I don’t remember why we chose the aquarium in Norwalk, this far-away place that became the scene of a major personal victory after a long time spent taking Ls.
We didn’t plan as thoroughly then. Get in the car, pick a direction, and figure it out along the way. I love the romance of that, but we rarely wound up any place great. You make a feast out of whatever is in front of you when you’re poor as hell.
I’d been to that aquarium a bunch when I was a kid. My grandmother would take me there when I went to visit and it always made me feel loved to be the center of attention with her. No kid sister drawing her attention away, no bullying older cousins.
When we got there, the plan was that I’d rent a wheelchair. I was getting better, no longer bedridden or stuck using a walker, but still unable to walk far on my own. I was getting used to wheelchairs and electric scooters when I made my infrequent trips out of the house. Anything was better than canceling plans or letting life pass me by.
When we got to the front desk, however, there were no wheelchairs left. My choices were pretty simple: ask my wife to go ahead without me or ask her to take us home, suffering the embarrassment of ruining a day because of my limitations. And I tell you, I just didn’t want to do either of those things. So instead, I decided to walk. Slowly and unsteadily at times with plenty of breaks to sit down on a bench and let my legs recharge. The whole trip probably took two or three times as long as it would have on healthy legs, but I can’t ever quite sum up the elation of being able to do something as routine as walk next to my wife through a crowded aquarium. It was a most important day. One that set me on a path back to a version of me that I had lost a couple of years prior.
To be clear, that me has yet to return in full. The weight I gained from being on steroids has hung around and I lack the grace and physical dexterity that I had when I was younger. A lazy eye serves as another reminder — forever changing the face my wife fell in love with. I hate it. But I try not to see it. And I try not to feel any lingering limitations. I’m so far from that day at the aquarium when I was able to grab that small win. A decade or so. I’ve claimed so many additional ones since then, building a career and a life through hard work and determination. And I owe it all to denial.
Tomorrow marks two weeks since I got my second COVID shot. That’s the period of time I gave myself to get ready to begin minorly stepping back out into the world. As a high risk individual, I’ve avoided stores, large crowds, intimate gatherings… you name it. I’m still hazy on what the vaccine means for me with variants and recklessness still circulating. I’m going to feel it out and take it slow. Slower than I’d like, slower than might be warranted.
Soon, though, even my hesitancy will ebb and something like normality will return while, at the same time, tasking us all with the burden of trying to move on from this lost year. Something that’s likely impossible for those who lost too much to forget. I count myself lucky to not be in that group. But as someone who has lost more than a year of their life to illness before all of this, let me tell you, if you’re similarly lucky and you have the ability to, you should try your best to look ahead and never look back.
My wife gets mad at me sometimes because I have blocked out a lot of the worst parts of that time. And she’s right — for better or worse, it’s still a part of our story. But I don’t think I have the ability to pick and choose what I hold onto. And I’m not comfortable trying to linger for long in the past, lest I get stuck there. Writing this is, to be honest, a wholly uncomfortable experience and as far as I care to go in that direction. But this idea is something I keep coming back to. Especially in this unique moment. Because it’s hard to not draw parallels and inticing to offer one size fits all advice that fits you so well. Even when the advice isn’t really mine to give. Or healthy.
There’s a scene in Mad Men (above) that I cling to. I saw it long after I needed to see it, but it connects to my experience nevertheless.
Peggy Olsen is in a hospital bed and Don Draper looks at her. She’s devastated from a secret she’s trying to keep from the world and the fact that she’s been tossed aside as though she was broken. He tells her, with the unwavering sureness of someone who has been down and knows how to get back up…
“Peggy, listen to me. Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
It takes a lot to do that. To wall off a part of yourself. Obviously, Don is an immensely messed up person due, I think in part, to taking his own advice. So, in the end, I don’t know that it’s the healthiest way forward or the best advice. I’m colder because I’ve lived my life by those words (even before hearing them) in this situation and in others. But I’m also still here and every day I wake up and I don’t think about where I used to be and how horrifying it all was. I rarely ever think about that and how embarrassing and emasculating and humbling and hopeless I was or the pain of seeing my then 25-year-old wife become a nursemaid who had to walk over the wreckage of our broken dreams to wipe my ass… No. Instead, every day, I laugh easy. I walk, I hold her with arms I used to not be able to raise, and I love her and we dream. I move forward, save for those times I briefly look back and ponder how shocking it is, that thing that never happened.
And that’s what I’m gonna do with all of this: lie to myself, ignore my pain, and hope that it never catches up to me.