Looking Back, Moving Forward
While I may get my mail delivered somewhere else these days, I think in my heart there will always be a part of me that calls Astoria, Queens my home. I was born and raised there. I spent the bulk of my life playing, working and going to school there. I still have some of my closest friends and family there too. So the other day I was passing through Astoria on my way back to Long Island. I turned off Broadway onto 43rd Street, my old block. Passed by my old building (where my mom and dad still live after more than 40 years), rolled past the childhood home of my still best friend to this day (hi Donna!), and finally crossed over 31st Avenue at the top of the hill. The quick little journey brought me face to face with P.S. 70, the elementary school I attended from grades K-6, A lifetime ago. As I drove past the school, I was suddenly flooded with a memory that I hadn’t thought about in years. All of a sudden it was like I was right there, living it all over again. That happens to me sometimes. It’s pretty cool too, sometimes. LOL. Anyway, I’m suddenly not in my van anymore, wondering if I have enough gas to make it back to Medford without stopping. Instead I’m suckin’ wind. Running through the halls with my friend Chris Papadapolous on our way back to class. Do you still have to go to the bathroom with a “buddy” in school nowadays? Running through the halls was the ultimate no-no in school back then, by the way. But I was a 6th grader, getting ready to “graduate” and move on to Junior High School, so of course those rules didn’t apply to ME, right? So Chris and I are barrelling down a straight hallway. We are booming like thunder as Chris wasn’t made out of feathers, and if there was a kid in all of P.S. 70 (or all of Astoria for that matter) who weighed more than me at that age, I sure hadn’t met him. At the end of the hall we get stopped in our tracks by a woman I had never seen before.
She was older, glasses, not much taller than me. She didn’t seem like a teacher, but she gave off the vibe that she definitely had some sort of authority. She didn’t seem mad at us for running either, which I was kind of surprised about. What also caught me off guard was when she told Chris to go back to our classroom on his own, and for me to come with her. Well as it turned out, she was the school nurse and dietician. Up until that point I didn’t know P.S. 70 even HAD a school nurse. And I had no idea what a dietician was either. She explained to me that she was very concerned by my weight and my health. Had she NOT just seen me running? Or maybe she had and that is what tipped her off...ha ha ha. We spent the next hour or so talking. She asked me questions about my eating habits, my home life, mom and dad, my siblings, family history, were there any health issues, anyone else in my family who was overweight, etc. etc. Before I got sent back to class though, she asked me to step on her scale. One of those old-fashioned medical scales where things slide, balance and make all kinds of clangy metal noises. It was June, right after my birthday. I had just turned 12...and I was told that I weighed 212 pounds. Strange how I still remember the exact number after almost three decades. Some things just stick with you I guess. So I went back to class and didn’t give it much thought again. That is, until about a week or so later when I suddenly found myself back in the nurse’s office. This time my mom was sitting next to me though, looking VERY unhappy about having to take some time off from work to be there. Basically, the jist of things was that everyone was very concerned about me. The nurse strongly recommended a place in Brooklyn. A clinic just off the BQE that specialized in helping people around my age with my particular problem.
So off we went, once a week, during school hours. One of my uncles would drive my mom and I to this clinic, where they woke poke and prod me. Take blood, run tests I had never heard of, plan out meals and “consult” me on my “situation.” Okay, so some of this has become clouded over time. I think I went for about a month. Four weeks, four visits, that was it. No drastic changes to my weight, but I didn’t gain anything in that time either. Small victories, right? Yeah, not so much. Because this time there a NEW doctor waiting for me. He was a little dude too. Bald, glasses, some sort of accent. German maybe? You could almost SEE the arrogance oozing off him. That much I remember clear as day. This was definitely a man who was used to getting his way. And on this particular day he was informing my mother (and me I suppose, although he was addressing her as if I wasn’t even in the room) that I needed an operation. Totally caught her off guard, which wasn’t easy to do back in mom’s better days. Anyway, this operation was something different. It was a form of weight loss surgery. Not like today’s surgeries either. Today you can lay down on the table in the afternoon and be back home that night. No sir, this was 1983. I remember it sounding really crude. Basically they cut away a big part of your stomach, fold you over, and staple you closed again. Staple. OUCH. He said it was kind of risky and still pretty new. He also showed us the “after” picture of his latest “success” in the operating room. It was a kid around my age I guess. Standing in a pair of his old pants, pulled all the way out to show how much weight he had lost. The classic “after” picture. So after giving us a little time to process all of his, he told my mom that I absolutely HAD to be his next patient. Diets weren’t working. Nothing was working. This surgery was my only hope.
Then, in full on drama mode, he removed his glasses and and said the following (keep in mind I had just turned 12 years old and I was in the room at the time), “Mrs. McDermott, if your son doesn’t have this surgery he will be dead by the time he is 19.” Then he put his glasses back on, folded his arms, and with a smirk on his face, waited for my mother’s response. Ha ha ha ha...I love this part. As I said, this doctor definitely looked like he was used to saying what he wanted and then getting it without question. So you can imagine his genuine surprise when it didn’t go his way this time around. My mother, all five feet of attitude and life experience, ripped this poor man a new....well, let’s just say that he got it from her with both barrels. She screamed at him for what seemed like an eternity, cursing him up and down for telling a twelve year old his life was basically over unless he agreed to be cut, folded and stapled. Needless to say we left the little clinic in Brooklyn that day, and the freshly torn-apart doctor, and never looked back. I wish I could say that the road I traveled after that was an easy one filled with good health and smart choices. But that just wasn’t the case. It was rough...sometimes it was really rough. So what is the point of this story then? Well it might not have all been pretty. But that really, really, REALLY overweight kid who was told that he wouldn’t live to see 19 without surgery just closed the book on his 41st birthday. There was a lot of hard work involved. Plenty of ups, downs, peaks, valleys, and the most amazing daughter anyone could ever ask for. For the most part these days I am happy and healthy. At the very least I am heathy-er. Thanks to some key people in my life I also know that I can always push a little harder and do a little bit more. Every day is an adventure and I constantly remind myself to make the most of each one. Sometimes that is a hard lesson to remember, but the important thing is that I am still around to live it.