22: Playing Pretend

22: Playing Pretend

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Playing Pretend

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve always imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

In the middle of my sophomore year of college, I sat down to work at my desk. On one side, my economics textbooks remained unopened. On the other side, unstudied Chinese vocabulary flashcards were piled high. Months of skipping classes, partying and procrastinating had landed me there. I had to learn a semester’s worth of knowledge in a week. I was miserable. Trapped and anxious, all I wanted was to burst out of my seat and pace back and forth. I wanted to be somewhere else. But, this was the life I had convinced myself I was going to live.

Somehow, I made it through that grueling week of finals.

While at home for winter break, a friend and I were out drinking at some unrespectable hour. I was in a cocky mood, riding high after surviving the semester by the skin of my teeth. So when another friend appeared in the bar’s front window, with blood running down his face, I immediately charged outside to defend him. This is when I got blindsided by two assailants. The first punched me in the face. Then, as I fell to the ground, the second kicked me in the head.

When I wound up in the hospital later that night, a CT scan showed I didn’t have a concussion. Instead, I had something much worse: a brain tumor.

Nothing in my life has come close to the fear I felt at that moment.

Death was my first thought. Would it be in six months or a year? How much pain would there be? How soon until I couldn’t speak? When would I lose the ability to think?

The next day, my parents and I sat with a team of neurologists. They explained the tumor was located in the middle of my brain. It could not be removed through surgery. At considerable risk, I had a biopsy. It was the only way to determine if the tumor was cancerous. I had gone through life without a single symptom, which meant it could have been there all along, or it could have appeared a month before. When I woke up from anesthesia, my parents stood beside me. Their eyes were teary; their smiles were wide. The tumor was benign.

I returned to college and managed to get my studies on track. Those textbooks were open and read; those flashcards were memorized. But I still lacked passion for what I was learning and the business career that I expected to have. Every three months I would get a brain MRI to check the tumor’s growth. It had appeared stable for more than a year. Then, on one beautiful morning, my mom called me. I could tell she’d been crying. The results of my latest scan had come back. The tumor was metabolically active.

Much like that night in the hospital, I felt crushed. My life had been taken from me a second time. By my twenty-first birthday, I had withdrawn from school and was undergoing radiation.

It was a strange feeling to have radiation on a brain tumor that had never given me a single symptom. Friends and family often told me how unfair it was: to be removed from growing up to face something so awful. I had endless stretches of time to think about that particular point of view. It was a surreal time spent on cold tables watching machines slowly circle my head; tired times that left me unable to get out of bed; energetic times once the neural steroids kicked in.

This time-out from life’s normal direction gave me ample opportunity to think about grand ideas like happiness, purpose and passion. One morning, I found myself thinking about that long ago week I spent cramming for exams. Why was I so miserable? Why did I feel so lost? I knew there was something important underlying my desire to jump up and pace back and forth. I knew it reached back long before college, all the way back to one single moment of my childhood.

I was five years old, and had come across a book by the young-adult-fiction author, Lloyd Alexander. My father’s name is Lloyd, mine is Alexander, and in my kindergarten mind, the coincidence translated as a calling. I was going to become an author. So, I started writing stories. I’d excitedly begin on the first page of my journal, continue to the second, and maybe even reach the third before it was left abandoned on my desk. Most often, the final sentence was unfinished, its last letter drawn down the page as if some monster had dragged me off.

Instead of sticking to the page, I would jump up from my desk and begin pacing back and forth. I’d start speaking my characters’ dialogue, acting out their action, and before I knew it I was playing pretend. I played pretend constantly. It was like a drug; I couldn’t function without my daily fix. And while playing pretend with friends is part of any childhood — whether as Power Rangers or princesses — I always preferred to play it alone.

Day after day I played out complete epics, building countless worlds with rules and citizens. Often my characters so enchanted me, their stories became so ingrained in my thoughts that after playing out their entire journeys, I’d start them over from the beginning. I’d replay entire narratives, exploring new details and alternate outcomes. So lost was I in these stories that by the time I rounded them all to a close I was an eighteen-year-old heading off to college.

My passion was to create stories. Unfortunately, it was stained with my embarrassment over playing pretend long past the age of five. So, I swore off it. When I sat down to study in my sophomore year, I wanted nothing more than to burst up and start playing pretend. But I wouldn’t allow it. I would go into finance like my parents, and conform to my image of what I thought it meant to be an adult. But that too was just a fantasy.

While sick, I began playing pretend again. This time I benefited from the discipline of college. Pages of notes, timelines and sketches began to accumulate. I devoured books. I hadn’t felt this passionate in a very long time. And it didn’t take me long to realize why. It was clear where in my short life I had found the greatest joy. It was a place countless measures of my energy were already sunk. Only when steeped in fantasy had I been truly happy. Yet it was a passion I had only allowed to exist in the margin.

For fear of rejection, failure and vulnerability, I had resisted what felt most natural. But being forced to face life’s fragility at such a young age, I no longer cared. Sure it wasn’t easy. When I returned to school, I crammed a four-year creative writing major into three semesters. I lived and breathed reading, writing and editing. I still have plenty of fears and doubts, but I know success doesn’t come without risk.

I’m lucky for a lot of reasons. I’m especially grateful for my health — radiation sent my tumor into remission, where it will likely stay for a very long time. Above all, I cherish being given the chance to reevaluate my life. For me it took a brain tumor to realize that storytelling was more than just a childish whim. I’ve come to understand being successful is doing what makes you happy. Life is too short and uncertain to do anything else.

So I write, and simply hope what I create means to others what it has meant to me.

~Alexander Brokaw

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