One of my work pals is a super-hip grandma from Lancaster who writes children’s books. She’s a well-traveled, well-educated Bernie Sanders supporter whose voice and unhurried speech remind me of Patti Smith’s. She’s walking along the Juniata River with our co-worker who, yesterday, praised Donald Trump in the casual manner that you might praise a new flavor of Lay’s Potato Chips. But they are walking together. I like that.
This morning in Appalachia, two local teens named Canyon and Autumn Moore are singing sweet sibling harmony and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. Even as kids, their musicianship is superior to the four sweaty, Red Bull-blooded men who played horrendous, harmony-free classic rock covers yesterday with Cheez Whiz-charisma and with a lead guitar player who played as if the chord changes happening elsewhere on the stage were figments of our collective imaginations.
I dream of home, but I also dream of other destinations further south. I’ve been assured that there is no end to the good times that await my girlfriend and I in Asheville. Over in Nashville, a friend I made in New Hampshire has rummaged through pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons’ estate sale and acquired some sort of quirky knick-knack that reminded her of me. What a lucky sumbitch I are.
I’m sitting in a field in rural New Jersey listening to Neil Young yell at English people in 1973. Outside my car windows, a rainstorm is shutting down the hot air balloon festival at which I’ve been hired to take photographs. There will be no more balloons ascending or human cannonballs descending today.
I am supposed to play guitar in a bar in Pennsylvania tonight and the thought of the freedom I can find with my instrument dangling from my torso is exhilarating. Singing is fun, too.
I play with these guys who like to make it all up on-the-spot. I think we had a setlist last time, but it was really just there to collect impressions of the bottom of dancing people’ shoes. Dirt paintings. It’s a cool way to make a buck. I’ve enjoyed seeing my work life get closer to being mostly jobs I do with a camera or a guitar. I decided a long time ago that I only want a life with joy in it. I do have a lot of that stuff.
Also challenges. The pain payments we make to earn the joy.
I still get scared when the phone rings. Worried it will be The Call. Then I remind myself that everything’s probably OK and I just answer it.
This time, it really WAS The Call, or nearly.
No one could reach him, so I called various police department and hospital phone numbers until I found him. He’d been picked up by an ambulance at 9:30 AM and was in intensive care. That’s all I knew for a period of time that felt like an hour, but might’ve been more like fifteen minutes. While waiting to call back someone named Bernadette, I took note of how aggressively my heart was beating and I forced myself to sit in a chair and breathe. That helped.
Family helped, too. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that there was a coalition of loved ones dealing with this, not just me.
I was that much more relieved to call into his hospital room and speak to him. He didn’t sound great, but he was alive. It struck me that I was listening to a voice that I didn’t know that I’d ever hear again.
He tried to act like everything was cool, but I recognized that, after so many years spent with little regard for his health, this new medical event - whatever it was - would make a precarious situation even worse. For HIM to request outside help meant that something had gone very, very wrong.
He’d collapsed to the ground and couldn’t get up. I think he may have been there overnight. He’d been living in a second-floor apartment in some guy’s house in the woods near Nockamixon State Park, an hour from me and everyone else he knows. It’s been about four years of that and it’s only gotten worse. If the steps were icy, he just wouldn’t leave.
Looking back, I spent an almost regrettable amount of my time with Marcella talking about how upset I was that he didn’t want to take control of his health. Two strokes should’ve served as a wake-up call, I thought. She would remind me that you can’t force people to do anything they don’t want to do.
Still, it hovered over me like a dark cloud. Marcella had fought so hard to preserve her health after battling illnesses all throughout her life; why couldn’t he make a few basic changes to preserve his? I tried every angle I could think of to convince him it would be satisfying to take a walk every day. Landscapes to photograph, attractive jogging women to say hello to, some neighborhood dogs and horses to meet.
No dice. Even when I lived with him for two weeks after his 2012 hospitalization, he wouldn’t come with me for short walks around the block. It didn’t matter to him that I uprooted myself for fourteen days to help him recover from his latest stroke. So I’d go walk around the beautiful countryside of Upper Bucks County and he’d stay home.
My last big attempt was in Nashville at a place called Southern Steak And Oyster. Waiting for our meal, I asked if he realized that to not exercise or make dietary changes after a stroke is to have a death wish. He assured me that he had no such thing.
“The doctor probably mentioned something about exercise. But he didn't say anything that got me inspired about it."
It got dark and it got light.
After work one day, I went to his apartment. I talked to his landlord and landlady for a little while and then gathered together important-looking paperwork, clothes, some framed pictures, a few electronics. I got it into my mind that I wanted to clean up all the trash, so I consolidated the pizza boxes, plastic bags, old piles of circulars. Hours passed and I realized I might not have even been halfway done. It was too big a job for one day. Things were being thrown out on the ground instead of the trash can, possibly for four years.
Meanwhile, I’d forgotten to eat and, before long, I was spiraling into a whirlpool of low blood sugar and high angst. I revived myself with Swiss Rolls, Coca Cola, and Herr’s Potato Chips, staples from my childhood that, as it turned out, were still on-hand. Before I hopped back onto those dark country roads, I took out a little of my free-roaming anxiety on one of the zippers of my trusty black (Nicky: “dark grey”) backpack. That helped a little.
(I saw my backpack under direct sunlight a few weeks ago and realized she’s right. It's dark grey. Why do I bother arguing with my Ivy Leaguer girlfriend? She always ends up being right. OK, back to the story.)
The following week, I was having a rough day but still decided to honor my plans to visit him at the facility. After the visit, I turned to Nicky and told her how happy I was. Not just that I honored my commitment, but because he was so much more with-it than I’d remembered him being at the hospital. There’s a lot of work left for him to - maybe - regain use of his right arm and leg, but the dude seemed more present than he did during the period leading up to this last stroke. Amazing!
I visited again a few days later. My aunt and cousin were already there and we were soon joined by my sister and - via FaceTime - my nephew. We went outside to a gazebo under a warm, mellow sky and we all just hung out like old times. Just in a new environment, with some new complications.
It wasn’t perfect, but we were all there and feeling the family love. A second baby was brewing and my friends down the road were about to welcome their second, too. With zeal!
A little more pain deposited, a lot more joy received. There is always gonna be some darkness to contend with, but damned if that summer sun doesn't always brighten everything back up eventually.
P.S. Swiss Rolls chilled in the fridge are just as good as I remembered. Something else to bear in mind.