Sometimes, my son is like a phoenix, burning up in a spectacular flame, then regenerated from the ashes. It looks something like this: Imagine a Vesuvian, neuro-charged explosion of anger or distress, awesome in its red fury, and there are moments within this emotional conflagration when he becomes completely unreachable through his almost rhythmic, and quite loud, shrieking. And then, the rebirth.
It’s a side of my usually sunny son very few people have seen. These outbursts only occur in the van, which means it’s reserved for his parents. He’s almost 12 now, and this has been going on for most of his life – strap his wheelchair in, and the boy is a finicky, ticking time bomb that may or may not go off. It’s a safe bet that if we’ve got to drive anywhere that takes more than an hour, or if we’re stuck in traffic, it will go off.
Now that I think of it, the whole driving experience with Joey describes the eternal life arc of a phoenix – we drive, he explodes (we suffer fourth-degree emotional burns), then we all emerge together (boy, man, woman and van), ostensibly regenerated and shiny.
So, last Friday night, Joey and I went to a ballgame. We won tickets to see the Atlanta Braves host the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. My friend, Ron Currens (yes, that Ron Currens) entered Joey in the Superior Plumbing contest. They give away tickets to a few special needs kids for each ballgame, set them up in a fancy club level section (great seats, tables, little TVs, a wait staff – high times for an inveterate bleacher bum).
Arrangements were made for a Father-Son ballgame adventure.
If drinking and driving were legal, I would’ve drank, a lot, and then I would’ve drove. Instead, Jane packed everything Joey needs to be the best Joey he can be – evening medicines (there are three), multiple syringes, a G-tube, a couple of boxes of liquid supper to be injected through the G-tube, a Braves hat.
We hit the road, and Joey was in great spirits, excited to be going to the game. This always happens. He’s always excited, genuinely happy, to be going somewhere. I knew the bomb would probably go off at some point, so I had the iPod and earphones, my only defense against the guttural shrapnel would surely be coming my way. It happened when we hit bumper-to-bumper, 10-mph traffic just north of Midtown, and it continued, unrelenting, until just before we reached the valet parking section outside the ballpark.
The kid has a sixth-sense of direction. Whatever hell takes him in those driving moments, he knows when his trip is almost over, and he calms down. But this tantrum was one for the books. I sprinkled water at his head while we were stuck in traffic, and the water turned to steam. As we got to our seats in the Superior Plumbing Club, my boy was calm, but still undergoing his personal brand of PTSD – numb, almost stunned look on his face, not happy, not sad. Thank God for Jack Wilkinson.
A word about my friend Jack, author, and official scorekeeper for the Braves, and truly a prince among men: We met through our mutual friends Susan Percy and her husband, the late, great Paul Hemphill. I’d been reading Jack for years in the AJC, always loved his work, his books on sports. Jack is from Long Island, like me. We both worked for Newsday in our youth (at different times), knew lots of the same ink-stained wretches from that newspaper. It was Jack who got Joey into his first Major League game, for his ninth birthday, couple of years ago.
I told Jack that we’d be visiting his place of employment, and he stopped by our seats bearing gifts. For my son, a Freddie Freeman bobblehead doll; for me, some Braves schedule magnets, pressbox handouts (stats sheets, game notes, and most blessedly, a scorecard). Here’s one of the things I love about Jack – he is present in the moment, very aware. Joey tends to keep his fists clenched (it’s his high tone – not the snobby kind of high tone, the neuromuscular kind). So, instead of asking Joey to give him a high five, like most people do (and we truly appreciate that effort to engage our son), and waiting for Joey to respond, Jack does the cool thing and gives the boy a fist pump and a “Hiya, Joey,” by way of greeting, and he always tries to make face-to-face contact.
“Hope you like Freddie Freeman,” says Jack.
After the game that ensued, how can you not? Joey hasn’t said it out loud, but right now, Freddie Freeman is officially his favorite player. Freeman belted a long home run his first time up, sending millions of decibels of loud through the stadium – stunning my son the phoenix into a brilliant, wide smile at the tumultuous excitement happening all around him.
He was back. The PTSD was gone. By the time Freddie singled in the Braves’ only other run in a 3-2 loss, Joey was smiling, and making a variety of fancy moves and happy sounds. He became Citizen Joe, politician and PR boy. We met Jay Cunningham, founder and owner of Superior Plumbing, who says he’s gotten more out of this free tickets program than any of the contest winners, and I believe him. Then we spent the last couple of innings strolling around the stadium, out in the bleachers, rolling from foul pole to foul pole. One girl offered to take our picture together, another guy offered to give Joe a foul ball he managed to capture – we gave him a high five and let him keep his souvenir.
“See, Joe,” I told him. “See how people respond to a smile? Please keep it on the way home, son.” I might’ve said ‘pretty please.’ He said, “Engah!”
Loaded down with ‘Bobblehead Fred’ and assorted other ballpark accrual, we left, pleased with the evening’s outcome, in spite of the Braves’ loss.
The nature of baseball and the special pacified-thrilling universe that exists only at a ballpark did its job. I remember the feeling when I was Joey’s age, the ride back with Dad, and what terrible company I must have been — asleep before we hit the Interstate. And it occurred to me that such terrible (peaceful) company isn’t such a bad thing. It’s a blessing. It’s natural. I could stand a few more natural blessings.
I strapped his chair into the van, we got lost trying to find the interstate, then found it, headed north, and there was no outburst on the long, quiet ride home. Game over, another one for the books.