I don’t know how to feel about any of this. This truly foul year of our Lord, 2020, has finally concluded, and I suppose I should be more optimistic about the future. One of the worst years in recent memory — which included a pandemic, international demonstrations against racism that occasionally morphed into riots and a president that did everything in his power to undermine American democracy — is over, and better days appear to be on the horizon. A COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed, and if it does what it’s supposed to do, life might return to normal by the end of summer. The malignant narcissist who’s been roaming the halls of the White House for the past four years has been voted out, and barring some remarkable occurrence, will leave office in a short time. Those are both good things. But I can’t ignore the fact that the New Year here in Western North Carolina was ushered in by a torrential downpour that worsened a hole in my ceiling, which had swelled like a boil and popped during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore. I think we can all agree a ceiling hole seems ominous.
So, too, of course, does the riot that broke out in the Capitol building on Jan. 6, the day Congress certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. A group of far-right extremists breached the building and occupied it for hours, smashing windows, releasing tear gas and trudging through the halls like barbarians. Five people were killed, including a cop who was bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher. Trump, of course, incited the violence, proclaiming that he would “never concede” at a rally in DC earlier in the day, and urged his misled supporters to march down to the Capitol building. It was an ugly ending to a despicable presidency, a striking example of just how far Trump cultists will go to keep their supreme leader in power under the guise of electoral fairness, even patriotism. Trump eventually denounced the rioters, but only after calling them “special people” and claiming that he loved them. It was a shocking series of events, but far from surprising, given Trump’s provocative rhetoric and the devoutness of his loyalists. Watching the madness unfold solidified the idea that the problems we faced in 2020 are going to spill over into 2021, whether we like it or not. A flip of the calendar is arbitrary: it erases nothing.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore. I think we can all agree a ceiling hole seems ominous.
Holes and incomprehensible riots aside, I’m going to try — keyword: try — to remain positive as we move into this new and potentially better 365-day cycle. On a personal level, I have a lot to be thankful for. My wife and I are currently living in our dream house: a brick rancher with an enormous basement that sits on 16 acres in a valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yes, the ceiling is currently leaking, but that’ll be fixed soon. We also got a new dog, a dachshund/blue heeler mix named Dottie, whose inclusion brings our wolfpack membership to three, alongside Bucklee (a chocolate lab) and Willow (a pit bull/Australian shepherd mix). This rambunctious trio is enjoying our 16 acres with reckless abandon. When I take them for a walk up the mountain, they’ll gorge themselves on silt and animal shit, then vomit up a pile of amorphous black gunk when they get home. Bucklee recently did this right in the middle of the white carpet in our living room. It took me an hour to clean up the mess, and pissed me off so much that I gave myself a headache from cursing. I had to sit on a couch in the dark for 15 minutes to regain my composure. Dogs can be infuriating to the point of insanity, but I wouldn’t trade the grungy mongrels for anything. On the whole, they tilt the scale of life towards the better. Or at least that’s what I believe until I find a pile of black emesis in the living room and curse myself in a migraine.
But where was I? Oh yes, gratefulness. I’m also grateful that 2020 saw my wife and I put a baby in the oven, even though it’s not the girl she hoped it would be — a preference she not-so-subtly let on during our gender reveal video. But even this usually uplifting news includes a caveat, as we discovered our son, Conley, has a rare genetic disorder known as Van Maldergem Syndrome. From what I’ve read, there are fewer than 20 diagnosed cases in the world, and as such there’s scant information about the disease. What we do know is that Conley has clubbed feet and clenched hands, and that he could have any number of additional symptoms, including intellectual disability, trachea issues, hearing loss and stunted physical development. We don’t know the severity of Conley’s case, and probably won’t know until he begins developing outside the womb. The wait is excruciating.
This diagnosis has cast a gray cloud over our lives. It’s hard to concentrate on much of anything with such sadness looming in the background. I broke down crying while driving to work the other morning. The cathartic moment lasted for about 15 seconds, then my tear ducts cinched up. I really wanted to ball, to let all of that pent up emotion pour out like sweat. But the tears simply stopped, just as unexpectedly as they’d started. Sadness is a river: sometimes gentle, sometimes rapid. I don’t pretend to understand it. I want nothing more than for life to go back to what it was before we learned about Van Maldergem Syndrome, but that day is never going to come.
At the end of each year, I compile the videos on my smartphone into a Year-in-Review film. It’s a way to keep familial memories alive. As I was watching clips from the early months of 2020, I scarcely recognized my wife and I. We looked so much more carefree. “We’ll never be those people again,” my wife said. She’s not wrong. Innocence, once lost, can never be regained.
I want nothing more than for life to go back to what it was before we learned about Van Maldergem Syndrome, but that day is never going to come.
But I’ve careened off track again. I’m supposed to be talking about how I’m grateful for everything I have, how I’m thankful that Caitlin and I were even able to get pregnant in the first place. And I am thankful, on some level, but as Caitlin and I agreed the other day, had we known in advance about all of the tribulations we and our little man would be facing, we never would’ve tried to conceive. But this is all a moot point now: Conley is coming. He’ll have what he’ll have. He’ll be born in the year 2021, a better year — or so we hope — and we’ll love the hell out of him. We’ll give him the best possible life, regardless of his situation.
But it’ll take work. It will take work.
I started a new tradition this New Years Eve. Caitlin’s parents (known Mama and Papa) were staying with us for a few days on their way back from Kentucky, where they’d visited my wife’s grandpa, a 96-year old former Merchant Marine captain. We had no plans other than to gorge ourselves on leftovers, so I decided to host a film festival for my year-in-review videos. I called it the Reeling in the Years festival, which I fancied rather clever. I designed a flyer (with some help from Canva) and taped it to the bathroom door.
The festival kicked off at noon with the 2018 video, followed by 2019 at three and 2020 at seven. It was going to be a major event. We made popcorn and I vacuumed the “theatre,” aka the sunroom of our new abode. As we watched, the importance of these videos became clear: How quickly we forget things we’ve done in the not so distant past. We remember vagaries, sure, but forget specifics. These videos offer documentation, operate as a more reliable stand-in for memory, which often distorts and misrepresents. These videos are hard facts for all time. Look at how much younger you looked, we say. Look at how small the dog was, we say. As we watch together, we remember collectively, where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. Like wine or a prime piece of real estate, time will increase the value of these moving pictures. As we grow out of the bodies we currently inhabit, morphing slightly then unrecognizably into people we never imagined ourselves being, we can open the window back to 2018, to 2020, and revisit the people we once were. Conley, God bless him, will be able to see what his parents were like before he existed. He’ll notice that we were confused and funny people, just like him. How strange it’ll be when he’s finally in the world.
After the inaugural Reeling in the Years festival concluded, all four of us went into the kitchen to devour our 12 predictive grapes for the New Year. You’ve probably heard of this tradition: each grape represents a month of the new year, and the quality of that month rides on the sweetness of its corresponding grape. There was a bit of confusion at the onset, as Papa, who’d downed a fair amount of tequila, thought you were supposed to eat all 12 grapes simultaneously to determine how the year was going to pan out as a whole. Then he reversed course, saying he was going to save a grape to be eaten on the first of each corresponding month. We reminded him that fruit tends to rot, and that the grape sitting in front of him now likely wouldn’t be edible in October. Papa, who has a strong Kentucky accent and an even stronger sense of humor, waved his hands in the air and veered off on another tangent, about how Grandpa had drank an unhealthy amount of bourbon on Christmas Day in Kentucky, taken off his pants in the living room and posted up spread-eagle on the recliner in his underwear, his man parts hanging low in the atmosphere. Scarred by this anecdote but undeterred, we began eating our grapes. I recorded the whole ordeal, all six minutes of it, for inclusion in the 2021 Year-in-Review video.
All-in-all, the grapes foresaw a pretty sweet year. Except September. September was conspicuously sour. Maybe that’ll be the month another leak opens up in our ceiling. Or a second insurrection occurs at the Capitol. Let’s hope the answer is resounding no on both fronts.
At any rate, Happy New Year. May all your grapes be damn sweet.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.
The best art consumed by Ourland’s editor over the past year.