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.
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.
That and the way they hold their obnoxiously gained food up between their paws, grasping it with their poorly developed thumbs, and nibble at it, taking one little bite at a time but very quickly. And despite those huge teeth.
They’ve got fur, of course. That comes along with the furry tail, that does. The presence of fur makes any animal just that much more cute in human eyes.
I mean, it’s not like anyone has ever gone out of his or her way to rescue a baby stink bug, just out of its egg and about to die. I stumble across stories of the deluded amongst us caring for little orphaned babies of this species all the time.
Does no one ever stop to think that the little baby is lying on the grass, twitching and drooling, because its mama finally realized just how disgusting it is, what a horror show of it will inflict on everyone, and how life-denying it is that it continues living, and simply pushed the furless post-fetus thing out of the nest?
That’s got to be considered, doesn’t it?
Apparently? No. No it does not.
Instead, all I ever hear is about how cute squirrels are and
what amazing little animals they are to watch.
Yes. That’s right.
I said squirrels. I told you that I had good reason to despise the horrifying rodents, even if they do have fluffy tails.
And, yes, the world would be far better off if every single mama squirrel pushed every single baby squirrel out of the nest, into the open air and laughed maniacally as it dropped, twitching, to the ground far below. Then, once that job was done, I believe, the best thing for those mama squirrels to do would be to die whilst taking out any nearby male squirrels in bloody, tooth-on-tooth, claw-on-claw, disemboweled belly to disemboweled belly combat to the painful, horrible death.
Yes. I did say every single syllable of that. And, by FSM, I meant it.
Sciurus carolinensis, the scientific name for the eastern gray squirrel, is, a blight on the civilization we’ve striven so hard to create in the city and suburb. Squirrels, just to be clear, are not cute.
At best, squirrels are pests responsible for damage to the wild and the civilized areas of the human ecosystem. At best.
The Worst? Keep Reading. You’ll See.
Here’s the thing. I am, at heart, an exceedingly green person. Not literally, of course. I believe nature is wonderful and would still be beautiful and amazing even if there were no parking lots to hold the human-driven automobiles that convey we hairless apes over long distances to observe it.
Humans surviving to hang around and see just how amazing nature really is. . . Well, that surely adds a major bonus. Without humans around to observe nature, we’d never have had such immortal poetry as “I THINK that I shall never see. A poem lovely as a tree,” by the inimitable Joyce Kilmer.
Nor would we have seen Barbara Walters skewered for almost asking, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” of American actress Katharine Hepburn. In reality, Hepburn told Walters that she would like to be a tree, to which Walters responded, “What kind of tree?” Hepburn told viewers she would like to be an oak because they are tall and strong.
Note that Hepburn did not say she would like to be an oak because they are tall and strong and shelter many, many horrible squirrels. In her long public life, she never mentioned squirrels at all.
Which, I think we can all agree, says something powerful about the reprehensible, unspeakable nature of squirrels. Even if she doesn’t.
Weighing in at between 14 and 21 ounces as an adult (maybe a pound and a half if Andre-the-Giant-sized for a squirrel), the eastern gray squirrel packs a potent destructive power in its pint-sized body.
Squirrels? Attack!! (You Know That Is Totally What They Would Say If They Could Speak Past Those Horrible Teeth)
Everyone knows the story the squirrel in your neighbor’s attic. The ferocious rodent will find a tiny hole in a home’s exterior and quickly set up camp in whatever attic space is available. The squirrel’s nasty habit of stripping trees of their bark to use in nests is in full force in this instance.
Once set up inside your house’s attic, that squirrel will begin stripping and digging at any exposed wooden surface. He wants to collect enough scraps and bits with which to create a nest, so he can invite his stinking sweetie in to settle down and produce the next generation of rodentia terrors.
In addition to tree bark, squirrels, like birds, will use any fluffy materials they can find to help pad the nest. Fluffy materials like. . . oh. . . maybe the insulation lining the ceiling of your home.
The stench of squirrel droppings and other biological detritus left behind by an active squirrel colony could stun a jackal at twenty-seven paces. Setting up a stinking breeding ground in your attic isn’t the invading squirrel’s worst offense. Squirrel-afflicted homeowners throughout the eastern United States and up into southern Canada must contend with squirrel-related hauntings!
Okay, fine. It’s not a real haunting, only the sound produced when squirrels run and dart across the attic, making unexplained noises any time of the day or night. Fortunately, unless they’re disturbed, the small rodents aren’t likely to be rushing around making ghost sounds at night, as that’s usually when they also are catching a few Z’s.
Not only have eastern gray squirrel populations in their home range continued increasing, Sciurus carolinensis also are spreading into the traditional range of the western gray squirrel and other squirrels on the western side of the American great plains. That is through their own mindless efforts.
Traitors In Our Midst
What’s worse is that humans, supposedly with the ability to form higher-order thoughts, have been helping the eastern gray squirrel achieve world squirrel domination.
Over the years, various people who have been suckered in by the squirrel’s supposed cuteness have managed to create enough of a population foothold that the eastern gray squirrel menace has leapt the ocean and is beginning to take overtrees throughout much of the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and parts of Europe.
Because of the eastern gray squirrel’s tendency to strip bark from trees, the species has been declared a hazard in Britain, as it has been outcompeting the indigenous red squirrel and taking over many formerly native ecological niches. In fact, the eastern gray squirrel is so destructive to property that it is ranked second only to the Norway rat in negative impact.
In fact, it’s easy to see that squirrels are softening up humans for their eventual mass attack with the rest of the vermin. See the map? It’s all about places where squirrels have damaged the national power grid. They’re planning, friends. They’re planning.
It’s easy to look at the squirrel nibbling away at an acorn and think it’s cute. But the eastern gray squirrel is a cold, hard killer. Naturalists’ surveys found that at least 10 percent of squirrel stomachs contained the remains of some sort of vertebrate animal. Squirrels have been observed stalking and attacking en-masse animals as diverse as a young chick or a silk mouse.
The squirrel is deceptively sized. When people hear that its head and body normally measure less than 12 inches, they assume it’s a cute little animal. But their great bushy tail clocks in at almost a squirrel body length, normally around 10 inches in length. It’s this bushy tail that afflicts many hairless apes with the cutes, causing humans to provide food and shelter to this natural-born killer.
Even without the help of deluded hairless apes, squirrels are well adapted to their lives in the tree limbs. They are amongst the only mammals able to climb down a tree head facing toward the ground. They can do this thanks to their freakish ability to rotate their back ankles 180 degrees, until the hind paws are facing backward and can grip the tree bark well enough to allow it to waltz down the tree.
Sadly, this twisted arrangement of limbs, combined with its poorly developed, yet still useful, thumb, allow the eastern gray squirrel harm other, more productive, species in backyards all across the squirrel’s range. Many songbirds, Nature’s present to a grateful humanity, are imperiled by squirrels even beyond watching these furry monsters stalk and eat newly hatched chicks.
That’s Right! It Gets Worse Than Squirrels Being Carnivorous Killers!
As should we all, I’ve long been leaving out copious amounts of birdseed to attract and help songbirds. This free feeding trough allows birds to worry less about finding enough food to feed themselves and more time to concentrate on getting busy and producing another generation of the ruby-throated warbler. Or similar.
Which leads to the problem. Squirrels, not content with attacking and killing whatever smaller vertebrate that happens across their paths, also love a good seed. Or just about anything we set out for songbirds.
The thieves. Even worse, they’ll lie and cheat to keep those seeds and nuts. Squirrels are scatter hoarders. That is, they steal a lot of food that should be going to the beautiful songbirds, then bury the food in different places around their environment. If a squirrel feels it’s being watched, it will pretend to bury the food, then scurry away with it to bury it in a more secure location.
Squirrels also will hide behind vegetation or tree limbs when hiding the stolen booty. This implies an ability to think and reason beyond what you might have considered for the smallish horror.
Yes, They Know.
They know what the food they’re stealing should be going for. They know they’re taking seed from the mouths of young songbirds yet to hatch.
They know they are eating high-quality, high-cost, elite bird food purchased at great expense in a speciality store. They know and are laughing at me when they empty out a just-filled feeder in mere minutes, making fools of the supposedly squirrel-proof enclosure.
Oh, yes. They know.
But now, so do you.
Now you also understand the need, nay, the necessity to deny these ferocious predators any sort of foothold in our ecosystem.
So boycott any store selling “squirrel corn” as a health hazard. Carry signs identifying squirrels as the ecological disaster in waiting that they are.
Join me in the fight to eradicate the squirrel. It serves no good purpose. It isn’t cute. And it’s really starting to tick me off by eating the expensive bird food I just purchased. And they’re laughing when they do it.
Answer The Call
Not all nature is pretty. Sometimes, a nature essay is a call to action. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s a call to extinction.
This is one such call.
I like dogs. I’m sure you like dogs also. And I think we can both agree that they’re pretty darn smart, dogs. Like Dug here. He’s smart. What does Dug the Dog think about squirrels?
At one time, I suppose, squirrels might have served a valid point in the ecosystem. But the rise of the hairless ape has allowed the squirrel to ride our coattails, giving the rodents a hand up they don’t deserve. It’s gone too far. It’s out of balance and tilted to the destructive side of things far too much.
It’s up to you, the no-longer-deluded, to redress that balance. It is up to you to answer the call.
I believe the phrase was something along the lines of, “AAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!” Or words to that effect.
In any case, I said something completely appropriate and totally not twelve-year-old-girl-
seeing-Nick-Jonas-In-Her-Living-Roomish at all. No. It was all manly. Completely manly.
In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t have to shave my tongue after that sort of verbal outburst.
My dialogue was so manly*, I thought my tongue would grow a beard? Shave my tongue? Never mind. Moving on.
Anyway, I’d like to see you remember clearly what — exactly — you said when you came suddenly nose to flicking, forked tongue with what could be (but wasn’t [not even close]) the most deadly snake in existence.
It Could Have Been Deadly, Not Merely A Common Rat Snake.
A snake, I might add, that I’d only recently discovered in the upstairs Creature Cave (the family room we ceded to the three creatures who are the spawn of our loins), thanks to a similarly manly shout from my middle son.
With the sort of alacrity and fast thinking that landed me in an Emergency Room a decade before during the incident (forever known in family lore as, “That Time Rick Was Even Dumber Than Normal. And A Snake.) that marked my last extended interaction with a snake, I’d used a six-boot bamboo pole (kept for just such an emergency), a laundry basket and a towel to snatch the snake from the carpet and transfer it outside.
What I’d not realized in my haste to save my 21-year-old son from what could be (but wasn’t [why do I have to keep repeating this? Does he think anyone really believes he was up against a seven-step viper?]) the deadliest snake in the world, was that most laundry baskets (very much including this one) come equipped with numerous holes in them.
Holes which, despite the top of the laundry basket being covered with a large towel preventing the snake from egressing that way, provide an excellent egress for a narrow snake used to wriggling through tight spaces. This must have been like a human “trying” to walk across a football endzone without going out of bounds.
And So The Story Moves Forward. Finally.
To a human such as me, (don’t say it. Don’t say it.) it would be easy to overlook such tiny holes in the laundry basket. Not so the snake. I came nose to tongue (my nose, its tongue) with the slithering sibilant, screamed my manly scream and then acted.
Essentially, I teleported down the stairway by virtue of turning, trying to run, realizing my feet hadn’t magically transformed into rocket boots, tripping over my left shoe, stumbling forward, missing the first step and heading down out of control, and barely careening to a standstill next to the door leading to our back deck thanks to some deft maneuvering, clean living, strong muscles, and slamming chest first into a very large chair that I placed there with foresight some seven years previously.
Somehow, my son, known to many as Zippy the College Graduate Boy, arrived at the door nearly at the same time as did the snake, the laundry basket and my bruised self. Zippy the College Graduate Boy opened the door and leaned in close to the snake. Apparently, he’d gotten over his initial startle and was back to being the boy most likely to try and pet a scorpion because, “It’s cute. Look at the widdle stinger tail. Awwwwww.”
I deftly maneuvered past him (read stumbled to the left, bounced off the door jamb and out onto the deck) and set the laundry basket gently onto the deck (from a height of about four feet because I was not hanging onto that thing any longer than I had to). Once the basket stopped bouncing around, the snake calmly slithered the rest of the way free and looked around at the deck.
It then began slithering straight toward the still open door. Zippy the College Graduate Boy closed the door and used his sandal-clad feet to shoo the snake away.
No, thank you for asking, it wasn’t a heart attack. The doctors later said it was only a mild panic reaction from watching my son thrust a naked foot close to what could hav– close to a snake. (See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?) [I hate you.] My son had brought along the six-foot bamboo pole and handed it to me with the solemnity of a samurai receiving his sword.
Snake Versus Stick. . . To The Irritated
I shooed the snake away from the door. At which point, it turned around and began slithering straight toward the bird’s nest and the little birdie eggs nestled inside. Yes, my deck is a bit of a wildlife sanctuary at the moment. Momma bird built her nest in a couple of storage bins I’d not cleaned up. I thought it was cute so left the nest there.
The snake must have sniffed the eggs and thought it was lunch time. It was not.
I kept poking and prodding at the snake and, rather than guide it gently to the side of the deck and off, managed to really tick it off. Which, of course, was when I decided to take a selfie with the snake.
Look. I just. . . There was. . . I. . .
I mean, come on! Selfies are a thing now. I had to do it. I was thinking of you, friends. I did it for you. Surely you’re buying that. No? Well, screw it. Just look at the darn selfie with snake.
Eventually, I managed to get the snake near enough the edge that it became even more ticked off, reared back and began striking at anything within reach. Fortunately, it was not longer than my bamboo stick. I continued to poke and prod until the snake darted away. . . and into the woodpile we keep outside for the fireplace.
So it is, sadly, still nearby. Still out there. But now it knows my strengths, my preferred methods of containment. It knows all this and . . . it is planning. Even worse, I’m almost positive I saw it talking to a squirrel.
You know nothing good can come of that.
For more on men behaving manly in a manly manner, see the post coming next week on “Manly Men Doing Manly Things In A Manly Manner.” No, really.
As these things go, screaming in the high end of falsetto while babbling incoherently and getting my nose licked by what is possibly the most deadly snake in existence* seems a pretty good place to leave off our narrative.
In the writing biz, it’s what we call a cliffhanger. So called because, back in the days when entertainment was serial, writers would often get to a point where the protagonist was in an impossible situation. One where you knew — just knew — there was no escape. And then end that installment right there.
If they’d done their job right (and, often, they really, really did), the viewers/readers would be desperate to know what happened next. It’s one of the better surefire tricks to bringing back an audience. Provided it’s done well.
Again, in the early days, this resulted with a protagonist or his trusty Gal Friday, or his feisty Love Interest, or his beautiful Damsel in Distress (are you sensing a pattern here?) actually hanging from an actual cliff. Or stick. See above.
Any Sort Of Delay Can Count As A Cliffhanger
When the next installment opened, the first thing to do was solve the cliffhanger and then move on with the story. Sometimes, though, the next installment would open and it would be torture because the emphasis would have shifted somewhere else, leaving people in suspense about what happened next.
That technique is called burying the lead. Of which, for those of you paying any sort of attention to these posts, you can see an example right here.
I do this to make an important point. Not simply because I’m an inconsiderate bastard who delights in pulling the wings of flies. I mean, I am, but that’s not why I’m doing this right here. It’s just I thought it was about time you and I touched base and talked a bit about craft.
You’ll notice that, in all the bits, pieces and full stories I’ve posted so far, there always has been at least a few moments during which you’ve at least cracked a smile. Or maybe paused for a grin. Or something.
My stories tend to have a bit of humor in them despite my best efforts. (Even pieces I’ve written about surviving a heart attack and another about watching my mother die have funny moments in them.)
I do this for a number of reasons. Many of which I will elucidate below in handy, bulleted form.
Look! I’m Using Bullets
To point out that, you can have the best blog post ever, but if you don’t bring in more readers, you’re going to be discouraged and quit
So I could use that picture of the lizard holding up the other lizard, saving his buddy from almost certain doom. I really needed to use that picture.
Because this is a blog supposedly about learning how to write memoirs, not only as an outlet for memoirs that I am going to write
And, finally, because I wanted to point out just who we’re laughing at in these last few posts.
See, we all like to laugh at someone else. When someone falls down, or gets hit in the head by a ladder while their friend is turning around, that’s slapstick. That’s funny. (That’s debatable, as not everyone likes The Three Stooges) As comedian/writer/director/author Mel Brooks put it:
Yes, that man is a genius. He also explains why so many memoirs or personal essays that have comedy in them tend to be about the author and also tend to have most of the jokes being played do so at the expense of the author.
We like to laugh at someone else, but (and this is important) then we often will start to feel guilty. We’ll especially start to have bad feelings about the person who’s doing most of the pointing and laughing. To wit: the author.
However, when you’re pointing and laughing at yourself. . . Well, that gives permission to people for them to laugh at you also. And that’s good. We want people to laugh at the things we write that are funny. And, since most of my things tend to be (my attempts at being) funny, that is a good thing.
It also makes my life a lot easier because I do a lot of stupid stuff that makes people laugh at me when I tell them. Funny how that works out, yes? Different kind of funny that.
The Big Finish
So. Now that we’ve got that out of the way. . . Let’s get on with the story.
Where were we? Right. . . The sna–
Oh! I see by the big clock on the wall that we’re out of space.*!*
Until next time, friends. . . Take care of yourselves.
*but probably isn’t.**
** Okay, it definitely isn’t. In fact, as it turns out, the snake’s not even venomous. The above sentence (way above) is an example of what some people call my marked tendency toward exaggeration.***
***By others I’m called a liar, a damn liar and a statistic. That was my only math joke.
*!* Oh, like you didn’t see this one coming from a mile away.