The Things I’ll Never Get To Say…

I just sat on the front porch of my brother’s apartment listening to the white noise buzzing and chirps of insects and birds as life just kind of stood still. It’s been about two hours since I was informed that my dad, Allen Ward, had passed due to complications from a major surgery on his heart to replace his aortic valve and perform a triple bypass caused in part by his chronic problem with rheumatoid arthritis. I went out yesterday to celebrate my birthday while the surgery was being performed and clung to my phone waiting for texts from my uncles to give me the news on what was going on. Around 3 o’ clock, I got a text that they were closing him up and sending him to recover in the CCU of Memorial Hospital in Savannah, GA. I went to bed happy, figuring I’d hear from him or someone from our extended family again this morning that he was on the mend. What I got instead was another type of phone call entirely. I’m still sorting out the details of what exactly happened, and I don’t plan on going into them here, suffice to say, all of this comes as a complete shock to my brother and I. I know when I picked up the phone this morning to answer my uncle’s call and Alex saw the look that came across my face of what had happened, he felt it too. Right now, I’m just numb and I haven’t even begun to get into the real grief yet. It’s coming though, that much I’m sure of, but I would like to hold it together a little bit longer, in the interest of taking care of the remaining business of such an utterly brutal day.

There were two versions of Allen Ward I met in the span of my life. The loving dad who raised my brother and I in the opening years of our lives, and in the period between his divorce from our mom and subsequent decade of little to no contact with us, there was the man who came back. Perhaps part of my perception of him in the early years and the stark difference in the man I knew ever since is due in part to my being so young and the different outlooks on life that can come with youth, or maybe our dad really did change into someone else over that time period.

The previous statement may come off as somewhat harsh, and I’m not here to bash him by any means. My father had demons that he needed to fight on his own, and when he left our family altogether, he gave up all custody without a fight and just went away. Because of that, I spent a lot of my youth being intensely angry and having a lot of the confusion that comes as part of the stock of having a parent just fuck off one day from your life one day and not tell you why. In hindsight, I know now that my dad left and didn’t come back because of the demons he wrestled relating to alcoholism. In his own way,  he left and didn’t put up a fight because he figured we would be better off not having to see him in such a state. It’s not the way any parent should go about something like this, it’s surely not the way I would go with any child of mine, but at the end of the day, I understand what he believed he was doing. I think my brother and I were better off not having to watch him implode in those years, and in a weird way, I’ve become somewhat grateful for his decision to leave.

Ten years later I met the man who came back. Altogether different from the person I remembered from my early life, and someone who clearly had traveled a rough road and while he may not have conquered it, had gotten himself back to a place of control over the problems that had consumed him over those years he was gone. When he came back, he was ready to be part of the family again in whatever way we chose to allow. My brother was younger when he left, so he didn’t remember much about dad. In the beginning of his return and pretty much ever since, Alex had less trouble reconciling the man who came back, because I think his recollections of the one who left were few and far between. For myself, it was another story. I spent a lot of time emotionally stonewalling my dad in those early days. I let him in on occasion and we slowly got a bit more comfortable with one another and around the time I graduated high school, we were on better terms. We went on fishing trips together and briefly ran a rock-climbing wall at a mall in our old home town of Macon, Georgia. The time that passed, my father and I got to build a different kind of bond together. To me, it didn’t often feel like father and son, so much as younger guy and older drinking buddy who enjoyed filthy jokes and ogling women with you. That was what our relationship became for the majority of his returned period. He spent his time driving semi-trucks cross country and calling or texting us dirty jokes he’d heard on the XM Satellite Comedy channels. He would stop into town on some occasions when his truck route passed him through and we would meet him for dinner or go see a movie or ride go-karts in what little time we had off. There was definitely still a bit of “dad” in there at times. While our conversations rarely got serious in nature before deviating back to toilet humor and whether one of us had seen the latest episode of South Park, there was always an apologetic sweetness to Allen. It was very clear to me from the beginning that he wanted to be back in the good graces of his sons and was willing to do whatever it took to get there.

Allen was sweet and liked having fun although he kind of relished in being a needling annoyance and have a lot of fun doing it when he knew he was grinding on your nerves just right. Over the years, I’ve noticed the same sort of tendencies in myself when it comes to certain social interactions. If I really like you, I’m going to give you shit sometimes in only the most loving ways possible. You might get aggravated, but I’m going to make it as clear as I can that it’s not coming from a place of any sort of animosity. Sometimes, it can go a little too far and hurt some feelings, in which case, I’ll quickly be the first person to spring into an apology. My dad, it turns out, was very much the same way. As I spent the years of my late teens and twenties getting to know him all over again, it turned out I had inherited a lot of personality traits from him that I had figured were just things I’d picked up from some unknown origin.

He had a knack for trying to call at the worst possible times in the day, (when I’m at work, when I’m taking a test, when I’m on a date, when I’m in the middle of personal life drama, etc.) and frequently, my time in getting back to him wasn’t always prompt. If I’m being totally honest right now, I’m feeling like a downright asshole about that. I have two unchecked voicemails sitting on my phone from days ago that I know are from him, that I just haven’t had the heart or stomach to listen to yet. If I could tell him I was sorry for that, I would, because I’m sure he might have thought that deep down it was a symptom of me not liking him when that couldn’t have been more untrue.

And now, I sit here, wishing I could go back and tell him that I’d forgiven him a long time ago. I don’t know if I ever said the words to him out loud. Our the communications of our relationship had long ago become a series phone tag calls where when we would get a hold of one another, a “how have you been?” conversation would ensue, punctuated by a series of dirty jokes, and innuendos. Some of our conversations involved a lot of over-sharing at times. Things that sons and fathers with normal relationships never talk about. A great example, last year, my dad and I got into a conversation about my current research work on a writing project about the methamphetamine trade. Dad proceeded to tell me about the really shitty time he’d had the one time he had tried meth during his “dark period”. It’s shocking to hear a father figure telling you about something with such a sense of brutal honesty, and at the time, I was pretty taken aback by what I was hearing, but in the end, I realized that in Dad’s weird way, he was trying to take part in what I was doing and encourage me in my career. It took him years before he got onboard with my being a writer, and the very second I held a first copy of Love Buzz in my hands back in 2009, he finally saw that I might not be chasing something so pointless or foolish after all. From there on, he was onboard with it in his own way.

It took me years to realize how alike my Dad and I were in ways I hadn’t seen before when he was gone. People want to know where I get my foul mouth and borderline deviant sense of humor, that’d be from my old man. I’ve worn it proudly and mostly unapologetically ever since, and now I plan on wearing it twice as As complex and fractured of a relationship as we had, I always loved him, and more recently we’d gotten back into the habit of saying it more frequently. We were back on our way to a more normal sense of relationship to what we were used to.

People might feel like this is all a case of that aforementioned over-sharing, but… That’s just the Ward in my blood. I may be known by a different name for years since and for years moving forward, but blood doesn’t change with a name. If I had a moment to tell my dad what I truly needed to tell him again, I would tell him every word of this and end it by saying “I love you.”

I’m going to miss you Dad.

My only hope that on some level, you knew that.

Birthday Boy

A birthday for me has taken on a few extra layers of context for the majority of my life. The special twist of appropriate fate that the day my life kicked off its second shot would from then on, forever be shared with the same day as my first. You could refer to this as something of a rebirth, but aside from the underlying hokey religious connotations, that would just come off as corny.

It was 24 years ago today when I woke up in the Mayo Clinic Intensive Care unit on the day of my seventh birthday, September 5th, 1990. I recall regaining consciousness in the dark, the only light in the room was the green glow and eerily accompanying beep emitting from of the heart monitor to my side, and a little bit of light slipping in from under the door outside the room. I’m sure this combined with waking up alone in this crazy place would’ve terrified the living hell out of me of I weren’t on a slew of drugs at that point, but as I remember it, (probably one of my most vivid memories of my young life to this day) all I was was tired, a little confused, and felt too weak to speak or call out to anyone. In all likelihood, the idea of waking up at seven years old, in the dark, surrounded by creepy, Frankenstein machinery with tubes coming out of you would probably be traumatic, but my brain didn’t seem to be conscious enough to form anything close to that thought. All I recall doing was lying in bed watching the green glow of the monitors and let the repetitive beeps and clicks of the machinery lull me back to sleep.

When morning came and someone realized I was awake, my grandmother and parents were brought in for a little reunion. While my father had been called away for his day job, my mom and grandmother had stuck around and been in and out of the hospital on every iteration of visiting hours in the days where I had been sleeping it off in a medicated coma. My grandparents on my dad’s side, who in their early days of retirement, had taken to traveling the country in an RV and drove all the way down from Alaska to visit for a couple of days. I think the combination of being over 20 years removed from the experience and being doped out of my gourd can account for most of why I don’t remember much beyond this.

In this time period, I had apparently begun to accumulate a large collection of awesome gifts from random people. Everything from video games for my old, faithful Nintendo Entertainment Set to stacks of comics, toys, and other random knick knacks. I’ve only gotten to thank some of them over the years and others my family and I are unsure of their identities to this day. Someone was nice enough to send me one of those NES Advantage Joysticks, which provided me with hours of extra fun as I trained myself to play Super Mario Bros. with my feet.

My mom wrote letters and started calling around to various places that she knew I liked and told my story in the interest of possibly getting free shwag. The good thing about the “sick kid” card is that it usually works. DC Comics sent us a free pair of first print editions of their DC Archive Edition hardcovers of the first Superman adventures by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster and the first Batman adventures by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. As far as things from my childhood go, those two books might be the only things I still own that haven’t been torn apart or awkwardly manhandled into dust. The cool thing about those DC Archive editions are that they still print them now. Walk into a random comic shop today and you’ll see volumes upon volumes of these old tomes collecting the earliest adventures of every DC character from Adam Strange to Wonder Woman, and the cover designs have remained uniform to those first editions up to today. Holding those books in young hands almost felt like holding a piece of history akin to the original US Constitution or the Bill Of Rights.

Better still, the now defunct New Line Studios production company who at the time held the license of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which at the time, had generated the popular cartoon, the blockbuster movie, and was just generally continuing to tear young minds asunder with awesomeness offered to send out a person in a Ninja Turtle costume to visit me in the hospital. The idea was quickly overruled, as mind blowing as it would’ve been, in the interest of not overstimulating my healing ticker too early in the process. Instead, they elected to try and get us the next best thing. Within the next week, we received via mail, a TMNT coloring and activity book, signed by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird (AKA: the two dudes who created the Ninja Turtles) themselves. This piece of memorabilia has since been colored in to death and any sense of collectible value gone long ago, but I’ve never really been one of those types who was incredibly anal about his comics. If you’re not gonna have fun with something, what’s the point?

Not many people get a significant extension on their life-span for their birthday, but at 7 years old, I wasn’t expected to live into my double digits. I’ve jokingly begun referring to my life past my seventh birthday as my “borrowed time”, which slowly keeps ticking upward for over twenty years and counting. I’m thankful for the mountains moved by my parents and doctors that have gotten me to the point I am today. Thanks to them, I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving in the best shape of my life with a career doing what I love that’s just beginning to truly succeed. I couldn’t ask for more on any birthday (Although, if you really want to get me something, here’s my Amazon Wishlist. 😉 ). You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve called or run into in the process of trying to research for this blog or for The Zipper Club who are flat out shocked that I’m alive now at 31 years old and counting. It’s gotten to the point where I kinda get off on defying expectations.

Lessons Learned In Young Love

Nyckole Hannoonah would have turned 30 today.

A little journey back into my past love life which fans of my first book, Love Buzz might find somewhat familiar. In a time just after high school, when I had moved off to Atlanta, Georgia in the interest of furthering my education, I met Nycki and fell hard for her. We were young, broke college kids, just naive enough to think that the love we felt in that short period of time we’d known each other was some sort of sign that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives together.

Like most relationships of this nature are want to do when we’re young and “just figuring it out”, the life plans I’d made with Nycki never got around to taking off. I touched upon my relationship with Nycki in a short portion of Love Buzz, in which our protagonist, (and not so subtle “me” analog) Norm Raymer, in between one of his break up/make up cycles with Maggie Gunther, found himself in a romantic interlude with a young girl named Gwen Watson (Way lame Spider-Man reference!) that lasted for about two of the book’s sixteen chapters. Like the rest of the story of Norm and Maggie, the story of Norm and Gwen is equal parts fact and fiction. Where those differences lie though, is for you to wonder, dear reader. Whenever anyone asks me questions about the fact and the fiction behind Love Buzz, I prefer to lean to the age old writerly cop-out of “letting the work speak for itself”.

Suffice to say, to those who’ve read the book and seen how Norm’s relationship with Gwen ended, the relationship between Nycki and myself ended in very much the same manner. The story of Love Buzz being the story of Norm and Maggie though, meant that the story between Norm and Gwen, and by extension, myself and Nycki got sold short in the interest of concise storytelling. The story of Nycki and I didn’t actually end with our parting of ways. It actually became an opening to one of the darker chapters in my young adulthood. All of this was something I had been saving with intentions over the years since her passing to turn into a book of it’s own. As of now, I’ve kind of lost the motivation and the stomach to finish the project, but it sits on my hard drive in a series of files in a folder marked “The Grieving Process”. Perhaps one day, I’ll get the nerve back to tackle it but as time has passed and different projects have come up, I’ve not had the stomach to begin dredging up all of those old feelings.

I spent six months after crashing and burning my educational career in Atlanta and incurring student loan debt on an unfulfilled degree biting back on anger and resentment at Nycki that sat in the pit of my guts like a cancer.  Six months of cursing and brooding and listening to the most godawful depressing music I could find. The same period of time that our relationship lasted. Then I got an email that made things all worse. One night in 2003, a cousin of Nycki’s who I had briefly met in the time I spent with her had written to dump all of the following information on me in under three hundred words. 1) Nycki had gotten married to another guy. 2) she had since been in and out of the hospital due to the an amplified intensity in same headaches that she would frequently get when we were together, and 3) two months previous, according to the cousin, one of Nycki’s frequent headaches had somehow caused her brain to swell to the point that it pushed into her brain stem and killed her.

After a brief exchange of emails, i got her cousin’s phone number and we had a long talk over the phone over everything that had gone down for the sake of my own sense of clarity. The cousin went out of her way to track down my contact information because, as she said just before we hung up, she “thought I would want to know, because you were really good to her.”

I let those last words ring in my ears as I hung up the phone and began to process all of what had happened. This girl I intended on marrying had, in a short time since we broke up, married someone else and then died shortly thereafter. Furthermore, all that rage I had held onto over our relationship’s end had been something which, in my mind, was something I was holding in strategically, for whenever she might decide to try and contact me again, so that when I eventually plucked up the nerve to pick up the phone and tell her every inch of how I felt, it would be in such a righteous manner that it would solve all my problems from there on out.

Now I knew that phone call was never going to come and I had left every bit of that anger sit in waiting for nothing. With Nycki gone, I now had no place to direct those feelings other than inward. These unresolved feelings just retreated to a deeper part of me where I held onto them and for a while, became a truly reckless person who did some regrettable things that I’m not proud of.

But while there may be mysterious quantities of bullshit to sift through, I will say that the essence of Gwen was Nycki all over, from her style of dressing to her dirty mouth. The one thing I’ve always liked most in a woman has been a similarly horrible sense of humor to my own. Nycki had that in spades. That girl could make me laugh on some of my worst days living in Georgia.

I learned of Nycki’s passing six months after the fact, just around the same time that Love Buzz was starting to gel inside my head. Because of this, I decided that despite my inclination to not dictate to my artists how each character should look, beyond a couple of broad strokes, the character of Gwen should resemble Nycki’s own personal look as closely as possible. As mixed up as my feelings for her were, I wanted at least for this small section of the book to pay some kind of tribute to her.  This meant that several different incarnations were drawn of her as the book changed artists a couple of times, but each one nailed her likeness.

Her old Angelfire site still exists as something of a somber digital graveyard rittled with pop-up ads and , which I’ll go searching for about once a year just to see if it’s inevitably disappeared into the electronic void from never being touched or maintained. I’m sure it will probably happen one of these days.

Nycki taught me a lot about romance and relationships in our brief time together. I held onto the regret of never getting to say goodbye to her, or never getting to truly speak my mind against how things ultimately went down with us. The thing she taught me most of all was the importance of closure for the sake of your own sanity. Years and miles have passed since this time period and I’ve been out the other end of that dark period for quite some time. I’ve had other relationships come and go. The good ones and the bad ones, none of them ever really completely leaves us, and the majority of the time, we come out better for it and the little piece of them that we carry around with us as we move forward and they all leave us with their fair share of baggage to carry on after they end, whether we choose to deal with it quickly or carry it around for long after it’s done. When relationships end, be they through the gradual deterioration of a couple growing distant after years and years together or the naivety of two stupid kids running on an equal mix of hormones and impulse before burning out quickly, I can look back at many of the people I’ve known in the past whose behaviors and motivations are clearly guided by the thick callous that can grow over our emotional selves in effort to as a form of self-defense over falling into the same traps again. It would be easy for me to write out every angry thing I ever wanted to say to Nycki but didn’t get the chance to here and now, but I honestly I forgave all of that crap a long time ago.

So, for her birthday, I’ve chosen to reflect on the good parts of our brief experiences passing through one another’s lives. Instead of remembering her as the first girl who really squashed me flat, I’m choosing to remember the girl who was impulsive enough that she proposed to me with a cheap little fashion ring that couldn’t have cost more than a twenty bucks, and me, the guy who accepted without a second thought and promised to get her a real one the second my broke ass could afford it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 whole years.

Happy birthday, Nycki.

T’was The Night Before Major Invasive Surgery…

The ages of 0 to around 6 years old, I have very little recollection of. The time my memory really kicked in and I consider my life to have truly “begun” oddly enough happened at the time when it was looking very likely that it was closer to it’s end. When the time finally came for my second surgery, my parents were, needless to say, on pins and needles. One of my first vivid memories was of the days that lead up to my surgery in Rochester Minnesota at the world renowned Mayo Clinic. We showed up a few days early to see some of the sights in the area and hopefully do a few things to lighten the mood and have some fun before the inevitable came up. The stress was compounded by the fact that my dad was unable to come with us when we first went to Minnesota because of work, so our trip consisted of myself, my Mom, and my Grandmother. Our stay was taken care of by the local Ronald McDonald House, (which means I will refrain from any McDonald’s bashing for this particular post as a sign of good will.)  consisted of all the “fun” my mom could cram into the time period before we hit the zero hour and I would go back under the knife for the first time in nearly seven years.

It was a couple  of weeks before my seventh birthday and by the time my birthday was going to hit, I would have, in the best case scenario, been laid up in a bed on an entire slew of drugs. We spent our time going from activity to activity which I’m sure must have cost them a fortune. A trip to the Minnesota Zoo, which I honestly don’t remember a damn bit of, no matter how hard I try.

The night before my surgery, and one of the most fun experiences of my early life that I remember to this day was spending several hours in a local arcade playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game with my mom.

We died.

We died a lot.

All said and done, my mom stuck it out like a trooper and kept us in quarters until we beat every level of that game from beginning to end. By the end of that couple of hours, we had ended up pumping about fifteen bucks into that machine together, which, in the days where playing a game on an arcade machine only cost a single quarter meant we died at least sixty times before we were done.

I had a lot of fear looming over my little head as the days before my surgery edged closer. It became a point of dread for me, even though I remained blissfully ignorant to how much was truly at stake once they put me to sleep. I was just worried it would hurt. I was worried I might wake up in the middle of it and panic when I saw my chest laid open like Freddy Kruger had gotten a hold of me. I worried about what the scars would look like. Practically every exaggerated, childish nightmare scenario that could have sprung from something like this came into my head at the time.

For that night though, all those bad thoughts just sort of went away without acknowledgement. All I remember from the days leading up to my long hospital stay were happy ones, spent with my parents, doing fun things and feeling extremely loved. The fact that my parent’s marriage was in the final stages of unraveling and the sense of fear that they clearly must have had about what was going to happen to me remained completely undetected in my eyes. My mom and dad had extremely good poker faces and the fact that they were able to keep me so positive more than likely had a lot to do with how I recovered later on.

If I ever have a child with a health problem like my own, I only hope that I’m able to do the same for them that Betsy and Allen did for me. I can only imagine the horrible thoughts that were coursing through their heads.

Up To Speed

Life happens.

As I had promised myself I wouldn’t, I fell off the blogging wagon over the course of the last couple weeks. It sucks, but it’s been unavoidable, as I’ve had to devote more time to press and production on the first Zipper Club book, which should be off to the printers in October and in my hands, ready for shipping come mid to late November. Add to this working odd freelance jobs to pay the bills and finishing the continued slog to finish getting my degree at the end of the year, and well…

Things got busy.

That said, I have been working on several new entries over the course of this time and have gotten to pick at them bit by bit whenever I’ve gotten a free minute to take a breath or scratch my butt, and I aim to get started again, posting 3 to 4 times a week for the foreseeable future now that I’ve gotten myself to be relatively on top of all my craziness.  To further smooth things over, here’s a couple screenshots from my progressing work on the Zipper Club coloring job!

1000575_10100541201826107_227399002_n

527047_10100531259335937_673067424_nZipcolprev

Thanks as always, folks!

Behind The Zipper Club – Crafting A Symbol

I realize I’ve been a little more lax on my posts this week, but I’ve been working very hard on research and straightening out information for all of the posts I’ll be throwing up in the coming week as I dive into the events surrounding my second cardiac surgery. The one that turned my life around and has kept me going ever since. Today, after a couple days of conversation with my Zipper Club collaborator, Brenda López, I wanted to share a little something cool we’ve been cooking up on the road to getting the book into everyone’s hands by October/November.

A comic called The Zipper Club has gotten me a fair share of confused looks and cock-eyed stares when I mentioned the fact that it was for kids. People hear a term like “Zipper Club” and apparently their minds go immediately to images of BDSM and squeezing into leather gimp suits. When I tell them the book is for kids, I’ve gotten a couple of audible gasps and menacing glares. With my sense of humor and some of the awful directions in which it leans, initially, I guess that’s a fair judgement for those who know me, (My previous blog entry’s illustration had a pretty horrible gag playing off of a classic Jim Steranko illustrated Incredible Hulk cover, fergodsakes) but some of the clearly judgmental reactions I’ve gotten on occasion have hit me like a punch in the gut.

So, in the interests of keeping the weirdo crowd AND the uptight crowd from getting in an uproar, I figured we would need a plain and simple little piece of iconography to go right there on the cover of our book that will sell people on the title and the good and wholesome messages that Brenda and I are trying our best to convey. The icon idea came to me a lot easier than the cover image did when Brenda and I were knocking our heads together, trying to come up with just the right thing.

It came to me one sleepless night while lying awake in bed. So, I drew it out in a way that only A Badly Drawn Boy could do and came up with this…

That’s the idea, plain and simple. I’ve seen a couple different motifs on the “Zipper Heart” in the last little while, but every one of them I’ve seen so far was the romantic, “Valentine” version of the heart, which is all well, good, and cute, but this book is about the human heart, the strongest muscle in the human body. The point that we want to put across with The Zipper Club is about finding strength, no matter how weak or inferior we feel. To me, that cutesy little of fluff image just didn’t seem to cut the mustard for what we sorely needed.

After finishing the piece, and in the interest of uniformity, and because Brenda is clearly the owner of the more skilled set of hands in our dynamic duo, I passed my design idea onto her, to get her take on it and this was her initial response, nailing it right on the first try.

And for good measure, she shot me a colored version as well…

The colors came out great as well, but we got to thinking that maybe it would look better in a more naturalistic set of tones with a bit more variety to the colors and shades. With that in mind, Brenda’s second attempt knocked it out of the park!

I’m so in love with what Brenda did here, that we’re looking into the idea of putting together Zipper Club related merchandise centered around the design. We’ll start small with t-shirts, but I’m thinking it would be pretty cool to come up with Zipper Heart shaped backpacks and purses and so forth. (That’ll be a ways away, unless some kind soul wants to hit the “Donate” button over there and give us a little cash injection. 😉 ) I’m even thinking very strongly about getting a slightly altered version tattooed under my left collarbone in the not-too-distant. (Sorry, mom.)

Hope you guys dig this little peek into our ongoing artistic process. Brenda and I are having an absolute blast bringing this book around the bend towards home plate. We hope everyone who has and will order a copy will enjoy it as much, and ultimately “get” what we’re trying to say with The Zipper Club. I’m already in the process of writing next year’s annual which will pay off a number of the things that we’re setting up in year one.

The Weight Of A Story

The process of researching my past that’s gone into The Long Odds has provided me a measure of catharsis. In the last month, I’ve spent time researching the whereabouts of my own grave, contacting the doctor who first diagnosed my heart defect (who thought I might have died years ago) , and getting all sorts of emails from old friends I hadn’t heard from in years when that Courier Journal article hit. It’s come to put into perspective the weight of my personal story, which is something I’ve been telling so often over the last 26 years of my life that the story had just become words to me. Something that I would tell people who were just getting to know me, or telling to government officials that I might be talking to on behalf of the American Heart Association. You know how a powerful word or set of words can lose it’s meaning upon too many repetitions?  That’s how my story had begun to feel to me, and for a guy who’s been working to become a career storyteller, that’s not the best thing in the world. The experience of writing all of it out has begun to bring back the power and gravity of everything that I’ve always known, but I guess, somewhat forgotten.

I started learning the importance and the weight that a story can hold at the age of four years old, when my mother, who was desperate to find some way to save my young life and only had a matter of years to do so, began working for the AHA as a volunteer and advocate. She used to be a very nervous public speaker until she began getting out there on the stump on my behalf.  Slowly, after a number of times with telling my story to crowds of people through a stream of tears, she became more confident in the story she told and the power of what she’d had to say. Not long after that, with my mom’s permission, began using me as their poster child for CHD research. I thought it was pretty cool, even if I only had a limited understanding of what exactly was going on.

Now that I’m spending time in my old hometown for a little while, I went to our storage locker a few blocks away from my brother’s apartment to go through some of my old things and see if I could find any old things that could be used to enrich what I’m doing here and I found a whole box full of old AHA campaign fliers from over 20 years ago which centered on my mom and myself. I brought a couple home and scanned them to share here.

What was interesting about finding a huge box full of these cards and fliers was how four year old me, in the world full of medical uncertainty I was born into, and then to see it juxtaposed against the image and words of this flier from four years later…

(The learning to ride a bicycle part? Never really took to that. Still can’t stay balanced on one of those damn things, no matter how I try.)

My time with AHA has continued and increased in the time since both of these pieces were printed. After spending my years growing up letting my mom tell her version of our story and ultimately being the champion of everything that got me where I am today. I got my sense of never giving up from her, no question. I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons that she, and by extension my work for the AHA has afforded me. In the years since I started out as a poster child for AHA, I’ve gone on trips with them to Washington DC on numerous occasions where I have spoken to members of US Senate, Congress, as well as loads of other government officials on heart related issues for the states of Kentucky and Connecticut where I have held residence. Last year, I actually helped get a law signed in Connecticut that made Pulse Oxymetry screenings mandatory for all newborns in the state. All of that happened on the back of stories like my own and the stories of parents like my mother who spoke on behalf of their small children who would likely have passed away if not for Pulse Ox screenings.

I’m here to tell stories. Whether they are works of slice-of-life fiction like Love Buzz and The Zipper Club, biographical stuff like The Long Odds, or some of the more floaty, weird shit that I’ve been pitching lately with my agent (More on that soon, hopefully).

That my friends, is the importance of story. Everybody has one. Some of us might think they’re more boring or uneventful than others, but I don’t buy that. Unless you’ve lived tied to a chair in a dark room all your life, you have to have done something interesting with your life. Sure, life is boring about 95% of the time. I spend the majority of my time sitting on my ass in front of a computer screen all day. It’s that other 5% of the time that gives us something to talk about. You have to have the awareness to spot the “stories” in your life when they unfold.

Odds are, you’re more interesting than you might think.

THE UNEVENTFUL YEARS (The Cliffsnotes Of An Early Childhood)

This will sound utterly terrible, but I don’t recall a hell of a lot of much importance from the years after my first surgery, leading up to my second. With as much that was at stake in those years, I know my parents have about a thousand stories to tell, but as for me personally, the things I can remember are sparse. With that in mind, and in the interest of skipping through the boring parts, I now present to you the Cliffsnotes version of my life in as close to chronological order as I can muster, from the ages of 1 to 7.5 years old. Basically the verbal equivalent of a montage. Hey, Jesus went from being a baby to 30 years old. I’d like to try and be a little more thorough.

* Began learning to talk around 9 months old, well before I was even able to walk, proving that even at a young age, I was going to be hard to shut up.

* Experienced my first death of a loved one when my Grandfather Foster (or “Fa” as I called him) passed away from lung cancer due to his smoking habit. I was only one or two years at the time and although it’s well-documented that children can’t recall things in their later years from that early in life, I will still swear on a thousand Bibles that I remember crawling into his room and asking him for candy. 

* Became best friends with our three legged black cat, Bart and began my love for damaged but affectionate animals.

* Became a fan of He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe. Had my mother sew me this costume, which won me a costume contest two years in a row at my old day care. 

*Ended up shouting “NINETY NINE CENTS, A DOLLAR CASH, COCAINE!!!” aloud and in the middle of a grocery store, much to my parent’s shock. None of us really know where I may have gotten that line, (although I did watch a lot of TV) and even for the early 1980’s, that’s clearly an incredibly good price for cocaine. I’m only shocked no one in that supermarket tried to take me up on the offer.

* Loudly accused my mother of “throwing me under the table” at an S&S Restaraunt, when she was patting me on the back in an attempt to dislodge a piece of food I had been choking on. 

* My younger brother Alex, who will be expanded upon later in our story, was born on July 25th, 1986. Being a fleshy pink ball of goo clad in a diaper makes for less compelling storytelling than his later years will.

* Developed my first childhood crush (Age 5) on Noel, who I first met in in my time at Prospect Daycare. After inviting me to her birthday party and becoming the first girl I ever met that I didn’t suspect of being covered in horrid, lethal cootie, I spent the better part of a year secretly planning to marry her. (Noel who is now happily married with a child, follows me on Facebook and Twitter, and chances are pretty good that she will more than likely end up reading this burning admission at some point. Hi, Noel!)

* Made my first “best friend” from childhood in the form of Seth Althaus, to whom I ended up taking on an Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein plots to blow up and escape from the walls of the aforementioned Prospect Daycare Center, and with whom I’ve mostly stayed in touch ever since.  

* Got bit on the ass by a goose and have had an irrational hatred for the horrible birds that runs deep to this very day.

* Got a Teddy Ruxpen doll, which would later go on to traumatize my fragile young mind, when one of his animatronic eyeballs caved into, and became trapped inside of his head, leaving the gaping eye hole filled with circuits to shatter my child-like illusion of magic. 

* Became horrified to the point of nightmares by my first encounter with pictures of African Tree Frogs in a nature book. Those horrible red eyes were something that kept me awake at night. 

* Met my lifetime best friend and self-proclaimed “body guard”, Jason Skees after moving into our home in Goshen, Kentucky. 

*Made my first “enemy” out of a kid named Matt, back when enemies meant things like playing pranks and throwing water balloons filled with pee. I don’t recall how we got off to not liking each other to begin with, but that animosity went on for a couple of years at least. (Matt and I later became semi-friendly for a time before he died tragically in a car accident.)

* I discovered my unabashed love for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (More on that in a later post.)

* Completed the childhood “best friend” trifecta when I met Robbie Baar in Kindergarten. 

* Saw my first R-rated movie in the form of Total Recall. I only remember laughing my head off at the lady with the three boobs. (The same reaction I have while watching it to this day.)

Of course, all of these things helped to some degree to form who I am. My awareness of my illness was pretty minimal in those days, and my parents didn’t encourage any sort of measures to keep me from acting like a normal kid. Though I had my limitations, I knew them well enough to take a break when things got too taxing. A lot more can happen in a period of seven and a half years, but the real show is in everything that happened after.

Don’t Dump Sack The Reaper

“I went into the hospital in 1946, with advanced tuberculosis, and altogether I spent three and a half years in the hospital. By the time I got out I had had 10 ribs removed, one lung collapsed, a piece of the other one removed, and there were some severe complications from an experimental drug that was used to keep me alive. During these years I was given up for dead several times. One doctor told me that I could not live, I just didn’t have enough lung capacity, and I should just go home and sit quietly and I would soon be dead. Now, I am blessed with a rotten attitude, and my response to statements of this nature is, Fuck you, no one tells me what to do!”  – Hubert Selby Jr., February 24, 1999, LA Weekly

As we’ve previously determined, death and I have grown to have a complicated relationship.

 

Something unlocked in my head on the day that I learned the full scope of my first years and how close I came to losing it all. There’s a certain perspective that can come with the idea of coming that close to meeting your maker. I’m glad that I didn’t have a clue about it until my teenage years when I was about to become all “dark and brooding” anyway and was able to enjoy a mostly regular childhood. I have my parents, particularly my mother to thank for that. In the face of all that uncertainty and darkness, I’ve grown a pretty good sense of humor about it all. When you come from a background that limits you from certain activities like playing sports or running around rough housing for long periods of time like a normal, growing boy, you can either be depressed about it, or find a way to adapt.

My way of adapting was through humor. As I got older and grew to better understand things, gallows humor became a driving force in my personality. I can’t help it, when it comes to storytelling, I like things on the dark side, because it wouldn’t be a story if “everything stayed okay” all the time.  If you can inject some sort of humor into something horrible or sad, then you’ll make me your biggest fan. Around my teenage years, I began referring to my life past the age of eight when I had my second surgery as “my borrowed time” and it’s been a terminology I’ve stuck with ever since. I used “my borrowed time is now old enough to drink legally” in a speech to some officials of Connecticut government on behalf of the American Heart Association shortly after I turned 29.

I know that in saying things like these that I tread close to the territory of those who paint their finger nails black and expend an alarming effort to avoid contact with direct sunlight, but I assure you, this is not the case.  I have a deep love and passion for life and feel that anyone who worships the idea of dying is wasting their precious and short time here on this planet. The idea of suicide angers me to an unreasonable degree, and I understand that people who feel this way really don’t think that there’s another option for themselves, and while I’m sad for them, I just can’t bring myself to respect that kind of mentality, given my unique place in life and my relationship with defying odds and expectations.  Knowing now, how close I’ve come on repeated occasions to dying adds a degree of preciousness to my life as a whole, as well as the concept of the future for me.  Essentially, since the day I was born, I started living on borrowed time. My borrowed time began extending slowly over all these small periods of time, the time between my birth and first surgery, the matter of years between my first surgery leading up to my second surgery, the time after my second surgery as I began to not just recover, but flourish in ways no one ever expected me to. To this day, I’ve grown up to be thirty years old and counting.  I’m a successful, published writer after pursuing my dream for over a decade, I’m finally getting through college, and I’ve become a massive health nut who works out like a fiend.  All of the limitations I had had placed on me growing up, I’ve gone on to obliterate most of them as time went on.  My relationship with death has informed the way that I live my life and how I will continue to live it until the day that borrowed time finally decides to expire.

Death is not something to be feared. Everybody does it, sometimes it happens to us sooner than we would like. We never know when our time might come, so blah, blah, blah, “YOLO” this, “carpe diem” that. Death is not something to be embraced. Sitting around dwelling on the end as though it were some hot, malnourished guy or girl in skinny jeans with a pallor to their flesh not unlike egg nog, is just as much a waste of time. Have a healthy respect for it. Try not to go careening wrecklessly into it, but don’t deprive yourself of new adventures out of anxiety over it. Try and keep your personal levels of irresponsible stupidity to a minimum. Just know that there’s no reason to fear it.

Know this intimately and you may notice that you tend to care a lot less about the more trivial things in life.

A Little Piece Of Land In Georgia

      Soon after receiving the news of my health situation and rushing me to the specialists at Egleston Hospital (Now known as CHOA) in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents and I reunited for a brief matter of minutes before the decision was made to fast-tracked into a surgical suite. There, I underwent a heart catheterization which showed them the sizable hole in the wall between my two ventricles. At the time, major surgery on newborns was a mostly unheard of idea, so instead, they chose to perform a more temporary measure that commonly helped to buy children a bit more time. The procedure  that involved a small incision just below my left breast and the placement of a surgical grade rubber band around the  in my heart to keep more fluid from escaping than necessary. The hole between my ventricles was big enough that the rush of  blood that was escaping was going fast and with enough force between the two chambers that it could potentially cause a lot of damage if it were to be left to run unchecked.  The entire procedure was never meant to be any sort of remedy to the situation so much as a prophylactic measure to hopefully buy me some chance at a slightly extended future.  The idea was that hopefully with this band, I would live several more years until A) medical science advanced enough to tell doctors how to fix this problem and B) my body had matured and developed enough to withstand the type of surgery that would have entailed.

My stay at Egleston lasted for about six weeks. They performed the surgery when I was 2 days old and afterwards they kept me all that extra time to monitor my medications. I had a lot of trouble with eating at the time and ended up losing two pounds in all my time in the hospital. I went from being the biggest baby in the nursery where I was born to losing a solid 2 pounds in just my first few days. It got to the point that they began adding a special formula to the milk they fed me to give me some extra calories. My entire family remained on pins and needles for the first couple of weeks of my stay. Eventually, my dad ended up needing to go back to work while my mom stayed on maternity leave and my Grandmothers from both sides, Grandmother Foster and Grandmom Ward stayed with my mother and I at the hospital the entire time.

My parents had told me sugar-coated versions of all these facts and stories as I grew up, because I was a curious child who always knew I was different from other kids and wanted to know why.  I knew I had a heart problem and I knew that one day I would need to have another surgery to fix the problem. We just didn’t really talk much about what could happen if I didn’t get the surgery or how dire my situation had been. It’s part of why, despite my particularly extreme circumstances, I feel like I had a relatively happy childhood. I wasn’t abused, I didn’t live in poverty, (although there were some rough times in our later years, but that’s a story for another time) and I never felt unloved in those early years. Even when friction began to build in my parent’s marriage, they managed to keep my brother and I insulated from it.

As a teenager, well beyond the years of my getting through the second surgery and seeing a marked improvement in my health and well-being, I started asking more questions of my parents, who had long since divorced and become more apt to sharing some of the more darkened details of the circumstances of my formative years.  The biggest revelation I had revealed to me was that my grandmother and grandfather, who had bought a cemetery plot for themselves at Brooks Cemetary in Brooks, Georgia, had sent my Aunt Kathy, one of their older daughters out of the hospital on the day they heard the news about my defect diagnosis to buy a small piece of space for my remains to go, in the seemingly very likely event that I passed in the days that followed.  Since my grandparents have passed, we haven’t been able to find record of whether or not that space of land is still sitting there in my name. For all we know it’s been sold off a long time ago and is occupied by some other departed soul. One thing remains for sure, the idea of having a grave site waiting for you practically all of your life can have a, shall we say, dramatic effect on a young man as he grows forward into adulthood.