Lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about my own mortality. I sincerely hope my shelf life goes beyond the 49 years I’ve spent on Earth, but I know there might not be a next year, next week, or even a tomorrow for me.
There were times when I was a kid, and even as an adult, where I would lie awake at night terrified by the thought of one day no longer existing. I’ve come to accept that I eventually will die, and no amount of kicking and screaming, “No, I won’t go, and you can’t make me!” will delay the inevitable. In some macabre way I’m in awe of Ronnie Van Zant, who was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer. The band was flying in a less-than-safe airplane as it began its 1977 tour. One of the guitar players told Ronnie before a flight to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the band’s next show he did not want to board the plane out of fear something bad was going to happen. According to an interview with another bandmember, Ronnie told him matter-of-factly, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.” Within a few hours, the plane had crashed, and Ronnie was dead.
Events like a worldwide pandemic make you start pondering your eventual demise. Now, I know I have a much better chance of being deep-sixed by a moron who plows through a stop sign and flattens me when I’m running at 6 a.m. than I do by a virus with a 99-plus percent survival rate. But it’s the things that have nothing to do with any COVID-19 related symptoms that have worn me down the last four months.
It’s the stress of knowing Nolan has had no solid routine – no school, no outside programing, nothing – heading into his freshman year of high school.
It’s the physical aggressiveness of a nonverbal 14-year-old with Autism who is going through puberty, dealing with some nasty gastrointestinal issues yet again, and facing what seems like the 2,437th consecutive day he’s stuck at home with dad.
It’s the fear of possibly finding out in late August that the students in our district will not be able to attend school in person for a month, two months, all year, and dad is trying, and failing, at being a teacher.
It’s the sickening feeling of knowing my job as a transcriptionist will only get more hectic this fall. Think that tightness in your chest was bad earlier this month because of a heavy workload? Boy, you’d better have the paramedics on speed dial when your job gets really busy and you’re also trying to be a father/caregiver/educator.
I’ve always treated myself like a human pinata when I think about my parenting skills. And now 2020 has joined in the beating, clobbering me into submission and standing there like Ivan Drago, grinning and ready to literally deliver the kill shot.
There’s a scene in the movie “Throw Momma From The Train” that always gets to me. Owen, Danny Devito’s character, shows Billy Crystal’s character, Larry, his coin collection. The coins are worthless in terms of monetary value, but they hold sentimental value to Owen because his late father always let him keep the change from the events they attended together. One is from a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. One is from a hot dog Owen’s father bought him at the circus. Another one is from a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis show at the Hollywood Palladium.
I was up working very late last week, and for some reason I looked for and watched that specific scene on YouTube. Just as Owen told Larry how much he misses his dad, I choked up and felt tears start to well in my eyes. Maybe it was due to a severe lack of sleep over several months. Maybe it was the guilt of needing to work a little bit here and there over multiple days because I had deadlines to meet and not giving Nolan enough attention. But I started questioning my worth as a father, and there’s still a voice whispering some pointed questions in my ear:
What kind of dad leaves a nonverbal son with Autism alone?
Isn’t family more important than work?
What will Nolan think about you when you’re gone?
All I’ve ever tried to do is be the best father I possibly can be and let Nolan know I love him. We’ve had some good times together over the last few months. We get in the car at least two or three days a week and drive to Dunkin’ Donuts for drinks. He endures my music selection on XM Radio as well as my occasional front-seat dancing to songs I like on car rides. We take walks in our neighborhood when it’s not too hot and enjoy the simple pleasures of playing with a leaf he picks up or stopping to touch every retaining wall we pass.
I’d like to think Nolan is happy in those moments. But I wonder what his opinion of dad is when he isn’t so cheerful. When he comes upstairs from the basement to find the refrigerator door open. When his attempts to count to 10 and calm down need to be 50 when he has to clean up urine or feces yet again. When he’s trying to accomplish something work related so that he’ll only have to stay up until 1 a.m. instead of 2 a.m. and Nolan is left alone with his iPad. When he needs to walk out of a room and try to regain his composure because his son is angry or sad and dad wants to make it better, but he has no idea how the hell to help.
I’ve never been what you would call a calm person, but the anxiety, and sometimes sadness, I’ve felt over the last few months has an octopus-like grip on me that seems to get tighter by the day. I haven’t been the husband Cindy deserves. I sure as hell haven’t been the father Nolan deserves. I fear what’s ahead, and how it could affect all of us.
I jokingly tell Cindy that she’ll be a rich woman upon my death thanks to the life insurance policies I took out. And you know what? I’ve accomplished pretty much everything I wanted to do. I married a great woman and I’m the father of an amazing young man. I worked in journalism, the profession I’d wanted to since high school, and left on my terms. I have everything I could ever want.
I just hope I still have time to enjoy it a little while longer. Sometimes I wonder if I will with everything that’s been weighing on me.