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.

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.

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.