FRETTING THE LONG ROAD BACK

words
CHRISTOPHER BEAUDOIN, lead guitarist for Twin Grizzly
photography
JAMES JAY FORTIN

Image

Left to right: Christopher Beaudoin, Alex Fabish , David Dumais, Brandon Clements, Christopher Leighton,
William Cobb, Amber Sinclair, Len Lednum. 

They say practice makes perfect, but they always forget to mention how much practice. Yet here I am, standing on stage at Port City Music Hall, guitar in hand, about to play one of the biggest shows of my life. Through the white noise and delightful hum of a Marshall full stack amplifier, volume poised at 11, I can’t help but think of all I’ve been through. I can’t help but remember all those who have helped me get to this moment. Some of them are right beside me on stage, some are in the audience, some live their lives oblivious to the impact they have had on mine.

I look to my bandmates. Everyone is in tune. Nods of affirmation signal that this energy and anticipation stirring within us is ready to be let loose. We share a momentary collective breath as drumsticks click together four times and we all explode from the gate. The force of the first beat almost knocks me over with a tsunami of sound, and the opening chord rings out replaced by a building melodic tension. I am hypnotized. I am taken back to the start of this.

I am 12 again. I want to play guitar, and I have big dreams of playing sold-out shows from New York to LA. I haven’t even played my first chord yet but my fingers are ready to erupt with all the power of Eddie Van Halen. I am armed with my first guitar, an Ovation acoustic borrowed from my Uncle Paul; my teacher, Rich Keene of Carroll’s Music Center in Lewiston, is armed with the patience of a saint. He has me working on all the fundamentals: posture, correct hand placement, how to hold a pick properly ... But a 12-year-old boy isn’t concerned about all that. A 12-year-old boy wants to rock. A 12-year-old boy wants to ride the lightning and leave Kirk Hammett playing second fiddle.

Cheers from the crowd snap me back as the beat breaks down into a hard-pulsing groove. My solo is right around the corner and if I don’t give it my all, Kirk will be back in the first chair. While my right foot sweeps up and down on the Wah pedal, my fingers dance across the fretboard resolving the melody on this rosewood path to their shining moment. For a moment I doubt if I still have it in me. After all, less than six years prior my left hand couldn’t move at all, let alone strum a six string. In the instant before I make this (guitar) sing its song, I’m sent back again.

It is 7:30am, August 21, 2014. I am harshly reminded by my alarm clock that it is time to get up and greet the day. Pins and needles in my left arm make it the job of my right hand to silence this beast. My firstborn lies in the next room, telling stories to herself that only an 8-month-old like her could fully appreciate. I plant both my bare feet on the hardwood and make my way toward the kitchen as I shake my left arm in an attempt to wake it from its slumber. I fix a bottle for the baby and gather our clothes for the day. A quick shower and I’m ready to dress. Only something is different, or half of something is different. I can barely lift my left leg into my boxers, hell, I can barely move my left arm.

I manage to get my pants on and shirt sometime later. My left limbs have only gotten worse and I am feeling a numbness through the same side of my face as well. Now each step is a struggle as I continue to feel mobility drain from me. I walk with the gait only George Romero would appreciate over to the crib and stare down at my daughter. I make a futile attempt to pick her up with only my right arm; all I manage to do is flip her from her back to belly. She sits up and giggles at the new game I’ve invented. Arms raised, she grunts for me to pick her up. I am powerless. I call my better half, Kiersten, at work to come home and take me to the emergency room. My daughter’s cries still echo in my head, like the sound of sirens, or the roar of the crowd in front of me.

I step up to the front of the stage and rip into the first notes of my solo, fingers tapping away on the fretboard as if they are summoning Randy Rhoads himself aboard the crazy train. Though I’m in front of the crowd, I feel as if I’m standing alone in the stage lights. With each bend and slide across the strings I feel the nerves fade and the music flow through me. My bandmates have broken down the rhythm in preparation for the final chorus as I tap out my final notes.

We are one again and giving it all we have to bring this opening song to a close and set the stage for what is to come. The crowd erupts and cheers. Those who have never seen us have no idea what the rest of our set will bring. Those who have are excited about the onslaught of sound and energy they have come to expect from this little band of musical brothers, but they are not prepared for the surprise we have planned.

You can’t do it all yourself. Sometimes you just need a hand and sometimes one hand isn’t even enough. Kiersten arrives, worried and watery eyed. She lifts the baby out of the crib and changes her, bringing peace and a smile back to her face. We get ready quickly. I drag my left foot behind me and struggle to lift it into the car. I sit slumped to the right in the passenger seat, on our way to drop the baby at daycare.

With the baby girl safely dropped off for a day of play with her friends, we speed to the hospital. I attempt to tap my left fingers nervously on my knee, only they seem to move in some sort of delayed slow motion, the kind of sludgy movement that always seems to plague your legs in a nightmare.

Once at St. Mary’s in Lewiston, I am checked in quickly for fear that I might have had a stroke. The left side of my body is now completely incapable of any perceivable motion and I worry that I’ll fall out of the hospital bed should I wiggle the wrong way. There is noticeable droop on the left side of my face and I feel exhausted even though the day has barely begun. I am put through MRIs and spinal taps and many vials of blood are taken. All I can do is wait.

After many hours of sitting in the room. I am visited by a neurologist, Dr. Robinson, who begins to tell me that I have not had a stroke. He shuffles through his paperwork, not unlike I had done the night before with sheet music, sitting on the floor in my mostly bare living room, playing along and singing Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” to my daughter just before bed. “My god,” I think to myself. “Will I ever be able to play again?”

He pulls up a scan of my brain, shows me a spot toward the top right that is darker than the rest. This, he tells me, is blood that had pooled in my brain. It made quick work of damaging nerve endings and slowing down my motor skills. He then tells me about my spinal tap, my protein levels are high. Nigel Tufnel, yours may go to 11 but mine is off the charts at 29. What does all this mean? Well, Dr. Robinson explains that I have experienced a “Clinically Isolated Syndrome” and that while it might become nothing, I might have multiple sclerosis. I may have flare ups, lose vision, have balance problems, experience extreme fatigue, the list goes on. I am told that I will have many more scans done over the next few months, and I will start immediately on a steroid treatment to help regain any movement.

I am faced with the reality that I may not regain all of my mobility, even after the week of steroid injections through my IV. I sit upright in the hospital bed; the cold drip of the medication enters my veins and I am focused. I am focused on trying to tap my fingers, twitch my thumb, wiggle my toes. I stare down at my limbs intently like some sort of Jedi in training, trying to will myself out of this immobility. The most I can muster is a slightly lifted index finger and a slow close of my hand. I am sent home.

With the crowd still screaming, I begin the opening riff to another tune. Driving it ever forward, the rest of my crew falls into place in time. As we crescendo, they all pause for a moment as I start the next phrase before joining back in, like a musical kick to the teeth. I see Kiersten in the crowd; she is watching me play, and I am glad as hell to be doing it. While the steroids helped speed my recovery, they had the nasty side effect of making me extremely hostile. You know when Bruce Banner gets so mad he rips his shirt open and turns into the Hulk? All just because he can’t find his car keys? Roid rage is real, my friend.

Within a month I go from pushing our lawn mower like a peg-legged pirate to striding with all the grace of an Olympic figure skater. Guitar, on the other hand, is a different story. While I still know all of the music and where to put my fingers, I have completely lost all muscle memory and dexterity, as well as any calluses that had developed over the years. Starting from square one, I begin to work through those scales I once practiced as a 12-year-old boy, over and over. I play along to recordings of my favorite songs and rehearse my band’s original catalog almost daily. This is not like riding a bike; I have to relearn and train my hands to form chords, slide, hammer-on and pull-off all over again. This is also how I learn what my limitations are. If I had to guess, even as I write this, I can only play about 85% as fast as I could before. I’ve never been much for technical ability anyway. I put the work in, get back into practicing with the band and start playing shows.

I spend a lot of time on stage this night just thinking about all I have been through, all I have to work for, and all the time I have put in. In the end, I think that’s a way to measure love (or at least passion), the willingness to give of yourself to something. To put in the effort until it no longer feels like work—which is not to say that it ever becomes effortless.

We play through our set list with our usual showmanship and energy. The crowd is at an all-time high for the night, and we are about to give them something to remember. Something we haven’t practiced in person, only talked about and imagined how we might be able to pull it off. You see, we are a group of Mainers who take pride in our local music scene; we see all the people who play with us and attend our shows as family.

About halfway through our next song, “Bones,” our usual high speed and energy fades to a mellow drone of delay and reverberation as the drums play a hard-hitting but steady march. From the both sides of the stage emerge three drummers. These three drummers from various local bands carry snare drums, cymbals and sticks and take places beside us on stage. My lead singer has done the same and is ready in front of a small standing drum kit as well. We stand on stage together, a community of musicians and friends, smiles on all our faces. Then, in a torrent of sound, all five drummers start playing to this communal rhythm. The stage vibrates and pulses under our feet as we find our groove. Our drummer seems to unsheath his sticks as a great warrior would at the battle cry. He separates himself from the pack as the lone wolf of this pounding percussive onslaught. My playing becomes quicker and more intensified as the others slam out each beat and note harder than the last. We are all grinning ear to ear, our collective energy making each second seem like an eternity. If I could live forever in a single moment, this may be the one.

At the apex of this storm of sound, the drums echo like glorious thunder and count me in to do my dance along the fretboard once again. I am humbled; I still can’t wipe the smile off my face. I have never felt more like I am living in the moment, in my entire life. And as the drum line leaves the stage while the chorus belts out “Those bones were made to move, those bones were made to rock,” I am happy for never giving up and I am proud of all the work I have put in. But I am mostly happy for all those friends and family who never gave up on me. They are what makes this moment so special.

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