When my mother’s water broke, that night in October, Dad was watching the Wisconsin Badgers hockey game on television, and he had a cast on his leg from a broken ankle that he got while playing basketball. I can’t imagine my dad, all 6 feet and 4 inches of his goliath body, trying to drive that station wagon to the hospital, through the north woods snow (snow in October?), freaking out that his wife was about to have their second baby, a son, and all the while trying to maneuver his giant-club-foot cast on the gas pedal. Somehow he made it though—I’m here. And when I took that fumbling plunge into this world, my father held me in his arms and he always said, “Bobby, I’ll never forget it, from the minute you were born, you looked like a fighter, bruised and bloody; you looked like you had gone twelve rounds, and had won.” And those words would radiate throughout the rest of our lives, as I fell in love with a game so many years ago, and made a promise that I would try to take it as far as I possibly could.
Opening night, first game of the season.
Tension was high in the locker room. I sat in my stall, calmer than usual. I felt the nerves, I felt the fear, but I wasn’t consumed by it, I wouldn’t let it devour me anymore. I wasn’t engulfed like I used to be. I accepted the fact that in about thirty minutes, I would be fighting another human being, trying to vaporize his face and cause a short-circuit, a momentary confusion of crossing wires, constellations, and crashing craniums; hoping that he drops to the ice before I do.
I said my blessings, thanked my spirits, and asked for strength, courage, protection, and safety. I said the last line of my prayers as I buckled up my helmet and put in my mouth guard, “I offer a karma kiss to the sky to keep me safe and protected.” And then it was grunts and growls and ceremonial taps of the hockey stick on strategic door frames and walls, the same compulsive gestures and twitches that follow me on every walk from the locker room to the ice before the pre-game warm up.
Metamorphosis Part 4
(Or, My Cancer Scare)
I knocked the weeks off, one, then two, then three, and finally I made it a month. Was it really that easy? Or had I blocked the torture and fatigue? Had I forgotten the scratching feeling on each of my bodily organs all at once, all the time? And what of that smothering chest cavity, clasping its gremlin grip more and more until I wanted only to heave up and split my own rib cage right down the middle, with a single gust of breath, and open up like a venus fly trap, rubbing handfuls of tobacco into the bloody slime of my still-beating heart.
I couldn’t think of those things now. I had a future to worry about, what the hell was I going to do? For a month the only thing that mattered was not putting that demon dust into my lip, and now I was sprinting, and sneaking off to the park to jump up and down onto the picnic tables, and hanging from the monkey bars, and performing two or three pull ups, still not strong enough, still not nearly hard enough, but still running, and starting to throw my fists in angry arcs toward some imaginary face. Who was I fighting, what was I fighting?
(Or, My Cancer Scare)
That one month milestone spoke the loudest to me, and I listened closely. “If I can just do this twelve more times, it will be one year without tobacco.” It seemed like a lifetime away, but for the first time, the possibility was there; the glimpse was real. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, who I was, or where I was headed. Things ended sour in Slovenia that April in 2010. I got stiffed on a bunch of money from the team and there was little I could do. Aside from flying back over the ocean, armed to the teeth, and demanding my last paycheck, I was pretty much stuck to bicker and complain and run up my credit card. Things work differently over there. A contract doesn’t hold its weight in gold, or Euros, or anything.
The allure of Europe and the romance of leapfrogging from country to country quickly grows thin when you don’t get paid for your work. Looking back on that whole ordeal now, I realize that it was just a part of the plan for me. I needed to leave there with a sour taste in my mouth. I needed to hit rock bottom. I needed that cancer scare. I needed to be right where I was.
(or, My Cancer Scare)
I was one week in. One week quit, and it would be another five days until I heard the results of my biopsy. My mouth hurt, and I found myself clenching my jaw and clicking it back and forth like some back ally crackhead jonesing for a fix. So this was my new nervous tic; somehow it made the pain bearable.
All I wanted to do was chew. Those first three or four days were dead and gone, but now there was a different feeling, an emptiness, a longing, a void where nothing existed except for that black hole. I could taste it in my saliva, misting up from under my tongue in hints of wintergreen. It was in that same spot, under my tongue where the void started, a tiny grain that grew and grew every waking hour, first emerging from my mouth, bubbling out over my chin, and swelling and ballooning up around my head, until my entire body swam in that murky abyss. I slowly sunk down deep into ink-black water, until there was nothing there.
(Or, My Cancer Scare)
I won’t get into the back story of how I ended up in Europe in the first place; that will come at a later date. Today I won’t talk about living in a ski lodge in the middle of the Julian Alps in Western Slovenia, feeling shamed and empty, hiding from the world and afraid to fail. I won’t delve into any of that now.
I’ll start where the new version of me started.
Sometime in May in the year 2010, is where the shift happened. I know the exact location where it happened; I know exactly what I was doing. It was in a parking lot, in a park, and I was running as fast as I could. What was I running from? I felt the shift, and it was as real as any crack of lightning or plate tectonics. It was a definite and tangible shift.
I’ll get into all of that, but first you need some back story.