Sunday, December 14, 2008

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.


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, December 11, 2008

Paying It Backward

Last week I brought my clients to a Christmas party. Being a director in a non-profit human service agency I have lots of responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is making appearences at various agency functions some involving the folks we serve and others with just co-workers. I loath these events. When attending the events with co-workers I have to make small talk and feign interest in people's problems and stories. When attending events with our individuals I have to make small talk and feign interest in their problems and interests.

In the last few weeks I have been more misanthropic than usual. I have been irritable. My kids have been driving me crazy. My employees have been driving me nutty. My wife and I can't have a conversation that doesn't end in some sort of arguement or misunderstanding. Going to a client Christmas party was the last thing I needed.

The party was held at a large banquet hall, the same place where my agency's annual dinner is held. There was a sumptious buffet dinner served complete with carved roast beef, turkey and ham with plenty of fixin's. I got a plate of food and sat down at a table with three of my current clients. They are men with traumatic brain injuries who are living in one of our residential programs. They were in the holiday spirit greeeting people who passed our table and humming along to holiday music. I was eating quickly, hopng to slip out unnoticed while going up for another plate of food.

As I was shoving a hunk of ham in my mouth I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a former client who I hadn't seen in a whlie. He told me how he had moved on from one of our group homes into his own semi-supervised apartment and that he had just gotten his driver's license. I was floored. This is a guy who has a borderline mentally retarded diagnoses and had been living in a highly restrictive program set up for high risk clients. I congratulated him on his successes and promised to visit him in his new digs.

As I went up for more food someone yelled out my name. It was a woman who I worked with ten years ago who suffered from variuos mental disabilites and was a raging alcoholic. She informed me that she has been sober for three years and is living independantly with only 2 hours of staff per week.

Comming back from the buffet line I saw a table with men I had worked with who were all living in the same group home. I sat with them and listened to them tell me about their successes like working or getting along well with family and housemates.

On the way for some coffee I met another guy who I worked with who moved in with new housemates recently who were much less challenging than his former housemates. He shook my hand and hugged me and said "I remember you Dave Sullivan, you took me to Cape Cod to see the seals" and he proceeded to make seal noises. We laughed, fist bumped and went on our way.

After dinner I slipped out, grabbing a few cookies off the dessert buffet in the process.

As I drove out of the parking lot I thought about the party. I had seen at least twenty past and present clients. All of them were happy to see me. All of them were doing well. All of them were making the best of their lives and didn't bitch and moan about their situation. I thought about each one of my individuals and the time I spent with them; the good times and tough times. I realized that I had a part in all of their recent fortunes be it big or small. Driving down the road I realized that I was smiling.

For the first time in weeks I wasn't miserable.

Monday, December 01, 2008

First Road Trip (Part VI)

I awoke to the sight of my uncle looming over the piles of cushions and blankets looking slightly amused. "Do you guys want to go to IHOP for breakfast?". To this day pancakes are some of the best medicine for my hangovers and it was no different then.

Sunday morning was sunny and brisk. The leafless trees made things a bit brighter than a few weeks earlier, thus exacerbating the pounding in my head. We were seated right away and discussed the Patriots chances that day. The coffee was horrible, but helped to bring us back to some sense of normalcy. We all agreed that the Patriots high powered offense gave them a shot at a win. We dropped my Uncle off in front of his house and purposely stayed in the car as to avoid answering my aunt's prying questions.

We headed south on Route 1 toward Foxboro. As we approached the stadium traffic came to a crawl. The smell of charcoal and cooking meat was almost as intoxicating as the perfume and booze from the night before. As we were being parked we saw our first fight. Two punks punching an older guy while the older guy's old friend was trying to pull the punks away. The older guy had a bloody nose. There were no police or security in sight so the fight played out to its gruesome end. Punks 7, Old Guys 0.

We skipped the tailgating, having done enough partying the night before and headed right into the stadium. We went down to the end zone to watch warm ups. The receivers and tight ends were doing passing drills directly in front of us. I was in awe of the size and speed of these men up close. Andy Hasslebeck, a Patriots tight end caught a warm up toss and ran up to the stands were I was standing. He looked me directly in the eye and said "Hi". I was at least a foot higher than him in the stands, but we were eye to eye. I mentally crossed off "NFL Player" on my list of dream jobs.

We settled into our seats and watched a great game. The first play of the game was a flea-flicker. Grogan handed off to Tatupu who tossed the ball back to Grogan who hit a streaking Stanley Morgan for a 76 yard touchdown. At half time I called Terri from a pay phone to let her know we made it safe and sound. She invited us to stop by after the game. Easton is the next town over from Foxboro, so I said we would. The game ended in regulation tied at 27. Despite the heroics of Tony Collins, Steve Grogan and John Smith, this game was a microcosm of their 2-14 season and although they were close, the Patsies gave up a field goal in OT. We fought through the sea of drunk men to the Corona and headed to Easton.

Terri invited us in and we met her mom and dad. Her dad was a hulking Italian man who looked like he could have played for the Patriots. We went to her room where we giggled about the previous night. I wanted to get on the road before dark, so we gave each other some hugs and decided to get together again soon. The ride home was uneventful. We drove non stop hoping not to tempt fate one more time. I dropped Jeff off at his door and he thanked me for "the best night of his life". He wrote Charlene back and forth for a year, but never saw her again.

It was a wicked good time. I was more than thankful that I could report to my mother that her car was in one piece and that I managed to stay out of jail. Upon returning home I kissed my mother and went straight to bed. I lay there staring at the ceiling, basking in the glow of a successful first road trip. I didn't get the girl, but then again I didn't get arrested. I thought about the next road trip and where it would take me. The horse was out of the barn.