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Some of Pretzel’s Unique Real-Life Experiences

This was at the request of a reader.  At several points in my life, I have started, and then never finished, various books.  This one contains some accounts of my somewhat unusual childhood life experiences.  At some point, I had hoped to come back and add in some “what I learned” type stuff.  Also, to finish the rest of it, lol.  😀

Anyway, here’s a little “sneak peek” of the book:

Chapter 1

I remember thinking that I could somehow stop the car.  That if I tensed up and used all my strength, it wouldn’t roll over us.  It would just stop, like an empty shopping cart.  At ten years old, my understanding of physics, and particularly of Newton’s first law of motion, was woefully inadequate.  The car just didn’t look that dangerous as it coasted down the hill directly toward us.  Not that I had anywhere near this much time to analyze what was happening — from the time I turned around and saw the car until the time it hit me, maybe two seconds elapsed. 

In retrospect, as time has aged the memory, I seem to remember heroically shoving my dog out of the way.  However, as I examine the memory more closely, I’m genuinely not sure if that actually happened.  I do know with certainty that my first thoughts were for the safety of my dog, Tasha… but I don’t know if I actually shoved her away, much as I’d like to believe I did.  I think, instead, that I let go of her collar and tried to catch the car so it wouldn’t hit her.  Needless to say, this was a mistake.

As it turned out, my dog instinctively understood physics better than I did: she ran off and out of the way.  I, however, got knocked down and sucked under the car like a loose string under a vacuum cleaner.  After the car plowed me to the road and began steamrolling over me, I remember seeing a tire coming directly at my face, but I don’t know if I dodged it or not: my memory of what occurred in the seconds immediately after that is a blur. 

The next moment I recall with clarity was sometime after my aunt jumped in and brought the car to a stop.  I was wedged under the middle of the car, and could see daylight out the side… much like when you lower your head down to ground level to search for something dropped under the car and look from one side out the other — except that in my case, the car was physically on top of me, its weight pressing down on my body.  It was disconcerting, and for a moment I didn’t know which way was up.  I soon realized I was on my back, but my legs felt pinned, or tangled in something.  They were jumbled up in the exhaust system somehow.  At first, I couldn’t even move them, but I was able to maneuver my head just enough to see my aunt’s face and tell her in panic, “I’m stuck!”  She advised me not to move; to just stay put.  Fat chance.  I needed to make sure I could still move my legs at all.  I knew I was hurt, but I wanted to assess the extent of my injuries – I think that’s a basic human instinct.  So I somehow untangled myself from the undercarriage and inched out the side.  It was then that I saw my knee.

My left knee looked as if someone had taken an infinitely-sharp spoon and scooped out an approximately six-inch-long by one-inch-wide by one-inch-deep trench.  Apparently I was very much in shock, since it was barely bleeding.  I could see the white of my kneecap peeking out the edge of the wound, and beneath that, the layers of skin and muscle, cleanly piled one on top of the other like sediment.  After sliding myself out from under the car, my aunt wanted me to simply lie there on the street, but I was very uncomfortable.  Unbeknownst to me, my back was a shredded, bloody mess and filled with loose gravel.  The rear of the car had hit me first, and the front of the car was too low for me to squeeze under… so the car had pinned me beneath its center and dragged me, with my back sandwiched tightly to the rough macadam, over a distance of about 30 feet.

Legs trembling, I willed myself to stand up, and with one arm around my aunt’s neck, she helped me hobble into the house.  Once inside, I felt weak and disoriented, and had to lie down on the floor.  I still didn’t realize how chewed-up my back was; I just knew that it hurt, and I kept thinking that the carpet was unusually rough and uncomfortably painful.  The usually-soft carpet felt like sandpaper spinning incessantly against an open wound.  I also didn’t realize that I had a deep, seven-inch-long gash across the top of my head, which had split wide open to reveal the white of my skull.  My head didn’t even hurt at all.  

Halfway across the room, my mother was on the phone, frantically talking to the emergency dispatcher.  She was in tears and her hands were shaking.  I remember wondering why she was so upset — I mean, I was the one who was hurt; shouldn’t I be the one crying?  I don’t think I was able to truly understand how she must have felt until years later, after I had a child of my own.  As a kid, you may realize that your parents love you, but you don’t really comprehend the depth and breadth of that love, or the overwhelming desire to protect and shield your children, until you become a parent yourself.  And, as a kid, you aren’t capable of understanding the pain and the burning feeling of helplessness experienced by a mother whose child is mortally wounded… even when that child is you.

My aunt was moving my hair around, and I wondered what on earth she was doing.  I thought maybe she was trying to make me more presentable for the paramedics – thank God I had worn clean underwear that day!  (I don’t know if parents still tell this silliness to kids, but parents of that day would admonish us to wear clean underwear because God forbid we were involved in an accident and the paramedics or doctors or news reporters or whomever might see our dirty underwear!)  Anyway, years later I learned later that my aunt was arranging my hair so that my mother couldn’t see the gash in my head. 

I lay there in pain on the sandpaper floor for about 15 minutes waiting for the paramedics, while my mother grew more and more upset.  Finally the phone rang: it was the paramedics.  They couldn’t find our house.           

My mother freaked out when she heard this.  She screamed directions, and curse words, at the people on the phone.  I had never seen her like this. She hung up and called our one and only neighbor (we lived at the end of a dirt road, with our neighbor being the only other house on the road), Bob, who graciously drove out to the main road and flagged down the paramedics.  I may owe him my life.  After another five or ten minutes, the EMTs finally arrived.

I’m not certain how old the two paramedics who arrived were; at ten years old, it’s difficult to judge the ages of people who aren’t your peers.  But I think that one of them must have been in his early twenties.  I remember quite clearly that his eyes were wide, his face was ashen white, and his hands were shaking considerably as he wrapped bandages around my knee.    These were my first real clues that I must be in very bad shape.  Even as a kid, I knew it was a bad sign when the professionals were unnerved by your injuries.  He looked scared, and that scared me.  For the first time in my admittedly-short life, I considered the possibility that I might die.

The other paramedic was involving himself with my head, while asking me seemingly inane questions.  He asked me my name, which was an easy one to answer.  Then he asked me what the date was, and I recall my exact reply: “I don’t keep track of the days during summer vacation.”  I remember this because I felt as if I had given the right answer to a trick question… and under pressure, no less!  To this day, if I’m off work for more than a week, I have no idea what the date is.

At some point, the paramedics used surgical scissors to cut off the tattered remains of my shirt and my Adidas shorts.  My once-clean underwear was soaked in blood… so much for the “clean underwear” argument. 

After they loaded me up in the ambulance, we drove off.  In pretty short order the driver asked me if I’d like it if they turned the siren on, and I replied, “Sure, that would be cool.”  I’m reasonably certain that he asked me this to make me think that the siren was my idea, in order to avoid scaring me further.  Smart driver: it worked, and I didn’t figure out the psychology of his question until I was older.  The memories that follow are a mish-mash of dramatic goings-on in the ER, and my timeline for them is fuzzy.  It seemed like I was being x-rayed and injected and sutured and bandaged and rushed around, only to be x-rayed again, for days.  In reality, they were probably working on me for about six or seven hours. 

I remember getting sent for x-rays several times, since the doctors were very worried that blood might be building up in my cranial cavity, and later, after they got a better look at my meat-grinder back, there was concern that I might have kidney damage.  As it turned out, after much tense waiting, neither was an issue.  All the while, we waited for the surgeon who was on call to show up, so he could stitch up my head and my knee.  I was again fortunate, in that the surgeon handling the ER that day was a cosmetic surgeon and he did a fantastic job with my stitches.  My head needed sixty stitches to suture, and my knee needed fifty five — but today the scars blend so well that people rarely notice them without being told.   

At some point during the ordeal, one of the doctors asked my mother if she needed a tranquilizer.

There are several other, somewhat disjointed, memories that I recall with great clarity even though I can’t pinpoint them on the timeline.  One of these memories is of a procedure which, to this day, ranks as the most intense physical pain I have ever experienced.  It is the pain by which all other pains are judged.  I had two large third-degree burns on my upper legs: one covered the top of my right thigh, and the other covered the reverse of my left thigh.  These burns were deep, and embedded with dirt and gravel from the road.  The doctor explained what he had to do, and explained that there would be no anesthetic for the coming procedure.  Then, as he picked up a large brush with thick stainless steel bristles, he apologized. 

The brush resembled something which might be used to groom an exceptionally matted long-haired dog.  The bristles were thick and stiff.  Using this brush, he began scouring my open and oozing burn wounds the way you might scour a rusty car fender in an effort to scrape all the rust off.  He scrubbed and scraped hard, trying to remove the top layers of burned skin, and the layers of dirt and gravel which had buried themselves in me.  It hurt in a way I cannot describe; it was literally unimaginably painful.  I arched my back and opened my mouth in a silent scream… but I made no sound.  I had a strange sense of needing to rise above my circumstances.  The nurse told me to scream, she touched my forehead and held my hand and said it was okay to scream; she said they expected me to scream.  But I felt that if I screamed, it would be an admission of defeat: it would mean that the circumstances were too much for me to handle.  So I writhed in agony but remained silent.  The nurse later told my mother that I was not only the bravest little boy she had ever seen, but one of the bravest people of any age level that she had ever seen.  That made me feel good.  It was a tiny little reward on an otherwise crappy day. 

After enduring these countless hours of new and different agonies, I was finally wheeled into a recovery room.  A doctor came in to check my reflexes.  Apparently, they thought there was something wrong with them, since I failed to dodge the car in the first place!  Kidding aside, I don’t know why my reflexes were important to them at this moment – maybe they were still concerned about brain damage.  I do know that the doctor hit me on my good knee with one of those little rubber mallet that looks like a child’s play-version of a tomahawk, and then announced to my mother that my reflexes were too good, or too responsive, or something along those lines that didn’t make any sense to my ten-year-old brain.  Good reflexes are, well, good, right?  How can they be too good?  I remember that my mother became quite annoyed with this doctor, probably as a result of his horrible bedside manner.  At some point during their discussion, he, also, asked her if she wanted a tranquilizer. 

Eventually, my father showed up.  He had been in New York at a business meeting, and fortunately for him, he had missed most of the drama.  The doctors explained to him that I was a very lucky little boy: whatever sliced through my knee had actually brushed against a major artery, but failed to sever it.  Another mere eighth of an inch deeper, and I would have bled to death at the scene.  Same went for my head: just a fraction of an inch deeper and instead of trying to comfort me, he’d be planning my funeral.

Chapter 2

It was an unusually beautiful spring; I was 11 years old, just about to turn 12.  I had pretty much healed up okay from the car accident.  For a change, my mother was the one going to see the doctor and I was accompanying her.  She had some inexplicable small lumps beneath the skin on her left arm.  The doctor decided to run some routine blood tests.  None of this seemed like a big deal at the time.

A couple weeks later, my father sat me down and explained that my mother had leukemia.  He told me this was a type of cancer that affects your bone marrow; he described it as a cancer that infects your whole body.  He explained that there were two main forms of leukemia: acute and chronic.  Apparently acute leukemia was the grimmer of the two, and virtually incurable.  Acute leukemia was the form my mom had just been diagnosed with.  She was 35.

Not long after, my mother was admitted to the hospital to undergo aggressive chemotherapy.  She was to remain in the hospital full-time for several weeks.  The doctors inserted a catheter directly into her heart, which fed her chemicals from an IV bag.  Apparently, this treatment weakened her immune system considerably, because when we visited, we had to wear surgical masks and wash our hands a lot.  The first time I saw her, it was a difficult sight.  My mom was a kind, loving woman, but she was also very strong and tough.  To see her pallid in a hospital gown, with needles and monitors plastered all over her, broke my heart.

One visit which stands out in my memory involved my little sister, Kyra, who was 5 at the time.  After we went up to the room and said hi, I took my sister down to the gift shop and we purchased a little stuffed bear for my mom.  When we returned to the room, my father was virtually screaming at one of the nurses, and there was now a great deal of blood on the floor and sheets: my mother’s blood.  My dad saw us and told us to wait outside.  Later he explained to me that the nurse had been changing my mom’s catheter and had made a mistake somehow, so that her blood was pumping directly out of her heart and all over everything.  This must have been a horrible and traumatic sight for my mom.  No wonder dad was so angry.

Another vivid memory I have is when they let her come visit us at home.  She had to wear a surgical mask the whole time, and I still have a picture of her standing in the living room, just like everything in our lives was normal – except she’s wearing the mask, and her hair is very, very thin.  At the time, she begged me not to take the photo… but today, I’m glad that I did. 

Throughout this ordeal, my father would remind me that my mother’s disease was terminal and virtually incurable, and that I would be wise to begin accepting her fate.  I refused to.  I felt that giving up hope would be an act of betrayal of my mother – as if I wouldn’t be giving up hope, but instead would be giving up on her.  Deep down, I think I secretly believed that my positive thinking could somehow make her better.

A few months later, the doctors announced — with much fanfare — that her leukemia was in remission!  She had miraculously beaten the odds.  My father was as surprised as the doctors.  The only person who wasn’t surprised was me, and I still remember my father remarking to me, “You knew she’d get better the whole time, didn’t you?”   I was glad that I hadn’t given up hope, as if my hope had somehow aided her recovery.  Everyone was elated, and the entire extended family got together to celebrate.

In the midst of that happy moment, it was hard to believe that life could get any better.  Of course, none of us could have foreseen that, although mom’s leukemia would not return, she would be dead before the year was out.

*****

It was December 23 – the eve of Christmas Eve.  The tree was lighted and trimmed, the house was decorated, and the overall mood was very festive.  My favorite aunt, Laurie, who was my mother’s sister, and my Uncle Fred had taken my parents out to dinner.  My favorite uncle, Jon, had also come over to visit and was staying at home with me.  My mother, at thirty-five years old, was the eldest child of my grandparents, while Jon was the youngest, at fourteen.  The end result was that my uncle Jon was only two years older than I was.  Jon and I had spent a ridiculous amount of time together since the day I was born; we felt, and treated each other, more like brothers than like uncle and nephew. 

Ostensibly, we were supposed to be baby-sitting my six-year-old sister, but we had spent the majority of our time ignoring her, and instead were choosing to play around on my dad’s IBM PC. I had become quite the self-taught programmer of Basic A, and we were working on creating a “choose your own adventure” type fantasy adventure game.  The computer was in the basement, where my dad kept his home office, so we had quarantined my sister to her room.  We hoped she wasn’t getting into any trouble.

When my parents finally came home from dinner, my mom announced their return from upstairs, and I shouted my hello back up to her from the bottom of the basement stairs.  Then we resumed our programming.  We were in the midst of a storm of creative genius, after all, and could hardly be bothered to run all the way upstairs just to greet everyone.

Maybe twenty minutes later, my dad came racing – sprinting – down the stairs and grabbed the phone on his desk.  His hands were shaking badly, and he was crying as he dialed the line.  I had never seen my father cry before.  We knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong.  Then, voice trembling, he started speaking urgently, “I need an ambulance right away, my wife just dropped to the floor…”  Jon and I didn’t hear the rest; we were already running up the stairs. 

We got to the top of the stairs and stood there in the kitchen for a moment, confused about what to do next.  We heard a horrible sound coming from the next room – a loud, raspy sound that was part groan, part rattled breathing.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  To me, it sounded like someone choking on the air in their own lungs.

Walking very cautiously now, frightened of what we might find, we rounded the corner that led to the family room.  We stopped in the threshold, and my mind tried to make sense of what I was seeing.  My mother was lying on the floor, and my Uncle Fred, who was a medical intern, was kneeling next to her.  As he pushed down on her diaphragm, the horrible choking sound I had heard escaped from my mom’s motionless lips.  I couldn’t understand this at all; at first I thought Fred was intentionally hurting her.  My brain didn’t register this as CPR.  We watched, stunned, for a few seconds before Fred looked up, saw us, and shouted, “Jesus Christ, Laurie, get the kids out of the room!”  My aunt looked as stunned as we were.  She wandered over, her eyes somewhat glazed, and led us back to the kitchen.  My sister joined us, and the four of us sat down at the table.

“What’s happening?” I asked Laurie, “Is mom choking?” 

“Your mom is having a heart attack,” she explained.  I would say it was explained gently, but it was clear that Laurie was very shaken-up, and it was said more with a tone of this-can’t-be-happening disbelief.

I wanted to know if mom would be okay; Laurie hoped so.  I wanted to know how it had happened; Laurie said they weren’t doing anything in particular, just watching TV, when suddenly my mom fell off the couch and onto the floor. 

Shortly thereafter, the paramedics arrived.  We couldn’t see what was happening, because someone had shut the parlor doors which led out of the kitchen.  So we sat there without speaking, almost holding our breath; we were all listening intently, trying to catch some clue that might tell us how the situation was progressing.  We could hear a flurry of strange sounds coming from the other rooms: people talking in urgent voices; the wheels of a gurney humming across the wooden floor; the occasional beep of a walkie-talkie. 

After a time, we heard what seemed like hundreds of loud footsteps:  first pounding, then shuffling over my mom’s oriental rug, and then pounding again across the wood floor and out of the house.  And finally, the ambulance siren:  loud at first, but gradually retreating, and eventually swallowed completely by the cold winter night as they drove away. 

The house was suddenly very quiet and lonely.  The house always felt lonely to me when mom wasn’t home.

My dad opened the door and came to sit with us.  He told us he would be headed to the hospital, and that everything would be okay: the paramedics had gotten her heart beating again.  I breathed the most heart-felt sigh of relief I have ever breathed.  We all did.  Everything was going to be okay after all!  I imagined that later we would get to visit her at the hospital… maybe Kyra and I would even buy her another stuffed teddy bear.

It had been a long, exhausting evening, and it was pushing on toward midnight.  Jon and I went into my room, and I fell asleep almost instantly. 

A few hours later, I was awakened by my father.  He was sitting on the edge of my bed, and even though the room was dark, I could see that his eyes were moist. 

“What is it?” I asked, “How’s mom?”

“I’m sorry, Jason,” he said, “Your mother didn’t make it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, as if there could be some other meaning to his words.  Some better meaning… a good meaning.  My question was a delay tactic — it was a way to live one last instant, however brief, in a world where everything was right and good.  A world where we would all celebrate Christmas tomorrow, and mom would unwrap the humble presents I had gotten her while graciously pretending that they were exactly what she’d wanted.  In the afternoon, she’d drive us over to see grandma and grandpa…

“Your mom’s dead,” he said softly. 

And with those three quiet words, the good world I so desperately wanted to continue living in crumbled to dust.  I was left hugging its remains, mentally trying to put my world of dust back together… but dust can’t be hugged or repaired — it just slips through your arms and drifts away.  In short order you are left with nothing.

I didn’t have a reaction for this.  My emotional machinery just sort of froze up.  I lay there, stunned into numbness.  He asked if I was okay, if I needed to talk, and I said, “No, I’m just going to go back to sleep.”  He continued sitting there for a while, trying to be reassuring.  I wanted him to quit bothering me so I could fall back asleep: maybe when I woke up later, life would magically have become normal again.  I noticed that Jon was no longer asleep on the floor.  There were numerous voices, and the sound of someone crying loudly, coming from the living room.  Eventually my dad got the hint and walked out of my room, closing the door behind him.  I was alone in the darkness — and, in a certain sense, have been ever since. 

A short while later, I heard him yelling at someone, “You never showed her this much love when she was alive!”  Then I fell asleep.

*****

At the funeral, all I could think about was how I never went upstairs to greet her when she came home.  I desperately wanted to see her face again, to give her that one last hug.  But I was too busy with some stupid computer program.  I felt somehow cheated – she had been alive when she came home that night, and I had missed it. 
And I had missed her last moments of life not due to some circumstances beyond my control, but because I chose not to spend that time with her.  I learned a valuable lesson about making choices, and living with the consequences of those seemingly-small choices.  To this day, I still regret not going upstairs to see her.  I vowed to never take the people I love for granted again.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, twenty-seven years later I would be tested on that vow.  But the next time, I would pass that test.


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