Saturday, September 22, 2012
Stop and Smell the Roses
I’m about to turn 33. When I was 20 years old, my uncle, Dave Barden, was 32, and in October he was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was a horrible time in the history of our family. I worked with him every day at Orange Ford in Albany. He was a mentor to me. I connected with him like no other. Which meant I had to sit front row for the whole thing, ten feet away as he faded from the world. When my friends were away at college, I was in an attic office seeing what death looked like when it’s still upright and walking, learning WAY too soon the ugly side of life. That fall, the chemo started, the hair fell away, along with the body weight and energy, and I had no idea how this was going to end, but I hoped against hope.
When he came to our family house on Christmas, and my mother saw him for the first time since Thanksgiving, she insisted that we take a family picture, she demanded it, because she knew this was it, this was the final Christmas for Dave. He watched the Millennium from a hospital bed. Then, on March 3, 2000, he went into Albany Med and never came out. He died on March 21, 2000. He was 33 years old. That final Christmas picture still hangs in my mother’s house, and there’s Dave in a denim shirt and baseball hat, eyes empty, skin translucent, four months from the end.
I slipped into a yearlong depression after his death. I lost my job, didn't go to school. I woke up at noon, sat in a dark apartment all day, then dreamed of him at night. The concept of the dream was always the same: He came to me and said he wasn’t really dead, and I had to tell him that he did in fact die, and could never come back. I must’ve dreamed some variation of that dream a million times. One time I dreamed he told me to go to his camel-colored suit coat and search the pocket. I went to my aunt’s house, searched the coat, and found a dollar bill with the word Lazarus written all over it in blue pen. Lazarus, the biblical leper who died then came back to life. That’s what the dollar bill said around the side, “Lazarus” Lazarus” “Lazarus.” That sadness went on. But soon I realized I had to put my life back together. Had I learned nothing from Dave’s death? Life was short. I had to live it. So I did.
I earned a B.A. then a Master’s at St. Rose. I got a girlfriend when I was twenty-four, learned that you brushed your teeth BEFORE using the mouth wash. I exercised like a mad man, eight days a week and twice on Tuesday. I lived fast and never let up on anything. There was no time. When I got my degrees, I took jobs sixty, seventy miles from Albany, whatever it took to keep my professional life moving. Have to work. There wasn’t time to stop and smell the roses. Have to build it now! Hadn’t I learned anything from Dave’s death? But still I lived with this dark cloud overhead. That my clock was tick tocking like his was. So I was working twice as hard as everyone, but was still so far behind. I couldn’t keep ahead. I took jobs, lost them. Bought cars, crashed them. Saved money, lost it.
Then I met my wife and got married (believe me, it wasn't that quick of a process). And all that darkness went away. She is the only good thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life. And all the success I have ever had is with her. We grew together, bought a house, helped each other, everything that I always heard life could be but never saw myself. But still, I dream of Dave, always dream he’s not really dead but he is. And as I approach my 33rd birthday, the root of what I am, what I might really be, is tugging at me again, harder than it has in years. And despite all the positive change in my life over the last thirteen years, I’m still quasi convinced that I’m somehow linked with Dave on a level I can’t understand, and 33 is destined to be my end too. Will I outlive Dave? Will I now be the older man when I dream of him? It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem possible.
A few weeks back, a radiating pain in my chest and down my left arm brought me awake in the middle of the night, snapped me up from another Dave dream, and I knew instantly that I was having a heart attack, and I was going to die right there in that bed. There was no time to call for help or drive to the hospital. The pain was crippling and constant. Despite my clean EKGs and perfect blood tests, I was going to die at 32 and eleven months, and hadn’t I sort of known that since I was 20? My wife was asleep next to me. I didn’t wake her. I was alone with this, alone with Dave now. I lay in that bed at 3AM, begged for my life. I wasn’t ready to die yet. I wanted kids, gray hair, arthritis, all those things Dave never had himself.
I did not die that night. My first experience with Heart Burn. But now it’s almost October and I’m 32, and it’s a place in my life I’ve feared for the last thirteen years. But I have to tell myself I’m not Dave. His destiny is not my destiny, and my road will not end at 33. I’m only in the beginning of my life, and there’s much left. And in the end, I’ll have that gray hair and all that arthritis, and a whole family around me as I grow old, all the things that Dave never had himself. But maybe he helped me find it, maybe that’s the cosmic link between us. Maybe it's life not death that binds us.
And when I dream my Dave dreams now, I’ll be the older man and he’ll be the younger, a once-impossible dynamic in my mind, and when he tries to convince me he’s not dead, like he always does, I won’t say “yes, you are dead,” I’ll say, “As long as I’m alive, Dave, you’ll be alive too.” And as I write this, on my wall hangs a picture of Dave at 27. He's young and his head is full of hair. He stands behind a Rusty Wallace car on the Orange Ford lot, and he smiles. As long as I'm alive, he'll be alive. Lazarus, see? Maybe that's what he's been trying to tell me all along. Maybe he's been telling me to stop and smell the roses.