Eat Dessert First
He was the result of unique bloodline. Choctaw, German, Irish, Black. Whatever you could name, he probably had a bit of it floating around in his DNA. It led to a fantastic background story, but also led to a very rare disease that manifested itself after a football injury. It’s a disease that is slowly atrophying his muscles. It’s a disease that he probably had at least a one-in-a-million chance of having. His parents had to both be one-in-a-million carriers who would have to just happen to meet and have him. It is a disease that has manifested itself in a one in a million life.
I was the result of the need for work other than parents paying me to paint the garage. I ended back at my first job out of college. We often jokingly called it “The Family Business”, Disability Support Services at a local community college. My brother works there and my mother teaches at the school. I came back as almost a favor to my family, but one I would be paid for. There were moments I really enjoyed it. There were moments it felt like there was no escape. All in all, it served its purpose, but when something better finally came along, it was time to leave.
That’s how I found myself seated with this man in his wheelchair on my last day of work. That’s how I found myself facing major life change with a man who changed my life in just ten minutes of storytelling.
He loved animals. As he sat in his wheelchair, he told me about his love of horses that went back to when he was a kid. All of the kids in his class were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave a lot of the answers we all used to give: doctors or astronauts or firemen or whatever it was. They gave the answers we all gave, but even then, he had a truly unique answer to give.
He wanted to be a cowboy and a dump truck driver. When he was asked why, he said, “Well cowboys get to play with horses and cows, and if I drove a dump truck, I would get to play in dirt all the time.” He wanted to enjoy whatever it was he ended up doing, no matter what it was. Even as a kid, he wanted to enjoy that.
I never had a dream job. I don’t really know what I used to tell people whenever they asked the younger version of me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Probably I wanted to study dinosaurs, since all of my free time was spent obsessing over Jurassic Park. But there’s nothing I can really recall because I, like many people as they grow up, got a little bit lost in the chase of the “dream job”. We got a little mixed up in the process to remember how to just enjoy whatever it was we were doing. I had forgotten how to enjoy it.
My last day at the school was largely uneventful. Very quiet, actually. I was planning on just finishing up and sneaking out. After all, I had finally found a new, real adult job, that would allow me to escape, so I wanted to get out with as little hassle as possible. For the most part, I was doing that. My only task left was to help monitor a test with a student I had met but never really chatted with.
We would chat that afternoon. It was my last task at that job, and he would remind me to enjoy whatever it was I was doing. My last task was the task that helped me enjoy that job one more time.
“When my life was threatened, I laid in bed next to my wife and I wondered what I had done with my life. Had I really enjoyed it? Sometimes we spend so much time doing so many things that others tell us to do. They tell us how to live. We have to forget that and go out and enjoy life and that’s what I try to do.”
The Cowboy didn’t ride horses these days. He was in the wheelchair that had become quite familiar to him over the years. The old injury triggered the disease that was taking his muscles away, even to the point where a computer keyboard was unusable. But it didn’t stop him from pursuing his education. It never stopped him from enjoying things so long as he could help it.
They say that right as you’re leaving a workplace or as a relationship ends, you see it all through rose-tinted glasses. Suddenly that poor relationship appears healthier than it really was. The job seems a bit more fulfilling or at least less intimidating than whatever it is you’re heading into. And in those moments, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and worried that where you’re heading isn’t where you’re supposed to be.
I was supposed to be at that school for a time. I know this. I was supposed to be there to help out in whatever way I could and to be beneficial to the place. But I was never supposed to linger. If I were to stay there, it would only be because I felt I owed those co-workers or family members who were around. And while I would help them out at the drop of a hat, at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep doing things that other people told me to do.
It wasn’t a selfish thought, but a healthy, freeing one. That wasn’t the place for me to keep working, and sure, there will be complications moving forward. But that’s life. Whether good or bad, life keeps moving forward and we have to as well. That means taking personal responsibility and making the effort to never grow stagnant. We can’t bow to the wishes or demands that other people unfairly put upon us. Being helpful is a wonderful thing. Being a conformist is not. Being genuine is a beautiful way to live. Being a stubborn non-conformist doesn’t help anyone out.
“We’ll sit down at a restaurant and sometimes I just want to eat dessert first. I mean, why do we have that structure? Sure, my kids need it, but I’m a grown man and sometimes I need to eat dessert first. My wife gets mad at me but you have to enjoy things.”
His grandmother kept chickens when he was really young. There was one in particular that clearly bossed the rest of the bunch around. The boss chicken would come to his grandmother whenever she called, and he decided, as his young, mischievous self, that the chicken needed to follow his orders as well. Of course, the chicken didn’t know him, so she was stubborn. He was stubborn as well, so he would find a way to force the chicken to listen.
He cornered the chicken near the corner of a fence. There had to be a way to get that ridiculous chicken to come when he called. He had to teach it a lesson. The lesson, he decided would be taught by trapping the chicken under an old metal washtub. Of course, as soon as he trapped the bird, he heard his grandmother yelling at him from the house.
“She asked me, ‘Are you bothering those chickens again?’ and I knew that I had two choices right then and there. I could release that chicken and therefore get a butt whoopin, or I could hid the chicken and stay safe for the moment, because she didn’t know where the chicken was. So I just said, ‘No ma’am, I’m not doing anything’ and went about playing where she could see me so she wouldn’t get suspicious.
“Well naturally I forgot about that chicken and so did she. We found that bird a week later, dead under the washtub. So you can imagine the butt whoopin I got at that point.”
He was always kinder to his horses. He always had a horse around, from when he was young up until just recently, even though he hadn’t been able to ride in many years. It broke his hard to finally say goodbye to his horses, but he couldn’t treat them as well anymore as they deserved.
Saying goodbye to his favorite pastime didn’t change him, though. Same as his injury and disease had never changed who he was. He said that he still frequently would put on his boots and show them off as he rode his wheelchair around. He didn’t have the horses anymore, but he was still the same man.
“I’m still a cowboy,” he said with his permanent smile.
“On Wednesdays I’m conservative. Other days, I might be more liberal or whatever you want to call it. Doesn’t matter. Wednesdays I try to be more conservative. But really, I don’t take it as seriously.”
For about ten minutes after his test was over, we sat around and talked and shared stories and discussed all sorts of silly, unimportant things that helped us not take life so seirously. Neither of us were obligated to stay there. His wife was ready to pick him up and drive him home, and I was done with work for the day. Done with work at that place entirely. But we both needed to sit down and chat.
You see, he reminded me of many things I once knew but had since forgotten. He reminded me that work was meant to be enjoyed, not a striving after pleasing people when they make demands of you. He reminded me that life was supposed to be enjoyed, which maybe meant ordering dessert first because you’re not sure when the sadder realities of life will hit. He reminded me to enjoy the man I was made to be, not the man that circumstances tried to turn me into.
He lived life his own unique way, and he reminded me to enjoy the uniqueness of it all. It was the unique absurdity of life that caused me to start writing a uniquely absurd blog in the first place. It was the unique absurdity that caused me to leave my old office job in search of a place where I felt I could be instrumental. It was the unique absurdity that helped me work through severe depression, and pulled me into a place where I can be more in touch with those unique people around me. He reminded me of all of that.
To top it all off, he reminded me that life can throw a lot of things at us, and sometimes life can be cruel, but while it’s all worth enjoying, we have to keep a healthy perspective on what is really important.
“I take my salvation seriously. I believe in one God, the Father. I believe in Jesus His Son, and I believe He sends the Holy Spirit to comfort us. I believe that, and I hope he blesses your life when you leave here.”
With that, he shook my hand, and the cowboy rode off into the sunset.
After the cowboy left, I quietly gathered my things, took one look at all of the offices around me that were closed and locked as everyone was out to lunch or busy, and snuck out the door like I intended to do. Without making a fuss, I stepped out of the forced spotlight of a job that was mine because people and circumstances told me it had to be mine. I stepped out of that place and into the next chapter of a life that I’m starting to think is still enjoyable after all. Maybe it will be as one-in-a-million as the one-in-a-million life of the man I had just finished having a one-in-a-million conversation with. Ten minutes in contact with that unique life, and I know those ten minutes changed mine. I walked out, into the next chapter, a changed man.
And you can bet that I ate dessert first that night.