on me, the guy standing up, looking like a deer in headlights. The nurse speaks softly, over the shuffle of papers and various weekly literature, “Right this way.”

Before disappearing into the halls, I turn back and take one last look at Jade who is sitting in her chair, a gossip magazine on her lap, spreading her hands open, miming a speculum.

I hate her.

But not the kind of hate that means I’m going to burn her house down. I mean the kind where you know they know better and they’re making you do something that’s necessary even though you don’t want to.

Inside the doctor’s office there is no cancer, there are no fissures or ruptures and there is, thankfully, no speculum. There is only a man with a rubber glove, a bunch of lube and a strange eagerness to examine me. In the end he gives me some pills and some cream and says to eat soft foods and to not press so hard. He tells me that the human body is an amazing thing and that I’ll be just fine.

It’ll heal itself.

I shrug and shake my head and walk back to the lobby, where I eyebrow beat Jade to death. We hold hands and walk out into the sunlight while Fate sits back and laughs, waiting eagerly for us to return on this path sooner rather than later. It watches our backs as we fade out with the glossy luster of blissful ignorance protecting us like armor.

We are still young, only nineteen. And neither of us have ever been struck with the harsh reality of true tragedy. We just don’t know anything yet.

But we very soon will.

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[*] Fact. So if you find the dirty death star dripping darkness, dash to the doc and have your derriere dissected.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

 

Alright, guys. Listen. That’s it for now. Next week is FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4. And this is when the walls all begin to crumble. I’ve included a little excerpt below if you’d like to peak at it.

JB.

 

FIRST CONTACT: CHAPTER 4: EXCERPT

My left hand feels something that does not belong. A foreign object on my body, a second tongue, a third nipple, a fourth knuckle—it’s not right, not normal, not standard. It’s the size of a pea and rests casually on my single remaining testicle.

And this is the moment where my life breaks in two. I don’t know it yet but this is the moment of impact. Nothing will ever be as it was. Nothing will ever be the same.

 

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THE CAVE: Getting lost in the darkness of a failing marriage

“You’ve been married for eleven years?” someone asks me.

“Yeah. Eleven years. It’s a long time. We’ve been together for fifteen.”

What? Did you get married when you were twelve? How old are you? You’ve been married fifteen years? What’s that like?”

I suspect that they anticipate me to tell them that marriage is beautiful and wonderful and that I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.

But I don’t.

Instead I tell them the truth.

“What’s it like? It’s, uh… Marriage is like this dark cave. And when you get married you both go into the cave together. You take hands and you step into the darkness. That’s the unknown – this new part of life. You walk next to each other for a while and then one day your hands get sweaty and so you let go of each other but it’s all good because you can still hear them next to you. You’re still talking and you know that they’re there. It’s dark. It’s black. But you know they’re next to you.

And then one day you’ve talked about everything and so you get kind of quiet and you decide that just spending time in one another’s company is enough. And so you just keep walking in the dark, next to each other, in silence. And it’s okay because you know that they’re still there. You can still hear their footsteps.

And then one day you ask them a question. And you get no response. And you realize that they are gone. You realize that you’ve gotten separated. You’ve drifted apart. And you are alone. And somewhere, they are alone as well.

You call out to them. You shout their name and you get no response. And so you go looking for them because you know that they’re there… somewhere. You know that somewhere in this cave they’re wandering around. They’re doing their thing and you’re doing yours.

You call for them and in the distance you hear them. And you keep shouting and you keep calling and you keep walking and you try to get back to them.

And you hope that you find them.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Some people are walking in the cave and they’re like, ‘I’m done walking in the dark with you.’ And those people turn around and they walk back towards the light. Sometimes they walk back towards the light and out of the cave together. And sometimes they do it alone.

And sometimes that’s okay.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

One day you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘This is not the person that I married. This is not the person that was standing next to me at the altar.’ And, if you’re self-aware enough you may realize that you are also not the same person that was standing at the altar and that your spouse is experiencing you in an entirely new way.

You’ve both changed. You’re both completely different people. And then you wonder if you can keep making it work. Because those other versions could do it… but you’re not sure these new versions are a fit.

How do you put together a puzzle when the pieces keep changing shape?

Now drop kids into the mix. Oh, shit. Things are getting complicated.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

You have a dream of having a career. A specific career. And so you educate yourself in that field. Maybe you go to college. Maybe you go to a tech school. Maybe you read books and watch YouTube videos. However you prepare for it, it is, at its core, a preparation. An education of self.

So then you get that job and then the industry changes – new technologies or practices emerge. So your boss sends you to receive additional training. You learn new ways to process information. You learn new techniques. The career field changes and so you must adjust.

So we apply hours and weeks and sometimes even years and sometimes even decades of preparation to a job (say hello, doctors!) and yet, when we discuss marriage, when we prepare to live with another person full time and make life changing decisions with them… we… do… nothing…

The church that married Jade and I encouraged us to take three 30-minute classes.

90 minutes of training for the task at hand is not enough.

I’ve been married for just over a decade and the training I’ve received on-the-job has not been nearly enough.

But marriage is not like a job. You just get thrown in first day with no idea what you’re doing and nobody encourages serious training. Nobody tells you to re-educate yourselves after five years or ten years. Nobody tells you that your marriage career is going to change and you’re going to have to make it work or get fired. And if you suggest education – if you suggest marriage counseling you get this taboo sense that something is wrong with you.

You know that feeling I’m talking about. That unspoken weirdness that everyone thinks but does not speak. This idea that is perpetrated in our culture that marriage counseling is for the weak and broken and… my personal favorite…

If you have to go to marriage counseling you weren’t meant to be.

Because if you have to ask for help it is because you are stupid. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that everyone else knows how to do this? Don’t you know that it comes easily and naturally to everyone else? Marriage is simple and straight-forward and if you need advice it is because the pieces do not work together and there is no hope anyways. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that it’s better to live miserable little lives than it is to seek counsel? Don’t you know that?

What if we applied that logic to other areas of our lives? Son, if you need to ask a question in class, you probably just aren’t smart enough to begin with.

If you need to look at the recipe for how to make chili, you probably weren’t made for chili. Sorry. It’s delicious but you don’t get any. Shoo-shoo, Oliver Twist.

Listen. Seeking education does not make you stupid or wrong. Seeking education makes you self-aware. Education and intellect craft a stronger individual, crafts a stronger family, crafts a stronger culture, crafts a stronger world.

Do not allow the uninformed to inform your thinking.

Do not be engaged and dissuaded by a society that has a 50% failure rate in marriage.

Set your own rules. Live by your own standards.

Education is not a swear word.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m broken.

That’s a fact.

I’ve got a bunch of baggage that I carry around with me everywhere I go. I’ve got baggage about my family. I’ve got baggage about my parents. I’ve got baggage about my faith. I’ve got baggage about my body. I’ve got baggage about my personality. I’ve got baggage about my grades and my IQ and my creative abilities. I’ve got pride issues. I’ve got insecurity issues.

And my wife gets to adopt them.

And I get to adopt all of her bullshit.

And then we have to figure that stuff out together.

We say things we don’t mean. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We raise our voices and we walk away from conversations and sometimes we hurt each other with nothing more than our intent.

Thank GOD people have not heard some of the stuff I’ve said to my wife in the heat of an argument. Shit has come out of my mouth that I think about today and cringe. I have said things to her for no other reason than to hurt her. And that speaks to who I am (or hopefully was) as a person, at my core. At the time I would have said it was her fault. It’s her fault for being a specific way and I was just bringing it all to light and if it hurt her it’s because it was true.

These are the words and thoughts of someone that is selfish and arrogant.

The vows tell us that we’re going to be together through sickness and health, for better or worse but what they don’t tell us is that it’s sometimes going to feel like you’re dragging along a dead marriage, fighting uphill to make it work. They don’t tell you that there will be periods of time – not just days and weeks but entire months – that drag on through the gray drizzle of time and you’ll wonder just what is wrong with your spouse because it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s never you. It’s always them. Making mistakes.

“I’m trying. You’re not.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Getting married is like a light to all of your shortcomings as a human being. Your spouse will illuminate all the problem areas. It’s painful and it’s terrible and it hurts to look at yourself and see all the flaws. And it’s just so much easier to turn your face to one side and not look at that pile of problems that create you, as a person, and it’s so much easier to deflect blame to the other.

It is so much easier to look at someone’s shortcomings and it is so much easier to nurture resentment for a million little things and a handful of big things.

It is so much easier to judge others.

And it is simple to judge our spouse.

And so you choose.

Those three thirty minute classes didn’t prepare us for cancer at 26. They didn’t prepare us for lay-offs. They didn’t prepare us for invitro-fertilization. They didn’t prepare us for twins. They didn’t prepare us for a miscarriage. They didn’t prepare us for the day-in-day-out minutia of life and they didn’t prepare us for the fact that Jade likes things done a certain way and I like things done a certain way and those ways typically are not the same but are, more often than not, quite opposite.

Those classes didn’t prepare us for anything.

I wish I could say that everyday Jade and I choose to hang onto each other in the darkness of the cave but the reality is that we don’t.

Sometimes we are cold and calculating.

And sometimes we are terrible.

And cruel.

But we try.

We choose.

We choose to continue to stumble blindly through the dark, seeking each other.

And sometimes we choose to talk about walking back into the light. Sometimes we talk about what a divorce looks like.

And sometimes we have fun together and we find each other and we remember why we do this. We remember why the search is worth it.

We remember that we love each other and that our family is amazing and that we’re very lucky and it is only our own selfish shortcomings that are destroying us and we realize that if we can choose to be better people, we can choose to be the best for each other.

And when our spouse shines a light on our problem areas – our selfishness, our arrogance, our pride – we can choose to get angry that someone noticed our darkness… or we can thank them for being close enough to us to point out our flaws. And then we fix them together.

“But, man…” I conclude. “Marriage is really hard.”

The guy across the table looks at me. I notice he doesn’t have a ring on his hand. I wonder if he’s thinking about proposing.

“But it’s also amazing. Marriage is beautiful and wonderful and I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.”

 

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When Wives Go Wild

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There’s this old episode of The Twilight Zone where these two neighbors are super chummy with each other at a dinner party.  One guy says to the other that he just had a bomb shelter put in and the neighbor chuckles to himself and pokes fun at the homeowner; says he’s far too over prepared.  The gag in the episode, of course, is that the warning sirens come on moments later and suddenly the neighbor wants into the bomb shelter.  Sadly, there isn’t nearly enough food for both families so the guy that owns the place locks his guest out.  Well, the neighbor, not accepting death so nobly, decides that if he can’t be saved, no one will.  The man turns into an animal and just begins ravaging this door.  He’s going at it with an axe, he’s screaming, he’s losing his mind, his eyes wide in terror and rage.

This is no longer a friendly neighbor.  This is primal man.  Borderline animal.

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The episode ends when the door is finally kicked in and the two men are about to kill each other when the sirens go off and the, “This is only a warning” recording comes on.

Awkward. Situation. For. Sure.

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The men revert back to their civilized states, nod to one another and then sort of shift slowly towards the door as standard life has been restored.  BUT… it raises the question, what sort of animals are we?  What sort of beasts are lurking just under the surface?  Just behind the veil of security, the illusion of law, the commitment of marriage?

What I mean is this…

My wife left tonight.  Not left me, thank goodness, but left to head out with The Ladies.  She and three friends have gone to watch a Roller Derby Tournament.  Yes, you read that correctly.  That’s what type of woman I’m married to.  In her free time she goes to watch other women get beat up.  She’s like Patricia Bateman but in a good way.

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So I’m dealing with one of these circumstances where I’m on solo dad duty and everything moves sort of slowly but we get it done and we cycle the kids through the dishwasher and into the pajama machine and then tuck them away in the sock drawer and everyone is happy but then… the house is quiet… and there are no adults… and so I look around and try to decide what to do…

What to do…

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And the very first thing that comes to my mind, THE VERY FIRST THING, is to make myself a bean burrito at 9pm.  NINE PEE-EM!  I suddenly have a flashback of myself standing in a dimly lit dorm room ten years ago chasing a six pack and three unfiltered cigarettes down my throat with a can of cold refried beans; a diet my dog wouldn’t even touch…. if my dog were alive… which she isn’t… please see last blog…

Now, contrary to popular belief, I AM 30-something and so I actually DO try to watch what I eat from time to time and especially when I eat it.  Gone are the days of chowing down on Taco Bell at midnight.  I’m an adult.  I’m married.  I have responsibilities… and so I pick up my phone and I text The Guys.  I text the two gentlemen whose wives are currently out with my wife watching women shove elbows into each other’s guts and faces like a modern day Coliseum on skates.  I hear Shang Tsung shout, “FINISH HIM!” and then some roller derby enthusiast rips off her skate and crushes her opponents skull with it.  Blood spatters all over the ground and the audience golf claps gently.

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The first guy, we’ll call him Mickey, says, “I’m drinking.  I’m drunk.  I’m drinking drunk.  I’ve had five drinks.  I’m alone.  I’m drinking alone… and bisquits and gravy sounds amazing.  AMAZING.  I wish I had bisquits and gravy.  I only have two week old lasagna.”

I say, “Don’t do it, Mickey.  It’s too late and it’s too old.  Just stay away.”  He says, “I’ll be fine.  I’ll microwave it.  Heat kills bacteria,” and I say, “I’m not sure… if… that’s… trooooo…”

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ABOVE: This is what all microwaves look like in my imagination.  Just total last resort.

In another text thread I hit up the other guy.  We’ll call him Andre (just because I don’t know any Andre’s and so never get to tell stories about them).  I say, “Whatchyoo up to tonight?” and he says, “I just finished eating a Kung Pao 3 Musketeer,” and I say, “Is that one thing or two?  Is that like… an American-Asian candy bar?” and he says, “It’s just one thing.  It’s Kung Pao with chicken, beef and shrimp,” and I find that I’m thinking about that bean burrito again.  I’ve got some salsa in the fridge.  I’ve got some sour cream I bought for some kind of potato the other day… do we have tortillas?  Screw it… I’d eat it on bread if necessary… even just mixing it all up like a stew doesn’t sound terrible

Andre says, “This is what happens when girls aren’t around… just regret…”

I text him back and I say, “We’re never truly men.  We hit college and that’s full maturity for us – for every man.  Everything beyond college is just a mask.  Some guys are better at wearing it but it’s all just a chore to be civilized.  As soon as our wives leave, we immediately revert (just like the guy from The Twilight Zone).  It’s just masturbation and sadness and nachos, in that specific order.

He laughs but, as I’m opening up a can of refried beans at 11pm I catch myself in the mirror and I realize that if I ever lose my wife, I am totally and completely doomed.

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ABOVE: If she leaves me, everything in my life will immediately go wrong.  I am certain of this.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

To my wife, who I know will read this because you read all of the garbage I write, good or bad; thank you for making sure I’m not a slovenly maniac with an axe trying to chop down my neighbor’s door.  Thank you for making sure I don’t subsist on refried beans and Telemundo alone.

Please, please, please, go crush skulls.  Please, please, please, go absolutely wild.  Please, please, please, always come back to me.

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ABOVE: If this town isn’t big enough for the both of us, I don’t wanna live here.

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Talking to Strangers: Gary

I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside.  The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first.  It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh

It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust.  It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth.  it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit.  It is the sound of eternal despair.  Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.

There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging.  He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs.  I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on.  I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name.  After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names.  This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.

I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…

A physical description of the pair would look something like this…

The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features.  He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s.  Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century.  His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.

His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face.  I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up.  This, however, is not a short coming of her face.  This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.

Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair.  In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other.  And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up.  Something was strange.  Something was wrong.  Something somewhere was not right…

On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.

The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock.  A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting.  Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it.  When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.

The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery.  I nod but he doesn’t move.  I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond.  Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant.  I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…

He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better.  He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there.  How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings.  My sister is watching me.  My brother-in-law is watching me.  My wife is watching me.  This man is watching me.  I do not know his name.  I do not know his wife’s name.  He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names.  I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy.  Secondly, there is a hedge separating us.  I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart.  I say, “Your… what!?  What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.

How does one respond appropriately?

Why is this man telling me this?  Who am I to him?

And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life.  I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition.  When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile.  I say hi.  I do nothing.  I don’t do enough.  But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else.  I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes.  I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.

Someone.

My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes.  The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street.  They can’t hear anything.  They don’t know.  They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.

I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.

He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver.  When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma.  Two days ago she caught a cold.  Night before last it got worse.  I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill.  Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing.  She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea.  When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died.  I tried giving her CPR.  I tried like hell.  I called the paramedics.  This was at 7:45 in the ay-em.  They came and tried to revive her.  They really did try their best.  They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true.  She was dead at 7:45.  She died here.  In our bed.”

And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit.  I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not.  I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all.  I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him.  I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact.  I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…

I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief.  It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

He says, “We always thought I’d die first.  I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years.  I’m 57.  We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46.  She was healthy…”

The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives.  I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.

He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from.  He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”).  He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go.  He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of

He shrugs, done with his story.  Done talking.  Done, maybe, with everything.  I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.”  He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny.  What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.

He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.”  I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me.  I see your kids.  Hug them.  Enjoy every day.  Because it will be taken away…”

And then he turns and walks up the driveway.

Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch.  I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.

Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door.  They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.

Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.

It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.

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Talking to Strangers: Norma

The 405 freeway splits through Los Angeles like a bad scar, leading from The Valley, over the hill and into The City, finally ending somewhere further south.  It’s a terrible freeway and a horrible commute if you’re forced to take it; five lanes of 24 hour traffic jams.  You see that bumper sticker in front of you?  Get ready to read it 900 times.  The 15 mile drive I take on the 405 takes me just over an hour – two if it’s raining.  My gas pedal becomes obsolete and I do nothing but ride the break.  People always say, “Stay off the freeway if you’re driving a motorcycle!” and I always respond with, “Uh… the freeway at rush hour is probably the safest place you can be.  It’s a parking lot.”

The trick is this… well, there are a couple tricks.  The first is to not drive during rush hour, the second is to drive on the shoulder of the road, where it’s illegal, the third is to buy a helicopter but the fourth and most realistic option is to slap a baby in your back seat and take the car pool lane.

So my wife, she’s got an appointment on “the other side of the hill” and does just that; she snatches up Baby Bryce, buckles her into the mini-van and she’s suddenly gone and I have two kids with me and I’m so tired because I was up until 4am the previous night / morning working on a pet project and long gone are the days when I can sleep in until noon and so I decide to just turn on The Gumby Movie and lie down on the couch and shut my eyes but even that won’t work because Quinn is standing in front of me shouting, “DADDY, DON’T SLEEP!  YOU CAN’T SLEEP!  IT’S MORNING!” and she’s right… It is morning… and I can’t sleep… when a three year old is screaming into my eyeballs.

I sit up and rub my face and say, “You want breakfast?” and Quinn says, “I want cereal!” and Rory jumps, completely naked, from a chair, with his fists held in the air, nails a perfect landing and shouts, “I WANT…… TOAST!” and I say, “Let’s get dressed.  Let’s go get pancakes,” and they both say, “Pancakes?  PANCAKES!  OH-KAY!” and then we’re walking down the street together and then three blocks later we’re at a restaurant called The Hungry Fox – a place who’s tagline is “Happiness You Can Eat” – and then we’re sitting at a table and I’m ordering pancakes with Cool Whip and sausage and scrambled eggs and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water and it’s just one meal and, yes, thank you, Waitress, I would like three plates.

Being Tuesday morning, the restaurant is nearly empty.  Quinn and Rory hop out of the booth and run a few aisles over to a fish tank to peruse its inhabitants.  “There’s a fish!  There’s his house!  There’s water!  There’s a rock!”  Everything is a majestic discovery.

The waitress, a woman sporting a simple name tag that says, “HUNGRY FOX” and then, beneath that, “NORMA” approaches my table wearing a large smile and carrying our food.  I’ve been coming to this diner for a while and, while all of the employees seem to be of an Asian persuasion with choppy English, Norma looks as though she’s entering her late 50s and is from somewhere in South America, deeper than Mexico.  Her English isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that it makes no difference.

She sets our pancakes on the table and my children scream, PAAAANCAAAAKES!” and come running.  Luckily, I’ve had the foresight to seat myself in the deepest, darkest corner of the restaurant, back in a place where we’ll be the least concern and bother to any of the other patrons.  Rory jumps into my lap and I say, “Don’t run in here,” and Norma says, “Let them run!  They are children!” and to Quinn I say, “Don’t scream in here,” and Norma says, “Let them scream!  They are children!” and then she pours me more coffee and Rory points at the Cool Whip and says, “I.  Don’t.  WANT.  THAT!” and I say, “Uh… that’s delicious and you DO want it.  Trust me,” but he persists and Norma says, “I will take it off for you,” and she picks up a fork, ready to scrape it away,” when I stop her and say, “It’s, uh, it’s okay.  I got it.”

Rory lifts up the fork I’ve used to scrape the Cool Whip off the pancake and he says, “I.  Want.  A.  NEW.  FORK!” and I say, “Hey… listen,” and Norma says, “Here you go, little one!  Brand new fork!” and then Rory, seeing that this woman is the weakest link, he says, “I.  WANT….” but I cut him short and twist his little body towards me and grab his cheeks and say, “You need to be less demanding.  Here’s some syrup.  Eat your pancakes,” and he sits down, picks up his fork and begins to eat.  He says, “This is good,” and I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome, Daddy.”

Norma refills the two sips of coffee I’ve taken and says, “Children, they are so wonderful.  I have four.  They are grown up now; the youngest is 24.  I am a grandma.  Four grandchildren,” and I ask her a few questions about her kids and I expect her to say, “Enjoy them… because they grow up so fast,” which is the Go-To Answer for all parents but instead she prophetically says, “Someday you will be an old man and you will be sitting in your house and your children will be gathered around you and their children will be gathered around them and they will all be looking at you and you will see your whole family and you will be so proud.”

The image in my mind is magnificent and I know that what she’s saying is true.  I’m by no means excited to get old but when I do finally crawl into that aged room, I want to make sure it’s furnished with all the things I’ve built over the past several decades.

She sets the coffee pot down on the table and, with very few words from me, continues speaking.

“I was married very young.  I was 22 and my husband was 17.  We were in love but… he has not always been faithful.  He has, well, floundered, I guess.  Listen, I’m no goodie-two-shoe and I been around but, he was around… he was always very good to his family, to his children.  He always made sure we were taken care of,” and I nod, not sure how to respond to her confession of infidelity.  She continues, “You wanna be happy in this life?  You gotta make the choice.  You can’t change someone.  You just say, I love you and I want to be with you and that is that.  I told him, you did what you did, I love you, I will stay.  And we’re still together.  So many people they get divorced.  Don’t get divorced.  It is such a yucky thing but… listen…”

And this is the part of the conversation that really stuck with me through the day; this is the part of the conversation that has had countless books written for countless audiences; this is the part of the conversation that affects every married or to-be-married person reading this.  Tune in.  Perk up those ears.  Here it comes.

She says, “People get married and they love each other.  They have a very beautiful marriage and they have kids and the kids are very beautiful and the parents love the kids and then five, ten, twenty years pass and the kids move away and now you live in a house with this person you don’t know.  You knew them twenty years ago but you’ve been living for your kids.  Now you have nothing in common,” and I nod, thinking of all my writing about kids and all Jade’s photos of our kids and all of our family time and how, specifically, beautiful I think it is and then she says, “Love your children.  Love your family.  It is wonderful.  But love your wife.  Otherwise you might be 45 years old and suddenly you’ve got divorce papers because neither of you know what you’re doing with each other anymore.”

This story from Norma really affected me and I want to throw it out into the masses and hope that it hits some of you the way it hit me.  I hope it rattles some of you the way it rattled me.  I hope that we never forget our spouses.  I hope we always prioritize them.  It’s very scary to think that safety in marriage is just an illusion.  I believe it’s when we think we’ve entered into that Safety Zone that things get careless and dangerous.  That’s when we stop paying attention.  That’s when things leave Co-Pilot and enter Auto-Pilot.

What can I do to prioritize my wife and my marriage and make sure that I don’t forget about them?  Or, more selfishly, what can I do to make sure my wife doesn’t forget about me?

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