Friday, August 10, 2012

Fishing on Black Pond

"Do you want to go to my dad's camp with me this weekend?".

I paused.

We had just been dating for a month.  A weekend with my girlfriend, her dad and his sketchy girlfriend at a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Vermont might be a tough one to swallow.  Its not like going clothes shopping or sitting through a chick flick as a peace offering after I had blown her off the night before to go drinking with my buddies.  This was all weekend, Friday through Sunday, in a 200 square foot cabin with the man whose daughter I am defiling and his coke snorting skank, who, the first time I met her, offered me some crystal meth, casually, as if it were a cup of tea. 

"Can we bring beer?".

The 2 1/2 hour ride to Black Pond went by quickly.  Lori drove while I sat in the passenger seat with some Budweisers.  I never let other people drive, being a control freak, but I didn't mind Lori driving.  I trusted her, plus it was her car. I was content to watch the trees get bigger and the sky grow closer as we headed through the Green Mountains.  We reached the camp just before sunset.

Black Pond is tree lined, speckled with cottages and cabins on the eastern shore. The western side of the pond has an access road that leads out to the the Half Moon State Forrest.  Located 20 miles north west of Rutland  and 20 miles east of Lake George it is remote.  Black Pond in no misnomer.  The water looks like a newly paved parking lot, flat and black . The sun was still hitting the tops of the trees that surround the pond adding to the contrast between dark and light, making the water seem like an endless abyss.

Bobo and Mary were already there having left from Northampton at noon, stopping on the way to buy some beer and groceries.  They were sitting in some Adirondack chairs down by the dock having some drinks. Lori and I checked out the cabin. It had electricity, but no indoor plumbing. It had one sleeping area, a kitchen area and a screened in porch.  It was clean and quaint, but rustic. "This might not be too bad", I thought to myself as I took a swig off a beer that Bobo shoved in my hand as soon as we arrived.

Lori and I took out the row boat while Bobo cooked up some steaks.   The temperature had dropped quickly since we had arrived and it was chilly out on the water.  It was now dark and we had to navigate by following the various campfires and lights from the cottages dotting the pond. We found our way back to Bobo's dock just in time for dinner.  We ate on the porch, looking out at the pond.  The food was just enough to satisfy my hunger without killing my buzz.  After dinner, Bobo and I had a few shots of Jack and drank some more beer.   Lori told me that he hated me.  Probably because I was three years older than her. More likely that he knew that I was a horny 21 year man sniffing around his daughter.  I would have hated me too if I were him.   He was actually sociable and friendly.  More than likely the Jack Daniels helped him to forget that I was the enemy.  Just when the small talk had run its course he jumped up and declared that he was hitting the sack.  Mary had already headed into the back room, likely to do some lines, but I was just happy not to have to deal with her.  Lori had been sitting with us the whole time.  I hadn't noticed her there.  She had been watching us for the hour since dinner sizing up the situation, bored by our intoxicated banter, making sure her dad didn't kill me .  We were sleeping on the porch on a pull out couch so when Bobo went to bed we set up camp for the night.  A few deep breaths of the cool night air combined with the alcohol and I was asleep in seconds.

In the distance I could hear a woman screaming.  I pinched my arm thinking I might still be sleeping. I was awake. I peered out into the darkness and could see some dim headlights coming from a car parked on the access road across the pond.  The screaming was interrupted by wailing, crying.  The sound seemed to funnel directly across the pond right into our porch. Lori checked her watch and informed me that it was 2 AM.  I threw on a T shirt and headed out to the dock to get a better look.. Bobo startled me as I exited the cabin.  He too had heard the curious screams and followed me down to the dock.  We hopped into the row boat and made our way across Black Pond.  As we got closer to the western shore I could see a woman standing at the edge of the water.  Behind her were two children standing huddled together.  Her car was angled across the dirt road to face the pond, as if shining the headlights out onto the water, in search of something.

I yelled from the row boat "Whats wrong.  Are you OK?".
"He's in the water", she bellowed frantically.  She had both hands wrapped around the back of her head, jumping up and down frustratedly. "I can't swim and neither can he" her voice trailed off as if she were handing off her burden for us to carry awhile.

"Where is he?" I asked.
 
"There", she pointed out into the water to her right, our left. 

We rowed in that general direction and came upon a half-sunk canoe.  Floating next to it was about five empty cans of  Miller, a fishing pole, some plastic bags and a baseball hat.  Suddenly I could feel my hangover.  The adrenaline had been pumping hard up until this point and now that I knew what we were dealing with it shut off without warning.  My head was pounding in rhythm with my heart. The canoe had a line of trout still tied up to one of the gunwales.  All good sized keepers. There was no one in the water.  I did the math quickly.  I had been a lifeguard for years at a summer camp.  In my training I knew that the brain could only survive about 3-4 minutes without oxygen.  We had been on the water for at least 10 minutes and who knows how long she had been screaming before it finally woke us up from our drunken sleep.

He was dead for sure.

Bobo and I each took an oar and starting poking around the canoe. We were not touching bottom.  I knew if I hit something it was going to be a body.  Every swipe of the oar was filled with tentative anticipation.  I kept remembering the scene in Jaws when Hooper goes under a wrecked boat in his scuba gear to see what had happened and had a head pop out at him.  I took a break from searching and looked upward to stretch my neck which had a crick from straining while looking downward into the pond searching for the dead fisherman.  The sky was filled with stars,  The milky way was as clear as I've ever seen it.  The sobbing from shore brought me back to the task at hand. I continued to skull and poke and peer into  the black water.

I am not sure how long we were on the water before the rescue team arrived.  I'm not sure how they knew there was an emergency.  Maybe another resident of the pond had a phone line in their cottage.  Being 1986 there were no cell phones and even if there were I doubt there would have been service.  They urgently put a boat in the water and made their way to us.  They asked a few questions like how long we had been there and what we had observed.  They then started to search using the same method as us but instead using ten foot long poles.  Exhausted we decided to make our way back to the eastern shore and Bobo's cabin.  We met Mary and Lori on the dock who were waiting to hear what had happened.  I described the scene.  The crying wife and scared kids.  The empties floating in the water.  The fish on the line.  We all head back into the cabin.  I fell asleep in seconds. 

What seemed like only a minute later I woke up to the sound of a machine working from across the pond.  I went out to the dock.  It was daybreak and light bathed the pond making everything visible.  There were various rescue personnel walking around the shoreline drinking coffee and chatting.  Two rescue trucks were parked on the access road one of which had a winch on the back.  It was pulling something up from the water.  It was the fisherman. The wife was standing at the top of the incline leading down to the waters edge, waiting.  There were no sign of the kids.  Before his body made it above the water line I turned around and headed back to the comfort of the pull out couch.

The rest of the weekend was uneventful.  We drove around the surrounding area doing some sightseeing.  We had some drinks. We sat on the porch looking out at the water.  We had some more drinks. Bobo had heard from a neighbor that the guy dragged his family out for some late night fishing.  He stood up in the canoe when reeling in a fish and fell into the darkness.  Thank god his wife and kids had stayed on shore.

Years later Lori and I became parents of two boys.  Bobo promised them that when they were old enough he would bring them fishing for the weekend at his camp.   Lori and I had not been back to his camp since that weekend in 1986. I used to joke around all the time about how I went fishing once on Black Pond and didn't catch a thing.

Bobo never got to bring the boys fishing at Black Pond.  In  2011, he had a serious illness which had him hospitalized for three months.  He eventually recovered, but was never quite the same. He and some friends went to his camp on Black Pond for the Memorial Day weekend.  He fell while there and went to the hospital.  They gave him some medication for his pain and sent him on his way.  Once back at the camp he was incapacitated by his pain. All he could do was sit on the porch and look out at the pond.  His friends brought him home a day early because he didn't seem right.  When our oldest was born we bought the house next door to Bobo, in the neighborhood Lori had grown up in as a kid.  The night his friends brought him back from the camp she spent most of it shuttling back in forth between our houses, checking on him.  Something was wrong.  The next morning she got a call from his roommate Dave that Bobo was unresponsive and breathing funny. I drove the kids up the hill to school.  When I got home a few minutes later my wife and her sister were trying to get their dad out of his house and into my sister-in-laws car.  I ran over and grabbed him by the waist and hauled him in the passenger seat.  I knew he was gone. 

In the years since my wife and I had gone to Black Pond Bobo had sold his half of the camp to his friends Pam and Rollie.  He had offered to sell half to us or Lisa, Lori's sister, but we knew we'd never use it.  Lisa didn't want it either.

2 and 1/2 hours away , an outhouse , no thanks. 

In the September following Bobo's passing Pam and Rollie hosted a party in Bobo's honor at the camp.  Lori and I hadn't been there in 25 years and thought it would be great for the kids to see it and maybe fish there, since Grandpa never got to take them. Rollie and Pam threw a great party.  They had fixed the camp up.  It still had no indoor bathroom, but it was updated with new paint and furniture. It was nicely landscaped and there was a larger open area down by the docks complete with kayaks, canoes and the row boat.  They invited all of Bobos friend from home and from VT, past and present, most of whom had spent time at the camp.  We spent the day listening to bawdy stories about Bobo.  Lots of laughter, food and drink. All his grandchildren got to fish off the dock and from the row boat we took out numerous times throughout the day.  There was swimming, even this late in September with the air hot and dry and the water warm and inviting. Before dark, my wife, her sister and two of Bobo's best friends Mike and Ritchie took the row boat out to the middle of the pond with Bobo's ashes and a handle of Jack Daniels.  As the entire group of party goers watched from the shore as they sprinkled Bobo's ashes and submerged the bottle of Jack not to far from the spot where Bobo and I went fishing that star filled night 25 years earlier.

Back on shore the party got cranking, The days drinking and festivities were catching up to many of the party goers; lots of stumbling and swearing.  A group gathered around some guys playing guitar by the fire pit. The fire fought off the early fall chill that had swept in from the pond. The smell of cannabis mingled with the burning hardwood, bringing back a flood of memories from Fall nights long forgotten.  Lori and I decided to get the kids out of there before we had more explaining than we were prepared to do that day. We said our goodbyes, which took about a half an hour with Bobo's friends needing to find closure in Lori's arms. We went into the cabin and looked around one last time.  Pam and Rollie told us we could go up any time, but I knew the chances of that were slim to none.  While gathering up our things we saw a calendar on the bedroom wall.  It was from 1986. We scrolled through and saw that there was writing on one of the dates in May. 'Man drowned on Black Pond' was written on May 31st. 

It hit me immediately. 

Bobo had died exactly 25 years to the day that he and I went fishing on Black Pond.

I walked out to the dock and looked out into blackness. "Bye, bye Bobo." I said aloud, while making the sign of the cross.  I turned and walked back toward the crackling fire and my waiting family.

       

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Evening of August 13th, 1999

I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard a loud knock on the backdoor. I knew immediately that something was wrong. My wife and I lived in an apartment on a desolate stretch of road in the Connecticut River valley of western Massachusetts in the town of Whately. The houses on that road were spaced far apart and most of my neighbors were farmers. I knew that who ever was knocking had to have driven and if someone spent the time to drive out to my house, it must be urgent. I peeked out the window and saw a Massachusetts State Police cruiser in my driveway. I had left my wife an hour earlier at a food festival in Northampton where we sampled food from some local restaurants and had a few drinks. Did she have an accident? Did I hit something on the way home and not know it? In my heart I knew what it was.

I opened the door. "Are you David Sullivan?" the female officer asked with an ultra official voice that only a statie commands. "Yes", I groggily replied. "Is your mother Cecilia Sullivan who lives at the Walter Salvo house in Northampton?". My peripheral vision was lost; the officer appeared to be at the end of a telescope. "Yes", I replied. My eyes quickly welled up and I went numb. "Mr. Sullivan, I'm sorry to tell you that your mother died sometime in the past few days. Her body was found in her apartment by a friend in the Salvo House." I stared blankly at the officer. Her male counterpart broke my concentration. "Are you OK sir?". I was holding on to the door jam for support. "What happened? How...was she..", was all I could get out. I felt like I was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end. The male officer was moving his lips, but all I could hear was my own breathing. "...call him with any questions", he handed me a card with a phone number of the detective in charge of the case. "Are you going to be all right Mr. Sullivan?", the female officer asked. "Yeah...thanks" I creaked. I turned and shut the door.

The police detective was matter of fact, "she died on the toilet, the way we found her she was probably trying to pull herself up with her good arm using the bar, but something happened, heart attack, whatever. There was no evidence of foul play, but we found a bunch of empties by her chair and a bunch of medications, she was on a lot of medications, huh?" "Where is she?" I interrupted. "She went directly to 'Pease Funeral Home' over by the hospital. There was no need to go to the hospital she was there for three, maybe four days." "I talked to her on Tuesday, so it wasn't more than three." "Well, she was in bad shape. It was hot up there and I'm surprised that no one complained about the smell earlier." I was numb to his insensitivity and wanted to hear more, however painful the details. "Can I see her?" "You'll have to call the funeral home in the morning, but you don't want to...I mean...you shouldn't. Its bad. Just remember her like she was the last time you saw her."

That was easy.

I took her to her favorite restaurant, The Bluebonnet Diner, for lunch on her birthday, August 7th. She didn't seem right. She only ate half of her meal and was very spacey. She had been disabled since the age of 35 when a brain aneurysm burst, causing her to have right side paralysis and no hope of getting out of the hole she dug for herself by marrying at age 17 and having 6 kids and a divorce by the time she was 24. The last time I saw her she was getting out of my car at her apartment after lunch at 'Bluebonnet'. I put her wheelchair next to my car and helped her transfer from the front seat to the chair. I tried to help push her to the front door. She had a hard time disengaging the brakes. "Ma, push the brake up, I can't move..." "All right, all right. Leave me alone!", she snapped. and wheeled herself to the front door. I chided, "Bye, Maaa" in a sing, songy voice hoping to get her to lighten up. She responded by waving an arm in the air, irritated, without turning around. I got in the car and my wife and I laughed at how stubborn she was. I never laid eyes on her again.

I called my brothers and sisters after I got off the phone with the detective. By this point shock had settled in and I have no recollection of my conversations with them except that I was surprised by the lack of emotion in their responses. Her death was expected, exactly when was the question. She had been given last rights dozens of times over the years, but always pulled through. Maybe their lack of discernible affect was not shock, but relief that the years of self loathing and self destructive behavior was over. She could finally stop running from the demons. My wife came home and I gave her the news. I saw my devastation in her eyes. I realized that her face was mirroring mine and that realization caused me to break down. I didn't cry again until days later when I was carrying my mother's casket out of Blessed Sacrament Church. I faced my brothers who were holding the other side of the casket. They both looked like they did when they were little boys, vulnerable and needy. My face was mirroing theirs.

Soon after my wife got home we went to bed. The next few days were going to be stressful at best and if I stayed up I'd just be torturing myself with memories of Ma and me swimming at the lake, playing catch in the backyard or her rubbing my head as I lay in her lap, watching television.

As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I was comforted by the thought that my mother was with her infant son Derek who had died 29 years earlier, her sister Rosemary and her mother in a place better than this one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Littlest Angel



There are events in life which occur with such resounding force that the shock waves are felt for decades. The ripple effect of these events can be felt by those who where never present or even born when the event occurred. December 14, 1970 is the date of one of those events in my life and that of my family.

Its the day my brother died.

He was 1 month, 26 days old.

Derek was born in mid-October during the brilliance and splendor of Autumn in New England. I remember going to visit my mother and Derek in the hospital the day after he was born. My aunt and I drove over to Saint Margaret's hospital in Dorchester braving a chilly fall rain. As we made our way to the maternity ward we stopped at the gift shop. I begged her to buy a little doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, for my new brother. After what probably seemed like hours of groveling to her, she relented. I can't recall presenting him with my gift, but it became a fixture in his crib, at our home.

A new baby adds spice to a home, sometimes mild and sweet and at other times hot, unbearably hot. My mother was born high strung. If she were in school today she would be diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, PTSD or one of the myriad of other afflictions, abbreviated with letters. The month following Derek's birth was a mish-mash of highs and lows. The tenor of the household mirrored my mother's mood.

I can remember her crying uncontrollably, while smoking at the kitchen table while Derek was lying on the couch, surrounded by pillows.

I can remember sitting with my mother on the front steps of our apartment in Hyde Park. It was a warm Fall day and the trees were shedding their leaves. She allowed me to hold my brother while she watched, tentatively. I remember the smell of crisp fallen leaves while I cradled his tiny head.

I remember my mother and I laughing uncontrollably while I "helped" her change his diaper. He peed all over the two of us.

I remember my father (who was usually no where to be found) and mother fighting loudly, while I rubbed my brothers head while he lay in his crib.

The night of December 13, 1970 was a typical night in my childhood home. My mother downstairs smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. My sisters playing in their room. My brother Mark and I jumping on our beds in our room. Mark and I took Derek out of his crib and put him on my bed. We jumped around him while he lay in the middle. He didn't cry, he just seemed content watching us. We assumed he enjoyed the gentle jostling.

The next few days were a blur.

Who knows what traumas we block out of our minds. If we knew then they wouldn't be blocked, but open for examination. Some memories are best hidden from our consciousness.

I don't remember much about the day my brother died. I recall sadness, grief. I recall standing across the street from my house with the snow lightly falling, telling a schoolmate from my kindergarten class about my brother. I recall my mother promising me that they would bury my gift, the baby-boy-blue doll with him, so he wouldn't be alone. My mother brought me a flower from his funeral. We pressed it in plastic, and put it in an encyclopedia. From then, through my high school years, I would come across it when looking up something beginning with an "S" or a "T" and think of him.

My mother was never the same. From mid-October to December 14th every year until the day she died was torturous. She blamed herself for his death. The morning he died she got him from his crib for his morning feeding. She tried to get him to latch on, but he just wouldn't take her breast. She tried again and noticed that he was cold, motionless. He was gone.

"Crib Death" we were always told. When my mother passed in 1999 we found Derek's death certificate amongst her belongings. Cause of death: acute cardiac failure, emaciation.

Emaciation.

That explained the years of autumnal depression. The years of self loathing and self destruction. I, myself, thought I played a role in his passing. For decades I thought that maybe that night we were jumping on my bed that we hurt him, somehow. It was no ones fault. Our frolicking on the bed had nothing to do with it. My mother gave him everything she had, unfortunately she barely had enough to care for herself. The well had run dry.

Christmas time was always bittersweet. Ghosts of Christmas past were not friendly specters guiding my mother toward redemption, but haunting reminders of inadequacies and failure. Someway, somehow, my mother was able to emotionally detach immediately the day after the anniversary of Derek's death each year and get ready for Christmas. I don't know how she did it, but she was always able to pull off Christmas without her emotions getting in the way of our enjoyment of the holiday. As the years went by her grief became more and more transparent until it got to the point where she was paralyzed by her loss and unable to find any joy in the season

The year Derek died and for many years following, there was a Christmas special on TV titled "The Littlest Angel". It was the story about a boy (played by Johnny Whitaker, Jodie on "Family Affair") who dies and goes to Heaven, but is allowed to go back to earth to get his cherished treasure box, so he may give it as a gift to the Christ child on Christmas. Each Christmas I imagined that Derek was the "littlest angel" and gave his favorite toy, his doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, to baby Jesus.

In August of 1999, when I received the news of my mother's death my thoughts immediately turned to Derek.

I imagined him welcoming my mother into heaven.

I imagined her sense of relief when he forgave her for not having enough to give.

I was comforted by the thought of them being together again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Auntie Rosie

25 years ago today my Aunt Rosie passed away. She was just shy of her 45th birthday.




My family buried my Aunt Rosie 24 years ago today. The day we buried her was a typical early spring day in New England, cold, windy, moisture in the air. She was 44. The age I am now.

I recall the moment we heard she had passed. My mother answered the phone. She didn't say a word, but I could tell by the growing contortions to her face that someone we loved was gone. She dropped the phone to the floor. "Rosie's dead" she struggled to say and started crying uncontrollably. My mother never cried. Hardened by divorce, poverty and infirmity she was a rock. She rarely showed emotion and when she did it was usually anger. Her anger was never usually directed at one person she was just angry at everyone and everything. When she did show another emotion like love, surprise, affection or disappointment it was palpable and visceral. Watching her cry was heart wrenching. I too rarely cry. My stoicism similarly born out of a feeling of hopelessness and resignation. As I stood there watching her wail I felt like I was watching a movie about someone hearing about a loved one dying. I became an emotional sponge, soaking in my mother's grief, but unable to feel my own.

I often refer to my mother, grandmother and aunt as my "Holy Trinity". Being a good Catholic boy and a son of Irish descendants I knew from a young age that Saint Patrick used the three leafed Shamrock to teach the pagan Celts the symbolism of the Holy Trinity:the father, son and holy ghost. These three women made up for the lack of a father and gave me all the support and love I needed to make up for many of the holes in my life. My mother gave me strength and perseverance. My grandmother taught me the value of unconditional love and to the appreciation of life's little things. My Auntie Rosie gave me everything else.

Rosemary C. Norton was the first born of John Norton and Cecilia (Mc Lean) Norton. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, "shuffled off to Buffalo", as my grandmother used to say because he literally left his family and went to Buffalo, leaving her to help her mother raise her brothers and sisters. I don't know much else about her childhood growing up in the Mission Hill section of Boston. According to my mother she was very intelligent, artistic, but kind of shy and a loner. Her and I were thrust into very similar roles being the oldest child in a broken home. She probably bore more responsibility than she should have which caused her to become controlling and cautious.

My earliest memories of her are of me sitting in her lap and listening to her read to me. I also remember driving in her car watching her sip coffee and smoke cigarettes. I also remember calling her when my parents were having knock down, drag out, fights. She would reassure me on the phone while my siblings and I would huddle in my room with the door closed.

When my parents divorced she moved in with us. Knowing that my mother was not in any shape mentally to be raising five kids she slept on the couch, in our beds or in a chair for a good part of five years, until we moved 100 miles west from Boston to Northampton. During her time with us she did everything a parent would do and more. She helped us with school work. She drove us to appointments. She comforted us when we woke up from a nightmare. She took us on adventures to Plimouth Plantation, the Museum of Science, Walden Pond and many long car rides around Eastern Massachusetts usually ending up at some Antiques shop or the "Dover Country Store". When I was ten she and my Uncle Mac took my younger brother Mark and I on a two week long trip out west to California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. We camped, stayed in hotels, visited National Parks and big cities; things I never could have done with a single mother of five. She helped me study every day for two months prior to me taking and passing the entrance exam to the prestigious Boston Latin. We were her kids and she was as much a mother to us as our own mom.

I vividly remember the day my mother got the phone call telling her that we got accepted into a subsidized housing project in Northampton. The first thought running through my mind within seconds of my mother getting of the phone was "what are we going to do without Auntie Rosie". We found out a few months later. Within a year of moving my mother was once again overwhelmed. My mother had a new support system in her sister Carol who lived one town over and her brother Joe and his wife Feno who also lived nearby, but it wasn't the same. Rosie kept my mother in line as well as the rest of us. She had a way of making you not want to disappoint her without making you feel guilty. With out Rosie around my mother spiraled ot of control leaving us hanging in the wind.

After we moved west she did her best to visit as often as possible. Her monthly visits eventually became bi-monthly visits, which became quarterly visits which became holiday visits. She had spent a lifetime bearing responsibility for others mistakes and now she needed time for herself. She explored interests like horticulture; she was president of the American Begonia Society. She traveled around New England particularly up to Maine. She studied meditation and was an avid reader.

The week before she passed she visited us in Northampton. My mother had suffered a burst brain aneurysm a year earlier and was up to help her run some errands and checking for things she needed. She had an eventful visit filled with catching my brother Mark in a compromising situation with a girl, in-fighting between my siblings and me being in various states of inebriation. She was not happy with "her kids", but when she left that Sunday there were no hard feelings. We all gave her big hugs and kisses and chased her car like little kids as she drove out of the parking lot, waving wildly. That was the last time we saw her alive.

A week later, sometime after midnight my Uncle and grandmother found my Aunt in her chair complaining of a severe headache. She had headaches for years, but chalked it up to stress. After my mother's stroke, she paid more attention to her pains and even had scheduled an appointment for a thorough check up. She died later that day.

Very few days have gone by in the past 24 years that I don't think about Auntie Rosie. Whether it be the smell of coffee and cigarettes, a little blue car putting down the road(she drove a Renualt), a pastel colored sunset or the sound of my wife reading to my kids, I think of her.

In August 2002, on the three year anniversary of my mother's death, I was restless. I was drinking heavily. My wife was expecting my firstborn. I had recently had huge marital problems. I was lost and in need of direction. I thought deeply about my "Holy Trinity", the people I could always turn to when I was in trouble. I went out that day and got a shamrock tattooed to my left shoulder to honor them. As I sat in the chair and the artist went to work I started to softly cry. "Are you OK. Do you need me to stop" the dude asked, thinking I was in pain. "No man, its fine. Just thinking about some loved ones".

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Littlest Angel


There are events in life which occur with such resounding force that the shock waves are felt for decades. The ripple effect of these events can be felt by those who where never present or even born when the event occurred. December 14, 1970 is the date of one of those events in my life and that of my family.

Its the day my brother died.

He was 1 month, 26 days old.

Derek was born in mid-October during the brilliance and splendor of Autumn in New England. I remember going to visit my mother and Derek in the hospital the day after he was born. My aunt and I drove over to Saint Margaret's hospital in Dorchester braving a chilly fall rain. As we made our way to the maternity ward we stopped at the gift shop. I begged her to buy a little doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, for my new brother. After what probably seemed like hours of groveling to her, she relented. I can't recall presenting him with my gift, but it became a fixture in his crib, at our home.

A new baby adds spice to a home, sometimes mild and sweet and at other times hot, unbearably hot. My mother was born high strung. If she were in school today she would be diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, PTSD or one of the myriad of other afflictions, abbreviated with letters. The month following Derek's birth was a mish-mash of highs and lows. The tenor of the household mirrored my mother's mood.

I can remember her crying uncontrollably, while smoking at the kitchen table while Derek was lying on the couch, surrounded by pillows.

I can remember sitting with my mother on the front steps of our apartment in Hyde Park. It was a warm Fall day and the trees were shedding their leaves. She allowed me to hold my brother while she watched, tentatively. I remember the smell of crisp fallen leaves while I cradled his tiny head.

I remember my mother and I laughing uncontrollably while I "helped" her change his diaper. He peed all over the two of us.

I remember my father (who was usually no where to be found) and mother fighting loudly, while I rubbed my brothers head while he lay in his crib.

The night of December 13, 1970 was a typical night in my childhood home. My mother downstairs smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. My sisters playing in their room. My brother Mark and I jumping on our beds in our room. Mark and I took Derek out of his crib and put him on my bed. We jumped around him while he lay in the middle. He didn't cry, he just seemed content watching us. We assumed he enjoyed the gentle jostling.

The next few days were a blur.

Who knows what traumas we block out of our minds. If we knew then they wouldn't be blocked, but open for examination. Some memories are best hidden from our consciousness.

I don't remember much about the day my brother died. I recall sadness, grief. I recall standing across the street from my house with the snow lightly falling, telling a schoolmate from my kindergarten class about my brother. I recall my mother promising me that they would bury my gift, the baby-boy-blue doll with him, so he wouldn't be alone. My mother brought me a flower from his funeral. We pressed it in plastic, and put it in an encyclopedia. From then, through my high school years, I would come across it when looking up something beginning with an "S" or a "T" and think of him.

My mother was never the same. From mid-October to December 14th every year until the day she died was torturous. She blamed herself for his death. The morning he died she got him from his crib for his morning feeding. She tried to get him to latch on, but he just wouldn't take her breast. She tried again and noticed that he was cold, motionless. He was gone.

"Crib Death" we were always told. When my mother passed in 1999 we found Derek's death certificate amongst her belongings. Cause of death: acute cardiac failure, emaciation.

Emaciation.

That explained the years of autumnal depression. The years of self loathing and self destruction. I, myself, thought I played a role in his passing. For decades I thought that maybe that night we were jumping on my bed that we hurt him, somehow. It was no ones fault. Our frolicking on the bed had nothing to do with it. My mother gave him everything she had, unfortunately she barely had enough to care for herself. The well had run dry.

Christmas time was always bittersweet. Ghosts of Christmas past were not friendly specters guiding my mother toward redemption, but haunting reminders of inadequacies and failure. Someway, somehow, my mother was able to emotionally detach immediately the day after the anniversary of Derek's death each year and get ready for Christmas. I don't know how she did it, but she was always able to pull off Christmas without her emotions getting in the way of our enjoyment of the holiday. As the years went by her grief became more and more transparent until it got to the point where she was paralyzed by her loss and unable to find any joy in the season

The year Derek died and for many years following, there was a Christmas special on TV titled "The Littlest Angel". It was the story about a boy (played by Johnny Whitaker, Jodie on "Family Affair") who dies and goes to Heaven, but is allowed to go back to earth to get his cherished treasure box, so he may give it as a gift to the Christ child on Christmas. Each Christmas I imagined that Derek was the "littlest angel" and gave his favorite toy, his doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, to baby Jesus.

In August of 1999, when I received the news of my mother's death my thoughts immediately turned to Derek.

I imagined him welcoming my mother into heaven.

I imagined her sense of relief when he forgave her for not having enough to give.

I was comforted by the thought of them being together again.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Youkatek


I hate facial hair. I have grown a beard a few times over the past 30 years, but never kept it past three weeks. It gets itchy, food gets caught in it and I look like an old man or at least, an older man. While shaving last week I started out with my usual routine. I shave the sides first starting at the right ear, down the right cheek to the right corner of my mouth. My 6 year old son Matt was brushing his teeth while I was shaving. When he saw my partially shaved face he screeched "Yoooouk!"; foamy toothpaste flew from his mouth. When I went to finish the job he pleaded for me to leave the goatee ala Kevin Youkilis, gold glove first baseman for the Boston Red Sox. I carefully shaved the other side and trimmed my neck into a respectable goatee. He was elated. "Dad, your not Youk, you're Varitek" referring to the Boston Catcher Jason Vairtek who also sports a goatee albeit less cro-magnon than the neanderthal-like Youkilis. As I patted down my freshly shaved cheeks and admired my manly growth he blurted out "You're Youk-a-tek!!!" and laughed with a blend of self amusement and derision. I gave him a big, juicy kiss on the cheek making sure I rubbed my growth back and forth across his cheek. He laughed at first, then complained that it itched. "Wait till mom feels this", I explained as I knew she wouldn't like it at all.

Today is day ten of the "Youkatek" and its getting more Youk than Tek by the day. Tonight the Red Sox take the field in LA in their quest of winning a third World Series title in six seasons. I'll try to sport the Youkatek till they get knocked out of the playoff or until they bring home another title. Until then its itch, itch...scratch, scratch.

And probably no sex.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Frozen In Time

My wife often says "I wish the kids would never grow up; I wish they'd stay this age forever". I'm paraphrasing, but the sentiment is that time is flying by and she wishes that she could remember them at this age as vividly in twenty years, as she does now.

Twenty years from now I'll miss Peter's squeaky, testosterone-less professions of undying love or Matthew's full lipped kisses every time we part, for more than a few minutes. Its hard to imagine that there won't be a time when we don't have to carry the boys from our bed to their bed, half asleep, stumbling over toys and shoes in the dark. But I differ from my wife. I can't wait for the next age. I relish every minute of whats happening in my kids life now, but am just as excited for the next big thing. I can't wait for the day Matt can walk to school by himself. I will jump for joy when Pete can pour his own bowl of cereal, eat it without making a mess and put his bowl in the sink.

My cousin Sue's daughter Meagan passed away six years ago. For the past four years the family has put on a golf tournament in her memory. They raise anywhere from $3000 to $4000 per outing and the proceeds go toward research on childhood leukemia, which was what cause her death. She unknowingly had the disease and she died suddenly; the details are too heart wrenching for words. She was three when she passed and each year at the tournament there are pictures of her displayed at the check in, on buttons or on fliers advertising the tournament. Everyone who attends the tournament is getting older, greyer, taller, skinnier, balder, but there is Meagan, as cute as ever, never aging, forever young, smiling a mischievous smile, frozen in time. I had a brother who died at 1 1/2 months old. We have few pictures of him, but it's the same; he'll always be an infant(read here).

Close your eyes and think about the following people: your mother, your best friend from childhood, your first boyfriend/girlfriend, your spouse...what image do you see? We usually revert either back to our earliest memories of that person or the last time you saw that person. Either way, its an image that's frozen in time, a snapshot that's indelibly marked in your memory. What will my snapshot be of my boys? Will it be the day they were born. The day Matt played in his first baseball game? The day of Pete's dance recital? A day of the two of them at the beach or skating in the backyard? Or will it be them as teenagers or young men or middle aged men playing with their kids.

Will I miss the view of Peter coming out of the bedroom with his shirt on backwards smiling proudly that he dressed himself? Will I long for the days that Matt wants nothing more than to cuddle into the crook of my arm while watching the Red Sox? Of course. But I am grateful that we can add to the "snapshots". I look forward to what pictures we can add to the photo album.