I hadn’t been home to Dallas in awhile. Work.. money.. all the things (all the excuses) that keep us from our loved ones. All the things that don’t matter, just, by the way. I checked in with my family and friends via phone, email and Facebook; but I was determined to actually get round to seeing people on this trip. I parked the car on the side of the road and looked around for the house – I wasn’t sure which one it was…the last time I had been here the boys had just been born and that had to be three or so years ago. I spotted the one for which I searched and headed up the walkway, up the steps, onto the porch. I pressed the doorbell.
The door opened so quietly, so gently, that I hardly even knew it had opened. Through the screen door, into the darkness of the living room, I wasn’t even sure there was a person there. Then I saw. A tiny little boy with wildly curly hair, coke bottle glasses and the biggest, friendliest smile I have ever seen in my life, stood, his left hand on the doorknob, peering up at me. I gasped and laughed.
“Hi! Who are YOU?!’
His little voice squeaked back at me.
“Well.. I LOVE you!”
And I did.
I’ve been friends with Nate’s mama, Kim, since just about the moment we met. We were kindred spirits. I worked in one building and she worked in the other and we would find times during our days to meet in each others’ buildings to talk, to laugh, to gossip about our lives, our boyfriends and the general shit that was making our day shitty (when it was a day that was shitty). We always, always, always, made each other laugh and when there were times that other people and other things kept us from one another, when we came together again, we knew it would be as though no time had passed at all. Kim’s was one of the last 3 faces I looked into when I got into the car and drove away from Dallas to move to New York. I was there to hear about her new beau, Chris, (via the telephone) and I was there the day they got engaged (for he surprised her with an impromptu trip to New York and an engagement ring — I surprised them with an engagement photo, one they ended up using on their wedding invitation). I saw them married, I saw them try pregnancy, I saw them succeed. And I saw their premature triplets, asleep in their beds, shortly after their birth. It was a very delicate situation and, one could tell, always would be. The boys would spend their lives rising to the occasion of having been born early. I shared a kinship with the boys. I was a premie too.
The last time I had seen the boys was the first time I had seen the boys. My (not so) glamourous life as an artist kept me from tending the garden as I should have ( and, for the record, it kept me from tending many of my gardens – if I could give everyone reading this, everyone I know, any advice it would be this: tend your gardens.. and floss) and I didn’t call Kim and Chris as often as I should have. I didn’t get to know the boys the way I should have. That would change, though, on this visit. I was determined.
“I love you, too!”
As grown ups, we keep our love under lock and key. We guard our hearts and wait until we know someone a little before we decide to say I love you; or we throw the word love around like a frisbee until the meaning and emotion are rendered benign. Children are different though. They, first, offer you their love and then wait for you to wound them. I had told Nate, on what was, essentially, our first meeting that I loved him (and it was true – as the song goes, it only took that moment and I was in love with him) and he had replied that he loved me too.
“Is your mommy home?”
Everything Nate said seemed to have an exclamation mark behind it.
I opened the door and stepped in and called out to Kim.
The little boy came up, maybe, to my thigh. I got a better look at his entire self. Underneath the round Charlie Brown head, fussilli hair and adoring smile was a box. I couldn’t really see his body because he had very square shoulders holding up a yellow and blue striped tank top out of which protruded the most delightful pale skinned thin arms. On the bottom half were a pair of boxy navy blue shorts – like a basketball player wears – out of which protruded the most delightful pale skinned thin legs. His little feet were covered by little boy socks that made it easy for him to scoot around the floor like a wind up toy that never needs winding up. His little hands had these expressive little fingers that never seemed to stop moving as they gestured toward things, waved up into your face and wiggled in time to the music in his easily excited heart.
There was something sticking out of his throat.
When you see a person with a contraption sticking out of their voicebox, it is very difficult not to stare it. I had never seen this before and was, naturally, curious. Did it hurt? What was its’ purpose? Was it there forever? How did other children react to it? How did he deal with it? I had all these questions and more; but I wouldn’t stare and I would wait until it was time for my lesson to hear the story. Besides.. mommy had entered the room.
It is difficult to say whether Nate got his smile from his mommy or his daddy – when it comes to smiles, we are talking a million watts from either or both of them. That is the smile that greeted me when Kim walked in the room. One enormous hug and we were off, just like old times. Talk, laugh, laugh, talk .. and then some more. We walked through the home, the sound of two boys chattering, the tv talking, the radio playing, the nurse working and us, talking and laughing.
The reason I only heard two boys chattering is because Nate was talking (to himself) and one little boy was talking (to the tv) and another little boy was speechless as he watched the same tv – both tv watchers sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. Kim said to me “That’s Drew … ANdrew! Say hi to Uncle Stephen!”
The little boy with matching Fussilli hair turned to me with the same smile as mom, dad and Nate and flexed his bicep.
“Look at my MUSCLE!!!””
An amateur body builder with an interest in health and fitness, I burst into a grin.
“Well.. I LOVE you!”
And I did.
“Matt. Matt! MATT!”
The other little boy tore his eyes from the tv set to see why his mommy would dain to disturb him. He had his mama’s face and brown hair. The other boys were, clearly, genetically predisposed toward daddy but this one was the spit and image of his mama.
“Say hi to Uncle Stephen.”
He went back to his ravioli and Grover.
Kim lowered her voice.
“Really?” I asked, incredulous. How could she tell, at so early an age.
“Well.. I LOVE you!”
The honeymoon was on.
I spent a heavenly afternoon with my family. These people are my family; and even though I hadn’t visited in a few years, the connection was strong. I played with each little boy and visited with mommy and daddy. And I promised that I would stay in better touch and never come to Dallas without visiting. And I asked all my questions about Nate.
The details of the medical complications of the triplets are unimportant and they are not mine to tell. They are also filled with medical jargon that I don’t always understand. I guess the important facts are that each boy has certain issues they live with because of being premature – and their strength at birth was based on the order in which they came. Nate was last out and he had the hardest time of it. He had intestine issues, heart issues, lung issues; and the contraption in his throat is called a trach – short for tracheotomy. It assists him in his breathing; when he needs help, the device is attached to an oxygen tank and he breathes without threat of air loss. I saw Nate, at one point, reach up and fold the little rubber tube and say to mom “I need help” and he was, immediately, hooked up to his tank. He was, clearly, able to and up for handling his shit (as we say in my house). No complaints, no drama – he just dealt with it. He handled his shit.
When he wasn’t handling his shit, though, Nate was a little boy. He played with his brothers and with his toys. He teased his mommy and laughed with his daddy. He even gave his nurse a little shit. And (big, proud drumroll here) he loved his Uncle Stephen. We played together, we talked together, we danced together.
Oh yes, Nate was a dancer. I looked at him, at one point, shuffling his feet and his hips around the kitchen, over by the computer. He looked like a little milkshake machine. I laughed and smiled and loved him a little more. Kim, upon hearing me laugh, looked over at Nate with nonchalant pride. “That’s my dancin’ man.” She looked back at me. “Oh, yeah, he loves to dance. He really likes Marvin Gaye. Sometimes he just dances to the music in his head.” And my heart grew three sizes that day. I, too, dance to music that only I hear. From that moment, Nate was not just Kim’s dancin’ man – he was mine. I am happy to share my dancin’ man with anyone else who saw him dance. He is ours.
I sat at the kitchen table, talking to Andrew about his life and his muscles when Matthew came to me and said “will you read this to me?” Of course! And he piled up into my lap. He handed me a My Little Pony picture book. In his other hand he had a Sleeping Beauty doll. I turned my head to look at his mama.
“Kim.” (she turned to me) “Oooh, yeah.”
The boys and I stayed at the kitchen table for awhile, while Nate was hooked up, breathing and watching the tv in the nursery. Then there was dinner and talk for the grown ups. Nate reappeared, Matthew took a bath, Andrew climbed the walls. It was normal night at home. I looked into the kitchen and Nate had his face pressed up against the mirror of the kitchen cupboard. He was looking at the little boy in the mirror and having a VERY animated, in depth conversation with him.
“He loves to talk to the little boy in that mirror. He’ll do it forever. That’s his best friend.”
As is the case in every glorious visit, there came a time to go home. Hugs and kisses, all around. There is nothing on this planet that is as heavenly as the skinny arms of a child wrapped around your neck as their lips press into yours. Nothing.
On subsequent visits home, I always saw family. Sometimes I would see Matthew and Andrew but not Nate – or at least, he didn’t see me. Sometimes he was asleep, hooked up to machines I didn’t really understand at all. Sometimes he was awake but wheelchair confined and puffy from the steroids. Sometimes I saw Nate, comatose in the hospital, but never made it to the house to see Andrew and Matthew. Sometimes I sat on a cot in a hospital room, telling Kim stories about anything that would make her laugh and take her mind off of Nate’s struggles, if only for a moment. Sometimes I would stand at Nate’s bedside in the hospital with Chris, while Kim talked to nurses and doctors, which she became an expert at. His sons are his by birth, mine are mine by relationship – but the bond between fathers is strong and unspoken.
I never made one trip to Texas, again, without seeing Nate.
Nate’s struggles with his physical being, based on being a premie, were difficult for all. Kim and Chris deserve a medal or two for being parents of the most loving and championing nature. There were weeks when Kim slept in hospitals and didn’t see her other boys (Chris, Matthew and Andrew, all three) and weeks when Chris didn’t see Nate, for he had to be moved to another city in Texas for treatment and Kim was never not with him. There was a period of time when the steroids used to treat Nate didn’t only swell him up, they caused him to grow facial hair, earning him the endeared nickname at the hospital (bestowed upon him by the doctors and nurses) “Wolfbaby”. Nate was in the hospital, he was out of the hospital, he was swollen, he was thin, he could talk, he couldn’t talk – it was a roller coaster of a ride and his parents were with him, the entire way.
So was his unquenchable optimism.
I never saw Nate, once, that he was awake and not smiling. Never. Not. Once.
I sat on their porch for three hours one Hallowe’en with Nate Lightyear, handing out candy. He was wheelchair bound and wanted to stay home and give out (over a hundred dollars worth of) candy and talk to EVERY single trick or treater that walked up the walk. Neighbours came to sit and chat and drink grown up drinks with mom and dad and visit with Nate.. but I refused to let anyone else usurp my spot beside my dancin’ man. I wanted to be with him the entire night. I almost made it, too. The last half hour, I had to get my cold, flat ass off the stone steps and one of Kim’s girlfriends relieved me – but I came back for more. Nate had that power over me.
Nate had a power over everyone. He had a Caringbridge Journal that his parents maintained to keep people abreast of his journey. The comments posted on the guest book always made my spirit climb, with the love that was shown. I always posted, on Facebook, my photos and stories and updates on Nate and strangers from across the world began to comment and pray. People who never knew Nate in person, know him in their hearts. THAT is the power of the social network, yes; but, more to the point – it is the power of love, the power of spirit. It is Nate’s spirit that drew so many people in – I imagine just from one little photo that I keep posting, over and over, in my life. It is a photo of Nate kissing me on the mouth. When you look at it, you see how much he loved his Uncle Stephen and how much Uncle Stephen loved his dancin’ man. Kim’s dancin’ man. Nate loved everyone. So, even though, in my heart, he is my dancin’ man – I know he isn’t. He is everyone’s dancin’ man.
I never saw Nate dance again, after that first meeting. He was always wheelchairbound after that. But he danced with his eyes, and his hands and his head, as it turned from side to side, up to down, taking in, observing, enjoying, memorizing every sight and sound and experience that was before him. He danced with every part of himself. And I want to say, without getting religious or spiritual or cliche, that I do believe in God and I do believe in an afterlife and I do believe, I do believe, I do believe in Nate. And I know that there is a place that he is at, right now, where he is, finally out of pain and finally, out of the struggle. And finally, finally, finally.
Nate can dance forever.