Happy New Year
The first few days after I left the hospital passed surprisingly quickly. My head was healing nicely and I was less and less reliant on pain medication to make it through the day. Josh was a near constant companion in those first few days. He virtually waited on me hand-and-foot and he would not take no for an answer. He was also a little clingier than he normally was and I received more than a few of his wonderful massages. I certainly wasn’t complaining because I loved having him around. We spent most of our time curled up together in front of the TV in my apartment. Another of our favorite pastimes during that period was playing "Doom!" We rigged up a mini network in Josh’s bedroom and linked our PCs together. We spent hours on end playing cooperative and death match games.
During that time, I managed to do some research related to the summer plan that was rapidly forming in my head. My dream had always been to spend a summer visiting every province and territory of Canada and I wanted to do it this summer and I wanted to take Josh with me. I wanted to show him every part of this country. I wanted to spend 2 months on the road with him. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the summer than being on the road with Josh, just the two of us traveling the country together in my trusty Jeep.
I had a Canadian Automobile Association membership which allowed me to request free maps and travel information for just this sort of road trip. I called them and requested everything they had on all 10 provinces and all 3 territories. I used the Internet to research points of interest and I began plotting out routes and projecting costs. The more planning I did, the more excited I became about the possibilities that the trip would become a reality. It nearly killed me to keep the plans from Josh before I’d had a chance to discuss it with Susan. I had no doubt that Susan would agree to let Josh go, but I didn’t want to see him disappointed if she wasn’t agreeable.
During my research efforts, I discovered a program being offered by the federal government through the Heritage Department. In honour of the turn of the century and the turn of the millennium, they were offering grants to Canadian Citizens to fund projects which celebrated Canada at the turn of the century. That little tidbit of information turned out to be a major turning point. I discovered the program at about 11:00 PM one night after Josh had gone to bed and by the time 3:00 AM rolled around I had not slept a wink. Instead I had been putting together a proposal and filling out a grant application.
My idea was to turn the planned summer vacation into a Millennium Heritage Project. The plan was to travel to every part of the country take pictures and write stories and then compile a book which would document the "Great Canadian Road Trip". It would not only satisfy my desire for taking Josh on such a road trip, but it would also give us a project which we could work on together and which could offer some real tangible benefits down the road. I had just submitted the proposal via the web when Josh crept down into my apartment.
"Are you ok?" Josh asked. He sounded worried. "I woke up and I could hear the clicking sound as you typed."
"I’m fine, son," I told him. "I was just reading something on the net and got carried away." I disconnected from the net as Josh came up behind me, wrapped his arms around me and rested his head on the back of my neck.
"Time for bed," he said in a sleepy voice as he helped me up and led me towards my bedroom.
Josh climbed into my bed as I undressed and brushed my teeth. A moment later I climbed in beside him. He was already half asleep but it didn’t take him long to roll over and snuggle up to my side, tangle his legs up in mine and toss an arm over my chest. I hadn’t realized just how tired I was until I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close to me. I didn’t even get a chance to say ‘good-night’ before I drifted off.
The next day was New Years Eve. Josh and I slept in until almost 11:00 AM. I figured it was just as well since it would make it easier for us to stay up and see in the New Year. I broke the news to Josh that we weren’t going to be able to keep our New Years plans and he took it surprisingly well. In actual fact, it hadn’t surprised me at all given his maturity. Susan had plans with her new boyfriend Bob, so Josh and I were left to fend for ourselves. We decided to hit the Mandarin for lunch and then spend the evening camped out in my apartment feasting on all the pizza and Coke that we could hold.
We headed out to the Mandarin for a late lunch at around 2:00 PM. I was glad to be back in the driver’s seat after 3 days of not driving at all. I love to drive and it would have been traumatic had my condition mandated that I surrender my driver’s license. I loved my Jeep and I kept it in tip-top shape.
"Are they going to have lobster again, dad?" Josh asked as we hit the road.
"I hope so, bud," I chuckled. "I love lobster."
"Me too!" Josh replied.
I loved seeing him that happy. His grin was positively radiant. I have no doubt that his grin could melt even the hardest of hearts. He had certainly melted mine. Thinking back, Josh had come into my life for the first time just as I was recovering from what was my darkest hour. The accident which had ended my military career had dropped me into a deep depression. Had it not been for the efforts of my family, Andrew in particular, I don’t know what would have become of me. I was still very much in recovery mode when I met Josh and he really helped to bring back the old Tommy.
Just a few short months before the lasting effects of that accident made themselves known, Josh had come back into my life and I couldn’t be happier. Had Josh not been around, things would not have finished up so well. Josh was evidently my good luck charm. Come hell or high water, I was not going to let him out of my life again.
I glanced over at Josh as I pulled into the Mandarin parking lot. He was just about bouncing up and down in his seat from the excitement. He was licking his chops constantly and I could see his small Adams apple bobbing up and down. You’d think he was starved or something!
"Holy crap! Look at the crowd," Josh exclaimed.
"Good thing we have a reservation," I replied. The restaurant was packed like I had never seen it before. Despite the higher than usual prices I wasn’t surprised in the least. December 31, 1999 was a memorable occasion and people wanted to celebrate. In exchange for the higher price, they had a lot of special items on the menu. Lobsters, crab legs, shrimp and all our other favorites were there and they also had grilled steaks and plenty of exotic looking dishes.
We were relieved that we didn’t have long to wait before we were seated. Once we were shown to our table and gave the waitress our drink orders we assaulted the buffet with the precision of JTF2 commandos. I hadn’t eaten all that much since leaving the hospital and I hadn’t eaten anything before heading out so that afternoon I was able to pack away a lot more than usual. I still couldn’t keep pace with Josh, but I did an admirable job. Josh must have been on the verge of a growth spurt because he put away even more than he normally did. The sight of Josh dismantling and devouring about 4 lobsters was a truly awesome spectacle. Thank God it was all you can eat!
Several times during the meal I noticed Josh looking past me with a slight frown on his face. I didn’t really think much of it until it happened the third or fourth time.
"What are you looking at lady?" Josh asked in a perturbed voice that caught my attention.
I turned around and there was a woman who appeared to be in her late 20s sitting at the next table. She looked at Josh and me and then quickly turned her head away. "What’s wrong Josh?" I asked with concern.
"That woman keeps staring at your shaved head and making comments," Josh said angrily.
"It’s ok kiddo, don’t worry about it," I said trying to calm him down. Josh was having none of it.
"Lady, my dad just had an operation on his head to treat an injury that he got when he was in the army serving this country. I was always taught that it’s rude to stare at people. I guess you didn’t learn that lesson. Why don’t you mind your own business?" Josh was livid. I had never seen him that angry before.
"Just ignore her, Josh."
Josh ignored me and kept at it. "I love my dad and I won’t just sit here and watch someone like you act like that towards him."
"I….I’m sorry, I didn’t know," the woman stammered.
"Of course you didn’t know; that’s why you should have kept your mouth shut and acted like an adult. Please don’t let it happen again."
I reached across the table and squeezed Josh’s arm and gave him a smile that communicated volumes to him. He smiled back and winked at me before diving back into his plate. As I watched Josh enjoy his meal I wondered how many other 12-13 year olds would have the courage and the confidence to do what he just did and stand up to an adult.
We rounded out the meal with plates of warm, fresh waffles topped with whipped cream and strawberry sauce. I barely got through half of mine before turning the plate over to Josh who happily inhaled the rest.
By the time we waved the white flag and I paid the cheque, the table was a shambles. The carnage was unbelievable. The formerly clean table cloth was littered with countless broken up sections of crab legs, picked clean lobster shells and stains from various sauces and toppings.
"I can hardly walk," I moaned.
"Me either," Josh said and then laughed. "I hope the waitress doesn’t come back and offer us wafer thin mints!"
I immediately picked up on the Monty Python reference and joined his infectious laughter. The two of us were soon roaring like a couple of lunatics. Other diners looked at us like we’d both lost our minds. Predictably, the woman that Josh had told off kept her head down. We probably were out of our minds but we were having fun and enjoying each other’s company too much to care what anyone else thought.
We finally waddled out of the restaurant and made our way back to my Jeep. It was still early and still bright and sunny so I decided it was time for Josh’s first driving lesson.
"Hey kiddo, how would you like your first driving lesson today?" I asked as we climbed into the Jeep.
He answered by giving me a bear hug and plating a kiss on my cheek. "Awesome!" He crowed.
"Great! Let’s head over to the GO Transit station. They have a huge parking lot and it’ll be virtually empty today." The local GO (Government of Ontario) commuter train station had a parking lot which could accommodate a couple of thousand cars and it would be as good as deserted on New Years Eve.
It took us all of 10 minutes to make our way there. As it turned out, I was right. There wasn’t a car in sight for Josh to crash into.
"Alright bud; before we get started you need to remember that I am teaching you this so that you can drive in emergency situations. You aren’t to go out and drive the Jeep, your mom’s car or any other car. Understand?" I really didn’t think I needed to say that, but I was just being prudent.
"I know dad," Josh replied. I was amazed that I didn’t detect even one single iota of attitude in his response. He simply accepted the rule as reality and I knew I’d never have a problem with him breaking it.
"Good." I spent the next 5 minutes demonstrating the various controls and instruments that were employed in driving the Jeep. "Josh, the Jeep has a manual transmission. That means that you have to manually select the appropriate gear for the speed and conditions of the road. Driving a manual transmission is more involved than driving an automatic. You’re going to have an advantage over other drivers because you’re going to learn how to handle a manual tranny first. Once you master that, you’ll be able to drive an automatic like your mom’s without a second thought."
"My mom tried to learn how to drive a standard once but she got frustrated and gave it up," Josh laughed.
"She isn’t the first person to do that and she won’t be the last," I said with a smile. I was actually aware of at least one marriage that had ended over a poorly executed lesson in driving a stick-shift! "Now there are a few golden rules for you to remember whenever you drive. First, always look before you move. If you’re going to turn or change lanes you must look to ensure the way is clear before you signal and then make your move. Second of all, you must always look where you’re going. If you’re going forwards, you look forwards. If you’re backing up, you turn around and look backwards. When you turn, always look in the direction of your turn."
"That all makes sense. I’ve heard that you have a ‘blind spot’ when you drive. What’s that?"
"Excellent question, Josh. You actually have 2 blind spots; one on each side of the car. The size of the blind spots varies with each different vehicle. The only way to see what, if anything, is in your blind spot is to turn your head and look. You MUST always check your blind spots before you turn or change lanes.
"Cause someone could be there without you knowing it, right?"
As usual, Josh amazed the hell out of me. "Exactly! Now there are a couple more golden rules to go over with you. The third rule is that must always maintain a high degree of situational awareness. That means that you must be aware of everything that is going on around you and you must be constantly scanning your mirrors and keeping an eye on things. It also means that you’re always thinking ahead. You must always have a plan ‘B’ which will get you out of trouble. You need to constantly look for and identify potential sources of danger."
"Like drunk drivers or kids running into the road, right?" He said the phrase ‘drunk drivers’ with more than a little distaste and bitterness in his voice. I knew I’d never have to worry about Josh driving drunk.
"Exactly right, kiddo," I replied proudly. "It’s too late if you have to decide what to do when you’re confronted with a danger. You have to know what you’re going to do before the situation arises and you have to take that action automatically. The final golden rule is this….The driver is in command. The driver gives the orders and the driver makes the decisions. When you are driving, no matter who is in the car with you, you are in charge. You have to take responsibility for your vehicle and for your passengers."
"Just like the captain of a ship."
"Or the pilot of an airplane," I grinned at Josh. "Today’s lesson is going to be all about the clutch and shifting gears. When you drive a vehicle with a manual transmission, you have to use both feet and both hands. Your left foot operates the clutch which is the left most pedal. Your right foot operates the gas pedal which is the skinny pedal on the right and the brake which is the middle pedal which looks the same as the clutch."
Josh leaned over and looked at each of the pedals with interest.
"You must always have either the gas pedal pressed or the clutch pressed. If you release both pedals, the vehicle will stall. That means that when you stop and you release the gas, you must press the clutch. You also have to push the clutch when you shift gears. When you push the clutch, you have to be sure to push it all the way down and you have to keep it down until you finish shifting."
"Sounds pretty easy so far," Josh said.
"It is pretty easy once you get used to it. Now, the gear shift is used to select the appropriate gear. When you’re in neutral, which means that you are not in a gear, the stick is in the middle and you can wobble it back-and-forth," I said as I demonstrated the neutral position for Josh. "You see the diagram on the top?"
"Yeah, 1-2-3-4-5-R. Those are the five gears and reverse."
"Bingo. It’s the shifting pattern. To shift into first gear, you pull the stick all the way to the left and push it forward. To shift into second, you pull it to the rear. For third gear, you push it to the front and a little further to the right. Fourth and fifth work the same way. We’ll forget about reverse for now since it’s a little more complicated."
"Sounds pretty clear."
"Separately, working the clutch and shifting the gears are dead easy, but it’s a little more complicated when you combine them. I’m going to teach you each part separately and then we’ll combine them. To start with, I’m going to drive around the lot and work the clutch and you’re going to shift the gears for me. Let’s go. Shift us into first."
Josh shifted smoothly into first gear and flashed a delighted grin.
"This is the most challenging part of driving a manual transmission. In order to get moving, you have to be very smooth on the clutch and gas pedal. As you ease off the clutch, you have to ease the gas in. If you’re too slow, you’ll stall and if you’re too fast, we’ll lurch forward. Imagine it as a pivot from one foot to the other." I demonstrated proper clutch control and explained the "sweet spot" and how to identify it. "Most of this is just a matter of learning the vehicle and memorizing its characteristics."
"How do you know when to shift?" Josh asked as he watched me intently.
"That’s the easy part. You can watch the tachometer or you can listen to the engine. You want to shift before the needle gets too close to the red line on the tach." I pushed the gas and revved the engine. "Hear how the engine sounds as the RPMs go up?"
"Yeah, it gets louder and faster. If I learn what the engine sounds like when it’s time to shift, I won’t have to look at the tach."
"Exactly right, kiddo. That’s how most people do it."
We spent the next few minutes doing laps of the parking lot and Josh did an excellent job of shifting the gears. Finally it was time for him to take the wheel.
"Alright bud, it’s time for you to take the wheel and try operating the clutch," I said as I pulled over and set the parking brake. I climbed out and walked around to the passenger side as Josh slid across the seat. "Ok kiddo, press the clutch down and then start her up. Keep the clutch pressed after the engine starts and put your other foot on the brake."
Josh did as he was instructed. I smiled as I noted the look of intense concentration that he wore on his handsome face.
"Nicely done, Josh. Now release the parking brake and I’ll shift you into first gear." I could tell that he was excited and nervous at the same time. "You’re doing fine, bud," I said trying to reassure and relax him. "Ready to go?"
"Let’s do it!" He said with a radiant grin.
"Alright, take your foot off the brake and gently start pressing the gas as you release the clutch." I braced myself for the expected ‘bump start’ but it never came. I was utterly amazed as we began to move forwards. "WELL DONE JOSH! Let’s shift to second gear, off the gas and on the clutch." As soon as he had the clutch all the way down I shifted and without even being told to do so, Josh properly released the clutch and went back to the gas pedal.
"How am I doing?" he asked anxiously.
"You’re doing amazingly well, bud." I was so proud of him that I could hardly contain it. I had never taught anyone to drive a stick-shift before but I knew how difficult it was for some people. I learned pretty quickly but it took me a couple of lessons before I mastered it. Josh was picking it up as if it was second nature. I was increasingly interested in learning his IQ; it had to be well above average.
He was doing so well that I had him start shifting the gears on his own and I taught him how to down-shift as well. He did it without skipping a beat. We spent over half an hour circling the large parking lot. Josh didn’t stall a single time and had only a few very minor "bump-starts" I was utterly floored at how quickly he had picked it up.
"Ok bud, it’s time to head home. I’m really proud of you. You learned even faster than I did."
"It was really easy," Josh replied through his massive grin as he pulled over and we switched back. This time he exited the vehicle and met me behind the Jeep. "Thanks dad, I love you so much," He said as he through his arms around me and gave me an incredibly tight octopus style hug.
"You’re welcome son and I love you too," I replied tenderly as I returned his embrace. We drove home and Josh bounded into the house. I think he wanted to tell Susan all about his exploits, but she had already left on her date with Bob. It was nice to see her getting out but Josh didn’t seem to think much of it or of Bob for that matter. She already had little time to spend with him and now that Susan was dating a new man, she had even less time than usual. I certainly spent as much time as I could with him, but he still wanted to spend at least some time with his mom too.
I was a little tired and my head was a little sore so I took one of my painkillers as soon as I got to my apartment. I didn’t like taking those pills because they made me sleepy but they did help with the pain.
"Your head hurts?" Josh asked with concern. Since the night that I went to the hospital, Josh had been particularly sensitive towards my headaches. Whenever I had one, I could see the usual concern on his face, but I could also see a touch of fear. It would take time before he would lose that fear.
"Yeah, it’s not too bad though, I just need to lay down for a while."
"Do you want a massage?" He asked as he walked over to me and began to rub my shoulders.
"I’d love one, but you don’t have to, son."
"I know, but I want to," Josh said firmly as he took me by the hand and led me to the sofa. He sat down in my usual position, put his feet up and directed me to lie down on my stomach with my head resting against his belly and chest, essentially using him as a cushion. I did as I was told and wrapped my arms around him.
"I really love you Josh and I’m so proud of you."
"I know, dad. I love you and I’m proud of you too. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but you’re my hero," Josh said as he began to firmly massage my shoulders.
I had a lump in my throat. "Thanks Josh. You’re an amazing young man and I’m honored that you consider me to be your hero. I hope that I can measure up to the challenge."
"You really are, dad. I want to grow up just like you. You’ve had so many things happen to you and you’ve kept on going. Not only that, you do all sorts of amazing things like flying planes and working miracles with computers. I want to learn all of that stuff."
"I had a lot of help, Josh. My family helped me through some tough times. That includes you kiddo, you helped me out a lot. Back when we first met you were helping me. I probably wouldn’t be here today if not for the way you handled yourself the other night. In many ways, you’re my hero too. I’ll teach you whatever you want to learn."
Josh hugged me firmly for a second and then resumed his massage. Before long, the combination of the painkillers and Josh’s loving treatment caught up with me and I drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke and hour or so later, I was lying on my side stretched out on the couch and Josh was curled up with me. After I had fallen asleep, he had finished the massage, climbed out from under me and then stretched out with me on the sofa. As usual, I had wrapped my arms around him as I slept. Josh didn’t sleep; he just lay there with his back against my chest and watched TV with the volume turned down.
The rest of the evening was pretty quiet. Amazingly Josh was hungry again by around 7:00 so I gave him my Visa card and had him order a pizza with whatever toppings he wanted. Being a carnivore after my own heart, Josh ordered a large heart-stopping meat lover’s pizza which the two of us polished off in no time at all as we sat in our usual positions on the sofa and watched movies.
We watched "True Lies" with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a really good, fast-paced action movie with lots of guy stuff like fighter planes, nuclear weapons, explosions and gun-fire. When that was over, we watched "Seven" with Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Brad Pit. That movie also featured one of my favorite character actors named R Lee Ermey. Ermey had played the maniacal drill instructor in "Full Metal Jacket" which was one of my all-time favorite movies. I decided that I would eventually have to introduce Josh to that movie.
I had taken Josh to see "Saving Private Ryan" and he loved it so I figured he’d enjoy "Full Metal Jacket" as well. I was actually amazed to notice that Josh actually had moist eyes at the end of "Saving Private Ryan". The cemetery scene at the end was pretty emotional and it certainly pulled his heartstrings.
As midnight approached, we switched on the local station to watch the festivities live from Nathan Phillips Square. The place was packed with a sea of people. I would have loved to be there but I was glad that we had stayed home. I didn’t think I could have handled the crowd with my head still being sore. Besides, we were both happy as could be cuddled up together on the couch.
Just before I got sick, I had picked up a mini bottle of Champaign from the local LCBO store. I wasn’t a big drinker and I didn’t think that Josh had ever tasted Champaign before. It was a very special occasion so I decided that nobody would mind if he had a small glass.
I untangled myself from Josh briefly as I went into the small galley kitchen and put the champagne in the freezer to get it good and cold quickly. I also took a moment to retrieve some glasses from the cupboard. I didn’t have any champagne or wine glasses but I was pretty sure that Josh wouldn’t consider it gauche to drink champagne out of a regular drinking glass.
"Well son, any New Years resolutions?" I asked as I sat back down with him on the couch and he snuggled back up against my left side.
"What’s a New Years resolution?"
"It’s sort of a pledge that you make for yourself. Something that you intend to do in the New Year. Some people resolve to lose weight, to stop smoking or to get in shape."
"I can’t think of anything," he replied. "How about you?"
"I have one. I resolve to pay more attention to my health and to listen more to people who love me, people like you, when they try to express concerns."
Josh smiled at me and leaned his head against my chest for a moment. "I resolve to learn everything I can from my dad so that I can grow up to be as good a man as he is."
I smiled broadly and leaned down and kissed him lightly on the top of his head. "You will be a great man, Josh. You’re going to go far in this life and I have the funny feeling that we’re both destined to be part of something really big." I was thinking about my dream from the other night. I didn’t believe for a moment that I had any sort of psychic abilities but something about that dream made it seem so real that I couldn’t ignore it.
We sat quietly and watched the final moments of 1999 slip away. Larry Gowon was on stage in Nathan Phillips Square singing John Lennon’s "Imagine". With about 1 minute left in the year, I went and retrieved the tiny bottle of champagne from the freezer. By then it was good and cold.
"What’s that?" Josh asked.
"It’s champagne. I don’t usually drink and I know you’re a little too young, but it’s a special occasion so I thought we’d both have a small glass of this stuff to see in the year 2000."
"I don’t see why not," Josh said. "I don’t want to drink a lot and be like my father was."
"Joshy, you’ll never be like he was. It is possible to drink responsibly and not end up like him. You see, alcoholics drink because they’re addicted. They drink to get drunk. Social drinkers, people who drink occasionally, drink on social occasions or on special holidays like this."
"I always think about my father being such a drunk whenever I think about alcohol," Josh said sadly.
"You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to, Josh. You always have the right to say ‘no’ when you don’t want to do something. Don’t ever let ANYONE pressure you into drinking or doing anything else. In fact, one day you might find yourself in a situation where people are drinking or doing drugs. If you ever do find yourself in that situation, you can call me at any time of day or night and I’ll come get you."
"Thanks dad. I trust you and I want to have a small drink with you."
"I’m glad, kiddo."
The final countdown had started. Josh and I counted down the last ten seconds along with the crowd in the square. At the stroke of midnight, I popped the cork on the champagne and poured each of us a glass.
The crowd was belting out "Auld Lang Syne" as I handed Josh his glass and raised my own.
"Happy New Year, son. May the New Year and all the years that follow be filled with happiness, joy and good health. I love you kiddo."
"Happy New Year, dad. I love you too. This year is going to be amazing. We’ll be together and that’s all that counts."
"Always, Josh," I said as we clinked glasses and drank. After sipping our champagne, we sat back down on the sofa and watched the fireworks display, cuddled up together in our usual positions.
We watched the worldwide coverage for a little while longer before the champagne began to take effect and we both decided to turn in for the night. We took turns in my small shower stall and then climbed into bed together. I lay on my back and Josh lay on his belly up against by side and chest. He rested his head on my shoulder and draped an arm across my chest. I wrapped my arms around him and gently rubbed his back as we both drifted off to sleep.
That night, I had another dream about Josh and me. As with the previous dream, all that I could recall the next morning was a series of fleeting images and emotions. That dream, like the last one, seemed to be set 25 odd years in the future. I couldn’t recall any specifics, but I did remember standing on a stage with Josh in front of a large crowd of cheering people. A lovely blond woman was on the stage with us and so were the same 2 children from the earlier dream.
I recalled vividly that the boy, who appeared to be about 13 or 14, was the spitting image of Josh. He had lighter hair, but he had the same eyes and they same warm and friendly smile. The little girl was incredibly pretty and she was a miniature replica of the blond woman. She also had Josh’s gray eyes. One detail that I did remember quite clearly was that Josh referred to the boy as Tom. The boy was clinging to my right side and the girl was clinging to my left.
I also remember that Josh, who had to be in his late 30s or early 40s in that dream was talking about the summer of 2000. I knew then that it was time to discuss my plans with Susan and to reveal them to Josh. I had a very strong feeling that the planned trip had some greater significance than simply a summer of fun.