Monthly Archives: April 2011

For Leah

Imagine you’re the parent of a 5-year-old girl. She is strong, determined and full of life, as every 5-year-old should be. And most importantly, she has always been happy and healthy.

Then one day she starts complaining about headaches, dizziness and a little nausea. It’s slightly unusual, but nothing to get in a tizzy about. Until a visit to the pediatrician reveals she’s having trouble with basic motor skills. So the doctor schedules an MRI.

Medulloblastoma.

You can barely pronounce it, nevermind comprehend its devastating awfulness. But the bottom line is it’s cancer, and your little girl has it. The tumor is removed and found to be malignant. But because she is young, strong and full of life, she fights back. She recovers quickly, even to the point she can leave the hospital and finally go home.

But the celebrating and happiness is short-lived.

The vomiting returns. Then the dizziness and headaches. So it’s back to the hospital less than three weeks after the first surgery, only to discover even more unimaginable news. The tumor has already grown back. And it’s back with a vengeance. Once again it spread and multiplied. It’s also putting pressure on the brain stem—which regulates breathing— meaning she can’t even draw sufficient breath from her hospital bed.

Surgery is no longer an option. And as if that news isn’t bad enough, it forces her parents to make a heart-wrenching choice. You see, before the return of the tumor it was possible (and favorable) to treat the cancer with slightly lower doses of radiation to prevent harm to the girl’s still-developing brain. But when faced with a cancerous tumor more aggressive than many doctors at a renowned Boston hospital have ever seen, the stakes—and circumstances—change dramatically.

Imagine being the parent who has to decide to move forward with higher amounts of radiation, knowing full well the chemo has the potential to cause severe developmental delays to the child’s brain. But you do it, because it’s what you have to do.

And then, in the middle of this tornado of misery and seemingly just for sick kicks, the family dog dies. I shit you not, I couldn’t make it up if I tried.

Last month, this twisted nightmare became a reality for Leah Fernandes and her family.

Leah is the 5-year-old daughter of Rhiannon, one of my friends from high school. Rhiannon and her husband Peter have two kids, and they’re well known in my hometown of Norton. Peter owns and operates Chartley Country Store, an infamous little convenience/grocery with a kickass butcher shop. My son Will knows it as “The Cow Building” because of the picture of a cow on the side of the shop. And not to be outdone, Rhiannon is a rockstar who plays in a cover band called Kunochi, which plays all over southeastern Mass.

I haven’t talked to Rhiannon in years and I’ve never met Leah or their other son Lukas. But Rhiannon is one of the sweetest, most down to Earth people I’ve ever known. She’s always been kind and considerate, yet tough and fiesty. And I imagine the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

As I read their accounts of the ordeal I was overcome. In all respects. As a parent, I cannot imagine going through this. I just can’t. I’ve tried to put myself in Rhiannon and Peter’s shoes, but it’s impossible. My mind literally cannot fathom something this fucked up happening to Will. I think I’d fall to pieces, and rightly so. But Rhiannon and Peter have remained so strong. Both for Leah and their son Lukas. And their bravery in the face of incomprehensible woe is truly the stuff of legends.

However, they are outdone only by their daughter Leah.

She’s smiling in every picture they’ve taken over the last month. After two brain surgeries and more bad news than any kid should ever have to handle, Rhiannon said she’s doing arts & crafts and enjoying the bounty brought to her by the Easter Bunny. And amazingly, Leah has never complained. Not even a little. Not even once.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s been the community’s response to “Leah Bear,” as she is lovingly called by friends and relatives.

To date, more than $10,000 has been raised for the Fernandes family to make the long commute to and from Boston, as well as meet expenses that occur when parents have to take that much time off work. And that’s without a lick of media attention. While I wish I could donate more money, I’m trying to contribute by reaching out to every local media contact I have to get them to do a story. A few media outlets are in the process of working something up, but I wanted to put it on the blog as well.

There are motorcycle charity rides, comedy shows, Texas Hold Em tournaments, bracelets and a handful of other events set up to help Leah. You can check them all out and get more info by clicking here or here. They had a PayPal account, but I’ve been told it’s frozen. So I know times are tough, but if you can spare even a little bit, all donations can be mailed to:

Leah Fernandes Donations

c/o North Easton Savings Bank

P.O. Box 495

25 W. Main Street

Norton, MA 02766

I can’t imagine having to go through this and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I know when MJ and I were going through our ordeal last year (which does not even come CLOSE to what the Fernandes’ are enduring), I was comforted by the humanity displayed by friends and strangers alike. I can’t tell you what it meant to get cards, emails, donations and even comments from people—some of whom didn’t even know us—telling us we were in their thoughts. And while raising awareness for Leah is miniscule in the “Pay It Forward” department, it’s a start.

I think about what’s happening to Leah and I cry. I can’t help it, it breaks my heart. But she can’t cry. Neither can her parents. They can’t afford to because they are literally in the fight of their lives. We can’t possibly know their pain or erase it. But we can help to ease it, even if it is just ever so slightly.

So please, if you can, donate. And if you can’t, that’s OK. I invite you to leave a comment here or on Leah’s Facebook, supporting her and her amazing family.

Leah, I follow your progress every day. And while you don’t know me, I hope you know there are people just like me who you’ve never met, thinking about you each and everyday and trying to do whatever they can to help you. Same goes for Rhiannon, Peter and Lukas, and all of your close friends and family members.

Keep fighting Leah. If you’re anything like your mom, you have enough class, dignity and strength just in your pinky finger to beat this thing. Because you WILL beat it!

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Two Shits In a Bucket

When the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, I was ecstatic. When the Red Sox broke an 86 year drought in 2004 to take home the World Series title, I was over the moon. And the Celtics victory over the evil Lakers in 2008 truly had me dancing in the streets. Yet none of these watershed moments compare to the celebration MJ and I engaged in this weekend.

Will pooped in the potty!

Most of you are parents so you’ll understand the significance of this moment. But for the uninitiated, this signifies the end of diapers and pull-ups. Pull-ups that currently cost $30 per package. But more importantly, it also means we’re one step closer to having Will be able to go to the bathroom all by himself. No more diaper changes, wrapping the diaper in plastic bags and having it stink up the trash until we take it out. It is a truly beautiful thing.

So you’re probably wondering how we did it. I warn you, it’s probably not the most politically correct method, so prepare yourselves.

You see, Will’s been peeing in the toilet for months now but poop has been a problem. We’ve tried everything. Waiting until he’s ready, positive reinforcement, bribery…you name it we tried it. And the reason we tried is because he was ready. He knew when he had to poop, would tell us, but then refuse to go in the toilet. So after hours of pleading with him and begging him, we’d end up putting a pull-up on him at which point he’d take his dump.

But on Saturday night MJ and I both snapped. And we dug in.

We put Will on the toilet when he said he had to poop, as we have done countless times in the past. But this time, we didn’t let him out. Yup, that’s right. We physically blocked the door to the bathroom and wouldn’t let him leave until he pooped in the potty (he’s still a little afraid of sitting on the toilet, so we used a plastic potty). Don’t get me wrong, we sat with him and gave him positive reinforcement. But we also let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t leaving that room until he dropped the Cleveland Browns off at the Super Bowl.

I won’t lie, after an hour it looked pretty bleak. We were heartbroken and doubting ourselves because Will was crying, and we were tired and beaten down. I was close to giving up. But that’s when my wife pulled out all the stops, with a move so brazen I nearly choked when she did it.

“William George,” she said, commanding attention by using his middle name. “If you don’t poop in the potty tonight, the Easter Bunny isn’t going to come.”

I was shocked. My head snapped around to look at her with a “Really?!?!?” look on my face. To be fair, she looked a little doubtful that she was doing the right thing too. But since nothing else had worked, we stuck with it. And less than 10 minutes later—fearful of losing out on Easter loot— he dropped his deuce.

I’m 31 and MJ is 33. We’re both grown adults. Which is why it felt pretty surreal to be dancing around our house, high-fiving each other following a bowel movement from our 3-year-old. I mean really, we celebrated our son depositing human feces in a plastic bucket like we had just won the lottery. We kept going back in the bathroom to look and marvel at the glorious independence that dookie represented. I tried to take a picture of it but MJ insisted that’d be crossing the line.

In fact, we celebrated so hard and so loud we scared the shit (pun intended) out of Will who was crying and standing up in the bathroom waiting for one of us to stop dancing so his ass could be wiped.

All the experts say you can’t force a kid to poop in the potty. They say wait until he’s ready and follow his cues. But as we proved this weekend, the experts are morons. If you really want to potty train your kid in a hurry, do it the old fashioned way: through fear and threats involving mythical creatures. Sure the hippie, new age parents will look down on you for it, but those judgmental bastards were gonna do that anyways.

It’s a good thing the Easter Bunny trick worked though. If not, we would’ve had to tell him Santa’s life depends on his poop. Or every time he fails to crap in the potty, a reindeer dies and the tooth fairy has one of her wings ripped off.

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Dad Strikes Out

“Dada, I don’t wanna play baseball. I stink.”

Photo by Mike Baird (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/)

An otherwise pleasant morning ground to a sudden halt when Will uttered that aforementioned sentence. It literally stopped me in my tracks and sent me reeling, like a gunshot. I asked him to repeat what he said, thinking maybe he was saying something different. But he wasn’t.

After some coaxing, he told me he felt sad after we played baseball a few days ago because he didn’t hit the ball much. After a few swings and misses, he grew discouraged and got down on himself. And then, in a roundabout way, he told me he didn’t want me to be mad at him when he strikes out.

I was just about to launch into a “What are you talking about? I’m always proud of you. How could you think that?” speech, when a slew of images all popped into my head simultaneously.

I pictured Will watching me watch Red Sox games. Seeing dad get visibly upset at the television, all the while screaming at the under-performing players. How many times have I lambasted Carl Crawford after his unsuccessful trips to the plate? How often have I verbally eviscerated Jacoby Ellsbury for striking out like my Great Aunt Mabel? One time after Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out, I’m pretty sure I openly questioned whether or not he actually possessed male genitalia.

Even though I obviously have never and would never say such things to Will, I do say things like that in front of him about others. So it goes without saying he’d pick up on that negativity and apply it to himself. As simple and obvious as that sounds, it really didn’t dawn on me until now.

But even more than that, I’m worried because self-doubt and having a negative opinion of yourself is my Achilles’ heel. And I was hoping Will would skip that awful trait of mine and harness his mother’s self-confidence instead.

I was a neurotic mess of a kid. I showed athletic promise very early, and when I was nine years old I made the baseball all-star team. I made it the next four years as well. During that time, I put so much pressure on myself I’d make myself sick before, during and after games. If I struck out I cried like I had just let everyone in my life down. If I hit the ball but still didn’t get on base, I cried. Hell, one time I remember hitting what I thought was a homerun but ended up hitting the top of the fence for a double. While standing on second base, I cried because it wasn’t a homer.

I played the piano, clarinet and saxophone as a kid too. My grandmother was a piano teacher and a member of the Boston Pops and Tanglewood. She was incredible. But because she was so skilled, I felt the need to match her even as a little kid. That’s why I could nearly get through an entire piece on the piano, but if I made a mistake right at the end I’d throw a HUGE fit. Then I’d start over from the beginning. I wouldn’t stop until I had played the entire piece without a mistake. I never enjoyed the times I did play it right because I spent the whole time crying and engaging in relentless self-flagellation.

Although I no longer burst into tears at the slightest miscue, I’m plagued by a lack of confidence to this day.

Ask MJ what she hates most about me, and she’ll tell you it’s my failure to give myself any credit whatsoever. I’m convinced I have no talent. Every day I run on the assumption that I’m truly a dime a dozen. I think I’m a mediocre husband, father, writer…you name it. Any time MJ gives me the slightest compliment, I tell her it’s not true. I always thought it was just me remembering the importance of remaining humble, but MJ claims I lack even the most basic levels of self-confidence and self-love.

I don’t want that for my son.

Will is amazing. He’s smart and handsome and—up until this unfortunate incident—has attacked life with vigor and zeal. I love that about him. Hell, I’m jealous of him. He’s only 3, but even at this young age he possesses the elusive knack of being comfortable in his own skin. Of being at ease with himself.

I won’t see him torture himself with self-doubt like I’ve done my whole life.

So I told him he does not stink. I reminded him about the time he hit a ball so hard and so far it hit the side of our neighbor’s house about 15 feet high. I told him he’s the best 3-year-old ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and no matter how many times he swings and misses he’s still going to be great. Trying hard, practicing and having fun are the truly important things, I told him, and he does all of them.

“Hmmm. So Dada, we play baseball later?”

Absolutely buddy. And maybe while Dada is teaching you how to hit better, you can teach him a little something too.

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A Step Back In Time

The third Monday of every April is Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, commemorating the first battles of the Revolutionary War fought at Lexington and Concord. It is also known as Marathon Monday, when the Boston Marathon runners finish in Kenmore Square while the Red Sox play an 11 a.m. game.

But most notably, it’s a day off for most people. Including me.

Instead of watching a bunch of Kenyans run 26.2 miles in a ridiculously short amount of time, or taking in the game at Fenway, I decided to accompany my cousin to North Adams. What’s that? You have no idea where North Adams is or why it’s significant? I don’t blame you. But allow me to help you out.

North Adams is where I went to college. It used to be North Adams State College. Now it’s Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. It’s a sleepy little city located in mountainous western Mass., in an area known as The Berkshires. Three hours away from where I grew up, it’s crammed in the upper left-hand corner of the state between New York and Vermont. My cousin, as a junior in high school, is looking at colleges and this one is on his list. Since MJ was working and I had Will all day, I decided to go with him to give him a behind-the-scenes peek at the place I called home for four whole years.

But even though it was my cousin’s trip, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey.

Driving through the mountains and the Mohawk Trail, I kept glancing at my cousin’s face. He looked puzzled. And slightly concerned. I recognized the sentiment.

It’s 1996 and I’m in the middle of my own college search. I don’t know where I want to go or what I want to study. All I know is I’m looking for a small school that’s not in the city. I chose to tour North Adams because it was the farthest away from home I could go while still paying in-state tuition rates.

But we’d been traveling for more than two hours and it didn’t look like there could possibly be a college anywhere in the area. We were deep in the mountains and there was NOTHING around. Then I saw my first “Bear Xing” sign. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful country, but it was safe to say I began having second thoughts.

Up and up we climbed while my doubts also escalated. But just when I thought about telling my parents to turn the car around, we reached the summit and North Adams appeared in the valley below us.

I hadn’t even stepped on campus yet but I fell in love instantly. This was my college.

Yesterday, as we cruised down Church Street, I pointed out the Berkshire Towers, where all the freshman used to live. I’m not sure if there’s anything more daunting to an incoming freshman than housing. Will I like my roommate? How do I get along with my roommate if we don’t like each other? Who will I eat meals with? Are people going to like me? Am I going to like them? It’s a genuinely nerve-racking experience.

Fourteen years ago I entered the Towers a naive, scared kid. Unsure. Hesitant because I spent all of my high school years in the shadow of my friends who were all varsity athletes, honors students and did well with the ladies. I, on the other hand, was completely average at sports, wasn’t an Honor Society kid and had had one girlfriend. Most of my time was spent as a buddy to girls. A chum. A non-threatening, non-sexual eunuch if you will.

But on my way up to my room, I passed a cute girl. As per usual, I checked her out. But when she walked down the hall and turned around to check me out too, my heart soared. And in that moment I realized this was a fresh start. A new beginning. A chance to find myself and become my own person. Whoever that person might be.

Yesterday’s tour took us all around the postage stamp-sized campus, and finally down by the townhouses. The townhouses are basically like apartments, with four bedrooms that fit a maximum of six people. Although we didn’t go in them, the group of prospective students and their parents peppered the tour guide with questions. Who can live there? Are they co-ed? Is alcohol allowed? What kind of supervision is there?

Townhouse #69. Chosen because we were 19 years old and saying “we’re in a 69″ made us chuckle. If freshman year was about feeling things out, sophomore year quickly became all about testing my limits. And exceeding them. I drank more beer than humanly possible. I fooled around with more women than I care to admit. And that meant I was going to fewer and fewer classes.

Straight Cs and a D. The worst grades of my life. While I had more fun than I might ever have in my life, I lost my scholarship. And for the first time in my life, my parents were disappointed with my grades. I knew what happened and so did they. My priorities were way out of whack, mainly because I never partied in high school and was literally overdosing on freedom and fun. I had to learn how to create a work/school/social life balance. And eventually I did.

Murdock Hall is the oldest building on campus. It used to be an absolute pit of hell, but recent renovations have it looking spiffy and new. Top of the line computers and technology fill the sparkling new rooms now, but a decade ago things were different.

The basement of Murdock Hall is nearly windowless. It’s not pretty, but it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time lately. I’m an editor on the newspaper’s staff and I’m really starting to like it. I’m a good news writer and it comes naturally to me. I’m interested in what makes a story worth telling. How do I hook the reader, keep him interested? What makes for a good headline? How do you design a paper so it jumps off the news stand?

My geeky, like-minded journalist friends spend these long hours with me. We pull overnighters and help each other put the paper together. When we take breaks, we play our own version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Some of it is even funny.

To the untrained eye, we were a bunch of dorks in a basement. In hindsight, we were two award-winning journalists, a radio talk show host, a sports editor and a successful TV personality in training, having a great time. Looking back on it, it marked some of the happiest times at college. Not to mention the start of my passion and career.

Yesterday we walked past 60 Porter Street in North Adams. It’s a rundown pit of a house. A two-family, two-story home with eight total bedrooms, a dilapidated deck and a small yard just a stone’s throw off campus. My cousin and my aunt looked at it like they wouldn’t dare go near it without a haz-mat suit. I don’t blame them. If it’s anything like we left it 10 years ago, the Board of Health would have a field day. But even though it was a hellhole, it was also home.

My off-campus apartment on Porter Street. A “big boy” home. No longer on campus, this was an actual apartment. And although I wasn’t close with some of my actual roommates, the house was a central meeting point for all my friends to congregate.

It was located less than 100 yards from our favorite bar, the Pitcher’s Mound. Easily within drunken stumbling distance. If you wanted to find me between Wednesday night and Sunday, I was likely “Mound Bound.” Simply put, there should be a holocaust museum set up there to commemorate the inordinate number of brain cells that died there between 1999-2001.

When we weren’t at the bar we were at the house. Darts was our game of choice. Also, everyone had BB guns. I forget why. The upstairs window was nicknamed the “Sniper’s Perch.” If you didn’t take cover coming home from class, you were bound to be tagged with a one-pump pellet at some point. But when we weren’t opening fire on each other, we were having fun. Tons and tons of fun.

One sunny afternoon, after a few of my friends who had already graduated came back to campus, we were all relaxing on the front porch. The beers were flowing and, as usual, the stories were too. It was warm, and we were pre-gaming before the bar. Soon someone broke out a guitar. Then, as was the norm, the Irish songs started. Specifically, we sang “Share the Darkness” by the Saw Doctors.

Ah life’s too short for wasting
For ifs and might have been’s
Life’s too short for wondering if
You could have lived your dreams
And its way too short for loneliness
We don’t have to be
Now that we trust each other
Why don’t you stay with me?
Why don’t we share the darkness tonight
Make it warm and burning bright
I’ll not say nothing
I’ll be polite
Why don’t we share the darkness tonight

Most people are unaware when they’re in the middle of a defining moment. It’s only afterward, in hindsight, they realize how good they had it. How happy they were. How perfect and exquisite the circumstance. But in the middle of that song, I looked around and took stock. I saw every face and every smile. The future was wide open, nothing was decided yet and anything was possible. We’d all end up going on our separate ways, but we were together right then. And it was great.

A decade removed from graduation, the strains of that Saw Doctors song have long ago drifted off into the ether. But yesterday, as I brought Will around with me to see the campus, I realized it’s closer than I thought. I sing that song to Will every single night before he falls asleep. The sound of the past, very much present, echoing into the future.

I’m not sure it’s possible for my 16-year-old cousin to grasp the importance of the opportunities college presents, but I told him it’s just as much about what happens outside of the classroom as inside. Learning to live on your own, making friends that last for life and creating memories you’ll talk about forever are what made college college for me.

Even if some of those memories can’t quite be remembered!

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The Stuff Divorce is Made Of

Why do people get divorced?

Sure there are the big reasons: emotional/physical abuse, falling out of love, sleeping with your wife’s sister. But I’m willing to wager that more often than not, it’s not the big things. Instead, I believe it’s a steady collection of little things that build up over the years and slowly drive you insane until you’re pushed just a little too far. And then it happens.

Last week, all of Cape Cod heard MJ snap.

Some background: I’m a human vacuum when it comes to food and drinks. After I finish eating my meal or sucking down my beverage, I go on the prowl. I pick at Will’s food and then flit over to MJ’s plate. If there are leftovers, they’re not long for this world. Of my many faults, for some reason this one bugs MJ the most. Which means I may or may not make a point to do it even more when she’s pissing me off.

So last week, as I’m sitting on the couch, I grew thirsty. Seeing as the fridge is a whole 12 feet away from the couch, I first sought out another (closer) option. That’s when I looked at the coffee table and saw MJ’s glass full of inviting ginger ale. At least I thought it was ginger ale.

Turns out it was Diet Snapple Peach Tea. And it was fucking disgusting.

It might not have been so bad if I had known it was something awful and been prepared for it. I was expecting a mouthful of delicious Canadian Dry, but instead my taste buds were raped by this terrible-tasting peach shit. The ocean of difference between the two caused me to physically wretch. In mid-gulp. Which caused me to backwash right into her glass.

That was the last of her Snapple shit. Also, MJ wasn’t in the room at the time, which left me facing a conundrum: tell her the truth and dump it in the sink or hope she doesn’t notice.

I think you all know which one I chose.

My reasoning—if you can truly call it that—was simple: I didn’t want to piss her off. Ok, ok…and I didn’t want to get in trouble. But I just thought she wouldn’t notice. She’d drink her Snapple, I’d stay out of trouble…a true win-win!

When she came back into the living room and took a sip of her drink, my heart was racing. I couldn’t even look at her because I’m a horrible liar and MJ always knows when something is up. So I just stared straight ahead at the TV, hoping against hope she wouldn’t notice. And that I’d maintain full use of my testicles.

“What the hell is that?” she said.

My heart dropped into my feet and panic set it in immediately.

“There’s something in my drink. But I don’t know…what is this? Oh my God, it looks like someone spit in my drink or something.”

A good man would’ve fessed up. An honest man would’ve apologized. A smart man would’ve realized compounding a misdeed with a lie only leads to trouble. But I am none of these things.

“Holy shit honey. That is just friggin weird. I’m sorry about that, do you want me to get you another one?” I offered in my best helpful husband voice.

Of course she told me what I already knew, that that was her last one. So I took the glass and volunteered to empty it in the sink for her. She was appreciative. And then she dropped the guilt hammer.

“By the way, I’m making you an apple pie tonight. I know how much you like it and I haven’t made it in awhile. You deserve something nice.”

The shame was too much. And the truth came pouring out.

“I SPIT IN YOUR DRINK!” I blurted out, rather startlingly.

When she (rightfully) asked what in holy hell was I thinking, I didn’t have an answer. I know I should’ve just dumped it out and told her what happened, but I also know what would’ve happened if I had done that. I would’ve gotten a lecture. She would’ve gone on and on about how I should just get my own drink and stop taking hers. And she would’ve delivered it with THAT look. Every husband knows it. And hates it. And the thought of it was just too much bear. So instead, I tried to get away with it.

I can safely say this incident will be brought up at least 5,398,462 times over the course of my life. I think we’re right around 50,000 right now and it’s only been a week. No matter what valid points I have in future arguments, somehow I just know this will keep coming up to be used against me.

You spit in your wife’s drink one time…

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