11.27.2008

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Join me in celebrating Turkey Day by listening to some Thanksgiving-themed episodes of oldtime radio shows from the 1940s on otrcat.com.

There's an episode of The Burns and Allen Show from 1942, The Jack Benny Program from 1943 and Command Performance (1944), a variety show produced and recorded here for American servicemen overseas.

11.23.2008

MY TRIP TO THE AUTOGRAPH SHOW IN BOSTON

I was in Boston from Tuesday through Friday for work, but I decided to stay an extra night.

This is a rare thing for me. Usually I jump on the first plane, train or automobile out of town after a job ends. But this particular shoot had brought me to the Sheraton Framingham where, by cosmic coincidence, an autograph show was taking place over the weekend.

Maggie took the train up on Saturday morning to meet me.

She found a great new addition to our ever-increasing movie poster collection.

As always, I got a chance to meet some people whose work I have appreciated for my entire life. The first was Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer who created, performs and provides the voice for Big Bird.

Caroll has also has been playing Oscar the Grouch since the show's debut in 1969.

Next up was Frank Avruch, who played Bozo the Clown, my favorite show from my pre-school days. Every afternoon my mother had to have me home by 12:30 PM in time for Bozo, or I would throw a tantrum wherever we were.

I also met David Hedison, the actor who played the title character in the original version of The Fly (1958). He was also on the television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) and played Feliz Leiter in the Bond films Live and Let Die (1973) and Licence to Kill (1989).

In addition to the "celebrities" (a relative term, of course), there were also plenty of strange characters running around in costume just for the fun of it.

Everybody wants to take pictures with these guys, and I am no different.

Maggie thinks it's crazy to dress up like this in public, and even crazier to want to take pictures with people who do. She's right, but that won't stop me from doing it.

One big reason I wanted to attend this show was to meet Peter Tork from The Monkees, who I have seen perform live countless times on various reunion tours and in solo gigs.

Peter, on the other hand seemed a lot more excited to meet Maggie than he was to meet me. I wonder why. But the highpoint of the day for me was meeting Dawn Wells, Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. She is 70 years-old and looks amazing.

I told Dawn that I was a reporter and that I'd love to do a story on her the next time she appears in New York. She gave me her personal email address and promised to be in touch.

After I left Dawn, a very fat man stopped me and asked, "Are you famous or something?"

"Nope," I said. "I'm just a fan like everybody else."

11.17.2008

CHAPTER 56

"You ready to go?" I said to my sister, as I stood on the beach in my underwear, a few minutes after midnight on the first day of 1998.

I didn't know it then, but the end of the worst year of my life was the beginning of what would become the best year of my life.

"I'm ready," she said, wide-eyed. "Are you?"

I quickly dried my legs with my Polartec and slid on my rough, sand-covered Levis. "Yup."

Missy never said anything else about my melodramatic farewell to 1997, or asked me about what was going on inside my head when I decided to make a break for the water. As a rule, my sister and I don't have those kinds of conversations. In that sense, she followed my father's taciturn example and I -- with my penchant for emotional spewing -- ended up just like my mother.

Subsequently I learned that Missy thought I might have been committing suicide-in-the-surf, a la James Mason in the equally melodramatic A Star is Born. Can you imagine -- surviving two brushes with death and thousands of dollars of medical bills and then killing myself? That would have been really bad karma for someone heading into the afterlife.

"Can you turn the heat up all the way?" I asked, as we crossed the Atlantic Beach Bridge, shivering under the pilly, woolen blanket my mother always kept in the car.

I could see my grandmother's apartment building from that bridge -- the Roy Reuther Houses on Seagirt Blvd. in Far Rockaway. It was there, on the floor of her apartment, where my Aunt Margaret found Nanny after she had what would be her last stroke. I can't imagine what that must have been like, for either of them.

As cold as I was, I felt better than I had in a long time. I had been too scared to physically exert myself in the two weeks since I had gotten out of the hospital, even though all my doctors had been harassing me to begin physical therapy.

I'm not sure what I was afraid of. I didn't think I was going to have a heart attack or anything. I think it may have been my fear of finally discovering just how LOUD my valves would actually sound at full-throttle -- because, if that's how they sounded when I ran across the beach, that's how they would sound when I (eventually) got lucky.

The prospect of being a partially-bionic freak with an impossible-to-hide abnormality haunted my desire to reconnect with the opposite sex. That feeling was was like a credit card bill left unpaid; for awhile I would forget about it, and then something would remind me. It wasn't a phone call from a bill collector, or a letter from a collection agency, but rather a semi-naked jog on the frigid beach where the sound of my own mechanical parts rang out above the din of the crashing waves.

This little quirk was going to be fun to explain to a girl someday.

Regardless of my fears about my romantic future (or lack thereof), it was important for me to bury the year that had ended, mourn what I had lost and to celebrate what I had gained. I have a problem with endings; that problem is, I don't like them. I'll stay in things too long, even if I'm miserable, just to avoid saying goodbye. It's a remarkably passive personality trait for someone who is, as a rule, so aggressively and unapologetically open.

Maybe it has something to do with avoiding change at all costs. I've always been like this, for my whole life, and I think it has something to do with being adopted, with the trauma of saying goodbye to my birth mother when I was just a baby. But what the fuck do I know? I was 4 months old at the time. I probably couldn't tell the difference between my birth mother and giant, stuffed Winnie the Pooh.
Maybe this is all just revisionist history.

The next morning, my shiny new year started with a mundane task: dealing with the medical bills that were rapidly becoming a full-time job. Correction: dealing with the "business" side of my illness had already been a full-time job for weeks, just not my full-time job. And now that I was home again and (reasonably) healthy, what had been my mother's problem was about to become mine.

"It's time to pass the baton," my mother said, as we sat down at a circular table in the living room, next to a roaring fire in the fireplace. "Okay, there are four stacks here: the first stack is bills that have been received and submitted to to the insurance company for payment; the second is bills that have been received but not yet submitted; the third is past due notices from medical providers; and the fourth is Explanation of Benefits notices."

"What does that mean - explanation of benefits?" I asked, even though I knew. I figured if I played dumb she might take pity on me and keep doing the paperwork herself.

"Those will tell you which bills the insurance company is already processing, and how much they have paid or are going to pay the provider. Sometimes they pay less than the provider asks for, but that's okay. They have a whole system of determining what is known as the "reasonable and customary" fee for procedures, and the providers have to honor that -- but only if they are in-network. They call that accepting assignment."

"And what if they're out-of-network?"

"Then, technically, you're supposed to pay the balance."

"What does that mean - technically?'"

"Your caseworker at Healthsource -- her name is Laura -- told me that a lot of providers won't bill you for the remaining balance, and those who do can often be talked out of it if you explain your situation. Tell them what was wrong with you, how you just got out of the hospital after months and months, how you're not back at work yet."

"So I basically have to thrown myself on their mercy and hope they take pity on me?"

"Exactly."

"Great. Maybe I should slur my speech to sound more stroke-y."

Not only did I have to endure two months in the hospital, now I had to clean up the whole mess -- and, potentially, to pay for it. Talk about adding insult to injury. The whole thing seemed very daunting for someone who was getting used to stress-free living.

"You know what?" I said to my mother. "You are doing such a good job with this, I'd hate to mess up a good thing and take it away from you. Anyway, it's much more compelling if Mommy calls and asks the people sending these bills to help out her poor, dying son."

"You're not dying anymore."

"I know that, and you know that. But they don't know that."

"Sorry," my mother said. "This will be good for you. It will help you get back into work mode."

She was right about that. I hadn't worked in going on five months and, in the interim, somebody had fucked around inside my brain. I was going to need some time to get the ole' noggin back in shape, just like an out-of-shape baseball player needs a few months of spring training to lose those extra 10 lbs of Christmas fruitcake.

As I began to consider how to attack this project, I noticed something fascinating. I could feel my brain hitting tiny little walls, and then pushing past them, to the desired destination. My brain was slowly forming new pathways to compensate for the old ones that were now blocked, or for the portions of my brain that had been permanently damaged.

And with that, my rehabilitation had begun. It was an exhausting process, relearning how to work, how to think pro-actively, how to communicate effectively with people on the phone, how to plead my case. It was frustrating too, because it didn't all come back right away. I was slower -- mentally, with my speech, with my powers of intuition. I had to do things two and three times to get them right. I had to rest. But, as tiring as it was, it was also exhilarating. I could feel my capacity increase each day. I could feel myself getting sharper, with each task.

I approached the Medical Bill Project like I would any producing job at work. I set up a little office in my room, with my computer, printer and fax machine. Then I had the phone company add a phone line and a second, dedicated fax line. I made up an Excel spreadsheet to track all the bills and and a big binder to organize everything alphabetically. I even made a contact list of every provider with address, phone number and insurance information and I hung that on a bulletin board above my desk. Then I started working the phones like a character in a Mamet play.

"Hi, this is Will McKinley calling for Dr. Fill-in-the-blank. I recently survived heart and brain surgery and I was hoping to get a reduction on my bill. Yes, I'll hold."

I made sure to sound as pathetic and sickly as possible on every call, and to end each conversation with lines like, "May God bless you" or "Thank you so much for your kindness." I used Ryan Oneal's character in Paper Moon as my guide.

Who knew that being sick required so much paperwork? I wondered how we would have handled this if I didn't have medical insurance. When I added up all of my medical bills on the spreadsheet, the total was $208,808.93. How would I have paid that if I didn't have insurance and was unable to work? Or worse, how would my parents have paid it if I died? It's not like there's a money-back guarantee on medical procedures. Even if it doesn't work, somebody's gotta pay for it.

I learned a lot by immersing myself in nearly a quarter million dollars worth of medical bills.

For example, did you know that each member of the operating room team bills separately for a surgical procedure? I didn't. I thought the hospital would just charge a set fee for everybody and every piece of equipment. Nope. You pay each thing separately, from the chief surgeon down to the janitor who cleans up afterward. I found myself processing dozens of bills for each major surgical procedure, always surprised by the number of people it took to save my dopey little life.

And I was surprised by what many of these well-trained professionals were being paid for their efforts. For example, Dr. Durbin, my cardio-thoracic surgeon, only made $4,738.14 to perform my life-saving open heart surgery. He billed $5,264.60, but apparently, my life wasn't worth that extra $500, at least according to CIGNA. Sure, you do five of those heart surgeries in a week and it adds up to some nice coin, but still, I wish that my insurance company didn't nickle and dime the guy. It seems unappreciative.

The Monday after the New Year's weekend, I called my landlord, following up on the conversation he had had with Jody. I explained my situation - that I was still recovering, not yet back at work, and unable to earn enough money to finance a move. I asked if it would be at all possible to extend my lease beyond the April 1 deadline that they had requested.

"How about July 1st?" he offered.

"That's much better," I said. "
"Thank you so much for your kindness. And may God bless you."

So now I knew what my future looked like. I had six months to get back to my apartment, get back to work, find a new place and move all my shit. What had felt like panic was ever-so-slowly beginning to morph into excitement.

But first I had to do my physical therapy.

"You know, my friend Betty is a physical therapist," Missy told me one night. "She works at a place over in Long Beach. And she's single too."

"Great," I said. "I'm now reduced to meeting chicks at rehabilitation facilities. Hopefully the other guys there will be amputees or quadriplegics. Remember, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

"What?"

"Forget about it. By the way, what kind of a name is Betty? It sounds like a character on Father Knows Best."

"Shut up. She's a nice girl. We're going to go for pizza on Friday in Lynbrook. Why don't you come?"

Betty was like most of my sister's friends: not necessarily what I would call hot, but attractive enough for me to not run screaming from the pizza place. But I wasn't there to get laid. I was there to pick her brain about physical therapy.

"First of all, William," she said. "You don't want to do physical therapy where I work. It's all elderly stroke patients."

"I like those odds," I said.

"What?"

"Nothing. Sorry. Please go on."

"Anyway, you should be in a place where there are younger people. It will help to motivate you. Some of our patients can barely walk."

"So what do you do with them?" I asked, as I bit into my Sicilian slide.

"Well, I'm actually an occupational therapist," she said. "Not physical."

"What exactly is occupational therapy?"


"It can be anything from re-building strength in fingers and hands to re-learning how to bathe or cook."

"I never knew how to cook to begin with," I said, "But I can always use help with bathing."

"William," my sister chastised. "Be serious."

Betty suggested that I call a few of the physical therapy facilities that were in my insurance network, and ask them about the age range of their patients. Then we said said our goodbyes.

"I hope we get to hang out again some time," Betty said.

"Definitely," I replied. "I'm gonna be around here for a while."

"Great," she said. "I have a bunch of cool friends that I think you'd like. And they're all really positive people. You'd get along great with them."

"Sounds good," I said. I couldn't shake the feeling that Betty was trying to sell me something. And soon enough, I would find out what it was.

Later that week my father drove me to a consultation at the St. Charles Hospital Rehabilitation Center in Albertson, out on Long Island. I met with Rea, the very young looking head therapist, in a room that looked like a pre-school. As I spoke to her, an elderly man sitting across from me repeatedly placed brightly colored pegs into holes on a large board

"Maybe I wasn't entirely clear on the phone," I said. "I was hoping to find a rehab facility for people in their 20s. Not for people born in the '20s."

"We cater to a wide age range," Rea said. "Our occupational patients are older, but our physical therapy clients are mostly younger.

"And how about the therapists," I asked.

"We're pretty much all in our 20s," she said.

"Are there rules here about patients dating staff members?" I asked

"No," she said. "But it's funny you mention dating, because I met my husband here."

"Was he a patient?"

"No, he was a therapist."

"One more question: Do patients get to pick their therapists?"

"Well, not necessarily. But I can take specific requests into consideration."

"Great. Can I request a female? Preferably single, blond and under 30?"

"I'll see what I can do about that," Rea laughed.

NEXT CHAPTER ON MONDAY NIGHT

By 10 PM or so...

11.16.2008

I'M IN THE GAY CITY NEWS

My interview with Peter Mac, author and star of the off-Broadway show Judy and Me, is in the current edition of The Gay City News. You can read it here.

The piece has also appeared in The Villager and Chelsea Now. I also took the picture that accompanies the story.

11.09.2008

CHAPTER 55

I've always dreaded New Year's Eve, but never more than the year I almost died.

All through my relationship with Mary, I wondered why I never felt that same celebratory ecstasy other people experienced on the final day of the year. It always felt artificial to me, and a bit regressive: the copious consumption of intoxicants, the ritualistic dancing, the forced woo-hooing'ing -- it was like some ancient pagan rite, something that we should have evolved beyond generations ago.

I mean, we don't dress up in robes and dance around golden calves in the desert anymore (if you exclude those wackos at Burning Man), so why do we fall prostrate before a ticking clock and a falling ball on December 31?

During my decade with Mary, I developed a strategy to have it both ways on New Year's Eve; every year on December 31 we would go to see a Broadway show in Times Square. That placed us right in the middle of the mania, but got us back home safely before the madness of midnight. That was my compromise: close to it but, as always, on the periphery.

The voices inside told me that I was young, that I lived in New York City, that I SHOULD be doing something memorable to welcome in a New Year -- and so I was able to quiet them for another 12 months.
But there were other things I wasn't able to silence: my self-doubt, frustration and bitterness.

For my entire adult life I had been consumed by this sense that I wasn't living up to my potential, that I was missing out on something (or everything), that I had accomplished less than I should have, or was meant to. New Year's Eve made that feeling painfully acute; another year was gone, and I was no closer to finding my place.

I used to blame this on Mary, because some part of of me hated her for keeping me trapped in a relationship that had emotionally (and in every other way) stunted me. But in retrospect I can also blame it on two other things: my mother and my depression.

I had never seen my mother satisfied with her life. She always yearned for something else, something more. She was capable of doing so many things, but she still had never found the one thing that perfectly suited her. So her life had been a collection of fixations, obsessions and accomplishments that, once made, were discounted. Then she would look for the next challenge. It was an exhausting and frustrating way to live, I think, and equally exhausting to watch. The only thing that finally began to calm my mother's pace was Parkinson's Disease.

And I inherited that from her. I mean, the never-satisfied, manic thing, not the degenerative neuro-muscular disease thing.

Then there was the issue of depression, which I do think I inherited from her. "What?" you may be saying at home (or on the subway, or in the can, or wherever you are reading this), "I thought you were adopted. Adopted people can't inherit bio-chemical imbalances from their adopted parents."

True, we can't inherit them genetically. But we can inherit them behaviorally.

Certain people are biochemically inclined toward depression at birth, but not all of those people end up suffering from the symptoms of depression. Why? Because certain of us are lucky enough to grow up in happy, stable family situations that do not set off the triggers.

I was not one of the lucky ones, at least in that regard.

Throughout my young life I watched my mother ricochet from manic, up-all-night peaks to angry, in-bed-all-day valleys. When she was engaged, enthusiastic or excited, there was nobody more inspiring to be around. When she wasn't, look out, because somebody was gonna catch a beating.

Growing up, I learned how to read the signs. If my mother was still in her bathrobe when I got home from school, I knew I was about to get in trouble for something. But if she was out in the garage (aka her "studio) teaching a quilting class to her rapt disciples, everything would be okay.

Then there was third third category, somewhere between those two, what I like to call Fighting the Dark Side.

If I got home and the furniture in the living room was rearranged, I knew it was time to tread lightly. That meant she was battling something, trying to distract herself from some anger, hostility or feeling of disaffection. And what better way to change your mood that to take an active role in changing your surroundings. Often, I would be enlisted in the service of her mood stabilization strategy. Usually that would involve me vacuuming the living room, or cleaning the upstairs bathroom, after which she would inspect my highly-detailed work and heap praise upon it.

Remember that scene of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, trying to scrub away her madness with the help of her daughter in Mommy Dearest? I lived through plenty of moments that were not unlike that.

That's how I learned to live in service to the punitive inner voices. That's how I learned to be simultaneously strong and weak, aggressive and fearful, out-going and shy, confident and wracked with self-doubt. Everything that was wrong with me, and right was me, could be traced back to my mother.

So why am I telling you all of this now, when you'd rather be hearing about me and Veronique the French au pair?

Because the pressure and anxiety that I had felt at the end of every year was magnified by a factor of 1,000 that year. And it impacted every single aspect of my life: from women to work and everything in between. There were so many questions and so much uncertainty that it left me in something of a state of shock.

In one sense it was a liberating feeling. It was a fresh start, an opportunity to remake myself. But it's a lot harder to learn new ways of being, even if those new ways are destined to someday make you a happier, more fulfilled person.

I no longer felt that I could trust my instincts, because they (at least in part) had gotten me into this trouble to begin with. And my instincts were telling me to stick with the familiar, to avoid the stressful or challenging or difficult, to resist change. But intellectually I knew I had to do exactly the opposite.

So, with that in mind, I went to the dance club with my sister and Vero that Saturday night before New Year's Eve.

We picked Vero up at the picturesque suburban Long Island home where she had been working as an au pair. She wasn't what I had expected. I had pictured a pouty-lipped, blond sexpot, something tall and bosomy and sexy, along the lines of Brigitte Bardot, circa 1952. That wasn't Vero. She was a short brunette with bookish glasses and a cute but square face, her slightly kinky brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.

"This is my brother Will," Missy said, as Vero got in the back seat of the car.

Right there, that was why I was happy my sister had decided to stick around. After losing our grandmother and almost dying myself, it felt good to have her close by, but the idea that she would help ease me into my new-found singlehood was huge.

In all my life I had never gone up to a girl and struck up a conversation. I didn't have any skillz when it came to the opposite sex. Friendship First had always been my game and, since I wasn't particularly social, those opportunities had been limited to the women that I had met through work, like Stacey and Mary at the Library or Penny and Lisa at my producing job.

Arguably, I had never been on a date in my entire dating career. All of my romantic or pseudo-romantic entanglements had begun Platonically. Now it was time to try a different approach.

So that night I tried my best to impress Vero with my wit -- a challenge, considering that English was her second language, and comprehension of wit is hard to teach.

"Eeezz zat a joke?" Vero would say, when I would make a sarcastic comment about someone at the club, or otherwise try to be funny.

"Apparently not," I would answer.

But it wasn't a complete failure. Although I nursed an Amstel Light through most of the evening, I kept buying drinks for Vero and, after awhile, her vodka goggles began to kick in.

"You're cute," she said, as we awkwardly slow danced to something awful like Roxette.

The next morning my sister was more optimistic than I.

"I think Vero liked you," she said.

"What makes you think that?" I replied.

"She told me you were funny. She likes funny guys."

"You know, just once I'd like a girl to like me because I'm hot, not funny," I protested. "So wait, do you mean liked like like, or liked like like."

Most brothers and sister have this conversation in middle school, I know. I'm a late bloomer.

"I think he really likes you," Missy said. "If you're smart, you'll do something about that."

On Sunday, Missy, my parents and I went to church together and my victory lap continued. Once again I shook hands, thanked strangers and otherwise attempted to repay a debt that I could never calculate.

After mass, I ran into Father McManus in the back of the church.

"You look great," he said. "How are you feeling."

"I feel great," I said. "And I appreciate everyone here sending me prayers and good energy."

"So is everything taken care of? Or will you have to go back into the hospital to have more procedures?"

"I will probably have to go back one more time," I said. "They want to see me again in a few months to make sure that the experimental procedure that they used for my brain surgery is still holding up."

At that point, Fr. McManus put one hand on my head and raised his other in the air.

"Lord, we thank you for all you have done for Bill and we pray that you will keep him in the best of health as he finishes enduring this great trial. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen."

"Thank you," I said, as I gave him a hug. Then I excused myself and ducked down a staircase because I didn't want anybody to see that I was crying.

The next day I had my first follow-up appointment with Dr. Hirschberg.

"We'll see if he says anything about how he fouled you up," my father said, as we got out of the car."

"You know what? He's the only one that admitted that he didn't know what was wrong," I said. "He's the one that forced me to go into the hospital. I don't have any hard feelings toward him."

"You're right," my father said. "If he didn't put you in the hospital we might still be trying to figure out what was wrong with you."

"Actually," I said. "If he didn't put me in the hospital, I probably wouldn't be here anymore."

We sat in the waiting room until the nurse called me in.

"Mr. McKinley Jr," she said.

"You want me to come in with you?" my father asked.

"No thanks," I said.

"Mr. McKinley," Hirschberg said, as he threw open the door to the examining room. "You're looking a lot healthier than the last time I saw you."

"I feel a lot healthier than the last time," I said. "And I'm relieved that people no longer need to put things in me or take things out of me."

"Speaking of that," Hirschberg said. "We will need to remove that stint we put in during the cysoscopy."

"Where do we do that?" I asked nervously.

"At South Nassau Hospital."

"Outpatient?"

"Nope," he said. "Unfortunately you're going to have to check back in. That's the facts of life when you're on Coumadin. We've got to ween you off and get you on Heparin before we can do anything invasive. Then we have to get you regulated again before we can let you go home."

"When?"

"Soon," he said. "We shouldn't wait any more than two or three weeks."

"I have got to go back in the hospital again, some time in the next few weeks? You have got to be kidding me."

"Unfortunately not," Hirschberg said. "But remember, I told you this when we first put in the stint. It's only temporary and it has to come out or you risk infection. And you of all people should know about the importance of avoiding infection."

I had either forgotten about this, or never knew to begin with. Or maybe I was just remembering what I wanted to remember. But the idea of going back into the hospital so soon after I had gotten out made me sick to my stomach.

"What's the longest I can wait?" I asked.

"Today's Monday the 29th. How about three weeks from now - Monday January 19th?"

"Okay," I said, reluctantly. "Now I wanna ask you something."

"Go 'head."

"From your perspective, as a urologist, will any of things that were done to me, or the medications that I'm taking, affect my ability to perform sexually?"

"No," he said flatly. "No. The only thing you will have to deal with is the psychological component of what happened to you. For a lot of men, that type of thing can affect sexual performance."

"But nothing else," I said. "From a standpoint of health."

"Not at all. I would suggest, though, that you get into a physical therapy program as soon as possible to regain your strength and stamina. That will certainly help in maintaining a healthy sex life."

"Having a girlfriend would also help," I said.

"Well, I can't write you a script for that," Hirschberg said. "At least not in this country."

What I didn't talk about with Hirschberg was my problems with dizziness and equilibrium. Things were better now than they had been when I almost collapsed at the mall, but still not as good as I hoped they would be. Every time I turned my head quickly I got momentarily nauseous. It felt almost like seasickness. I wondered if this might be symptomatic of an additional stroke, or of some sort if lasting neurological deficit. So on Monday afternoon I called Dr. Pyle-Spellberg's office and spoke with Dr. Huong, the Vietnamese doctor who had told me to say a prayer after my brain surgery.

"I'd like to send you over to see Dr. Moore," he said. "He's one of the most respected stroke specialists in the country. Can you come by tomorrow?"

"I guess so, " I said.

My sister offered to go into the city on the train with me, and my father insisted that he drive me, but I wanted to test myself, to measure how I could get around on my own. By the time I made it all the way uptown to the hospital, I was feeling a little green. It felt odd walking into Columbia Presbyterian via the front door, when only two weeks earlier I had been rolled out in a wheelchair.

My first visit was with Dr. Huong, who greeted me with a warm handshake.

"You look much fatter," he said.

"I'll take that as a compliment," I said.

I told him about my problem at the mall, and my fear that I was having more strokes. He examined me and performed a few of the tests that Dr. Raggone had done in the hospital.

"I do notice a slight tendency for you to fall to the left," he said. "And a mild lower left facial droop, but these are to be expected and are improved since you have checked out from the hospital."

"What about my left lip?" I asked. "I am very self conscious of that."

"Again," he said. "I think it is improved from when you were here. Have you begun a program of physical and occupational therapy yet? That will build up your strength and help you to counteract any remaining deficit."

"Not yet," I answered.

"How come?"

"I'm waiting until after the New Year," I answered. "That seems like a good time to start new things."

"Okay," Dr. Houng said. "You will turn over a new leaf."

"That's putting it mildly," I said.

After I left the Neurointerventional Radiology Department, I walked along a long corridor and across an enclosed bridge to get to Dr. Moore's office. It was in a much older building with old fashioned tile and heavy wood doors. It looked like a grammar school, circa 1961. And Dr. Moore was like a white-haired old teacher.

"I see from your chart that you've been through some tough times," he said.

"It's been an eventful year," I said.

He proceeded to do a large battery of tests on me, many that Dr. Raggone had done, and a few of the neuro-psych tests that Dr. Lazur had done before and after my brain surgery. I had to draw something called The Rey figure, which was a complex, confusing line drawing that looked like a sideways rocket ship with TV antennas and a smiley face.

"That's perfect," he said when I showed him my artwork. "Almost flawless."

"I never did this well in art class before," I said.

"I know you're concerned about life going forward after all of the things that have happened to you, but there is no indication of additional stroke activity. But there's no sign of relapse. I'll write you a script for a medication called Antivert, which will help with the dizziness. And we'll proceed with the transcranial doppler this afternoon, but I think the news will be good."

Dr. Moore was old enough and gray enough for me to believe anything he told me. After I left him I walked back across the bridge to the Neuroscience floor and waited for my transcranial doppler. I had had one of those on the morning after I checked in to Columbia Presbyterian. Afterward, Dr. Huong told me that the results were good.

"Now go do some therapy," he said. "That will be the best way to get your balance back."

After I left Columbia Presbyterian I hoped on the #1 train and headed down to my apartment on 85th Street.

"Welcome home," my friend Jody said. "You look almost healthy."

"Speaking of almost healthy," I said. "Are you smoking in here?"

"I had one, out the window," she said.

"That's not fair. If I can't smoke, nobody can smoke. When I come back you can't let me fall off the wagon again. You can't smoke after heart surgery. It seems unappreciative."

"Um, we have to talk about that," Jody said.

"Sorry, I know it's a great apartment, but you're gonna have to give it back to me soon."

"Actually, you got a call today after work from somebody at Brit-Am Partners," she said.

"That's my landlord."

"I know. He told me to tell you that they're selling the rental units, including your apartment. You have to move out by April 1st."

"April Fool's Day," I said. "How appropriate. Well this has been quite a year, hasn't it? I lost my girlfriend, my job, my health and now my apartment. What's left?"

"How about a new start?" she said. "Let me remind you, that you weren't particularly happy with your girlfriend, your job or your apartment. And now that you have your health back, you can start over."

Jody was right. The only thing I liked about that apartment was the rent. I never felt comfortable there, or happy, or relaxed -- and everything about it reminded me of Mary. Mary had helped me buy everything in it, decorate it with my horror movie posters and build the cheap Ikea furniture that I had been sitting and sleeping on for seven years. Now it was time to continue the Mary purge, and take the next step on my Road to Salvation.

The next night was New Year's Eve. Missy and I decided to go to a pub called Rafter's for dinner around 9. Afterward I asked her to drive me to the beach.

"Why do you want to go to the beach in this weather," she asked.

"I just do," I said.

We got to the Long Beach boardwalk about 11:45. It was dark and desolate, save for a few hearty souls braving the wind to walk their dogs. The moon was full and it lit up the entire beach and the gray water that stretched out to the horizon. I took off my shoes and socks, and felt the cold sand between my toes.

"Aren't you chilly?" Missy asked.

"Nope," I said. "What time is it?"

"It's a minute to 12," she said. "You want to count down?"

"Yeah," I said.

And the countdown began. When we got to FIVE I tore off the white Polartec I had been wearing and the t-shirt beneath. And when we got to ONE I ripped off my jeans and started running toward the water.

"Ahhhhh!!!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, as I ran across the sand. "Goodbye, you stupid fucking year!"

I ran at full speed for the first time in as long as I could remember, the sand exploding side to side with each footfall. I heard my heart ticking loudly as I hit the waterfront. I grabbed handfulls of sand and began flinging them toward the sky.

"Goodbye Mary! Goodbye work! Goodbye 327 West 85th Street Apartment 3B! Goodbye 1997! And GOOD FUCKING RIDDANCE!"

And then I ran out into the freezing water and began splashing it all over my pale white body, baptizing the new life I was about to begin.

11.04.2008

WE MADE HISTORY