2017 was tough. Even setting aside the obvious travesty of Trump’s presidency, the past twelve months have battered me. My closest friend was killed in a freak sledding accident. My family’s cat of nearly twenty years died of renal failure. My parents, married for 30+ years, separated. My health suffered after months of working 100 hours a week; I developed a crippling viral pneumonia that left me wan and exhausted. The sable talons of depression have sunk into my flesh once again. And yet, I’m here. Bruised, thin, quieter. Wiser, kinder, more empathetic, more spontaneous, more appreciative of life’s precious tenuousness. On net, a more complete person, but the transaction has been hell. 2017, I won’t miss you.
I stand quietly outside the patient room,
The room in which currently sit
A young couple
And their eight-month-old daughter,
Whose new cancer diagnosis
In the printed lab results
Clutched in my trembling hands.
I glance at my watch:
It’s now officially Christmas.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Plays faintly from a nurse’s computer.
In the moment it takes me
To open the room door,
Kids are already unwrapping presents
Just a few time zones away.
There’s a fucking nativity scene
On the front lawn of the hospital,
I’m telling a mother and a father,
“Her lab results came back…”
Overcast Sunday morning.
Brisk north wind.
Two boys play soccer in practice field next to deserted high school.
One wears olive green hoodie, red mesh shorts, fluorescent orange cleats.
Friend wears grey beanie cap, black Adidas sweats, blue t-shirt over black long-sleeves.
Early teens, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years:
That tender age when child’s body stretches
Over a lithe, growing frame;
When youthful energy meets budding strength,
Resulting in effortless, tireless athleticism;
When cell phones and Snapchat porn
Vie equally with Legos and hide-and-seek matches;
When dreams begin their inexorable march
Against the onslaught of daily existence.
Hoodie boy scores goal against friend;
Yells in victory, voice cracks;
They switch places.
In ten, fifteen years’ time, where will the boys be? Who will they be?
Will they remember this cold November morning?
Will they remember to dream?
Would that I could talk to my fourteen-year-old self.
Why does it take us a lifetime to figure out how to live?
Walking through town today.
Fallen leaves, assorted browns and faded oranges,
Lie scattered along path.
Air is crisp.
Football game at the college.
Some sort of sporting event at the high school.
Dull roar of crowds from both fields.
With families and young people:
Elementary school girls playing tag on the church lawn;
Adolescent boys, effortlessly slender, strolling languidly in their hormonal pack;
Entitled fraternity bros
In designer skinny jeans
Smoking vapes and laughing
With perfect dentition.
I go unnoticed.
Slows my gait to a shuffle as I walk through leaves.
How badly I long
For a friend,
Our family cat Russell died this week. He was eighteen years old.
My brother and I adopted Rus from a city animal shelter in the aftermath of the May 3rd 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City. At the time, we were 9 and 12 years old, respectively. Russ was three weeks old. Over the ensuing two decades, we three boys grew up together.
When we adopted him, Rus weighed less than a pound and didn’t know how to drink water from a bowl. My brother and I took turns dipping our fingers in water and letting Rus lick the drops. For the remainder of his life, he “drank” by putting his paws in the water bowl and then licking them dry. We build giant Lego houses for him in our bedroom. We dressed him up as the Pope for one Halloween. He was the reliable constant during our turbulent adolescent years. He was fearless, intelligent, and fiercely loyal to his two boys. He once chased a neighborhood kid into a bathroom because the kid had pantomimed punching my brother. He slept in our beds at night, keeping some sort of internal schedule by which he rotated between my brother and me. His favorite toys were rabbit foot tchotchkes. We trained him to walk on a leash, and he loved going for long explorations outside. He was the third son of our family. We nicknamed him “Tubbs.”
By the time I was in medical school, Rus had developed diabetes. Because he was otherwise healthy, we chose to treat him with insulin, and he thrived for another four wonderful years. This week, the inexorable hand of age caught up with him, and he passed peacefully of kidney failure. He fell asleep for the last time on his favorite blanket: a red Christmas tree skirt with white fringe.
It is hard to believe that you’re not here anymore, Russell; you were a constant for so many years. I know you loved us as much as we loved you. Thank you for everything.
I’ll miss you, Tubbs.
I lost a kid in the ER today. Only the second one in my career. Nothing in medicine or in life is more devastating.
I wept as I drove home. I wept for the girl. I wept for her parents. I wept for a fucked up universe in which children die.
Whoever you are, wherever you live or work, whatever your family situation, hold a child today. Your son or daughter, sullen teen or ebullient toddler, little brother or sister, baby niece or nephew: it doesn’t matter. If there exists a child in your life who means something to you, tell them so. Wrap them in your arms, hug them tightly, sit in the sunlight with them. Say you love them.
Please. Hold them.
Everyone feels sad at times. It’s not a disease.
Get over it.
Have a beer.
Be a man.
Grow a pair.
You don’t need Prozac,
You need a backbone.
Get off your duff
And get to work.
A healthy and intelligent son
In a supportive, middle-class, two-parent, two-sibling, Protestant household
In rural Oklahoma,
Depression is a made-up condition
For liberal West Coast hippies
Who’ve strayed from God’s path
And who have never earned an honest day’s living.
Then I went away to college,
To grad school,
To med school,
And tried to kill myself
In front of a city bus.
It’s a serotonin imbalance in the brain.
I can trace the neural pathways for you;
I got an A in neuroscience.
But black textbook arrows through the amygdala don’t tell it:
The stasis that permeates one’s being,
Until your muscles feel sodden
And your thoughts struggle against a palpable, impenetrable grey.
Rise from bed every morning, O Sisyphus.
The entropic dissolution of vitality.
Even with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,
You turn to other remedies:
Coffee, cocaine, mutilation, masturbation,
Writing, reading, running, swimming,
Highway driving at 3 AM, 110 mph, windows down, radio up, headlights off.
For a fleeting instant,
The lassitude, stillness, and weight
Of this disease
That we all know
Is merely an excuse