A Series of Unfortunate Accidents
I Missed All the Warnings
Max was born with one testicle. The doctor said, “He’ll need surgery to see if that testicle is undescended.” I panicked. Surgery? On a BABY?
No, it would be at six months of age. (Like that should be a relief, a 6-month-old baby going under anesthesia.) It was a must, we were told: an undescended testicle in your body raised your chances of getting cancer.
The day of the surgery, I prayed Please God please God please God don’t let him die.
Six-month-old Max survived. The doctor said, “There is no testicle.” I asked if he meant it couldn’t be pulled down into the scrotum. No, he said: there was no testicle there at all. He was born with only one. But, he would likely still be able to have children and, down the road, could have an implant in place of the missing one, for aesthetics.
In 2015, 22 years later, when Max was diagnosed with cancer, they found the cause: the undescended testicle. It was there all along. The doctor had missed it. Did he do the operation right? We’ll never know. Medical records that old are destroyed. Max only lived seven months after we discovered it.
When Max was seven, he was playing with some kids in the backyard. He came in the house, sobbing, screaming. His arm dangled at an odd angle. Panic coursed through my body. I took him to the local satellite hospital a mile away. It was a bad break; he had to have surgery on the arm. I prayed during the surgery Please God please God please God don’t let him die.
But he lived.
Surgery had always scared me. But when Max was 22, he had two treacherous surgeries. First, an RPLND. Explanation: you end up with a 14-inch vertical scar down your belly, because they pull out and set several organs aside while they remove a large tumor. Yes, I did the prayers and when surgery was completed in half of the expected six hours, I was ready for the bad news.
But he lived.
Then he had brain surgery about a month later. No matter what everyone said, brain surgery was really terrifying. That day, after I got tired of Please God please God please God don’t let him die, I grabbed my my cell phone and looked up prayers for people undergoing surgery. I ignored the fundamentalist ones, and prayed the others.
But he lived.
A couple of years after Denver, we had moved to Chicago and Max was in middle school. I picked him up at his Mom’s and took him to Dairy Queen after school for ice cream. (Wait! you ask. Were you married or not? No, we had divorced in Kansas City. Joyce and I always moved together, both of us living in the same city with our kids.)
Max and I were walking out with our cones, busily eating, when he tripped over a deep gorge in the sidewalk. It looked like an earthquake had buckled two panels of concrete, making a dangerous crevice.
He skinned his elbow, his knees, broke his new glasses, and dropped his ice cream cone. It hurt. In true middle-school fashion, he stifled his crying. I went inside the Dairy Queen for some wet paper towels for the bleeding. They told me to go the restroom to get some.
Outside, I called the police on my cell phone. Justice would be done. The sidewalk was an obvious hazard. The cop showed up, asked a couple of questions, then asked me what I wanted to do.
“Do you need an ambulance?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It isn’t that bad.”
“This place should be ticketed!” I added. “That sidewalk is a public violation.”
“We’re not responsible for sidewalks,” she said.
“Then what do you expect me to do about this?” I said.
“I think a good father would go home and take care of his son,” she said dismissively.
When John-Mark was 17, he took a photography class. He snapped a self-portrait, standing at the corner of the house, in a winter coat. I had decided that when Max was 17, I would take a picture of him in summer, wearing a t-shirt, looking the other way, from a different corner of the house. It would have to be a black-and-white picture, like John-Mark’s. A contrast — the sons, the seasons, the directions they gazed.
I never got around to making that photo of Max. I have the large frames, one with John-Mark’s photo, the other empty.
When Max was a teenager, I had a quasi-reliable Volvo. One Sunday afternoon, riding back from Missouri — a trip to see my Mom — we were near Lincoln IL, well on our way back to Chicago. On the interstate highway, as I was driving 65 mph, the interior of the car suddenly filled with steam that shrouded all views inside the car. I have always been a nervous driver but managed to safely steer the car toward the shoulder. I think I did it by feel, sensing the crunch of rougher pavement that meant the shoulder of the highway.
Max and I were astonished that we hadn’t been killed in a car accident. There hadn’t even been time for me to think Please God don’t let us die. The car was towed to a shop. I looked up the Amtrak schedule to Chicago. We had to wait three hours. I had Max take a picture of me waiting for the train, arms crossed, a mad look on my face — though I was really only annoyed. We actually enjoyed the train ride home.
Two years before he died, Max went with me again by car to Missouri. But he had to go back to Chicago in the middle of the trip. I drove him to the Amtrak in Quincy IL for the 6 a.m. train. We had a fun time talking, as always. As the train pulled away, I thought about spending the rest of that weekend with him gone and driving home by myself. I watched the train pull away, and he waved at me from his seat, smiling. He was 20, I lived nine miles from him, and saw him frequently. But I still had a tear or two. It is hard to say goodbye.
One afternoon Max and I drove east to my Mom’s in Missouri from Illinois. I had decided to go through St. Louis. After we passed the Arch and were on the highway, still in the city, going west, a beautiful, long sunset emerged. We talked about it, fascinated, then came up with an idea for a cartoon called “Tricky Truckers.” It was a good concept. I had been watching his favorite cartoons at the time and we decided it would be a combo of things like “Powerpuff Girls” (his era) and “The Wacky Races” (my era).
As we drove into the unending sunset, a strange feeling came over me. It seemed like a point in time I should never forget. It was a inimitable conversation that seemed regular but was deep, real, golden. After awhile he feel asleep and I was sad the conversation was over. It was a glimpse of the future — time with him, then suddenly, without him.
My favorite photo of Max is him running along the beach in Orlando. I wasn’t even there. His mom had taken him on a vacation to Florida. The photo was out of focus, weakly lit, and unclear.
Once I showed him the pic and told him I loved it, even though it wasn’t clear. Still, he looked happy, running on the beach in a tropical climate.
“I only did that because Mom told me to run on the beach for the photo,” he said. “We kind of faked it. Plus, I’m sticking out my tongue and the photo isn’t even clear.”
It wasn’t fake. It was real. That single photographed second carried his optimism, energy, and agreeable nature.
As he grew up, I would sometimes look at the photo and get tears in my eyes. At one time I thought it was because I could never afford to take him on a big trip.
But that wasn’t it.
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