About 10 years ago, when my daughter Allison attended the University of Pittsburgh, she’d periodically call home with updates. Her college experience—you’d be surprised, astonished, and amazed to hear—had been a roller-coaster. Good news, bad news, and the in-between (one assumes). Psycho roommates. Moribund professors. All-nighters. Part-time jobs that kind of paid you, but then kind of didn’t. Mysterious bills for services never agreed to. Almost as messy as real life.
In one of those calls my wife, Kristie, and I found out about therapy dog.
Allison had been making plans to take her college life on the road the next semester to Barcelona, Spain; to embrace the whole studying abroad thing. First, though, she needed to get through this semester. When she called, she brushed aside my Dad questions, getting right to the point, “Is Mom there?”
I, Chet Walker, am a good father, I like to think, and part of what good fathers do includes stepping aside to let the real conversations between mothers and daughters proceed. Kristie’s responses told me that some drama unfolded and the advice given repeatedly circled back to the many obstacles that Allison had overcome in the past and this (whatever “this” is; I’d be filled in shortly), will also be overcome.
My daughter broke off the conversation in the abrupt style of offspring by saying, “I’m going to therapy dog now” and hanging up. Everybody knows about therapy dog these days and probably most of humanity knew about it back then, as well. But Kristie and I didn’t know. We did a little digging and picked up the scent. (Sorry. Enough with the groaner-puns. Promise.)
On the University of Pittsburgh’s campus sits the majestic Cathedral of Learning building where the kids go to study and socialize on the ground level, and classes and mini-museums and libraries occupy upper levels. From the outside, it looks a little like Hogwarts. Turned out that every Tuesday night some volunteers brought in a bunch of canines for the students to pet and play with, this interaction easing the pressures of final exams, term papers, switching majors and dumping or being dumped by boyfriends or girlfriends.
Kristie and I began conducting our own therapy dog sessions, meeting for dinner every Friday night at a favorite restaurant located right outside of Philadelphia about half-way between her job as a grade school teacher and mine as an attorney specializing in maritime law at a firm in Bucks County, where we live.
No actual dog participated in our therapy dog sessions, but we considered that a minor detail, really. It certainly was therapy. Kristie had been diagnosed with uterine cancer and statistically speaking she’d beaten it because it had been in remission for over five years. We laughed, talked about the future, marveled over what a dynamic and interesting young woman Allison had become.
Memories that now gentle me. For cancer doesn’t care about statistics and it returned and when the Devil comes back, he usually collects.
Kristie died at 58. I go on. After some time playing Ring Around the Rosie with the stages of grief, I’ve come to embrace life again. I have a girlfriend, Sophia, a brilliant, beautiful and practical woman that I’d known for years because we worked together. We have fun, help each other with our baggage, and I love her. Kristie would have approved.
Allison is well-launched, making very good money as the youngest regional manager of a discount retailer that you’ve patronized many times. She moved out a few years ago and lives with friends down in Fishtown and has a boyfriend, who sounds nice enough. We’ve yet to meet.
I am enough of a student of human nature to realize that those who frantically chase happiness get ambushed by misery. So I don’t. Chase happiness, that is. Each day I wake up and tell myself: “Are you going to be miserable or are you going to be grateful?” Really, that’s the choice. I try gratitude because through that crack happiness sometimes slips.
But I am haunted; filled with regrets. It breaks my heart sometimes to think that Allison at age 21 had to watch Kristie die of cancer. It breaks my heart sometimes that she can never have that person who could listen to her the way only my Kristie could listen. I guess that could be said of most mothers, but I take that argument further. No one could nurture like Kristie nurtured, nor love as selflessly. That connection is lost to Allison forever and what good am I?
Don’t get me wrong: Allison is my treasure and we love each other dearly. But I am never quite as there for her as I should be. She does get a kick out of me; thinks I’m a bit of a character, shares my quirks on Snapchat. And I am so very proud of her, as you may have noticed.
You live life forward but you understand it backward. Kierkegaard said that, but he gives too much credit to our capacity to understand. Mostly we reach. The puzzle pieces lay before me and I extend my arm well beyond the assembled story of Kristie, Allison, and me. There’s a piece way over there about my childhood and somehow, somewhere, someway it fits in.
I played basketball as a boy and I was good. Potential enough to break into the NBA? No. That, I am not saying. Repeat: Not. But with the proper coaching and guidance at the proper time I think that maybe, just maybe, perhaps it’s possible that I could have played college ball. Scholarship, even. Free ride. Wouldn’t that have been something?
Well, here’s my coulda, shoulda, woulda.
When I balled with the black kids back in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia they called me Mighty White. Then we moved to Lawncrest and the white kids there called me Tall, That’s All. Both nicknames bowed to what skills I brought to the court. Raw skills, for sure. The black kids grudgingly respected my game. The white kids wanted to keep me in my place. Jealous bastards.
Here’s me back then: Not much of a ball handler; my dribble too often trailed my stride and I’d wind up bouncing the thing off my hips, knees, or feet. But though skeletal, I could rebound, snaking and weaving my X-ray around jutting legs and butts met to throw me to the ground or push me into irrelevancy. Instead, I’d always just manage to clamp that ball and wouldn’t let go no matter who else tugged—could be a dude raised by Dobermans—because my job that one summer kept me scooping ice cream for hours and my skinny wrists and forearms grew as powerful as bolt cutters.
And these were pickup games in playgrounds, so those battles lasted longer than any ref would have allowed. But I’d win, damn it. Usually, I’d win. I’d get that ball.Then what? I could pass. Somehow I knew where my teammates raced, and not just the ones I could see or hear. I sensed movement. I not only knew where they were but where they were about to be, even before they knew, and I’d slingshot that spheroid into their palms. Palm sundae. And they either handled it or not. Usually, after a few misses at the start of the games, they learned.
Finally and foremost, I could shoot. Could I shoot! These were pickup games and nobody kept percentages. But if they did … man. That’s all I am saying. Man! So what happened to that budding talent Chet Walker?
Our family moved three times in my high school years. Poor Dad kept getting laid off as the textile mills in Philly closed, and he tried to get jobs in other industries, but they weren’t always a good fit (an expression nobody used in those days).
Mom? Well, Mom clipped coupons, talked the neighborhood store owners into letting us buy things “on the eye,” (an expression that was used in this those days to mean: “Maybe I’ll pay you next week”), and wore the same Sunday dress for a decade. Never went to the hairdresser. One pair of shoes, rebuilt every couple of years.
We kids also did what we could: mowed lawns, shoveled snow, worked at the corner deli, paper routes, babysitting. We did — and we did without. I lived through one of the coldest winters in Philly history without an overcoat.
We often didn’t have enough to eat.
The Post Office job Dad finally got saved us. That, and the fact that we kids (I am the oldest) graduated high school and got real jobs and could contribute real money to the family until me moved out, leaving one less mouth to feed. But that all lay in a near future that proved to be not near enough for my basketball aspirations.
As you might expect, so many moves happening during awkward teenage years made that time even more discomforting for this skinny boy who kept growing out of his cloths. I never belonged. I think most of us see how we evolve, how the child’s baby steps become a grownup’s stance. I don’t. I was so shy then. And though I know there has to be a cause and effect that made me the Chet Walker I am today, I cannot follow that chain. There are missing links. I am a man well-regarded in his profession. A man who speaks at conferences and testifies as an expert in courtrooms. A man who, as Billy Joel put it, is quick with a joke or a light-up-your-smoke. If smoking and joking were still allowed, that is.
Back then in high school (in high schools), books became my obsession and I did very well with the grades. But I still needed friends and that’s what the ball and net became. My friends.
Swish! Swish! Swish! Swish!
For hours. Do something enough times and you get good at it. What could I have been thinking when shooting all those baskets? Or was it turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream, as John Lennon put it? And it wasn’t dying, as John Lennon also put it. It was being. Just being.
I didn’t do this at the playground. Kids wouldn’t let you monopolize a basket and backboard to perfect your shooting. The courts were meant for the rough and tumble.
I worked on my shots at Doc Hedges’s. You walk up Opal Street where we lived and you hit Wyncote Avenue, where Doc owned the big-ass corner property. Doc was a veterinarian and sometimes when he hosted large family parties he and his kin — nephews, nieces, sons, daughters — anybody who thought they were up to it, played ball on the half-court he’d constructed on part of that huge backyard. I got a job mowing the grass part every week when we moved into the neighborhood the summer before I was to start senior year in yet another new school.
Gates sectioned off the paved part of Doc’s back property. You went into one area where he’d let his dog, Chump-Change, out to wander and get some fresh air. Chump-Change was a little Australian terrier with a button butt that wiggled when he saw me. I’d take a knee, pet him, turn him over, scratch his belly, ask: “Who’s a good boy?” A rhetorical question. He’d be smiling, though, I knew, that technically dogs don’t smile, they just give a look of stupefied satisfaction. Still, I say Chump-Change always greeted me with what looked a smile and a definite wiggling butt.
Doc Hedges’s “patients” — at least the dog patients — were kenneled on the other side of the building and each of those cells also connected to an outdoors section, but recovering bow-wows wandered about briefly during the day and for recuperative purposes only. Chump-Change didn’t mingle with the inmates. He was family. He had his own space. I walked through that area, and opened another gate that led to the basketball court, closing it behind me and keeping Chump-Change on the other side. He’d forgo his yip-yips as he quizzically watched me take shots. I half expected him to comment on my technique.
This arrangement came about because Doc liked how thoroughly I mowed his lawn. He caught me one day shooting make-believe baskets. He’d been standing at his back door, fists on hips.
“Sorry, Chet. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Doc looked a little like a stretched out Sammy Davis, Jr., with an easy smile and a kindness honed to a level where it could talk to the animals and put us humans at ease as well.
“You don’t have to call me sir. Your highness will do. You play high school?”
“I’m going to try out.”
This response surprised me. Up until that point, I had no intention of trying out for my new high school’s basketball team. But I said it. And saying it to Doc Hedges made it real.
“Good. That’s real good.”
He gave me a set of keys to the inner area (Chump-Change’s place) and to the court area itself.
“Practice,” Doc Hedges said. “Practice, practice, practice.”
And I did. For hours that summer I’d go up there in the morning, before working at the ice cream shop and then return at night where Chump-Change and me got reacquainted, before I entered the court and started lofting the ball again and again.
Swish! Swish! (Clunk.) Swish!
When the summer sun settled down, the outside lights would go on and Chump-Change would mosey over to the door that had been opened. This was the signal from Mrs. Doc Hedges that I needed to go home. I’d pull out some wax paper from my back pocket and pick up the package Chump-Change had deposited (that was part of the deal) and toss it in the trash can. The days I mowed, I’d empty that can and hose down Chump-Change’s area. (Also part of the deal.)
And when school started at this strange new place, I actually did it. They posted a signup sheet to try out for the basketball team outside the gym and I signed: “Chester Walker.”
I remember that day well because it was the day our family began to turn our back on poverty. When I came home, Mom told me that she’d gotten this part-time job at the hospital as a ward clerk. She could do that because I could watch my brothers and sister after school.
“I’ll make dinners for the week each Sunday and all you’ll need to do is heat them up, Chet,” she explained. More instructions followed. My one little brother especially will need help doing homework, and my sister isn’t to play the radio too loud. The neighbors complained once. And television. No more than two hours a night.
“Got it?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
She stopped. My disappointment registered, but disappointment boarded with us wherever we lived in those days and as some people pick their battles, my mother picked when she sympathized. There’s only so much emotion any one person can give.
She said: “And when I get my first paycheck, you’ll get fifteen dollars, Chet. And fifteen each check after. What do you think about that?”
“I don’t need it,” I said.
“I need it!” Mom bristled. “You think you’re too old to learn from me? Here’s my lesson. Your time is valuable, Chet Walker. Never forget that. Don’t let anyone ever try to make you feel less than you are.”
“I won’t, Mom,” I said, not really knowing what they hell she was talking about.
I do now, though. That lesson stuck. I currently charge $800 an hour for my services, much more than that when I’m hired as a testifying expert.
And to this day, I really don’t know if I would have showed up for that basketball tryout. If I did, what chance did I have? The coaches already knew who’d they take; the varsity was set. All the questions surrounded the make-up of the junior varsity squad, and seniors were’t eligible for JV.
Me, Chet Walker? It would have been: “Sorry, kid. Next.”
I also didn’t know that that night would be the last I’d ever shoot baskets at Doc Hedges’s court. Doc would move to a location closer to downtown in about two months. As I walked up Opal Street, I’d bounce the ball once here, once there, letting it punctuate points I was making to myself. We live so much of our lives in our heads.
When I arrived at Doc’s, Chump-Change was waiting. I gave him an obligatory pat, opened the gate to the court and floated my first shot from behind the backboard, from out of bounds. A shot no one would ever take in a real game.
I shot from every possible place on the court. I didn’t make them all, I won’t bullshit you. But I made a lot. I kept at it, and time stood back. When orange started streaking the sky and the sly near-autumn twilight closed about me, the outside overheads came on. But instead of swaging back inside, Chump-Change lingered.
I locked the court gate behind me and knelt and petted that little guy and rubbed his tummy and told him he’s a good boy. In fact, I said, he’s the best boy in the world. And he did something I’ll never forget. On his back, he stretched his paw out to me and I took it. He seemed to want to comfort me. Had he sensed something? They say dogs can sense things about people and stress and….
As I tip-toed toward solving that mystery, the little fellow sneezed, and I laughed, surprised by the echo that bounced about. Why, I sounded like a man. And I hadn’t laughed in a few weeks, I realized. But I laughed then. It felt good to laugh.
Kristie, when I met her some years later — one of the first things she tells me is that she needs to have at least one good laugh a day. That became my mission: Make Kristie laugh. When cancer struck, my mission became: Save Kristie. The fact that I couldn’t, stiffens my shoulders like boils too buried to lance.
And it’s not just Kristie.
I sometimes think about how I can’t fill that gap in Allison’s life, how she’ll never have that mother’s love again. Oh, sure. I try not to entertain these thoughts, but they’ll often climb the gates of my consciousness and watch me, arrogant in their toxicity.
And I do despair sometimes, I am ashamed to say. Despair, despite possessing every blessing that any reasonable person could want. Sure, I’ve suffered. Hasn’t everyone? Haven’t you? I have my memories of Kristie and I’m making new ones with Sophia. That should suffice.
And yet, and yet…. Despite this knowledge and the medications, the darkness still smothers every once in a while.
I’d like to end by saying that I’ve been cured, but that’s too strong a word. Let’s call it remission, instead.
Because the last time I felt this way I heard the kitchen door open and Allison call out.
The gloom lifts just like that, as if the sun breaks through.
Allison’s huge smile matches my joy. And no, of course, I can never come close to filling the hole in her soul that her mother’s death left. But look at her! Look at my daughter! She thrives! She’s a life-enhancer. And look at me! Happy! My life does have meaning and purpose because obviously I do offer my daughter some comfort. She appreciates being the recipient of somebody’s unconditional love. And as we sit and talk, just catching up — me with my beer and Allison with her glass of wine — my feet jiggle on the footrest of my open recliner. It’s reflex.
Why, if I had a tail, it’d be wagging.