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Fear is not rational, and yet my heartbeat throbbed in my ears. God has not given us a spirit of fear, and yet as I prayed to Him, my voice shook and my knees buckled. This was a gripping fear, and I fought back the urge to simply turn around and get back in our vehicle. In only a few minutes, I could be hiding within the warm confines of our comfortable apartment - the sounds and smells returning me to the emotional bliss I had become so accustomed to this past year. And yet I knew I had to move forward. God's voice spoke to my heart - reminding me gently but firmly that this was His will and His plan for me - a way to bring me so many blessings I didn't even understand yet. I quietly verbalized His words, "If you don't live as you believe, what's the point of believing anything at all!"
"God, just let it all be ok," I whispered. I astonished even myself by this prayer; I wasn't exactly sure how I would define ok at this moment. Perhaps my family still speaking to me would be considered "ok" enough. At this moment, I wasn't even sure I'd be able to count on that. No, what I really wanted was normalcy. I've always been quick to embrace change when it comes to things like technology, medicine, or new and exciting experiences - all things that had played major parts in my life, but changes of a more personal nature terrified me. I liked being able to find security in normalcy. Now, I would be the one bringing about the change that nobody else would like. I began shaking again. I tried to steady myself - tried to breathe deeply. The sun shone brightly around us, making me have to turn my face from its brightness for a second. Spring was well on its way, as evidenced by the sounds of the birds, the warm breeze that brushed by, and the last of the melting snow having finally conceded to its fate. I was ready for spring and summer - my favorite times of the year. I can't thoroughly explain it, but my step was always just a little livelier, and my spirit just a little bit brighter as summer approached. Today, spring and summer were making their imminent coming very definite and very clear. This should have been a perfect day - signaling the perfect things that were to come, and yet I wasn't sure of anything. If I had been stronger in my faith, I could have made things significantly easier on myself, but I just hadn't reached that point yet. I knew God could take care of me; I just wasn't absolutely convinced that He actually would - wasn't convinced that I deserved all of His love and all of His blessings.
I uttered my prayer one more time, "God please just let it go ok; please let everything be alright." The sun and the breeze danced around me, then came to rest on me as if protecting me, and a certain, all but imperceptible sense of calm came over me. This was right. It didn't matter what anyone else thought, I was doing what God wanted me to do. I wasn't sure exactly how long my wife had been standing there by this point, but I suddenly became aware of her voice.
I didn't answer, but I grabbed her hand and gave it a nervous squeeze.
She continued, "You sure we have to do this now? You sure I have to be here?" Jessica is an amazing and wonderful person and wife, and she's very supportive. Yet she cannot stand any kind of controversy. She has always claimed to value peace, and I believe she does. However, Jessica and I define peace very differently. For me, peace is not the absence of disagreement or controversy. Sometimes you have to do what's right, even if it does cause that disagreement you so desperately want to avoid.
"Come on honey," I coaxed. "It's gonna be ok." I wasn't even so sure I believed that yet, but I had to keep telling her - keep telling myself that it would be. We began walking towards the quiet restaurant. My parents were happily getting out of their car, chattering blissfully about what we would all eat for lunch. I couldn't help but feel a quick pang of guilt. They had no idea what was about to hit them. Once they did, they might not even feel like eating. Their talk of food distracted me for a moment. I was actually pretty hungry. We'd order first - maybe even munch on a few appetizers before I'd disappoint them so deeply. Well, it wouldn't be the first time I had disappointed them. I had already shattered their world by going to a small-town, liberal arts college instead of a large conservatory - by pursuing a degree in music education instead of a career in performance like some of the great singers of this world. I sometimes can't help but wonder whether my parents' desire for me to become a professional singer was borne less of love for my voice than of worry that my blindness would all but prevent me from doing anything else. To be certain, many audiences claimed to be touched by my voice. I had been afforded opportunities and given experiences too numerous to count. I met dignitaries, philanthropists, government officials, and CEOs. I also met physically and mentally challenged individuals, and those who would have leapt for joy if a three-day old crust of bread would have suddenly appeared on the street in front of them. I had the honor of sharing meals, dressing rooms, and hotels with people such as former First Lady Hillary Clinton, Sharon Stone, Cal Ripkin, Lavar Burton, Sarah Jessica Parker, and many, many more. I walked hand-in-hand with Al Gore and his wife Tipper up to a vast stage where I sang the National Anthem for the Race for the Cure. I shook hands and talked with President George W. Bush as I sang for a T-Ball game on the White House Lawn. And through all this, was I treated as if royalty? Absolutely. The hotels, personal drivers, and much more would give anyone the thrill of a lifetime.
It was especially nice in those cases when my parents and I would go somewhere where money was no object. All three of us would be flown to our destination and would be greeted by a driver who carried a badge with our name. Then we would all be taken to a stretch limo and escorted to our four or five-star hotel. At the hotel, we knew that anything we wanted, be it dinner at the restaurant or room service at 1:00 A.M., would be taken care of. Even in those times when it wasn't, my parents never denied me anything. While on these trips, sometimes lasting several days, we got to see such places as Disney World, the Crystal Cathedral, and the historical Marketplace of Brussels, Belgium just to name a few. Anyone would experience a thrill in this type of life. I would sometimes think about the most famous singers of the past few decades, and there was no question in my mind that their lives - at least some aspects of their lives, must have been amazing.
Yet, I had experienced a taste of that amazing life - albeit a small one, and thinking about my entire life being constantly that "amazing" is a nice fantasy sometimes. However amazing, it is just a fantasy, and it quickly fades away. Why? I have no real desire for it. Sure, the idea of being taken care of in such ways as those described above is a pleasant one, and one which my parents were excited by. Who wouldn't want their son or daughter to be taken care of for the rest of his/her life? It would make it just a little easier for you to sleep at night. However, the reality is that so much baggage goes with that kind of life, it's not even funny. To be sure, I certainly don't condemn anyone who lives that kind of life, nor do I think any less of someone who wants that kind of life; it's just not for me. Another important issue to consider was the fact that although I felt passionate about singing and wanted it to be a major part of my life, I did not want it to be my whole life. These are the things I tried over and over to tell my parents. Yes, I got incredible joy out of singing for whatever cause it was at the time and somehow making people happy through my singing. But when the rubber meets the road, I could absolutely not see myself being involved in that life more than every so often. In fact, I would rather not be involved in it at all than be involved in it full time if those be my only two options. You suddenly lose all sense of who you are and you are forced to become the image people have of you. People are telling you where to go and for how long to be there. The whole idea gives me a very nervous and uncomfortable feeling inside. Since I was young as 11 or 12 years old I expressed this to my parents.
I had more fun pretending and playing with friends than I did on these amazing performance adventures. I looked forward to a trip to Philadelphia to see my eye surgeon more than I did a performance. Those trips were simple fun. Typically, my mother would remain for work and my dad, our friend Frank (the guidance counselor at our high school,) and I would go. We'd stop for breakfast on the way down, lunch on the way back, and sometimes a small park near the physician's office to play. We'd often have good conversation. Frank was one of those people who belonged with children. He would laugh and retort when I would hound him relentlessly about why he had not bought his wife Doris a new car - specifically a conversion van. Looking back, I don't even think she really wanted one, but she always let me think she did - lead me to believe she was getting more and more inpatient with her stubborn husband for not buying it for her - just so I'd have some fun.
He would encourage my imagination and boy did I have one. With Frank's help, I created an imaginary company called the Matthew Vollbrecht and Group Enterprises. Frank had suggested the name "Matthew Vollbrecht Enterprises", but I had a problem excluding the large group of imaginary people who were part of my life - part of making this company happen, so I added the "and Group" part. Sound like an awkward and ridiculous name to you? It probably should, to me too, but to this day, I can hear it as if it really exists. This company was enormous - including theme parks, hotels, doctors, restaurants, and much, much more - even a space center. Frank was an astronaut in our Enterprise space program. Later, his wife Doris who often took care of me when I would miss school joined the group of star sailors too. She was more afraid though. A simple glitch in the readings on the oxygen tanks and she would panic. Yet after I explained to her that oxygen was typically stored in a frozen type state, she would inevitably begin stirring the straw around in her cup as if to indicate further problems - a situation which would always provoke a response from Frank and be the source of more conversation and humor.
The more we got together, the more we played these games, and I suddenly began thinking, maybe I could run a business some day. This idea appealed to me so much more than singing professionally ever did. Yet my parents would not hear of it. They would try to explain to me time and again how I just didn't understand or know what I was thinking. Sometimes conversations went on for hours or even days. Make no mistake about it, I have been blessed with amazing and wonderful parents, and their concern, be it love, worry, or both (and I've always known it is both), was genuine - still is, but there comes a point after which they must be reminded that it is of more value to be happy than to experience all the things everyone else thinks are right for you. And I do mean everyone. In my life, I probably know well five people, or less, who honestly understand and agree with my perspective on this. Everyone else just sees the "amazing voice" and thinks it would be a crime if as many people as possible didn't hear it.
The second time I tried to tell them was in high school. I became nothing less than obsessed with chorus. If it would have been possible, I would have spent every moment from my arrival at school until my afternoon departure in the chorus room. In fact, some days I did just that, and I was the dork who was there because I loved it - not just because it got me out of other classes. Then, during free time when other people would go to the gym or computer lab, I would run to the chorus room. I didn't have dozens of girls - even one girl, asking to date me, and I didn't have guys begging me to be on the football team, I had chorus. That was my haven - my escape. When I got home I would continue practicing the music for the upcoming shows - even working on choreography to the songs.
My imagination even picked up on this as well, as the Enterprises got a night club with a band and choir who would perform regular shows, under my direction of course. I could easily see myself becoming a choral director. At first I had a fight on my hands for this one too, but eventually I won out. My parents tried to come up with every reason in the book that might be causing me to stray from what in their minds should have been the right path. As I got older these arguments became more and more frequent. Yet I knew what I wanted to do, and I spent all my time doing it.
Some people talk as though high school and/or college were the best time of their lives, but I would not go back there for anything in the world! I'm not saying that I was unhappy - I was just kind of empty - I lived my life in quiet desperation. Being only a child, I did not have the power to grasp my dreams. I had to follow someone else's, and being someone who had been dreaming for so long, this quickly became a serious problem for me. The routine was much the same as every other high school student's - school during the day, homework at night. I did look forward to summer. My mom also worked in a school, so she would have off in the summers. My mother and I were very close. I was the apple of her eye. We had one of those relationships where if we ever did fight about something, we both felt so bad and upset about the disagreement that it was honestly anybody's guess who would concede first. And there was always an apology and a hug which followed shortly. I honestly cannot think of one occasion where we went to bed angry.
My young childhood may have had something to do with this. It was a really hard time for my parents with me being as sick as I was. It began when I was only two months old. During a routine check-up, the doctor noticed that my eyes were not tracking properly. Within one day, I had been sent to three different hospitals and then immediately into surgery - pinned down as I cried without understanding of what was happening to me. The next two or three years of my life would be filled with more surgeries, flavored anesthesia, getting sick from anesthesia, and being told I couldn't lay down to sleep. I learned words I never should have had to know at that age - words like Demerol, recovery, and Chestnut Hill. The doctor's office was located in the Chestnut Hill area near Philadelphia, and I knew if we were going to Chestnut Hill, I would not have to deal with being wheeled away from my Mommy into a room where I'd have a mask placed over my face which would cause me to fall asleep and wake up sick again. In the car, I would ask dozens of times, are you sure we're going to Chestnut Hill this time?
Honestly, it amazes me that I have such a positive view of doctors and medicine now after all that. The problems continued to worsen. The doctors still do not have a name for it - eye hemorrhages basically. I lost my sight when I was only three years old, after 22 surgeries. My mom, having made a comment long before I was born that she didn't know what she would do if she ever had to "raise a handicapped child," spiraled downward into a deep depression - not wanting to leave her room.
Thank God for a grandmother who was gentle, yet straight to the point. She essentially pulled my mother up by her bootstraps and said, "Get a grip girl! You have a child, and you have a choice. He deserves a life too you know!"
Excerpted from Blind Faith by Matthew Vollbrecht Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Vollbrecht. Excerpted by permission.
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