By John Thomas Tuft

“Johnny, are you ready?” We are lined up in a row, all seven of us, oldest to youngest in the kitchen of the church-owned home. My mother asks the question of me as I slip into line. Susan, 14 months older, is to my right, Danny, 14 months younger, is to my left. My bowtie is in place, a hand me down like the rest of my outfit. The small church on the corner in the College Hill area of Beaver Falls, PA, hired my father right out of seminary, after ten years in the Navy, and now four children have become seven by some mysterious process in the mind of six-year-old me. Mom goes down the line with a comb in hand, smoothing cowlicks, checking buttons, adjusting said bowtie, picking lint off sweater vests, handing out dimes for the Sunday School collection plate. The knees of my Sunday pants have patches ironed on from the inside so the holes in both pant legs don’t show as obviously as the ironed-on to the outside ones do on my everyday play jeans. I’ll be in high school before I wear clothes without patches. I will be that little boy for the rest of my life…

“Tuffy, are you ready?” Steve Tucker of Wilmerding, PA, who sits beside me for three years of East Allegheny High School home room, he of the ability to tear down a car engine and rebuild it with a four barrel so it will go faster for the weekends of drag racing at Keystone Raceway, and whose older brother is a Corvette afficionado (if you know, you know!), who has an after school job before I do, who has a girlfriend before I do to whom he is still married these days, and who will hopefully never ask me what Steve said about her in those formative years…where was I? Oh yeah, Steve punches me on the arm as first period bell rings and we’re out the door into the swirl of chatter, hormones and unbridled anxieties masquerading as bellbottom jeans, miniskirts, forever romances and pep rallies. I settle into my seat as the teacher hands out graded term papers one by one. He passes me by and continues placing papers on desks, greeted by groans and muttered curses. This can’t be good. I still don’t have mine. How badly did I screw it up? I knew I shouldn’t have gone with sarcastic humor. Wait, he’s done. No paper? The teacher stands in the center of the giant square of desks. “I want to read someone’s paper. It was so different, so creative, and funny that I wanted to read it aloud.” And I hear the words I wrote coming from his mouth. I’m the quiet, shy oddity of a preacher’s kid and all of 16. Oh. My. God. Take. Me. Now. Before anyone knows it’s me…

“Jack, are you ready?” My father is standing there, calling me out of my cloud of nerves, waiting to follow him into the church for him to perform the wedding service for his 21-year-old son getting married, ready or not…

“Rev. Tuft, are you ready?” I’m following a stranger through a door out into a church sanctuary where a gathered group of perishables will listen to me preach and then vote on whether they want to ever hear more. Do they know all I have are stories, little else…?

“Daddy, are you ready?” My oldest daughter is a vision of beauty in her wedding gown, ready to be given away to some giant peach of a football player turned future son in law. This can’t be right. Aren’t they supposed to stick around forever?

“Jack Goo, are you ready?” Sue leads me out the door of her farmhouse and into the fields and meadows. “Bill and Bob ride again,” she says into the wind as her flock of sheep ignore everything but eating. Breast cancer is relentlessly taking away her life. “Promise me that you’ll be there at the end. Okay?” I reach for her shoulder. “Yeah, Putt. I’m here…” 

“Mr. Tuft, are you ready?” The surgeon leans over me, concern in his eyes. “We’re going to try and get you some relief. I know you’re in a lot of pain and that you’ve been through a lot. We can only do so much. Prepare yourself, it will probably be with you the rest of your life…”

“John? John, I said, are you ready?” I blink a couple of times. The young woman nearby is pointing a video camera at me. She had interviewed me earlier, asking about my life, my writing, my pain, my struggles…my story. At some point as we talked I noticed her eyes welling up and tears spilling over, running down her face. I stop the interview to ask, “Are you okay?” She swipes at the diamonds on her cheeks, nods. “You touched me,” she says simply. Now we are in front of the building where I arrived full of uncertainty, anger, disbelief, darkness, fear…coming off a thirty-year expedition through the tribulations of narcotics and depression. Through storms of doubt and despair. And pain. Always the pain. I look at the young woman. A nod. “I have friends in there. Good friends that got me through. Come meet them. Are you ready…?”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.