For the first 47 years of my life, I never made a fuss about birthdays, be it mine or anybody else’s. That changed at precisely 7:11 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2006 when Samuel Charles Robin Brownlee was born.
If the first paragraph a clue this isn’t another Sam Gagner analysis or a look at the next edition of the Edmonton Oilers — I’ll draw some loose parallels between being Sam’s dad and the Oilers later, but nothing the hardcore types can hang their hats on — I don’t know what is, so click through now.
The first item I wrote for Oilersnation, March 7, 2008, featured the same picture as above. That piece, written at a time when Sam, like this website, was just getting up and running, generated all of nine comments. I didn’t care then because it was an excuse to use a picture of Sam, not that I need one.
Those of you who read here often likely know Sam’s story. I’ve written this to fill in some of the blanks those for who don’t, and because today is Sam’s fifth birthday, and I feel so inclined.
TIME HAD COME
Sam’s arrival at Royal Alexandra Hospital on my 48th birthday came three months early because we had no choice — doctors feared my wife Analyn, who’d already been in hospital for a month, could take no more.
With her blood pressure dangerously high despite a daily cocktail of medications — it was or 10 more different drugs at last count — Analyn risked stroke, heart failure or death if the doctors didn’t take Sam right away. The hospital called and told me, ready or not, it was time,
Even then, Analyn wanted to hang on. "Another day for Sam," she’d always say. That day, though, doctors said, "No more," and Sam came into the world some 90 days early, weighing two pounds and with his tough guy dad outside the operating room on his knees, crying like a baby, praying and offering Jesus Christ autographed Oilers jerseys and free hockey tickets forever if he’d let me keep both of them.
Analyn’s determination to buy Sam more time, to give him a chance that might not have existed just a month earlier despite the profound risks for her, still humbles me when I think about it, which I do often.
I’ve told this story more than once during Astral Media’s telethon for the Stollery Children’s Hospital, where Sam had surgery for an intestinal defect after three months in neo-natal intensive care at the Royal Alex, and I blubber like a fool every time. Hell, I lose it just writing this.
There was so much stress and worry early on. Sam was on a ventilator for six weeks because he couldn’t breath on his own. We almost lost him once, but after Sam stopped breathing and the alarms went off, we were rushed away from his bedside and a team of NICU doctors and nurses unhooked all his tubes and wires and forced a new breathing tube down his throat.
That drama dealt with, doctors warned Sam would be visually impaired, or blind, and we were told to be prepared. Other long-term defects? The list of possibilities was long. We didn’t care — he survived.
Luckily, Sam dodged every bullet, save for the length of intestine that found its way through his abdominal wall. Seeing what I’ve seen since at The Stollery, and knowing what I know now, my heart goes out to those parents whose babies aren’t as lucky.
Sam was discharged from hospital and came home close to his due date of Nov. 21. He was a relatively robust five pounds by then. The days, months and years since have been the happiest of my life. That we share the same birthday is just an added kick.
Georges Laraque, who visited in the hospital, came over to the house for Sam’s first birthday. On my 50th and Sam’s 2nd, we had a house full of people, friends like Jim Matheson and Rod Phillips. Bob Stauffer offered up a sketchy rendition of "My Way" on the karaoke machine.
Today, we’re at 53 and 5.
ABOUT THAT HOCKEY TEAM . . .
People often draw parallels between sports and real life, some of them a reach, I suppose. This might qualify as that, but when I look back at the past five years, I see common themes between being Sam’s dad and the relationship fans in this city have with the Oilers. For me, those themes include things like expectations, patience and something I’ll simply call enjoying the moment.
Being new to fatherhood, I didn’t have any expectations because I didn’t have a template to go by. I was so late to the dad game — most of my friends are grandparents now and I wasn’t exactly paying attention when their children were toddling about — I’ve had to learn as I go. That process continues. You ask friends. You read. You fake it. Best-guess stuff a lot of the time.
Likewise, I’m not convinced there’s any template for GM Steve Tambellini to go by when it comes to building a successful hockey team, despite all the talk about the Chicago Model or the Detroit Model. Concepts? Trends? Sure. But there’s a lot of variables.
Might I get it right with Sam? I hope so, although I’m put off that I still haven’t figured out what prompted him to kick me in the groin that time at the checkout stand in the supermarket. I don’t expect that it’ll happen again, but I can’t say for sure.
Sort of like Chris Pronger announcing he’d rather get gone after the 2006 Stanley Cup run or Sheldon Souray lighting Tambellini and the Oilers on fire two springs ago, no? I recovered considerably quicker than the Oilers, now five years out of the playoffs, have.
A good kid, like building a team, isn’t paint-by-numbers.
I’m convinced Sam is going to be a brilliant student, a popular kid and, one day, some manner of money-making machine or a big-time contributor to society, maybe both, when he grows up. What parent doesn’t want and hope for that? There’s every possibility, though, he’ll fall short of that expectation. He might be a slacker, a sportswriter even.
While I’m waiting to find out, I’ve dealt with a record number of time-outs during junior-kindergarten. It got to the point this year that it was news when Sam didn’t get a time out for failing to listen or playing too rough. The best laugh a group of parents waiting outside the classroom got this year was when Sam bounded out the door and proclaimed proud-as-you-please, "Dad, dad, I didn’t get a time out today." Guffaws.
Being old bones for a dad — my father was 18 when I was born, a swing of 30 years to the timeline Sam and I share — patience does not come easily. I’ve got this constant sense of urgency, like I’ve got some catching up to do. Let’s face it, I probably don’t have another 40 years to see if Sam turns out the way I hope he will. Still, patience is a virtue.
It’s much the same for Oilers fans. After five years out of the playoffs and back-to-back seasons sucking the hind banana in 30th place, I understand why fans are antsy. Selling hope is fine, but it’s understandable if the people buying the pitch would rather the process move along.
This might be a fine team again one day, and there’s reason to believe, given youngsters like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That said, there’s a whole bunch of baby steps between now and then. Do you expect the Oilers to make the playoffs this season? OK, and I’ll be enrolling Sam in driving lessons because, well, I’m already 53 and . . . Patience.
ENJOY THE MOMENT
Sam is capable of great moments and occasional brilliance. As a car guy, I appreciate that he knows a Corvette from a Mustang, and that he can differentiate between a V-8 and a pea-shooter (four-cylinder) by taking a look at the exhaust and noting the sound. He does it all the time.
Just as often, he’ll send me into spasms by emptying the contents of his stomach all over the back seat, farting on purpose or slapping a greasy hand print on freshly polished portion of dad’s car, knowing it causes me distress. Car guys don’t do that. "Sam, what the hell?"
The way I see it, this edition of the Oilers, and the next couple editions for that matter, will tease fans by being brilliant one night and looking like they have never played the game the next. Up and down. Big swings. Fans, at least those who hang in and hang on, will take that ride with them.
Take the good with the bad, the brilliant with the befuddling along the way. If the Oilers turn out to be something special again, you’ll have seen it and been a part of the process each and every step of the way. If I was paying for a ticket to get into Rexall Place, I couldn’t think of many things more satisfying than that. Well, maybe a few.
Happy birthday, baby boy.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.