There is a secret garden where miracles and magic abound, and its available to anyone who makes the choice to visit there. - Dr. Wayne W. Dwyer, "I Can See Clearly Now"
Tucked off of Barbara Jordan Boulevard in Austin is the Ronald McDonald House. For most people the image of Ronald McDonald musters images of the clown who serves as the spokesperson for the McDonald's restaurant chain. Hundreds of people drive past the House every day, rarely give any thought to the people, that are at that moment, calling it home. The families of children, from birth through 21 years of age (or 18, depending on the House), who are being treated at nearby hospitals and medical facilities, are eligible. Twenty eight months ago, my wife, daughter, and I called the House home for three of the longest days of our lives, while across the parking lot, Peyton fought a losing battle for his life in the PICU at Dell Children's Medical Center.
The House itself looks like a small mid-priced hotel. The rooms each have a sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom. There is a common area with dining tables and a kitchen. The kitchen is available for all to use, but at least two times a day, a stream of volunteers come in and prepare simple meals for the residents. A play room contains a variety of toys to entertain, or distract, brothers and sisters. Outside, there is a play set to help kids burn off energy and stress, benches to sit and relax, a grill, even a putting green. There are statues donated in memory of loved ones sitting among the landscaping. Among the various plants, what would appear to be nothing more than ordinary bull rock used for landscaping across the state. Upon closer inspection, each of the rocks has the name of a child, but not just any child. The rocks memorialize a child that passed away while their family was staying at the House. Each rock is made by a local stone mason who donates his time and materials.
Nestled among those rocks is one that reads "Peyton J". This is Peyton's rock, and because he was cremated, it is the closest thing I have to a gravestone. I first laid eyes on it two years ago when we traveled to the State Swimming and Diving Championships held every year in Austin. We thought it would be a nice to have the swimmers pay a visit and donate some toiletries I had collected. While they were taking a tour of the house, I walked outside and found Peyton's rock. I knew it was there, but I didn't know what to expect. It sat among the Madison's, John's, Sarah's, Bobby's, and Baby Boy Smith's. I slowly approached and knelt down while my heart did a Neil Peart drum solo in my chest. When my fingers touched the rock, my eyes filled with tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as snot bubbles ran from my nose. I talked to the rock telling it how sorry I was that I had failed him, how disappointed he must have been in me as a father, that I would still trade places with him to let him live his once promising life, and begging his forgiveness for my short comings as a father.
After ten or so minutes, I pried myself away from the rock, dried my eyes on my sleeve, put on my sun glasses to hide my cryin' eyes, and headed back in to the House to collect the swimmers and head to the hotel to prepare for a weekend of action at the pool.
Over the years, this is a ritual I have repeated every time I visit the Austin. I try to make a delivery of toiletries to the House to justify my presence. I search the garden, find the rock, kneel down and lose my shit for the duration of the visit. it is a cathartic and cleansing ritual for me. Because Peyton was cremated, it is the closest thing (in addition to a tree planted in his honor at his former school in Round Rock), that I have. I can kneel down, talk to him, hold the stone, and enjoy the quiet and beauty of the garden around me, even if just for a few minutes.
Compared to the rest of the state of Texas, Austin is a freak show. Not in a bad way, but it is different. Where as most of the state is known as a bastion for conservative values, Austin tips heavily liberal. While Dallas strives to be sophisticated, Austin prides itself on keeping weird. Houston is known for fine dining, but Austin for its food trucks. San Antonio prides itself on its Hispanic heritage, but Austin is the cultural diversity capital. From food, to architecture, to music, to the people, Austin stands out, and is a great place to live and visit. However, for me, the number one attraction is the unassuming building on Barbara Jordan Boulevard that is home to Austin's Magical Secret Garden.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
WARNING:Before anyone gets butt hurt about the title, please continue to read this post as it relates to the title.
Eventually, the nerds and the geeks will have their day. -Judd Apatow
This past Thursday, we hosted a track meet at College Park High School. It was a practice meet, no places kept, no medals awarded, and the only thing that truly mattered to the coaches were the times and distances as we prepare for our first meet this coming week. As the meet came to its last event, we shuffled runners on and off the track so that we could finish up, get inside, and get warm. As I looked up to check the lanes, I couldn't help but notice one young man. He was tall and gangly with a distance runner's physique, but what really stood out what his red hair and freckles. Not only did he have the same haircut as Peyton used to sport, but he looked enough like Peyton that I had to take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and do a double take. Needless to say, it wasn't Peyton. Peyton has been dead for almost two and a half years, but none the less, the resemblance was shocking.
Flash forward to yesterday. Lisa and I took Emmy down to Houston for one of her former classmate Ally's birthday party. For the uninitiated, the birthday party of a five year old is a blend of the various action scenes from the Mad Max/Road Warrior films. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Thunderdome is relatively tranquil compared to sugared up five year olds. Now add in that it was not just a party for Ally, but also her seven year old brother Greg, and you have the makings of pure pandemonium. Mixed in among the mob was another little red headed boy. Not only was he similar in appearance, but also actions to Peyton. At one point, he had taken off his shoes to test the strength of some dead reeds in order to poke at the koi in a fish pond with a stick. Again, I was reminded of my son, but at a younger age.
These two cases of deja vu truly got me to thinking about all the other red headed kids I have seen since Peyton's death. They never seem to be in possession of a comb, thus leading to an unruly mop upon their head, like Peyton. The cavalier attitude of adventure over their own safety was too, like Peyton. The fact that they are all arms and legs, lacking in grace and athleticism reminds me of, you guessed it, Peyton. Never mind the fact that they all seemed to be lovable nerds, like Peyton.
I have no doubt that there are graceful red heads that can dunk a basketball after taking off from the free throw line, throw a slider that never fails to catch the corner of the plate, repeatedly make acrobatic catches in the end zone, or who have never seen an episode of Dr. Who or The Walking Dead. Just like I have no doubt there are red heads who possess the grace of a Baryshnikov, the hair of a Clooney or Pitt, even the complexion of Kutcher or Reynolds. However, it never fails that every red head I see never fails to remind me of Peyton.
Maybe its because I miss him so damn much. Maybe because he should be walking the halls of a high school right now. Maybe because whenever I see the trailer for the latest Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, or Harry Potter spinoff, I want to call him so he can watch it, call me back and discuss it. Maybe it is because I will be heading to Austin this week for the state swim meet for the fifth straight year, and I will pass all of the landmarks that he used to point of every time we passed them. But whatever the reason is, it seems that all the red heads I see are all goofy, gangly, nerdy kids like Peyton.
Perhaps it is meant to be this way. Maybe all of these kids are reminders of just how truly special Peyton truly was. How not every one is meant to be a star athlete, or smooth with the ladies, or even able to dazzle socially. Maybe we need to be reminded of that despite being far from perfect, there are people out there that will capture our hearts with their awkwardness and quirks.
Next time I am out and about, walking through the halls at school, or even braving the savagery of a children's birthday party, and I see a red head step and throw with the same arm and leg, choose not to play tag because he wants to finish a chapter, or even get soaked falling into a fish pond, I will think to myself that red headed nerds are everywhere, and for that I thank God.