Sometimes, my son is a phoenix — a spectacular flame, terrible in its searing fury, even worse to look upon, and then the rebirth, renewal from the ashes of a nuclear tantrum. One second, he’s unreachable (“He’s gone somewhere else,” I’ve told my wife in this moments), like a supernova that can shriek. Then, peace. It’s remarkable.
It’s a side of my usually sunny son very few people have seen. These outbursts only occur in the van, so it’s reserved mostly for his parents. He’s almost 15 now (12 when I originally wrote this post), and this has been going on for most of his life – strap his wheelchair in the van, and the boy becomes a ticking, fickle time bomb. Will it go off this time? 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.
So, a few years ago Joey and I went to a ballgame in Atlanta, just the two of us. We won tickets to see the Braves host the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. My buddy, 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 the fancy club level section.
Unfortunately, whiskey was not part of the preparations for the father-son ballgame excursion into the Big City. 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, a Braves hat.
We started the 95-mile trip to Turner Field and the boy was in great form, really excited to about going to the game. The bomb went off 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, whatever place he goes to in those moments, he seems to be aware of when the trip is almost over, and he calms down. But this tantrum was one for the books. But as we got to our seats in the Superior Plumbing Club, he was tranquil, his personal brand of PTSD – numb, stunned look on his face, not happy, not sad.
Thank God for Jack Wilkinson.
It was Jack, a great sportswriter and friend and fellow Long Islander (and fellow former Newsday staffer) who got Joey into his first Major League game, for his ninth birthday, several years before. This time around, I gave Jack the heads up we were coming. Now the official scorekeeper for the Braves, he stopped by our seats before the game, loaded down with gifts: Freddie Freeman bobblehead, Braves schedule magnets, various press box 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, 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), Jack does the cool thing and gives the boy a fist bump and a “Hiya, Joey,” by way of greeting. And he always makes eye contact.
“Hope you like Freddie Freeman,” says Jack.
How can you not? Freeman belted a long home run his first time up, sending millions of decibels of loud through the stadium – resulting in a stunning smile on my son’s face. He was fully 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 wild moves and happy sounds.
He’d 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’d caught – we gave him a high five and let him keep the souvenir.
Loaded down with ‘Bobblehead Fred’ and assorted other ballpark accrual, we left, pleased with the evening’s outcome, in spite of the Braves’ loss.
On the way home, I remember what it was like on late-night rides with my dad, and what terrible company I must have been, snoring beside him across long miles. It occurred to me that such terrible company isn’t really so terrible. It can be a blessing. It’s natural. I could stand a few more natural blessings.
I strapped Joey’s chair into the van and headed north. There was no outburst on the long, quiet ride home – the first one, and the game, had worn him out. In the rearview mirror, lit by the city, I could see him nodding in the back. Game over, another one for the books.