Week twelve brings us to Thanksgiving in the year 2020. Nel and Pras have accepted my invitation to join the boys and I on this day. We are all at my place:
“Look at this noob—sweating,” Nel says leaning forward on the couch; watching the game of Fortnite being played on the television in front of him.
One of the twins jumps up and down yelling the word “Push!” repeatedly. All eyes in the room are focused on the chaotic battle. I struggle to follow the action and listen to them speak a language that is foreign to me. Pras watches himself die and the words “33rd Place” materializes on screen.
Announcing, “He’s a hack,” Pras annoyedly throws the remote onto the couch beside Nel.
I am observing all of this from my computer desk tucked in the corner of the apartment above my parents’ garage. It is late in the afternoon and already getting dark outside.
My youngest son is currently sitting on the stairs in the hallway; away from all of us. I had put him in a time-out when he had a full-blown hissy fit after getting killed in his game. I call it a hissy fit, but in Fortnite its actually called ‘raging’ according to the twins. Watching Pras throw his remote on the couch I am reminded that most kids have absolutely no idea on how to cope with losing.
Pras and Nel showed up today wearing collared shirts. Earlier, my three boys snuck into my closet and put my collared shirts and ties on themselves thinking they were funny. The image of all these kids playing a video game dressed up like this is cute as hell.
Leaving the group, Nel walks towards me sitting at my desk.
At each step, Nel’s knee bends then each foot follows; it is a feature of his walk I noticed the first day we met. Nel is a cocky kid. The fact he’s always wearing expensive looking sneakers only adds to this persona of his. Of all my students he is the one I have the most difficult time relating to. We disagree on many things, but why I’m being critical of him at this moment I have no clue. All my life people would look at me and think I was a cocky person before getting to know me; the same way I’m imagining Nel is; they were wrong about me…Maybe I’m wrong about him?
“You got a nice pad here Mr. J.” he says, once he has stopped his strut.
“Thank you,” I say.
The whole year my students have teased me about living with my parents, but now that he’s here, Nel can see it’s not as bad as it sounds. Their teasing never penetrated anyways. As I’d regularly tell them, “Laughing at myself is my super-power. Nobody takes the ‘L’ better than me.” (A Fortnite reference I borrowed from my boys.)
Nel—now standing next to me—notices the small yellow sticky note stuck to my desk. Looking at it, he says, “What does ‘SAP’ mean?”
Feeling uncomfortable, I do not try to invent something to tell him. “Nothing,” I lie.
I’ve been writing little notes like this lately whenever I see something that irritates me on Facebook. There’s no emoji to let someone know you think they are a moron—probably for a reason—so, whenever I am disturbed by a person, I take a note like this, write SAP on it, and then jot down the initials of the person that I find irritating. It’s silly, but it is a way of practicing one of my golden rules: be quiet; as I’ve learned that arguing with someone I disagree with doesn’t do me any good.
I do not tell Nel any of this. All he sees is me wrestle with a meaningless note, crumble it up, and then throw it in the trash. He does not need to know what politician the initials “J.J.” stand for or why I consider him a “Stupid-Ass-Person.” I’ll keep that information to myself.
Now looking over my shoulder, Nel asks another question. “What’s that?” he says.
I move slightly to let him look closer; he chews his gum close to my ear. “It’s my vision board,” I say, “I told you guys I had one when we did that lesson at the beginning of the year—well, here it is.”
He stares at one of my goals on the vision board: Books to Write. Fingering his way down this list he reads aloud, “‘Phase One’ … ‘Exit Ticket’… ‘Lean In.’ … ‘Make It Real’ … ‘Enjoy the Ride’ … ‘Dream On’ … ‘An Addiction to Believing’.” He then leans away from the board but continues looking at it. “Why seven books?” he says.
Feeling like this might be some sort of special moment, I answer his question confidently. “Because that’s how many I’ll need to re-write history.” He looks at me with a face of confusion. “History is the ultimate weapon Nel. It can harness time itself and can literally alter one’s present.”
Not stopping to ponder this extraordinary pronouncement, Nel moves on. “You know Mr. J, someone is writing a story about this pandemic stuff right now—You should do that. That’s a million-dollar idea right there.”
He does not give me time to respond to this million-dollar idea of his before he says what he really came over here to say in the first place. “Hey, can we talk alone for a minute?”
Nel clearly has a lot on his mind and I can’t blame him. “Sure, let’s go to my room,” I reply.
Standing up, the two of us sneak past the group of boys playing their game and head towards my bedroom for some privacy. Pras looks at us but doesn’t say anything.
Leaving the halfway house on the day after Thanksgiving in the year 2017—after I told my councilor John to screw himself— I spent the weekend at my parents with my three boys. They stayed with me on Friday night and Saturday night.
Being at my parents with them was different but they didn’t ask many questions, they just had themselves a grand old time. It was loud, it was messy, it was crazy…and they loved it. I was never great at adulting, and now there was no one to give them the angry eyes; that was Sirena’s thing and they took full advantage of her absence.
Late Sunday morning my entire family came over; a little celebration for me coming back home. During this get together, the boys treated the entire house like a playground. There was a lot of “SLOW—DOWN—BOYS!” but everyone just let them enjoy this time. I did my best to keep them under control, but my attempts were very unsuccessful…
I think the worst part of not having control of your kids is other people getting mad at you for not having control. While no one yelled at them, I could feel people getting annoyed with their behavior. But to me, trying to control them was a no-win situation. If I yelled, someone in the room would tell me not to yell. If I didn’t yell, someone was wishing I would. A quarter the room wanted me to give them a good smack, half blamed it on the sugar I let them have, and the last quarter inwardly debated whether or not I should have them on meds. One hundred percent of the people in the room blamed their behavior on me: Their Forever Failing Father.
Watching them that day, I remember getting mad at myself for believing that having another kid would fix things back then.
The plan going into that weekend was to take all my boys home Sunday at one. I approached it like a finish line to a marathon. After dropping them off, they had worn me out completely and I was glad to be sitting on my parent’s couch enjoying some peace and quiet. A lot of my family was still over then, so there was some background noise as I sat on that couch thinking….
I’m bored—What am I supposed to do now? I don’t want to talk—When will everyone just leave me alone? I’m exhausted—How the hell am I supposed to take care of three boys on my own? —I hate my life.
I looked around the room wondering if anyone could hear my thoughts…and then began to give myself a pep-talk: Man-up Jose! It’s time to get your life back together—
Another voice from inside my head interrupted this pep-talk of mine to present a question: I wonder if that’s what Ethan thought? It asked.
This was the beginning of an anxiety attack. The weight in my chest had come back. I pretended to be watching television like everyone else—like a normal person—but in reality, I was slowly losing my shit.
I’m a twice divorced father of three boys under ten years old… I have two child-supports, a few dollars in the bank, and I’m working for fifteen bucks an hour…. And I live at my f****n* parent’s house! … How the hell am I supposed to do this? … F*** —MY— LIFE.
Panic-filled, I went outside to have a cigarette. Another one. With water beginning to pool in my eyes, I looked up into the sky above and raised my eyebrows in an attempt to hold in the tears. Exhaling a puff of smoke, I then pulled an Evan Almighty and said: “This life is a goddamn punishment.”
Yup, that’s what I said. The Victim’s Anthem. I remember it very well. I thought someone up there was punishing me and that I was being served a life’s sentence. (Poor me)
“You’re a resident here until Monday.”
John’s words when I left his office rang in my head. Walking back into my parents’ house after having that cigarette, my mother looked at me—she knew.
Shortly after three o’clock on that Sunday my mother prepared to drive me back to the halfway house. As long as I got back by four they couldn’t kick me out for breaking my weekend curfew.
When I was leaving my parents’ house the living room was still full of family members who had come to celebrate me coming home. Opening the door to leave; with them all silently sitting there, I didn’t say a single word to any of them. I didn’t even look at them. I couldn’t. Because I couldn’t see. I was crying like a little baby. (Poor me)
***End of Breaking Knews***
Shutting the door behind me, I see Nel look around my bedroom. He looks at the bed sitting directly on the floor, then at the bunkbeds. His eyes begin taking in the posters, puzzles, and pictures that cover nearly every inch of the walls. Before he can speak, my three boys burst through the door I had just shut.
“Can we rent Jumanji?”
“Pras said he loves that movie too!”
They are hyper and overly excited with our two new friends being here. “Yes,” I smile, “Just give us a minute. We will be right out.”
Refusing to leave us alone, one of the twins quotes the Jumanji movie they want me to rent for them. “Hey dad…” he says, “The world is a terrifying place! —Be scared of everything!”
This is an on-going joke between me and my boys. I laugh at the reference but truly need them to leave so that I can talk with Nel.
“Dad—” They stand like three choir boys preparing for another Ask. “Vinny said he’d be cool with coming over—Can he?”
Vinny has become an honorary member of our little squad, of course he’d want to come hang with the older kids; how cool. “Yes,” I answer, “I’ll text his mom and dad.”
Using my right hand, I push them out of the bedroom and hold the door with the other. “Now leave us alone for a minute,” I say, shutting the door.
Turning to look at Nel, he is unable to contain himself. “Mr. J…” he says, with a funny smirk on his face, “Where’s the Beauty and The Beast poster?”
This question must have been growing inside him as soon as he walked into the room and saw how it looked. It is a reference to the Ham Sandwich story from a few weeks ago—they had read it. The bedroom he is now standing in very much resembles the one I described in that story.
“It was a story Nel,” I respond knowingly. “Sprinkled with truth like all stories are. Just like I told you at the beginning of our class. There is no Beauty and the Beast poster…but clearly the boys and I like our movies.”
I can’t see his face as he continues to look around.
“What did you want to talk about Nel?” I say to the back of his head.
He turns away from the wall and looks at me seriously. “She wants to know if you’ll visit her. She’s back at her mom’s place now.”
Our entire school knows this. And I know that I’m going to say yes to this request. But I can’t help but feel unprepared for the conversation her and I will have.
Trying to sound like a strong adult, I reply to Nel. “Yes, I’ll visit. Give Lauryn my number and have her text me—we’ll figure something out.”
Week 12: Friday, November 27th, 2020
“P.A.I.N. through Emptiness”
There are certain things about myself that I keep private. You may be wondering what on Earth that might be given all I’ve shared already, but today’s article hits on a very sensitive subject for me: I’m about to talk to you about my battle with depression.
To begin, let me start by telling you a story…
Back in the year 2016, there was a man that lit his house on fire. It was an accident, but that didn’t matter much. After the fire, this man, his wife and their son lived in a small trailer that was set up in the backyard while he and his wife dealt with insurance claims and eventually rebuilt their home. They lived in that trailer for a year.
The longest year of this man’s life.
On Christmas morning in that trailer this man’s three-year-old son bounced up and down on his father’s chest. He was trying to wake him up so they could go and open the presents Santa had left. This man asked his son to do it without him, but this little boy would not do it without his daddy—a role this man was not enthusiastic about playing.
This man did eventually pull himself from his bed. He then proceeded to have a cigarette, take a quick rip of weed from his bong, and then finally make himself a cup of coffee while his son patiently waited to open presents.
Unable to see past his own misery; and unwilling to put aside his issues in order to be a decent father, to any onlooker this man looks selfish. But this man was truly incapable of being anything to anyone at the time. He was broken by life…completely broken…beyond repair…. forever?
In that trailer was a very uncomfortable leather couch. It was on that couch this man meditated on his misery.
Lying flat on his belly, he held one hand to his chest and the other just below his belly button. In his mind he called this, The Dead Man’s Pose. He would lay like this for hours, day after day in that trailer, only getting up here and there to have his cigarettes. Yes—smoking those cigarettes caused the fire that had him in this predicament in the first place, yet he still could not stop smoking. Yes, this man was pathetic—Or so he told himself….
Alright kiddos, clearly this man was me, so I’ll stop pretending now. I just needed you to have a good picture of how bad things were and felt a bit more comfortable doing it this way. (If you want a better understanding of how I was feeling in that trailer take a few minutes and listen to Adele sing Hold On and Easy On Me; those two songs pretty much sum up how I was feeling back then.)
I did have a house to rebuild that year because of the fire, but when I wasn’t helping with that I was hiding in that trailer in the Dead-Man’s Pose I just mentioned. That is where I listened to the seasons pass by outside…
Fall leaf blowers were replaced by snowplows and those were then replaced with lawnmowers. I’d listen to cars driving by and birds chirping. And sometimes I’d even hear kids playing. None of it registered. Once and a while I’d hear people looking for me; calling my name, I would ignore them and hope they’d just go away. Sometimes they did. The world outside that trailer was on play, but my life was on pause—NO—my life was over?
It got so bad a doctor suggested I participate in ECT to help me snap out of this depression I was in.
ECT is basically electric shock therapy and studies show it can help some people. For me however, there was no amount of electricity that would jumpstart my brain or my passion for living at the time.
My favorite part of the treatment was when they would insert a needle in my arm. This needle would put me to sleep before they did whatever it was they did. Counting down from ten, I was grateful to say goodbye to this world for a bit. Unfortunately, I kept waking up.
Originally, I wanted to title this article “P.A.I.N. through Depression,” but changed it to Emptiness out of respect for this diagnosable disease of the mind; also, because I believe the latter to be more relatable to a wider range of people. With that said, let me disclose right now that I have a personal on-going fight with the difference between the two words.
When I burnt my house down, I DOUBTED my life would ever get better. I was ANGRY with myself and the world. The shame I felt kept me up WORRIED sick. My days were spent not knowing what to do next, and I was full of ANXIETY.
Do you recognize these words?
I vividly remember performing the Dead Man’s Pose I just told you about for hours. The days were so long, and I remember fearing how many more days like that I could endure. I did feel tired all the time, but I couldn’t sleep, that’s not why I closed my eyes and stayed in that pose: I did it because I had given up.
The emptiness consumed me, and I remember there was nothing that interested me anymore. Not even my children. To me, this is how depression looked.
A friend of mine at the time—who knew I had been struggling—left me a card in the mailbox that stood in front of that burnt down house. His name was Billy Preston. In the card was the Saint Francis Prayer and a note that read, “Bring your sorrows and trade them for joy. From the ashes a new life is born.”
I remember retrieving this card of his from my mailbox one sunny afternoon, and I remember immediately ripping it up and throwing it in the trash: “F*** happy people,” I thought to myself as I ripped that card into pieces.
When I read my friend’s words, I felt nothing and hated the way his optimism tasted on my tongue. The love this friend felt for me I did not feel for myself. And the words of encouragement only aggravated me at the time.
Today, that Saint Francis prayer my friend gave me hangs over my bed as a reminder to love others even when they do not love themselves. Tonight, when I look at it, I will be reminded of how much I love all of you. I just wanted you to know—I hope you don’t mind.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
In only one word how would you describe our world today? Explain why you chose this word.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“…come and dance with me.”
—In The Colors by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals