"Dad! You've gotta see this!!"
Those are never words that strike a particular sense of calm in our house. They're usually followed by a loud noise of some variety, and possibly a form of toxic ooze consisting of precisely nothing relating to the periodic table.
"See what, Sammy?" I replied meekly. Before he could answer, our oldest came barreling down the basement stairs.
Our eight-year-old, now breathless, held what looked like a piece of card stock of some sort.
"You have to see this, Dad! It's hilarious!"
Thankfully, I was not drinking anything as I took the card from Sam's outstretched hand. Had I been drinking something, it would have shot out of my eye sockets. Just take a moment, clear your mind, and picture... this:
My friend Richard ate huge for about four days to pack on some table muscle. He then went to a thrift store and bought a shirt straight out of 1974, but not one of those trendy '70s shirts. The color and pattern looks like it was made out of nicotine-stained wallpaper... and on him, it looks "roamy."
He grew a mustache, but it's not a full mustache, because Richard is not capable of growing hair directly under the septum of his nose. So from a distance, it looks like a small child shaded it on with a number two pencil.
Each of the lenses of his oversize glasses are about the size of Delaware. His hair has been washed, dried, and combed straight down from the sides so it looks like he's sporting full hatchet-wound.
He's holding his cat, who looks like she's going to commit suicide the second this shoot is over.
And his facial expression reminded me of one I'd had hundreds of times with our youngest, Benny. Do you know that face you make when you sniff a baby's diaper to see if there's a fecal emergency? I don't mean the one that contorts; I'm talking about the one a split second before... the serious one, where your eyes lock and your lips commit "small mouth" as your brain tries to process whether you can continue what you were doing, or you have to call Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
Yeah, that's his face. Well... it's actually only one of his faces. Because this card offered a bonus "looking up sideways with a smile that says 'I just had sex for the first time'" face.
Oh, and the words at the bottom? "Have a Very Merry Christmas, and may your holidays be as beautiful as me."
I seriously cackled out loud. It was the perfect canary diamond of Christmas cards. My friend Cheryl, quite the connoisseur and critic, simply 'booked, "My Christmas card will never be this glorious."
This is as bad as I have ever seen Richard look. And while it made me belly laugh, it also reminded me of how my friend helped to save me with one of his farts.
Yes, you read that correctly.
It was August of 1988. I had spent 2.5 months in the basement of my parents' house. I was 15, one of the youngest in my grade. I would not be of driving age until the ninth day of my junior year of high school. All of my friends were already driving, and every once in a blue moon, they would call to see if I wanted to come out with them.
My mother was one of those moms who landed on over-protective side of over-protection. As a parent with children of my own, I now see the wisdom of her choices. But at 15, it was nothing shy of painful. I had stopped asking long ago if I could ride with my now-driving friends, because I always got the same answer: "We'll take you wherever you want to go, and even drop you off a block away so that your friends don't have to see that we drove."
In the grand scheme of things, I should have been thankful that I was offered that, but in reality, I allowed my psyche to collapse in on itself. I basically woke up every morning, didn't bother to get dressed, and headed to the basement to watch television. I did this for over two months. My depression became a little darker every day, and by the time August arrived that year, I was in a very bad way. I had stopped talking, and my parents had had enough.
A priest friend of our family was leading a youth pilgrimage to a small town in present-day Croatia called Medugorje (MED-JU-GOR-EE-UH). It was a place like Lourdes and Fatima where it was said that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to six children on a regular basis. There were youth trips there every week, and our friend was leading one.
My mother came down the stairs to find me in my usual position of watching television.
"Danny, our friend Ken is leading a youth trip to Medugorje. Would you like to go?"
"I don't know, Mom."
I would have given anything to get out of the house, and at that moment, sadly, anything to get away from my parents. I'm ashamed to say that now, but at the time, I couldn't help my feelings. And deep down, my mom knew this, which is why she compelled me to go. I was even going to miss the first two days of junior year.
They didn't balk.
"It would be good for you. It would be good for you to get away from us for a week. Your dad and I really want you to go."
And on a Monday in late August, I found myself wandering JFK in New York. I have to say that I was excited and terrified. There were all of these new kids I was going to meet, which for me was a horrifying concept as I hadn't talked to someone my age in months. I had turned into an introvert.
And that's when I met Richard... the anti-me. Richard was a skate punk with an earring and spiky bangs down to his chin. He was tall, obnoxious, smiling and larger than life. At the time, I was slightly hypnotized. I'd never met anyone so "free" before. He was as out there as out there can possibly be, and I latched on like a baby, or a mold spore.
And when we got to Eastern Europe, things intensified dramatically. Fifty kids. Four chaperones. Ridiculously cheap money.
No drinking age.
Yes, we said our prayers... that no one would catch what we were doing. I had never been a part of something so crazy, and in all honesty, I shocked myself with the ability to keep up with my new batch of friends. I think what helped me more than anything was the fact that none of these people knew me. They had no idea that I was a dork who got bad grades and spent the better part of two months depressed and alone in my basement.
For the first time in years, I was simply "Dan." Or "Bonerack," as they started calling me. Apparently I didn't eat a lot that summer.
So one morning, I found myself in the Batcave, or the room where Richard spent most of his evenings sleeping, when we actually slept... which was rare. After a while, the walls were permeated with scents of B.O., Drakkar, Southern Comfort, cigarette smoke, and fire. I can still smell it to this day.
I was sitting on one of the three beds in the room, the one closest to the wall. Richard was lying on the center bed, holding court with three of the best looking women I had ever seen in my life. I don't remember the names of hottie #2 and hottie #3, but hottie #1 was named Lourdes, and they were all from Miami. And they were utterly drop-dead. And Richard is cracking line after line, and the girls and I are just crying laughing. I had never laughed so hard, and I was having the time of my life.
And then, Richard farted.
And when I say farted, I don't think you can quite comprehend just how epic this was. The sound was a deep baritone... a bit like James Earl Jones with a head cold. And I don't know what being hit with tear gas feels like, but I assume it's not dissimilar. Paint started flecking off the wall. The stench would knock a buzzard off a shit wagon. The dim yellow fog we had actually become accustomed to literally split, like a tear in the space/time continuum. Even Richard said, "Where the hell did that come from?!"
And all I could think was, "Great, Richard, you scared the girls away."
But then the most interesting thing happened: The girls didn't leave. Oh sure, they were gagging like the rest of us. But then, they laughed even harder, and they actually moved from standing at the doorway to sitting on the third bed. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; it was like it all happened in slow motion.
And then it hit me: I want that. And when I say that, I didn't mean that I wanted to toot in front of women (although my wife, Stephanie, disputes this). I meant that I want to get to a point in my life of that kind of fearlessness. I want to be able to put myself out to the world, and say, "This is me, good and bad. Take me or leave me; it's your decision. But I know who I am, and while I'm not always happy with me, I never have to question my authenticity. I never have to remember the lie if I'm willing to tell the truth."
Yes, it was an epiphanal moment, but it took me well over a decade to grow into that person. The journey was not an easy one by any stretch, but it was worth every laugh, every tear, every pain, and especially every risk. I've learned that it's a good thing to "get naked" with who you are, and who you show the world.
And it has been absolutely invaluable to me on my continuing journey with cancer, not as a patient now, but as an advocate for those who are still in the fight, emotionally and physically. Hopefully, they see me as someone who knows what it's like, who isn't afraid to confront it, who will walk with them through it, and who is fearless in telling my own stories, no matter how personally humiliating. Deep down, they're the most fun stories to tell.
So today, as I look at the most ridiculous Christmas card I've ever seen, I can't help but smile and think about the deeper meaning of what my friend actually pulled off. He purposely set out to make himself look as bad as humanly possible, and we love him for it.
And I look back to that day over 26 years ago and I smile at the realization that the road to my recovery, the first guidepost on my way back to life, was a simple, powerful, fart.