Neil is pounding the drums. It’s 3 p.m. on the dot. Geddy and Alex are spinning around with their guitars. Pickup is in about another 45 minutes or, if summer camp calls, sooner, because most of the time when they call, it’s to ask me to talk Apollo down. “Hey, buddy,” I say in my most solicitous voice, trying but probably failing to mask the abject rage beneath –– why can’t my sweet, kind-hearted soon-to-be-second-grader behave himself. “Are you OK, sweet boy?” There are now multiple Neils, Geddys, and Alexes, sets of them pantomiming the song together scrolling down the screen like sand through an hourglass. A couple of times when camp or Apollo’s school has called, it’s been to come pick him up, please. He hit/shoved another kid and/or tried to run away. Again. I wonder if other parents have to go through this with their children. I know some do and worse, much worse. I also know most don’t. And that makes me curse the universe. “Summer’s going fast / Nights growing colder,” Geddy sings, his once nasally voice reduced by age to a calmer, less abrasive instrument. “Children growing up / Old friends growing older.”
It’s 3:06 p.m., and watching a YouTube playlist of 200-something Rush songs that I found while looking for something, anything, to distract me from the morose music I had gravitated toward since Adam died is all I can do to keep from turning myself inside out with worry. Though mostly upbeat and rocking, “Top Tracks: Rush” –– a mix of official videos, like this one for 1987’s “Time Stand Still,” and unofficial ones, including a fan playing drums along to “Camera Eye” – isn’t any less depressing than “Classical Moods Melancholy,” “Clearing Subconscious Negativity,” and “3 Hours of Christmas Music: Traditional Instrumental Christmas Songs.” I turned to Rush mostly out of nostalgia. With all due respect to Missy Schmidt, the Rush dudes – vocalist/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, and guitarist Alex Lifeson – were my first love. In 1982, when I was in sixth grade, I was the bright-eyed, restless, hope-filled, destined-for-greatness boy in “Analog Kid”: “Too many hands on my time / Too many feelings / Too many things on my mind / When I leave, I don’t know what I’m hoping to find / And when I leave, I don’t know what I’m leaving behind.” Adam, my dear older brother, was bright-eyed once, too. It’s been almost five months since he put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger. I don’t think he knew what he was hoping to find, either. He was 52.
I also turned to Rush for comfort, in whatever odd shape it may take, and because I feel I don’t deserve anything new or anything expressing any sort of commonality with the now. As much as Rush reminds me of better, more optimistic days, the Canadian trio – I imagine the three of them standing with their chests out and arms akimbo like Power Rangers – protects me from pain. Listening to new music would require a sense of investment, a willingness to learn, essentially, all of the never-before-heard notes and lyrics, and for parents of special needs kids, there is no time for anything other than worry. You need to be on guard. You can’t even pretend to relax when that call could come at any moment.
I understand the irrationality of this logic or, let’s say, illogic. The phone calls and worse will happen whether you’re enjoying Vampire Weekend, Foals, Deerhunter, or any other hip new band or not, but the gut can’t be denied, and my gut – thanks mainly to years of guilt-inducing Catholic schooling – tells me to be penitential and prepared. “Someone set a bad example / Made surrender seem alright / The act of a noble warrior / Who lost the will to fight.”
That’s from “The Pass,” off Rush’s grossly underrated 1989 album Presto. This is the Rush that I wish the haters would hear. It’s as dorky and bereft of baby-baby bullshit as everything that Rush had put out before it, and mostly after, but it’s also threaded with moments of melodic and lyrical brilliance, some of it actually powerful emotionally. Understand that for a white kid growing up in a blue-collar Rust Belt city in the 1980s, loving Rush was, while effortless, a source of great pride. Were there any other three musicians in any other band better at their instruments than these guys? Loving Rush allowed me, in a weird way, to gain the high ground. How many Rush T-shirts did I own? I don’t know. How many days are in a summer? This was all before I discovered girls, when I realized that it’s not how fast or knotty you play that matters. It’s how tasteful you are, how much you can say in as few notes as possible. Presto was the last Rush album I bought and, not counting the gift of Rush in Rio from 2003, the last Rush album I ever owned. That nostalgia tho …
I live every second by the clock. Those nine minutes of snooze time every weekday morning before 6, when I wake to make breakfast for Dana and Apollo and lotion and dress him for camp or school, carry the weight of eons, as much as I savor them. It’s 3:20 now, with pickup looming, always looming like a stack of unpaid bills. I don’t blame our sweet boy or, as I call him, the sweet boy. Abandoned as an infant to an orphanage in West Africa, Apollo will now always be that much quicker to having his fight, flight, or freeze response triggered than children with traditional, healthy upbringings. Every day’s a battle, and Dana and I are lucky that his school has his back. The principals, teachers, counselors, and onsite social worker at Northbrook Elementary (home of the Blazers!) are doing everything they can to accommodate Apollo’s inability to cope with his depression, his illness manifesting itself in misbehavior as opposed to sadness like with adults. And misbehavior, or acting out, is Apollo’s thing. I couldn’t love him any more, naturally. On the day that my wife and I had flown back to my hometown of Pittsburgh for Adam’s memorial service, Apollo, then 6, wrote me a love note: “I’m sorry Adam died. I hope you feel better soon, Dad. I love you, Dad.”
I’m sorry, too, little dude. I’m terrifically sorry. I could have done more for my brother but refused to. Because I’m a perennial candidate for Dad of the Year, I’ve apportioned most of the blame on my sweet, innocent son – indirectly, I say, to save what little remains of my fatherly integrity. The phone calls from the Blazerline had crippled my higher reasoning functions. There was a point, when Apollo was in kindergarten and his teacher and administrators were calling me every other day – there’s that damn “Blazerline” on my phone screen again – when I couldn’t rationalize having my phone occupied by my brother, whom I knew was in a bad place. I dreaded being in conversation with Adam and hearing my other line ding. How could I choose? The fear of that choice paralyzed me. I dreaded the ding, anyway. What made it worse was not staring at my phone when the sound went off. “Uh, I gotta go,” I’ve muttered to my wife a dozen times after she had called randomly to say hi and my other line had begun to buzz. The phone calls from school come to me because my work hours are flexible whereas Dana’s are not.
“It’s not them,” I would lie to my wife, protecting her from the painful truth that I might have to leave work to go pick up our son and take him home to do what exactly? There are only so many chores you can give your misbehaving child before you start to feel cruel. For the most part and from what we’ve been told, Apollo doesn’t really know why he’s doing the bad things he’s doing. His body is taking over. One of about a dozen parenting books I’ve read since our family started, The Body Keeps Score – about how trauma actually resides in our physical selves – is one that I keep circling back to, not to make excuses for our son, just to keep his behavior in perspective. (We are still hard on him. You must be.) As we have also learned, if your kid is “in the basement” psychologically or emotionally, you must meet him there to bring him back up to the level. You do that by, essentially, being sympathetic. “Are you OK, sweet boy?” is my go-to greeting for a reason.
It’s been about two weeks since I’ve cried over Adam, a marked improvement from the every-other-day sob sessions. “At some point, your survival instinct kicks in,” a coworker told me not long after Adam died, speaking intellectually, I presume, and (I hope) not from experience, and while I doubted it, convinced that the best my life would be from that point on would be merely OK, I occasionally forget that I am in mourning. Still, I hurt. Every day. And the Rush playlist isn’t really helping.
“Secret Touch” stomped on my heart last week. Written by Neil after his wife and daughter both died around the same time about 20 years ago, the song is about the limitlessness of the bonds between us. “You can never break the chain,” Geddy sings. “Life is a power that remains / A healing hand, a secret touch on the heart / A gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart.” I can only wonder what my brother is trying to say to me, as much as he loved me and as proud as he was of me, for whatever reason. For whatever strange, undefinable explanations, Adam thought I was A-OK. Maybe he’s telling me, “Get your shit together.”
The other night at precisely 3:17 in the morning, my wife and I were roused by a loud bang. Always fearful because we don’t have a home security system, I jumped up out of bed, grabbed the Maglite from under my nightstand, and ran out the bedroom door. Maybe Apollo, getting up to pee, had accidentally knocked something over or slammed one of the doors. Maybe someone was trying to break in the front door. Just a couple of weeks earlier, my buddy Bob told me about how in the middle of the afternoon recently his door was being banged on by some strange, clearly disturbed man, muttering something about school board shenanigans. Somehow Bob managed to talk the guy away. This is what I was thinking of when I returned to our bedroom, Apollo still fast asleep, and my wife said, “It was in here, Anth.” Apparently, our framed mirror had fallen, though “fallen” is a generous term, considering it had to actually jump from its twin metal hanging hooks. Where the mirror landed, upright and safely, was atop my dresser, where sit several framed and unframed photos. There’s my old man and me, taken when I was about Apollo’s age, the funeral home bookmark tucked neatly into one corner – Leonardo Mariani was only 61 when cancer took him. There are a couple pictures of Apollo, including his most recent school photo in which he looks about 15 years old. (Please, stop growing so fast.) There’s also a photo album from my and Dana’s young courtship (going on 21 years) and several pictures of Adam. The mirror fell right behind the ones of him, perfectly. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did” is what I believe Adam may be trying to tell me, knowing that he was also a selfish asshole and that he let worry get to him the same way I worry constantly because I’ve been doing it forever and because – do I need to repeat it? – I don’t want my child to be kicked out of school. Or worse. For children who look like Apollo, this is a legit concern. In Texas, black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be arrested or referred to juvenile probation for school-related behavior, with boys three times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as girls. My stress over my child is very real and very earned.
There are good daily reports. The point is not to celebrate them or at least not celebrate them too wildly: “Taco Cabana for all my men! And woman.” We want “good” to be our baseline expectation. Since our soon-to-be-second-grader is reading way above grade level, we have considered that boredom might be a problem. As part of Apollo’s special-education protection for emotional behavior, he also is being tested for gifted and talented. All we want is for him to be healthy and happy. Like in “The Garden.” If you’ve never dug into Rush or if you, like me, tuned them out a long time ago, we are together on this. Listening to that playlist has brought me in contact with some of their recent material, and some of it is pretty good. (It’s still a tad nerdy but not nearly as sci-fi as their early stuff.) In the case of “The Garden,” some of that new or newish material is great. A beautiful ballad from 2012, it’s about remembering what’s really important, as difficult as it may be with the rapid passage of time. “The measure of a life / Is a measure of love and respect,” Geddy sings over a dramatic guitar figure and his churning bass. “So hard to earn, so easily burned / In the fullness of time / A garden to nurture and protect.” The song reminds me of him, my beautiful son, and about how I need to do my best to make his garden colorful and full of life. Dana and I know that some of his rough-edged personality traits – hard-headedness, self-preservation, determination – probably helped him survive the orphanage. We give him that. Apollo (given name Kofi) was also terrifically sick when he was abandoned, with a partially collapsed lung due to illness and four hernias, and at the time that we were united as a family, he was not any better. Having his surgeries was what allowed us to expedite the adoption process. And have his surgeries is what we did a week after we returned to Fort Worth. Now he’s as healthy as possible. Physically. Along with his doctor, play therapist, and teachers, we’re still working on his amygdala.
Listening to music has become a constant in my life. Sad music. Part of this owes to my mourning, however long it may last, possibly forever. The other part is probably a mild form of PTSD. For several years pre-Apollo, Dana and I lived next door to three angry mutts that barked constantly. There was no hiding from it, the incessant yapping, even when we were inside. Of course I’m overreacting, but that much nonstop noise pollution frayed my already naturally brittle nerves. Thankfully, after a few years, the neighbor and his dumb mutts relocated, and our part of the neighborhood has been quiet, but for how long? You bet I carry around the worry every day that new neighbors with even dumber, louder dogs are going to come along and ruin the peace for me and everyone else within earshot. Because that’s just what America has become: a horde of me-first jerks. There was no music for enjoyment back then, only buffering. Wrapping a towel around your head and blasting Sun Ship into your earbuds does not count as enjoying music.
The Rush playlist is just more buffering in a sense. Instead of protecting me from barking, it’s keeping me from moving on, which I can’t help but believe is a good thing. I’m not ready to let go. Adam doesn’t deserve to be un-mourned. Not yet. If ever. While I don’t have access to YouTube while driving in my car, I can listen to classical and jazz. And that’s exactly what I do. The glories of new music are a cleansing light from which my sad, guilt-ridden soul must withdraw in shame. And I used to love new music. New music was a large part of my full-time writing job for over a decade. I just feel I don’t deserve it anymore. Sadness is mandated.
As you can imagine, this is slightly problematic for a husband to a life-loving wife and father of a joyous, fun-loving 7-year-old. Oh, I can pretend. I can put on a show, as best I can. I know enough about marital crime and punishment to put myself through the motions of being not sad, of being engaged with life and not being preoccupied with my brother’s death. And preoccupied with melancholy music. It doesn’t always work, but I try. And that’s the best we can do in any case, under any circumstances: try.
The Rush playlist is more than just the tunes, as great as most of them are. There are the images, many that I’d never seen before but more that I remember clearly from my MTV-filled youth. It seems like two lifetimes ago if not more, for me and probably for Geddy, Neil, and Alex, too. A couple of years ago, Neil announced his retirement from drumming. Apparently, it’s become too painful for him physically. On social media, a “friend” of mine promptly posted a good riddance message, decrying the band as bloated and pompous, making me wonder what had gone wrong in this friend’s life to make him applaud the forced retirement of someone who is by most accounts a nice guy. I feel bad for Neil, horrible, though a part of me maybe guesses that the famed drummer/lyricist/author has intellectualized the situation to the point of acceptance. I feel bad thinking of him watching videos of his young, hungry, rocking, short-sleeved self, “some half-forgotten stranger” now – maybe Neil says to himself, quoting “Available Light,” another gem off Presto – “doesn’t mean that much to me.” I know I feel as if I’ve aged an eternity since then, when I sat there on the edge of the green couch in my old, creaky, leaky, brown house up north on Taylor Street, home alone during high school, marveling at the screen, soaking up every note. I can still see the school-uniform slacks I wore just about every day, silvery gray streaked with tiny lines of red, blue, and purple. I think I still look the same. I suppose the Rush guys think they look the same, too. “Summer’s going fast / Nights growing colder / Children growing up / Old friends growing older.”
I’m only a couple of years away from turning 50, which means I’m at the age where the surprises in life are almost always bad. Even when your kid has a good day at school, which, I admit, is a nice surprise, is it really worth celebrating those few hours that he went without hitting someone or running away? Those few hours when he was “normal”? The bad news keeps coming. The other day I was supposed to go to happy hour with two friends, happy hour being a luxury in a life dominated by being on parental call but one that comes around every six months or so. No big deal. People go grab drinks all the time. Dana was all set to pick up Apollo, and I had done as much work as I could for the day. Right before I logged out, one of the guys texted to say that his father had just been diagnosed with cancer and can we give him a rain check on our get-together, please? I still feel horrible for my friend and his family, and at the time I felt even less like socializing. Parents of special needs kids are never done parenting, so when we are afforded the opportunity to do normal things like go have drinks with friends, we don’t feel as if we deserve it. I went, and I regretted it the whole time, and when I returned home just a couple of hours later, I regretted regretting it because Apollo was, as Dana had said, “a little angel.” I still don’t feel that I deserve new music. It only reminds me of being younger, less inhibited, freer. I can’t even fathom the juxtaposition of brilliant music coming through my Pandora app with a call from Apollo’s school. Life is hard enough. I don’t need it to be underlined and put in bold lettering: “Blazerline.”
I had a discussion about life before kids with the nice lady at the bank the other day. As far back as watching Rush on MTV seems, me before Apollo seems 10-times longer ago. I cringe when I think of all of the stupid things I’d done and said, and written, as little as six years ago. I’m so glad he came along when he did. I know in no small part did he save my life and probably Dana’s, too. She and I went happy houring almost every other day after work, just wasting time. I have a good idea why I did it: the dogs. My home was no longer a safe space. It was angry and loud. Dana merely followed along because she cared for me. The dogs didn’t really bother her as much. I guess that because I had taken up the mantle of the anti-dog person in our house, she could worry about other things. Like how I was going to get home after happy hour. I’m surprised I hadn’t run into the lady at the bank during my time-wasting days. A former bartender in a popular part of town, she also seemed sort of relieved to be out of the scene though not entirely thrilled with aspects of her new one. She recounted entire weekends spent watching her teenage daughter compete in volleyball tournaments. As I’ve said, if my son ended up doing anything as remotely “normal” as competing in a volleyball tournament, I would die the happiest man on the planet. I would be the first one at the gym and the last one to leave. I don’t mean to say that my son is a wild animal. He’s doing much better, thanks again to his school (whose 2/10 rating is entirely unwarranted). He’s also a red belt in taekwondo. That’s his sixth belt. He started about a year ago. You mean this little boy about whom I have talked so much smack can stand in one place for several seconds at a time and follow multiple, complex directions? With only one exception, when Apollo had a meltdown for not being able to remember his form a few weeks ago, he has been a model student. We express our pride in him after every practice, which, we hope, inspires more model behavior, and the cycle rolls on like an empty plastic bag down a windy street. We hope. This is all we can do. We are scared. We are scared for little black boys like him all over the world. We just do our best and hope that accounts for something. There’s that word again: “hope.”
Hope is why I started praying again. Not hope for me but for my son (and the less fortunate – I pray for them, too). It’s all I could think to do as a man who sat, stood, and knelt in churches from kindergarten through high school and even as recently as just a few years ago. I don’t commonly admit that I pray for fear of being seen as some sort of right-wing nut. There doesn’t seem to be any room in the public consciousness for Christians who aren’t closeted/openly racist or pro fetus. I thought faith was supposed to be private, anyway. “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men” (Matthew 6:5). I’m not asking for much, maybe a little peace, mostly for what every parent wants for their child: to be healthy and happy. One of our favorite sayings is “Pray and move your feet.” I have the prayer part down, and Dana and I are moving our feet as fast as we can. We’re spending every available cent of our dual incomes to carry Apollo through the summer. He wasn’t kicked out of full summer camp last year, but that may only be because we yanked him out before he could do any more damage there. Same stuff. Hitting/pushing other kids, running away. Now Dana and I are hoping that sending him to short little camps – the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, an art studio, even his taekwondo spot – will keep him on his heels enough to learn to be respectful before settling in and feeling unsafe. It’s for his safety that we do what we do, that since the moment we brought Apollo home, we have been living life on a tight schedule. Our adoption agency told us to do this, so the baby doesn’t feel like he needs to make his own decisions again, so he feels like he can count on the adults around him to be in charge. This is why Apollo responds well to strong leaders, like the assistant vice principal at Northbrook and Master Le at taekwondo. And Dana. Me? I’m sort of his buddy. We do imaginative play together and wrestle and kid around with each other. He and Dana are a little more serious, doing crafts and playing games mostly. Pretty much every time I discipline him, it’s because I’ve put on my Dana Hat first. I still don’t carry as much weight as she does. The perma-smirk on my face may be to blame for that. The hope that I pray for is that we make our son respectful enough to a police officer, because when Apollo is older, when he goes from adorable little boy to potential threat, he is going to get pulled over or stopped merely for the way he looks. That’s a simple fact. I can’t imagine the parents of innocent black boys who’ve been murdered by police do much praying anymore. I know I wouldn’t.
It’s almost pickup time. While the possibility exists that Apollo made it through an entire day without creating havoc, I also know that on my way to sign him out a couple times at his after-school care I’ve been stopped by a counselor. “Apollo had a pretty bad day today,” they’ve said. Three write-ups in a month means a one-day suspension. Five write-ups means he’s out for three successive days. For parents who work and whose jobs might not be as flexible as mine, no after-school childcare for three days can spell the difference between generating income at a job or taking off work to care for your kid between the hours of 2:40, which is dismissal time, and 6 p.m., which is when the onsite after-school care stops. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my expectations incredibly low. That way, the worst can’t break your heart, only prove that you are a good, healthy, card-carrying realist. “Freeze this moment a little bit longer / Make each sensation a little bit stronger.”
It’s funny how the one part of the puppet-heavy “Mystic Rhythms” vid from 1985 that always stuck out to me – the snakelike creature poking the woman as she sleeps but slinking away right before she wakes – means so much to me now. I honestly can’t think of any other explanation for the “fallen” mirror. “We sometimes catch a window / A glimpse of what’s beyond.” Just as there’s no logical explanation for the Penguins flag.
The small Pittsburgh Penguins flag that waves a couple of inches above our front yard disappeared for three days not too long ago only to reappear in the middle of our garage floor one morning. “More things than are dreamed about / Unseen and unexplained.” The song “Mystic Rhythms,” with its tribal beat, twinkling riffage, and cosmic atmospherics, was like the soundtrack to my hope when I was younger. I remember sitting on the lawn of an amphitheater in Houston, the city where Dana and I met in 1998, listening to the wonder-filled lyrics beneath an actual “canopy of stars.” I felt as if the movie I was starring in had reached its climax. Now I know there’s more to the story. *bracing for impact*
When one of the playlist’s moodier songs comes on, I tend to open my phone and study a grainy black-and-white photo of my brother. It’s of him in better times, not too long ago, though the darkness, you can tell, had already begun to creep into his life. Adam hated having his picture taken, especially in public, yet here he is, standing in front of our old high school, the one that we three brothers all attended, wearing a black leather jacket and black ballcap, a cigarette dangling rakishly from his mouth. There were times inside this very building that were hope-filled, maybe even happy for him, which is obviously why he wanted to be seen standing in front of those gray concrete steps and that red-bricked façade, “Central District Catholic High School” on a plaque attached to the red-bricked wall that encircles most of the campus in the foreground to his right. Taken by his ex-wife, the photo ended up with me. I carried it around for the first couple of months after he died, referring to it, shaking my head, rattling my fist, crying mostly. Those concrete steps and red bricks meant something to me, too, and as they are reminders of my sad yet hope-filled and Rush-loving teenage self, they distract me now. Now that my future has arrived, I am sadder but much more appreciative of that hope than I was back then. As difficult as life has been for my family and me, I can’t say I’d change anything. Or maybe I would, maybe I’d wish that I hadn’t had such high, unrealistic expectations when I was younger. I should have realized that being married to a wonderful, powerful person and trying to raise a child who will be respectful to police when he is pulled over or stopped is success. Near the top. I’m also not dead or battling any life-threatening diseases, so I’ve also got that going for me.
Adam didn’t dislike Rush but didn’t really listen to them, either. Duran Duran and Devo were more his speed. I wish he would have listened to my boys, though. I think they could have helped. Most of the more emotionally wrought songs are about the passage of time juxtaposed with youthful optimism. In the context of my brother’s death now, these tracks have become almost unbearable. They represent everything that Adam violently turned his back on, hope in general and his hope-filled past that his high-school self undoubtedly would have wanted him to fulfill. It was a mistake, I keep muttering to my dead brother day after day. You don’t have to do this, Adam. Please, don’t go.
I’m trying to keep from crying now. I have scrolled to “Secret Touch” because I’m sad now and deserve to be that way. Pickup is in about 10 minutes, but I can’t have red-stained eyes in front of my son. I can’t let him see me weak. I need to be strong. For him and for myself, because I still, hopefully, have a long time to go. “Out of sync / With the rhythm of my own reactions / With the things that last and the things that come apart.” Though I want to turn it off, I owe it to the song, to the power of music, to let it play until the end. “You can never break the chain / Life is a power that remains / A gentle hand, a secret touch on the heart / A healing hand, a secret touch on the heart.” I miss my brother, and I always will. While I may never be the same, I know I’m not ruined. I can still smile and mean it. Which is what I should be doing more of, anyway.