March 1990-Eleventh Grade
Aloha friends! I hope that this finds you and yours healthy and happy, all things considered. I’ve enjoyed working on this blog series so far, though I have to admit that this section was difficult to write. I think you’ll understand why as you read.
If you’re just joining us, here’s what I’m doing: For the purposes of this series, I’m going to examine my journals and albums and memory banks and begin discussion on the first of March of the specific year in question. I will begin the examination as though it ran parallel in time to what our experience has been, so “stay at home” begins on March 13 and assumes that the remainder of the school year is cancelled. For each year, I’ll give a summary of what was happening and then I’ll discuss what might have been different had this pandemic happened then. I will also look into the months to come and summer and postulate about how things might have been affected.
Click here to catch up on PART ONE-1987 and PART TWO-1988 and PART THREE-1989!
Eleventh Grade: March, 1989
I had had a pretty normal year as we arrive at March 1, 1990. I’d had a lead role in the fall production of HARVEY, earned a third varsity letter in swimming and placed in the top ten in my event at the county tournament. My grades were mostly good and after getting into MASSIVE trouble with my parents for betraying their trust in September, we were getting along for the most part. I had skipped doing the musical, which was originally supposed to be THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD but then became NO, NO, NANETTE after some ridiculousness on the part of several adults. I wanted to focus on swimming and didn’t really want to do either show, for a variety of reasons. I helped out a little with the stage and lighting crews, which was fun but very strange for me.
By March 1, I was looking forward to celebrating a one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. We’d stayed together despite the long distance and a good percentage of my journals reflect the experience of being a boyfriend and writing about my feelings and about the adventures that we had during our first year as a couple. We’d had some very cool experiences with our families, including her joining mine for Christmas Eve and me joining hers for my first Passover Seder and Hanukah. We had plans to celebrate at Hightstown’s famous “Coach & Four” restaurant, complete with having our names listed with “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” on the road-side marquee, which I thought was awesome but the young lady found embarrassing.
I’d been fired from my job at the Market in Cranbury, due completely to the fact that they hired a new general manager for the store and he wanted a completely new staff. The owners allowed him to let people go at will. It took him a good month to get rid of me since I didn’t give him a reason to fire me until he decided the night before a swim tournament that I’d been given off for three months earlier that I could NOT in fact have the day off and I could either show up to work or be fired. So, I was fired. The owners felt bad enough about it to give me a month’s severance pay. My swim coach thought I was a hero to the team and went on about it for weeks. I was due to start a new job on March 5 at the Cranbury Food Sampler, right down the street.
I was in the American Studies program at HHS, which was a double period every day looking at both the literature and history of the American experience. It was a two-year program and I loved it. Among the assignments that we had all year was to keep a daily journal, so much of what I reviewed for this part of the series were those journals. They ended up being illuminating in a way that my own personal journals were not. I had to have an entry for every day, and while of course I didn’t write in it every day, I kept notes in my calendar and played catch up when I could. What resulted is a very interesting look at that year. What was particularly interesting to me were the entries where I don’t necessarily talk about a specific day, but about how I was feeling about something that had happened. I’ll get into what I learned from that shortly but it was unexpected and a real revelation.
My sister was in her last year of college. My father was still a teacher in East Brunswick. My mother actually was still at ECHO in Trenton, not yet at the East Windsor Senior center-I was wrong in part three. I was sixteen years old.
So, if the world had shut down on March 13, 1987, how would my life have changed?
It had been an interesting year to that point, as I discussed above. Much of my energy was focused on my relationships, both my friendships at school and my girlfriend at college. There are multiple entries throughout the year, and one in particular on March 1 that bring home the fact that I might not have been handling things all that well. I was deeply insecure about everything and probably more immature than I realized. One thing that is very clear through my journal reviews is that I was, even all the way back then, dealing with an anxiety disorder with panic attacks.
About eights years ago I had a panic attack that landed me in the hospital. Like Tony Soprano, but not nearly as cool. I got diagnosed then and began working with a therapist. One of the things that she asked me to do was to look back at my life and try to glean if this sort of feeling had happened before and there were some things I could point to, mostly occurring after October of 1990 (which we’ll get to) but I always suspected that if I was honest and really took a look at my youth, I’d probably discover that I’d had this a lot longer than even that. Suspecting it and seeing evidence of it are very different things, so it was with both fascination and embarrassment that I read through some of these entries; riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing, deep, deep insecurity, and abject panic at the thought of losing or disappointing the people in my life.
As I read them, I could remember the way it felt to write them; my hand flashing across the page, barely able to keep up with the speed at which my mind was racing. A lot of it is nonsense and my penmanship was atrocious at times, but I see in those musings a reflection of the version of me that had to pull over the minivan on the highway three minutes from my home, with my three little children in it, and wait for an ambulance to take me to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack.
So, yeah, I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks all the way back in high school. I didn’t know it. My parents didn’t know it. No one did. It’s not at all surprising that we didn’t: I was so over-scheduled that my parents and I never really saw one another unless they were driving me somewhere or during dinners. And, we weren’t really talking about my feelings when we talked. I was exceedingly good at hiding my feelings and playing the part of ‘well-adjusted’ young man. I was going from school to work to rehearsals almost every night. My family now has fallen into that hyper-programed overscheduling trap at times with our children, too. It’s something we work on.
Beyond that, the first weekend of the musical would have happened. I still would have made an ass of myself taking the late bus to my girlfriend’s house without telling her I was coming over or being invited, and the last hurrah on March 13 would have been the “Teen Leadership Seminar” that I attended at Columbia University with a few other kids from HHS who were (like me) in leadership roles on campus. It was a really powerful day and the overall message, given in the keynote by a man named Michael Pritchard was all about the “power of choice.” I held onto and use that phrase with myself and with the young people I’ve taught and raised to this day. The power to make choices is among the most important and powerful responsibilities we move from childhood to adulthood, and it’s a power that once given is pretty difficult to take away, so making good, thoughtful choices is important. It was a point my father made a few times to me, so it really resonated.
Everything else that was on my radar at that point would have been cancelled: Our anniversary dinner, the rest of the musical, the Prom, the music program trip to Culpepper, Virginia, the auditions for the production of the One Acts, where I’d played “The Snake” in the one act musical “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” which went on to win multiple drama festival awards. I would have missed the SAT’s (I’d have been fine with that), the auditions for All-State Chorus, which I made and later became a very important experience for me in the spring and fall of 1990, plus my very first overnight visits to colleges, both Rutgers and URI, to visit friends and my girlfriend, respectively. These were trips for fun, not for college interest, but it was my first glimpse at college life. All of that would have been cancelled.
I have a difficult time imagining that I’d have respected a stay-at-home order entirely. I was far too impulsive and insecure to not at least try to ride my bike over to try and see people. That would have really depended on both my parents and the tolerance levels of the people I’d have wanted to visit.
A popular young man from HHS and his brother were tragically killed in a car accident at the end of March/early April. I’d idolized him when I was seven and playing PAL baseball, since he was at the time, the best player in the league. He was only a year or two older than I was, but he seemed like a grown-up to seven-year-old me. My mom was friendly with his mom. I don’t want to open such a tragedy to conjecture, but it’s something I wrote about extensively on April 1.
My sister would likely have simply stayed home from spring break in March. Her graduation, which was the only time we had extended family from both sides together in the same place at once, would not have happened. As such, it would have been my parents and sister and I together in that house going forward. We probably would have avoided one another until dinner time, in-between battles for the use of our one house phone line and me going out for “bike rides” where I’d probably say I was staying in the neighborhood but really trying to go see my girlfriend or other friends. I could see myself being a big proponent of setting up social-distancing gatherings among the kids in the Manor neighborhood, but without current tech, I’d have had to do it all on the phone. We had a phone book, so I believe I could have gotten it done.
All of this, for me though has felt like preamble to May 28, 1990. Assuming life imitated life up to that point, we’d have merrily rolled along until that particular Memorial Day weekend.
My father was extremely fit, taught Phys Ed, helped coach the golf team and with the exception of a disc problem in his back when I was little, I couldn’t remember him ever being sick. I’m sure he had a sniffle once or twice, but he’d never let it show. Taking a day off of work was anathema to him. He’d seemed a little run down at my sister’s graduation in early May, but it was a long drive out there and had been an emotional weekend for everyone. We were all a little drained.
As it happened, after a few more days of lethargy, my mom was having none of it. Without telling me where they were going, she took him up to what we called the MET, which was the Medical Emergency Treatment center: sort of a larger version of our current “minute clinics.” The doctor there sent them straight to Princeton hospital for more bloodwork. I wrote that day: “I really don’t know what’s up-it’s something with his blood. Yeah, I’m scared but I really don’t want to get all worked up about it until I know what’s up.” He spent the next eight nights in the hospital. When he came home, it was with a cancer diagnosis. It scared the hell out of me, in large part due to the fact that my family had already lost my eldest sister to cancer when I was a newborn. I’d grown up with an acute understanding of the way cancer can affect the life of a family. It was terrifying, but I tried to soldier on, performing in “Diary of Adam and Eve” and signing “Imagine” and “Your Song” at the Drama Club end of year dinner and going to academic awards nights and All-State Chorus rehearsals, none of which would have happened if this pandemic intervened.
Might we have caught his cancer a month earlier if we’d all been home together? Would it have made a difference in the eventual outcome? I think the answer to both of those are ‘no,” but it’s impossible to know. It would certainly have impacted the experience of his illness for all of us.
I spent parts of those first eight days at the hospital with him, sometimes with my mom, other times with my girlfriend. We were in the last month of our relationship, but she was very patient and kind and I’ll always appreciate that. The initial prognosis was positive. My journal says “It’s scary-the doctor says he has a lot going for him: perfect health, us, the best doctor (him) in the world. He’s got good chances but it’s a new field but there’s a lot happening in it. Bone Marrow cancer or something. He has a low number of platelets or something. There’re just no straight answers. I don’t like it.”
I can’t imagine that I’d have been allowed anywhere near the hospital if this crisis were happening then, nor can I imagine the hecticness that starting cancer treatment during a pandemic would have involved. I think my mother would have been kept from the hospital too, meaning my father would have faced the earliest days of his treatment alone.
I hate the thought of that. It makes me angry and deeply, deeply sad to consider.
What about the Summer?
Dad was in and out of the hospital all summer. I don’t know how his treatment would have been affected by this current crisis. Would he have had the chance to get treatment at all? Would it have been completely in-patient, never getting to see his family and many friends? Would we have had a completely telephone-based relationship during the final months of his life? I’ve read numerous articles about patients having their treatments cancelled or postponed and I can’t imagine that wouldn’t have been an issue for his treatment. For what it’s worth, none of the treatments for his form of cancer worked and he would die in the fall, but he fought bravely and with humor until the end. For all I know, he might have simply been home that summer and we’d have taken care of him as best we could. I don’t know, but I know that his health and battle would have colored everything that summer, just as it did in real life.
Sometime that summer we made what we all sort of knew would be a last trip to his beloved Jersey shore in Wildwood. It was deeply emotional but necessary. I don’t think that trip would have happened, either, but if we were going to break the lockdown rules for anything, it would have been that.
Despite his illness, my parents decided that I should try and have as normal an existence as possible. I worked two jobs that summer and spent time with friends when I could. I imagine the camp counselor job I worked would have been cancelled. The Food Sampler may have stayed open in some capacity, I don’t know. If the lockdown continued all summer, I think we would have simply been home. I think the relationships that were ending would have still ended and the friendships that grew might still have grown. That said, I did a very poor job of telling my friends about how things were going with my dad. I was even evasive about it with my girlfriend, both before and after we broke up in July. We remained friends and spent time together and talked, but I remember that both she and my friends were pretty shocked when he died.
By the time school started in the fall, my senior year, I was certain that my father was dying. I’m not certain why but I just had a sense of it coming. I had one moment where I was brutally honest with two friends in September, but beyond that, I simply kept it all to myself. That was a mistake, one that I’d pay for in a number of ways in the coming months. But we’ll cover that in part five.
In the end, this was as difficult one to write and postulate about. So much of what was important to me in March was a product of the year that I’d had up until that point. My memories of that year and many of those experiences are shrouded in the fact that my dad developed cancer later.
In one singular moment I went from being a regular high school junior, worrying about: Prom and class officer activities, my friends and whether or not they really liked me, lamenting the fact that I’d done something boneheaded to upset someone, and whether or not I’d make All-State Chorus and win the Swim team sportsmanship award, and how I’d do on the SAT’s (spoiler alert-not well) and that sort of stuff to then worrying about: whether or not I had enough cash to pay for the parking at Princeton Hospital if I just popped in to see him before choir practice. Or worrying that he’s going to die just as he and I were really starting to develop a relationship to one another. Or worrying that if my hand slips while I’m holding him up so he can go to the bathroom, he could break a hip. Or worrying that if I didn’t get home from the pharmacy fast enough, the $1,100 a dose INTERFERON vials will warm up too much and be useless. Or worrying that my sister’s constant driving back and forth from Ohio to New Jersey would result in her having an accident on the road. Or worrying that I’ll never get to sleep myself because my mother is crying herself to sleep because she was fighting so tenaciously for him all day, every day, keeping a positive spin on everything, not surrendering an inch as she fought for the life of the love of her life. My mother was an absolute force of nature that summer. I tried so hard to emulate her fortitude through it all.
In the end, I think if this pandemic had struck my life in March of 1990, it would have had an impact at first. I would have missed some things I was looking forward to, but the real impact would have come later and is somewhat dependent on how this all ends up playing out in real life now. I don’t know where we’ll be at the end of this month, although I have a hard time seeing it be very different than it is now. My life from May through October of 1990 was all about my father’s cancer. I sprinkled some living in there, in between days, but in essence, that’s what life became about. This one I’ll have to revisit perhaps in hindsight, if and when we see the lockdowns lifted at some point. I think I would have seen less of my father in his months of battling his cancer and I think that would have been sad. When he died, I’d done my best to say everything I could think to say to him. Regardless, I think the experience of caring for my father as he fought cancer would have been immeasurably changed and I can’t imagine it would have been changed for the better.
The other learning from this edition of the series was that I truly do understand now that I was, even before Dad got sick, struggling with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder that would affect the rest of my life. It’s actually a little comforting to add that all up, in its own way.
I appreciated very much the feedback I received from a point I made in part three that I’ll repeat here: if you have young people in your life, understand that they, like us, are having their lives immeasurably changed by all of this. I have the luxury of looking back and saying “what if?” They won’t. It simply will be the reality that shaped their lives. I think the series, for me, has really brought about some strong feelings about the impact that certain years would have had on the way that my life ended up. Grade eight would have been significant, as we discussed in part one. Grade eleven might have been big but it’s hard to anticipate. I know for a fact that the biggest of all will likely be part five, coming next week, which will look at my twelfth-grade year. It’s not a spoiler since you already know that my father died in October of 1990. So, let’s just say that by the time we get to March 1991, there are a lot of things in motion in regards to my future.
Thanks for reading and stay safe!