In August 2018, a few weeks after I self-published Reunion: A Story via Amazon in paperback and Kindle e-book editions, I flirted with the notion of writing a sequel in which the main character (and narrator) of that story is confronting some of the challenges that many fifty-somethings face as they go through middle age and deal with relationships, career ups and downs, and the deaths of their elderly parents,
For about 10 days or so during that hot Florida summer, I imagined how my literary alter ego would deal with the loss of his beloved mother and – as in Reunion – some of the experiences that I went through in high school. I didn’t have a plot outline or a grand plan, really; I wanted to let the story reveal itself to me as I wrote it, which (in a nutshell) is how Stephen King says he writes his stories, too.
I was making good progress, I thought, until I made the mistake of telling The Girlfriend what I was writing and asked her what she thought of my concept.
Now, with other folks, including my late mother and my older half-sister (from whom I am now estranged), whenever I sought feedback (even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear), nine times out of ten the responses would be:
“Hey, that sounds like a great idea, Alex! Go for it!”
“I really like your concept. Go ahead and do a first draft. When you finish it, then we’ll see if it works.”
“Interesting. Can’t wait to read the story when you finish it.”
My significant other is not like that. Not one bit. Her reaction?
“No, Alex, that’s too depressing. Nobody wants to read such a sad story.”
Well, I gotta tell you. That took the wind out of my sails, figuratively speaking. I was so disappointed by the shocking lack of enthusiasm from The Girlfriend that I simply saved what I had as a .doc file on Microsoft Word and set it aside. I didn’t even consider plugging away at the story anyway – which is what I would have done when I was younger and a bit more cocky about my writing and storytelling abilities.
Anyway, I still have that .doc file in my hard drive, so I thought that for today’s post I’d share the beginning of The Best Years of Our Lives…Supposedly with you. It’s still a rough draft, mind you, and I’m not quite sure where the story was heading; all I remember about the story possibilities is that I considered following the template from Reunion, i.e., a story-within-a-story. It worked for me when I wrote my tale of unrequited love and lost opportunities; it might have worked with the continuing saga of Jim Garraty and his circle of friends.
Okay. Here goes. And remember: if you like this, or if you don’t, let me know in the Comments section below.
There’s almost nothing sadder, I think, than standing in the middle of an empty two-story townhouse that has been stripped bare of its furnishings, decorations, even carpeting. In fact, right now I can only think of two other things that are more depressing – at least for me. One is the end of a relationship you think would last forever but was actually built upon a sandy foundation. That’s something I’ve gone through twice in my 51 years on Earth – once at 16, when I was a sophomore at South Miami Senior High and broke up with Kathy Bennett, my first serious girlfriend, after I found out she was interested in another guy. It happened again sixteen years later, when my then-wife Carrie Tellado-Garraty said to me matter-of-factly over a dinner of Chinese take-out from Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine – one of our favorite restaurants in Manhattan – “Jim, you know, you’re a sweet, sweet guy, but I’m just not in love with you anymore. I want a divorce.”
The other item on The-Absolutely-Worst-Things-That-Can-Happen-to-Anyone list is watching helplessly as Alzheimer’s Disease steals a beloved parent’s memories and ability to think, speak, read, even remember her own beloved son, and eventually her life. It took a little over five years for this, the most common type of dementia, to take Mary Ann Garraty, nee Gallagher, my 86-year-old mother to the grave, but not before inflicting a thousand indignities upon a once-beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and fiercely independent woman. Before Mom’s long Via Dolorosa marked by a progression of calamities that included a long bout of depression; a lazy 30-something home health aide named Violeta who never stayed with Mom the full six-hour shift on Sundays; and a nasty fall from a wheelchair that resulted in a fractured right ankle which frightened my mother so badly that she never voluntarily got out of her sickbed, I had thought that my dad’s death in Vietnam at age 46 – he was an Army helicopter pilot whose luck ran out during the Tet Offensive in 1968 – had been the worst instance of bad fortune that could have afflicted our small family. Mom’s final years convinced me otherwise.
As a one-time Army brat and, later, a restless young man who earned a scholarship to Harvard University, I’m somewhat accustomed to moving from one place to another. Before Dad’s Huey was shot down over a far-off place called Ban Me Thuot a week before my third birthday, the Garraty family had already moved twice, the last time being in October of 1966 when my father got orders to report to Fort Benning in Georgia for refresher training before being sent to South Vietnam. After his death and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in the spring of 1968, Mom decided to move to South Miami to live close to Maw-Maw Gallagher, who had tired of snowy and icy New England winters and moved to Florida in 1960. Mom stayed put in her house near Southwest 56th Street – better known to us as Miller Road – until her passing; I did not. Since June of 1983, I’ve lived, studied, and worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., and, finally, New York City.
Nevertheless, just because I have moved around a few times, that doesn’t mean I like it. I didn’t like it in 1968, when the movers “accidentally” lost a box full of my late father’s personal belongings, including his beloved baseball pitcher’s glove and a scuffed ball signed in 1954 by Jackie Robinson and Hank Bauer of Dad’s equally beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I also didn’t like it when I moved to the Boston area in ’83; I had had to leave most of my stuff at home in South Florida because the cheap one-bedroom apartment I found in Charlestown was relatively small. It was not much larger than some of the double rooms I’ve stayed in at cheap motels at various times in my life, and Mom convinced me that my books – an assortment of novels, a 1966 green-and-beige set of the World Book Encyclopedia (plus the annual Year Book supplement volumes) that Dad had bought with my education in mind, and all of my non-fiction tomes about World War II (including Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) – was more of a necessity for a history major than, say, my modest but cherished collection of Kenner Star Wars action figures and vehicles. I wasn’t thrilled with that assessment; I’d started collecting almost as soon as Kenner released them in 1978 and had gotten my hands on all but a handful of the figures which were available at the time of my graduation from South Miami Senior High that summer. But the apartment was small, and after taking a few minutes to think about it, I reluctantly agreed to leave them at home. (A few years later, when I was able to afford a larger apartment in the same neighborhood, I drove down to Florida from Massachusetts to get more of my things, including my Star Wars figures. Much to my dismay, I found out that Mom, who wasn’t aware of the sentimental value those figures had for me, had decided to donate the whole kit and caboodle to the nearby Goodwill store.)
So, no. I’m not terribly fond of the moving process. Not in the best of times – and far less in the worst of times.
My mother died in her sleep at 5:15 in the morning of July 19, 2015. She went to what William Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns” according to her oft expressed wishes: at home, in her own bedroom, surrounded by her personal belongings and in the company of loved ones. My cousin Cristina – my mom’s youngest and favorite niece – had come to South Miami all the way from Seattle to be with her Aunt Mary Ann. My best friend since fifth grade, Mark Adams Prieto, sat on a chair we’d brought into Mom’s bedroom from the living room; his eyes were puffy, red, and brimming with tears for the woman he’s called his “second mom” since we were both eleven years old. Kate, a 40-year-old registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice clad in clean, wrinkle-free navy-blue scrubs, hovered near my mother’s deathbed; her stethoscope hung down over her chest, oscillating gently from side to side as she gently covered Mom’s face with a faded blue-white bedsheet. Father Garcia from Catholic Services stood off quietly in the far corner of the room; he’d given Mom the last rites – the Anointing of the Sick, the Penance, and the Viaticum – per her wishes, which we had often talked about long before her last illness. He looked tired; the nurse had called him on her smartphone around midnight, when it was painfully obvious that Mom was fading away. He’d given her the final Sacraments then, but Cristina, who is usually an extremely calm and collected person, became distraught and Father Garcia’s quiet and soothing grandfatherly manner was the only means to calm her down.
As for me? I was there, too, standing at the foot of the bed and feeling a cold tide of sadness and loss unlike any other that I’d felt before.
I don’t know, even now, how long I stood at that spot, looking down at the dark brown carpet of my mom’s small bedroom. It was old, and although it was about as clean as the home health aides and I could keep it, there were spots where the tufts of brown yarn were no longer there, and you could see the grey-beige underlay – what is known in the carpet business as “padding” – that separated the carpet from the gray concrete floor of the room. In the past – the long-gone days of Ago – Mom would have fretted over what she called “bald spots” on the carpet of the room that she had once designated as the guest room. Now, of course, if Mary Ann Garraty was complaining about the carpet or that she had died in the guest room rather than in the larger master bedroom on the second floor of the house (a move that was forced upon her by her primary care physician when she could no longer walk up and down the 14-step staircase that led upstairs), she was doing so in Saint Peter’s reception area, Valhalla, or wherever it is that we go to when we die.
Surprisingly enough, as incredibly sad as I was inside, outwardly I was as calm and collected as if I were standing in front of my WOH-3010 (History of World War II, 1939-1945) students at my university in New York City. Mom was not particularly fond of excessive emotional displays; in her later years, especially, she was somewhat reserved, almost stoic. Outward displays of grief – such as my cousin Cristina’s quiet but seemingly uncontrollable sobbing – made Mom extremely uncomfortable when she was alive. I don’t know why; my maternal grandparents had been boisterous and voluble even in their last years, and they had not raised Mom with the notion that Gallaghers never cried. The one time that I’d asked her why she was so stoic – especially at funerals and other sad occasions – she said, “Because, Jimmy, I don’t like the drama of it all.” She said it calmly, quietly, in the same tone of voice you’d probably use to say, “I like the color blue,” or “The Earth is round, not flat.”
I don’t like the drama of it all. I’d always – well, almost always – heeded my mom’s wishes as best as I could. So even though I was suddenly faced with the reality that I was – at the age of 50 years and two months – an orphan, I would honor my mother – whose small, frail, white-haired remains lay only a hand’s-breadth away, her face mercifully covered by a faded bedsheet – by keeping my emotions in rein.
“Professor Garraty?” I heard someone say, and I snapped out of my reverie. It was Nurse Kate, the RN from the hospice service. She looked at me with a mixture of sympathy, expectancy, and weariness that reflected the sixteen hours that had passed since Mom had slipped into a semiconscious state between this world and the next. “It’s time to call the funeral home so they can pick your mother up. Do you wish me to do it for you?”
I tried to open my mouth and say, “No, I’ll do it,” but the words would not come. Instead I nodded like an automaton. I must have looked pathetically helpless, but Kate just gave me a look that conveyed, Don’t worry, I’ve got this. Pulling her Samsung Galaxy smartphone out of one of her scrub top’s pockets, the nurse in the navy-blue wrinkle-free uniform walked past me and out of Mom’s bedroom, no doubt calling the hospice center on speed dial as she walked out into the living room and out of earshot to call for the ambulance that would take my mom on her last ride out of the house she’d called home for 47 years.
Father Garcia, whose patient endeavors to soothe my distraught cousin had finally borne results – Cristina now sat on one of the chairs in the room, staring silently at the popcorn ceiling as if trying to see Mom’s unfettered soul ascending to Heaven – shuffled slowly toward me, shook my right hand firmly, and uttered an understandably hasty “God bless you, Professor Garraty. Rest assured that we all think you did the best you could for your mother during her last years, and that her soul is now at rest, in the company of Our Lord and with all those who have gone on before us, including your father.” With that, he made a sign of the Cross with his right hand – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” – said a few more pleasantries, and shuffled off, hopefully heading to his rectory for a well-deserved rest after a long and tiring night and early morning.
I looked over at the chair where Mark, my best friend since we were fifth graders at Kinloch Park Elementary School back in the Seventies, sat, slumped down as if he, too, were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His well-manicured hands covered his face; I don’t know if he didn’t want to see Mom’s bedsheet-shrouded corpse or if he was trying to hide his tear-streaked face. From where I stood, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that Mark’s once dark brown hair was beginning to turn gray, and that a dime-sized bald spot had appeared just off the center of his head. Life’s a bitch, we used to say jokingly as we walked in the crowded halls of our alma mater, South Miami Senior High School, and then you die. Looking at the scene before me – my beloved mother lying dead in her bed and covered up with one of her faded blue-and-white bedsheets; my cousin Cristina staring into space like a character in a Grade-Z movie; and my childhood bestie slumped down on his chair, his clothes rumpled – as mine surely were – from the long day’s journey into this sad and terrible mid-July night – that old saying echoed endlessly in my mind, albeit with a new twist:
Life’s a bitch, takes your loved ones away from you in horrible, painful ways, and then you die.
Two hours later, two men from the transportation company that serves the Van Ordsel Family Funeral Chapels and Crematory arrived at the house to take my mother’s body away. The sun had risen at 6:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but it hid behind a dark-grey curtain of cumulus and stratocumulus clouds heavily laden with rain. Father Garcia was long gone and was probably now asleep in his bed at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church’s rectory. But Kate, the registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice unit, had stayed behind, keeping watch over my mother’s mortal remains and offering whatever comfort she had to give to those of us who were grieving. It was Kate who let the guys from Van Ordsel – a thickset, grey-haired Cuban named Alfonso and a slimmer but still formidable “anglo” guy with thinning black hair and a hangdog expression that seemed to have been on his face since the day he was born – in through the front door. They wore uniforms very much like those of your average ambulance driver and entered the house pushing a gurney on which they would take Mom from her deathbed and off to the funeral home. They didn’t rush – they made the passage from the foyer to my mother’s bedroom slowly, pushing the gurney carefully so it would not crash into any of the furniture or bang against the walls in the narrow hall that led from the living room, past the downstairs bathroom, and into what I now thought of as that room. Not Mom’s room, not the “future guest room,” and certainly not “the room where Mom died.” I looked at Alfonso and was about to offer – however halfheartedly – whatever assistance that I could, but the man simply shook his head. “Don’t worry, sir,” he said with a slight but still noticeable Cuban accent, “we’ll take care of your mom for you.”
Alfonso and his co-worker disappeared into the now silent bedroom where Mom’s body lay in deathly repose. Mark, Cristina, and I stood in a ragged row in front of the living room sofa, looking for all the world like a trio of shell-shocked GIs after a firefight in the bocage country of Normandy in the summer of 1944. Kate, her navy-blue scrubs still miraculously wrinkle-free, stood alone by the open front door and watched as the first raindrops of a mid-July rainstorm began to fall outside.
The next few days were hot, humid, and – typically for South Florida – alternated between periods of bright sunshine in the morning and torrential downpours punctuated by frequent lightning strikes and loud BOOMS of thunder that could be heard for many miles away from where the bolts of electricity struck the rain-soaked ground. In between the inevitable flurry of signing documents and filing reams of official and non-official paperwork and the sad but necessary rituals that follow a loved one’s death came the inevitable bouts of anger, sadness, anxiety over the future, and a heightened sense of my own mortality.
And like most adult children who take care of an ill elderly parent knowing that Mom or Dad is not going to get better, I felt a sickening mix of relief and remorse: the former because I didn’t have to fret about making sure that the home health aides were turning Mom in bed every two hours to avoid the development of bedsores, or deal with the minutiae of meal planning, dispensing of medications, or fight the waves of anger and sadness that washed over me every time that Mom confused me for my long-dead father or kept me awake for long hours because she refused to take her nighttime pills. (“You’re trying to poison me, Jim! I already took my sleeping pills an hour ago!” Mom shouted at me – on more than one occasion – so loudly that I thought the next-door neighbors would hear and call 911.) The latter? After a parent dies under circumstances like my mom did – at home, with a son or daughter who is the primary caregiver, there is a natural tendency for one to look back at the past and obsessively examine and re-examine every decision one made during the past few years. Did I hire the right home health agency? Did I request a sabbatical from my teaching position in New York at the right time? Did I make sure that Mom ate enough nutritious food to keep her health from declining prematurely? Did I spend enough time with her before her dementia robbed her mind so thoroughly that she barely knew who I was? Had I been too impatient, too harshly judgmental with her when she forgot to use the Kindle e-reader that I bought her for Christmas in 2009, just a few months before her physical and mental health went down the proverbial tubes? Those questions nagged at me for far too many hours at night – and even during the day – in those first few days after Mom died. They still haunt me now, though not as often as in that hot, muggy, and stormy July of 2015.