I’ve probably taken close to 200 pictures this year, ranging from Nolan overcoming his trepidation of swimming in the therapeutic pool at a local assisted living facility to a long sought-after VHS copy of “KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park” I bought earlier this month that excites both the 9-year-old in me who thought Gene Simmons was the coolest 40 years ago and the guy who enjoys movies that fall into the “so horrible, they’re good” category. But the one you see is one of my favorites.
I took the picture on a very warm Friday in late September. Nolan and I had walked to the tennis courts at the middle school a few blocks from our house as a reward for what had been a pretty good day for him at school. He kicked off his Crocs and bounced and ran around for about 45 minutes, and I stood a few away both enjoying seeing him so happy and crossing my fingers that he’d tire himself out and sleep well that evening. I sent Cindy a text before she left work at 5 p.m. and asked her if she could meet us at the courts and give us a ride home. It got to be 5:30, and she still was a few minutes away. I was starting to get a little impatient, and I knew Nolan probably was starting to get hungry.
Then, I looked up.
Clouds had rolled in and obscured the sun, but I still could see sunbeams poking through the darkening late afternoon sky. I don’t know what made me want to grab my phone and capture the moment for posterity; I just knew I would regret not taking a picture of what I was seeing. Three months have passed, and there have been several days when I’ve scrolled to that picture – including Sunday, when it snowed in western Wisconsin and the local meteorologists promised there will be plenty more coming midweek – and thought about how content I’d felt at that moment.
And the more I think about it, perhaps that picture serves as a good metaphor for the hellhole we all like to call 2020. Maybe there are times when the brightness is almost completely hidden, but the light – even if that light is as faint as what a discount store pen flashlight illuminates – somehow finds a way to shine through just when you absolutely, positively need it.
If our version of 2020 could be summed up in a movie scene, it would be when Spinal Tap tried to take the stage at its Cleveland concert, only to keep running into dead ends and taking the wrong turns in the bowels of the venue. One moment Cindy and I were attending Nolan’s IEP and discussing his transition to high school in the fall, and also happily counting down the days until he would be free and clear of middle school. The next, a nasty, contagious virus is causing absolute pandemonium around the globe and bringing everything to a screeching halt.
We got to know the home we bought in the spring of 2019 very well. I was thrust into the role of being the teacher the last 2½ months of the school year to a nonverbal teenager with Autism who needed to be working with people who knew what the hell they were doing (i.e., not me). I used to laugh when MTV showed the Talking Heads’ video for the song “Once In A Lifetime” and a disheveled David Byrne, the band’s lead singer, would gaze into the camera and ask, “Well, how did I get here?” It’s not so funny when you’re worse for wear and asking yourself the same question as you look into the mirror every morning.
The last 9½ months have crushed everyone’s spirit at one time or another. Jim Valvano, the late North Carolina State men’s basketball coach, told an audience weeks before he died that you’ve had a pretty good day if you’ve taken the time to laugh, cry, and think. He knew what he was talking about. It’s healthy to do all three, even if not all on the same day.
Laughter? I always have the reliable go-tos such as “The Big Lebowski,” episodes of “Married … With Children,” and YouTube clips of David Letterman tormenting Richard Simmons when I need a chuckle. But the unexpected belly laughs when, for example, you catch your son on the porch eating salsa with his hands while only wearing his underwear, or inexplicably find a stapler sitting in the refrigerator door and a pair of pliers perched on top of a box of toys within a few minutes of each other, are the best.
Tears? They came a little more frequently this year. They came when we lost our beloved cat, Frodo, this past summer. They came unexpectedly on a late November Monday morning when Nolan resumed in-person learning after nearly two weeks of virtual instruction due to someone in the special education classroom testing positive for COVID-19. I walked Nolan to the school bus, went back inside the house and started sobbing – partly from fatigue, but mostly because I was worried about him.
Thinking? My brain moves faster than I ever ran, and I’m always thinking about what the future holds for our family. But I’ve also taken the time to think about the good things that have happened this year:
I got to spend nearly every waking moment with Nolan for almost six months.
The nearly daily walks we took in the spring and summer became something we both enjoyed.
He transitioned back to music therapy after a four-month hiatus and is absolutely killing it now.
The first semester of his freshman year of high school has gone very well.
I’m married to an amazing woman who does a great job of remaining optimistic when I wonder if I’ll be able to make it through another day, or even the next half-hour.
We’d be foolish to believe all the world’s issues will disappear when the clock strikes midnight on Friday and we welcome 2021. One of the political sites I follow showed a cartoon of several people hiding around a corner and carefully opening the door to the new year with a broom handle. There no doubt are some new, very frightening things waiting for us along with the same boogeymen that made this year so miserable.
But remember to picture brighter moments in the bleakness, and to always go toward the light. I’m sure I’ll need to remind myself of that several times in 2021, as will Cindy and probably some of you as well. But I also have a great photograph that captured a special moment – honestly, one of my best moments of 2020.
Believe me, it’s helped a lot the last few months of this year. And I’m positive it will help in the days, weeks, and months to come.