Chaka, when the wall fell

When I was in elementary school, I had a best friend, “Pat” (not his real name). Pat and I had a lot of fun playing video games and computer stuff. He lived in a really nice house in a development in the woods and his dad had a black Corvette. Memories fade, but one that stands out was when we were exploring the swamp near his house in the middle of winter, and we were hopping from icy patch to icy patch, and somehow I fell in. It was me and Pat, and I was in the icy swamp up to my knees. I got out, we went back to his house and warmed up, I think his mom washed off my shoes or something. We had a lot of fun together, doing all kinds of pre-internet and pre-cellphone stuff like starting fires and hitting each other with sticks. Then at some point around 8th grade, his family moved to Connecticut. We lived on eastern Long Island so, that was basically that. It’s 25 years later now and we’re friends on Facebook but I haven’t seen him since then, and doesn’t seem like I’ll ever see him again. He comments on my posts now and then. When he moved away, it hurt.

After Pat moved, for a few years, I had no real friends. Lots of acquaintances, but nobody like Pat. My home life was kind of a disaster, which made me self conscious about inviting people over. I had (and still have) no interest in sports, either playing them or watching them, which was another thing that kept me isolated from “normal” kids.

In 6th grade, a kid named “Steve” moved back into our district. He had been in our elementary school, but then moved away for a couple years, and was now back. When I first talked to him in social studies in 6th grade, the first thing he said to me was “I remember you, you’re Spock Ears!” I had gone through elementary school with people calling me Spock because of my “pointy ears,” though nobody had called me that for a long time. When Steve said this in 6th grade I instantly hated him.

I’m not sure how it happened, but sometime in high school, Steve became my best friend. Maybe because we were in Latin class together and we were the only two kids who didn’t do the exchange student trip to Italy, so we spent two weeks in Latin with just me and him. I remember once when it was me, him, and the teacher in the classroom during that time and he said “this guy Michael came to my house looking for you. Do you know him? Michael Hunt?” I had never heard this joke before, and after like 5 minutes I think he finally got me to say “Mike Hunt” in front of the teacher, though she also didn’t seem to get it. Steve and I hung out all the time. We listened to all the Jerky Boys CDs endlessly in his bedroom hundreds of times and laughed hysterically. To this day I quote Jerky Boys and think it was one of the funniest things man has ever produced. He was a couple months older, but I ended up getting a car before he did and I’d go pick him up and we’d just spend hours driving around. We’d drive all over the place, into the backwoods of East Hampton. Just listening to the radio, talking, laughing.

Then toward the end of our junior year of high school, in AP English class one day he said “guess what, I got some big news,” and my heart sank. “You’re moving…” I said, and he nodded. “Yup, to Wisconsin.” When that year ended, his family did indeed move to Wisconsin. I spent my senior year of high school once again friendless. The summer after I graduated from high school, I flew to Wisconsin to visit him for a week. That was fun, like old times. Then I came back, and that was that for a while. He eventually moved to California, lived there a few years. Then around 2006 he moved back to New York. I saw him a couple times, but after a few months he let me know he would be moving to China. That was about 10 years ago. He has two kids and lots of family there, so I probably won’t see him ever again. I’m happy for him, but sad for me.

Anyway, when Steve left the first time, after 11th grade, I decided that I was simply done with friends. After being abandoned by two best-friends, it seemed like having them was a losing proposition. Around that time I began building an emotional fortress around my psyche. I was determined not to let anyone hurt me that way again.

Soon after starting college I met my first girlfriend. That was quite a new experience. Despite the feelings of youthful love, I made sure to keep my wall strong. If losing a friend hurt so bad, what would losing a girlfriend feel like? So I let myself love, but kept a good chunk of my emotions in reserve. After all, any minute now this thing could sink, and then what? I was young, in college surrounded by people way smarter, cooler, and better looking than I was. What were the odds I’d find another girlfriend if I lost this one?

That was over twenty years ago. She and I ended up getting married and we have a beautiful son now, who’s twelve. The year my son was born was the year my dad died. He had been terribly ill for years, in the VA nursing home. I visited him once in a while, but not as often as I should have. When I first went to visit him, after several years having not seen him, he was so happy to see me. I was there with my girlfriend, and I introduced her to him, and he looked confused. He said “I thought the reason you didn’t come see me was because you were gay.” I saw him a few more times, and called him a bunch, but he couldn’t really talk on the phone. When he finally died, I was sad, but because I had selfishly cut myself off from him, the wall protected me.

When I met my girlfriend she had a big dog, who I grew to love as much as he loved me. When he was 12 he got cancer and I had to take him to the vet to put him down. That was like a Howitzer blast to my wall. My son was about 3 months old at this point, though, so I had a lot of other stuff to worry about, and the general newness of a baby is enough to distract from a lot. We still had a second dog, and we were moving to a new house, so I was at least able to paper over the hole left by putting that dog to sleep.

A couple years later, I had to put the other dog to sleep when she was suffering from congestive heart failure. When she was gone I told my wife I didn’t want any more dogs for a while. I wanted to be able to go on vacation without worrying about who’d watch the dog, or having to rush home after a night out just to let the dog out. That lasted about 6 months. We went to the animal shelter one day to get a cat for my son. We came home with Chloe. I was so fucking mad. I felt I’d been bullied into adopting this dog.

Ten years later, in early March 2018, Chloe got sick. One day she was healthy, and the next she looked terrible. She wasn’t eating, not even chicken or cheese put right in front of her. We took her to the vet, who did an x-ray, and she told us her abdomen was filling up with blood, a result of a massive tumor in her spleen that had ruptured. The vet recommended euthanasia.

And just like that, the wall I spent over twenty years building came crashing down. Chloe was a Trojan horse. She snuck past my defenses and I only realized how much I loved her when we got that call from the vet. I think now how my reaction to that call differed from the call when my dad died. I feel so guilty.

We pulled our son out of school and went to the vet to say goodbye to her. We were all hysterical. My wife and son left the room, but I stayed with her until the end. In that room, in the body of my dead, beloved dog, was the rubble of my emotional defense.

It’s been about six weeks now since Chloe died. After the initial hysterics, I had a brief upswing, and then a 10 day vacation in Florida, but with my defense gone I now realize that I, too, am subject to time. For most of my life I felt like an outside observer, watching things happen to other people. Even having a kid didn’t drive that home. I saw pictures of Obama when he took office and when he left office and thought “sheesh, he got old,” without acknowledging that I went through those same eight years, and my bag of meat was also aging. When Chloe died, all that knowledge got poured into my mind at once. Since that day, I can’t look at anyone without seeing them old. I feel like all of time is being compressed now. Today I’m 39 and my son is 12. In ten years I’ll be 49 and my son will be 22 (God willing). What will the world look like then? Will he be able to get a job? Will I have a job? Will he find love? Will we still live on Long Island? Do I want to deal with all these shitty winters and shitty trains until my knees give out and my meatbag falls apart? Should I get that surgery now, before I’m too old for my body to handle it? Will AI put humanity out of work? How will America compete against China? Will our politics ever become civil again? When will we build an automated drone that kills in the battlefield without human approval? Will my son ever remember to brush his teeth if I’m not around? What am I going to do for fun when he moves out? Will he ever love playing drums again? Will I ever find music I like again? Should I get my bathroom fixed? Or just sell the house? Or both? What will I do when my mom dies? Will I ever be good at my job? If I leave this one, will I even be able to get another? Is there any place in the for a hardware-focused devops engineer in a cloud-centric world? What are we going to watch on TV once Game of Thrones ends? How am I going to make it through the next shitty-ass winter? If my son moves out when he’s 18, that means his time with me is already ⅔ over — am I doing everything I can to make him into the man he needs to be? Do I even know what that is? Am I even the man I need to be? My mom is almost 70 and lives all by herself in a big empty house an hour away; is that my fate? How much longer will I have her? She got to meet her grandson, and her mom even got to meet a great-grandson. Will I? Should I replace this goddamn dishwasher that never gets the dishes clean even though we just bought it 3 years ago?

These are the questions that have been eating at me every day for the past month. We went on vacation to Disney World, which was a welcome break. I had some truly joyful moments, but going to Disney with a 12-year-old isn’t like going with a 5-year-old. It’s fun, but it’s not magic. He’s twelve now, so his time with me is ⅔ over. Then what? Before he was born we had a pretty unconventional family: me, my girlfriend, her two nieces (long story), and the two dogs. 12 years later and it’s just the three of us. We’ll probably get another dog, or maybe a couple, but for the first time in a long time, I am terrified of the unknown. I have no armor left. My self is floating, adrift, on the river of time. There’s a waterfall up ahead, and each of us faces it eventually, but for most of my life I’ve been facing the other direction. Now I see it. It’s there, we must all face it, though we never really know how far or close we are to it.

Why am I writing this? Part of it is just to leave some graffiti on the river wall that someone will read down the line and think of me. Hopefully my son will someday, when he’s very old, remember his “old man.” I told my wife one of the things that’s upsetting me is the idea that I won’t see how the story ends. Each of us is a chapter in the great story of life, hopefully a neverending story of humanity. But I want to know what happens 300, 500, 2000 years from now. Do we colonize Mars? Will mankind ever stop killing each other? Maybe I don’t really want to know.

I turned 39 in February. Maybe this is just a cliched midlife crisis and I should just go get a mistress and a Porsche. Ignorance is bliss, and after how I’ve felt the last couple weeks I completely understand why Cipher wanted Agent Smith to put him back in the Matrix. Knowledge can be a curse. When Chloe died, I told my son, “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Easy for me to say, but after I said it I realized it was the opposite of how I’d lived my entire life. Building an emotional wall prevented me from fully loving, for fear of loss.

I’m still trying to work this all out. Hopefully these feelings will lessen over time. Maybe I should talk to a therapist. I’m tired of crying though. I long for the days of 2 months ago when I just didn’t give a shit. Not that I was the paragon of happiness then, but at least I didn’t feel like a salted wound.

I think I’m done for now. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I guess it feels good to get it out, whether in speech or in text. If you’re a historian reading this long after my barrel went over the waterfall, hello to you too.

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