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The Life Worth Living with Chris Gabbard

"Singing to August" by Gwen Cooper

In today's podcast, Jason and I spoke with Chris Gabbard, currently a professor at the University of North Florida. Chris was born and grew up in Palo Alto, California. He graduated with a Bachelor's and a Master's degree from San Francisco State University and earned a PhD at Stanford University in British Enlightenment literature. His scholarly writing has appeared in numerous academic journals, but it was while wrapping up his doctoral work at Stanford that his son August was born with significant disabilities, likely due to medical error. August passed away in 2013. Beacon Press recently published Chris's account of of his experience. The book is called A Life Beyond Reason: A Father's Memoir. Chris now lives with his wife, Ilene and his 17-year-old daughter Clio in Jacksonville, Florida.

For today's accompanying blog post, we are including an excerpt from Chris' powerful book. We know you will be affected and moved by his words here and on the podcast.

The Run Through The Cemetery

When I went running, August would join me—by sitting in a blue, supersized “special needs” Baby Jogger, the largest the company made. I remember one mid-afternoon, when he was nine years old, in 2008. The humidity being relatively mild and the temperature not overly hot, I judged it would be a good time to put him in the Jogger. It was overcast when we set off, but not, I thought, so dark that a storm threatened. Very often, summer afternoons all over Florida are positively gothic, with lightning, thunder, and dense tropical rain. The state also is the lightning-strike capital of the world.

Running, I pushed August north on San Jose Boulevard, past the wide expanse of the Duck Pond, the one-story redbrick schoolhouse (and the lush green meadow surrounding it), and the eastern tip of primordial Craig Creek. We crossed Hendricks Avenue at the traffic light and headed toward the eastern edge of the San Marco neighborhood, where a rail line intersects St. Augustine Road. There, on the south side of the tracks, and three quarters of a mile east of Craig Creek, is a three-acre tree-shaded graveyard, a secluded spot where the rude forefathers of our hamlet sleep. Dating back to the 1840s, the Philips–Craig Swamp Cemetery was, by 2008, forgotten and overgrown. It was tidied up in 2017, but when August and I went there, it was wild. Inside the gates, he and I made our way.

This was my favorite place in Jacksonville. Ironically, it was this graveyard where the city first came alive for me. Ragged, fully grown trident maples and moss-draped live oaks populated the grounds. A tall scruffy cypress stood by the tracks, and a low ancient palm tree squatted in the center. Toward the back, a large tree had fallen in a long ago hurricane, and now its rotting trunk lay lengthwise along the ground like a low, cylindrical wall. No lawn surrounded the mossy tombstones, just weeds, and I maneuvered as well as I could over the uneven surface, an infielder’s nightmare. The turf heaved throughout these burial grounds with tree roots and branches and moldering graves. Both Union and Confederate dead had been interred there. The Jogger careened around them as we dodged frail memorials and toppled monuments. Pushing August over the soil’s jagged plane jostled and jarred him, and the rough motion made him squeal. The more rugged the terrain, the bumpier the ride, and the more it jolted him, the more he shouted for joy.

I’d been so caught up in his excitement that I hadn’t noticed the storm clouds moving in. Leaving the cemetery, we smelled the rain before we felt it. August delighted in the droplets that began landing on his bare arms and legs, and he made appreciative sounds. The Jogger’s awning protected his head. As we reached Hendricks Avenue and headed south, I was grateful that it was only sprinkling. We crossed Hendricks at the light and skirted the eastern tip of Craig Creek, but then, heading south on our home street, the storm exploded. Instantly I was soaked. Powerful winds began to blow, and I wondered if a tornado was forming. Lightning and thunder commenced, with forked incandescent streaks rippling the sky. The interval between the flashes of light and the thunderclaps became about a second. We still had half a mile to go. August sat silently, stunned by the sublimity. The torrent slapped my face, and the world withdrew into gray: the red schoolhouse and green meadow vanished. The broad surface of the Duck Pond, pelted with rain, shimmered. I dashed August up our long driveway to the protection of a carport. After whisking him out of the Jogger, I carried him into the house, laid him on his big changing table, removed his drenched clothes, toweled him off, and dressed him in dry clothes. All the while he beamed and cooed, invigorated by our big adventure in the wild.

Excerpted from A Life Beyond Reason: A Father’s Memoir by Chris Gabbard (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


Favorite Book

Life with Jake by Kirby Wilkins

Most Inspirational Person or Group

Harriet McBride Johnson -- disability rights advocate. She changed my world entirely.


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