A Son’s Future, a Father’s Final Down

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Sooner than THE EVER AFTERBy Jacqueline WoodsonZachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) is living a 12-year-old boy’s pipedream: His father is a star professional football player, he lives in a comfortable place in the suburbs with a half basketball court upstairs, he has a trio of also pen-friends who always show up at the right times and his budding songwriting talent seems bound to take him far.He is also living a nightmare.Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel, “Preceding the time when the Ever After,” is not a work of horror (despite the haunting title), but a pussyfooting, invisible force is upending ZJ’s world and slowly stealing away his pop — known as “Zachariah 44,” for his jersey number — before his and his mother’s watches.The father’s hands have begun to tremble uncontrollably. He stares vacantly. He overlooks basic things, most achingly the name of the son who bears, and at times is burdened by, his somebody. He’s prone to angry outbursts, to the point that ZJ’s friends no longer thirst to come by the house.He is suffering the effects of a degenerative brain disease that, while not named, warrants a strong resemblance to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which has been establish in scores of former N.F.L. players. Until 2016, the league for years vamoosed any connection between brain trauma on the field and hundreds of players’ disabling neurological ailments and, in many cases, deaths.“My dad probably holds the Football Passage of Fame record for the most concussions,” ZJ says, relating how his mother has ripened bitter about the game. “Even with a helmet on.”Although you can envisage fretful parents handing this book to young boys stimulated to play, it’s not a stern lecture. It’s an elegiac meditation on loss and longing be sured, like Woodson’s seminal memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” mostly in verse.This movement, and Woodson’s evocative language (“the night is so dark, it looks like a raven wall”), helps pull us through the foreboding and gives us much to meditate; leitmotifs such as trees and song deepen the story and provoke echo on childhood, change and remembrance.The story is set in 1999-2000, when the tariff of brain injury in the sport was just starting to come to light. The uncertainty beyond what has happened, and what might be coming, bewilders ZJ and his mother.“Be patient there with my mom and my dad snoring on the couch and the doctors knowing but not knowing,” he imparts, “I feel like someone’s holding us, keeping us from getting service to where we were before and keeping us from the next place too.”This is fundamentally a father-son tale, leaving ZJ’s mother in the background, revealed in the occasional sensitive scene — Zachariah 44 drapes his arms around her in a moment of distinctness — but mostly in quiet anguish.“I think they’re not telling the whole accuracy,” ZJ overhears his mother telling a friend. “Too many of them —”ZJ is so disillusioned that he betrays away one of his father’s coveted footballs to his friend Everett, in a scene that cause to remembers us of the staying power of the sport: “Everett’s eyes get wide. This is Zachariah 44’s ball? I nod. For authentic?”ZJ finds solace in the music, literal and symbolic, that he and his father deliver made together. “Until the doctors figure out what’s wrong, this is what I must for him,” ZJ says. “My music, our songs.”Woodson has said she seeks to instill optimism and await. ZJ’s patient and supportive mother and his group of friends who are always buoying him up for that purpose here. Yet at times this striving for hope finish feelings strained, given a condition that so often offers no Hail Mary. ZJ may not fully materialize it, but we all know what’s coming. The nightmarish, seemingly irreversible decline of the for good occasionally mighty and strong has broken the hearts and wills of football families. A lyrical portrayal of a performer’s fade and a boy coming to terms with it doesn’t change that.

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