Michael and Family

I Got a '69 Chevy
By Terry Watada

The last time I spent any significant amount of time with one of my best friends was back in the summer of '06. I ran into him at the Obon Odori and we decided to spend an afternoon shooting pool, something we had done ever since we became friends in 1977, the Japanese Canadian Centennial year. I was on sabbatical and he had lost his job so it seemed right. We spent the day reminiscing, catching up, eating noodles or "soba" as Nisei call it and playing a few games at some Danforth pool hall. We were both pretty rusty, laughing heartily about our game or lack of it. Just like the old days, except I noticed a few changes in him. His speech was a lot slower, and the conversation he initiated was limited to only two topics: his father's passing and the wealth of some of our common acquaintances. He walked extraordinarily slowly as well. I was concerned but put it off to depression and stress. There was a lot on the man's plate after all.

Just recently I received the following e-mail from his wife, which was written as a general message for the public (I've left out names in the interest of privacy):

I am the mother of three children ages 14, 11 and 7. I am also the wife and caregiver of a 48 year old who has a neurodegenerative condition called Frontotemporal Degeneration also known as FTD. He was diagnosed with FTD in late 2006 after several years of trying to determine what was going on. In 2003, his dad died (we had cared for him at home for 1½ years) and shortly after, he lost his job of 20 years as a manager of a manufacturing company. I started noticing changes in my husband at this time but attributed them to mild depression. I encouraged him to take the opportunity and time to re-evaluate his career and perhaps start something new. Well, that period of time has become over 2 years and we now know that he will never be able to work again. My once caring, happy, confident and loving husband has become a stranger to me and the kids. My children are overwhelmed by this disease and what it has done to our once happy and closely knit family. He has a severe lack of insight that doesn't allow him to see or care that he has changed. To this day, he maintains that he is the same person although everyone else can attest to the fact that he is not.

My husband also started having minor car accidents. The first was when he backed into a car on several occasions and did some minor damage. Then he backed up down a major street because he passed by the driveway he was looking for. The last incident was when he drove into a parked car on our street. He told me it was minor damage. Our car needed over $8000 in repairs and the other car was totaled. Thank goodness no one was hurt but I vowed he would not drive again. There are so many other behaviours that were totally out of character. I felt I could have written a book but what I needed to do for my whole family was to dig deeper into this and I needed to find answers.

His brain cannot navigate the normal everyday functions because this disease has chewed holes in the pathways needed to make the brain "connect" properly. This disease has robbed us of the man that we loved and left us with a shell of a person. He no longer converses with us, laughs with us or cares about us. This disease strikes people in their 40s, 50s and early 60s who are often at the peaks of their careers and parenting responsibilities. There is no treatment and no cure. This is more common than we realize and many families are devastated by FTD. Although the genetics of FTD are not completely understood, I hope that the knowledge of this disease increases every year until there is a cure. A cure in time so that my kids will never have to face this disease again.

The news was devastating. Over the months since that summer day, I had heard rumours from various friends and acquaintances of his deterioration, but I had no idea it was so severe. The hell of it is he is unlikely to recover. Like his wife, I remember him as "caring, happy and confident", always ready to lend a helping hand.

We first became friends, as I said, during the Japanese Canadian Centennial celebrations. We were both embedded in the working class landscape of Toronto and in fact grew up and still lived in the same neighbourhood. During adolescence, he became the epitome of "cool", which carried over to young adulthood. Whenever I saw him, he stood doing his best Steve McQueen, wearing shades and a short leather jacket even indoors or in sub-zero weather. His characteristic cigarette hung precariously from his lips as he drove with skill and grace any car he could get his hands on - first his parents' Oldsmobile and then his pride and joy, a Chevy Nova. Bruce Springsteen played on his Blaupunkt cassette player, feeding his dreams of flying down highways wrapped in the joyful release from a conventional life, all in a tricked-out muscle car with his best girl by his side - she eventually becoming his wife. And for the most part, his dreams did come true.

I admired his audacity, style and his sense of loyalty. Anything I did, from concerts to producing or writing plays, he backed all the way. No questions asked. He also brought along his girlfriend, another good and fast friend of mine, and many others who supported me just on his say-so.

Because we both sought the freedom teasing our rebel natures, we hung out on weekends when work and study was over for the time being. Summer was the best. Pool halls, from the refined establishments of the Beach area with white wine and blue chalk to the sad, decrepit holes in a Spadina basement, we played them all. Sometimes we ran into trouble with drunken men swinging pool cues at each other, ending in a bloody mess. Other times we just spent the clock brushing off seedy hustlers with a quick smile and a stolen watch to sell. Most times we just caromed the cue ball off a bank to avoid losing points on a hook behind the pink while talking about family, friends and futures. And always we ended the evening in a Chinatown noodle house like Swatow or King's. Often his girl came along until she got sick of the food. "Too greasy. I should just drink a bottle of Mazola and be done with it!"

When gas was measured in gallons and well under a dollar, we cruised Yonge Street for kicks. There was quite a collection of night crawlers out there. Frat boys getting drunk for the first time, hookers and screamers, tough guys and losers playing a part in a Tom Waits movie and observers like us. Once, we were stopped at a light, my window open, when a drunken bigot walked right up to the car, looked inside and called us Chinks because he knew he could. When he stood up to brag, I automatically punched him in the stomach. More shocked at reprisal than hurt, he reeled back to his posse and took a defensive stand. I foolishly got out of the car not really knowing what I was going to do. They retreated.

Although astonished, I laughed, but then turned around to see my best friend, out of the car, with the blunt end of his two-piece custom pool cue in hand ready to strike. He smiled and said, "I got your back."

After those days, real life impinged - careers, wife, kids, suburban mortgages and family vacations took over. And that was good. Nothing was more fun than having him as one of my best men in my Honolulu wedding and then returning the favour as one of his massive wedding party in Toronto. His was the best wedding celebration I had ever attended.

But it all seems over now. Much too soon. I keep thinking of a Springsteen song, when the singer/songwriter was more concerned with the romance of the road than being Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. I put it on shortly after reading the news and heard the strains of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector underpinning the forlorn sentiments of disaffected youth looking for redemption.

I got a '69 Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She's waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money, got no strings attached
We shut 'em up and then we shut 'em down

Tonight, tonight the strip's just right
I wanna blow 'em off in my first heat
Summer's here and the time is right
For racin' in the street

"Racing in the Street" © 1978 Bruce Springsteen

The tragedy of his condition for me is contained in that song. His wife, his children, his friends and I no longer have him backing us, supporting us with his sense of loyalty, his sense of duty, his steady presence. I feel the emptiness. I can only hope that somewhere within himself, he has found the freedom we so desperately sought in his Chevy back on the highways of our endless summers.


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