by J. David
I hear a muffled ping from underneath my parka as I drive to school. It’s a text message that will have to wait until I get to my desk. While I’m wondering who it could be, a call from an unidentified number rings through the radio. When I answer, an electronic voice alerts me, “Daniel needs help.”
Surely it’s not supposed to happen like this, an electronic voice cutting through the dark, freezing air inside my car, to tell me my friend’s life is in danger. I’ve only had two days to fully wrap my head around Daniel’s situation, but surely it’s not supposed to happen like this.
My heart races as I register these thoughts and kicks into overdrive as I dial Daniel’s number.
The “Daniel” the electronic voice refers to is my longtime friend and colleague, Dan (not his real name), who, on the Monday morning prior to this unexpected phone call, asked to add me to his emergency contact list. He flashed an Embrace wristwatch that detects when he’s having a seizure. He had recently experienced three of them in the span of five days.
The Embrace watch monitors Dan’s movements for seizure patterns. Upon detection, it transmits a “SEIZURE ALERT” text message to his emergency contacts that includes GPS coordinates of the watch and directions to its location. A phone call follows within a minute of the text, and every minute thereafter, until the contact responds to the voice prompt or the watch signal is deactivated.
The evening after Dan asked me to be an Embrace contact, I was pondering his flightiness. His absentmindedness. He can be forgetful. He shows up a day early or a day late for a birthday party. Tends to use vague pronouns for people he’s talking about. Doesn’t recall details from recent conversations. As frustrating as all that can be at times, it’s part of Dan’s idiosyncratic charm. I’ve called him The Professor for almost as long as I’ve known him, partly because of his ability to make his dissociation look like a bluff before laying down a winning poker hand, partly because of the way he lets his reading glasses slip down his nose when he talks to someone, but mostly because it’s short for The Absentminded Professor.
Dan’s ways have always been good for a laugh or friendly ribbing, but they stopped being funny last school year during the pandemic when he neglected some of his remote teaching duties. He had told me when we passed in the hallway one day that he didn’t know what he was supposed to do, despite consistent messaging from the administration detailing our exact responsibilities. When an email popped up in my inbox last spring, asking me to be a reference for Dan’s application to teach in a neighboring district, I found myself wondering how serious the neglect of his duties had become. He had provided no context or advance notice for the reference letter. Of course not, because, well, Dan. He’s The Professor.
We spoke on the phone the night after that email. He explained that our principal was exploring the situation regarding Dan’s neglected duties and seeming inattentiveness in class. There had already been several meetings about the issue, none of which went favorably. As Dan described the meetings to me, he was slow to answer when spoken to. He also vaguely referenced the principal and his department chair without using their names while he was struggling to respond to their questions. But he didn’t seem to comprehend the reason behind his own behaviors. His union representative at one point cleared the room to speak to Dan privately, and rather firmly, about demonstrating more respect to the issue and the others in the meetings. Even on the phone that night, Dan couldn’t remember the principal’s name. “Whatsizname?” he repeated until, exasperated, I yelled at him for being so flippant. I hoped he was thinking about how it’s nearly impossible to get another teaching position when he’s as close to retirement as he is, and how his family (his special-needs son in particular) can’t afford to lose his income and benefits.
What surprised me the most, though, was hearing Dan tell me he wasn’t even sure why he was being pulled into meetings. He felt the administration was harassing him. He said he had an outburst at one point, stating loudly and aggressively that whatever they were talking about didn’t matter because he planned on quitting.
What he described to me was not Dan. “Outburst,” “loud,” and “aggressive” would be the last words I would associate with him. He has worked at our school for sixteen years, a lot of that time with reluctant learners who can be difficult to reach. Dan is patient and calm, to a fault at times, and makes meaningful connections with his students and coworkers. I’d never seen him anywhere near angry.
The change in Dan wasn’t exclusive to school. He disclosed to me that his wife and oldest son had noticed something different in his affect, but couldn’t pin down what exactly, or for how long they’d noticed it. They suggested he see a doctor, but Dan hadn’t taken their suggestion seriously. He changed his mind when his union representative presented him with paperwork that would release the union from representing him. He realized at that point he was probably going to be fired. Two days later, he was sitting on the examination table in his primary care physician’s office.
Within a week, Dan found out he had been manifesting symptoms associated with an epidermoid brain cyst. His understanding was that the foundation for the cyst had been with him since he was an embryo when epithelial cells (which form skin, hair, and nails) became trapped with cells that form the brain. The epithelial cells still grow, albeit quite slowly, and in Dan’s case had formed a benign cyst that affected his brain’s functioning, and thus his cognitive processes, and ultimately accounted for his confusion and simmering aggression. Since the cyst grew slowly over time, Dan showed only a gradual decline. The resultant changes in his disposition skimmed under the radar of most everybody who knows him because he’s always been The Professor.
The electronic voice coming through my radio speakers had barely stopped when a synaptic crossfire erupted in my mind. Dan’s situation had triggered raw memories of our friend Joel, which were unexpectedly demanding as much attention in that moment as what was happening with Dan.
Joel had decided his own fate three years ago sitting in his truck in backcountry Michigan just off his parents’ property after another blowout fight with his wife and ongoing despair about his science career. Dan had attended Joel’s memorial and, like me, was lost in thoughts of how our friend was unexpectedly gone. How could he be gone? He was our bro, our dude, and one of the most valuable treasures in our aging and uncertain lives. I had no explanation. Joel had been on the verge of completing a nursing degree and seemed to be honestly working on the issues he and his wife at times struggled to manage. But I also hadn’t talked to him for several weeks. He had been missing for three days when his brother-in-law found my number and contacted me about Joel’s possible whereabouts. Joel’s wife called me five days later with the tragic news.
And there I was again, another unexpected phone call, my heart racing as a medical condition, one that had been hiding in plain sight, ambushed Dan.
Dan started the school year minus as much of the cyst as his surgeon had been able to scrape away. Part of it had to remain at the risk of Dan suffering paralysis if the entire thing were excised. When I saw Dan in August for the first time since visiting him in the hospital pre-surgery, he had shrunk in size by a small degree and his face was gaunt. But his eyes were clearer and more focused than I remembered them being for some time. He told me he had a disability accommodation that allowed him to teach four classes instead of his usual five, and he hoped that would help him manage his stress level so as not to set back his recovery or exhaust himself. His fresh start with the new year lasted until November when he had a seizure on a Tuesday after school, one of the three he had had in five days. Those episodes kept him at home until his doctors balanced his medications and he could function as normally as possible.
When I registered myself on the Embrace database the Monday evening after Dan approached me, I assumed I was his backup contact after his wife, who has immediate access to him except when he’s at school. I set my phone to let the Embrace communications ring through at any time, thereby doubling the number of people who could reach me that way. The list is Dan and my wife.
When I texted Dan to let him know I had adjusted my phone for Embrace, I realized his identity as The Professor across the years might be fully behind us. But I couldn’t shake those quirks and foibles that define who he is to me, so I also joked that he shouldn’t have a seizure just because he gets bored and wants to talk. I carried on, telling him not to have a seizure when he’s confused about something he should have been paying attention to and needs to ask me about it. In short: Don’t play the “seizure” card, especially “when I’m having ‘alone time’ with my wife. Unless you can wait fifteen seconds.”
He quipped that I was making him dizzy and he hoped it didn’t lead to a seizure.
I have little doubt in this age of pop psychology hyper-analysis that my texts are defining examples of toxic masculinity. I’m using humor to bolster my macho façade. I’m a man, and men don’t get scared. I’m muting the gravity of Dan’s situation to plaster over my fear of losing another friend. I’m hurting inside and I’m afraid to admit it. I fear vulnerability. Humor is my wall of defense, regardless of how disrespectful it may be to my friend’s condition.
My wisecracks are any and all of those things, and anything else anybody wants to conjure up, but I don’t despair about them. They are also a blunt statement of my belief that my friends won’t fall ill or even die. My laughter in the face of certainty is a message about the futility of trying to hold me to the rules.
Yet, I know this isn’t true, because I know why my heart raced beneath my parka when the electronic voice came through my speakers. I know my friends at some point will fall ill and even die. I know this only too well given my experience with Joel. I fear their deaths will strike like a defibrillator and resuscitate the angst I knew as a friendless fourteen-year old boy, and then as a friendless adult in my mid-twenties. The memory of that pain can manifest itself physically when it springs unfettered from the dark reaches of my psyche.
I found out about Dan’s at-school seizure the day after it happened. I called him to check in a few days after, but my call went straight to voicemail. That was no surprise because, for all I knew, the cell phone number I had for The Professor was actually his landline, which he never answered and seldom checked. Or his phone might have been broken for the past month. Or it was lost. Or his texts and voicemails were instantly translated to Swahili and he didn’t know how to change that setting. There was always something absurd or unexpected that flummoxed Dan. All I could do was wait for him to return my call and work on shuffling anecdotes about his kookiness into a file in the back of my mind that had been bulging with content before anybody knew a cyst was affecting Dan’s life.
Dan finally called me the week before Christmas to thank me for checking in. He detailed his health status, noting that the cyst might regrow but that he wouldn’t show symptoms for years given the slow development of epithelial cells. He had plenty of time to rest at that point in the school year and planned on returning to the classroom after the holiday break.
He also told me about the seizure experience. He had been working alone in his classroom after school when he found himself pacing back and forth and clicking manically through tabs on the browser window of his tablet. “I couldn’t figure out why I was doing either of those,” he said. “I knew something was wrong.” He somehow had the wherewithal to know he needed help, so he walked across the hall to the nearest office.
The teacher Dan found there seated at her desk later told me that, when she spoke to him, he was not verbally responsive. He stared blankly at her, cradling his left forearm with his right hand. She recognized something serious was happening based on her experiences with her husband, who had suffered from brain cancer and had episodes similar to what she was seeing. “I sat Dan down and spoke calmly to him,” she said. “I went for help, and when I returned, he had gotten up and was going to leave.”
The school nurse arrived and ran a series of neurological and motor skills checks while an ambulance was inbound. Dan had no recollection of anything that happened after he left his classroom. His next moment of consciousness came when EMTs were shuffling him between treatment bays in the emergency room at a nearby hospital.
Dan slowly recovered over the holidays. When we returned from break in January, he asked me to be his Embrace contact. Two mornings later, the electronic voice cut through the freezing air in my car as I drove to work.
I respond to the voice prompt to acknowledge I have received the call. I find Dan on my contact list, and when he picks up, I say, “Dan, it’s J. David.” I’m laboring to sound clear and composed for both our sakes. “I got a call from Embrace. Are you okay? Are you having a seizure?” I hold my breath and listen intently for anything in his voice that might sound like he’s having a seizure and hope I don’t miss clues hiding in plain sight, like we all had before, and where was Dan’s wife? and how will I know if I do hear anything in Dan’s voice? and how can I hear anything with my heart pounding in my ears?
“Oh no, dude,” he says, sounding a little surprised to be getting a call from me at this hour. “The damn watch. It gets wet, and I guess that triggers it.”
“But you’re okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I was shaving.” His voice is steady and he’s responding in clear terms to my questions, which I take to mean his cognitive processes are stable and he’s not having a seizure.
I exhale. We are quiet for a moment.
The euphoria of relief floods my mind as fast as the Embrace message flung it into panic.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
Lacking any impulse control at this point, I ask, “Is denial a symptom of having a seizure?”
Dan goes quiet for a few beats before his laughter breaks the silence.
I’m at my desk fifteen minutes later, checking my phone while I set up for the morning. I see the first Embrace text that signaled “SEIZURE ALERT,” but there’s a second text that I didn’t hear when it arrived. It says, “Daniel is SAFE AND SOUND. No help is needed this time, but thanks for your committed care and attention.”
My eyes return to “this time” and stick there. I hope that is all I’ll ever see. I’m hoping against fate, but here I am in a strange new world living one “this time” to the next with The Professor’s life. My face is warm. I feel a pit in my stomach. I know how this will end, but when? And how will I ever get used to this?
Later that day I follow up on my implied responsibility as an Embrace contact and peruse the “Guide for Caregivers” online. It turns out false alarms aren’t uncommon which, had I known two days earlier, might have saved me from all the panic. The guide notes that activities such as riding a bike on a bumpy road, chopping vegetables, or brushing teeth can resemble the movement signature of a seizure and trigger false alarms. Shaving, too, as I now understand.
Dan has been seizure-free since November, and has only triggered one false alarm thus far. How long until more roll in? I laugh to myself as I envision him riding his bike down a bumpy road while brushing his teeth, all the while giving no thought to calls from his contacts lighting up his phone because he doesn’t realize it’s turned off or he doesn’t recognize the numbers or he doesn’t even know where his phone is, because that’s how The Professor rolls. Regardless, Dan is as safe as he can be right now, which is the most I can get out of this situation. I’ll take it.
J. David is the pen name of a teacher with almost thirty years of classroom teaching experience. His forthcoming memoir Just Leave focuses on the impact of the COVID pandemic on his life and career.