One of the things that has always served as a bulwark against tragic events in my life was Lego. Lego was there for me when my mother died. It was something I have always come back to since. I even used Lego sets as part of my therapy after the stroke. So while other people might see them as trivial, these toys have always occupied a special place in my heart.
For Christmas of 1983, I asked for a Lego castle set. At the time, I adored medieval knights and lore. I had vaguely remembered having Lego sets when I was younger, but as a nine-year-old, I didn’t own any. I imagined knights assaulting and defending legendary castles. I dreamt of them subduing dragons and rescuing princesses. The castle was something I had to have.
I told Mama that the castle was the main thing I wanted for Christmas in September, then, I spent the next few months staring at the Service Merchandise catalog, admiring the set. As I fantasized about all of the battles my Lego knights would fight, I couldn’t believe how slow Christmas was in arriving. In my excitement, I sometimes would let a boast slip: “I’m getting’ that Lego castle!”
Mama would admonish, “You don’t know you’re getting it for sure.
Embarrassed, I would go back to whatever I was doing. I would remain mollified for two or three days, but eventually I would be unable to contain my excitement and I would begin my low-key bragging again.
Then in November, the unthinkable happened. One Saturday, Mama started having breathing trouble. She knew it was her asthma giving her problems, but she insisted on going to Ivory’s and my soccer matches in southwest Jackson. By the time mine was finished, it was late afternoon, and she was in full distress. Daddy rushed her to the emergency room at Baptist Hospital after dropping us off at my godmother’s house. He came back home to give us dinner, but he didn’t stay long. He went right back to the hospital.
That night, my brothers and I lay in strange beds wondering what could possibly be going on. While it was customary for us to lie awake in bed talking, Daddy didn’t come in to yell at us. Completely bewildered, we couldn’t sleep. We were just passing the time, waiting for dawn for our parents to come to take us to church, for everything to be normal again.
The next day, Daddy came back to get us. When we got home, there was an infestation of church members cleaning and preparing food in every room. Daddy took us outside so he could talk to us. We gathered near a metal lamppost beside the driveway. Daddy knelt down before us and quietly told us, “Y’all are gonna have to be really good from now on. Mama died today …”
All of the oxygen had been sucked from the universe. No other sound registered to my ears. I stared at the chipped, white paint of the light post, then at the street – anything to avoid looking at Daddy’s face.
I remember going to school the next day. My combined third-and-fourth grade class would have sharing time after lunch. Mr Greene, our teacher asked if anyone knew what “tragedy” meant. I wasn’t sure, but I thought it had something to do with literature, so I sat back and didn’t say anything. After a lengthy discussion, my classmate, Marcus said, “I think it’s when somebody dies.”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Greene. This was just the opening he had been waiting for. “Michael’s mother died last weekend.”
Marcus was also a member of our church and had attended the prayer vigil at the hospital. I listened to this third grader tell the class about how spirits rose and fell with every change of my mother’s status. I felt appalled, as it all seemed so intrusive that someone a year younger than me knew the intimate details of how my mother had died, and that he was now sharing them with the class.
A few days later, we held the funeral. My grandparents came down from Seattle, and Aunt Maxine and Uncle Larry came over from Georgia. I remember being in the back of the limo with my grandparents. Grandmother talked about how she’d been planning to come down and they would go shopping. She talked about how Mama might be having a bad day with her breathing, but she would grab her inhaler and say, “Let’s go!”
I kept thinking that all of the memories were just making everyone sadder. At the funeral, I kept looking at my godmother and Aunt Maxine crying. I looked at their mascara running and tried to concentrate on that. Whenwe got back to the house, many relatives were there. We watched movies, ate, and tried to laugh.
A month later, Christmas came. It was a somber event. However, my Lego castle was there under the tree. My older brother helped me put it together. I kept thinking that Mama had gotten it for me as her last gesture on earth. For the years following that Christmas, Lego toys would become my favorite. I would assemble new sets and play with them for a week. Then I would disassemble them and consign their components to the jumble of pieces I kept in my Lego bag. Even my Lego bag was an homage to Mama. It was a purple-and-yellow UW Huskies bag I had gotten one summer when we visited my grandparent in Seattle.
For years, I would obsessively design and build new products. More than once, I heard adults remark that I would grow up to become an architect because I was so patient with my experiments. I didn’t really understand what architects even did; I just knew that if I kept thinking of new building strategies, eventually, my creations would stop falling apart.
Once I started high school, I no longer devoted my days to Lego sets. However, after college, I would occasionally buy a set out of a sense of nostalgia. I would assemble it at home in a few minutes and take it to work the next day to add to the various knickknacks on my desk. Although I no longer considered myself a collector, keeping Lego sets was a way of constantly keeping Mama nearby.
* * *
After I woke up from my coma, I had horrible double vision. The muscles of my right hand had atrophied so much that I had great difficulty holding on to anything. One of my first visitors was a coworker named Val. When she first came to see me, it was like seeing someone from another world. Spending time with someone from my former life took me outside the mental space of the hospital walls. Val was friendly, compassionate, and – most importantly – familiar. Our conversations were not limited to “How are you feeling?” or “Tell me about your life before this all happened?” We could talk about people we knew and things we had done together. One day, when this was all over, we would be able to go for sushi in D’Iberville again, and talk about work and soccer.
Before Val left, she gave me two small presents. Recalling that I had always kept Lego microfighters on my desk at work, she had bought me two sets: the AT-AT and the Snowspeeder. I was deeply grateful, but I knew that I was in no position to put them together in my current state. I would need assistance because of my lack of vision and manual dexterity. And even then, the person helping me might drop pieces under the bed or on the floor. I wouldn’t be able to get down and scrounge around searching for Lego pieces. So I kept the sets in boxes, eagerly anticipating the day when I could do them myself at home.
Once I got out of the hospital, Val and I decided to meet for coffee at Starbucks. Before we met, I asked Dad to drive me to Target so I could pick out a gift for her. Knowing that Val was a fan of Marvel Comics, and because Avengers: Age of Ultron was the last movie I had seen before waking up in a hospital bed, I bought her an Ultron vs. Ironman Lego set.
Once we were settled at a table, I gave Val the present.
“You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I know. But it’s the least I can do, after all those times you came to see me in the hospital.”
She looked at the set and exclaimed, “Ultron! That’s so cool!”
We spent the next few minutes putting the set together. After we were done, she told me about the managerial job that had brought her from the coast to central Mississippi. She also raved about the Museum of Natural Science. I hadn’t been since it had changed locations, but now I desperately wanted to see it. Being with Val always made things feel warm and more normal. After months of feeling like a mere hospital patient, I needed to just feel like a normal guy.
All of my belongings were kept in a room adjoining the one I lived in. I kept the Lego sets there for months after I was discharged. I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to put them together by myself. But one night after I had stopped using the wheelchair, I couldn’t sleep. I began wondering if I could actually assemble a Microfighter. For over an hour, I debated whether I should try it or if I would just frustrate myself.
Around 3:00 am, I put one a shirt and shorts. I grabbed my quad cane and hobbled over to the room next door. Once there, I marveled at thingsI hadn’t laid eyes on in half a year. I had to dig through several baskets and bins, all while trying not to fall over. Finally, I found the sets. I looked at the Snowspeeder. It was only 97 pieces. I thought, Okay, it’s not even a hundred pieces. You can try that. I put it in my affected hand and carefully carried it back to my bedroom, worried that it might slip.
After I got back to my room, I tore open the box and gingerly poured its contents onto the dinner tray by my bed. Then I unfolded the instruction booklet and placed it beside the pieces. I began to meticulously attach one piece to another. This required a massive amount of concentration, as I only had one hand to work with. I dropped pieces several times and had to stop to pick them up. There were several times I thought about quitting, but I convinced myself to persevere.
I finished the Snowspeeder just before 4:00am. It had taken so much patience and so much nerve, but it was done. A few nights later, I assembled the AT-AT. That one proved even easier. After that, I began going to the Lego online shop to buy even more sets. Every week or so, a new set would arrive in the mail, and I would quickly put it together.
As my eyesight improved and my left hand regained more movement, I started putting together bigger and bigger sets. In January, I ordered the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 hearse. I set aside one week to give myself time to rest between periods of work. However, once I started working on it, I finished before dinnertime. That set was over 550 pieces, so I was quite proud of myself. I was ready for more!
It was time to try the full-sized Star Wars AT-AT. At over 1,100 pieces, it would be the crowning achievement of my collection. However, by the time I looked online, it had been discontinued. I was very disappointed. I had seen it at Target on the coast for $99, so the next time I visited Howard in Gulfport, I tried there. They were out of stock there too. I tried eBay and Amazon. Each site had them for $200. After two days of deliberation, I convinced myself that a 100% markup was an acceptable expenditure if it added to my journey.
When the package arrived, I was awestruck. It came with two instruction booklets and seven bags of parts. Each of these bags was marked with a number, and you were supposed to work through each bag in order, until you had finished the entire machine. On the first day, I finished the first two bags. On the second day, I finished three more. On the third day, I finished the entire AT-AT.
Now I was able to sit back and admire my handiwork. It had taken so much work and determination to get to this point. I realized how many people across the country were pulling for me from afar. But most of all, if she were standing beside me today, Mama would be proud.