Nice Backpack

Jenn wearing her backpackIn college, I was sure I had met the girl I was going to marry. Then we broke up, and my life went into a tailspin.

Being the heart-on-the-sleeve romantic that I am, I honestly thought that I had missed the most glorious of kismet and would never be again be fortunate enough to experience love. Years later, I was working as a travelling IT consultant. The job’s lonely existence served me well, giving me the world to experience while my heart mended. One of my projects took me to a small town in southwestern Missouri, whose downtown consisted of some boarded-up shops, liquor stores, a few fast-food restaurants, and a Super 8 Motel. This motel was my home for well over a year.

One night in this extended tour of duty, I felt lonely and began to troll the internet for someone–anyone–to talk to. I eventually stumbled upon the search feature in Friendster. My criteria was quite specific: look for single females located in Dallas, between the ages of 25-35, interested in relationships or friendships. I clicked “Search”, and on the first results page results was the first time I ever saw Jenn, my future wife.

She was wearing that silly little plastic backpack of hers — the one scrawled with the motto “Totally Me”, with a glance towards me that suggested just looking at her photo was only scratching the surface. I was hooked and sent her a message.

Imagine the paths of fate that had to intertwine for the two of us to find one another. Just a week before that night, Jenn had been hanging out with her co-worker Brooke. She was on Friendster and begged Jenn to sign up and be added to her friend’s list. Although Jenn had long ago had her fill of meeting people online, she signed up anyway to help Brooke out. And seven days later, there was a one-line message waiting in her inbox from someone named Matthew.

“Nice backpack,” said the message. And that was it. Even more mysterious than the message is the fact that Jenn actually replied. The next email led to exchange of IM handles, then phone numbers. After a month of talking nearly everyday on the phone, we decided to meet face-to-face. On February 20, 2004 (yes, I am one of those rare men that remembers the most-important days of his life), we arranged to have dinner together at a nice sushi restaurant.

When I first saw Jenn in the flesh, I stopped to take in the picture before me. She was a beautiful petite woman, with raven-dark hair streaked with fashionable red highlights. Her magenta blouse had a bold tone that reflected well against her olive skin. What pictures failed to convery was how great her smile was — one of those deep grins that radiated warmth to my cool heart. I remember everything about that meal: what we ordered, where we sat, the intensity of her green eyes. I found out silly little details, such as the name of her dog (Cali) and that she was in love with the movie “Seabiscuit.”

That evening, the Dallas Museum of Art was celebrating their 100th anniversary by staying open 100 consecutive hours. I wasn’t yet ready for our date to end, so I asked Jenn if she cared to check out the art spectacle. Thankfully, she said yes.

Although neither of us came to the evening with romantic intentions, our friendly dinner was turning into a great date.

A month had passed since Jenn and I started dating. Although it was early in our relationship, there was a spark that told me what we shared was significant.

One Friday night along the way we made plans to go out for the evening. Before I walked out the door to go pick her up, the phone rang.

It was Jenn. She was calling to tell me that she couldn’t go out with me anymore.

I asked why, and Jenn told me it was because I was an atheist, that someone who was Catholic and faithful couldn’t see herself with someone like myself.

Needless to say, I was speechless. Up to that moment, I had expected to be galavanting around town with my cutie. Instead things seemed to be over as quickly as they had begun. I hung up, then laid down on my bed. I was still wearing the nice shirt I had put on for our date. I cradled my head in my hands and stared at my ceiling. There I brooded all night, pondering over in over in my mind how a childhood decision would forever subject me to a lonely existence.

Although I am sure they believed in God, my parents never raised their sons to be religious. Sure, we were baptized, but never once did we attend church together or say grace. I was young, after all, so it’s entirely possible that I am fuzzy on the details. I do remember one thing with perfect clarity: the moment I decided that God didn’t exist.

I was seven years old, and my family was on a houseboat vacationing at Lake Powell, Utah. One night, I was hanging around the kitchen with my family. I was off in the corner eating some hotdogs, while my brother was helping mom mix up some powdered milk for dinner. It was when I was by myself that I had my first-ever revelation. I thought, “There’s no such thing as God.”

I hadn’t pondered the question of His existence before that moment, but that answer to an unasked question provided me with absolute comfort even as a kid. And for next three decades, I grew up knowing that things were right in my universe.

My beliefs weren’t seriously challenged until after I left school. In college, it was easy to nuture my atheism because of the rich diversity of people (and like minds) I encountered during my six years. But following graduation, I dated a woman from a large, traditional Catholic family who often was offended by my atheism. She assumed that because I believed in my atheism so strongly that someone as faithful as her must be foolish or at the very least stupid. She assumed this because she herself thought my lack of belief was ridiculous and offensive.

I honestly never thought such a thing, because I didn’t consider people of faith being wrong. I drew comfort from the choices I made; if someone else choose to believe in a higher power I appreciated such decisions. Although they weren’t choices I would make, who am I to judge others? Like any believer in the Golden Rule I hoped they would offer me the same respect.

I thought I had such respect from Jenn. Then that phone call changed my mind.

All of this is what I thought of over and over that one Friday night, lying on my bed with a broken heart.

The next morning, on Saturday, I was woken up by a phone call. It was Jenn. In an emotionally-frayed voice, she asked if I would come over to her place.

Just the night before, Jenn had cancelled our date because she was unable to accept my atheism, so you can imagine my confusion at her request.

I was grateful for the phone call. I told her that I would be up there as soon as I could and that I had some good news to share…

Jenn grew up in Baton Rouge, the oldest daughter in a family possessed of significant Catholic traditions. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade and went to Mass every Sunday with her parents. Jenn’s grandfather was heavily involved with the Knights of Columbus and, along with her grandmother, never missed daily Mass. Even her great-aunt devoted her life to service in the Dominican order.

During our first weeks of getting to know one another, Jenn and I would chat about our families and childhoods. At first, Jenn found my atheism intriguing. Yet, the farther she fell in love with me, the more distressed she was about the future because of the incompatability of our beliefs. Due to past experience dating religious women, I misinterperted her concern as judgement and would sometimes snap at her in frustration. I often asked, “I don’t question what you believe. Why can’t you accept my beliefs in return?”

Jenn wasn’t offended by my beliefs as much as she was worried. In response to my question, she would say, “When I am old and on my deathbed, I want my husband to be at my side reassuring me that we’ll be together in heaven — not that this is it and when I die it will be all over.” She would then ask me to put myself in her shoes and answer, would I want the same thing?

As I lied on my bed the previous evening, brooding about our cancelled date and apparent breakup, that question of Jenn’s kept coming back into my head and wouldn’t leave me be.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my choices and what they meant, not just for me but for those I cared for. After all, when someone becomes an atheist, they are defacto declaring themselves the highest level of their existence. In effect, they are making themselves God; after all, if there isn’t a supreme being, who else to take up that mantle than yourself? It breeds egotism and self-centerness, both of which conspire to prevent you from ever truly being able to love someone. Such thoughts resonated in my mind over and over that night, and I came to experience only the third revelation in my life.

For the first time, I honestly had the feeling that there was something beyond me, something superior with a greater understanding. I believed in God for the first time.

After her call that Saturday morning, I drove north to Jenn’s apartment in Addison. The late winter day was gray and gloomy, and after arriving I discovered her mood matched the weather. We ordered a pizza and sat down to talk.

When I asked why she wanted me to visit, Jenn explained that something about how we met, how we were touching each other’s souls in ways that noone else had, was screaming to her that she couldn’t walk away from this. That despite her religious upbringing and my lack of faith that things weren’t supposed to be over.

I smiled and told Jenn everything that had passed through my mind the night before. Her question about death and love touched me in ways few others have. It made me realize what is important…it’s not myself, but the love & good works that I share with Jenn, my family and friends, and God. Such soul-searching had finally led me to the greatest of loves.

Somnambulism and Somniloquy and Randomness, Oh My!

Sleepwalker Issue #1 CoverThis morning, before heading out to the airport, I woke my wife up with a kiss and told Jenn that I loved her. Soon enough, she was giggling about something I said while sleeping. Bookended by sleepy muttering and snores, I said something like this:

…they always make you wear the seat belt on these flights…I always take it off as soon as I can…but they come by and make you put it back on…but don’t worry, honey…after they go away, I’ll take off my seat belt so I can get next to and touch you…

None of this surprises me, for I have said and done far crazier things during the night.

When I was a kid in northern Chicago, I lived in two-story house with a basement. My bedroom was on the top floor, at the receiving end of a long, steep stairway. The cellar featured a similar flight of stairs and was secured by an unlocked door.

Late one night, my mother was having trouble sleeping, so she went downstairs to get a glass of milk. The kitchen was dark, illuminated only by light belching from the open refrigerator door. Suddenly, she saw something that made her gasp loudly in fright. As the door creaked open further, it lit up the corner of the kitchen where I stood, still as a lamppost, with my eyes wide open and glazed.

This was how I discovered that I am a sleepwalker.

Apparently, I had woken up in the middle of the night, strolled downstairs, and found myself behind the breakfast table. How I had done this without waking anyone up or breaking my neck is still unexplained. And the next morning, I had absolutely no memory of ever having left my room.

Another night shortly after that, my dad was woken by a loud noise coming from downstairs. He discovered me sitting on the living room couch, perched in front of the blaring television. I was looking at the television, but I wasn’t watching it. The next day, my father was at the hardware store, purchasing barriers for blocking the stairways and new locks for the basement door.

Episodes similar to this would occur off and on through the years and could only be blamed on sleepwalking because I was living alone. Once, I woke up and discovered that my pillowcases were missing. Further investigation found them in the living room, sitting on the couch folded up. And although I’ve been guilty of tossing and turning from time to time, one morning I awoke to find myself completely upside-down in the horizontal sense — I was lying with my feet pointing towards the headboard, propped up on my pillows.

The sleepwalking eventually faded away, only to be replaced by something more imaginative and random.

In 1995, I went camping at Enchanted Rock with the college gang that consisted of Reece, Daisy, and Bob. We had two tents. Reece and Daisy occupied the first, Bob & I the second. On one of the many red-wine-soaked evenings, I was sleeping yet boomed the following pronouncement

“Motion! You can’t see it, you gotta feel it! WOOOOSH! Didyoufeelit?! DIDYOUFEELIT?!”

Although it was dark, I imagine that everyone was staring at one another in disbelief. Reece asked me, “Matthew, are you awake?” to which I sarcastically replied, “Well, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?!”

Reece was annoyed and grunted, “Yeah, Matt, fuck you. Go back to sleep.”

I woke up to discover everyone was in a rather pissy mood towards me. Funny, I thought, since we went mad about anything before going to bed. I wondered what bug had crawled up their asses. I once again had no memory of my nocturnal activities. I didn’t believe that I was a sleep-talker. The accumulation of witnesses would soon convince me otherwise.

In 1997, I set out on a road-trip with my college buds Dan and Cary. During the trip, we shacked up at an Austin hotel. Dan and Cary shared one bed while I slept in the other. And once again in the middle of the quiet night, I made my presence known:

“Cleo’s feet are lunging necessary!”

In the dark, Dan was lying on his back — he couldn’t believe what I just said and was thinking that he must have heard things.

Then his bed started to shimmy. Cary was giggling silently and causing the mattress to shake. “Dude!” Dan said to Cary, “Did you hear that, too?!” Cary then burst into laughter said, “Yeah, dude!” Dan leaped out of bed, knocking over trash cans, chairs, and other non-secured furniture while searching for the pen and paper needed to record my words.

The next morning, I asked Dan where he got the fresh bruises on his shins.

Just a year later, I fulfilled a life-long dream to visit Great Britain. Traveling with my friends Jim and Monica, we rented a tiny car and wandered the countryside for two weeks, visiting such scenic locales as Warwickshire and the town of Battle.

Being a scholar, I soaked in all of the history I could. For example, Warwick is home to a splendid castle which remains largely intact. It served as the home of Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, famous in Shakespeare and history for playing a major part in the deposition and elevation of English monarchs. It was the prestige from such feats which afforded him the moniker of “The Kingmaker.”

Days later, we steered south and visited the town of Battle. One might think that Battle is a peculiar name for a town until they learn that it played host nearly a thousand years ago to the Battle of Hastings, where the Saxon warlord William the Conqueror bested Harold the Hagrid, the English king. Harold was felled on the field of battle by means of an arrow shaft to the eye. Such display of long-range weaponry proved to foreshadow English use of such weapons hundreds of years later at Agincourt.

Afterwards, the three of us returned to the B&B we were staying at. It was a small, charming establishment owned by our friends Ted & Gilly. While there, we received close to a royal treatment, as Ted was locally famous for both his culinary skills and taste for fine Scotch. After a fine meal of roasted lamb, we retired to our room.

Jim, Monica, and I shared a tiny room that caused us to remain in close proximity once asleep. The peaceful silence surrounding this evening’s slumber was shattered when I began to boom the following in my sleep:

“The French! They’ll never be able to withstand our longbows! We need to fetch more lances for the Kingmaker!”

Jim furiously tried to mute me with swats of pillows to the face and finger-pokes in my side, but to no avail. Soon enough, our fellow lodgers on the same floor were up and about thanks to the commotion I caused.

The next day, I heard of some slight grumbling. I dismissed such criticism; after all, what self-respecting Englishman wouldn’t want to be alerted to the fact that the French were coming?

Photo credit: Comic Book Resources

I Love My Mother

Stethoscope

Last night, I got a phone call I had been dreading for quite some time.

My father called to tell me that my mother was in the hospital.

Earlier in the day, she was visiting her primary care physician to get (of all things) a referral to the ophthalmologist. During the visit, they performed the routine blood-pressure test and found out that my mother’s was anything but — 270 over 140, dangerously high for a person of any age. The doctor exclaimed that he’d never seen blood pressure that high. And I’ll never roll my eyes at my doctor testing my blood pressure and taking my pulse ever again.

An EKG confirmed that her heart muscle had hardened, another symptom that something was amiss. She was told to drive herself to the hospital and check in immediately. This had happened earlier in the day, but my father did not have the opportunity to call me until around dinnertime.

For a number of years, ever since my parents approached the age of 58 (they are both 60 now); my heart has jumped each and every time they call unexpectedly. You see, a majority of the people in my family died before or at the age of 58, many of them from heart disease. My father is wise enough to do something about this, getting a physical each year and monitoring his own high blood pressure. My mother, on the other hand, has not been to the doctor in years. The last time she went was because she cut off her thumb in a kitchen accident awhile ago. Before that, who knows…? When she was admitted, they asked her all sorts of routine questions:

“When was your last physical?”

“I don’t know.”

“When did you last have a pap smear?”

“I don’t know.”

“When was your last mammogram?”

“I don’t know.”

And so forth.

The two of them rarely call me; it’s usually me that is contacting them, as I can be so introverted and wrapped up in my own business. And for my dad to call me at 5:00pm on a Friday…I expected the worst. And nearly got it. Dad told me that although mom was in the ICU, it was likely that a shortage of rooms elsewhere in the hospital put her there. If all goes well, both of them were told to expect her discharge by this evening.

After I hung up, you cannot believe how hard I cried.

I drove out to their town of Southlake immediately, wove through traffic as thick as fog, and had time to blow before visitation hours began at 8:30pm. I needed to eat; I needed to collect my thoughts. Schlotzsky’s, the restaurant of a thousand memories, came to mind.

I needed something different from my regular routine, so I quizzed the teenagers working there about the quality of their pizzas. One of them encouraged me to try the chicken pesto pizza — good enough, I thought. “Gimme that, a small drink, and a cookie.” What cookie, they asked. I waffled — chocolate chip, I said. No, wait…macadamia nut, I quickly corrected. The teenager grabbed a chocolate chip cookie and I surrendered, “OK, I guess it’s chocolate chip.” He then followed it by grabbing the macadamia nut one. “Oh, I’m sorry, I only wanted one cookie.” He gave me both, said, “Don’t worry about it, sir,” and I let him know that he just made my night. I’m buying Schlotzsky’s stock come Monday morning.

I spent part of the evening at home with my father who taught me everything he knows about high blood pressure, a condition he’s had all of his adult life (thanks to his steady diet of cigarettes and alcohol, dual tastes my mother also shares). Medical care and medicine are sciences that escape me — I have a chronic thyroid condition that I may not be able to tell you the first thing about despite how it affects my everyday life. The good news was that they had detected this before something like a stroke or heart attack had occurred. My father then asked about my brother Michael — I’d talked to him earlier in the evening, and he had seemed a bit freaked out. I was freaked out myself, seconds away from crying again the whole night. The prospect of my mother being in the hospital scares me so much.

Around 8:30pm, we left for the hospital, and I was able to see my mother. She seemed relaxed and slight groggy. She was having trouble sleeping, she told me. All sorts of monitors and tubes snaked around, the sheer quantity of which unnerved me. But she felt fine, was less scared than curious about what all of the testing was showing, and wished that the nurses would quit waking her up just to ask if she’d like a sleeping pill.

That was yesterday; today it’s Saturday, and I’m currently idling away while Kilgore gets her oil changed at the local Wal-Mart. Earlier in the day, I attempted my weekly long run, only to have it aborted by searing ankle pain, the kind I have not experienced for a year now. I returned home to take the longest shower in history, as I spent most of it pinned against the wall crying again. I just came from seeing my mother in the hospital again, and both my father and godmother Kathleen were there. The mood was somber — my mother’s heart rate and blood pressure had just surged before I walked in. Visiting hours soon ended, and we were all kicked out before we could get an answer from the doctor. It’s two more hours until the next set of visiting hours. I have the feeling that she’s not going home tonight. And if not tonight, when?

Time passes, the next set of visiting hours comes about, and I visit my mother. She’s awake again and feeling fine. She looks good for a 98-pound weakling of a 60-year-old, and appears quite eager to get the hell out of Dodge–Hospital, that is. Kathleen was there again, along with her husband Bob; my father showed up soon afterwards. The magic hour was 8 o’clock, when my mother would have to show marked improvement in her blood pressure before being discharged. When the time came and the automatic cuff released itself from her arm, the results were pleasing enough: 149 over 62. She’s going to be on medication now, to reduce her blood pressure and lower her LcL cholesterol. In addition, she’s on The Patch — so it looks like my lifelong hope of my mother quitting smoking may happen now.

I spent most of the next hour at Outback Steakhouse, getting a takeout order for my parents while dad took care of getting mom settled in back at home. It’s worth noting that the same bartenders have worked there ever since the place opened, and my father and other Southlake/Grapevine cronies all hang out there each Thursday. Dad wanted the Outback Special, medium-rare with a side of fettuccini alfredo — I asked the bartender if it was possible to get this combination, and she said, “Oh, you must be Nick and Mikie’s son?” Soon enough, she was kind enough to draw me a huge pint of Fat Tire for the happy hour price.

And honestly for the first time in my life, I said to myself, “Damn, I really need a drink tonight.”

Image credit: Jasleen_Kaur on Flickr