Aliens, Shrinking Potions & Ten Long Months

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Three weeks ago, I finally got my new wheelchair. And, when I use the word “finally” I really mean it— for I began the insane process of getting a new motorized wheelchair over ten months ago. That’s a considerable amount of time. It doesn’t take folks this long to buy a new car— which is surprising given my new wheelchair costs just as much as a Ford Focus.

But, honestly, ten months is a long time to spend working on getting a medical device that helps you, well— survive. Try imagining all the things that could be accomplished in a similar amount of time. Have you ever thought about this? Well, I have. Because I’ve had ten months to do so.

So, here goes.

Elizabette’s List Of Things That Take Ten Months To Do

  • You can gestate a full-sized human baby. Should you desire to do so, this also includes a few extra weeks to breastfeed. (Hopefully, you live in a society that allows you to do it freely in public and not hidden away in a cave like a troll.)
  • You could learn a new language.
  • If you’re a white man, you could go on a 16th-century ocean voyage around the world to “discover” places that already exist.
  • You could plant, grow and harvest a vegetable garden.
  • You could serve a full prison sentence for raping an unconscious woman. (But, don’t worry— you’ll probably get out in only three months.)
  • You could become a licensed electrician.
  • You could write a book.
  • If you’re Donald Trump, you could read a book… Just kidding! (He doesn’t read.)

But, instead of doing any of these things, I spent ten months of my life jumping the bureaucratic hoops to get a new motorized wheelchair.

It would be natural to think that I’d be ecstatic when the new wheelchair finally arrived. But, I wasn’t. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t happy. I was, of course. Obviously. But, the arrival of the new wheelchair heralded the most critical (and hopefully final!) stage of the process.

Making sure the wheelchair fits.

You’d think this would be a given. That all the measurements taken by the wheelchair provider would be accurate. That it would be simple to fit me into a wheelchair that was custom-built for me.

But, it is not.

Three weeks ago, when my new wheelchair rolled into my house, right away I saw a problem. It was over three inches too wide. That’s a lot. Yes, my ass is big. But, no, it’s not that big.

“Uhm… just wondering… did Howard Taft order a wheelchair? And, if so, did I get it by mistake?”

The wheelchair technician, Raul, looked at me— then looked at the new chair:

“Yeah. You’re right, this chair is way too big.”

I felt dread pool in my gut. My mind began to run with an assortment of cuss words. In various languages. (Don’t forget, I had ten months to work on my vocabulary.) Would they have to send the damn chair back? Would we have to start again? Was there a chance that I wouldn’t cry in despair??

My spiraling thoughts were interrupted when Raul said:

“Don’t worry. I think I can shrink it down.”

Really?”

I was dubious. It was unlikely he carried shrinking potion from Alice in Wonderland in his toolbox.

Over the next hour, he dissembled my new wheelchair in the middle of my living room. Pieces were scattered everywhere. It was like a really expensive LEGO set had barfed all over the carpet. Then, we began to strategize new ways to use the existing parts. Using different configurations. And, slowly, my new wheelchair began to take shape.

Nearly three hours after arrival, we did it. I was seated, driving, and fairly comfortable, in my new (smaller!) wheelchair. It was a feat of engineering, creativity and luck— which, come to think of it, is the essence of life with a complex disability. But, for while the chair is functional and comfortable, there’s a small (yet, large!) difference. I’m sitting over an inch lower than I was in my old wheelchair.

Another key part of life with a disability? Learning to adapt. This skill is essential. And, unfortunately, in a world that’s not always accessible, it’s a survival tool, as well.

An inch may not seem like a big difference. But, when you have everything in your daily life and routine adjusted to a very specific height, this is significant. For example, imagine if aliens came down from outer space with a technology that transferred your head onto another person’s body. How would you feel?

Probably pretty awkward.

(And, no, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones won’t be able to save you.)

Adjusting to the new wheelchair feels very much like that. Even with most aspects being similar (if not nearly identical!), it’s still a challenge. In fact, I’m currently typing this on my desk that I had to recalibrate to fit the new ‘me.’

Honestly, it’s going fairly well, but oddly, on my computer keyboard, I’m now having trouble reaching the key for the number ‘nine.’ I’m sure I’ll figure out an adaptation for it eventually, though. But, in the meantime, I suppose I could refer to the number as 8+1. Although, if I’m feeling especially tired, it might be best if I spell it as 5+4 since those keys are closer together.

We’ll see. It’s not as if numbers are all that important, anyway.

Nonetheless, I must roll onward in this new set of wheels. If you see me, though, please don’t comment on how I’ve grown shorter (yes, this has already happened to me twice).

Also, just because the top of my head is now more within your reach, don’t take that as an invitation to pat me on the head like a cocker spaniel. And definitely don’t ruffle my hair the way your uncle Tony greets every child he meets under the age of 8+1.

Because I really hate that.

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Facing Voldemort

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When you’re disabled, you learn to adapt… tweak… make-do. These skills are essential, because as much as the modern, progressive world likes to think it’s ‘woke as **ck‘ — it’s really not. Full inclusion of disabled people in society is a long way off, and these issues barely register on even the most liberal political agendas. In fact, during this election season’s rounds of televised Democratic debates, I haven’t heard one of the 318 presidential candidates even say the word ‘disability.’ Considering disabled Americans are the largest minority group in the country— one that spans race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background— you’d think it would come up. At least once. (Just like Bernie Sanders yells and shakes his fists at another candidate at least once a debate.)

It’s possible the candidates are just being thoughtless in ignoring disability issues in the debates— like when careless people forget to put another roll of toilet paper in the bathroom after they’ve used the last square of Charmin. But, perhaps there is another, more sinister meaning. What if they are subconsciously afraid of saying the word ‘disability‘ aloud because then it acknowledges that we actually exist? And, maybe, just maybe, they are frightened of us? It could be possible. After all, this was why everyone was reluctant to say Voldemort’s name aloud in Harry Potter.

Let’s not forget that even The Ministry of Magic discouraged folks from saying it at Hogwarts. They worried that if someone voiced the name of Voldemort, the most dreaded wizard in the land, it would give him the power and recognition needed to rise up. And that was definitely not okay… because then all the normal wizards would have to face the fact that they were only one Death-Eater attack away from a nursing home run by Hufflepuffs.

So, yeah, you can see why they’d prefer to pretend like we don’t exist. It’s scary to imagine the power potentially wielded by 1 in 5 Disabled Americans. Because not even the mighty Teamsters Union can muster these kinds of numbers— even though Joe Biden desperately wishes that they could.

I think maybe it’s time for us to be a little scary. Be a little loud. Because we are not only fighting for ourselves. We are fighting for everyone. After all, we are also the only minority group that anyone can become member— at any time. Plus, if you live long enough, you’re probably eventually going to need the homecare services we are fighting so hard for, too.

I hate to break it to you, but not even the best Patronus charm can do a damned thing about that fact. Eventually, you’re going to need someone to help you get out of bed in the morning. You’re going to need someone to help you prepare your meals. Hell, you’re probably going to need help wiping your own ass. But, here’s the thing: unless you meet the impossibly stringent & poverty-driven Medicaid guidelines, you won’t qualify for homecare services.

Despite what you may believe, Medicare and private medical insurances currently do not cover homecare. So, you could lose your house, your retirement and all the things you worked your entire life to achieve just to pay for medically-necessary care costs.

Thinking of just going to a nursing home? Good luck with that— the care received in institutionalized settings are substandard, dangerous, and far, far more expensive than the costs of providing care in your own home… in your own community.

Given that homecare is cheaper and safer than institutionalized care, isn’t it surprising that it’s not covered by Medicare and private insurances? Wouldn’t logic say that it should be covered? Well, yes. But, denial is a powerful thing. And the denial of the notion— the reality— that anyone could become disabled at any time in their life is even more powerful. It’s no wonder no one wanted to say Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter. That was some scary shit, yes?

But, if these services existed— and were more available— maybe disability (and even old age!) wouldn’t be so fucking scary to everyone. Maybe then we could change the whole narrative around it.

However, first, a narrative must begin. And, to do that, someone needs to talk about it. But, I’m afraid that with the current slate of presidential candidates, that’s not likely to happen. Why?

Well, the top contenders Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and—yes, Donald Trump— are all over the age of 70. Given society’s subconscious aversion to disability and old age, these four main contenders definitely do not want to draw attention to how old they actually are. (I mean, no one wants to yell Voldemort in a crowded cafeteria, do they?)

Even though you’d think these presidential contenders would be ideally suited to discuss these issues (given they are closer to the age of needing these services), there’s NO damn way they are going talk about that. Just look how long it took Bernie Sanders’ campaign to acknowledge his recent heart attack? Look how evasive Donald Trump is in releasing his full medical records? (And, no, it’s definitely not because he’s got the most greatest health in the history of all American presidents— including, of course, all the leaders of the most bigly and powerful nations in Earth history.)

So, who is going to do the talking, if not us? Who is going to make people uncomfortable so that they can face the reality of their own human frailty? That they will need help someday? I guess that falls to us disabled folks.

This election season, perhaps you should give this some thought. Who will best fight for you when you need it most?

Because, like it or not, Voldemort is coming.

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Birthday Evolution

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When I was young, I hated the attention I received on my birthday. I hated when people would sing me the “birthday song.” I would whimper. I would cry. And, if my weak SMA muscles would have allowed it, I would have slithered into a ball under a table at the first note of the famous tune.

Many people that know me now would be surprised by this. But, it’s very true. If, on my birthday, I could have burrowed into a hole in the ground like El Chapo evading the Federales, I would have done it.

Por supuesto.

Being a small kid with a visible disability, you always get looked at differently. Always. Even as a tiny child, you sense the eyes that follow your every move. The assessing. The wondering.

The what is wrong with that little girl? gaze that becomes so familiar. While it’s not a scary experience, it is an annoying one.

If you’re wondering what that look is actually like, here’s how I would describe it. You know those ASPCA commercials with that mournful Sarah MacLachlan song? The ones with her singing “Angel” as they show a montage of sick and undersized puppies that will die if you don’t donate $15 a month? You know that sad (nearly tearful) look that your face gets when you see that commercial?

That’s the face I’m talking about.

So, yeah… pull it together, dude.

Anyway… when you’re already ‘different’… and used to being recognized by many as ‘different,’ you don’t want any more attention than absolutely necessary. So, your birthday is yet another extra spotlight that shines upon you each October.

I felt this way for many years. I didn’t want the additional fuss, or the attention, that came with that day. I had enough of it already.

But, as I approached my 30th birthday, a birthday that many doctors had predicted that I may never reach, I began to feel very differently about it. It evolved in my mind. It felt like a milestone. An achievement. A mark of a battle that I was winning.

And, suddenly, celebrating my birthday became something that I wanted to do. It was something that I didn’t want to tuck into a drawer and pretend didn’t exist. I wouldn’t be like Rudolph Giuliani ignoring a Congressional subpoena.

I would face it. And enjoy it.

So, now, here I am, years later, on my birthday, proud to be alive and proud to be a part of this world. It’s been a lot of hard work getting here (and I’ve had a lot of help along the way)— but, I did it.

Happy Birthday to me.

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(Yes, that’s a pumpkin spice latte. Duh.)

Becoming Oliver Twist

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Life with a complex disability, like SMA, is obviously challenging. It takes a great deal of physical, emotional— but, most importantly, logistical— strength to power through each day. Your brain always has to be 2 or 3 steps ahead in order to anticipate challenges that life, and this very inaccessible world, love to throw at you. It’s exhausting. It’s like playing an endless game of Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. You know those little heads are going to pop up somewhere. So, all you can do is keep slamming the mallet down on the board hoping you earn enough tickets to buy a Slinky at the counter.

This constant state of preparedness is a necessary evil. It’s the thing that makes it possible for me to get out of bed in the morning. To have the ability to do the work I do, and I accomplish what I need to accomplish— all while balancing my complex medical needs.

As I’ve discussed frequently before, my custom power wheelchair is a big part of this effort. It’s the most important tool in my life. It’s the object that makes my life— my independence— possible. At the beginning of this year, I began the arduous process of getting a new wheelchair. Medicare requires that many steps be completed before an order can even be processed. Initial Visit With Doctor. Evaluation from Special Physical Therapist. Consult with Wheelchair Provider. Assessment With Doctor.

Each of these steps must be done in a certain order, the documents must be signed and authorized by all parties, and all of it must be done sequentially. Like a really complicated, and really French, pastry recipe. The foofy, pretentious kind. The kind that takes hours to make, you eat in two bites, and leave you hungry afterward.

It’s a fucking nightmare, frankly.

I have a Type A personality. I like to get shit done. This trait has come in handy with my SMA, because such attention-to-detail is why I’m still alive and thriving 35 years after most doctors thought I would be dead.

But, this ‘wheelchair vortex of hell’ doesn’t always reward such preparedness. Because, no matter how on top of things I am, I am still at the mercy of a large medical bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lets unsigned forms sit on desks. The bureaucracy will deny a claim because one date is mistyped on one form. The bureaucracy won’t pick their own nose without a memo telling them which finger to use.

Just a few weeks ago, (but, nearly nine months into the entire process!), Medicare finally authorized my request for my new wheelchair. This was after several paperwork kinks and delays that nearly made me sit in a corner and cry. But, with this authorization, the DME (durable medical equipment) company was then able to place the order with the manufacturers.

You’d think I’d be ecstatic. You’d think I’d be over-the-moon with happiness… you know, just like R. Kelly is in a room of underage girls.

But, I decidedly was not. For I knew that my current wheelchair had to survive until the new chair arrived— which could still take months. And that was the biggest gamble of all.

Because, you see, Medicare would not authorize repairs to an existing wheelchair while a new wheelchair is being ordered. So, I would be majorly SOL if my current wheelchair took a crap in the meantime. Therefore, each bureaucratic delay— each kink that I had experienced in the process— increased the probability of this happening.

And, yesterday, the laws of probability— the laws of mathematics— finally caught up with me. A “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message brought my wheelchair to a halt.

This isn’t the first time this has happened during my wheelchair-using life. In fact, with this wheelchair, alone, I have had to have the motors changed FOUR TIMES. Yes, that’s right. So, when I saw this “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message, I instantly knew that in about a week, my life was seriously going to go down the toilet until I could get new motors installed.

With the arrival of my new wheelchair nowhere in sight, and the necessity of having a functioning wheelchair, I had to do a painful thing. I asked the DME company to order me a new set of motors. I agreed to pay the hefty price. Because, this wheelchair is my basic tool of life, and without it, I can’t function. The DME company understands my pain and kindly agreed to give me a cut rate, but it’s still more money than most people pay for their first shitty car.

To be honest, I actually cried. I sat and cried because I was going to have to find a thousand dollars to fix a device that allows me to live.

It’s demoralizing. And it makes me feel very, very small. In an inaccessible world that’s already stacked against me— a world where I have to be smarter, wittier, and more prepared than everyone else— I still have to scramble for this most basic thing.

But, I don’t have a choice. So, I applied, and received, a disability grant from NMD United to help me pay for some of my replacement motors— and I set up a GoFundMe to cover the remainder of the cost.

The sad thing is, I shouldn’t have to do any of these things. This wheelchair is a medical device. It’s a lifesaving device. I have Medicare. I have a private supplemental insurance plan, too.

I shouldn’t have to peddle to others for something like this. No one with a disability should have to do this— yet, we are forced to do it everyday, in some form or another. It’s so Dickensian. So two-hundred-years-ago.

Yet, nonetheless, here I am, like little Oliver Twist, holding out my small pail—

Please, Sir, I want some more.

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Note: If you are disabled, and have experienced similar problems getting coverage for your specialized wheelchair repairs, please write in & share your story. We must try to speak out when we can. And speak loud. Wheelchairs are more than “durable medical equipment” — they are life-saving and sustaining.

A Time Traveler’s Guide To Judgment Day

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Since beginning my Spinraza journey over two years ago, I have been exposed to some pretty high-level scientific stuff. The Principles of Motor Neurons. Genetic Sequencing. Genetic Manipulation. And a whole bunch of really smart people geeking-out on how to turn cripply SMA people like me into X-Men.

People often ask me what it’s like, during this stage of my life, to describe what Spinraza has meant to me. What it has done for me. Most of the SMA patients out in the world are adolescents, children. Many are babies. After all, only a small portion of those with SMA make it into adulthood. So, those of us that are adults can give a perspective that children simply aren’t able to do. We have more life experience, and frankly, we’ve got the big-adult vocabulary to articulate what this is really like. We’ve got detailed analyses with really large words. SAT words. Oxford Dictionary words.

So, do you want to know what it’s really like?

You know the classic H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine? The story that popularized the concept of time travel and launched an entire genre of science fiction? When Wells first published the book in 1895, it sparked the imagination of millions. Over a century later, the concept of time travel is still intoxicating.

Everyone (including you!) probably has a secret idea of what they’d do if they had the opportunity to travel in time. While most would do something selfish, like get winning numbers from a future Powerball drawing, some folks would do something more altruistic. Something that would benefit mankind… like killing Adolf Hitler or castrating Harvey Weinstein.

But, all these scenarios are fictional. Because time travel is impossible. Right?

Well it is… Unless you’re me.

If you really want to know what the Spinraza process has felt like to me— what is has meant to me— this is the way I describe it.

I am now a time traveler.

A time traveler that is revisiting a part of her life that she thought was gone forever.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy has always been a progressive condition. I was stronger at 5 than I was at 15. At 15, I was considerably stronger than I was at 35. And, by 55, there was a good chance that I would be dead.

But, with Spinraza, a crazy thing happened. The mad scientists at Stanford thrust me into their Interventional Radiology room— injected some liquid into my spinal fluid… and turned back time.

I began to live in own past. I could do things that I hadn’t been able to do in years. I was living in the past. Just like H.G. Wells wrote about 124 years ago. And, just like the novel, it’s been a wild, and frankly exhausting, ride.

It’s important to note that time travel isn’t free— and Spinraza is one of the most expensive drugs in the world. So, to continue to qualify, I must undergo thorough physical and respiratory evaluations every few months to measure my progress.

Given there aren’t many adults like me receiving the treatment, the data gained from our experiences is especially valuable. These measures and outcomes will hopefully offer the evidence needed to expand Spinraza access here in the US, and around the world. I want more time travelers with SMA. But, to do that, we’ve got to illustrate the benefits with cold, hard data.

No matter how you slice it, though, this added pressure is intense. While I’m constantly told not to be anxious about it— to simply do my best— I do worry about it. I fret about the messages I get from people with SMA around the world longing for treatment. I fear they won’t get to travel back to their past.

I feel guilty that I do.

Not all of us long to do something bold with a time machine. We don’t all want to be heroes that shoot Nazis. Some of us just want to travel to a time where we could talk a little louder… laugh a little harder… and pick our own boogers.

A few days ago, I had yet another full day of these assessments. It’s a day that I truly dread. Each time. It’s long, exhausting, and I usually always have at least one moment when I long to scream or curl into a corner and cry.

I care so much about these tests that it’s almost all-consuming. I do frequent physical therapy in preparation. I have even sought support from a counselor to work through the emotional challenges of this arduous process. These assessment exams are often all I can think about. Literally. All. I. Can. Think. About.

It’s like how Donald Trump must feel about Twitter.

I came into this assessment day— judgment day, frankly— feeling unsure. Feeling like perhaps I had plateaued. That I hadn’t noticed a change from the last time. I was resigned to this idea. I accepted it. It was okay (and expected) to have a plateau because SMA, by nature, is progressive. Stabilization is a win, too. Stabilization means more time available in the time machine.

But, I had a surprise. My respiratory measures showed additional small gains. My physical assessment was the most solid— yet.

The time machine was still working.

While I made it through this judgment day, in six months, I will have to do it all again. And again… and again. Because, in some way, time still manages to march on.

But, I’ll be waiting for it.

Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future.

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

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Yes, We’re 20 Years Older Now

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The brain has the amazing ability to compartmentalize time in a way that can make us forget how much time has actually passed. For example, when I’m watching Netflix, my brain will ignore the fact that I’ve watched 3 hours of Grace & Frankie. My brain will swim in this blissful interlude until something cracks it— like the window that pops up on the Netflix app. You know the one I’m talking about. The Netflix window that asks if you are “still there” because so much time has passed since you began watching that it thinks you might be dead.

Personally, I hate this Netflix feature. My brain doesn’t want a reminder of how long I’ve been watching TV. I don’t want someone judging my life choices like that. After all, if I really wanted someone to judge me, the best way to do that is to give birth to a baby. Because then you can watch the entire world criticize every choice you make as a mother for the next 18 years.

Anyway, in addition to compartmentalizing time, the brain is also really good at making us forget how old we actually are. Recently, my high school class celebrated our 20th reunion at the amazing event venue, The Century, owned by our classmate, Erin. Once arriving at the reunion, the glamour of the surroundings was a blast of reality. While my brain understood that 20 years had passed, it hadn’t really understood that we were 20 years older until that very moment. The twinkling lights, the crisp table linens, and the fancy cheeseball shaped into the numbers ‘1999’ were glaringly grown-up. I suddenly realized we weren’t people that had a slice of pepperoni and a soda from Pizza Plus for lunch anymore. We were going to have caprese skewers with aged balsamic. We were going to eat an adult dinner using adult dishes at adult tables.

On the cocktail menu, I saw Gin Rickey. My newly-awakened brain recognized Gin as a very grown-up thing to drink. So, I ordered one. And then I proceeded to put a 14-inch red straw that I stole from a movie theatre into the drink (yes, I may be Adult Elizabette, but some things will never change). My cripply SMA ass will always need to use a straw in a drink. Even though my hands are a little stronger now with Spinraza, they will never be strong enough to lift a cocktail in fancy glassware handcrafted by some dude in Germany.

Another signal to my brain that time had passed? Suddenly most of the guys in my class weren’t recognizable. They were taller. They had facial hair. They had wives that made them wear pants that actually fit. It was very jarring.

My friends and I began to not-so-secretly flip through pages of the yearbooks on display like we were identifying suspects in a criminal lineup:

“Who is that guy over by the balsamic caprese skewers?”

“I don’t know.”

“His chin is bigger than the one in this picture.”

“Yeah— I don’t think he’s our man.”

But, it was when a big-smiled guy approached me with a hearty, “ELIZABETTE!” and a hug that I realized that I had an extra disadvantage in this game of high-school reunion Guess Who. I couldn’t recognize the guy hugging me. He looked nothing like anyone in my class. His chin wasn’t familiar. His pants were appropriately-sized.

But, he clearly knew me.

While being me has many perks (see HERE), one thing is very lacking— anonymity. It’s super obvious who I am. I was the only person in a wheelchair in my entire high school. In fact, I was the first person with a significant physical disability to graduate from Patterson High. So, I could literally have had a Caitlyn Jenner-style transition and they would still pick me out of the crowd.

It’s important to note that this lack of anonymity also makes it impossible for me to commit a serious crime. Don’t believe me? Imagine this:

Police Detective: “So, do you have any idea who may have committed this robbery?

Bank Teller: “Well, she was wearing a mask… but she was driving a fancy black electric wheelchair.

Police Detective: “And you say she was armed?

Bank Teller: “Yeah, but her hands were too weak to even point the gun at me. I felt kinda bad, so I gave her the money anyway.

This lack of anonymity did nothing to help me in this moment at my reunion, however. I was losing this round of Guess Who. As he pulled back from his hug, he said, “It’s me— Gilbert!”

“No-you-are-not!” This slipped out before I could help myself. Like when I cuss in front of small children or loudly burp after I eat cucumbers. It’s just not my fault when things like that happen.

My brain was not reconciling the evidence presented. This was Adult Gilbert twenty years in the future. Not little teenage Gilbert. It was as if, once again, my brain was desperately trying not to acknowledge how long I had been watching Netflix. It wanted to ignore the little pop-up window on the app insinuating that only a dead person would be watching TV for this long.

A little later that evening as I began eating my fancy dinner of chicken in a mushroom cream sauce, I started to think that the being-20-years-older-thing has its perks, too. We are more mature. Our clothing choices are better. And, the food is definitely more sophisticated than back in 1999. And, while it could have been the gin fueling those thoughts (which is possible), I still suddenly couldn’t wait to see what the next reunion would bring.

And at least there’s one thing for certain: I still won’t have to worry about not being recognized…

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