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Drew Magary: Back from the Dead

Excerpt from The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage by Drew Magary, copyright © 2021 by Drew Magary. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.




I needed a watch and a dog, in that order. It was Christmas and I was finally gonna get off my ass and buy a few Statement Gifts. Our three kids—Flora, Rudy, and Colin—had been bitching for a dog for two years. I stoically rebuffed them every time they made the request. I told them, “I’ll think about it,” which is boilerplate Dad-ese for NO. Interchangeable with “We’ll see” as a cheap way to buy time while your kids walk away convinced that they’ve still got a chance at something. If I had said no outright to them, they would have dropped to the ground screaming and gone into exorcism convulsions, the way all kids do when they’re denied something they want. Instead, I strung my kids along on the dog matter, like I was distracting them on a walk through the grocery store candy aisle.

I didn’t want a dog. In my mind, I had graduated from caring for small things. Our three children were no longer babies. I was done with diapers. I was done with scrubbing Dr. Brown’s formula bottles, breaking each one down into its thirty-seven constituent parts in the sink so I could pick out mildew from each one using a glorified pipe cleaner. Never again. I was free. I walked past newborn babies out in the wild and thought to myself, Oh my God, that baby is so cute! Thank God we’re never ever having one again! In fact, I voluntarily paid a urologist to cut into my scrotum to ensure we wouldn’t. After my vasectomy was over, the nurse discharging me told me, “Congratulations! Your family is complete!” Goddamn right it was, lady. We were finished. There would be five of us and no more.

That was where I stood. I was finished with small-mammal caregiving. Now these kids wanted us to adopt a fourth, very hairy baby that doesn’t get any smarter and eats dried kangaroo pellets? F*** no, man. That would cut into Daddy’s beer time.

Of course, the story of any middle-aged dad is the story of a man vainly attempting to stand his ground while it shifts uncontrollably beneath him. The children persisted. They swore they’d take care of the dog. They’d feed it. They’d walk it, even in the rain. They’d housebreak it: a real leap of faith given how many years it took my wife, Sonia, and me to get those three kids to shit in a regulation toilet. I held firm. No, no, no, no, we’re good as is. If you guys need something that’s yippy and shits a lot, Colin is right there.

Alas, this was not solely my decision to make. Unlike me, Sonia grew up with a dog, and one day during the “Can we have a dog?” onslaught, she turned to me and was like, “You know, a dog could be really good for them.”

That was it. Once the kids had Sonia in their pocket, it was all over.

My wife, as you will soon discover, possesses a tenacity that’s far easier to submit to than to push back against. If she has an idea, she WILL see it through. If she asks me to do something and I take too long to get started on it for her liking, she bulls ahead and does it herself. The woman is a goddamn train. She and the kids worked me over as a team until Christmas crept over the horizon and I could see, with growing clarity, a vision of our kids bounding down the stairs Christmas morning and being greeted by a sprightly little doggy named Otis or Kirby or Biscuit or Cerberus wagging his tail and licking their faces.

I was in on the dog.

Timing-wise, a dog does not make an ideal Christmas-morning present, especially if you’re intent on adopting one from a shelter and not from a breeder. You can’t wrap it. You can’t hide it in the basement for a month. If you bring a dog home late on Christmas Eve and stick it by the tree, it’s not just gonna hang out there with a cup of hot cider and chill until the sun rises. Instead, this Christmas Eve, Santa wrote a letter to the kids consecrating the Future Acquisition of Dog. Sonia and I placed the letter on the living room coffee table—jumping near it not allowed—next to St. Nick’s usual plate of unfinished, stale cookies. That was their statement present: Dad going from “I’ll think about it” to “I have finally thought about it.”

Meantime, I needed a watch. Sonia and I had been married for fourteen years and had settled into a place where we rarely, if ever, bothered to buy each other gifts for any occasion. Not for Christmas. Not for birthdays. Definitely not for Valentine’s Day. There were a lot of reasons for this, chief among them the fact that we were cheap and lazy. We knew that we had to save every dollar we earned during the kids’ upbringing so that, once they turned college age, the nefarious debt-lords at BIG UNIVERSITY could extinguish our life savings in half a second. I worked as a sports blogger for Deadspin at the time: a dream job in many ways, but not necessarily in salary. I made good money, but not tens of millions of dollars. So there was no dough available to fritter away on a countertop bread maker or some other perfunctory Christmas gift that adults get tired of more quickly than children do of their gifts.

Besides, we both preferred homemade gifts from the kids: handprints, notes, pictures of Transformers that Colin made me print out so he could color them in, sloppy collages, etc. Gifts like these are living artifacts of your kid’s personality, and of that exact moment in their life, in a way that nothing from a store can be. I would not be able to remember what Flora was like at age five without her works from that era. I papered the walls of my home office with all of these gifts, to remind myself who I really worked for. Years later, I would remove that artwork and replace it with a single framed, collective art project of theirs that means more to me than anything else I own.

The downside of all that syrupy perspective was that it rendered both Sonia and me stereotypical “Oh, I don’t need anything” parents who are annoyingly difficult to shop for. For her part, Sonia enjoyed returning things much more than she enjoyed buying them. So it felt wasteful to buy each other gifts that would prove either useless or burdensome. Instead, we just bought shit for ourselves as needed. One time I bought myself a smoker that retroactively became my Father’s Day gift two months later. I smoked enough ribs to make your heart choke.

You can call this routine a rut, but it was an awfully comfortable one. Sonia and I were confident in our routine. We knew each other well enough to know what we needed and when we needed it. There was no need (or cash) for me to go all out and show up with a f***ing Lexus in the driveway on Christmas morning, a haughty yuppie bow glued to the top of it. I only needed to get Sonia a big Christmas present if the stars aligned and there was something cool she needed right when the holidays came around.

Luckily for me, her watch had become a piece of shit.

Through the early years of our marriage, Sonia relied on a Swiss Army watch her parents had given her for her high school graduation. This watch sucked its battery dry with gluttonous efficiency. She got the battery swapped out every four months, trudging down to a local watch store that fulfilled every idea you have in your mind about what a local watch store looks like. You walk in the door and you’re greeted by the sight of a thousand old clocks and other assorted curios, all gathering dust. The proprietor, a very nice man, owns a parrot that hangs out on the counter, its talons long enough to dig a trench across your brain. This is the kind of watch store that may or may not have a portal to a witch’s cottage in the back. An old lady is always waiting in front of you in line, and she’s never there for a routine watch job. No, no, she came because she needs the pallet bridge inside an antique pocket watch removed, soaked in gold leaf, buffed to a high gloss, lacquered in TruCoat, and then reinstalled inside a different watch she got for eight bucks at the estate sale of a dead neighbor.

Sonia would get her battery replaced, wear it home, pray it stayed alive, and then cry out, “IT’S BROKEN AGAIN!” months later. But she loved the watch, so much so that she bought me my own Swiss Army watch back in 2000. It was a splurge for her, given what we were making at the time. She told me after the fact, “I bought that watch because I was like, This guy is the one. At least, he better be.”

I was. We got married in 2002, with matching watches to boot. When you’re married, you gotta be real careful about matching. If you dress exactly the same, you look like the stars of a f***ing nursery rhyme. Matching watches were a touch more discreet. People might notice we were wearing the same watch, but we weren’t clad in identical gingham bonnets or anything. We were a tastefully, harmoniously accessorized couple.