Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Beautiful Boy

My son, the producer.  He's 34 today.

Andrew was three weeks overdue; I think my late wife, Mary, had an inkling as to about when he'd arrive.  After a long, sumptuous, late evening Thanksgiving dinner with Joe and Fran Arce and their family, who lived just across the street from us in Alameda, we slept well, if briefly, that evening.  Mary, somewhat reluctantly, woke me around 6:30 the next morning to say that it was probably time.  The adrenalin kicked in, despite the early hour, and we were on our way to Alameda Hospital, all of seven blocks up the street.   Within the half-hour we were standing at the admitting desk, and Mary was whisked off to a room.  There we watched the baby's movements on a monitor, but couldn't determine if it was a boy or girl.  Mary and I were both open to either, though we thought it'd be nice, since we had our daughter, Nicole, to have a boy.  

Dr. Payne had given me the OK to be present at the delivery.  I vaguely remember getting "suited up" and escorted into the delivery room around noon.  I remember Dr. Payne pulling Andrew out at 12:29 PM, all 9 lbs., 1 oz. of him -- this big, somewhat purplish looking baby.  It's ironic that in his late twenties Andrew adopted the nickname "Moose"!  His first response in coming into this new, uncertain, and cold world was to pee all over the doctor and nurses: a long stream, that I remember, and then scream his protest at being there!  After placing him in a small crib, I noticed some concerned looks among the doctors and nurses, then Dr. Payne asked that I step outside.  Immediate panic! They kept reassuring me that everything was OK, but that they needed to deal with a slight breathing difficulty.  Whatever it was, they dealt with it in short order.  My panic subsided and soon Andrew and his mother were resting comfortably.

Within the first year of his life Andrew had severe colic, was hospitalized for a short time with pneumonia, and scratched the cornea of his eye.   He had to wear an eye patch (a true challenge for parents with a wiggly 4-month-old!), which occasioned a number of family jokes and comments, especially on account of the way his diaper also sagged over his flat behind.  Also, except when tickled, he didn't smile much, thus earning himself the title of "The Judge".

In the years that followed, oh, too quickly from my perspective, Andrew was a short, skinny, klutzy ball of energy.  He wore glasses and braces, appearing to be a dead-ringer for Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) in the 1983 classic, A Christmas Story.  His plain exterior, however, veiled a truly guileless, generous, and courageous soul: "my beautiful boy".  He began ballet classes at age 12 (a story in itself) and transformed over the next twelve years into a handsome, muscular, six-footer.  In his 20+ year ballet career he danced with seven major companies, including the Joffrey, and was an original cast member of the Broadway musical, Movin' Out, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, with music by Billy Joel.  He's always been a commanding presence onstage, and many times wowed audiences with incredible jumps and turns.  He himself would never tell you that, of course, but as his most ardent fan, I unabashedly would! And that's not even counting the innovative teaching and choreography which he's continued to the present.

Another November: 1999, 25 years after Dr. Payne delivered Andrew. 

I receive a call which is every parent's nightmare.  They tell me that my son, three weeks after closing in the lead role in Ballet Memphis' Dracula,  rated one of the year's six best artistic events in Memphis, has collapsed, can't walk, sit up, or support his head.  The diagnosis (given after literally many months): a rare form of brain-stem disease affecting the muscles, Bickerstaff's encephalitis.  That sickening panic roils in the pit of my stomach again!

Two months pass in a blur of frantic air flights back and forth to Memphis, worried huddles with doctors, calls back and forth, hopes raised one day and dashed the next.  In early December Andrew's condition worsens and they rush him to Vanderbilt University Hospital, Nashville.  In real panic now, I take an emergency flight and find my beautiful boy intubated, hooked up to a ventilator, his breathing so shallow that he's close to dying.  At his side again, I spend a week trying to fake it as the cool, strong dad.  Inwardly I scream with alarm and fear, refusing to even dare think "What if...?"  He and I communicate by notepad through his medicated haze and pain, and through the labyrinth of daily tests.  "This is all so traumatic, " he scribbles.  "I want to give in to one understands me anymore...I just want to give up...too much."  I clutch his hand, fight back the tears, and try to quiet him by reading from Anne LaMott's book, Travelling Mercies (he especially loves her quote about having thoughts that would cause Jesus to drink gin from a cat dish!), and from the Psalms.  

Lonely and helpless, I sit on the sidelines 2000 miles away for the next four months as Andrew moves in and out of the hospital and, eventually, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  I am bereft.  Glancing often at a desk photo of the smiling young man in a wheelchair, I weep, the awareness sinking in that it's "my beautiful boy", doomed to endure another day of tremors, memory loss, and humiliation by insensitive, staring people, who see only someone who's "different". Slowly I succumb to the growing possibility that Andrew may never dance again, or perhaps even walk.  Staring into the eyes of my own inner mistrust and despair, I ache and hurt down to the roots of my soul.  

Six and a half months of time pass.  It's June 22, 2001.  Tears of unutterable joy well up as I watch my "Lazarus" walk to me across the green courtyard grass of my apartment complex, smiling and confident, with only a slight limp.  A few months later he reawakens more of his body's muscles through Tai Chi and intensive Feldenkreis therapy.  Through the help of family and friends he emerges from a long bout of depression with a determination and resilience of spirit which leaves me breathless.  He's anxious as he approaches the ballet studio barre, privately in the off-hours, in September to see if his body remembers even the basic steps.  Two months later he soloes in a minor part in The Nutcracker.  By the next spring a New York Times review acclaims the "sizzling pas de deux" to B. B. King's recording of The Thrill is Gone in which Andrew performs on the Danny Kaye Theater stage in New York.

On Father's Day, 2000, Andrew wrote to me:  "I see myself in you, my only living parent...I share your best and your worst...You gave me this chance to live not once, but twice...let me tell you...I have no regrets about the past."

Nor I, my beautiful boy, nor I.  Happy Birthday -- and many more!

(Andrew, president of Andrew Allagree Productions LLC, is in the preliminary stages of producing the national tour of  Anne: A Dance for Humanity.  One story.  11 million voices.  The project is designed "to present an unmatched dance and theatrical performance experience through acclaimed choreographer Mauricio Weinrot's moving contemporary ballet Anne Frank...With its message of tolerance, anti-hate, and Holocaust education, Anne is both an artistic as well as a humanitarian endeavor."  The production, with a 14- member dance troupe, will travel nationwide presenting a multi-media dance/lecture format, in six major cities: Memphis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, Ft. Lauderdale, and San Francisco, between October and December, 2009.  For further information or to make much-needed donations, contact: Andrew Allagree Productions LLC, 901: 275-8042.  There's also a blog site: The Anne Frank Project: Andrew's Diary at    


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