Laughter, Natures Best Medicine
Kenai, Alaska, 2007
There’s more to David’s life than my cynical ranting has led you to believe. My only excuse for meandering through my melancholy state of mind is because it’s so easy to focus on the negatives. Finding the riches to David’s life is like panning for gold. The nuggets of his goodness are always lying right there below the surface. I just have to sift through the rubble to get to them. Lest you think me hopelessly insensitive, let me share with you a few of the reasons why David means so much to me.
Although David doesn’t understand the concept of money, if you need a buck, he’s willing to give you all the money he has wadded up in his pockets. Friends particularly like this quality in him. They’ll stick to him like leeches on blood sausage when he’s got a fistful of cash. Need beer, chips, and junk food for an impromptu party? He’s buying. Are you almost out of gas? No problem. He’ll spot you the money to top off your tank.
David also has a voracious appetite. The one thing he’s always hungry for? Chinese buffet. He’d pay for my lunch every day for eternity if he had the funds. It’s rare that I let him pay for lunch, but I do so on occasion, because giving does the heart good and David gets a kick out of treating dear old Dad. I usually throw in the tip, because David can’t compute the 15 percent extra. After getting our fill of sushi and orange chicken, he’s stumped when the cashier asks him for more money, since the concept of tax eludes him as well.
Recently, when David heard I’d lost my job as the manager of a local trucking company, we were driving to a barbecue out toward Kenai, Alaska. David yelled to me from the backseat of Gena’s Subaru, “Dad, they need help raking leaves at the apartment where I’m working. You wanna job?”
I considered the prospect of working for chump change doing kids’ work, which was my very first job I did for a neighbor when I was seven years old living in Makakilo, Hawaii. “No. But thanks anyways, Dave.”
David aims to please, and his generosity is authentic. He’s the most generous person I know, and not just with money. Being the middle-aged man I am, now in my late forties, there are times when I need an extra hand. David will work for me all day for gas or cigarette money. It’s not that I’m cheap. When times are good, I’ve paid him by the hour. Then there are those times when I just need his free help around the house, because he’s my son and because I don’t want to treat him like an employee. David is usually happy to oblige and rarely complains.
These days, working around the house usually involves clearing dead spruce pine trees killed by the appropriately named spruce beetle. This pesky insect crawled its way across Alaska via Canada all the way down to the Homer Spit, which is pretty much the farthest one can spit in northwest America. Homer’s an eclectic little village best known by locals as “a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” Many trees on my property have already toppled over since they’ve been drilled full of holes by the aforementioned beetle. The remaining standing dead trees need to be axed Paul Bunyan–style. I don’t swing an ax, so it’s a joy felling the beasts the modern way with my eighteen-inch chainsaw. Once they’ve magnificently crashed to the ground, I limb the branches off and chainsaw the trunk into sections, which I later split into firewood with a mechanized splitter. I cannot, under any circumstances, let David use the chainsaw. This would be too irresponsible. This entire grueling process takes a lot of brute strength. I employ David for help, along with my trusty all-terrain vehicle with a trailer, so that we can haul our firewood back up to the house.
Working with David is like working with a new recruit in training. I tell him what to do and where to go, and then verify that he understands the task. He needs constant direction and has a hard time anticipating what needs to be done next. If I tell him what to do and how to do it, he’ll keep on doing it until his energy putters out. Coffee, cigarettes, and food extend his productivity, but like the effects of a sugary energy drink, David eventually crashes. He’s half my age, but I run circles around him. What matters, however, is that he is so willing to help all the time.
David has the uncanny aptitude to remember numbers. He can recall obvious numbers such as his license number and Social Security number, but he can also remember the addresses and street names of places we’ve lived. He’s great with phone numbers too. For while he may not be that adept at utilizing all of the functions of a modern phone, he more than makes up for this by being able to remember the phone numbers to all of his friends.
His spelling abilities are also off the charts. Big, long, complicated words are as easy for him to spell as simple words. He’s the family dictionary when we play Scrabble. I can almost see his mind turning as he spells words out. Maybe his brain was jarred into having a more advanced phonetic system, one in which his mental capacities can visualize precisely where the vowels and consonants of a word automatically go.
David’s also good with names, particularly the names of actors and musicians. You know how difficult it is to remember the name of a movie or the actor in a movie? Give David a brief description of the movie, and he’ll likely tell you the name of the movie and who starred in it. Every once in a while, however, he’ll look at an actor on screen and draw a complete blank. If I know who the actor is, I’ll tell him, and at this point he’s able to rattle off other movies the actor was in. It’s like he’s fishing for memories by picturing words instead of relying on visual cues.
His shortcomings in visual recognition are more notable for places we’ve been to, and he also possesses an odd inability to match different types of scenery with familiar locales. Through the years, we’ve moved and traveled often. (Both my children lived or traveled through dozens of states and half a dozen countries before they were ten.) I remember one particular trip as we were traveling to Houston from Austin, Texas. David looked out the window and thought we were in Missouri. He’d been to Missouri before, but apparently the foliage he was watching pass by tricked him into forgetting what state we were in.
Not only does David have difficulty matching where he’s been to where he’s going based on the unique scenery, but he also lacks the ability to estimate the time it takes to get from one place to another. I can tell David it will take two hours to get from Austin to Houston, but an hour and a half into the trip, he’ll think we still have three hours to go. In other words, he’s long forgotten the amount of time I initially told him it would take, and he’s failed to recognize the amount of time we’ve been on the road. A three-hour trip must seem like a lifetime for him to travel, which is probably why every time we hit the road he tries to sleep the entire trip. I wonder why David isn’t interested in the excitement of traveling. Heck, just getting in the car and hitting the road is adventure enough for me. And what of the thrill of taking longer trips into distant lands and cultures? David cares little of these experiences.
A few years back, we took a family trip down to Mexico, south of Cancun. For a week we swam in the waves of pristine beaches, shopped for a day on the island of Cozumel, took a white-knuckle flight (in which we got lost in the clouds) to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza, snorkeled in lagoons filled with exotic sea creatures at the Xel-Ha Aquatic Adventure Park, and enjoyed golfing and scuba diving. Who was absent on all of these family excursions? David. We’d paid for an all-inclusive package at the resort. As long as we were wearing the resort’s bracelet, we could eat and drink to our heartburn’s content. David thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He ate and drank himself silly through the warm Mexican nights and by day slept off his hangovers.
To his credit, David loves people. He loves meeting and greeting and being with people. He’s a socialite extraordinaire. On the trip to Mexico, the reason he didn’t want to visit any exotic places was because he wanted to be with exotic people. Ancient ruins, snorkeling, chasing manta rays and sea turtles, window-shopping, getting sunburned—these were things David didn’t want to experience. His idea of fun was meeting new people. The fact that the drinking age in Mexico is eighteen also slightly curbed his desire to explore. And given that there was an Ozzy look-alike from the Netherlands also vacationing at the hotel was too much for David to resist. So he and the Ozzy character stayed poolside by the bar.
You’d love hearing David howl with laughter. His laugh goes unchecked by any inhibitions. This is no doubt due to one of the injuries he sustained to his brain in the area known as the frontal lobe region. The frontal lobe is pretty much the desktop of the brain. Take a hit to this area and every personality trait a person has can get scrambled. This certainly explains a lot in David’s case. David’s laugh is so wholehearted it can make him pee his pants. If you didn’t think the joke was funny, just watching David laugh will make you laugh. He’s infectious.
As for me, I’ve forgotten how to laugh. I smile and make noises that mimic laughing, but I don’t really laugh. When I succeed at snorting, it surprises me, as though an imposter has hijacked my throat. I don’t laugh enthusiastically due to all the crap that has happened in David’s life and, to some degree, the sensitivity I’ve acquired in response to all the crap that happens on this spinning planet. For many years, I even thought I’d lost the right to laugh . . .
I wish I could laugh as he laughs. I envy him. Him laughing without a care in the world, because in many respects, his injuries prevent him from having a care in the world, and me, bearing the brunt of his load through life, acting silent as a deaf mute. It’s a crying shame.
A few days ago, David was standing in my kitchen eating Fig Newtons after dipping them in milk. As I walked into the kitchen, he eyed a fig cookie suspiciously and asked me, “What kind of fruit is in these cookies?”
Knowing David, I knew he wasn’t joking and needed this mystery solved. I began slowly so that my choice of words would hopefully sink in. “Are you sure there is nothing, nothing whatsoever on the packaging, that tells you what is in THE Fig Newtons?”
He studied the wrapper long and hard. “Nothing.”
“What about figs, David?”
Yesterday, I was standing on the balcony outside Dana and Stix’s apartment. (And by the way, when I say “a few days ago” or “yesterday” etc., I really do mean yesterday and a few days ago at the time of writing.) David comes out of his apartment (he happens to live just two doors down) and yells at me to come take a look at his water purifier. David’s referring to the water filter pitcher Gena bought him to help filter out the toxins from the tap. In some areas of Alaska, the water is an unquenchable shade of orange on account of the heavy iron content. David walks toward me, saying, “The pitcher’s been broken for a week, and I can’t fix it.”
While we walk to his apartment, I take a moment to mentally troubleshoot the possible ways that would prevent the pitcher from operating correctly. There’s the clear plastic pitcher, a round white insert that fits into the top of the pitcher, and a filter that slides into the white insert. Seems simple enough. We get to his kitchen, and I check it out. It takes me a fraction of a second to figure out the problem. There’s a thin piece of plastic on the side of the filter that is supposed to slip into a groove in the white insert. I slide the filter into its groove and fill the insert with water. David stares at the water droplets that are now miraculously trickling into the clear pitcher. His expression tells me he thinks I’ve performed the most amazing of magical feats.
“How? Oh my God! That’s so stupid!” He laughs uncontrollably and heads for the
When he returns, I tell him, “You know what I’m going to get you for your birthday? One of those toys with differently shaped blocks that you slip into specific holes in a ball. You know, the red square goes into the square hole, the yellow triangle goes into the triangularly shaped hole, and the blue round ball goes into the round hole. That could help you solve these kinds of riddles.”
Sometimes David does things that make me wag my head. Other times, he does things that make me want to cry.
Because that very next Monday after fixing David’s water pitcher, I heard Gena’s cell phone ringing in her purse and I flipped the receiver open. It was a guy from Texas I’d never talked to before. His raspy, singsong voice had a peculiar feminine quality to it, and he sounded furious. He said he was looking for David’s mother. Being the good husband that I am and wanting to spare Gena the grief of dealing with the angry man, I lied and stated, “She’s not here. I’m David’s father. What’s this about?”
“I want you to speak to David and ask him to stop coming on to my husband.”
Surely the guy meant to say he wanted David to stop messing with his wife. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“I want you to tell David that Freddy is my husband and to stop flirting with him.”
Ahh, I did hear you right the first time, I thought. But the conversation still made no sense. David was in Alaska. This guy was in Texas. Some guy thought David had been flirting with . . . his husband? How’s this possible, and how long has my son been gay? I wondered.
“I’ll talk to David,” I assured the man.
I got off the phone and slowly said to David, “That was the most bizarre phone call I have ever received in my entire life. Are you gay now?”
“Yes,” he replied out of spite.
Not that it matters to me if someone’s a homosexual (and that’s the honest-to-God-strike-me-down-dead truth). But David’s not gay. How do I know this? Because these days the inquiring minds of parents want to know if their children are gay, so we watch for the approaching signs of sexual maturity our kids exhibit when they come of age. That’s how. And David clearly was interested in the opposite sex. The really sad part of this story is not that David flirted with a guy on the phone. As strange as this scenario sounds, what’s sad is this is just the kind of event that happens in David’s life, which is totally within the realm of possibilities on any given day. And the real tragedy is that David really doesn’t know who or what he is, but he’ll experiment to find the answer.
He’s a victim waiting to be victimized.
The following week I was visiting David back at his apartment in Kenai and glanced at the paint-by-numbers kit I had bought him. The scene he was painting was of a majestic bald eagle soaring over autumn-tinted trees with a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks not unlike the picturesque views we saw every day living in the land of the midnight sun. David was halfway through completing the painting.
“This is looking pretty good,” I told him, because it was genuinely impressive.
I took a gander at the instructions on the table next to the painting. There was an 11" x 14" replica of the painting on paper. Similar to the painting, the replica was divided into hundreds of puzzle-like portions with microscopic letters and numbers printed inside each portion. Next to the replica was the instruction sheet, which described in complex numerical and alphabetical codes how to mix particular colors by using only the primary and secondary colors supplied with the paint kit.
“I’d shoot myself if I had to do this painting,” I joked to him.
I had bought the paint kit because he liked to draw in pencil, and I’d been trying his entire life to interest him in using color. He surprised me by rising to the challenge. The painting would’ve required far too much patience for me to tackle. I was left wondering how David had the ability to break the complex numerical and alphabetical coloring code and then spend hours painting with microscopic detail, yet he had tried unsuccessfully for a week to get his water pitcher to work by simply lining up two pieces of plastic.
That’s David in a nutshell. It’s impossible to tell what he can do from what he can’t do, and what he wants to do from what he’s unmotivated to do.
On another wall in his “painting studio” was a huge drawing he’d been working on for months. This particular work was expanding with his imagination. He’d been Scotch-taping additional 8.5" x 11" sheets of white paper together to enlarge the masterpiece. It was not uncommon for him to fill his walls in this manner with many drawings. Back in San Antonio, Texas, he didn’t use paper at all, instead sketching directly onto his walls. I had given him permission to do this, of course. Frankly, I thought it easier to paint his walls when we moved out of the house rather than do battle with him every day.
I studied the themes in this drawing, which were reminiscent of his tattoos. There was a castle with a dragon in the sky and stairs leading up from the castle toward the sky into an imaginary world. Off to the side of the castle were medieval, human-like creatures in skeletal form. (Bones are among David’s many fascinations.) The detail in the drawing was impeccable, but the proportions were warped as though one chugged down a beer and was looking at the drawing through the bottom of the bottle.
I’d long since given up trying to impress David with the necessity of getting the proportions right. “People will appreciate your art more if they can recognize what you are actually trying to draw, David. Stay in the lines!” I’d told him at least a hundred times.
His inability to understand why it was so important to follow this advice has backfired on me, because there are many lessons in life that David has actually taught me. Two lessons come to mind at this juncture. First, David helped me discard the pretentious assumption that living life is all about staying in the lines. Living within the confines of someone else’s outline for your life is a bad idea—and boring. Life is not a paint-by-numbers kit. Rules and traditions should be challenged with each successive generation. And when it comes to being a painter, writer, or musician or engaging in any kind of artistic adventure, one should follow one’s own heart, because with today’s commercialized mentality, originality is a human trait on the verge of extinction.
The second lesson is related to the first lesson. It can only be properly experienced by those who have not sidestepped tragedy and have otherwise dealt with human suffering for months, years, and even decades. The lesson is that life is not perfect; it’s not meant to be experienced as though everyone were running on a treadmill in a linear path toward a similar goal. No matter where we live in this world, our particular cultures present an idyllic path to happiness and success. Taking this path works reasonably well for “normal” people. It works especially well for families with the financial resources and connections to pave a path to success for their children. Not so, however, for those among us who are not normal.
So draw like you want to, David. Live like you want to.