Life Day

For more than a year I’ve been telling myself that I can’t die until I see the final film in the Skywalker saga of my absolute favorite series, Star Wars. The film was the latest of stop points I would look to for a reason to live. I should say here that I am in no way suicidal, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be sad. Depressed. Frightened. Judgmental. Forever grieving the last several years and then the end of the lives of my parents.  Missing friends and acquaintances that are gone. Thinking of the wrong I’ve done and the emotions I’ve damaged for others throughout life. My focus may reside on being kind and helpful more and more every year, and I may idolize Santa Claus, but the tragedies I’ve experienced and mistakes I’ve made drag me into the darkness with striking regularity. I enjoy being alone and the fluidity of doing what I choose with my free time, yet bouts of loneliness and inexperience with loving relationships, mixed with introversion, keep me feeling as an alien in life. All of these factors have ruled me for years. And all of them have made me look to future events as lighthouses, in fear that if I can’t see that glow in the distance my hope will evaporate, and I will die.

And so I looked to Star Wars, a series that, while in a majority of ways is massively positive and for families and children, leans on the grieving of death. I have shed great tears, particularly in the final three films, as I watched characters I grew up with and loved pass away, leaving the others, including my favorite, Luke Skywalker, to grieve and isolate. Just like me. I simply could not be taken from this world without seeing that series to its end, and every twinge of odd pain I would feel, while in truth nothing major, would make me focus intensely on the feeling, my first thoughts being that it must not take me until the film has been viewed. I would laugh at myself, but I also never stopped the thought process.

There I was, less than a week ago as I write on this Christmas Eve, sitting in the front row at the theater (the most isolated of rows, giving me more comfort to process my feelings in a public place) awaiting the first showing on opening night of Star Wars Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker. In mere hours the film would be over and I would have no new big events to look forward to save Christmas, though even then my gifts were purchased, wrapped and labeled and could be distributed without me. This was it. The film began, my excitement at its peak, and almost two and a half hours later as the credits rolled my love for the series was never higher. I had cried often, both in joy and sorrow, and I related heavily to both. I had escaped into another world for that time, and it was bliss, yet I also remained grounded in this world, finding many parallels with the emotion in each and the characters I had known for decades. I thought of my lost parents, lost pets, things I had done wrong, and also reveled in the happiness shared with characters I loved, those who had found peace and reconciled their feelings.  My own feelings were at their peak, every endorphin reporting for duty. And then, as the credits neared their end, a revelation hit me, a true feeling that brings forth the knowledge that life is about to change. I knew then the final lesson the Skywalker saga had to teach me, the final parallel. I had no need to ward off death by looking for something to live for, because I was already alive. I merely had to embrace life, because what else was it there for? I could be an introvert all I wanted, so long as I lived while I had the ability. And there was more. Grief may never leave, but I could make peace with the process. I could be in harmony with the dead. My love is that balance, the control that runs through the spirit in me as well as the spirit beyond. Holding the ghosts of the dead close to me, learning from them, continuing that relationship through the veil separating life and death, I can find the peace in life that they have on the other side, and in applying my never ending lessons I can honor them continually. And in that way, they are, as Mr. Skywalker said, never truly gone. At that moment of revelation, with fresh tears breaking away from the inside of my body, I said a thank you to the rolling credits on the screen and to the film series for giving me one final lesson.

In the five days since then I have not only seen the film five more times, once each day, but I have also happily given out a great deal of Christmas gifts. Today has brought massive remembrance of those lost, and yes some sadness, but also peace as I know they are always with me. I am an introvert by nature, and I will make mistakes, but the embracing of positivity and giving that has been growing in me with age can now have even more room in my heart, shrinking grief with love. Tomorrow I plan to visit a place of calm and peace, where I can honor the dead, embrace the day, and look to the future with the knowledge that every day is one to live for.

Inspiration is where you find it. It comes out of nowhere, even a galaxy far, far away. When you see it, embrace it. Happy Holidays. Happy New Year. May the Force be with you.

Michael Welch

12/24/19

The Man in the Red Suit

Playing Santa isn’t easy. Even for the most outgoing, happy of performers, there is still a mystique to uphold, a veil that can never be dropped. Putting life into such an important character, at what is the happiest time of year for so many kids, is a mighty task, and it must be given enormous respect. When an introvert takes on the role, especially one who has a deep love for the lore and history of the jolliest, most generous character the world has ever known, it becomes the most intense responsibility imaginable, a massive clash of fear against respect, as I have discovered on three occasions.

Christmas was magic to me as a kid. The anticipation, fueled by small releases like putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, seeing wrapped gifts appear underneath soon after, watching holiday cartoons and movies, and pondering how Santa could get in and out of our chimneyless home (“he has a key” was the quick and easy reply from my parents), set me on a constant path of nervous energy from Thanksgiving forward. I was in awe of Santa, how kind he was, how powerful he was, and I had such a respect for him that, as is the case for many youngsters, meeting him was definitely a crapshoot. Other than the intense fright of being a toddler and seeing my father walking down the hall dressed in his Santa costume, only to pick me up and feel the wrath of my slaps, I only remember two occasions of meeting him at a store, one in which I cried the whole time and one when he was on lunch break at K-Mart. Adult me is a bit shocked that the performer didn’t have a private area to eat. My mother, sister and I sat only a couple of booths away, and we of course talked about nothing but his presence the entire time. Then, when he finished eating, he disposed of his trash, stopped at our table and spoke to us. There wasn’t any lap sitting or photos, just some quality time with the main man. I believe I asked for Matchbox cars, and we of course were interviewed on our behavior, which was then verified by mom. Santa then said he’d see what he could do, and he was off to his throne to make the world happy for any other kids that came to the store. This is another burden of the Santa Claus actor, always being in character. Any St. Nick worth his salt knows that he is playing a role more important than any character in any play or film, and that he is the be all, end all to every child that believes.

Christmas morning was the payoff, the potential energy of the past month going kinetic in a brilliant explosion of emotional glee. My sister and I had connecting bedrooms, so we were corralled together once my parents were awake and ready, their exhaustion of being up late wrapping and building gifts being worn away by coffee while the weariness of my sister and I having a low sleep night totally crushed by the endorphins of anticipation. They took their positions, one turning all the living room lights on and one in place with a camera, and after a year going by in the space of a couple minutes we were told to come out. What we saw next was heaven to us, a bevy of unwrapped gifts on display so the camera could catch our overwhelmed happiness upon first sight, and more wrapped gifts beyond, and that’s part of the magic to a kid. In reality, it was a massive amount of hard work from my parents, who took very little credit to play into our love of Santa. There were a few wrapped gifts from Mom and Dad, but otherwise it was all Mr. Claus. Parents are massive unsung heroes.

The truth came out for me one November day in third grade, with two classmates arguing on the stairs on our way to recess.  My opinion was called into service with the life altering question, “You know Santa’s not real, right, Mike?” As the person asking the question had the power of popularity, I lied and agreed, and for the rest of the day it was all I could think about. My first order of business upon returning home was to ask my mother, who paused a moment before giving me the news. I became a bit more mature that day, but oh how sad to lose a bit of that magic (and kudos to my sister, five years older, for keeping the secret for as long as she had).

The magic, though altered by adulthood, did not dissipate forever. I’d say it never even left, merely sitting dormant, maturing and changing as I did. As I sailed the seas of puberty and cultivated adult emotions, love, nostalgia and empathy fought against the anger and aggression of raw masculinity, and since I had traditionally been a shy, quiet and thoughtful person, the magic of Christmas and the principles of Santa Claus began to take hold once again. Joining the workforce meant money for gifts. Getting a car meant driving around and seeing light displays like we had in my younger days. Every year became a step closer to regaining the understanding of the holiday joy that was found in the single digit years of youth. There were dark Christmases in those years as well, with my father’s heart attack, my pulling away from extended family, and issues within my immediate family, but love can sooth anger in time, can embrace grief. True love grows over time and always teaches, which could explain the centuries of Santa’s legacy.

I was thirty-five the first time I played Saint Nick. A couple years prior my friend Jay had asked a bunch of my coworkers and me to be in a horror film he was making, and I had so much fun I went to all the shoots even though my part was done. We struck up a solid friendship, and he wanted me to become his filmmaking partner for his next idea, a holiday horror anthology called You Better Watch Out! Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s would all be represented, and each of us would come up with ideas for two of the stories. I had the Christmas idea fairly quickly. I thought of other Christmas horror films, and how the ones with Santa always had him as a deranged killer. I wanted to make Santa the hero. I then thought of the religious aspect of Christmas and found the Catholic Church to be the perfect foil. The story had them sending a Holy Hitman to kill Santa on Christmas Eve as he delivered gifts. The wrinkle is that Santa can’t die, so despite being shot, taking a cleaver to the head, being stabbed, having his neck broken, and run over, Claus keeps coming back with a smile, leading to a final meeting with the hitman. Santa was the “real” Santa, he was peaceful, and he was the hero. I took a great deal of care to write and perform him with massive respect to the legacy of the character. Writing him, and the story, was a blast. Playing him was too. I am not an actor by any stretch, but my love for Claus, mixed with his relative lack of dialogue and a very small crew on set, made for a fun experience, even in the twenty degree weather out in the snow. My most stressful day was the final one for that story, where I had a large speech to deliver with the camera very close on my face. Despite my absolute certainty that I would not be able to deliver, cursing myself for writing all those words, I was thrilled when it was over and I pulled it off. I am happy to report that when the film was released, that story was the best received by most. Besides the blood it had humor, heart and Santa Claus, and that’s not a bad character to have on your side as a filmmaker.

The stress mounted considerably the next year when it came time to play St. Nick again. Two of my coworkers, Crystal and Missi, had small children, a two and three year old, respectively. I was asked if I would use my suit from the film and come to see them. I agreed, because they were good friends with adorable kids, but when the time came I had no idea how I would pull it off. For the film we had a makeup person paint my big beard white, but we weren’t in touch with him anymore. It was suggested that I use powder, so on the morning of the visit I used that tactic to very poor results, and I found myself driving to Missi’s house in costume with scant patches of white in my beard and smelling of talcum. Stress mounted as I drove, knowing I had to perform not only for friends, which set off a great deal of anxiety, but also their kids, who believed in Santa, which sent that anxiety skyrocketing. If I was bad at my performance it could alter how the kids looked at Santa, and at such a young age no less. I was responsible for their belief, for their love of Santa Claus. I was an introvert about to perform a very extroverted character for impressionable children. This was not like making the movie, where it was adults making a fictional tale. As far as these kids knew the real deal was coming to visit them, and his beard was nowhere near like it was in every drawing, cartoon or movie they’d seen. For all my love and respect for Santa, I was in way over my head.

I pulled up to the house, having asked the moms to keep the kids away from the windows (because Santa doesn’t drive a car), and looked around to see if neighbors were outside. I did not want to be seen, or spoken to, by anyone except the people I was visiting. With the coast clear and a text sent to the moms to tip off my presence, I headed up the driveway. Nearly hyperventilating, I knocked on the door, turned the knob, swung it open and faced my fate. Heart pounding and sweating, I saw the moms about fifteen feet away from the door. Missi’s son was holding onto her, trepidatious, but a wave of calm fought my fears when Crystal’s daughter walked in front of everyone, waved, and said “Hi, Santa.” My nerves remained on edge, but oh boy did my heart melt. It gave me strength to fight my worry, and I spent the next few minutes trying to turn my normally quiet voice into the bigger one I had used in the movie while also engaging the kids and moms. My beard problems stayed with me, but I had to go with it. I did not say “ho ho ho” as that was beyond my brain’s willingness, but I began to gain comfort as the clock moved forward. I was able to talk to Missi’s son a little, and he started to gain comfort around me. Crystal’s daughter remained fearless, though, more of an emotional rock than me, having more faith in me (Santa) than I did in myself (Mike). The moms had set up a chair for me in the living room, so I had each child take turns sitting on my lap and telling me their wish list. This was when roles reversed, and I was able to speak with them confidently while they became shy. As I would imagine happens with many kids, the question of what they wanted for Christmas threw them, adding to their silence. Every second of quiet made me doubt my ability in my job, but I also knew they were kids being kids. The moms helped a little, and when I was done quizzing them I gave them each a little toy. I then gave each of the moms a gift card, because Santa brought gifts for everyone, and then we all hung out for a few minutes. The kids got readjusted now that the inquisition was over, and I made up some adventures with them and their toys. Knowing not to overstay my visit, especially since their playtime had taken over their interest, I had the moms corral them away from any windows and I said goodbye to everyone and that I was off to the North Pole to make more toys. I drove to work, overall glad that the kids were happy but knowing I had let my nerves and natural demeanor weaken my performance. The kids believed in me, though, so I considered it a victory for the legacy of Santa Claus.

It took a few years but I donned the responsibility of Santa one more time for a local library. My friend Kaija, also the girlfriend of a coworker, worked there and asked if I would play him for a lunch with Santa event. Having a soft spot for my friends as well as libraries, I agreed. I was nervous about it, assuming it would be more difficult since there would be a lot more kids, plus parents and staff taking photos and video, but Kaija would also be my helper and dressing as an elf so I wouldn’t be going it alone. I really wanted to have a better beard color, though, and since I knew the powder wouldn’t work I picked up a spray coloring. When the day came I used the entire can, which promptly was absorbed into the thickness of the beard and left me with a slightly less red beard. At that point my only option was to wear the beard that came with the suit. I wasn’t a fan, thinking it looked too fake, and when I tried it on it kept falling over my top lip, which would be a dead giveaway if I kept adjusting it in front of the kids. I had no choice, though, so off to the library I went.

I arrived early so no kids would see me before I got my entire outfit on. Kaija informed me they would be downstairs in the Children’s Room, and that a local beauty pageant winner would be reading them a story. She helped me adjust my beard, though it was dead set on sliding down, and told me the kids would do the traditional lap sitting, and she’d hand me a toy to give them after I met each child. After that we’d all sit down and have lunch together. I told myself I had this, that I had to do a good job for these kids, that they believed in Santa and I couldn’t damage that. My anxiety soared as we went downstairs, but I couldn’t let Kaija or the kids down. I remained in hiding until Miss Bristol County (not sure if that was her title but that’s the one that pops in my head) announced me, and then I popped out and forced myself to do what I couldn’t years before, which was to offer a “ho ho ho” to the crowd. There were a lot of kids, and a lot of parents, and my brain was ablaze with a desire to be somewhere quiet and isolated, but there was only one Santa in the building so I had to do the job. I said hello to everyone and was shown my chair. Kaija had two bags of toys ready and without delay the parade of kids was rolling. These children were older than Crystal and Missi’s kids, so I was able to have a little more small talk with them, but there were still a few kids who didn’t want to talk, and one who would look at me from several feet away but wanted nothing to do with talking to me. That saddened me, because I understood their shyness and knew that the urging of their parents wasn’t going to help and would have the opposite effect. I had been those kids, still was, and wanted to give them all the toys in Kaija’s bags. There were also very vocal kids who knew exactly what they wanted, some who would say generally what they liked, and one kid who sat down and promptly told me they’d had an accident. It was a fascinating assortment of responses to the mystique of Santa Claus, and I wasn’t the most energetic of Santas but I was holding my own, even with my beard constantly falling over my mouth despite my sly efforts to keep it in place between kids. Kaija’s assistance with having toys ready and keeping the line flowing was doing wonders as well, and the event would’ve been much more difficult without her.

Once the last child had their turn telling me their Christmas wishes, it was time for a snack. I didn’t really know what the plan was, and assumed I’d walk around and mingle with the kids and their parents. This was not the case. When I left my chair and made my way around the corner the kids were all seated around a long series of child size tables. I was pointed to the head of the table, where I would hold court over the group of youngsters. Most of the kids were realistically out of talking range, so the lucky ones were really the three on either side of me. I watched as the kids had fun and ate their snacks, and one of the library staff gave me a juice box. Now, with the top of my fake beard still over my mouth, I had zero interest in trying to drink anything. I was expected to, however, so I made it work, draining the box in a few seconds (one thing about my manner of introversion is that if I have to eat or drink in an uncomfortable situation I do so as fast as possible because having it in front of me makes my anxiety worse). After that a couple kids decided to talk to me, which was good because I wasn’t doing a good job of talking to them, and then one young man on my left melted my heart by saying, “Santa? I love you.” That right there is the magic that Santa Claus brings to the world. I thought I had done a passable job, but to that boy meeting Santa was everything. The belief in Kris Kringle brought happiness to his world, and that spread positive energy to other kids, parents, staff, and certainly me. And then, with all of the Santas at all of the malls and special events, who take their responsibility seriously, that belief from the kids brings more happiness, which fuels more positivity. With all of that joy, the spirit of Santa Claus, the true magic, will never go away. I am very happy that I had a hand in improving the lives of kids, and while I doubt I’ll ever wear the suit again, I keep Santa in my heart and my personal philosophy every day.

Michael Welch

December 24th, 2019

The Devil’s In The Details

It’s important to say at the start that I’ve never been one to believe in ghosts or messages from Beyond. I prefer to follow the theory that any influence put on a situation from a spirit world being would be done so without our immediate knowledge. When something odd happens I try to find real world reasoning. For instance, my mother passed away in mid-August. A couple weeks later I came home from work to find some of the Halloween masks I keep hanging on the wall had fallen to the floor along with a die cast Star Wars vehicle. When I got to my bedroom one of the two light bulbs was out and a 4’x6’ vinyl promotional banner for the fourth Hellraiser film, which had been hanging on my ceiling for almost twenty-five years due to the size, was now halfway down and hanging. I did wonder if my mother was playing a practical joke from beyond death, but as with other situations I’ve encountered it just didn’t sit right. Coworkers immediately said my house was haunted. My sister, a firm believer, was positive my mother had visited. I just couldn’t get behind it. Then, almost two months later, I found out the truth. A tree in my backyard had been removed in preparation for hurricane season and the approaching winter, and the heavy thuds of the landing sections as they were cut caused enough vibration to be meddlesome. The mystery was solved, and it was a rational, spiritless reason. My brain just isn’t wired to default toward the supernatural.

But there was an exception.

In November of 2005 I had just turned thirty and was an assistant manager for a small hardware store chain. My manager, Dan, was taking his wife and kids to visit his parents over Thanksgiving and asked if I could housesit and take care of their dogs. I didn’t want to. I’ve never been comfortable taking care of anyone else’s anything, and the prospect of staying in a strange place for four days, including a major holiday, and looking after two rambunctious dogs when I was a cat person had my mind running the other way. But, of course, the day before Thanksgiving there I was in Dan’s living room getting the keys and the rundown. I was shown the bedroom, which was attached to the living room, and told I could sleep there. They had bought food I liked and showed me their kitchen layout. The running lines in the backyard for the dogs were demonstrated, and I was shown how to work the front and back door locks. Moments later there was the creeping stillness that followed their exit, my whole essence uncomfortable with this responsibility, the clock in my brain moving much faster than the actual time. 

I hated what I’d agreed to right from the start. The dogs weren’t sociable. The television only got local channels so my choices were bowling, infomercials or a Spanish language version of the remake of Rollerball. I had brought a book but was too focused on how uncomfortable I was to concentrate. I had only been alone an hour and was officially miserable. 

Then it got worse.

A static sound began in the bedroom. A few seconds later it stopped, then started again. The cycle repeated, then again, over and over. Not knowing the nuances of the house I wondered if I was being tricked by an echo from a neighbor’s house. I muted the television and listened. Static, silence, static, silence. I wondered if Dan or his wife Vangie had set an alarm, but that was not an alarm sound. It was loud, sure, but alarms didn’t stop and restart every few seconds. I did not want to get out of the chair and investigate. This was not my house. I did not want a problem, something to fix. I worked in a hardware store, yes, but I was no handyman. But I also knew I didn’t have a choice. I was now responsible for their home, like it or not. So, even though my ass now weighed a million pounds I forced myself to stand and walked the fifteen feet to the bedroom.

I entered the room. The bed was immediately to my right, the closet and dresser beyond. On the wall opposite the bed was the television, the cause of the problem. Not only had it turned itself on, but it kept trying to dial in a channel. The static came when the channel wasn’t available, and it went away in the moment that the television tried to find it, repeat ad nauseam. I figured the small dog had perhaps gotten on the bed and stomped on the remote, but I could see no evidence animal or mechanical. There was no remote on the bed or nightstand. With the static sound drastically increased in the small space of the room I started to get frustrated. Logic dictated that there should be a remote, and something to trigger it. Logic also dictated that there should be something continually pressing a number button as well, since the television had been trying to find a channel for a few minutes already. And yet, logic was gone from that room. I decided to just walk over to the television and turn it off manually to at least shut off the noise. I looked at the screen and a shiver of nerves coursed my body as I saw the channel that was being searched for.

666.

It did not search for 6. It did not search for 66. It went full Satan. The devil was in that house, and the devil was toying with me.

I told myself not to turn around. If I did, I’d find the Prince of Darkness waiting. I told myself not to walk to the television because I’d be trapped in that room. There was no way out of this. I stood and watched the screen as it continued its parade: 6-6-6, STATIC, 6-6-6, STATIC. I looked fleetingly around the room, careful not to turn around, and again found no remote control or playful pet. I knew I couldn’t stand there for the next several days, so I opened my reserves of courage and walked to the television. Slowly I reached a finger to the POWER button and pressed. The second of waiting between the action and the reply of the appliance was a year of panic, but it obeyed my request. The room was silent, and I listened for Satan. Hearing nothing (as if a fallen angel would give any hints), I prepared to turn around. I decided to spin quick, a futile attempt to surprise the ruler of Hell, and was relieved to find nothing but an empty doorway behind me. I creeped my way out of the bedroom and back to the living room, thankful that I could still use that room for its named purpose. Over the next couple hours my nerves calmed, but I never did figure out why the television turned on and called for the number of the Beast. I just hoped Satan would remain in the bedroom for the duration of my stay. And I knew one thing for sure:

I was definitely sleeping on the couch.

Michael Welch

October 27th, 2018

Convention Stories (II)

This October will mark my thirteenth Rock and Shock horror convention. More specifically, it will be my tenth as a worker and fourth as Volunteer Coordinator. I love the show and the people that make it run with all my heart, and I am thrilled with how far I’ve been able to rise, especially since I never even intended to become a volunteer all those years ago.

After my initial solo visit to Rock and Shock in 2005 I had invited my friend Tim along for the next show. He wasn’t a fanatic about horror but we watched movies together a lot and he thought it would be fun. He also offered to be my photographer for pictures with the celebrities, and even though back then I had to be talked into being in any photo it turned out to be very beneficial. We had a lot of fun together. He didn’t care what we did so I got to set the agenda and he got to watch people and talk to celebrities. The 2006 show worked out so well that we went to a convention in Indiana in the summer of 2007 where we happened to meet Gina, Rock and Shock’s owner. That October we enjoyed Rock and Shock again, and Gina remembered us from Indy. I struck up a MySpace friendship with her and would communicate on that platform, and in early 2008 Tim had an idea. We were watching horror movies at his house and reminiscing when he said I should contact Gina and offer our help with setting up tables and whatnot for the next show. After that we could enjoy the convention as usual but with the satisfaction of having helped. I thought it was a good idea, especially as I was coming to like Gina even more than her show, so I asked. She said the convention center workers set up all the tables, curtains, etc but we were welcome to help with other things, and in return we would be given free entry to the show. It sounded good to us, and later in the summer I went a little further by driving around distributing show flyers around Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

When the first day of the show arrived Tim and I were eager to get to Worcester. I was very excited that there was a Hellraiser reunion along with appearances from Rowdy Roddy Piper, Chris Sarandon, Bill Moseley and many others. I had a full game plan written out with people I wanted to meet and Q&A panels to attend. Plus, since we were helping we’d get a leg up by not having to wait outside in line, which was extra good since it seemed there was always someone in front of or behind us that would drive us mad, either by thinking they knew everything, thinking they were personal friends of the celebrities, or were just plain crazy.

When we got to the show we went to the other end of the block from the convention to the Pallaium, the concert venue where the “rock” part of Rock and Shock happened. There we met up with Gina. She was quite kind despite being only a few hours from the show’s start and having a lot to keep track of. She introduced us to Joy, who would tell us what needed to be done, and excused herself as she had to go to the DCU Center, where the “shock” part was happening. Joy gave us stacks of flyers to hang up around the Palladium with band set times as well as advertisements for what was going on at the DCU to help fans plan their time accordingly. We took care of that rather quickly and Joy had nothing else for us. She asked for us to hang out while she made more flyers for the DCU, so we excused ourselves so as to not be in the way. We looked around and settled on a small stage area away from the hustle and bustle of bands loading in equipment and soundchecking for the night’s concert. An hour later we realized maybe we were too far out of the way, so we went back to see Joy. She had more flyers for us but nothing else, and said after we hung them at the DCU we could see if there was anything else to do over there.

The DCU Center was alive with the activity of vendors setting up their booths in one half and workers putting the finishing touches on the celebrity side. We went about our business hanging flyers as instructed, and all the while I took in the sights. I loved being there before the public was allowed in, seeing the calm before the storm (even though all the activity only an hour before the show made the large room anything but calm). We finished our task and figured we’d check in with Gina, and if she had nothing for us we could walk around and wait for the convention to open. We found her and waited for her to finish speaking with someone, and when we asked if there was anything she needed she pointed out a woman on the other end of the room and said that was her sister, and that she was in charge of the volunteers and we should check in with her. We said okay and headed over, and it was then that I started to get an odd feeling.

We met Gina’s sister, Nikki, along with three or four of the volunteers. Nikki was very outgoing, the yin to Gina’s quieter yang. She proceeded to go through the game plan with all of us, which consisted of sitting with a celebrity, taking money for autographs and occasionally acting as photographer. Things began moving way too fast for me. We weren’t volunteers, we were only helping before the show. This was clearly some kind of misunderstanding. There were celebrities I wanted to see. Q&A panels. Vendors. I wanted to speak up, tell Nikki our service was complete, but…we were needed. Gina, and the show she had worked so hard on, could use our help, and that was more important. I began to mourn the loss of my fun, my most enjoyable weekend of the year, but I had to help my friend. Tim, on the other hand, didn’t care either way, since he was there for the experience rather than anything specific.

Right before the show started Nikki gave out our celebrity assignments. A stroke of luck hit, and Tim and I were allowed to share a guest, meaning we could switch off on helping. Nikki said the next day we would both be needed but for that night we could be a team. Tim was fine with sitting with a guest, who turned out to be Michael Biehn, so when the show started I met as many people from my list as I could, starting with the most important people (Hellraiser) and working from there. I checked in with him now and again but he didn’t need a break, encouraging me to get done as much as possible. I did pretty well, but a little while into the show Nikki asked me to sit with Chris Sarandon. I did so, sad that I didn’t do all I wanted but knowing that I got more accomplished than I expected.

Nikki introduced me to Chris, who conveniently was located next to Michael Biehn and Tim, and I sat next to him at the table. It felt so odd being on that side, working with a famous person rather than just meeting him and moving on. I was given his money bag, the responsibility of which I immediately felt, and we waited for fans to meet him. When they did I took their money, occasionally having to remind the star struck that they needed to pay, and took photos for people as well. Chris was kind. He was soft spoken and very intelligent. It was a bit intimidating. The only thing he hated was what I would come to dub the “paparazzi.” They were people who would stand a distance away and take pictures of the guests as if they were exhibits. When he would notice one he would turn away, giving them the side or back of his head to immortalize in their collection. We talked a bit but didn’t have much time before the show ended, and soon enough Nikki was giving us our leave for the evening and Tim and I were off to dinner and the hotel, where we talked about all things good and bad about our experiences.

On Saturday I once again began the day with time on my own, so again I made the most of it, meeting a couple more people before being called to action. I remained with Mr. Sarandon, where I would spend the next eight hours. It was during this time that I would really start to adjust to what I was doing. The depression began to melt away and I allowed myself to enjoy the experience. This, of course, was due to how good of a person Chris was. He was kind to me as well as the fans. As my comfort grew we became a team. I would be the “bad guy” when people asked for free photos and  I alerted him to paparazzi. He in turn would involve me in conversations with others and tell me about his family during slow periods. I told him how often my mother, sister and I watched Fright Night in the 80s and how great of a bonding experience it was, and he signed a picture to them and gave it to me. I was truly starting to enjoy myself, and I realized how lucky I was to be with Chris. By comparison, Tim was having a more stressful time with Mr. Biehn, who argued with his girlfriend/future wife repeatedly (a fellow guest, Jennifer Blanc, who was nice, seated at the next table with Tim between them) and was short and grumpy with the fans. Having experienced that first hand when I met him the night before, I understood Tim’s situation and felt for him, occasionally looking over only to get an eye roll from him.

When we reported for duty on Sunday I was feeling good. I realized how unique an experience I was having compared to the thousands of other fans roaming the aisles. I had managed to meet most of the people I wanted to see, and the guest I was sitting with treated me very well. Despite the difficult shock and misunderstanding of intention at the beginning, things had turned out well. Even Tim recognized how special the opportunity was despite his more difficult position. His Sunday would continue on the same path. Mine, however, got even better. The last day of a convention is traditionally slow, and this one was no different. Chris began his day by reading the newspaper at the table. I watched people, lost in my own head, but as Chris finished a section he would share the paper with me. Soon enough we both sat, news in our hands like two men waiting their turn at the barber shop. After that we talked football, which I managed to hold my own on despite being a lapsed fan. Later he shared candy with me from the goodie bag he received from the show, then he read to me from his book (Omnivore’s Dilemma) so I would not be bored while he was reading. I was blown away by his generosity and kindness, especially when I would look over at Tim and see his grimaced face.

Chris packed up his table a little early as he had to catch a train back home, and that gave me an opportunity to meet the last couple of guests I had missed earlier. When the day was over Nikki set us free. We saw Gina to say goodbye and she thanked us with her usual genuine warmth, and before long we were on our way home. What started as a very rocky and confusing show ended as a whole new experience, a positive one, and I was proud of what we had done to help the show, and more importantly, my friend.

 

Michael Welch

May 30th, 2017

Dissection

On the first day of my senior year in high school the anatomy and physiology teacher informed the class that we would be dissecting a cat later in the year. The class reacted with mostly revulsion, our moods getting darker when we were told that participation was mandatory unless we wanted to fail for the fourth term. Since the entire class needed to pass the course to meet our science requirement for graduation we were stuck and we knew it, and week by week the dread grew as we waited for Ms. Allenchy to mention the project again.

Ms. Allenchy was a teacher I respected a great deal, but she was fond of group projects so she was also the cause for some of my early balding (which had started two years prior). Since I had no friends in the class and half of the students had made fun of me at some point in my high school career, some very harshly and repetitively, I was decidedly against doing any project with anyone else. I had survived a group research paper in the second term by writing it all myself and sharing the credit. In the third quarter we had to make short films about a scientist of our choice, and I was so against being on video with any of my classmates that I had a long discussion with her after class one day that resulted in her giving me permission to work independently. When it came time for the dissection in the final term, though, I had no choice but to be part of a group. She had two classes doing the project and only so many cats, so my luck had run out.

When the first day of the project arrived the room was filled with nervous electricity. Our class was right after lunch, which was spectacularly poor timing for my classmates (I don’t think I ate lunch even once during high school). We had been told to wear a sweatshirt or light jacket for cover, which we would have to leave in class and would not get back. This made me mad, since I had one hoodie and wore it a lot and my parents were having money problems and not able to automatically buy me a new one. People with long hair had to tie it back, and since I fit into that category I learned how to make a ponytail. We were grouped into foursomes and assigned lab tables. I was the only male in my group, and was joined by two juniors who were in our class because they were in the honors program and taking the class a year early, as well as a senior named Jessica. I wondered if Ms. Allenchy had given me a break, because the juniors had never caused me problems and while Jessica was friends with many who had she had never personally attacked me. I had a twinge of optimism, thinking it could be worse.

Then the cats came out.

A perpetual groan of disgust began at the first table and got louder as each group received their heavy, transparent plastic bag filled with preservative fluid and a sopping wet dead feline. Our chance for revolt came when we were told to remove the cats from their bags, but upon breaking the seals we were also broken. At my table, Jessica and the juniors refused to touch the cat. They had apparently taken a psychic vote and unanimously decided that I would be doing all the surgery. I had long hair, wrote horror stories and wore heavy metal shirts, so they must’ve figured I’d be a great leader. They were wrong.

Once our cats were in the open air and on the trays, we were told to identify their sex and name them. Hisses of negativity once again rose, but Ms. Allenchy was a dissection veteran and shut us down. I looked at our cat, black with white on the paws and face. I then spread the legs, my surgical gloves slick against the slimy fur, the smell of mysterious sanitary chemicals filling the room more with each movement of the body, and saw that I remained the only male at the table. I wanted to name her something that sounded “rich” because I thought it was an ironic juxtaposition to her current state, so I offered “Penelope” to the group for approval. They didn’t object and she was thusly named.

With the pleasantries out of the way, we were given scalpels, scissors, pins, pincer-type things and other such tools of the trade. We were instructed to cut from the abdomen up to the throat, the eventual outcome being peeled back skin so we could examine the musculature. We were then reminded that the entire goal of the project was to learn the muscular system and be able to name individual muscles when exposed. As I grabbed the scalpel and prepared to cut I was sure I wasn’t the only person wondering why we couldn’t just learn from a diagram. I pushed the point of the scalpel into the dead flesh. It moved with the blade, unbroken. I pushed harder and harder still, and the skin made a skitch sound as I broke through. A semi-second later my blade was half swallowed. Thinking nothing of it I asked for the scissors, Jessica becoming the Major Houlihan to my Hawkeye Pierce. I inserted a scissor blade where the scalpel had been and began cutting upward. Then a yellow noodle of intestine flopped out. Having zero clue that I was doing anything wrong I kept cutting as traumatized moans and brief shrieks became the soundtrack to the butchery all through the room. Ms. Allenchy walked the room, getting to our table just as my crooked cutting had made its way to Penelope’s chest.

“Michael, what are you doing?” Ms. Allenchy said, shocked, as she saw how deep I had cut and the expanded amount of guts that were on display.  “We’re only looking at the muscles!” I responded that I had no idea how thick the skin was or how to only cut to a certain depth. To this day I have no idea how a real surgeon can cut through a predetermined amount of layers. We had not been trained in scalpel use! Ms. Allenchy said she didn’t have any spare cats, which sounded so grossly odd, and we’d have to continue on with that one. She then banned me from using the utensils, which was fine by me. She walked away and I looked at the ladies. I may have been grinning, happy that my unintentional blunder had relieved me of my operating responsibilities. Okay, I was definitely grinning. Jessica took over, as the other two girls had shrunk back to the end of the table, alternately white and green in the face. She carefully pushed the innards back into the abdominal cavity, no doubt swearing at me in her mind, and then Ms. Allenchy called it for the day. I packed Penelope back in her fluid bag and sealed her tight. I wrote her name on the bag as instructed and we cleaned the tray, disposed of our gloves and stored our goggles and sweatshirts. Ms. Allenchy stored our cats and the class was over.

It went on like that for two weeks. Each day that went by served to sap our energy, our will and our ability to feel happiness. We absorbed the death around us, feeling massive empathy for the cats our unskilled hands were cutting, ripping and pulling to satisfy the learning requirement of our class. On the third day my table lost one of the juniors. She hit her personal wall and decided to take the failing grade. The majority of us envied her freedom. The day before that I was given back the ability to use the medical instruments, not by Ms. Allenchy but by the rest of the table, as they all refused to use them. I grudgingly accepted the role, and spent the rest of the project pinning limbs to the tray, removing skin and having absolutely no idea what I was looking at. Ms. Allenchy would tell us where certain muscles were and I would look at Penelope’s flesh and see yellow fat covering pink blobs of undefined muscle. I couldn’t tell where one ended and another began. The worst part was that I was doing all this work, learning nothing that would help me on the test, and I was so depressed by the entirety of the project that I didn’t even care. I had no clue how I was going to pull a passing grade out of this assignment, which I desperately needed to graduate, yet all I wanted to do was take an unending hot shower in a lightless room.

On the last day of the project we wordlessly prepared our cats. The majority of us were emotionally defeated by the project, not even excited it was almost over. Ms. Allenchy went over the muscles one final time and gave us the rest of the class to study them and explore further on the cat if we so chose. Only one of us chose to do so, a disturbed football player named Jeff, who decided to cut the skin off his cat’s face and put it on his own. He achieved the shock value he was no doubt searching for, and I quietly begged for him to contract a disease.

After a weekend break to study our notes, we had our final exam on the dissection. As hard as the project was, the worst was yet to come. Ms. Allenchy brought us to a small, horseshoe shaped room where she had displayed all of the cats from both classes. She had placed a pin in a different muscle in each cat, over a dozen, and one by one we had to enter the closet of a room, walk station by station and identify the muscle. Taking my turn was like walking into a true horror film, as I spied tray after tray of flayed feline, fur torn away from the torso, raw, red muscle on display, the chemical scent overwhelming. There was far more death in the room than life, and my tiny acquired knowledge of muscle names and locations soured into a useless game of guesswork. By the end I was writing anything down just so I could get out of there. I was going to fail. I just wished I had known that at the start so I could have bowed out of the project like my table mate.

A couple of days after the exam Ms. Allenchy addressed the class. With a mixture of frustration at us, the other class and herself she explained to us that every student from both classes had failed the project. She asked for feedback, wondering what she had done wrong as a teacher and why nothing had sunk in for us. We told her that the process had been so utterly disturbing that it inhibited our ability to retain knowledge.  Her surprise told me that we were an anomaly, and I’m sure if everyone failed every year they would have stopped the dissection requirement years prior, so while what we told her was absolutely, gut-churningly true, I also wondered if her teaching style had changed from past years. Whatever the case, we seemed to have broken a record, not in a good way academically, and as our instructor she shared in the responsibility and ended up either massively adjusting our grades or throwing them out altogether, because none of us failed and I was indeed able to graduate. While the end result was in my favor, though, the experience of getting there is still a horrid memory. I am not stronger or smarter for having dissected Penelope. I just feel sick almost twenty four years later.

 

Michael Welch

February 19th, 2017

 

Dad

Two years ago today my father died. It was the first major death I had experienced and my life instantly became the most nauseating of roller coaster rides. Part of that queasy feeling was grief because I loved him, but part was guilt because for a long time I didn’t.

My dad was my hero when I was little. I always wanted to be where he was, and other than work he usually let that happen. He called me Buddy and taught me to play sports. He couldn’t resist getting me a toy whenever we went out. When he went to bed (he rose early for work) I would often watch TV with him in the dark until my mom got tired and would have to transport my sleeping form to my own bed. I was his shadow and the apple of his eye, a boy child he could mould in his own image. And I was a willing participant, soaking in all the time and lessons to be had with my role model. I never wanted to let him down and would do whatever he suggested, and if I broke something or had an accident or did something bad I was mortified about what his reaction would be, both because I didn’t want to disappoint him but also because I didn’t want him to yell. My father had a temper. It was born out of ignorance and fear but of course I didn’t know that in my single digit years. Back then I was just afraid of the volume and the ferocity. He never hit me, and I don’t think that thought ever crossed his mind. In truth he was mostly mad because he wouldn’t want to deal with whatever had occurred, so whoever gave him a problem to deal with became the recipient of his verbal ire.

Luckily I didn’t see my dad’s angry side too often in my formative years. My mother was quick to deal with things so he wouldn’t have to (which would solve the immediate problem but not the bigger issue of my dad’s temper), because she didn’t want to hear him yell either. Still, that served as my first lesson that Dad wasn’t perfect, and that’s a hard lesson for a kid to learn. But we soldiered on, father and son, and as I got close to double digit age we were going out to the store every weekend and getting haircuts once a month at the crack of dawn (which is where I learned to be early to everything, a trait I still employ). I began playing organized baseball in the youth leagues and Dad was there every step of the way. We were, indeed, buddies, but then a larger crack formed in his armor when he tricked me into quitting baseball. The truth is that he didn’t want to invest the time into bringing me to practice and games anymore. He wanted more time to relax and do other things. He couldn’t say that, though. Instead he told me that he’d understand if I wanted to quit because of my asthma. I had never even thought that, but I understood what he was suggesting, and since I couldn’t let him down, even though I didn’t quite understand, I quit.

From there we were still tight, still going shopping on the weekend and going to Pawtucket Red Sox games and occasionally going to pick up my sister from college for a visit. She went to school in Newton, and as we got into the area and saw the nice homes my dad would start making jokes about Jewish people. I was introduced to new slurs and they sounded funny so he kept saying them and then it became a thing (my sister was disgusted, I should point out). And that’s how racism is spread. I had heard him say things against Jewish and African American people in the past, but this was now some kind of routine and I’m ashamed I was a part of it.

That was the thing about my father’s death leaving me so conflicted. I learned so much from him in my life, but half of it was to do the opposite of what he did.

When I was a freshman in high school my dad had a heart attack, and a lot changed. He was already starting to pull away from the family, but this was the catalyst for him to expedite the process. To be fair, all four of us were changing. My sister was in college and trying to start her life. I was in the throes of puberty. My mom was perfectly content to spend her time at home doing puzzles and watching TV. My dad, for his part, got even more involved in taking care of horses. He had always loved horses and began helping out one of my mom’s coworkers, who competed in shows. He got along smashingly with her and her husband, going over every weekend to tend to the stable needs. He was soon promoted to be the manager of the barn and would accompany them to some very important competitions. He was doing well and we were all doing our thing. I became much closer to my mother as we both were very similar in mindset. My sister was back home to get a job and further her studies. We were all there in the same home, but whereas my mom, sister and I would still talk and hang out we all felt like Dad was more of a roommate than a family member. He’d say hello and we still got along but work and horses was his thing and that was about it, to the extent that my mother even commented that his only contribution to the house was his paycheck.

My dad lost his role as barn manager when he started spending too much time there. The barn was at the house of the woman who owned the horse, and it had gotten to where Dad was there before they even got out of bed in the morning. It was making them uncomfortable and she and my mom were still friends so she felt like she was in the middle of a bigger issue, so as hard as it was she had to relieve him of his duty. I have no doubt my dad did a great job, but sometimes an ice skater enjoys skating so much they stop looking at how thin the ice has gotten.

Dad moved on and started working with the VFW. He had been a marine and was very supportive of the military, and at first he would just go there to hang out with vets, perhaps looking for people to understand him in a way that we didn’t, but before too long he started taking on projects and had worked his way up to the Commander of the post. I was very proud of him and his dedication to the job, as he really did work hard. Unfortunately, though, this is where the armor he’d worn since I was a small child finally broke apart and showed me the withered man within. First came the drinking. My dad was in his glory there with all his military buddies and they had a very tight bond right up until his death, so of course Dad felt bulletproof, half his age, and he drank like the outside world didn’t exist. Then he would come home. First, he would drive home drunk early in the morning, sometimes even nodding off in the driveway and coming in a half hour or hour later. Despite the late hour I would usually wake up when he got in because we lived in a mobile home and the word “quiet” does not exist. He no doubt hated having to come home and I was always angry that he had driven home in such a state. From there I would lay in bed, growing more angry as I heard him talk to the cat in the bathroom, complaining about how no one understood him in the family. One time he even told the cat that he loved his kids but his rotten wife had turned them against him. It was all I could do not to go in there and give him a verbal bashing the likes of which I was always afraid of him doing. My mother was the rock of the family, taking care of the bills and the shopping and her children and her job, not to mention the laundry and cooking. My dad hated his job and then went to play with his vet buddies on the weekends. He did a great deal of work for them, absolutely, but we were still a struggling family who had gone through bankruptcy and he was working harder at his unpaid second job than anything else. I wanted to say all that and more, but of course, as I had known for so many years, you don’t argue with Dad. Nothing would’ve helped or changed in that situation. Instead I continued spending my Friday and Saturday nights being woken up by his drunken idiocy and praying he wouldn’t talk to the cat.

And then it got worse.

One night I was woken up by my sister, who had snuck into my room to tell me my father was cheating on my mother. She was furious as she told me how she’d heard him talking on the house phone so, given the late hour and the way he was talking, she picked up the phone in her room and heard him talking to a woman he professed his love for, complete with all the sweet nothings that are said to signify that this was not a platonic love. She told my mother the next day and my mother confronted him, which must’ve taken all her strength because, again, you don’t confront Dad. But she did and he withered and she threw him out. I was not there for that, but I was there for that weekend when he came to get some of his things. He said hi sheepishly, friendly as he passed my bedroom, and as disgusted as I was I said hello in a returned friendly tone. He got his things and said he’d see me later and I said good bye and he was gone. Then a couple weeks later he was back. My sister and I were not happy with this but my mother said we could not get by financially without him, and his new girlfriend was already tired of him and wanting him to leave so she agreed to let him come back. Soon after that my sister got her own place and my mother moved into her bedroom.

Life in our home was civil for some time after that. I remained devoted to my mother and cordial to my father. My mother enjoyed time to herself. I stayed in my bedroom if I was home. My father continued working for the VFW. My mother retired and was looking forward to having a few years to enjoy a house without my dad while he was at work, and then he took early retirement less than a year later and somehow she didn’t murder him.

Dad began to feel weak and was constantly tired for several days. He still went to the VFW, just for fun now as he had relinquished his position as Commander, but otherwise he didn’t get out of bed. They tried to convince him to go to the hospital, as did we, but he kept wanting to give it another day to see how he felt. The truth is, he was deathly (poor word choice) afraid of the hospital. When he was growing up in the 1940s, people often went in and didn’t come out (or at least that was his reasoning), and that fear rose up over any evidence of medical advancement. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I decided to investigate after Dad had been in the bathroom a long time only to find him on the floor next to the toilet. I assumed he was dead, but he had passed out and fallen off the seat. I called 911 and got him to a chair, and he was adamant that I pull his underwear back up and get his robe on so no one would see him as he was. I kissed him on the side of the head and told him I loved him. After all that had happened and how much our relationship had nosedived since my childhood, that was still my gut reaction. It’s important to state here that we did not touch each other in my family. Physical affection went away in childhood and did not return. The only hugs I gave or received after the age of perhaps seven was when I briefly moved to Baltimore in 2001, and both parents hugged me then, which shocked me so much I cried. And so there it was, in the bathroom with an ambulance on the way and my dad as vulnerable as could be, I kissed him and was once again shocked. He told me that he loved me too and I got his robe on in time to hear the thunderous engines of fire/rescue and ambulance alike. Of course my dad knew the first responders. He knew most of them, no matter the branch, from various VFW sponsored functions. I got dressed and woke my mother (wondering how someone could sleep through all that noise, especially in a mobile home) and told her I was going to the hospital. I arrived in time for the doctor to do a fecal check and discover he had internal bleeding. A nurse came in to get some blood pumped into him and he told her to make sure he got the right color blood. It was one of the most awkward experiences I’ve ever had, and the nurse was immediately tired of him. I knew, though, that he was trying to bond with me, not because of the racist remark but because that was a line a racist soldier had said on an episode of M*A*S*H, which was the first TV show we both loved when I was little. Despite the poor execution, it was an attempt at tenderness. From there the doctors closed a hole in my father’s gut and three days later he was back home, and I wish that could’ve served as proof that hospitals had come a long way since 1942.

As more darkness began to creep into the house my relationship with my dad continued to improve. My mother’s dementia worsened to a point where she was leaving the house, needing to go to “work.” As such, someone needed to be there with her all the time. Since I worked full time it was usually Dad. This was difficult for him. He still wanted time to be with his friends at the VFW. He wanted some kind of independence. At the same time, he wanted me to be able to have a life outside of work. Also, he was having difficulty breathing. This had been going on for a couple of years, and he had started to pursue the issue with his doctor but then stopped, canceling appointments and avoiding the issue. He could still get around but would have to go slower than he was used to and stop to catch his breath. So he had all of that swirling in his head. At first he didn’t do well with it. I would be at work and he would run up to the VFW for a short time. My mother would then call me at work, multiple times, and say the frightening and infuriating things that people with dementia say, which would cause me to call my father and tell him he needed to go home immediately. It was a bizarre Freaky Friday situation where I had become the parent to my parents. We struck up a deal where he could go out whenever I was home and if I was at work he had to be home, and if we both had a pressing need my sister could come down and watch her but she lived too far away to be able to do it regularly. It was an excruciating way to live for all of us, my mother in a faraway world of imagined memory mixed with reality and us watching her corrode while we gave up our own sanity to be with her, and my sister on the outside looking in and feeling guilty for living the life she had established years prior. And we all continued to worsen. A year to the day before my dad died I came down with shingles, probably from the stress in my situation. My father tried to get more active to improve his cardio and breathing but it wasn’t working. My sister developed breast cancer. My mother finally reached a point where we couldn’t help her anymore and I got her into a nursing home. It was a nightmare swirl of the darkest colors, but through it all we made it work. My dad and I weren’t happy and he wasn’t healthy, but we were a team and neither could’ve done it without the other. We didn’t have long talks it we would tell each other a little about what was going on. The communication was there, partly because it had to be but we would also offer information we didn’t need to, just to share. I gave him occasional pep talks about getting to the doctors again to help with his breathing. It had gotten so bad that, even with my mother in the nursing home he still rarely went to the VFW. Instead he moved out of his bedroom and into the living room, which was frustrating but in hindsight I understand.

Six days before my dad died we had an electrical problem. An electrician came out and my dad, rather than let him work, talked his ear off about living here for over forty years and this and that. It was night and winter and we had no heat, and the man had to get to Home Depot for a part before they closed, but my dad needed the guy to know that he was living here when there weren’t any streets behind us. At work we call people like that Time Vampires, and he was vamping this guy hard and I was so mad. When the electrician got free I sternly told my father not to talk on and on when he got back. He could see how mad I was and asked me not to yell at him. I felt terrible. He knew how I felt as a kid and I knew how he felt when he would get mad. My anger was truly there because I couldn’t fix the situation, was inconvenienced and facing a night without heat. Our comfort was in the hands of a random electrician, and my lack of knowledge was frustrating. It was how I had analyzed most of my dad’s outbursts for the past few decades. To push it further out, I was frustrated because my dad was weak and old and I could do nothing to stop it, so I took it out on him because he was there, the one aging and ailing and needing my help. He was weak and was supposed to be strong, because he was my dad. I was so wrong in that moment to vent my frustration on him.

(If you are a Star Wars fan, this was the part where Luke is soundly battering Vader and cuts his hand off, and at that moment realizes he is becoming the negative side of his father.)

We spent the night in the cold because the electrician couldn’t fix the problem. In the morning I had to go to work but I brought my dad a hot coffee to help warm him and because I felt terrible. I can’t remember if I apologized. I hope I did.

Two days before dad died (a Friday) he had an appointment about his breathing. The tests were done in advance of his Monday appointment with his cardiologist (the same one he’d had since his initial heart attack in the 1990s). Dad asked the technician about the results, and the tech, who had also known my dad since the 90s, told him he wasn’t supposed to say anything, and he knew my dad wouldn’t follow his advice, but he should go next door to the hospital and check himself in now because it looked like congestive heart failure and the doctor was no doubt going to have him admitted on Monday anyway. My dad, despite only being able to walk very short distances before stopping, still not over his fear of hospitals, said he’d see them on Monday but would take it very easy, then called me to come pick him up.

The day my father died (Sunday) I had a lot on my agenda. I had to drive an hour to act in a film by the maestro, Skip Shea. Then I was to go to my friend Scott’s house to watch the annual Royal Rumble wrestling event. In the morning all I was trying to do was remember my lines. I respected Skip a great deal and did not want to mess up. As I was getting ready to leave my dad started talking to me about rock salt. A blizzard was coming in the next day and he didn’t think we had enough. My dad used rock salt like it was skin lotion for the earth. He was also obsessed with the weather, and as soon as he heard foul weather was coming I would get constant updates. He also felt guilty because he wouldn’t be able to help me shovel. As his breathing had worsened over the past couple years he would always force himself to go out and help me, even though I kept telling him to go inside. He even pushed to get a snowblower so he could help without straining, which I agreed to even though I didn’t want one and didn’t want him outside (I spent more time watching out for him than shoveling). Anyway, he asked me to pick up rock salt if there was any left. All I wanted to do was remember my lines. I was so nervous and keyed up. I told him I had to go film and then go to my friend’s house and might not have time. I stopped myself at the door, about to leave, and realized I was being snippy. I told him I’d probably have a chance to stop between locations and I’d try to pick some up. He thanked me and we exchanged goodbyes. I’m fairly certain the last words I said to him were either “see you later” or “you too” in response to him wishing me a good day. Whatever they were I’m extraordinarily grateful I turned my attitude around and left on a good note because I wouldn’t see him alive again.

I had a good time filming but we had to wait in thirty degree weather for over an hour because the person who was supposed to come unlock our location forgot. I was in shorts too, because that’s what I wear, so between that and my worry about nailing my lines and doing a good job, I left there around 1:30 absolutely exhausted. I texted Scott and said I wasn’t going to go to his house and would watch at my house and we could text. I got back to Taunton and went to the store but the only salt they had left was for around swimming pools. I declined and went to get a sandwich to bring home. I arrived and my neighbor yelled over to me from her front door. I always tried to keep my neighbor at a distance because she liked to talk and was a bit nosy, and I was way too tired to get into a conversation. I looked over to her and she said she had my dad’s hat and keys. “Okay…can I have them?” I said, not knowing why she had them. She gave them to me and told me she had looked out the window and my dad was on the ground in the driveway. She called an ambulance and gave him CPR until they arrived. I am thankful that I don’t panic in these situations. I asked if he was alive. Her eyes dropped, contemplating, and she said in a low tone, “it didn’t look good, Mike.” I thanked her and went in the house. In my heart I knew he was dead. I knew he had gone out to run his truck because he was old fashioned and thought if you don’t drive your vehicle every few days it won’t start. So unnecessary but it wasn’t really a big deal…until then. He went to start his truck and couldn’t breathe and his heart worked too hard and gave out and he died right where I had just parked my car. I breathed. I went to the bathroom, assuming I’d be at the hospital for a long time, especially if somehow he was alive. As I passed the washer/dryer I saw he had clothes out for a wash, the clothes he was going to pack for when he was admitted to the hospital the next day. One day away from getting help. Damn it, Dad, why didn’t you admit yourself on Friday? I finished in the bathroom, then ate my sandwich. I wondered if I should. I mean, shouldn’t I be on my way to the hospital? No. I was starving and exhausted and if I was going to be there for a while I would need food for strength and proper thinking. And still, I knew he was dead. I debated on and off, but I knew inside, and each station at the hospital confirmed that. As I drove I got a call and didn’t answer. I parked and played the voicemail, which was from the doctor that worked on him. He asked me to call him ASAP. I quickly texted friends, one with medical knowledge and one who had gone through something similar, to make them aware. I went to the emergency room desk and told them my name. The woman’s voice softened and asked me to have a seat. Confirmation. A nurse came to get me and led me to the Family Room. Confirmation. That’s the room where you get told bad news. I texted me friends again, telling them that. The doctor came in and told me what I already knew. “I’m sorry to say…your father…has died.” I don’t cry in public or show sorrow to strangers. I’m just not built that way. He said it was a heart attack and he felt no pain. I was thankful that the tech broke the rules and told my dad about the congestive heart failure because it was more of a thorough reason the ER doc couldn’t have given. And I don’t believe that he felt no pain. Maybe it was massive and he was dead fast but I bet it hurt and telling me otherwise didn’t make me feel better. I asked what to do now and he said I’d get a call about arrangements and a funeral home consultation. He asked if I wanted to see the body and I said yes. I was brought in by a nurse, who showed me where his belongings were. It was so surreal being in the room with his dead body while the nurse went through his stuff with me. She left and I sat next to his bed. You never understand the spark of life in a person until you see it missing in a corpse. His eyes were closed, mouth open, dentures removed. He had a splotch of purple blood under the skin on the side of his head. He was just a husk. The important part was gone. I talked to him in my head and said goodbye, that I hoped I’d been a good enough son and made him proud. I looked around the room, at the machines that could do him no good and the curtain shielding him from the world that used to be. I told him I loved him and picked up his belongings. I went through the curtain and the nurse asked if she could do anything and I again asked what to do now and she said the same thing the doctor had. I walked out of the hospital with bags of clothes, a phone, a wallet, a watch. But no Dad. Memories flooded my brain, many of which are written here, many that aren’t, both good and bad. Guilt arrived for how much I hated him at times, and I felt like a hypocrite for being sad. I drove home somehow. My neighbor yelled out the window asking how he was. “He’s dead,” I responded, breaking down as I continued, “thank you for your help.” I texted coworkers and my boss at the office and said I wouldn’t be in that week and said why. I texted friends. I texted my sister because I could not tell her with my voice. I assumed her reaction upon finding out would be more emotional than mine. It was hours of texting. I put on the wrestling event and of course couldn’t pay attention. There was no diversion of attention to be had. The house phone rang and I didn’t answer. Dad’s phone rang and I knew it was going to haunt me but I let it go unanswered. If I couldn’t talk to my sister I wasn’t going to talk to his friends. And I cried, a lot, my face moving in ways I couldn’t imagine, my sobs silent but powerful. At 11:30 that night the house phone rang and I was so mad that someone would call so late I answered. It was the hospital. They wanted to know if I would donate his tissue, corneas, etc. I understood the time press and forgave the late call. I agreed and they asked questions. Eventually I got a card in the mail saying how many people his donations helped, which was wonderful.

The next day, blizzard day, my sister came down and we faxed paperwork somewhere and I got supplies for the storm and we got lunch. I made her leave because the storm was starting and she had pets and I wanted isolation. Well, I wanted contact, lots of it, but not in person. I needed to process things (which you never really stop doing, of course, as this proves). My coworker, knowing I had no money for funeral expenses and Dad had no insurance, told me I could donate the body to a school with a mortuary science program, and they would use the body to teach the students and then cremate the body and give you the remains for no cost. It was my only choice, and the college ended up being the same one my sister attended (though for a different major). I also finally answered my dad’s phone and spoke to a woman from the VFW. I confirmed the fears of all his friends from there that had been calling. When she said she didn’t get to say goodbye I said “neither did I.” She apologized but in truth I was the rude one there.

The week I was away from work was a grand mixture of emotions. The storm was enormous, and I did not touch the snowblower (I ended up giving it away). It was Dad’s and I never really liked it. I cleaned a great deal of his things out of the house, in every room except his bedroom (which I would not get to for a few months). I felt if I didn’t do it then the belongings would haunt me for years. My friends stayed in touch, and my coworkers sent me an Edible Arrangements bouquet which served me much better than flowers. On Wednesday I had to go to work to use the printer so I could fax more things, so I told those who were working what happened. When Friday came I had tickets to a small, local independent wrestling show. I had spent the day cleaning, remembering, and I was in no shape to go to this little show. I told myself I needed to get out of the house, so I did. I invited people at the last minute but no one could come. I am never afraid to be alone at an event but that day I was. I don’t remember much of it. I shouldn’t have gone. The day after there was a large wrestling event and several of my friends were going. That served to be the temporary relief I needed, and I pushed forward from there.

My dad didn’t want to be cremated. He had written out a list of requests years ago, probably after his first heart attack, and I found them while cleaning. He didn’t want a service but wanted to be buried. In all caps he wrote DO NOT CREMATE ME! I had already talked to the school before I found that, but even if I hadn’t, I had no choice. I still feel guilty about it, denying a dead man’s wish, but I had no money for a casket and all the fixings. Neither did he.

While it is much less frequent now, dreaming that he is alive is hard to deal with. I also dream that my mom is here, without dementia, and sometimes they are in the same dream. I always wake up thinking they’re here and have to convince myself otherwise.

My dad was a man who probably shouldn’t have had kids. He probably should’ve remained a bachelor. He was just a guy who ultimately wanted to do his own thing. But then other events changed that and while he was a great father for many years, eventually his “me” time became more important. I know he loved my sister and me. He just forgot how to show it. I hope he loved my mom. I think he knew she put us first and the selfishness he felt made him mad at her, but I think he loved who she was as a person. He made some very bad choices in search of his own sense of independence, but in the end when he had to be around he was, and that made up for a lot. I knew writing this would be hard, airing a dead man’s dirty laundry, but I wanted to show both sides, because there were fresh sheets there among the soiled. Relationships, families, they aren’t always happy, and I still get mad at my dad two years after he died for things he did decades ago. But I still love him too, and I am a better man for the things he taught me, whether it was to follow his example or sometimes do the opposite.

 

Michael Welch

January 25th, 2017

Deleted Scenes (II)

Here are some bits from recent blogs that fell off the table.

 

Clash of the Titans

-Alec and I attended a second concert that summer when we tagged along with my sister and her boyfriend to see Damn Yankees. We didn’t love Damn Yankees but we liked them and decided to go because, as guitar fans, we wanted to see Ted Nugent (luckily it was still in the days before he was known as a hateful bigot and still a guitar hero). The show was at the same venue as Clash of the Titans, but this time we sat way back on the lawn. Tattoo Rodeo opened the show, a band I hadn’t heard of before or since. In the middle slot was Bad Company, which brought a lot of the adults to their feet for dancing. Alec and I, still sitting on the lawn, had our young teenage minds hotwired by a particularly talented female gyrator next to us, and I can’t say that I looked at the stage very much. Once Damn Yankees hit the stage, though, we were focused, on our feet and ready to witness the guitar wizardry of the Nuge. A couple of songs later we realized the slight flaw in our plans. Damn Yankees was on the lighter side of rock, so the legendary leads and licks of Mr. Nugent were reserved for his solo and the show closing song. His solo was good, to be sure, and he even shot an arrow into a cardboard cutout of Saddam Hussein (the first Gulf War was in progress so it was definitely a crowd pleaser), but the last song, the only fast selection from the album, was the highlight of the night, and it sent us home happy.

 

Alien Man

-School was particularly difficult for a shy/introverted kid like me. I wouldn’t ask questions or call attention to myself in any way. Unfortunately, I still ended up having all eyes on me in first grade when my fear of asking to use the bathroom meant occasional accidents near the end of the day. The memory of damp corduroy chafing my thighs as I walked to the bus and then home from the drop off point haunt me still, as do the images of puddles under my seat. I even had back end accidents, which I sat in, ashamed, from the time it happened until I got home. It happened often enough that I got the idea to hide my soiled clothes in the hamper, thinking my mother wouldn’t notice. Of course, it just made her more frustrated, and I specifically remember her saying, “I don’t know what to do with you.” Try as she might to convince me that it was okay to ask to use the restroom, my brain was not wired that way. I couldn’t even go at recess. I had tried twice. One time it was with the other kids at the start of the period. I walked toward the row of tiny urinals and tripped. I fell to the ground and another kid stepped on my hand. I do believe that was an accident, but when I rose the other kids around me were laughing, so that put an end to that experiment. I tried again, though, one day during recess when the rest of the kids were playing. I had to use the stall so as I sat there, as vulnerable as possible, and I heard a kid come into the bathroom. Like a horror movie villain he began opening every stall door. He got to mine, and, puzzled by his inability to open the locked door, began talking to me, looking to discover my identity. I wouldn’t answer, but he wouldn’t leave. Finally I pulled my pants up without wiping, flushed, opened the door and faced my stalker. It was one of the less intelligent kids in class, David, who asked me if I had been “taking a dump.” Option number two (no pun intended) was also a bust. It would take me several years to be able to use the facilities at school. It didn’t mean I never had to go. I just got better at holding it.

-While sometimes not as traumatic, wanting to be invisible caused me other problems in school. Also in first grade I was terrified of asking to sharpen my pencil. My lead had been flattened from use but instead of rejuvenating the tip I modified my writing style accordingly. Luckily, one day we had a substitute teacher and she noticed how dull my utensil was and sharpened it for me. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell the teacher when I started having trouble seeing the chalkboard, when I didn’t understand something or when I was bullied. My own social existence paralyzed me.

 

Pound

-At the time of that entry I had worked out for 203 days in a row. My streak ended later that month at 228 days when I began getting dizzy spells. Now, I had been getting lightheaded for over a week but it only happened doing one particular squat exercise, so I kept going. What led to the end was when I started getting dizzy when I was not working out. When I told coworkers I received an immediate intervention, and the same day got one from my former yoga instructor. I agreed to tone it down, and I do believe it was the right choice. Unfortunately, once my streak was snapped my routine fell apart. I struggled to create a program that would work for me but nothing felt right. After that I willingly fell into the indulgence of the holidays, and now, almost a year after starting my marathon of days, I am at the same weight I was then. My mistake was to take solace in the food associated with the holidays, using it to appease the solitude, binging rather than sampling. And now, once again, I am in need to right my ship, the only way to do so being to throw the unnecessary weight overboard. And for the next holiday season, may I finally learn the lesson.

 

Christmas

-My sister informed me that the play I was in was “The Wedding of Tom Thumb.”

-Despite parting ways in first grade when I went to a public school and Shelly stayed at the Catholic facility, we would meet again. Imagine my surprise and happiness when she walked into photography class for our senior year of high school. I didn’t know why she changed schools and didn’t care. I was overjoyed to see her. Puberty had treated us very differently. While I was already rapidly balding, full of acne and extra pounds Shelly was a picture of beauty, so stunning I was momentarily hesitant to talk to her. Surely she wouldn’t remember me and would find my blobby, oily self repulsive. And yet, I was so thrilled from her appearance that I just had to say hello. My fears, of course, were unfounded. She remembered me and in moments we were friends again. We were not a couple and wouldn’t be, but that didn’t matter because we got to spend our final year of school the way we spent our first, as great friends.

 

Michael Welch

January 21st, 2017

Christmas

At five years old no day of the year, not even my birthday, was more special than Christmas. Santa, the plastic tree, the decorations, the cartoons, the food and mostly the anticipation of toys filled my thoughts and lifted my spirits as soon as Thanksgiving ended. That year, though, there was a new activity in the middle of the season.

In late 1980 I started kindergarten. It was my first time away from home without a parent and I was horrified. Luckily I was able to ride the bus with my sister, who was in fifth grade at the same school (St. Mary’s, a catholic school I attended for one year before switching to public school). On the first day she showed me where to go for class and when I tried to tag along with her and her friends she brought me over to a little girl, asked if she was in kindergarten, and when the girl said yes she introduced me and I had my first friend. Her name was Shelly Coughlin, and it fit that we were at a religious institution because she was an angel. Despite my massive shyness, which added to my terror of being in a strange new place, we hit it off quickly and formed a playground bond. Other friends would be made, but Shelly and I were always together on the playground, and before long I had my first girlfriend. We never smooched or did anything that was different from a normal friendship, but we were each other’s favorite friend, and since we were a boy and girl like our parents we decided we must be a couple like them. It was the first time I fell in love (as my young brain understood it), and it was wonderful.

In early December, our teacher (a nun named Ms. Precopio, who resembled a witch in appearance and demeanor) told us we would be performing as a class in the school’s Christmas pageant. We were putting on a wedding play, and the boys and girls were to be paired as couples. A bride and groom would be chosen as lead actors and the rest would be attendees. The marriage would happen and then we’d have a dance, and we had to be dressed in our best attire. Most of that information went right out of my head, because all I could focus on was making sure Shelly and I were a couple for the performance. The thought of dancing with her made my tiny heart swell. Luckily, she was thinking the same thing, and when we were told to get up and find a partner we ran to each other as if one of us had just returned from the war. We were not chosen to be bride and groom, which seemed ridiculous to me because we were a couple and assumed that gave us right of first refusal, but as I had no interest in being the star of the show I wasn’t that insulted.

When show night arrived I got all dressed up in a hand me down suit from a friend of my mother. It was a flannel suit jacket with black pants and a bow tie. My boy’s regular haircut was parted on the side and slicked over. I looked like a ventriloquist dummy. But, I had a bigger worry to deal with when my mother told me the family was not going to be there for the show. She would drop me off and pick me up but didn’t buy tickets to the show because any extra money my parents had was all used on Christmas. I was terrified, immediately looking into a future that saw me walking around empty halls, lost and alone because I couldn’t find my mother after the show. Clearly she’d get tired of waiting and return home and I’d die on the streets of Taunton that night trying to walk home. There was no other option. But, I couldn’t stand Shelly up for the wedding so I accepted my fate and was relieved that my last night on Earth would be spent with her.

My sister tagged along to drop me off so she could make sure I got to the right place. She and my mother walked me inside and they received the most puzzled look when the woman at the door asked for their tickets and my mother said they weren’t staying. I was deposited with my classmates and my heart fell in my colon as my mom and sister told me they’d pick me up after and made their way out. I knew I wouldn’t find them. I knew I would not see Christmas that year.

Waiting in our classroom my spirits raised when I saw Shelly in her dress. I was a proud boyfriend. The boys were handed wrapped, empty boxes that we were to present as gifts to the bride and groom on stage. We were all sure that there were Matchbox cars in the boxes and would receive them after the play (nope). Mrs. Precopio tried to run through the performance one last time but we were a rambunctious group that night and it was difficult. Finally, as our stage time approached she gave up and we were marched to the backstage area.

Walking onstage to a crowded auditorium with Shelly by my side was the highlight of my young life. As instructed I placed my present next to the others as we walked by the gift table and we took our seats. The wedding began, and that’s when I zoned out (I have always been a daydreamer). I had a lot to think about, and the play was at the highest third on the list. Above it were the extreme joy of getting to dance with Shelly and the massive fear of finding my mom after the show. I scanned the crowd, happy I was not the focus of their attention, and I saw two sets of eyes on me. Could it be? It was! My mother and sister were there after all, sitting among the other families and faculty. All of my fear turned into excitement, and I was so happy I didn’t even notice when the wedding ended. All the kids stood up for the dance and I sat there for a moment, my head swimming back to the reality buoy. I got on my feet and Shelly and I took our spot among all the other couples for our dance, only to us it was real because we loved each other. We had no idea how to dance but we got to hold each other a little and move around like adult couples. It was wondrous, a true joy to be ranked among the greatest Christmas time memories of my life. I could’ve held her hand for hours, but it was over so quickly. We all lined up and bowed or curtsied, and before I knew it we were in a hallway and parents were claiming their spawn. I turned my head like a searching owl, realizing it was time to go home and not wanting to miss my mom. I heard my sister call my name, and as I met up with them I knew I would not be meeting my end that night.

On the way home I found out that my mom, feeling bad about missing my performance, had decided on a whim to sneak in. My mom has always been a badass.

Michael Welch

Christmas Day

December 25th, 2016

Thanksgiving

In my single digit years Thanksgiving felt like a great way station. Halloween and my birthday had come and gone, Christmas was a month away, and turkey day was right there in the middle to help switch the gears from skeletons to Santa. My mother and sister both had birthdays Thanksgiving week, and it would always be extra special when one of their Emergence Days merged with the holiday. Perhaps the best side perk of the occasion, though, was the school schedule. Wednesday was a half day and then we were off straight through the long weekend, out first extended break since the year began in early September. That half day always flew by, the teachers never having us do very much book learning and instead giving us small, fun activities to keep us occupied. Then, in fourth grade, my teacher decided to give us a real project.

Mrs. Mulcahey was big on projects. They were fun, done entirely in class, and involved the arts. I learned about drawing and tracing while doing an assignment on capital cities of the world (I had Paris and drew the Eiffel Tower). I learned about writing and illustration from our task to create an original short story which would be turned into bound books (I enjoyed that one so much I wrote two stories, and my love of writing was born). It was for Thanksgiving that I got a lesson in acting. Mrs. Mulcahey wrote a short, one act play about the first Thanksgiving, and we were going to perform it for Mr. Wade’s fourth grade class across the hall on the half day before holiday break. After that, they would come over to our class and we’d share a traditional turkey day meal, and we’d all hang out together until it was time to go home. My current self can say it was a great mingling of classrooms in the spirit of the mingling of pilgrims and Native Americans and a fantastic idea. Back then, though, the anxiety of the idea had my guts knotted.

The idea was sprung on us about a week before the performance. We all lined up around the perimeter of the room and Mrs. Mulcahey began dividing us into pilgrims and Native Americans. To simplify things, every other kid was a pilgrim. Here’s where the panic started. I needed to be a pilgrim. I knew nothing about Native Americans except for playing Cowboys and Indians and seeing Tonto on The Lone Ranger. How could I play a role I knew nothing about? I absolutely could not make a fool of myself in front of two classes worth of kids. I was too shy, too nervous, and I wouldn’t recover from such public failure. I had endured the Mr. Fig incident in first grade as well as all the times I’d accidentally used my pants as a toilet (I was too shy to ask to use the bathroom), but I was older now, an upperclassman, and could not accept further humiliation. I just had to be a pilgrim. They had cool outfits and muskets. They were like soldiers, and I knew all about soldiers from my G.I. Joe toys. If I was a pilgrim, a soldier, I’d make my dad proud because he was always talking about being in the Marines. I quickly counted the kids and assigned them using the teacher’s formula. I got to the kid next to me and he would be a Native American and yes yes YES! I was a pilgrim! My relief was instant and soothing, and I waited happily until Mrs. Mulcahey got up to me. She wrote my name on her notepad and then delivered my assignment: Native American.

My innards dissolved.

Mrs. Mulcahey continued on and I was in a personal hell. How could this have happened? Did I miscount? Did she stray from her assignment formula while I was scheming? I couldn’t play a Native American. They were a mystery, and I certainly couldn’t research them at home because that was time for cartoons and playing. I couldn’t ask the teacher about them because then she’d know I didn’t know about them and I couldn’t admit that. I flipped through my tiny Native American knowledge from television. They had knives. That was cool, kind of soldierly. Feather headbands, okay. Shirtless. Would I have to take my shirt off for this? I couldn’t do that! I was pale and only took my shirt off for the doctor. No way, there was no way I could be a Native American.

Over the next several days my mind raced with worry. My fear manifested itself in stubbornness, and rather than learn and help myself I worried. We were given roles, and I was given the honor of a major role: Chief Massassoit. I was the lead on the Native American side, and instead of being thankful for the teacher’s faith in me and appreciative for the responsibility I fell further into woe. We practiced the script in class each day and were told we could use them during our performance, but nothing could calm me. My large role meant people would be looking at my chalky, topless torso all the more, and if I flubbed one of my many lines I would have seven months of  grief to endure. I could not get a handle on my fear, which grew the night before the performance when my father saw that the local newspaper had printed a blurb about the play. All of our names were printed with our roles. My dad read mine and mentioned that I was Massassoit, and my brain’s engine sputtered. I hadn’t told him who I was playing because I didn’t want to let him down that I wasn’t a pilgrim, a soldier. I mumbled something about wanting to be a pilgrim and beat feet to my room to avoid further questioning.

The half day of the show arrived. As we had limited time Mrs. Mulcahey got right down to business. We rehearsed the play one last time, then lined up along the walls once again so we could receive our costumes: paper hats with drawn buckles for pilgrims and paper headbands with paper feathers for Native Americans. I received mine and it was then that I had a panic fueled, last ditch idea. I asked the kid next to me if he wanted to switch roles. He looked at me with a puzzled look. I told him I really wanted to be a pilgrim. His level of anxiety was the exact opposite of mine, not seeming to care at all who he played, and to my delight he agreed. We changed headgear and then, without Mrs. Mulcahey’s approval or knowledge, I was a pilgrim. I got to keep my shirt on and also a low profile, as I had a mere two lines in my new role of Pilgrim #2.

After we were all in our “costumes” we walked across the hall to Mr. Wade’s class and surrounded the class and assorted parents that had arrived to watch. To my amazement, none of the Native Americans got topless. Oh well, at least I didn’t have to deliver all those lines. The play began, and I noticed that the lead pilgrim (Myles Standish), a very smart kid named Matthew, had memorized his lines. We were friends, but on that day I was jealous of his confidence. He could act too! Everyone just read their lines, but he was emoting. I wished I could’ve done that, then felt bad. To make it worse, I found myself remembering many of Massassoit’s lines. I thought to myself that maybe I could’ve done the role after all, and felt worse. The capper to my grief came when I was so focused on how I’d failed myself that I missed one of my lines. I had been so afraid that I’d mess up Massassoit’s large amount of dialogue and there I was totally missing my cue for one of my two sentences. The room was silent as we all began looking around the room for whoever was supposed to speak. All the rhythm of the scene was lost. I looked back at my script and had a wave of pins and needles go through me as I realized, after all of my worried work to avoid it, or perhaps because of it, my worst fear had still happened. I blurted out the line and learned a great lesson in the process.

After the play we received applause and remained in Mr. Wade’s class while the teachers and assorted parents went to our class and rearranged the desks to mimic the staple shape we had stood in earlier. All the kids then went over and took spots, and our Thanksgiving lunch was served. As bad as I felt about how my fear had defeated and ultimately humiliated me, it was not enough to overcome said fear when it came to food. I had, and still have, a food phobia, so any time a public meal is held I get very nervous. It was worse back then, as I didn’t know how to explain my feelings and was always looked at as a stubborn or picky eater. When the food was unveiled I was instantly nervous that I’d be served food I didn’t like, or that a teacher or parent would make me try something I was unfamiliar with. All the kids lined up and I just wanted to be home. I had failed myself with the play and was now surely going to have to explain to classmates and adults how I didn’t like corn, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. I got up to the food and a parent started to scoop corn from the serving dish. I sheepishly asked if I could just have turkey. She looked at me much like my classmate had when I asked to switch roles. She confirmed that I didn’t like corn, then offered potatoes and cranberry sauce and I refused. At this point in my experience people would either turn angry and questioning or sympathetic and helpful. I was happy that this parent became the latter. She offered cornbread and I paused. She told me it was like a corn muffin and asked if I liked those. I said yes and she told me it was the same thing, just shaped like bread. I said okay and she put a piece on my plate with the turkey. She gave me a reassuring smile and I was on my way. I got a spot at a desk and my neighbor asked why I didn’t have any other food. I told him I didn’t like it. He shrugged and ate. I was off the hook.

Mrs. Mulcahey never asked me about switching roles. I don’t know what I would’ve said if she had. It certainly wouldn’t have been the truth. To admit your fear is to address it, and even though I didn’t know that at nine years old it was still the thought process in my brain. I’ve grown a great deal since then. I can now eat some foods I couldn’t try then and have learned a lot more about the history of Native Americans, Thanksgiving and pilgrims, but I still struggle with fear of the unknown, including food. My fear is a boulder, and I chip at it daily. I may never demolish it all but I will also never give up.

 

Michael Welch

Thanksgiving Day

November 24th, 2016