Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Day three thousand three hundred and three . . . All the ways I love you.

I am crying as I type these words.

I have shed many tears over the past ten years to the day since my dear mother left this world.

I have cried because something more special than the earth I am hopelessly stuck to, or the air that I breathe, was taken from me.

I have cried because I had nowhere else to turn to for guidance.

I have cried into the immediate surroundings from my lips, eyes and mouth to the outer reaches of space for the chance for one more embrace--to just put her fat, red hand in my fat red hand and squeeze them warmly together.

I have cried for sheer guilt that I was too selfish to show that I could exist without a bottle in my fat, red hand.

I have cried because the art that I have made will never again have her eyes slowly and excitedly ingest and caress from the outer edges of the paper inside towards the words or scribbled picture, or the first plucked strings, hummed melody or residual applause that might follow.

I have cried for knowing that the love I have found in Jodi must grow without her knowledge or relief--relief that the man she knew was always inside finally and furiously emerged from the shell of a pained and terrified life he was living, bursting into the real and the new, pulling back the drapes, throwing open the windows and screaming until he could scream no longer, falling onto the floor in a heap of fat, bones, muscle and blood and panting the words "I have found a true love" to the blue-grey walls around him.

That's not to say that I don't cry for sad commercials, too. Because I do. And my mom did, too. She always had a box of tissues nearby just for such occasions.

But I remember when she had a small, non-life-threatening cancer removed from the corner of one eye. They didn't fix her up exactly the way they should have. In the spot where they took the little piece off tears would spill out at random moments. She had it fixed, of course, but it was hard to watch this woman who cried so much for so many things in a seemingly perpetual state of emotion at any given time of day.

I can only imagine how many, many times she cried for me--because of me--as she sat, or walked, or talked with my aunt, or laid down in her bed a mere 75 miles away from "her boy". I'm sure it was less than I imagine, but from where I see things the past is often darker and stormier than it really was.

I put that poor woman through hell and I have no excuse for it.

But that book is one I keep on the shelf for safety and security. I don't need to re-read it. I've got it pretty well memorized.



But ten years ago, on January 11, 2007 at 10:20am, Judith Ann Johnson's energy left her body.

She had fought a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer--one of the worst and most vicious types--and finally let go.

She let go of the pain and the suffering.

She let go of the uneaten, pureed meals left sitting on the tray, the ice water in the squeeze bottle and the IV, the hospital socks and gown.

She let go of the emotional visits from her son and her sister.

Oh, how I wish I could have one more chance to put my bearded, bloated cheek up against her lips for even the faintest of kisses. How I wish I could lay my head on her belly and my arm across her body and just for a few moments pretend we could die together. Just leave the messy, dilapidated house and the unplowed driveway and the legal documents behind and just . . . go.

Oh, how I wish.

But I am here and I am well.

I am here and I have love.

I am here and I am continuing her legacy of making others happy.

I am here and I have her hair on my head, her tics in my eyes, her fat, red hands on the end of my arms and her seemingly limitless ability to remain hopeful that the sun will shine again even in the darkest night.

I am here and I am still crying as I write these words.

Because I am alive and I am breathing and I am hungry and I have love in my heart and I have music in my soul.

And I am able to share this little bit of me with the world--and every little bit of me has a little bit of her inside.

And she is crying, too.

But she's not worried anymore.

No, she's crying because she is happy.

I can almost hear it.



Thanks for reading.

I love you all, but especially Jodi.

~FAJ


Dedicated to Judith Ann Johnson

May 14, 1941-Jan 11, 2007













Thursday, December 15, 2016

Day Three Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy Six . . . One For Lynda J

She was what they call a "complicated" person.

She was the child they had in order to "fix" the failing marriage.


(Eugenia, Alex Sr., Judy, Alex Jr.)



My grandfather, Alex, having been living up to his "Alley Cat" nickname from what I was told. But it was post war 1940s--1947 to be exact--and on December 15 of that year, Lynda Jean Johnson was born.



They started things out rough by spelling Lynda with a "y". That would lead to a lifetime of correcting people.

She had piercing blue eyes and red hair--surely this would make her stand out in a crowd.



She was raised in a devout Catholic as was my mother and uncle.


I'm sure that she was good in her parochial school--she was always an extremely bright person. But something happened in 1980 when my grandmother died. I believe the priest--the highly regarded Fr Diaferio refused to perform a full mass for her due to some sticky financial details. I never did fully understand what happened but it was enough to turn this feverishly agnostic woman into a devout atheist. 

She studied hard and received excellent grades all throughout school. She was a follower of fashion and surely made her mother and father proud.


She loved her brother, Alex, but he joined the Navy in the 50s and set off on his own adventure. He would eventually move to Newport, RI in the 1970s for some years with my Aunt Norma and cousins, Heather and Dirk. But Lynda said she wished she could have had him closer to home when she was younger, as the father figure in the house wasn't exactly around as much as he could have. 


She was a child of the Sixties--a sprightly nineteen in the summer of 1967.


And she set out for California shortly after college with her best friend, Anne, who I always knew as "Auntie Annie."

I have some diaries from those days. They include some pretty amazing stories of working as a dancer in some of the clubs in the Los Angeles area. Now these aren't the types of dancers you might associate with strip bars today. These were the "dance card" dance clubs where you pay just for company. Though I'm sure there were some unconventional practices if I know my aunt she was pretty much by the book. 

She was living in Montebello, California in 1969 when my mother showed up with my soon-to-be father (it's a long story) and were taken aback by the strips of tin foil hanging from the ceiling creating an environment like walking through a psychedelic diamond. The story goes that my mom and dad were not exactly "with it" enough to appreciate the decor. 

She was still there when my mother drove across country nine months pregnant to stay in the "safe house" with her and her then boyfriend, Manuel--whose name is one fourth of my baptismal name--and have me, out of wedlock, and stay for a few months until I was ready to transport back to Fall River.



Like I said, a very long story.

She traveled in Central America and in Europe in the early 1970s. I believe she had some connection to the Peace Corps. I hope I find some diaries from those days. I'm sure knowing how she was the rebel of the family there would be some stories to preserve.  

She had many sides to her personality. That's putting it nicely, I guess. From what I'm told she had been proposed to on several occasions and said "yes" to many of them only to have things fall apart before too long. That said, she apparently amassed quite a collection of engagement rings.

Life is complicated enough these days. But we have so many ways through many of life's problems such as therapy and inspirational life coaching. I'm sure it must have been a total mess in the 1970s.


She loved her mother and father. But it was her mother, Eugenia, who was the beacon of light in the Johnson family. When she died in November of 1980 from cancer our world was torn to pieces. 

By 1980 Lynda Jean Johnson had been an English teacher for seven years or so. But when my grandmother died something sparked in her and she decided to . . . become a lawyer. 

That's right. She went to Suffolk Law at night after working all day teaching "hellions" (as she called them) at B.M.C. Durfee High School. 

She took the bar in 1983 and passed. 


Here's a congratulatory letter from state representative Tom Norton.


And here is the license plate she proudly drove around with on the back of her beloved Datsun 280Z. Oh, how I loved to get dropped off at middle school in that car. Though she always insisted I kiss her on the cheek before I got out. Kinda ruined my early teen swagger rep. 

So here's the thing . . . it's 1983, she's been a teacher for probably ten years. She just the first few years of the 1980s studying law. She could have quit her job teaching the "hellions" and make some bank and get a fancy mahogany and maroon leather chair.

But she didn't.

She didn't practice law at all.

She just wanted to do it--to prove to herself that she could.

And then she went back to teaching and trying to inspire her kids in the classroom. 

She kept that license plate for many, many years. As you can see the registration is from 1993.

Like I said, a complicated person.

In the mid 1980s I was in a band--a few of them, of course--but the main one, Undercover, was a cover band (get it?) and Lynda J Johnson was our manager. I have business cards somewhere with her name on it. 

See, one of her colleagues was a guy named Marc Dennis. He's a very famous Portuguese singer. And his band, Atlantis, was the top of the pops back in the 80s. She struck up a deal with him: her band of teenagers would come and play between sets at his band's shows. They'd use all the other band's gear and play as long as they wanted to take breaks. 

This was good for everyone involved. We got some experience playing in front of people and his band had extra time for whatever activities middle age musicians fancied in 1987.

I remember the first time I got drunk. After one of our sets I had been given two large plastic cups of Bud Light from one of the Portuguese Feast's beer tent bartender. I drank them both and then it all hit me at once. I remember rolling on top of a parked car's hood and my aunt saying, "Alex, you're drunk! What happened??"

This would not be the last time I heard this said to me. 

In 1988 she began a complicated and lengthy relationship with a former student--twenty years her junior--but only after he had graduated high school, so I was told. They were mentors for each other it seemed. He was able to have the mother he always wanted who encouraged him to further himself and foster his artistic talents. She was able to have a young strapping companion who would accompany her on many trips and be that complex combination of surrogate son and lover. They were happy for a time. But as these things go and as time passed on the relationship soured and became unhealthy. It ended badly and I'm happy not to know many of the gory details. 

But before this would happen, in 1992 her father--my grandfather--died after complications from dementia. It was a long and arduous journey. Even with all his faults she loved her dad and would dote on him, my mother too. And it was heartbreaking to watch him slip away, even though at the time I was beginning my long and storied relationship with drugs and alcohol. 

I was living here in Western Massachusetts and beginning my own new chapter. After two summers of my mother spending time in Poland and me raising holy hell with my friends in Fall River I was given an ultimatum: quit drinking and drugs or move out of the house.

I chose to move out of the house and into off campus housing with my then girlfriend, Amy and we would eventually move two hours west. I would continue my long and slow descent into madness that would take a little over fifteen years to run its course. 

In the meantime my aunt and her best friend, my mom, bought a home in Mattapoisett, Mass and sold 1073 Bedford St in Fall River where I was raised. They sold my grandfather's print shop/home on Beattie St. 

They started their own new chapter in their lives beginning in 1996. 

In a surprise twist my aunt became a contributor to the New Bedford Standard Times as an editorial cartoonist. 





The devout atheist had found a new calling. 

But she was an animal lover as well and had a penchant for persian cats. At one point I think she had five of them, all rescue cats. Though Lynda never had a child she had many babies. Her cats and her sister were her life at home. And the animals in the vast backyard were recipients of this love as well. One of my favorite memories of my aunt is her traipsing out into the snowy yard in her mu mu with a full bucket of dog food for the deer, bears and raccoons (there were two of them and she had named them both). 

They would spend a decade together in that tranquil house in Mattapoisett. I'd come home for holidays and to do some work in the summer. I was a mess for most of those days and years but I loved both of them, even if my aunt and I had a hard time coming to terms on my lifestyle habits. 

When my mother got her terminal diagnosis in late 2005 my aunt was all but destroyed. She was about to lose the last person in her life that wasn't me. Her mother and father were gone. Her brother had died in 1998. Her good friend Anne lived in Virginia and mainly visited during the holidays. I was living two hours away and a complete mess. And now her sister--her best friend--was about to begin her long goodbye. 

The sixteen months that it took for my mom to complete her journey was one of the hardest things I have ever had or ever hope to do. But she was my mother and I have a different understanding of the person she was. But my aunt had known her for close to sixty years. When my aunt was in elementary school my mom would walk her there and then continue on to her school. She was my aunt's guardian. She had always been there for her, supporting her and encouraging her with love and admiration. When my mom passed in January of 2007 her world changed forever.

But in less than a year it would change again.

On December 27, 2008 I would get arrested for DUI and have taken my last drink. 

Those first five months of life in sobriety was some of the most remarkable days ever. And I got to share it with my aunt both in our many phone calls as well as through this blog. Though she retired early in 2006 to take care of my mother, her vocation never ceased. Each blog post I would put up online would be lovingly corrected on her end and then sent back to me for reposting. 

She was so unbelievably proud of her nephew. 

In April of 2008 she began experiencing pain in her abdomen. On May 8th I encouraged and accompanied her to see her doctor in Boston. 

At 3am on May 9th--my 38th birthday--a doctor who we didn't know and I'm sure I'll never see again would come into the hospital room we were both asleep in and deliver her final diagnosis: her cancer had returned and spread and there was nothing they could do to save her.

The final few months of her life were spent going back and forth to Dana Farber in Boston. I drove her most days, especially towards the end. I had a ignition interlock device in my car which was a stipulation of my DUI case. My amazing attorney, David Mintz, managed to get me a deal where I didn't lose my license for two full years as is normal for a 2nd offense. At the time we were just happy this was the outcome and I had already begun my journey into sobriety. But now that Lynda was sick again, and eventually unable to drive herself, made this all the more poignant of an outcome. 

As a diehard liberal and progressive it is a shame she never got to see Obama elected.

She never got to see me buy my first home.

She never got to meet my Jodi and to share the magical feeling of our engagement announcement. 

But all that said she certainly experienced a lot in her sixty years on earth.

In her final months she would often say to me, "It's okay. I've had my turn."

I hope when the time comes for me to leave this earth--if I'm given a chance to ruminate on it at all--that I will be able to summon the strength and humility to let go like this. I pray from time to time that I let regrets fall by the wayside and just take life for what it is: an amazing journey that encompasses a full spectrum of emotion, from the highest peaks of joy to the lowest depths of sadness and everything in the middle. 

I'll always remember hugging her for the last time as I left for a short tour with the Young at Heart Chorus. She had encouraged me to go and do what I love. She said she would be all right. And I knew that her friend Anne would be there to spend a few days together while I was gone.

She took me in her arms and hugged me.

She looked me square in the eyes and said.

"You. Go and just be good. That's all I ask. You do that for me and I'll be happy forever."

Well, I've had quite a run, Auntie. I think you'll be happy to know that on December 27--if all goes as planned--I'll have been good for nine years. 

There is so much more I could about Lynda Jean "Ms" Johnson. But I think that's probably good for now.

So how about I just say Sto lat and Happy Birthday.

I love you so very much.

~Squaka (another very long story)


Lynda J Johnson
12/15/1947-9/7/2008

As I do every year on her birthday today I will donate to one of her favorite charities, A Helping Paw. They are a no-kill shelter and do many great things with the animals of the South Coast. And she loved her animals almost as much as she loved me. 

12/15/1981





c. 2002



Friday, August 26, 2016

Day three thousand one hundred and sixty five . . . Odds, ends and beginnings.

There is so much love in my life.

I guess it's the era I grew up in--the 1970s--that colors my appreciation for it. Or perhaps I should say it accents my appreciation for it. Because I tend to see things in a maudlin or overly dramatic way and oftentimes I misconstrue the daily atmospheric shifts in life's moment-to-moment climate for something deeper and darker--a foreboding that's a flitting hummingbird on the feeder.

I had to grab this moment to sit down and concentrate on sharing my feelings today because . . . well, because if I didn't then I would have probably walked in the bedroom and started cleaning. Or I would have walked outside and started half-heartedly weeding. Or gone downstairs and began to start unpacking the PA gear from last week's show. Or anything but sharing my thoughts on the world I am in right now. A laptop on my lap is a familiar feeling but it's been over three months since I stared at the blank page and tried to fill it with something someone other than myself might care to read.

But this is a period of transition and I must make a mark of it. It helps me categorize the life I'm living and that helps me see where I've come and where I would like to go, regardless of if that's where I'm probably going to go. One can only prepare so much.

Birthdays are a funny thing.

We get given gifts, songs, hugs, kisses and cards for something we were only an accessory to. Really, our mom's should get the attention on these days because they really did the heavy lifting . . . or pushing. Dad's too, but you know. It's different. But, of course, that idea doesn't really work too well in a practical sense because if life goes as probability suggests then we will outlive our parents and there would be a point where birthday commerce would stop and our economy just couldn't handle that. Not now anyway.

But my birthday is the beginning of May and Jodi's birthday is at the end of August (tomorrow, actually) and so this seasonal shift in my world is nicely denoted by those auspicious events.

They are two very distinctly different times of the year.

In May the air is a bit crisper and the flowers are fewer. We have asparagus at every farm stand and still a lingering threat of frost for farmers big and small. The rivers are high from the snow melt but the humidity is still low. Shorts are still worn as bait for June's sun and heat and flip flops are really more or less taken out to see if one needs to buy a new pair this year. Our modern day version of a fossil may someday be shown in museums as foot imprints on seven year old Teva sandals.

Occurring at the end of August, Jodi's birthday is full of all the colors of the garden--reds, yellows, blues, greens, purples and every shade in between. Furious dashes to the edges of the continent for one last trip with the family before school starts. Droughts and mandatory water bans are a norm but you can still find patches of green grass to lay down a blanket and have a leisurely picnic as the late day sun shines bright. Pumpkins are waiting to shock us out of our summer reverie and fall fair organizers are submitting their full page ads in all the local papers. Summer concert series are winding down but there is still music in the air if you know where to listen. It's the end of the season but the heat and sun will still be on our side for weeks to come if we're lucky.

They are both beautiful times of the year for very different reasons and for very different people. I don't go into the whole astrological thing as much as some but I see where it makes sense. I'm a spring asparagus baby and she's a summertime flower child. For true.

We didn't have much of a summer last year due to our search for a new home. 75% of our possessions were holed up in storage so we could show the house when needed. Each day was a furious fumble on any one of the homebuyer apps on our phones.

"Did you see this one? It's walking distance to town!"

"Oh, yeah, it's next to a school . . . ugh!" or "too much house for us" are just two examples of the many texts regarding things we found not right with the slim selection of homes last summer.

But we found the place that fits us and that fits in with our world. It makes us happy every day and I have a hard time realizing that we've only been here less than a year. The people who bought our home seem happy and I'm sure they are making some wonderful memories.

This summer we have enjoyed ourselves as much as possible. Jodi's work is demanding on her both physically and mentally but they treat her well and for now she doesn't really complain much. But with her time off we've gone on a few trips and even begun taking bike rides again. We've enjoyed dining on the porch and growing a small garden (made even smaller by the voracious appetites of the local wildlife).

Wedding planning has begun in earnest and we have a JP, a date, venue and caterer. Still plenty of stuff to do but at least there is a framework. Love conquers all, even if the non-refundable deposit may seem to point elsewhere.

I still very much enjoy making music both with my band and with the Young at Heart Chorus. I spend more money than I make, but such is the way of most artists. Thankfully my open mic night that I host every week has helped a bit since I began it in March.

But it's the transitions that always trip me up.

When Jodi and I travelled a bit more on trains than planes she told me once, "You do great once we get onboard. But the whole 'on and off' thing is kind of tough for you. You don't do so well in transitions."

And she was and is right. I know I'm not special in this regard, but the little things like taking in the stuff I've brought home in my car and keeping the mail under my arm while my guitar is slung over my back and jiggling the keys just right so the house key lands in my palm. Or taking change back from a cashier while getting my bag card stamped and making sure the next person in line has room to put their stuff on the conveyor belt. Getting it all to flow in an elegant manner has always been a struggle for me. My mindfulness meditation has helped but it only works when I remember to use it.

I think the movies of the 1980s with their endless montages of daily life moving perfectly (to a danceable soundtrack) in a forward direction has tainted my non-movie life irreparably. Damn you, John Hughes.

I'm sure this is one of the big reasons I used to drink, smoke and all the rest. It made me less aware of transitions. It took the nervousness away and allowed me to just flow for a while like a river with no dam. Just moving in one direction until I reached an obstacle I couldn't get over or around. And at that point I was always too far gone to notice there was a problem. They were keys I never had to fumble with. They were bags that never fell off of my back seat emptying their contents on the floor of my car. They were handfuls of change that always somehow ended up in the right quantities in my pockets.

And they were just around the corner anywhere I went.

And none of that has changed. They're still there, and at any point I have the ability to turn to them again and put them to work.

But I can't and I won't.

Because the great thing about transitions is that by definition they are fluid and ever-changing. You see there is one side, there is the middle, and there is the other side. If one constantly focuses on the one side and the middle (where it may seem awkward) then one forgets that the natural progression of time and life is to end up on the other side. And I'm not saying that the other side of every transition is going to be positive or comforting. But it stands to reason that if one makes it through unscathed once that in time there will be another one. And another one. And an endless waterfall of transitions through life--many which happen without our even noticing--and the mere accomplishment of opening one's eyes every day signals that a new opportunity has arisen.

All that said I've been having a tough time of it lately, I have to admit. And I only say this because I've always been honest in these pages . . . about everything. No, it's not about sobriety. I'm still 3,165 days since my last drink and almost as many since complete abstinence. It's more about getting older and watching the world come up behind you in your rear view mirror. It can be daunting if one can't acquire some perspective on it all. And without children in our lives it's easy to just kind of float somewhere in the middle of it all--not 25 anymore but not almost 50 either, right? Well, not really.

But this year marks ten years since the last fall and winter with my mother. Strange, because when I think about those times when I was 36 instead of 46 I feel like I was older then. And for all intents and purposes I was. 50 pounds overweight and with a head full of pills, vodka, weed and cocaine I could have been 75 years old and on my last days. And I can almost feel like that again if I try hard. But it makes me so sad to think that's how I chose to handle things at the time. Jodi tries to console me by reminding me that I was sick and it was out of my control. I don't buy it 100%. I had my days and weeks of sobriety when things were okay in the other aspects of my life. But when the shit hit the fan it was all out the window. I think part of me was trying to leave on the same plane as my mom, as it were.

Knowing what I know now--that my aunt would be gone less than two years after my mom, leaving the house, its belongings and everything that went with it to me and me alone--it's safe to say that there was no other way.

Knowing that the same month that my aunt passed--September of 2008--I would make first contact with the woman who will soon be my wife is enough to make me almost pass out from joy of life and living.

Knowing that the time between then and now has been filled with creating a body of work (both in words and music) that is dedicated in part to the memory of the people who raised and nurtured me is a comfort I never could visualize.

Knowing that the years came and went before I was born and will continue long after I am gone is an understanding that ebbs and flows in my soul. For I often lose track of where I am in life. Really, the best course of action from where I stand is to just try and forget about the past and the future. It's what I try to achieve with my mindfulness and sometimes glimpse. Hopefully as I get older this state of mind will become easier and last longer. But I am a sucker for nostalgia and so I don't hold out the most hope in that regard.

So today I will prepare for Jodi's birthday.

I can't tell you too much about it because that would spoil the surprise. We're keeping things simple this year and she's made me promise not to go crazy with gifts. So I've found a few things I think she will like. We've found something to do that will be fun but not extravagant. I've got a bit too much of my mom in me and it's hard to not try and make a fuss. But I'm learning every day how to be a more true person.

I'm learning every day how to challenge myself to not expect too much.

I'm learning every day that true love does not need to always be on the table--that it's often in the legs of the chairs we sit on, or in the way we hand over a read section of the morning paper.

I'm learning every day that success can be squeezed out of every day like the last dab from a toothpaste tube as we get ready for bed knowing that we can pull the covers up to our necks and welcome dreams onboard.

I'm learning every day that transitions can be stubborn foes or they can be moments of acceptance that perhaps we have tried to take on too much. Perhaps it's us inside knowing that we have too much in our pockets to begin with.

I'm learning and I'm living and I'm trying to make a difference in my world.

But even if that difference is only something I could ever witness and it dies with me tomorrow I need to be okay with that.

But tomorrow will be a joyous day as we welcome another year into our world--a year that begins with August 27th.

A transition.

A window of life.

Happy Birthday and Sto lat to my sweet, sweet Jodi.

I love you with all I have or ever hope to hold in my soul.

Happiness always,

~FAJ


Friday, May 13, 2016

Day three thousand and sixty . . . Sto lat.

What's in a number?

Seventy five.

Seems pretty innocuous.

Well, it's so hard for me to think of how my mother would be turning seventy five tomorrow if she were still here.

I think of my family--my mom, aunt, grandmother--the people who raised me. None of them made it out of their sixties. My grandfather made it out but I tend to think of him as being a whole different set of genetics and predispositions. He was 86 when he passed. That's pretty impressive. But on my Grandmother's side it was 60, 65 and 68. My uncle was also in his 60s when he died--all of them from cancer except my grandfather. Though ultimately dementia got the better of him and it was a heartbreaking experience to witness.

But my mom. She never seemed old even when she was in her 60s (and I know that's not technically "old" but still). So it's so hard to picture her as three quarters of a century old. But her birthday is every May 14th and this one is the 75th since 1941 so I guess that's where we are.

I have been pretty lax in keeping up with this blog. And while I kind of made a promise to myself not to apologize for it it still feels weird. There has just been so much else going on in my world that's it's not easy to take the time in the day and sit down and focus on this portion of my life--my sobriety and my life's story. And I don't want it to be a thing where I only post on important days in my life. But something called me to this page today. And when I checked back to see how many days it's been since I had a drink I guess I seem to have missed a pretty momentous milestone.

3,060

It has been three thousand and sixty days since I had a drink of alcohol (and almost as many since total drug abstinence).

That's another number that's hard for me to fathom.

Because this guy right here? This guy talking to you? This is a guy who once told his mom and aunt that he was never ever going to quit drinking because it was "who I was" and nobody was going to change that.

Well, I guess there was a back door to that clause and that was there was nobody going to change it except for the guy who said nobody was going to change it. Because that totally happened.

It happened over three thousand days ago and my life has never been the same.

I remember waiting outside the liquor store at 8:50am with a bag full of change that I would turn into a plastic quart of vodka.

I remember coming to from the smoke wafting off of my futon mattress that was burnt from the still lit cigarette dangling from my unconscious hand.

I remember (vaguely) telling the Northampton police officers that I couldn't continue with the field sobriety test and that they better just take me in.

And from that day on I remember every day just a little bit clearer. I remember how my body felt as the poisons from the years of abuse slowly left me. I remember how my gait became a bit freer and easier and how sentences and communication developed a quickness and clarity that was new to me.

And I also remember how memories came flooding back from the years before things got bad. And from time to time I'll catch a glimpse of a conversation I had with my dying mother--important things as well as the offhanded joke or goofball comment. But so much of what we shared I will never recall because I thought the only way to deal with her leaving me was to be gone myself.

But over three thousand days have come and gone since that last gulp of Smirnoff. Over three thousand suns have set since I decided I'd "go out with a bang" as I told my best friend, Paul on December 27, 2007.

And over three thousand mornings I have woken up and known what I did the night before, which is great on the days when the days before it were good ones. But on the hard days--the ones we all want to forget--there is no easy escape. And one must just let time heal the wounds.


I barely remember this day. It was the last birthday my mom would celebrate, at age 65--ten years ago tomorrow. But I remember giving her the amber necklace that I bought at the local Tibetan shop. It hangs in the bay window of our house here in Florence, above the plants that Jodi (mostly) cares for. Plants were one of my mother's favorite things in the world (being a horticulturist) and so it makes sense that something that reminds me of her so would find its place there.

But what's in a number, right?

Ten years ago I gave her a necklace that I happen to be staring at as I write this. Seventy five years ago tomorrow she was born.

And three thousand and sixty days ago I took my last drink.

So today, my sweet mother, I will write this for you. I will remember how you made every day special, let alone birthdays. How you cherished every moment you were awake and, I'm sure, all the time in your dreams, for you always did look so contented when you were snoozing (or "resting your eyes" as you would always insist). I will remember the way that your hair felt and the way that you hugged me so tight when you saw me it was as if I had just been rescued from a burning building. I'll remember how you would fill my refrigerator with food when you would come to visit and how you would slip me the odd $20 and say "This is for milk!" I will remember how we would goof around when I would get off of the Bonanza bus back home and pretend I didn't see you sitting in your car and walk past it and then pretend to be shocked when I turned around and saw you waving for me. I'll remember how you would put me to work oiling the kitchen table and chairs before every holiday (which I loathed) and how you would give me a nickel for each dog poop I scooped in the front yard of our house on Bedford St in Fall River. I will remember how you tried to console me when that first girl I had a crush on turned her head when I tried to kiss her. I'll remember how you and I toasted on my 21st birthday when we pretended it was my first drink. I'll remember how you cried every time when you left me after a visit because you never knew if you'd see me again. And I'll remember how it felt to see you in the hospital so many times and saw the way you would smile to see me--in as much physical and mental pain as you were in--because your boy was within hugging distance. I'll remember the way I could always find you in the crowd of wherever I was performing. And I'll remember how you would always look for six of the same outfit to give me and "the guys." And I'll always remember how embarrassed I felt upon handing them out. I'll remember shopping at Savers or the Salvation Army with you and seeing you from across the store and hiding behind a rack and then surprising you and how you would delight in showing me what you found "on a super sale" and how you would try to convince me that I didn't need that $15 shirt but would buy it for me anyway. I'll remember how it felt to have to tell you that I totaled the car you gave me three weeks before. And I'll remember when I had to make the choice of giving up drugs and alcohol or moving out of the house.

But I'll always remember most your voice. Low and slow and soft with an old New England accent as warm and reassuring as melted butter. I don't know why I don't have mine. I think it just fell off like a snake sheds its skin. But I know it when I hear it and it always reminds me of you. The way you said "bahth" and "Hahd" but not "nevah" or "fahtha". It was refined and detailed and it always made me feel safe and sure and home.


I remember so many things, good, bad and otherwise, as they say.

But tomorrow, as I head out on the road to play a show in northern Vermont I will remember you, my sweet, sweet mother. Your gift of life was cut shorter than you or I or all those around you would have liked. But you made your impression and you made me and you will always be loved and remembered as long as I can keep this flame alive.

Sto lat, Judy. Blow out your candles. Eat your cake. Hug your boy. Let the tears flow. Let the love bloom. Let the numbers stand as they are . . .  for they mean nothing.

All there is is all there is.

Thanks so much for reading,

~FAJ











Monday, February 29, 2016

Day Two Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Seven . . . Leaps and bounds.

"I wish there were more hours in the day."

"I wish there were more days in the week."

"I wish there were more months in the year."

"I wish there were more days in the month."





Yep. Got that last one today. February twenty-ninth, baby. Only happens on a year whose last two digit's are divisible by four. That's what I remember my mom telling me.

This feeling inside me, though, keeps nagging and nagging. It's telling me to get this stuff out there. It's knocking on the door like a Bernie Sanders canvasser. It knows I'm already on board, it's just so easy to keep under the covers or stay at the gym a little longer, or down in the basement rehearsing, and stay away from opening that door.

But I have to keep writing and telling my story. And if there was ever a better reason to not put it off anymore it would have to be today. Because today is a freebie. Garbage time.

Leap Day.

I'm a bit of a mess these days. It's not anything to worry too much about. I haven't raided the liquor cabinet. I've put too much work into this here sobriety thing to let it slip away like that. And I haven't gone to get a weed card, as much as I want to. Though I always maintained a relatively healthy relationship with marijuana I don't think I'm ready to try and "be responsible" with it. That could only end messily.

But my head has been in a fog for the last month since Jodi and I returned from our trip to Costa Rica.

This would be the trip where we spent ten amazing day on the beach.

This would be the trip where we ate ceviche and plantains and hung in hammocks and read for hours.

This would be the trip where I asked her to marry me and she said "yes."

Well, actually the first word out of her mouth was "what?" and then she said yes.

Yep. My mom would be so unbelievably happy for me, as would my aunt. Everybody, in fact, would be or is thrilled for me because I really did find the right person for me. And believe me I realize I'm a bit of a handful. Let's not get into that. It's been pretty much documented over the past few hundred posts or so. I've tried to be as honest as I could. I think I've succeeded so far.

But yes, Jodi and I are engaged and plan to marry next fall. It seemed like the right thing to do and a natural progression in our relationship. She is simply the love of my life and I can't imagine a world without her in it.

But I have to say that when left the jeweler with my grandfather's gold and diamond ring that would be transformed into Jodi's I felt markedly different. Not sure exactly why, but something tangibly changed and I felt like I had made an even bigger decision than I originally thought. It was as if some new medication I had been prescribed just started to work. It was a great feeling, for sure. I just wasn't expecting it. But I took this ring (which I wrote about eight years ago) to our local jeweler and he turned it into something simply gorgeous and unique. And now it's residing snugly on the ring finger of the left hand of somebody equally gorgeous and unique.

But Jodi is on a work-related trip right now and I've been home by myself for a few days. It's a strange feeling because we are almost never apart for this long. And as she is out of the country and away from wifi I haven't heard from her in a good day or so.

I'm not worried, per se. I just feel so strangely disconnected. I can find out an unlimited amount of information on my computer and be in touch with almost anyone I can think of. But the one person who means the most to me is just out of reach. And I'm willing to be she's feeling it too.

But I keep my head about me and make sure that I remember that all that I see around me--my house, my clothes, the food in my kitchen, my car, my guitars--that these things are all here and safe because I have remained sober for eight years and counting. That this life I lead is all contingent on the idea that I cannot and will not pick up again. There is no "just a little taste" or a "cheat day." No, this is almost literally etched in stone.

We had an incident the other night at our house where the sump pump that keeps the ground water at bay was overwhelmed. It was the same night we had to get up at 4am to get Jodi to the airport to put her on a plane for this trip. And thank goodness the thunder woke us up and we heard the emergency siren going off or there would have been even more than three inches of water covering every inch of our 1,400 square foot cellar floor.

I have to admit I did something stupid in walking straight into the water, but not 100% stupid. To my credit I did make sure the shoes I was wearing had rubber soles. Then I plunged straight into the mess. First thing that caught my eye was the glowing orange light of the power strip on the floor. I carefully but quickly unplugged it from the wall.

Yep, I'm kinda stupid sometimes.

But I didn't kill myself, thank God. And I didn't short out the whole basement worth of lights. Because I can only imagine if there's anything worse than trudging through three inches of water in your basement it's doing it in the dark.

Jodi had the peace of mind to call the fire department. God bless those guys to come over at 2am and lend me their extra sump pump. They successfully drained the basement and even helped me move the drum kit out of harms way. They stuck around to make sure everything was okay with us and said to just return the stuff the next day. I asked them if we got charged for this and the captain said, "You already paid us for this trip . . . with your taxes."

So, to my new neighbors I apologize for the idling fire truck outside your house in the wee hours of Thursday but everything seems to be under control for now.

For the last three days and evenings instead of writing new songs in my basement studio, instead of having band rehearsal, instead of writing my blog I've been trying to make sense of a mid-level disaster. We lost some stuff for sure, but thankfully my insurance looks like it will pay for that. A whole box of Jodi's ticket stubs and Polaroids and personal mementos had to be carefully dried and laid out. I talked to her while I was going through it all and broke down and started to cry it was just so overwhelming. It was such a strange feeling to be going through her personal stuff but it was either that or it was going to be lost forever.

But I did what I had to to repair the damage that was done by our overwhelmed sump pump. In fact, I had the basement company come and install an even more powerful pump so this will hopefully never happen again, fingers crossed.

In the end, nobody got hurt, the city came to my rescue, and I was even able to get Jodi safely and securely to the airport on time for her flight.

And now, due to the heavy rains, our newly upgraded sump pump is working around the clock. It runs every forty seconds or so. The sound gets to me a bit when I'm in the bedroom but I can't really hear it through the rest of the house. We need to invest in a generator next to make sure we never lose power for an extended period of time during a storm or this thing will just happen all over again.

It's a bit unnerving to have the safety and security of my studio and storage area left up to a couple of water pumps and one wall outlet, but this is just the way it is here in our new abode at the bottom of the hill.

It reminds me a lot of my sobriety.

My abstinence is quite similar to this small bucket of cast iron machinery, plastic cords and vinyl pipes.

It keeps a low profile most of the time. In fact, when the weather is good you barely know it's there.

As life just hums along it's easy to forget how essential this often overlooked facet is to keep order and sanity.

But when the rains come, as they always do, you better well and be prepared for it.

When life's climate shifts and changes on a dime you need to have everything up and running and connected to a steady source of power.

Because if this one piece of the puzzle fails for any of the myriad reasons life presents us with there's a possiblity it's going to wreak havoc on everything in its way. It's not going to wait for you to figure out how to staunch the flood. It's not going to cut you any slack. It's going to just keep filling up and up until it reaches the electricity and then the lights go out and you may lose it all.

Then comes the time spent cleaning up the mess you've made, peeling apart photos and wringing out rugs, working against the clock and trying to fend of the impending mold that will set in if everything isn't aired out.


So I tell you this so I can tell it to myself. I feel out of sorts due to a lot of reasons right now. I've been on and off of caffeine for the past three weeks. I can't seem to figure out if I need to give it up or not. I'd really hate that to be the case because I do love it so. But I know that it's a drug and a ritual and just like all the others that I've danced with there is opportunity for abuse.

I miss my fiancé dearly. And how nice is that to write down in public? For she is my one true love and she and I have practically become one person with all of our seven years of shared experiences be they bad, good or even unbelievable. And we have forged a new family together with all of her clan in New York State coupled with mine in Virginia, Washington State as well as southeastern Mass and beyond.

No part of what we have feels out of place or errant.

No part of who we are feels fake or forced.

No part of where we are going scares me or gives me pause.

No part of why I love her so makes me wary.

She will return tomorrow night and my world will make a little more sense. I'll have somebody to bounce ideas off of and someone to laugh at my good jokes and shudder at my bad ones. I'll have a woman who brings me more happiness than I ever thought I was capable of experiencing in this world--someone who never judges and who never holds back how she feels.

She is light and love and she wants to be with me as long as life keeps us both buoyed aloft on earth's endless and unpredictable waves.


And I know that all I need to do is to keep my personal sump pump running in order to enjoy all of this. I just need to keep the maintenance up-to-date and think ahead for what potential trouble may be just out of view.

And that's why I wrote today of all days--this Leap Day, 2016.

Because every day is a gift, this is true. But today is extra special.

Thank you for sharing these few minutes with me, reading how life goes sometimes.

And on we go . . .

~FAJ










Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Day Two Thousand Nine Hundred and Ten . . . I am them.

How do we change as we age?

This is a question I've asked myself a lot as life continues to unfold around me.

At 45 years and seven months old I am pleased to have retained most of my hair. I say "most" because there was a time I can remember--not so long ago--where I had to wet my hair brush to get it through my thick Armenian-Polish coif. But those days are behind me now and it seems I can almost brush my hair straight with just the fingers on my hands. When I get a haircut and the stylist pulls out the little mirror seeking my approval on the way the back looks I always get a little jumpy to see how "Hurricane Fred" is doing, the eye of the storm swirling around the northern regions on my scalp.

But these changes are part of life. These are biological certainties that we can't avoid, hard as some of us try.

My skin gets some help from a certain line of natural skin care products that I am lucky enough to have a seemingly endless supply of. But even as much as I cleanse, tone and moisturize I still look like a man my age: 45 years and seven months. It's part of life and I feel lucky to still be here after my years of use and abuse.

And though one can tell a lot from appearances I know all too well that just because our outward self looks healthy, inside things may not be so rosy.

We have a beautiful seven foot tall Christmas tree in our living room. Its incandescent glow and sparkly garlands give off an appearance of joy, health and happiness. But all I need to do is bend down and reach my hand inside the tree holder to see that it has sucked up all the water I fed it yesterday and is probably screaming for dear life. "Somebody water me!!! You cut me down for no reason and now I have no sun, wind, stars, minerals or water!! FEEED MEEEEEEE!"

And so I water this beautiful specimen of nature and symbol of this winter holiday and it makes Jodi and myself smile every day for three or four week of the year. It was grown for this purpose and that makes it a little easier to know it will only last so long. But as quickly as we prop it up in its stand and cover it with silver, gold, lights and love we know it is rapidly deteriorating.

Time takes its toll on us all.



To me now as it ever was I find that I don't understand concepts unless I can see how they work. When somebody starts explaining something to me I easily gloss over and start to slip away. I try my best to stay in the moment and keep my connection with them solid. But all through my life it's been this way.

I think that's one of the big reasons that this online journal has helped keep me sober. I've been able to work through the reasons why I did what I did in order to understand why I had to stop. Somebody tells me "You gotta quit drinking, buddy. You're gonna kill yourself," and I just wave my hand and say, "Oh, believe me I know," and move on. But digging in deep and picking out moments in my life where certain substances became synonymous with rewards and affirmation? Deciphering and pinpointing moments where I clearly chose insanity over clarity? That kind of stuff really opens my eyes and helps me understand what it's all about.

But this question of how we change as we age, this is also a very helpful conversation to have to make future decisions in a more productive way.

I think that when I was younger I was really good at making my family worry about me. In fact I kind of perfected it. And I don't really know why this was something I let happen. Now that I am older and have those crazy years behind me I can't even fathom thinking that it was somehow okay to allow the two most important people in my life to sit across from each other and talk for hours about how best to get me to "clean up my act." And I know pretty well how the conversations would go. My aunt would show my mother an article she found in the paper on a new drug or intensive treatment to curb alcoholism. My mother would start to cry and say "He'll never do it, Lynn," or something to that effect. My aunt thought she knew me; my mom actually did.

Because when I was younger, interspersed with managing restaurants and playing around the country with my rock band, worrying and upsetting my family was what I did.

But everyone gets older and sometimes our old habits have a way of changing.



Today would be my Aunt Lynda's 68th birthday. Being the youngest of three siblings I suppose she kind of figured she might be the last to pass, but certainly not the youngest. My Uncle was 68, my mother was 65.

But my aunt died just shy of her 61st birthday.

That said, Lynda Jean Johnson was the only one to see me grow up. What I mean to say is that even though she only was around for the first seven months of it she was the only one in my immediate family to live to see me quit drinking. And at age 37 this development was quite possibly the most important and life-changing decision I could have made not only for myself but for everyone around me. Because choosing this path changed everything.

I became responsible with my money.

I became concerned for my weight and for my health.

I began to see my way through problems and not just ways around them.

I understood that there was somebody inside me that was worth loving.

I saw the time in front of me as being more valuable than the time behind me and therefore I refused to live in the past.

I realized who in my life I had filled with dread and worry for years and years and I tried to make things as right as I could.

And most importantly I discovered how I changed as I aged because I could see laid out in front of me who I had become.

I had become . . . them.

All the years of trying to distance myself from my mom and aunt with drugs and drink and dangerous living, all of that had emanated from a deep seated fear that I was just like my family. How outrageous! How preposterous! I couldn't be like them! They were well-respected school teachers who changed people's lives in a single year by connecting and trying to instill in their students a confidence that they may not have been afforded by their family and peers.

These normal people who made every single holiday or milestone extra special for those around them, who kept a steady supply of balloons, streamers, gift bags, kazoos, funny hats, silly signs and greeting cards . . . I wasn't like them.

I was cool, man.

I was different.

I was dangerous and dark!

I was a rock star and I lived the life!

I had a death wish.




Nope.





I was not any of those things.






I was just . . .  like . . . them.

Well what do you know?



It took me 37 long years to realize this simple fact: that being them is not a curse but a blessing! That being them is something to strive for. That being them is not only becoming scarcer every day but that being them can change people! That being them and holding the door or picking up a quarter that somebody dropped or writing a thank you note or bringing home a balloon on a special day or calling somebody on their birthday or just checking in with someone you haven't heard from in a while . . .

That any of these things is just being who I am: Frederick Alexander Johnson.


And as hard as I fought it for almost four decades I finally gave in and came to and it all made sense for one brilliant and beautiful moment. And that's all it took for me to understand what to do moving forward.

For me, just doing what I've been doing seems to be working. Because instead of making people around me worry about me and just generally being a punk, I'm staying clean and sober and helping others do the same.

I'm giving guitar lessons just like I told my aunt I would in her last few months of her life.

I try to never take my partner for granted. I try to encourage rather than nag. And I celebrate every day we can be together because I have felt like the luckiest man on earth since the day we met.

That is no lie.

That is love.

And they were love.

And I am them.

For once. For all. Forever.





I want to dedicate this post to, of course, my Aunt Lynda. Though her birthday was precariously close to Christmas my mom made damn sure that it was as singular of an event as possible.

And on this day as I do every year I will donate to one of her favorite cat charities, Habitat For Cats.

She loved her cats almost as much as she loved me.

Happy Birthday, Aunty.

I love you, I miss you, I'll see you again someday.

~Squaka



For the rest of you, thank you all so very much for reading. Enjoy the holiday season and try to be safe in this crazy old world.

~FAJ




Lynda J. Johnson December 15, 1947-September 07, 2008.























Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Day Two Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty Five . . . Decade-nce

Ten years ago—though all seemed in check—my world was about to implode.

I had been enjoying an unprecedented year of international travel as the guitarist for the Young at Heart Chorus, having joined in December of 2004 and beginning our ritual of touring twice a year overseas. That year we had gone to Belgium and Holland for two weeks. Those two weeks turned into a month as the rest of my main band at the time, Drunk Stuntmen, found themselves included in the tour, finagling plane tickets and lodging, and piggybacking it all into an actual international tour of The Netherlands.  

Though I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, when I think of those days I can actually feel myself as being lighter and more alive—each day floating down like a feather from an exploded pillow. The memories come to me like a dream because that’s how it all seemed, as if every day was a windy scene in a movie. Each new act circling like leaves and newspapers around and around, the frame spinning itself out of focus and the present day taking control again. And then I’m just here on my couch, 45 years old and very much sober and aware how much it all is interconnected.

I think about that time period and remember how much of a mess things were with my health and my addiction to alcohol. And while I was certainly a walking (or stumbling) disaster by all accounts, I find it amazing that I did have my life together enough to make sure that I had just enough money to get my pint of Smirnoff and six pack at the end of the day, as well as taking care of my bills, connecting with my family every few days, and playing in two successful bands. 

When you first start to go to meetings, as I did for a few months, you learn some key ideas. They are laid out in clear and simple terms in order to be utilized by anybody who wants to clean up their life. But one of the big ones I’ll never forget is that staying sober seems like the hardest task in the world at first. And it’s not an easy thing to do by any means. But staying fucked up is a hell of a lot harder. You just don’t think about it like that when it’s happening because the end result is disconnecting and checking out. But when you’re trying to just stay on one level and take life as it comes, everyday can seem like a prison. 

I made it through the first year of international debauchery and came back with some great stories and a few stamps on my fresh passport.

I’ll never forget telling my mom and aunt, on one of their many trips to visit me here in Western Mass, how I needed to go get my picture taken at AAA. They asked why and I told them, with great enthusiasm, that I needed a passport to go to Europe! For me this was a huge deal. And they were so happy for me, as they were both very experienced international travelers and knew how amazing it is to see a world outside of the one most Americans know. But they were also worried for me because of the same reasons they were always worried.

But I made it through 2004 and my tour of Belgium and Holland and continued to play in both bands. In the summer of 2005 my orders came in that we would be traveling to London for the last two weeks of October (a “fortnight” I was fond of joking).

I was over the moon. London. Pubs. Nightclubs. Fish and Chips. Everything comped and a nice paycheck at the end of it all.

But my return from that trip would be forever seared in my memory as the end of the first 35 years of my life.




My mother, Judy, had suffered her share of scares with her health. 

Melanoma was a constant worry. It stemmed from endless instances of severe sunburns she suffered battling her lily white skin. She told me that when she was a young girl she wanted to blend in with all of the darker-skinned Portuguese and Italian girls in her hometown of Fall River, MA. But being of Polish, Irish and English heritage this was a longing that would prove to be a formidable challenge. And her many attempts of tanning would end up with disastrous results. Had we known as much about skin cancer then as we do now who knows what might have been. In the throes of youth not standing out can feel more honorable and important than any threat of illness later in life. This, I know all too well. 

Judy battled numerous instances of skin cancer on her face as well as in her breasts, to the point of requiring a double-mastectomy in her early 60s. Her doctors gave her several clean bills of health and she would excitedly shared these with me as soon as she could. My mom always wanted to make sure her boy knew she was going to be okay. But I know without a shred of doubt that through it all she was more worried about me than she was for herself. She could survive without her breasts. She could recover from multiple skin surgeries. But she felt she could not recover if anything happened to me. And for all the times I seemingly attempted to check out for good I always did wake up and I always did make sure she knew I was still here. Even if "here" was used in its loosest translation.

I feel so hardened to pain and suffering now due to the events that followed. But one of my deepest regrets is not having been more aware of her struggles and the seriousness of it all when this was happening. I’m sure part of the reason I numbed myself each and every night came from my fear of losing her. But my own selfishness I will never fully forgive myself for. It’s okay, I’m not a sad person and I don’t hold a grudge against myself. But when one makes up a list of things they wish they could have done differently, me not being present for the truly life-changing twists and turns in my mother’s health would be right there at the top.

Ten years ago in September my mom was in a car accident—a fender bender. Somebody rear-ended her while driving her beloved Nissan Maxima. When I close my eyes I can remember exactly the way that car always smelled—deep and bright lavender, a result of the scented fabric softener she used. When she would pick me up at the bus stop in New Bedford on any of my many trips back home that familiar scent always made me smile as I threw my belongings in the backseat and then settled myself in with a kiss on her cheek and a hug around her big belly. I remember the way the seat belt felt across my chest in that passenger seat. She loved her little comfort-accents. One of those was the rainbow-colored fake fur wrap on the chest strap of her seat belts. It was a simple touch and I’m sure helped her find her car in a crowded lot. 

But it was this same seat belt (on her side) that prolonged her life in two ways. First it, of course, protected her when she got rear ended. But in that same accident in September of 2005 she suffered a small injury to her abdomen. It wasn’t that big of a deal but, apparently, it was enough for the doctor to order some tests, X-rays or something. 

And it was the result of those tests that alerted the doctor that there may be something much more serious going on than a bruised rib.

After the tests came back she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But the doctors said that thanks to the accident they had found it early enough to potentially remove it. They called it “treatable and curable.” I’ll never forget those words. Had I been of the right mind to do a quick online search I would have found out in three tenths of a second or less that pancreatic cancer was one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of the disease. It took my grandmother at age 68. In most cases the symptoms show up so late in the development that treatment often proves futile and the patient rarely has more than a few months left. But my mom had been through so many bouts of cancer that I took it in stride. The two of them—my mom and aunt—played it off too. I will never know if they did it that way so as to not worry me into drinking myself into a coma. If they only knew how bad it was with me maybe things would have been different. But the doctors gave them hope.

They told Judy Johnson that her beloved seat belt gave her more than a fighting chance. 

And so, in October of 2005—right before I went away to London for those two weeks—my mom and aunt would visit me for the last time as characters in that first 35-year chapter of my life. 

We went to a local family restaurant here in Northampton and got gigantic cheeseburgers with fries. 

We talked about how exciting it was that I was getting to go back to Europe after just being there in the summer. 

We held hands at the table and, with trembling voices, made a toast to the next time they would come to visit me—when my mom’s cancer was gone and things were back to normal.

They left the driveway of my apartment after an extremely teary goodbye. I lit up a cigarette, poured a very tall glass of vodka over ice, turned on the TV and just let time slip away.




The trip to London was a great success. It was on that run of shows that a filmmaking duo saw the group perform and approached the directors with the idea of making a movie about us—here at home in Northampton. And it was because of that movie’s international success that we traveled to Japan (twice), New Zealand, and all over the US. 


We returned from the trip on the evening of October 30th, 2005. I had originally planned to take the early morning bus to New Bedford so we could all go out to lunch and have as much time as possible together before my mom had her surgery on November 1.

On the bus ride back home from the airport I borrowed a cell phone from one of the chorus members and called my mom like I always did—just to let her know we made it back to the U.S. safe. She was so happy to hear my voice she began crying. She said, “I can’t wait for this to be over. I just want this thing out of me! I just want to be able to live my life again. I can't wait to dance with you again!”

But—and this pains me to no end to say—my addiction had other plans for me. I decided it was more important to me to be able to stay up all night drinking vodka at home and sleeping late and then taking the afternoon bus back home. This meant that we would barely have any time at all to spend together as bedtime would be extremely early in order to leave for the hospital at 4am. We needed to do this to get my mother prepared to go in for a potentially 12 hour procedure. 

The nerve. The fucking nerve!

I need to jump in here and say that I am writing this story not only because it marks a decade since its occurrence. But I need to remind myself that my reliance on alcohol at this time in my life clouded my judgement to the point where I made decisions for which I will always regret. And that it can and does happen to anyone who lets it. I’m not one to allow the idea that the addiction is more at fault than the person—we are proud to make our decisions freely in this country. But I will always be amazed at how deeply my compassion and ability to reason had been held hostage. 

The events that followed are somewhat cloudy but I still remember pretty well. 

I came in on the evening bus on Halloween—hungover, of course—and I think we had some sort of dinner. Because it was so late we ordered take out and at at the house. We all went to bed around 9pm or so and I woke up at 3am to get ready to leave the house at 4.

I was sort of mad about the whole scenario. I was also quite jet lagged and that made things all the worse. 

But in the early morning hours of November 1 we got my mom in the passenger seat of my aunt’s Toyota Highlander and I curled up in the back. They threw a blanket and pillow in there so I could sleep during the 12 hour procedure. We drove to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and all walked in together. They prepped my mom for surgery and we had some time to spend together before she was rolled down the hallway.

I wish I could remember more of what we talked about in those few minutes but I do remember this. She called me in close—her only child—and said, “I want you to know, Alex, I have never been more proud of you than I am right now. Always remember this.”

This, after my insolence and grand selfishness of sleeping all morning after staying up drinking British vodka all night. She was proud of me.

I didn’t know what to say. 

She said, “If anything happens to me I want you and Auntie to be good to each other. Because you will only have each other and there is nothing more important to me than to know you can get along.”

My aunt and I had had our differences over the years. She had often felt I was a selfish and spoiled brat that my mother should have disciplined long ago. But we did love each other very much, this much cannot be denied. And my work with the Young at Heart as well as my career turn as a mental health counselor had made her rethink things a bit. 

I hugged my mom, poked fun at her free shower cap the hospital had fitted her with, told her I loved her more than anything or anyone and stood next to my aunt as they wheeled her away through the first set of swinging doors and around a corner.

I can still feel my heart beating as fast as it did then. I thought I might pass out and my aunt felt the same. 

They gave us each one of those little plastic discs that you get at restaurants when you are going to be waiting a long time for a table. When it blinks you are supposed to come and see what’s up. I got mine and went out to the parking garage and climbed into the back seat, covered myself with the blanket and settled into the less-than-optimal surroundings for a nap. 

I woke up a few hours later and had to use the bathroom.

I decided to walk back to check in on my aunt. As I was walking toward the waiting room the lights on my disc began to whirl around.  When I got 50 feet away I saw my aunt standing there—pale as a ghost. She was waving me towards her and shaking profusely. 

The doctors wanted to talk with us about the procedure. It was slated to take 12 hours. This was only hour four. 

There’s no way this could be good. 

They had done what they could but the cancer had spread. 

I remember they asked if we wanted to talk to a priest and my aunt—vehemently agnostic—said “Why the hell would we want to do that? Um . . . NO!

It was a scene. It was a horrific scene. My aunt was crying. And it was one of those times when you know something is the worst it could be and somebody is crying so you can’t join them because you feel you have to keep your shit together to help them. I’ll never forget not being able to cry with my aunt. But I held her close—she was hot and soaked with sweat from worry—and we just stood there and the magnitude of that event just rained down on us for what seemed like forever. 

When my aunt was able to compose herself we walked to the cafeteria. Not that even a shred of me felt hungry but my aunt wanted to make sure we ate a salad. Because in these few years of health scares she realized how horrendous our diets had been and she was trying all she could to reverse the damage. I remember the way the tongs felt in my hand as I picked up a clump of sliced carrots and let them loose on my spinach. If felt like a front loader releasing two tons of concrete. I’ll never forget the way those carrots felt as I crunched on them and stared ahead blankly at all the other people in the dining room, some of them doctors, some of them nurses, many of them family and friends and each with a different story playing out in their heads. 

But this was our story and this was our day and we had not planned on this.

I remember finally losing my shit, though, while on the phone to my friend and bandmate, Steve. I had called him on my aunt’s cell phone from the hospital entranceway. “She’s not going to be okay!” I said to him. “The cancer spread and they can’t get it out!” I was sobbing and shouting and just dripping tears.

“I’m so sorry, Fred,” he said to me “I really am.”

We realized we couldn’t do much else at the hospital that day, and there was no way we were going to be able to see my mom until tomorrow when she could talk. So we walked to the car together holding each other close. We knew she wasn’t coming home with us that day when we brought her there, but we certainly didn’t think this is how we would be leaving.

That night I’ll never forget how my aunt was a complete wreck. We stood outside in the backyard of their home in Mattapoisett and she was babbling. She was screaming about how I needed to have a child and how she wished she had children so the family would go on. She implored me to have children between crying fits. I had to shake her by the shoulders and tell her how much I loved her. I told her that none of what she is suggesting is going to help the situation right now and she needed to go in and get some sleep. I told her to look up at the heavens and think how little we are compared to the universe.

And at that point we both witnessed the most amazing shooting star across the Cape Cod sky either one of us had ever seen. 

We hugged for what seemed like an hour and then went to our respective sides of the house and went to sleep.




So much happened following that first day of November in 2005. 

My mother asked me—on our first visit to see her after her surgery—if I would stop drinking for her and I told her no. 

I told her no because if I stopped drinking for her and then she died then what would I all have been for?

I can tell myself that this was the right thing to do but, of course, it was partly me being selfish again. And certainly it was the addiction talking.

I would spend the following two years spiraling completely out of control and diving into a world of pills and other things that I’ve written about pretty extensively. I’m certainly not proud of what I did in reaction to my mom--and then my aunt--passing away while I was still in my 30s. But I do get some sort of peace from being able to divide my life up in ten year chunks like this. To be able to look back at a full decade and see how it began—with a simple fender bender and an x-ray—and follow that through all the massive boulders in the road and tracing all the steps that it took for me to get to my DUI in December of 2007 that would start me on my path towards sobriety is really something special. To see the awakening of my soul while my aunt was alive for those first five months of sobriety—before her own terminal diagnosis—and to know that she was able to witness the seeds of my understanding of where some of my self-destructive behavior came from is something I hold near and dear. 

I lost so very much in first few years following my mother’s diagnosis, but in these past ten years I have gained more than I could have ever pictured. From learning how to drive again at 35 (after thankfully swearing off car ownership at 21) when my mom bought my my trusty Subaru so I could come home to visit her, to finding the love of my life in Jodi. It has all been unforgettable. Oh, how I wish they could have all met each other, but I always feel a little less like I am without the two most important women in my life when I am with this one. And I know it is because of my sobriety that I am able to stay with her and stay present in my world.

I get up every day, wash my face with warm water and look in the mirror. In that mirror I see on my face the lines that befit a man of my age. I am not 35 anymore and I try not to pretend that I am. But I think back to the days when I was and I can feel that heaviness that I should have never lived with. I can—just for a few seconds at a time—relive that feeling of dread and regret that I woke with nearly every day. I can remember trying to retrace my steps from the night before by looking in and around the trash can for clues of what I ate and what I drank. I can still see in the faces of some people I don’t even know that they remember me as that guy. I don’t feel the need to ask them what I ever did to them. I’d rather not know. Because the hands on the clocks will always only go in one direction.


I have made my peace with my family.

I have made my peace with my friends.

I have realized where I went wrong and I understand the root of those decisions.

I can write about these days like this because they are the events that made me who I am.

And sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to have found love as true and as honest as this. I think back to all the times I thought of myself first and let others down. 

But each one of our days are so very long and at any moment we can be asked to do the one thing that will change our lives forever.

That thing for me was to put down the bottle and hope to never pick it up again.


Ten years of changes is upon me now. And as they flow through my existence each and every day I can safely say that they have filled me with the joys of a lifetime.




Thanks for reading,

~FAJ