I remember, vividly, the ride. The ambulance ride that took me to the hospital. The hospital where they saved my life. I remember the dark haired paramedic leaning over me. I remember the winding drive up the canyon road. I remember seeing the dark storm clouds, and I remember the sun breaking through the clouds. It’s almost like a…dream.
Actually, it was a dream.
It may have all happened this way, but I wouldn’t know — I was only a few hours old. But, as a young child, my mother often told me the story of the ambulance ride that I took, from LDS Hospital, in Salt Lake City, where I was born, to the hospital at the University of Utah. I heard this story so often, that, at some point, I must have recreated the events in my head, in the dreams of the night.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
There was nothing special about the day I was born. It was a stormy, cool Wednesday, in early October, 1972. I was born at about 1:30 in the afternoon — the most boring time of the day to be born, on the least exciting day of the week. In Utah. There was nothing auspicious about the occasion, and this is not foreshadowing. There’s no twist to the story here. I haven’t gone on to explore the stars, or cure cancer, or write the great American novel. I’m just an average human being, born on an average day, under average circumstances.
That’s not to say that everything went according to plan, on that rainy Wednesday. I came into the world a little damaged. I was born with a cleft palate and a cleft lip. And one big problem, which resulted in the aforementioned ambulance ride.
A few minutes after I was born, the doctors working on me noticed that I was the wrong color — not pink and healthy, but kind of blue. They rushed me from the room, much to the consternation of my mother. A short time later, they informed her that I was struggling to breathe, and they weren’t sure why. I was being sent to the medical center at the University of Utah where, hopefully, the doctors there could provide more extensive care. I’ve alway liked to think that they turned on the lights and sirens for that ambulance trip. In my dream they sure did.
Eventually, they discovered a cyst in my chest, about the size of a plum. It would fill with fluid, and collapse my lungs. As quickly as they would drain the cyst, it would fill up again. They couldn’t determine the cause so, they did what any doctor would have done — they waited and watched. For two days they drained this cyst, and watched it fill up again, and occasionally updated my parents on the situation. It was the 1970’s. Medicine was different then. Even after the exciting ambulance ride, there was still nothing that they could do for me.
Then, I was healed by a miracle.
My grandfather, and my uncle William, came to the hospital to see me, where William promptly passed out on the floor (he struggled with doctors and dentists offices). After William was revived, he and my grandpa gave me a priesthood blessing. They blessed my small body to heal.
The following morning, when my mom came by for her daily visit, there I was, lying naked on the table. No more wires. No more tubes. And, as it turned out, no more cyst. My mother didn’t know that last part yet, and assumed that I had died. Sometime during the overnight hours, between the hourly x-rays of my chest, the cyst disappeared. It was now late morning. No one had bothered to inform my parents.
The disappearance of the cyst caused no little stir and consternation among the doctors in the pediatric ward. There was no better medical explanation for the disappearance of the cyst than there was for it being there, in the first place. Two doctors, in particular, had been caring for me. One, of the same religious persuasion as my family, accepted and believed that God can and does interfere for good, in the lives of the faithful. He was satisfied. His colleague was more disturbed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He wanted to observe me, poke me, prod me, and try to understand what had happened. My parents chose to take the miracle, and their son, and go home.
This might be the first time I failed to perform to expectation. It wouldn’t be the last.
(Still not foreshadowing. Still haven’t cured the common cold. Still haven’t been to the moon).
Over the next couple years, as a result of my parents being young and poor, when I was taken to the “doctor”, it was often to some kind of free clinic. The thing about free medical clinics in the 70’s was, there was apparently not a lot of vetting when it came to the “doctors” whom they employed. It seems that these doctors were earnest, though. They earnestly wanted to find something wrong with me. I guess you can’t fix something unless there is something that needs fixing. My mother was told that I had water on the brain; that I would be developmentally retarded; that I wouldn’t be able to speak properly; that I would probably not hear well; that I would struggle all of my life.
At 12 months, I was given a crayon, and told to draw a straight line on a piece of paper. I drew the line on the floor. The doctors looked at me like a hopeless case.
At eighteen months, I rode a tricycle across the floor. The doctors said I shouldn’t be able to do that, yet. They were not pleased. They were irritated. I was still not performing according to expectation.
(Still no foreshadowing here. I still haven’t climbed Everest. I still haven’t solved world hunger)
My mother never left these clinics, except she was in tears. Eventually, my grandmother — a quiet, but simplistically wise woman — told her to stop going to the free clinics. Problem solved.
The cleft palate resulted in a mouth full of crooked teeth, and the small hole in the roof of my mouth, that I have to this day. Thanks to that little hole, I can’t blow up balloons or play a brass instrument, as I can’t maintain air pressure in my mouth — all the air just comes out of my nose. And, once in a while, a potato chip gets lodged in there. Other than that, it’s business as usual. The cleft palate and lip (the hare lip, as my OTHER grandmother called it), were repaired, through plastic surgery, when I was about two years old. Speech therapy taught me to say my “S’s” correctly, and four years of braces took care of the crooked teeth. Mostly. Wear your retainers, kids.
Most of this I don’t remember. The hard parts — the ambulance ride, the surgeries — these were all before memory kicks in. But, as a young child, I was always told the stories: the way the doctors put me in a little jacket with tongue depressors in the sleeves, to keep my arms from bending, and touching the stitches on my newly fixed lip; the time in the hospital where I kept climbing out of my crib, and wandering the halls (they solved this with an old volleyball net from the basement of the hospital, tied over the top of the crib — not the most sanitary thing, but they were still smoking in hospitals back then too, what are you going to do…?); all the quacks at the free clinics, who told my mom that I would never be normal. I heard these stories, and they have stayed with me all my life. My mom never believed those things the doctors said about me, and she wanted me to know that. She wanted me to know that I was normal.
Normal, as it turned out, was never quite me…but, that comes later.
(Go ahead and consider that foreshadowing).
I’ve always felt challenged by those early events. I’ve wanted to prove — mostly to myself, I guess — that I wasn’t those things that the doctors told my mom that I was. I wanted the world to know that it’s first impression of me was wrong. It’s caused me to live my life with the impression that I am on borrowed time. I’ve always felt like I’m living a second chance.
But, of course, this will not be the part of the story where I tell you that I was put on this earth to do something grand. It won’t be where I tell you that the second chance paid off. Maybe my one big accomplishment in life was not dying at the beginning? I don’t really know, but, if that’s the case, then that’s ok.
I’ve had an exceptional life. An exceptionally normal life. Most of the things I have done, others have done before me, and probably better. I’ve learned things without realizing I had learned anything. Maybe that’s the way it is for all of us?
For better, or worse, I’ve followed the wind, like some kind of suburban gypsy. I chase passions and intuition and curiosity. Often it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. But, it’s rarely dull. I am, in the most literal sense, a whimsical person, meaning I am beset by whims. I’ve never known quite what was ahead of me, but my life, and it’s lessons, are much clearer looking back. And, in looking back, I see sign posts — billboards — some announcing what I have done, and some advertising what I have learned. And, what I have learned is probably pretty universal to what everyone else would learn from such situations. I claim no special insight. I just know what I know.
The path of my life has taken me over a long and winding course, through thorns and rose gardens, over a few mountain tops, down into a couple of very dark valleys, but mostly through sunny landscapes, and green meadows. At least that’s how it looks from here.
The stories of those earliest experiences, told to me by my mother, helped to form the core of the person that I would become — acutely aware of the things that were different about me, but determined not to be boxed in to anyone’s mold. And, I think it gave me a compassionate and empathetic nature, for which I am immensely grateful. A lot of times, that nature is the only thing that fights back the very imperfect and impetuous temper that came as an inheritance from my father. And, it doesn’t always win the fight. A good life is hopefully made up of more smiles than tears, and more love than loss, but it’s not a picture of perfection. That’s important to understand.
I have two brothers, but I’ve only had them one at a time. My older brother, Scott and my younger brother, Tim. Scott is, strictly speaking, my half brother, but we’ve never talked about him in those terms. Scott and I have different fathers. He came from my mom’s first marriage — an unhappy arrangement necessitated by a teenage pregnancy. None of which matters. All that matters is that I have an older brother, and after my parents were married, in 1972, my dad adopted Scott. He was no longer Scott Wells, he was Scott Thornblad. My brother.
My very earliest memory is of Scott.
It was Spring of 1975. There was a park, just down the hill from our apartment. It was a typical neighborhood park. There were swings. This was when parks still had swings — in 1975, we weren’t afraid of swings in parks. There were slides. They were the shiny, silver metal slides. They were the kind of slides that seared your legs, and lit your pants on fire, on a hot summer afternoon. And there was a big ladder made out of tires.
On this particular day, Scott had taken me to play at the park. I was two and he was seven.
The scene opens, in my mind, next to the swing set.
I don’t know if we were coming or going from the park, but I remember the crunch of the gravel under my feet, as I walked. This was before parks had rubber pellets, or shredded bark, on the ground. On the tire ladder there were two guys — climbing…lounging…I don’t know what they were doing. In my mind, they look like adults, but they were probably just older kids. And then, suddenly, there was a german shepherd. A VERY big german shepherd, and it was coming right at me. And then it bit me.
More precisely, it bit my pants.
Scott put himself between me and the dog. At the same moment, the two geniuses on the tire ladder started yelling down at us. They were saying that everything was okay, that the dog was nice, that he wouldn’t hurt me. As far as I can recall, they never actually came down and got the dog. I’m sure they called it off, but the damage was done. I was traumatized. For the next ten years, not only was I deathly afraid of all dogs, I was REALLY afraid of them biting my pants. True story.
Scott took me up the green, grassy hill, and through the gate that led to our apartment. Then the memory fades to a bright white light.
The memory recalls, probably, no more than five minutes of my life. But, it was five minutes of life with my older brother.
Scott died that summer.
I know what Scott looked like. He had large brown eyes, and straight brown hair. I’ve seen pictures. But, I have no memory of his face. I remember him from the waist down. That’s how tall I was, in the spring of 1975. I remember his knees and his shoes. And, I remember his left hand because it was holding tight to my right hand. That was the hand of my big brother. That was the hand that was keeping me safe. That was the strong hand that led me safely home.
I have no other memories of Scott. But, I will always be grateful to that german shepherd, and those two guys on the tire ladder, and for the first traumatic experience of my life, because it seared the moment into my memory. And, if you only get to have one memory of your big brother, it should be a memory of your big brother doing what a big brother is supposed to do.
Sometimes destiny turns on a single moment. My life’s story is filled with laughter and adventure, and a lot of smiles and hope. But, after the slightly rocky start, the rest of the story begins with a tragedy when I was two years old.
The course of my life was set on an early summer day, in 1975.
June 22, the day that my brother died.
Coming home from a friend’s house, Scott had been chased on his bicycle, by some older boys, and frantically rode out on to a busy street. He was hit by a car, and three days later my parents made the most heart wrenching decision imaginable, and let him pass into the next world.
Following Scott’s death, a settlement provided my parents with enough money to allow them to do something they had thought was out of their financial grasp — it allowed them to buy a house. They decided to build on a street called Woodchuck Way, in a new residential area of a southeastern suburb of Salt Lake City, called Sandy. In 1975, Woodchuck Way was just about the end of the earth. Major roads, like Highland Drive and Wasatch Boulevard, literally ended in Sandy. They just petered out into dirt paths.
In November of that year, the house at 2508 Woodchuck Way became my home. And that changed everything. Across the street was a beautiful girl, my oldest friend. Up and down the streets, new houses were going up. About every third house looked like mine. Pretty soon, these houses would fill up with dozens of kids my age, who would become my lifelong friends. Everything in that neighborhood was a blank canvas. Foothills filled with adventure in potential, as yet unexplored. Streets un-walked by school children. Memories in embryo. And, up the street, at 2350 Woodchuck Way, lived the redheaded kid who would become the best friend I ever had — Aaron Ball.
Thanks to our friendship, my life has been filled with friendship and adventure and wonder and laughter. Because of Aaron, I did things that I never would have done on my own. Because of Aaron, I survived the breakup of my parents’ marriage. Because of Aaron, I moved to Cedar City, when I was twenty-one, where I met my wife, Sharon, on top of a pile of Aaron’s laundry. In a very real sense, I have no idea where life would have taken me, if I had never met Aaron Ball.
And, if my brother had not died, I don’t know that I ever would have met Aaron. We might have moved to Sandy, eventually. We may have come close, but not to that street, and not to that house, and not to those friends. The entire direction of my life may have been different, if Scott had not ridden out onto that dangerous road, on that day, in 1975. I don’t know what all of this means, if anything. It’s certainly a silver lining to a very dark cloud. It’s one of the surest signs I’ve ever seen, for evidence of a loving God, in my life. And, it’s an interesting dichotomy. I will not — cannot — be grateful for the loss of my brother, but neither could I be more grateful than I am, for a destiny that has led me to life of love and friendship. It’s irreconcilable. But, I guess that’s life.
I sometimes try to boil all of this down to one word, and it’s not easy. When I do, I come up with words like lucky or fortunate or charmed or favored. But, the word that seems to best capture the way I feel about my life, is blessed. For most of my life, even through the times when I’ve felt most undeserving, it has seemed to me that there has been a guiding hand, opening windows when doors are shutting, lighting up the good paths, and contrasting them with the dark corners — all of it coming together, to write an average story about an average life, that, looking back now, just seems…blessed.
This is that story.