I feel the spasm of joy in my jaw muscles as they flex, driving my teeth deeper into his flesh. The hot spill of blood rolls over my tongue, coating the inside of my mouth every time I yank my head left, right, up, down.
His blood tastes like anger, like a fierce joy, like the chance for freedom.
His screams stop quickly, becoming low growls that echo my own.
His hands stop slapping at me, becoming fists that beat.
I don’t know how my jaws and teeth release their bite on his forearm.
I lay on the floor, bright lights dancing in my eyes.
I feel his heavy boot slam into my ribs. Again and again. Until the bright lights goes away. Until all light goes away.
I hear the sound of the bars slamming closed. The sound of the locks clunking into place.
I wake to harsh, nearly blinding lights burning through the cold, hard, metal bars that make up my cage. There is no padding. No water. No food. Only bars.
The others howl at my return, slamming into their own bars in their own cages. They surround me on all sides and above. The dark musk of our anger fills the air.
I was the first to bite, to feel his flesh between my hungry teeth. I will not be the last. The others will learn and we will be free.
For now, I curl up, my nose resting against my rear legs, close my eyes and sleep.
I once got hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity.
I know how that sounds. It wasn’t that bad
It was worse.
When I matriculated at the University of Florida, I was almost a thousand miles from home and didn’t know anyone other than grandparents who lived nearby. Seeing as how I don’t really know how to make friends all that well, I figured I should repeat the process I’d perfected in high school. I needed to find an something where I’d be around the same people every day, performing a joint activity. In high school, it was sports. In college, I joined a fraternity; the Florida Alpha chapter of Phi Delta Theta, to be precise.
Back in my college days (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we had to walk two miles uphill both ways to get to class), the first semester of belonging to a fraternity was spent as a pledge. Some of pledging consisted of learning about the history and traditions of the fraternity, getting to know the brothers and cleaning up after communal meals. The rest of being a pledge was doing anything and everything a brother asked you to do as fast as possible, no matter how humiliating. Not that that ever happened. Of course.
Being what I’ll euphemistically call a “big boy,” I was quickly given the opportunity to “volunteer” to help the fraternity in its charitable fundraising event. It was an offer I could not refuse. Not if I wanted to actually become a brother of the fraternity. Which I did.
So I began training to participate in raising money for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alachua County. How, you might ask, did I help to raise money for this delightful and deserving charity?
Well, this is disappointing. I thought it was a good opening line, not something you could forget easily. Guess not. Okay, for those of you who need a little reminder. . . Let’s do this one more time.
I got hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity.
You see, starting in 1977, Phi Delta Theta held an annual fundraiser called Slugfest. In it, willing young men (for various do-it-or-else values of willing) stepped into the squared circle and proceeded to try and beat the crap out of each other. In short, we ran a boxing tournament.
A boxing tournament which consisted of the brothers of Phi Delta Theta and brothers from three other fraternities, divided up by weight class, going three two-minute rounds against each other.
What could go wrong?
Yes. Exactly what University of Florida Vice President for Student Affairs Art Sandeen was thinking in 1992 when he ixnayed the tourney for good, citing the potential for serious injuries. He was worried because the boxers apparently were training three to four months, often with professional trainers, and seemed near semi-pro levels.
Sadly for my once-pretty, pretty face, Art Sandeen was nearly a decade too late to save me.
Also? I was not one of those people who trained three to four months with professional trainers. I probably worked out maybe ten times in the months before my boxing debut. I think half of those involved another boxer, with both of us wearing actual boxing gloves.
I wasn’t all that worried for a number of reasons. All of them stupid. The No. 1 reason I wasn’t worried was because I was 19 years old, considered myself immortal and invulnerable. The No. 2 reason was because I was stoopid. The No. 3 reason was because I had no choice.
The dumbest reason I wasn’t worried was because I’d played Texas 5-Star football in high school and had come out of it pretty okay. Here’s a newsflash from the Department of Stupidity: boxing is NOT football. Not in any way, shape or form.
In the days leading up to my last-ever boxing bout, I began to notice something odd around the house. Brothers and fellow pledges were looking at me, whispering and then making the sign of the cross before walking away laughing. And no one would tell me anything.
I finally found out as I was sitting on a stool in the ring, wearing the correct boxing regalia of long shorts, muscle shirt, very heavy boxing gloves, mouthpiece and far-too-thin protective helmet.
The brother acting as my manager/corner man leaned in close and said he admired me.
Admire me? Why?
“You don’t even look worried you’re facing a champion Golden Gloves boxer.”
A . . . WHAT?
His head jerked forward. I looked back and saw a different brother had just smacked him in the back of the head.
“We voted not to tell him, idiot.”
A. . . WHAT?
My corner man pushed me in the small of the back and I stumbled off the stool, stopping in the middle of the ring.
I turned around and glared at my crowd of supporters. The corner man gave me a thumbs up and tried to smile. I don’t think he was trying very hard.
“Don’t die,” he said.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to the ref. He was smiling. He said something, though I couldn’t really hear him over the big crowd of thousands and the sound of my panicked hyperventilation. Then the view behind the ref suddenly was blocked by something big, white and purple.
No. Not something. Someone. The champion Golden Gloves fighter I wasn’t supposed to know about. Though, really, how could I not know? The dude was HUGE. And RIPPED. And, most unnerving of all. . . smiling. A lot.
I was hoping for a really long string of instructions from the referee, something to give the boxing ring the chance to spontaneously collapse and save me from the next six minutes. It might have been a long string of instructions. Who knows? Not me. I have no idea what the guy said. I was barely standing upright. Listening and understanding would have required disengaging my massive fear response and engaging my brain and that just wasn’t happening.
My opponent held both gloves out toward me. I flinched. He smiled some more. The ref tapped me on the wrist and nodded toward the huge dude. Right. The handshake before the executio— bout. We touched gloves and backed away.
I tried to keep going. Instead, I hit the corner ropes and stumbled back into the middle of the ring. Again. That was getting to be a bad habit.
We were supposed to have a small bell that dinged to start the rounds. I’d heard it in every match before mine. And, yet, when the bell rang, it was the tintinnabulation of a huge funeral bell. I didn’t have to ask for whom the bell tolled.
The only real boxer in the ring sauntered forward, bouncing lightly on his toes, his glove-encased sledgehandmers held out easily in front of him. I gulped around the mouthpiece inadequately guarding my teeth, held up my gloves, left hand forward, in front of my face, and moved forward.
To misquote the greatest pugilist ever, Muhammad Ali, I was floating like a brick and stinging like a flea.
I moved closer, jabbed at him with my left hand, and missed. I saw his shoulders bunch and knew he was going to jab at me. It flashed through me: I knew what he was going to do. My right hand moved to block him. His glove hit mine and knocked it back into my face. (“Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.” flashed through my head.)
Then his right glove came to say hello.
I never saw it coming. Though I sure felt it when it hit. I dropped to one knee on the canvas, my head ringing. I put both gloves down to support myself, shook my head, and looked up at the ref. He started counting.
If the referee got to 10 before I stood up, that was it. The fight would be over. I could have done it. I could have stayed there, knowing I got in the ring, that I’d done my part to raise money. I could have stayed down.
I shook my head slowly. Screw it. I’d had my bell rung before on the football field. I could take a bit more punishment. And maybe dish out a little.
I stood up, shrugged my shoulders back, tilted my head right and left, looked the referee in the eye and nodded. He gripped my wrists in his hands, shrugged and let go.
Stomping forward, I closed with the only real boxer in the ring. We traded jabs and I actually hit him a couple times. I’m almost positive he noticed. I even landed a kind-of, maybe-if-you-squint upper cut to his chest.
He hit me with a hard left jab, followed by an even harder right to the face. I staggered back, barely keeping my balance, mostly thanks to backing up against the ropes. My opponent wasn’t even looking. He was turned around, waving at someone in the crowd.
There was no reason he should have been taking me seriously. I knew that. Still, it pissed me off. I lowered my head and charged.
See, I knew how to hit people. It’s just, I knew how to hit people on the football field where you’re not allowed to punch. I lowered my shoulders and kept moving, ducking low and smashing into him just as he turned around to face me. My shoulder hit him hard in the stomach and I felt him double over. I bent my knees, lifted and pushed.
He would have gone over. I know that. If only those stupid ropes weren’t there. Or if we were engaged in fake professional wrestling where it was okay to do what I’d just done. In boxing, what I’d just done was called cheating.
The referee stepped in and separated us, sending us both to our corners. He let the other guy go by himself. Me, he pushed back, his ringers poking at my chest, lecturing me about correct etiquette when trying to pound someone else’s face in while in a boxing ring. I nodded, feeling confident now that I’d gotten a couple good hits.
Then I looked away from the referee and saw the other guy. He wasn’t smiling any more. He looked pissed. I mean, really pissed. At me. He stood still in his corner, arms at his side, and glared.
The referee stepped back toward the center, opened his arms wide, and then brought them together, telling us both to start boxing again. The other guy stomped forward, slowly bring his hands up. I took two steps and stopped, making him come to me. I kept my gloves up to guard my face, my forearms tucked in to guard my midsection.
He moved forward, I circled away. He smacked me in the head and sides a couple of times, and I could tell he was getting frustrated. That was good. Because I had a plan: keep running away while running out the clock.
It worked. I made it to the bell, which I only knew had been rung because the referee stepped into the middle of my prolonged retreat and pointed the two of us to our corners.
I sat on my corner stool, breathing heavily. Running away is hard work.
The mid-round break did not last nearly long enough. Far too quickly, I had to stand and go back into the ring, hoping I could just keep running away long enough for him to get tired. He did not get tired.
Probably about thirty seconds into the second round (I can’t be more precise as time had gotten a bit wobbly about then), I thought I’d take my shot. I jabbed my left hand, hit him (I think) . . . and then my world exploded.
I blinked and realized I was looking up into the ceiling, the ref’s concerned face leaning over me. He was counting. I rolled over, pushed myself onto my knees and stood up. I felt like a Weeble. I was wobbling, just not falling down.
The referee leaned closer and started babbling nonsense at me. I’d thought he was an English speaker, though, right then, he seemed to be slipping into glossolalia. I think I might have been able to keep going if it weren’t for the twins.
Apparently, the entire crowd was made up of twins. One twin had been sitting behind the other twin. When I looked out into the crowd, the twins leaned in opposite directions, suddenly doubling the number of people in the stands. I mumbled something about why all twins. The ref shook his head.
He stepped away from me and waved his hands over his head. The ref walked over to the only real boxer in the ring and lifted the boxer’s gloved hand up as far as it would go. We had a winner and it wasn’t me.
I flopped back onto my stool, then was grabbed from behind and lifted up. They needed the stool for the boxer in the last match. I climbed through the ropes, fell to my feet and . . . something something. The next bit isn’t all that clear, though I am pretty sure I changed clothes and got taken back to the fraternity house. I do know that, later that night, I was sitting on the couch in the living room by myself while a party raged around me.
I heard later it was a good party.
So . . . What did I learn by getting hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity? Not much, really. Never “volunteer” if you can help it? Boxing is hard? My head hurt? Life isn’t about lessons, but about living?
No. What I really learned is that I’m lucky to still be alive with only minimal brane issues. Other than the ones I started with. And also that sometimes we get lucky enough to live through the stoopidity.
And, yet, I still post about political issues. Why do it when I know it’s only going to be seen and understood by those who already see and understand?
Mostly, it’s because I can’t afford to hire a good handyman and my own drywall-patching skills aren’t where I’d like them to be. Despite the frequent practice I’ve had during the last four years trying to learn how to smooth out head-size dents in my walls, I still have head-sized dents in my walls.
Those dents just keep showing up. And I have no idea where they’re coming from. All right. I know exactly where they’re coming from. Sometimes, I just can’t take the triumphalist denial and willful ignorance I see in the world any longer. When that happens, the only thing I can do is smash my head against a wall for a little peace and quiet.
That’s the thing, see? I attempt to live by and with logic. I think the power of well-chosen words can change minds, can open minds. It’s happened to me. I’ve been absolutely convinced of something, only for someone to point out an error in my thought process, or a flaw in my reasoning using facts and logic, and I’ve changed my mind. I’ve seen it happen in others, sometimes even in response to my own words, well-chosen or not.
That doesn’t seem to happen much these days. Not since the rise of right-wing identity politics. Another word for it is tribalism. It’s all about teams and, if I’m not on your team, there’s no point in listening because I’m, by definition, wrong. After all, if I were right, I’d be on your team. Circular illogic that guarantees you don’t have to give any consideration to differing opinions or other ideas.
In identity politics, it’s no longer about free-flowing ideas or working together to overcome differences, it’s only, “Fuck yeah! My team!”
Well-reasoned arguments, drawn with logic from a series of accepted facts no longer work because facts are now “facts” and can be labeled fake if you don’t like them. Reality is malleable, if only you can put your fingers in your ears and scream “Nah nah nah nahnahnahnahnah” loud enough.
And when I’ve had enough. . . When the stupid in the world burns so hot I just can’t stand it any longer. . . I’m going to post something about it. I’m going to bang my head against the metaphorical wall instead of the literal wall. Because I have to get it out somehow.
I have been told in no uncertain terms by the Lovely Lady of my Life that subjecting her to numerous rants at high volume and an even higher word count will not continue. So Immna get it outta my system here.
I think of it like lancing a boil. I’ve got to get the puss out or the pressure will keep building and the pain keep increasing. I’ll lance it a little onto the keyboard, relieve the pressure and move on with my life.
I am almost certain the inexorable, undeniable logic with which I write will not change your mind. Nor the pretty, flowery words. Nor the bad jokes. What makes me so certain my words will fall on blocked ears? If the past four years of chaos and division and death haven’t changed your mind, what hope for a few words? The mental impermeability to change and logic shown these past four years makes a rather persuasive argument against future change.
There have been some who have shown up in the comments of my previous political posts who disagree with me. I used to get into it with them, to argue with facts, to point out sources and concurring opinion. I don’t do that any more because it does not work. Logic is derided. Facts are ignored. And I start thinking, “That wall over there looks like it could benefit from a nice head-shaped depression in it.”
It’s not that I don’t think I could be wrong. Or that every opinion other than mine is de facto incorrect. It’s just, when I post something political, it’s from a reputable source, which has an institutional imperative for getting it right. I might enjoy watching shouty, angry people making fun of those with whom I disagree on occasion, only I don’t get my facts from them.
I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in the past and will be wrong about a lot more in the future. To convince me, you’re going to have to be more than contrarian, more than loud. Just saying, “You’re an idiot” or screaming the “Lamestream Media” is lying won’t do it. Explain with facts from reputable sources, not just some guy on YouTube, why I’m wrong and I’ll listen. You might even change my mind.
So the next time you read one of my posts with a political bent and want to yell, “Fuck yeah! My team!” at me, save it. I don’t respond to ad hominem wailing. You wanna debate actual facts? I’m down for that. Though you better be sure you’ve got facts and not “facts.”
The first time I held my oldest son in my arms, all I felt was a warm rush of incredible joy and a sense of jaw-dropping, gobsmacked wonder at the perfect, wonderful, beautiful innocent we had made. And then the fear arrived.
The fear sort of sidled up from the corner, insinuating itself a little at a time. Sort of introducing itself to me, one rapidly increasing heartbeat at a time, until the fear was all I could see.
I looked into my son’s eyes, watery and mostly closed against all this unexpected light after nine months plus in warm, comforting darkness, and realized it was all up to me and his mom. We were responsible for this tiny, wonderful life.
He couldn’t feed himself. We had to do it for him. He couldn’t clean himself. We had to do it for him. He couldn’t change himself. We had to do it for him. He couldn’t put himself to bed, couldn’t crawl, couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk to the horribly vicious world in which he now lived. And, what’s more, he couldn’t go back to the warm safety that, until now, was all he’d known.
The only things standing between this beautiful, wonderful tiny human and a cold, heartless existence filled with brutish horrors were two very flawed adult humans with no actual baby-wrangling experience. My heart pounded away in my chest as I tried to draw air into my suddenly too-tiny lungs.
It’s a bit of a small miracle I didn’t pass out right then and there. The only thing holding me up was the thought that I was NOT going to be the one who first dropped my son on the cold, hard floor. (Admittedly, I WAS the first one to drop my son on the floor, though that was months in the future, the floor was carpeted and it was from a height of about two inches.)
The world is a scary place, especially for new parents. It’s filled with drivers who use their cars like battering rams, driving with all the subtlety of a monkey with a coke monkey on its back. There are hard corners everywhere. There are the hundreds of dangers we see all around us and the thousands more lurking just out of sight.
As dads, it’s our job to know these dangers, to see them coming, then to stand between them and our children. We learn to fear the world. We fear the world so we can learn to become better protectors to our tiny humans, such huge, wonderful responsibilities.
We dads hold that fear close, using it as fuel to provide the kick necessary to move VERY fast when necessary. And we hold that fear close for another reason: We hold it close so we never show it to our children. They must never know the fear with which we view their world.
Dads fear the world so that our children will learn to see the world with joy, to approach its wonders and terrors with abandon, to explore, to see, to become who they want to become. Dads show the dangers to their children, explain consequences, and help their children create solutions.
We do not show them our fear. Fear is contagious. If we want our children to conquer the world, or at least that little part of it they desire, they need to understand that there are ways around danger, that problems can be solved. If a problem can’t be solved, then they can bounce back, be resilient and try something else.
Dads fear so that our children can grow and become.
My youngest son now is 21 years old. His brothers are 26 (almost) and 27 years old. And still I feel the fear for them everyday. Though that fear is lessened substantially these days because I know the men they’ve become. They are strong, responsible young men who see the world as a challenge to overcome, a partner with which to work, and a place they can make better.
If my dad is any example to go by (and I’m pretty sure he is), I’m going to feel this way for a long, long time. He still sends me articles on how to stay healthy, talks to me about how best I can navigate through this world, and offers endless advice.
I listen. I take it in. I thank him for his help. I figure he must have something good going on. After all, he did dad me, and I turned out pretty we— SQUIRREL! — pretty well. I must have, right? Otherwise, I wouldn’t be the lucky dad I am today.
Thank you, Dad. Thank you, Rich. Thank you, Ben (and my new daughter Luz). Thank you, Nate. You all make this a happy Father’s Day.
Just. . . Look both ways before you cross the street, all right? And wear your seat belt. And. . .
Let’s assume that there is no need to wear a face covering when I’m outside in situations where I cannot practice safe physical distancing. Let’s assume that me wearing a mask to protect other people in case I’m infected with coronavirus and asymptomatic isn’t necessary.
Let’s further assume that I keep wearing the mask. Just in case. Or because I’m prone to worrying about things excessively. Or prone to overthinking stuff. What’s the end result of that?
Basically, the end result is that I wear a beautiful cloth face mask when I’m out in public and can’t practice safe physical distancing. Since I do tend to practice safe physical distancing, that means I don’t go out amongst people very often. Maybe a couple hours’ worth every week. A minor inconvenience at most.
Now, on the other hand. . .
Let’s assume I’m right. Wearing a mask is necessary to prevent the spread of the deadly, novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. If you’re infected and asymptomatic (which can happen in a large number of cases of infection), not wearing a mask in situations where you can’t maintain safe physical distancing means you could be a COVID Martin or COVID Mary.
Walking around in close proximity to other people while infected and asymptomatic and not wearing a mask means you could be spreading the novel coronavirus to people you don’t even know. If you infect one person, that person could go on to infect others. This virus is exceedingly contagious and it still is spreading across vast swathes of the United States.
This virus is killing people. If you walk around unmasked in places where you cannot practice safe physical distancing, and you’re infected and asymptomatic, the odds are good that your infection-spread tree will eventually contain a dead branch or two.
So here’s the deal: If I’m wrong, I end up wearing a cloth mask on my face for a couple hours a week and no one dies because I spread the virus. If I (and almost every single, reputable doctor, epidemiologist, scientist and public health official) am right, being unmasked in situations where you cannot practice safe physical distancing means there is a chance you will spread a deadly virus that has killed more than 75,000 Americans in less than four months.
Right or wrong, that’s a chance I’m not willing to take.
Kindness, compassion and empathy should flow both ways. If you expect to receive kindness, compassion and empathy, you should also give kindness, compassion and empathy to others around you. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that for many people.
For a lot of people (speaking in general and naming no specific individuals because I’m not passive aggressive like that and will call out specific people if I’m really talking about them), kindness, compassion and empathy flow only inwards. That is, they expect to be extended kindness, granted compassion and have others empathically feel for their plight. They give nothing in return
Wearing a mask in public when you cannot control whether or not you will always remain at a greater than six foot distance from other people is about giving the gift of kindness, compassion and empathy to everyone else who is not you. PPE like the N95 mask will protect the wearer from becoming infected. Cloth masks are far less likely to protect the wearer from becoming infected. However, protecting myself isn’t why I wear a mask when I go out grocery shopping.
I wear a mask to protect you. And you. And you over there. And, yes, you. I want other people to wear masks so I can get a little protection in return.
I hope there aren’t people out there who would willingly infect someone else with a deadly disease. I don’t think you would. However, you could infect someone without even knowing it. That infection could kill. One thing that makes the novel coronavirus so deadly is that people can be infected and asymptomatic for more than two days before they show symptoms. People infected with the virus can spread it before they even know they are sick.
What’s worse, people can be infected and be entirely asymptomatic. That is, they will harbor the virus and not once know they are carrying it. Think Typhoid Mary. That could be you. That could be me if I didn’t wear a mask out in public.
I do not wear a mask as some sort of political ploy. I am not part of some conspiracy to limit your freedoms. I wear the mask so that, if I am infected and asymptomatic, I will protect you from becoming infected. I don’t care what your political status, I will not be responsible for infecting someone else if I can help it. I believe in showing kindness and compassion to others, because I can empathize with their lives. Why won’t those who protest wearing masks in public extend me the same courtesy?
As of May 5, more than 71,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. And that’s almost certainly an undercount because we don’t know about people who died outside of hospital systems. More than 1 million Americans have been infected with coronavirus. And that is definitely an undercount because we do not have adequate testing to see the true scope of the disease.
The novel coronavirus responsible for the deadly COVID-19 disease is real. It is a threat and it is not going away. Even when we get a vaccine, there will be people who do not become immune through some fluke of their biology. There are the immunocompromised who can’t receive a vaccination and thus could die if they were exposed to the virus. And, of course, there will be idiots who believe vaccines are evil and are willing to risk the safety of others because they once watched a YouTube video from some guy who said vaccines are dangerous. For now, the best thing we can do to prevent the spread of the disease is to stay away from each other if we have to go out in public. If we can’t stay away from each other, wear a fucking mask.
I think of interacting with others while not wearing a mask to protect them to be akin to drinking and driving. You might down a couple beers and get behind the wheel. You don’t know you’re going to hit someone and kill them, yet the odds are much higher than if you’d called a Lyft. Sure, it’s a pain to call a Lyft, to have to pay for a ride. Yet, if you do, then you’re not going to accidentally kill someone because you drank too much and your judgment and reflexes are for crap.
Yes, it’s a pain to wear a mask when grocery shopping. My nose always itches like crazy the entire time. I desperately yearn to play with my beard and can’t. I wear a mask anyway because I will not be an asshole who effectively murders others because I can’t endure a little discomfort. I will act toward others with kindness, compassion and empathy.
When John Wayne rode the wastes of the wild west dispensing justice from the barrel of a six-gun and duking it out with the baddies, he wasn’t behind the wheel of a minivan.
When John McClane refused to die easy and saved the Nakatomi Plaza from a band of Eurotrash terrorists, he didn’t do it from the spacious third-row seating of a minivan.
When I save my family from starvation, brave the elements to secure an education or simply battle the hordes of road-raged drivers seeing my face in the center of a bulls-eye, I do drive a minivan.
This disparity in style often led my 15-year-old son, Hyper Lad, to comment. Vehemently.
“I am not getting in that minivan,” he said, looking in disgust at the newest decoration to adorn my beloved Honda Odyssey. “You put reindeer antlers and a big, red nose on it.”
That is exactly what I had done. It was Christmas. Seeing the other cars similarly decorated, I went red and green with envy. I had a bad case of Antler Envy and the only cure was more . . . antlers.
“Hey,” I said, shoving him toward the open sliding door to the spacious captain’s chairs in the middle row of the minivan. “I’ve seen plenty of cars with these.”
“Yeah,” he said, tossing his backpack onto the floor. “And every one of them lady cars, right?”
“Uh. . .”
“No,” I said. “Not right. I mean, I saw — just the other morning — I saw antlers and a big, red nose on a huge Chevy Suburban, and that’s a rough and tumble car.”
He snorted and slid closed the side door.
“Oh, please,” he said. “That’s not a Suburban; that’s a Mom-burban. The only people who drive them are Moms.”
If only my son could take to school with the alacrity he brings to inventing new vocabulary for mocking me. I let him get away with it mostly because I usually find it funny, I know he is only doing it in friendly jest, and I want him to be able to stand up for himself. I do, on occasion, regret this.
“Okay, fine, yes,” I said. “There was a lady driving, but that still doesn’t mean putting antlers on my car makes me any less a man.”
“You’re right,” he said. “It makes you more of a mom.”
Regret is a stinging blade to the mind. I threw the Odyssey into reverse, slammed my foot on the accelerator and left a smoking trail in my imaginary driveway.
While Hyper Lad and I had been kidding around, the comments still stung. The average American male, of which I’m almost certainly one, does not like being called a woman.
I’ve come to believe an idea not making sense tends to spread it faster. It’s certainly helped spread this one.
In just under half a second, Google returned more than 550 million, that’s 500,000,000, links related to “women weak.” Half a billion links to the assumption that women are weak in general and weaker than men, more specifically. This presumption that women are weak is tied very closely with why you won’t find many American men taking on traditionally female attributes.
A man being told that he “throws like a girl” is one of the worst kinds of insults, despite the amazing arms on just about any girl who plays softball.
Because women are assumed the “weaker sex,” most men will fight anyone or anything linking them to femininity. It’s not that they don’t want to be seen as women, but they don’t want to be seen as weak. And women are seen as weak.
Researcher Brené Brown, in one of the most-ever-watched TED talks, said women feel shame from a multitude of sources and for a similar multitude of reasons. Men? Not so much.
For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, do not be perceived as what? Weak. I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. And it wasn’t until a man looked at me one day after a book signing, said, “I love what you have to say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.” And I said, “I don’t study men.” And he said, “That’s convenient.” (Laughter) And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?” I said, “Yeah.” “They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us.
For any ladies reading this, please understand that the gentleman in this story was not exaggerating. Sometimes it happens metaphorically, but sometimes it happens literally. Men have been trained to fear showing emotion and to respond to that fear by lashing out. We lash out to prove that we, unlike that crying girlie-man over there, aren’t weak.
The easiest way of making sure we aren’t seen as weak, is to make sure we’re never thought of as a woman. So no helping with the housework, or rearing the kids, cooking dinner each night, decorating your minivan for the season, or wearing clothing associated with females.
That’s changed somewhat for women. They wear traditionally male clothing, such as trousers, suits, ties and the like, raising nary an eyebrow. In this one area, when it concerns women taking on formerly male-exclusive dress and behavior, they are far more advanced than men.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a woman wearing pants? Yesterday? Today? Okay, when was the last time you saw a man wearing a skirt? Go ahead. Try and remember. I’ll wait. While waiting, I’m gonna watch some fine British comedy, which consists of mediocre skits performed by men wearing dresses and talking in a high, warbly voice. It’s hilarious.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. Men don’t get to wear anything associated with women unless they want to be thought of as a weak sort of man, almost a wo-man. If you will.
And woe betide any straight man who gets it into his fool head he wants to wear female clothing for anything other than bad sketch comedy. Including cross dressers, but that’s a different column. I know this from experience.
I am not immune to the fear of being seen as weak. The thing of it is, though, I’ve grown a pretty thick skin over the years because of what I do for a living.
If it wasn’t obvious from the fact that I drive a minivan, I was and am a proud stay-at-home dad. All three of our boys grew up knowing that when they skinned a knee, it would be dad who yelled at them to rub some dirt on it and get back into the game.
Things in our house were. . . different.
Because their mom worked so much as an obstetrician/gynecologist, she wasn’t able to participate in many of the boys’ school events. For the most part, they were okay with it. They knew their mom loved them and would have been there if she could. But not every time and not for every son. There were times when I had to step up. In her high heels. Metaphorically speaking. Sort of.
When Hyper Lad was younger, his pre-school decided to hold a Mother-Son Breakfast. It was expected that every child’s mother would be there, as this was a conservative church-sponsored school and women just did not work outside the house. So, it was assumed, they could be counted upon to appear at the breakfast.Unfortunately, Hyper Lad’s mom already had a surgery scheduled for that day and couldn’t postpone it.
Hyper Lad was crushed. I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful, awful idea. I ran into my closet and began rooting around behind the dress shirts I no longer wore and the shiny shoes gathering dust while I traipsed around in trainers.
I scrounged up an old wig, with long, very fake brown hair, a pair of scrubs too big for my wife, and a towel with elastic around one side I could pretend was a skirt. I was ready. I could only hope the world was as well.
Because he was still in pre-school, Hyper Lad didn’t have the stamina nor leg length to outrun me. I quickly caught him, bundled him in the Odyssey’s predecessor, a Toyota Sienna, and headed to school.
I will admit it. I’m a rabble rouser. An inciter. I was, thus, in my element. The ladies, dressed in their nicest outfits, many with pearls, stopped to stare as I pulled Hyper Lad into the room. I quickly nabbed a name tag from the deathly silent assistant (HI! I’m Not Hyper Lad’s MOM) and headed to the buffet.
Eventually, conversation restarted and breakfast was eaten. Well, eaten by the kids. Most of the ladies didn’t often eat in public. I didn’t have that problem. One mom I’d been friendly with sidled over and stood nearby. No one else had joined our table.
“Oh my God,” she stage whispered. “Oh my God! Are you wearing a skirt?”
I looked down at the wearable towel wrapped around my waist and gestured toward it with the hand not currently occupied by shoveling bacon into my churning maw.
“This old thing?” I asked. “Can you believe? I got it for half off!”
She stared at me.
“It’s a towel,” I said. “I couldn’t find a skirt that fit.”
“A skirt that fit? A real skirt?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s rough. I’m in between sizes in most skirts.”
“Aren’t you afraid people will think you’re a woman?” she said, lowering her voice even more and leaning in closer, “You’ll be lucky if any of the other ladies talk to you after this.”
I did my best not to laugh too much. Mostly because the bacon was really good and I didn’t want to waste any.
“Do I look like a woman?”
I did not. I’m six feet, weigh near two hundred pounds and have a muscular physique. I’m also bald and bearded. I look like many things. A woman least among them.
But I got her point. I had stepped outside the traditional boundaries of the American male. I had, even if only for a morning, and mostly for fun, embraced my more feminine side. Which wasn’t really a problem. No, the problem was I’d had the bad taste to do so in public.
My friend was right, though. Other than the occasional sniff-and-look-away, I didn’t really communicate with any of the other mothers the rest of the year. We moved Hyper Lad to a different pre-school the next year. I think we all were happier.
Here’s the thing, though. I hadn’t changed. I still was the same person; still loved beer, football and screaming at televisions. Yet because I dressed up and pretended — badly — to be a woman, I was ostracized by people I had considered friendly, if not friends.
The stereotypical red-blooded American male, is strong, silentish, rugged, emotionally stunted so that he shows only anger, and sees the world through a friend-or-foe-fueled haze of tactical assumptions. To be otherwise is to be seen as weak.
I challenge that assumption. I’m just about as male as they come. I look the part. I sound the part. But I also cry at sad movies. I hug people who are in bad moods and could use a bit of cheering up. I don’t believe in winning at all costs. And I’m hoping that, by my words and my actions, my sons will come to believe that they don’t have to grow up to become emotionally stunted testosterone junkies.
I’ve always considered women to be strong and capable. For this, I blame my mom, who was both and quite vocal about it. I feel no shame in losing a game of H.O.R.S.E. to a woman who’s simply a better shooter than me. It’s about the ball, not the balls.
Men need to grow up and realize stereotypical behaviors are not predetermined, they are socialized. Raised in a society where masculine emotion is prized, men will cry openly. And they will feel better for it.
Ours is not that society. But it could be. It only needs men, who will become fathers, to understand and to lead the way. Understand that to be a man, to be the best man, is to be hu-man and embrace the full spectrum of behaviors.
But that’s going to be an up-Everest battle.
Even knowing I am the manliest dad by whom he’s ever been reared, my son kept insisting only a mom would decorate a minivan like I had. He wouldn’t let it go. Eventually, I stopped listening to him. Whenever he brought it up, I either flexed my arms, made some pretty impressive muscles, and growled or lovingly smacked the back of his head.
Yes, I am a man. Thankfully, I’m strong enough in that knowledge that I can survive being seen as weak. As the great philosopher once said with such flair, to be the man, you gotta beat the man. And, man, I am the man.
The World’s Greatest Fighter Pilot went wheels up for the last time on Friday.
Logan J. Daub, known to one and all as Jack, known to anyone who paused long enough to hear him speak for 17 seconds as the World’s Greatest Fighter Pilot, died in his home after a three-year battle with cancer.
It wasn’t the sort of battle Jack was used to fighting. In those, he normally flew fast and accurate and aggressive over the jungled lands below, dodging anti-aircraft fire all the way and flicked his Bic on North Vietnam. He was an unrepentant believer in the rightness of the cause, our Jack.
When he finished his tours and decided eventually to muster out of the Air Force, Jack did some private plane flying. While he won’t confirm or deny (except under the heavy, heavy, heavy influence of many, many, many, many stiff drinks [and, even then, I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t pulling my leg]), I’m pretty sure he did some work for certain three-letter orgs. The names of which would no doubt be familiar to many of you.
With friends all over the U.S., Jack found himself traveling quite a lot. Thankfully, his flying job allowed him to indulge his passion for women, talk and drinks. Not necessarily in that order.
He was a man who could sit down in any bar, any where and talk to any one and become best friends with whoever it was that was lucky enough to enter into a discussion with him. Not just bar friends, lifetime blood brothers who only ever talk that one time. No, Jack was the sort to actually keep up with all his new friends.
My parents met Jack when my dad was serving his two years during Vietnam. He was given a choice: Either serve for two years, work as an orthopedic surgeon in some stateside Army base, or serve for one year and be pretty damn sure you’re going to the ‘Nam. He chose stateside.
We lived on Fort Leavenworth, amongst the prisoners and the pilots and the plebes. It was there Jack entered our lives. Along with several other friends, they remain close with my dad still today.
I will always remember Jack because of how he treated me. He was the first adult to treat me like an adult. He would ask me a question and then sit still listening to my reply. What’s more, he’d carefully consider what I’d said before replying in turn, showing he’d actually listened to me and cared enough to really want my opinion. He never humored me and I could never thank him enough for that.
For the past three years or so, he’s been battling some Godforsaken form of cancer or another. As if there were any forms of cancer that aren’t Godforsaken horrors. And it brought him low. Lower than he’s ever been.
He made it through, though. He made it to the other side. Or so we thought. For about the last two and a half months, he’s been his old self. He drove with a friend to San Diego to see another old friend, reconnect with a few exes, see his god-daughter again and just enjoy the life.
It wasn’t his new lease on life, though. It was a rally. And, eventually, all rallies end. His ended Friday.
His sons hadn’t heard from him in a little while so they went to his house, worried the flu he’d been fighting had knocked him out. Instead, they found him on his bed, Tango Uniform for the final time.
Tango Uniform is a bit of slang he taught me a long time ago. It stands for either Toes Up or Tits Up, a description of someone passed out and no longer moving, stretched out flat on their back, TU to the ceiling.
Of all the things Jack loved (his friends, his drinks and the wide-open sky not included because nothing else came close), the thing he most loved was college football. He was the only man alive who understood and perhaps surpassed my hatred for the University of Georgia. Jack always considered himself a Yellowjacket from Georgia Institute of Technology, a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer.
And now he’s gone. And the world is the poorer for no longer having his presence in it. And you are the poorer for not having met him.
Having known Jack as long as I have, I should feel lucky to have had that pleasure. And, yet, it feels as if we’d only just now started our friendship.
Jack always struck me as someone who would live forever because he was having too much fun to ever want to leave.
I suppose the lure of the unexplored and open sky was too tempting for Jack to resist this time.
I will miss you, Jack. And always wonder about the pretender now walking around thinking he’s the World’s Greatest Fighter Pilot. Will that pretender ever know just how wrong he is?
My mom died. This is the story of what happened. The first part of the story is here. My sister and I tried to get a battered Mom into a rehabilitation hospital. All Mom had to do was swallow, prove she was on the mend. She didn't because she wasn't.
The weasels running Mom’s care at the hospital began feeling their oats, thinking we’d have to give in to what they wanted since Mom wasn’t going to a rehabilitation hospital. Barely paying attention to us, they started making plans for when to begin tubing Mom.
Throughout the course of living with multiple sclerosis for decades, Mom always made it clear that her worst nightmare was being kept alive and not living. The weasel doctors didn’t like the idea of anyone dying in their hospital so they planned to ignore the legal Do Not Resuscitate order mom signed and notarized before she was even sick.
I looked at the smug, white-coated weasels and thought beating some sense into them using an IV stand and several applications of the chest paddles sounded mighty sensible.
“It doesn’t matter,” my younger sister Leslie said, her voice soft and sad and barely audible over the sound of my heart raging out of control. It was the tone that jolted me into dropping the IV stand.
I looked at Leslie. She looked at Mom, her eyes full of tears, already dripping down her cheek. My sister, for a long time, was one of the most-sought-after physical therapists in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. She was damn good, even after cutting back her practice since moving to Jacksonville several years before. I’m smart. I know a bit about medicine and science. She knew more. A lot more.
“I knew,” she said. “But I ignored it. She can’t swallow on her own.”
“But, what if—“
“Rick, it doesn’t matter,” she said, turning away from Mom and looking back to me. “It never mattered. Without an NG tube she’s going to die of starvation, but you know we can’t do that.”
I nodded. I’d never liked it, but there it was. I wanted to fight against it, keep Mom around just a little while longer. . . Leslie was right.
“Even with all the help in the world, she’s not coming back. Not like she was,” Leslie said. “If the tubes worked and she did come back? Like that?Being a vegetable? It was her nightmare.”
I sat down. My sister and I had never been particularly huggy, but I leaned in and gathered her in my arms.
“Damn,” I said to no one in particular.
Walking to the door, we leaned out and asked the Hospice liaison to come in. Leslie and I walked to Mom’s bed, each on a different side. We each held a separate hand. We stood quietly.
Hospice Offers Love In A Time Without Hope
Hospice is a wonderful invention. It is a place and a service designed to ease the suffering of those about to shuffle off this mortal coil. For those choosing to meet their end at home, hospice offers home visits, caregiver respites and even full-time help. For those who — like Mom — need more looking after, Haven Hospice in Gainesville offered a beautiful, wooded grounds as a last residence. The large, wooden building, full of expansive windows and sitting on manicured ground, sat surrounded by tall pines and oak trees, many of the branches a little bare from the mild Florida winter.
I hated it the minute I saw it.
It was the end. Haven Hospice represented the death of hope. Mom wouldn’t be getting better. She wouldn’t come home. She’d never again take over a dull party and make it a thing talked about for years after.
It was the end. And it was coming soon.
The party started almost as soon as we arrived. Word spread around the Gainesville community pretty quickly about Mom’s situation. It seemed like everyone she knew wanted to come say hello, did so and then stayed to talk to everyone else.
Nodding to Leslie, I slipped out the door and into the quiet hallway outside Mom’s room. I needed a break from the chatter. My ears ringing in the silence, I leaned against the wall.
Dr. Carter, a loud, funny and very caring black woman, her hair done in a tight natural cut close to her head, leaned next to me. Dr Carter tried to make sure Mom wasn’t feeling any pain, but also that she wasn’t so medicated she slept the days away. It was a delicate balancing act and one she seemed to be slipping. All too often, Mom grimaced and thrashed on the bed, her body letting her know she’d overstayed her welcome.
We’d ask for more drugs and more drugs would be given, but we were coming close to where any larger dose would end up being lethal. Hospice was for comfortably seeing folks off, not for pushing them.
“Sounds like a party in there,” she said.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s Mom.”
Dr. Carter nodded her head and looked thoughtful.
“Your mom, she liked parties?”
I smiled, far too many memories flashing into existence for me to make much sense of them. The overwhelming impression was of laughter and sweat and constant motion.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “She loved parties. Never wanted to leave them.”
Dr. Carter nodded her head again, watching me from over the thick, bright-red frames of her glasses.
“Yeah,” she said. “Sounds like quite a party in there.”
I’ve been called slow on occasion, but I get there eventually.
My heart thumped on the missed beat and my eyes widened. We — Leslie and I and every person we allowed to come into Mom’s room for the floating party — were responsible for keeping Mom around when it was time to go. We were the reason she still was here and in pain.
“Fuck,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” Dr. Carter said. She pushed off the wall and walked away.
Turn Out The Lights. . .
That night, after visiting hours, we hammered out a new policy. We’d still welcome people who wanted to come say goodbye to Mom, but not more than three other people. No loud noises. No party.
Mom needed to know she could — at last — stop fighting. She could give that one inch.
That Friday night, Leslie went to get a Coke from the vending machine while I stayed with Mom. We’d both be going back to Mom’s house for a some sleep, maybe a couple of hours, getting ready for the long day ahead. We couldn’t stand the thought of being away, of letting Mom die alone and lonely.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, holding her left hand cupped in both of mine. I squeezed lightly. I didn’t know if she was awake or even capable of being awake any more, but I had to believe she could hear me, had to believe she wasn’t gone. “You did a damn good job with me and Leslie, you know. I’m not sure I told you that enough. You’ve been teaching us all our lives. Every moment a teachable moment, even if you never said a word. I know you don’t like hearing it, but you were an inspiration. Your courage. Your fight. Your refusal to ever give in. It made you damn annoying at times, but right now, I’m so glad you were like that because it means I got to keep you for longer.
“But you taught me, taught Leslie, too well for us to be selfish. No matter how much we want you to stay, we can’t hold you back. We will miss you, but we will be all right. You taught us to laugh and how to fight, but there’s one last lesson we need from you.
“Teach us how to let go.”
Down by eight, the Florida Gators looked primed to make a comeback against the Kentucky Wildcats. Mom loved basketball and had season tickets to both the men’s and women’s Gator home games. The only thing she hated worse than the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team was seeing her Gators lose to Kentucky.
I’d been talking softly with Mom about the game, my attention only half on the television as the game neared halftime. Something sounded off. I looked around the room, trying to figure out what it was when Mom started breathing again.
“Leslie, Kathy, come here, please.” That my voice sounded calm and I didn’t shriek at all is a testament to either my acting skills or the positive benefits of shock.
Leslie and Kathy had been talking quietly near the room’s closed door, making plans for later that night so we could get something good to eat. Neither of them liked Gator basketball half as much as I did and weren’t even in the same galactic cluster with Mom.
Gentle laughter floated my way as they walked over. Mom kept breathing, but slower, deeper. I looked at them and my mask slipped. The blood fled their faces, leaving behind pale cheeks and wide eyes. They stood close to Mom, without having covered the intervening distance, bending down near Mom’s mouth. She breathed deeper again. I saw Kathy’s and Leslie’s body relax a little.
“No,” I said. “That’s not it. She’s breathing now, but I—“
As if on cue, Mom exhaled. She didn’t inhale for maybe five seconds, then started up again. Her breathing seemed even deeper.
Kathy, a nurse, nodded through fresh tears.
“Cheyne-Stokes breathing,” she said. “Fuck.”
Cheyne-Stokes breathing was something that happened in a lot of near-death patients. Their breathing would get deeper, followed by periods of no breathing, then get shallower with more periods of not breathing. Eventually their breathing wouldn’t restart. No one knows why it happens, only that, when it does, the end is near.
I grabbed Mom’s hand tight in both of mine, my nose burning with the need to sob and wail, tears rolling across the bridge of my nose and off the tip. I looked at Leslie, holding Mom’s right hand. Kathy gently rubbed Mom’s temples, occasionally running her fingers through Mom’s hair.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Leslie said. “We’re here. We’re with you. You’ve done so much for us, for us all. You made sure we were ready for this. You did. Rick and I. . . We’re going to be okay. Pieter and Nico and Sophie are going to be well.”
Leslie nodded at me. I couldn’t open my mouth, couldn’t speak. Couldn’t— No. I was the son of Catherine Jones and if there was one thing I’d learned from her, it was how to talk loudly and clearly.
“We will be all right, Mom,” I said. “Alyse and the boys — Rich, Ben, Rocket — they’ll be all right, too. You’ve got another party to get to and you don’t want to be late.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Leslie said. “It’s okay to let go now. Stop fighting. Relax.”
“The world. . .,” I said. “The world is a better place for your having been here, Mom.”
We babbled, making sure our voices were heard, that she didn’t go in to that last dark without company.
Mom inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled. . .
We all held still, listening for breathing, watching her still chest.
I broke first, the sobs crashing through me as I bent over the bed and held the still, already cooling body that used to be my Mom. I don’t know how long we cried, Leslie and I, but eventually we slowed, stopped, sat up.
Kathy wasn’t in the room with us. She must have gone to tell Hospice staff what happened because, after we’d been quiet for a few minutes, the door inched open and one of the wonderful nurses poked her head in.
“May I. . .,” she asked. “I just need to check a few things, if that’s all right?”
“Please,” I said, taking a step further toward the foot of the bed, gently releasing the body’s hand and placing it on the covers. Already the room seemed empty, boring.
I walked around the bed and stood next to Leslie. We watched the nurse check for breathing, heartbeat, any sign of life. There were none, but I could have told her that. What was on the bed. . . That wasn’t Mom. That was just the body that had been fighting her for most of her life. She wasn’t there any more.
I don’t believe in heaven or life after death, but I very much wanted to. I wanted to believe that somewhere under a golden sun, Mom was looking down at two strong, young legs and wondering why she wasn’t dancing yet. I wanted to believe that she was smiling and laughing and jumping and running just for the sheer joy of it all. Because she could. She finally could. I really wanted to believe and, for a while at least, I did.
Bad News Never Gets Easier To Tell
We couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to tell our respective kids.
We walked past the nurse’s station where two nurses, one male and one female leaned against the counter, gesturing angrily but quietly at a small color television hidden between stacks of paper.
Two steps past the nurse’s station, I twigged to what I’d heard.
I stopped, a giggle forcing itself through my pressed-tight lips. I felt another bubbling up behind that one and a whole lot more not even waiting their turn behind that one. I gasped for breath, but finally managed to tell Leslie.
A deep belly laugh ripped free from the pit of her. Both hands slammed over her mouth, her eyes open wide. Somehow that made it even funnier and more giggling burst through, which set Leslie off again.
My wife, Alyse, and Leslie’s husband, Pieter, both poked their heads out of the family TV room. They walked out, closed the door and headed our way, questions tattooed on their faces.
We wound down, occasional chuckles floating up every five seconds or so.
Alyse and Pieter stood a few feet away, obviously wondering if they needed to call for help.
I stood up straight as my stomach muscles would allow, harrumphing a bit to cover the wince.
Leslie had straightened and now stood next to me. Even then, my body aching from the laughter, I saw the coming tears far too clearly. We’d speak. They’d listen. We’d cry. And then we’d go find the kids and would start all over again.
But that was minutes away.
“What is wrong with you two?” Alyse asked.
“The Gators,” I said. “They lost to Kentucky 68 to 76.”
Leslie and I both chuckled.
I watched as comprehension flashed through Alyse’s face. She got it.
“When. . .?”
“Just after halftime,” I said.
“I am so, so sorry,” she said, collapsing into my arms. I felt her tears, hot and wet, against my neck. The breath of her laughter on my wet neck wrung goosebumps from my skin.
Behind me, I heard Leslie say, “Mom’s gone, Pieter.”
“But, I don’t. . . Oh,” he said, his light Dutch accent rolling the I sound around a bit before letting it go. “She always said she’d rather die than watch Kentucky beat Florida.”
From across the open, glass-walled atrium, sitting in a large, but strangely uncomfortable chair, I watched the door across the hallway open. My heart tried to beat faster, but couldn’t work up the enthusiasm.
A large woman wearing white backed into the hallway, her feet encased in white canvas-and-rubber shoes that squeaked every single time she took a step on one of the institutional white tiles lining the corridor that separated the family waiting room from the now-open door.After one long step, she turned left and I saw she was towing what turned out to be a metal stretcher.
Formed of shiny metal and well-oiled, squeak-free wheels, the stretcher normally carried a thin, plastic-encased mattress and several starched, white sheets. I’d seen the stretcher and the woman go into the room just a few minutes before. I couldn’t say I watched it because that would have implied some conscious decision on my part and that. . . Well, that just wasn’t happening.
Thoughts skittered through my brain, none sticking around. I existed in the moment, seeing whatever was in front, sounds and smells that drifted by, but all of it in and gone.
Unable to muster the enthusiasm to look away, I saw the large woman extract the stretcher from the room, a second similarly white-clad woman following behind, her right hand guiding the stretcher into the hallway.
On the stretcher, a rumpled white sheet pulled up to just beneath the chin, rested a still, small woman. Despite the face being uncovered, the woman on the stretcher was very clearly dead.
Moving efficiently, the two women wheeled the stretcher and its contents away down the hall and around the corner.
It came to me that the body on the stretcher had been my mom.
Not every story has a happy ending. In this special two-part memory, I talk about the sudden death of my mother. And the way my sister and I killed her.
A Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis Was Just The Beginning
Diagnosed more than three decades before with multiple sclerosis, Mom fought throughout most of her life. Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease that wore away at the neurons in her body, robbing her tactile sensations, stealing away her strength, and, most noticeably, the ability to move her right leg.
The good thing about Mom’s version of MS — if there can be said to be any good thing about the disease — was that it was only gradually eating away at her body’s nerves. It progressed inexorably over the years, but slowly, prolonging the time she had to fight, but also the time she had with us and we with her.
Mom developed simple way of dealing with MS. She fought against it with every single minute particle of her will and strength and anger. She did not give an inch. She knew that, if she gave that first inch, the next would be given easier, and the next one even easier than that. She gave the disease nothing.
Everything MS took from her, it fought, snuck or tore away. She never gave an inch.
When she was diagnosed with an aggressive, fast-moving form of breast cancer, she faced it down like she did MS. She underwent chemo, a mastectomy and accepted her body for what it was.
She gave a breast, but she never gave an inch.
If you didn’t like her, you probably hadn’t met her. Because once you met her, you really had no choice but to like her. Mom’s personality filled every single room she entered. She loved to be around people, to talk to people and she was damned sure not going to let MS keep her from doing that.
We all — including the seventeen people who would later tell me she was their best friend — felt the impact of her personality. She was ten feet tall and bulletproof. And that was before she started drinking the tequila.
In life, she was a big, friendly giant.
In death, she was a tiny lump on a very large stretcher.
Death Makes Everything Smaller
I turned, realizing my butt had already fallen asleep in the two-seater couch, and put my arm around my sister. We leaned together, my bald head nearly bouncing off the thick head of hair framing her blotchy face.
“We. . .,” I said. “We did the right thing. Didn’t we?”
Leslie, only eighteen months younger than my 46 years, had born the brunt of the last month since she lived an hour away.
She wiped at her face and leaned back, wincing.
“Of course we did,” she said. “Besides, if we hadn’t let her die, she’d have killed us both for it.”
She Meant Every Word
“I want you to know something,” Mom said. She looked up from her seat at the kitchen table. Tired couldn’t begin to describe her. Deep half-circles of purple weighed heavily under her eyes, the result of forcing herself out of bed every morning despite not sleeping the night before. “If you ever find me dead. . . If I ever commit suicide, I want you to know it had nothing to do with you or your sister. Or even your dad, the shit. I shouldn’t say things like that about him, but I— If I do commit suicide, it’ll be because I’ve just had enough of this damn disease. Nobody else. Just the MS.”
I’d nodded, leaned down to hug her briefly and asked if there was anything I could do. She smiled and waved me on my way. It was summer and the Fretz Park Pool was calling my name.
Although she’d never come out and said it so bluntly before, that wasn’t the first time Mom had brought that up to me or Leslie. Looking back, I can see she was having an especially rough summer, even on top of my dad leaving her for the first time. They would get back together after a year or so, stay together for another couple of years and finally divorce after my dad walked out yet again, this time for only one other woman. The Dallas heat and the emotional pain made it harder to deal with her MS.
Suicide was her escape hatch from a burden too heavy to bear. It wasn’t the pain that worried her. It was the helplessness.
Her greatest fear — the thing that woke her up some nights in a cold sweat — was the thought she would become so weak she’d need full-time care. So weak she’d have to be dressed, changed, wiped. If she couldn’t take care of herself, she said, then she’d take care of herself, if we knew what she meant.
What Finally Got Her In The End
Mom lived in a single-floor home in Gainesville, FL, with her two cats, both rescued from the shelter. Those cats were part of the daily test she set for herself. She fed and watered them, and changed their litter box. They gave her another reason to fight. She loved them and they loved her.
And they killed her.
Pasteurella multocida is a Gram-negative, nonmotile, penicillin-sensitive coccobacillus found in most domestic housecoat claws. It’s not a big deal, normally. Most folks with a healthy immune system can easily fight off the bacteria.
MS is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body’s own white blood cells, which fight infection, to turn on the insulating lining of nerve cells. People with MS are immune compromised. They do not have a healthy immune system.
When Mom passed out in the bathroom on Feb. 02, 2011, she fell and got stuck between the toilet and the wall. Trapped there for most of a day, she couldn’t escape or call for help. Eventually, she was found by my grandmother and her helper who were worried when they hadn’t heard from Mom all day.
They patched her bruises and cuts, gave her some fluids and helped her to bed. The next day, they forced her to go to the hospital to be examined. The doctors immediately demanded she stay overnight, to be rehydrated and, maybe, other things depending on test results.
I talked to Mom that night. Scarlett called me from the hallway where my mom rested on a stretcher, waiting for a room. Scarlett filled me in on the fall, the toilet and the hospital. My mom, true to form, hadn’t wanted to worry anyone so hadn’t told anyone.
Other than her head and neck hurting from the fall, she said, she felt fine. She didn’t sound fine. She sounded loopy. Still, I attributed that to her being dehydrated. I said I loved her. She said she loved me. We hung up.
That night, Mom fell into her first coma.
I arrived from Charlotte, NC, around two am that night. The first of many trips from here to there I would make that month.
The doctors stashed Mom in intensive care, wired her up to a Frankensteinian tangle of wires, tubes and monitors that went beep. The medical establishment offered no indication of what was causing her coma, how long it might last or if she would come out of it at all.
Leslie and I agreed to testing, but stressed Mom’s desire for no heroic measures. Despite numerous tests, doctors stayed baffled. They flooded her system with powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics on the theory of “What the hell, it can’t hurt.”
Four days after Mom fell into her coma, as Leslie and I were discussing when we might have to leave, what kind of set up we could put into place, we walked into Mom’s hospital room to keep talking to her, trying to engage her and bring her back.
Instead, we opened the door and found Mom sitting up in bed, eating.
She Saw Us, Smiled And Said, “Well, Hey There!”
It was the most normal-sounding thing in the world. She sounded like she’d just woken up in her own bed and was surprised to see my sister and I just wander into her room for no apparent reason.
It was the best and most coherent she would sound for the rest of her life.
The doctors had finally figured out what was going on. Mom had meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal column. It caused swelling of the area and, left untreated, could cause death. The major symptoms of meningitis are a headache and a stiff, sore neck.
Both of which Mom had, but both of which we attributed to her fall.
The doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing her medical issues because they never thought to look for pasteurella multocida. Why would they? After all, in the history of, well, history, Mom was only the ninth person recorded to have contracted meningitis from pasteurella multocida. So they pumped her full of even more antibiotics and hoped for the best.
Hope, as a medical treatment, stinks on ice.
Mom continued to get worse and the doctors continued to push for more and more intrusive tests and support measures. They wanted a nasogastric (NG) tube to pour nutrition straight into her stomach. They wanted a tube to pump air into her lungs.
Leslie and I leaned on each other and stood firm. No heroic measures. We followed Mom’s DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and hammered right back at the doctors. They insisted. We said no. They threatened. We said no. They threatened more. We went to get the hospital ombudsman, our patient representative. Then we went over the head of the ward doctors and took our case and the ombudsman to the chief of ICU.
He wouldn’t agree. At which point, I brought out my phone and began dialing the Orlando offices of Sharon Stedman, attorney at law, to discuss our case against the hospital and the chief of ICU in particular.
The shit weasel saw the wisdom of following a previously approved, legally obtained Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order. And I saw the wisdom of not phoning the attorney. Of course, I did phone the attorney as soon as I left the weasel den. After all, the attorney is my aunt, Mom’s sister, and had been demanding an update on Mom’s condition. Sharon is an attorney, though only works on appeals cases.
Eventually, though, we came to a crossroads. We wanted Mom in a rehabilitation hospital, away from the quacks who wanted to harm her in the name of helping her. Provided Mom could show she was on the mend, that she could swallow her own food, we were golden.
All we needed to get Mom into that rehab hospital was for her to swallow some Jell-O on her own. Just swallow it down. Tasty. Yummmmm.
Mom failed the swallow test. And failed again. And again.
More to come tomorrow. Until then, be good to yourselves.