84 Days of Dying

The sounds coming from room 43A were sad enough to stop even the most hardened nurse in her tracks. Members of the Marino family had just lost their patriarch – he’d finally succumbed to the effects of the stroke he’d suffered a few months ago. Gina, his wife, was trying her best to comfort her youngest daughter, Bernadette, who was really having a hard time with her father’s passing. Maria and Angelina were standing outside the door sobbing quietly, as the head nurse, Karen McNally, came down the hall.

“Maria, I know this is a really hard time for all of you,” Karen said as she approached the two sisters from the nurses’ station. She was carrying Mr. Marino’s medical binder in her right hand. The binder had a strange glow emanating from the inside. “But I have something I need to show all of you, and am thinking now might be a good time. Bernadette sounds like she’s really struggling,” Karen said.

“Karen,” Maria responded “as much as I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure now would be a good time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bernadette or my mother this distraught, and am thinking they might need to be alone a little while longer…” Maria stopped speaking as she noticed the glow from the binder getting brighter. “What’s inside that binder, Karen?” she asked. “Whatever it is, I think it might be malfunctioning. That light’s getting almost too bright to look at. It’s hurting my eyes,” Maria said as she squinted and raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare. Angelina, who’d turned her back when she saw first saw the head nurse coming towards them, turned around to see what Maria was talking about.

“Right after I called your mother this morning to tell you all to come,” Karen responded,  “I began cleaning up your father’s room and picked up the notebook you’ve all been journaling in each time one of you was here when a doctor gave a report. It really impressed me that you all thought to do this. What a great way to keep everyone updated, without having to repeat yourselves over and over,” Karen said, soothingly. “Anyway, as I picked up the notebook, it began to, um, well, hum, for lack of a better word. I really don’t know how else to describe it. As soon as I opened it, to try to figure out where the humming was coming from, I felt this compelling need to read and, well… here,” Karen said as she became flustered and handed the binder to Maria. It had taken on an almost luminescent appearance at this point, and was warm to the touch.

Something made Maria take Angelina’s left hand in hers, as she reached to take the binder from Karen with her right hand. In an instant, both women were filled with a sense of peace and comfort they’d never experienced in their lifetimes, as Karen nodded knowingly and began walking back to the nurses’ station. The two women turned and went back into the hospital room, where Gina had managed to get Bernadette to untangle herself from her father’s cold, dead body and take a seat in the chair beside him. “Mom,” Maria said softly while Angelina bent down to hug Bernadette.  As Maria held the binder out to her mother, the room became filled with light and all four women were transported into a realm outside of their physical bodies. This was a place where they instinctively understood two things: death did not exist and all of life was eternal. As they basked in the comfort of the light that surrounded them, Gina took the binder from Maria, opened it and began to read aloud…

15 JAN 2008, 0240 HOURS:

I began to die eighty-four days ago. It was the strangest thing, too, because I knew it was happening and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I woke up that morning and felt like that particular day was about to become the most monumental in my life, without really knowing why. It wasn’t a good feeling though. In fact, it was terrifying. Death has always scared me.

My wife, Gina, woke me up the same way she always did. “Mac, the coffee’s ready and your paper’s on the table,” she said softly, as she gently shook my shoulder. It didn’t matter what else was going on in our lives – and our kids sure made it pretty challenging at times – she woke me up that very same way every single morning of the fifty-four years we were married, whenever I wasn’t deployed.

As I started to get out of bed, I felt a “pop” in my head – really, there’s no other way to describe it – and then the most intense headache I’ve ever had, right at the base my skull. It hurt so bad, my knees buckled and I collapsed. I guess the sound of me hitting the floor was enough to bring Gina running and, when she saw me laying there writhing in pain, with my hands holding my head, she ran to the phone. Within a very short period of time, there were paramedics and police officers in my bedroom, throwing the word “stroke” around and doing everything they could to get me packaged up and on my way to the hospital as quickly as possible. Poor Gina looked so shell-shocked as I was being rolled out the apartment door, that I begged the paramedics to stop for a minute so I could try to comfort her. At that point, I could still speak.

In my head, I was thinking I was going to hold Gina’s hand in mine for a moment, and get her to look at me. But my arm wouldn’t move. No matter how hard I willed it to, it would not budge. It was like my arm had suddenly developed a mind of its own and decided it was taking the day off. Gina must have seen the awareness of what was really happening come into my eyes because, instantly, she sprang into action. “Mac, listen to me,” she said with what I always referred to as her ‘mother voice’, “get out of here. You and I both know they’ve only got a short window of time to turn this thing around! I’m just going to call Bernadette and let her know what’s happening, then I’ll be right behind you. Now, go!” With that, the paramedics rushed me out the door and into the ambulance. Luckily for me, the Sergeant on duty was a personal friend, so not only did I get a police escort to the hospital, but he told one of the other patrol units to bring Gina, as soon as she was ready.

After the paramedics got on the road, I asked one of them if they knew, for sure, if I was having a stroke. This didn’t feel anything like the last one I had. Stephanie (I later found out her name) looked at me with such compassion and just said “Mr. Marino, we really won’t know for sure until you’ve had a CT scan, but I’ll be honest. I think you are.” I’m so glad she didn’t try to sugar coat anything. It gave me time to process what was happening, before the rest of my family showed up. That was October 23rd.

Over the next couple of months, as my condition went from bad to worse, everyone who ever mattered to me came to see me. As it turns out, my kind of stroke couldn’t be stopped with that new clot-buster medication. Mine was happening in my brain-stem, where my central nervous system sends its signals through the body by way of my spinal cord. You can imagine what that means. At first, just my arms were paralyzed. By the next day, it began to affect my speech; within a week, the only way I could communicate was by writing. Two months later, my useless fingers had curled into fists, and moving my head, rolling my eyes and grunting were about as good as it got. I was bedridden, with a feeding tube in my stomach and depended on other people to change my diapers. For those of you who didn’t know me before you started reading this, I’ll be the first one to tell you I have absolutely zero patience and very little tolerance for situations that don’t go my way. Before I retired, I’d dedicated my life to the military and hadn’t met a challenge, yet, that I hadn’t been able to overcome. People feared me. My troops respected me. I didn’t depend on people; people depended on me.  Shit like this didn’t happen to me, and I was pissed off!

Unfortunately for my family, they took the brunt of my frustration and anger. Really, poor Gina and Bernadette took most of it, along with Angelina; I think because I’d always felt most comfortable with them. Bernadette’s my youngest daughter, but she reminds me most of me – tough exterior, smart, takes no shit from anybody and never backs down from a fight. I was depending on her to get to the bottom of this for me and fix it. When that didn’t happen, well, let’s just say I tormented her. Angelina got a good dose of my anger, too. Maria’s anguish at what was happening to me was so pitiful to watch, that I didn’t have the heart to vent any of it on her. Even though she’s the oldest, she’s always had such a struggle her whole life, just trying to get through a day. I’ve never met anyone as smart as she is, but who hasn’t got an ounce of common sense.  Gabriella and Gino flew into town, too, but neither of them could stay too long. That’s the trouble with being away from your family; especially when something like this happens. You feel so helpless. You want to do something, but you really can’t. All they could do was be there for a little while, and I love that they were, even if I didn’t show it.

That’s really why I’ve been allowed to write this. Uriel, my Guardian Angel, had to get special permission from the Great I AM (yes, there really is a a Great I AM – I just haven’t seen Him, yet), because this doesn’t get to happen very often. But I’ve tormented my poor family so much that Uriel’s agreed to be my scribe, while I leave you with words I hope will not only help you all understand what’s been going through my mind over these eighty-four days, but which may also help you forgive me for handling it all so badly! Since we all know how this is going to end, I couldn’t stand the thoughts of leaving you with so much anguish…

Gina, my love, I’m sorry. Before you try to justify, in your own mind, my bad behavior over the past few months, I need to just say ‘stop it!’ There’s no excuse for it and I never should have allowed you to defend me this way in our family. I know I haven’t been the perfect husband or the perfect father. I’m sorry you had to be the spokesperson for me, with our children. Sadly, I always thought my whole purpose in life was to be a perfect marine. I realize now that my priorities were messed up and I’m sorry. I want you to know I am so grateful to you for the wonderful home and family life you provided for me and for our children. God certainly knew what he was doing when He put the two of us together. I remember telling Bernadette, when she was twelve years old, to always remember that you were her best friend and that she could always count on you to know what was best. I’ll fill you in on a little secret. She came to me a couple of years ago and thanked me for that; said it was the best advice I’d ever given her! Know that I love you, Gina, and that I look forward to the day we are joined together again…

Maria, you know, better than most, how I always hated to talk about my feelings. Remember the day you burst into my office and demanded we start communicating, because you wanted to get to know me as an adult? You looked so vulnerable and so determined that day and it was beautiful to watch! I just didn’t have it in me, then, to do what you were asking. It wasn’t my human nature. I’m sorry if that hurt you, sweetheart, but I also hope it taught you to accept and respect other people’s differences. Please know that I am in awe of the wonderful woman, wife and mother you have grown into and I am blessed beyond measure to be your father. Please keep my memory alive for the boys and let them know how much I love them…

 Angelina, you are one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, and I’m sorry about the way I’ve behaved towards you these past couple of months. You didn’t deserve my anger. If it helps you at all, know that I trusted you enough to feel comfortable trying to vent my frustration – not that that excuses me in any way. It doesn’t. Of all my children, you were the one who was always there; there to lend a hand or to provide support or to be a silent witness. I know I never told you this before, but your presence always brought me great comfort, never more so than these past couple of months. Thank you. Hug Malachai and Patrick for me and tell them how proud I am of the men they’ve grown into…

Gabriella, thank you. Thank you for dropping everything and coming all this way to help me and spend time with me. Ever since you left home after high school, I’ve felt something missing from our family, even though you were only a phone call away. But phone calls and visits aren’t the same, are they? We both know we missed something in the process of living this thing called life, but know that I have never stopped loving you. I am so proud of all you’ve accomplished in your life. Of all my daughters, your drive and commitment to your profession reminds me most of my own. The fact that your children have chosen to join your family business is certainly a testament to the wonderful example you’ve set for them. Tell that beautiful daughter of yours that her Pappa adores her and feels so grateful that she continued those Saturday morning phone calls, even after she grew up and moved into her own place. Give Manny a hug for me and let him know I’m proud of the young man he’s becoming…

Gino, my son, it’s so hard for me to write these words, because I want nothing more than to put my arm around you and comfort you while I say them. I’m sorry your plane was delayed and you didn’t get here in time, but know that your phone call on Christmas morning, with that adorable daughter of yours, meant the world to me. You have so many demons, Gino, that I wish I could help you fight them, but I can’t. Know this, though. You are going to make it. You’re going to get through this battle you’re waging and, when you come out on the other side, you’ll be a stronger man than you ever imagined you were capable of being. I’m sorry it was always so hard for me to say the words, Gino, but know that I love you and admire you more than I could ever express here.

Bernadette, you’ve always been the rock that everyone else depended on to fix everything, and I taught you to be that way. I was wrong, and I’m sorry. I know I never allowed you to just be you, and realize now, what a mistake I made. For now, please go home and allow yourself to cry. I know how much you love me and how intertwined we are with each other. So, I know that you’re going to try to blame yourself for everything that’s happened these past few months. But none of it was your fault. The stroke happened because I didn’t take care of myself. My behavior, afterwards, has been deplorable and I’m sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry. Take care of yourself, Bernadette. The divorce took its toll on more than just the kids. It’s taking its toll on you, too. Those kids need you. One last thing, before I sign off. That night you snuck in here in the middle of the night and told me how thankful you were for everything I did for you? I know you think I was mad at you for spilling your guts like that (what a pair we two make!), but what was making me so mad and frustrated was my inability to let you know I was hearing you. Not being able to respond, or comfort you, was making me crazy (well, crazier, anyway –  ha!).

I’m leaving you all now. Know that each one of you make up the absolute best parts of my life and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that before. I hope hearing it now brings you comfort in the days ahead. Lean on each other. Be there for each other. When you look for me, I’ll be there in spirit. But for now, I’ll sign off the same way I always have…

                                                            I love you. God bless all at your house.

                                                                                 Semper fi

Like I said, that was eighty-four days ago. Ten minutes ago, I took my last, gasping breath. Here I am now, holding onto Uriel’s wings, as we float into something so peaceful and so intensely good and kind and loving, that I can’t for the life of me figure out just what I’ve been so afraid of.

 

Snippets of a Life

November 22, 2017

“Today will be the day”, Katrina whispers to herself. She’s laying in bed, wallowing in her numbness, working up the courage to lift her right leg up over the side of the bed, hoping the left one will automatically follow. She’s fifty-seven years old and can’t, for the life of her, imagine how she’s reached a point where she rents a room in someone else’s house with her fourteen-year old cat, and lives in a place where she knows no one and has no desire to connect with anyone, ever again. Life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, although how it was supposed to turn out is a mystery to her, too. But, to have nothing – seriously nothing – to show for all the love, the pain, the perseverance, the effort, the heartache; it’s pathetic. No legacy, no familial relationships outside of her family of origin, no career milestones, nothing. Katrina shakes her head to clear her thoughts and gets out of bed…

On her knees, Katrina prays to her Heavenly Father. “Heavenly Father, I am grateful for this day. For the roof over my head, for the heat that keeps me warm, for the car that gets me back and forth to the job for which I am grateful. I kneel here before you a broken woman; so many mistakes, regrets, sins, whatever they’re actually referred to in heaven. My cousin, Seth, tells me they’re lessons. We’re here to learn from them, he tells me. So, I ask you, Heavenly Father, what just what is my purpose? I need to know because everything I thought I was here for was wrong.” Katrina stills herself and works on evening out her breaths. As always, she knows the answer will come, if she quiets her heart and listens to the whisper of the Holy Spirit…

“Write about it…about all of it, Katrina. Your gift of expression isn’t yours to keep. People need to hear these stories. Write, my precious daughter. Just write. How you write doesn’t matter. Just write…”

September 2, 2017

The chimes on Katrina’s phone rang, indicating an Instant Message. She picked up the phone and opened the IM screen. The sender wasn’t anyone she knew. Oddly, though, there was a picture of Sam attached to the message. She’d been involved with Sam off and on for over three years – they’d been living together for almost a year, now, planning a wedding sometime in the future. The message contained some sort of screen shot of a text between Sam and the sender. Katrina walked from the office to the living room and showed Sam the message. “Do you know anyone by the name of Heather Diamond?” she asked, as she handed him the phone. Sam looked at the screen and said “No. It’s probably just some nut job trying to hack your phone. If I were you, I’d delete it.” Katrina didn’t really give the message much thought, deleted it and went back to the office to continue working on her homework for her Probabilities and Statistics class….

September 8, 2017

Katrina left work on Friday night, completely wiped out after a 16-hour shift of answering emergency 9-1-1 calls for the city. After she punched out and went to the locker room to pick up her belongings, she took out her phone to see what messages she’d missed. Her IM screen indicated another message and she clicked on the icon. Heather Diamond had sent her another message, with another screen shot of what appeared to be a “sext” chat between Heather and Sam. “I still love you. And the thought of seeing you naked in bed with me is something I’ve thought a lot lately” was the text to Sam. Sam’s reply, “should probably not think that way while in bed with someone else. Just sayin” didn’t exactly thrill Katrina. Shouldn’t he have told this Heather person in no uncertain terms to stop texting him? Katrina suspected Heather Diamond was actually Sam’s ex-wife, but would verify that with Sam tomorrow. It was too late to do anything about it tonight. It bothered her that he’d so quickly dismissed the last text as some “nutjob”, too….

September 9, 2017

Sam was still asleep when Katrina left for work Saturday morning, so she’d waited to talk to him about “Heather’s” text until she got home from work that afternoon. She showed the text to Sam and asked him, again, if he knew someone named Heather Diamond, since the screenshot showed a conversation between the two of them. Sam stared at the screen for a few minutes, handed the phone back to Katrina and said “I’ll take care of it”. Katrina sat quietly for a moment and then asked Sam, again, “who is Heather Diamond?” “Well,” said Sam, “I can only assume it’s my ex, Noreen, since that’s a screen shot of a text conversation between the two of us, from before you and I met. She’s got a cat named Diamond, so she must have a fake screen name on facebook.” Katrina accepted Sam’s explanation for the moment, but was bothered. “What do you mean ‘you’ll take care of it?” she asked Sam. Sam replied that he’d tell Noreen to stop contacting her or he’d get a restraining order against Noreen. Katrina needed a little time to think, so she let the matter drop…

September 10, 2017

“Who is this?” Katrina typed in a reply to Heather Diamond’s message from yesterday. Within minutes, Heather replied, “Just a little warning for you.” Katrina typed back “Again, who is this? And are you threatening me? No no” wrote Heather. “He is not what he appears. Good luck. You will need it”…

September 16, 2017

Katrina had spent the past few days covertly looking through Sam’s phone and email, reading text messages between he and Noreen that spanned the last two years, up to just a few day ago. From the tone of the messages, Katrina knew their relationship was still very important to Sam and that there really hadn’t ever been an actual break – at least from Sam’s perspective, even though they’re divorced. Not only that, but there were other messages to other women, too. Flirty messages, initiated by Sam, to some of his friend’s wives and other women he’d met on dating sites while they were living together. There was even a message to another woman he was obviously interested in, that he sent while he was on his way to visit Katrina when she was living in SC last year! Katrina was furious. Her thoughts were a mess. She was a jumble of emotions – none of them good – but she wasn’t finished yet. As she opened Google chrome on his computer, and began searching his internet history, her anger turned to dismay. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Months and months and months of porn sites viewed, for hours at a time, only during days when she was either at work or away…

November 7, 2017

After Katrina loaded up the car with all the belongings she needed to take with her, she went back into Sam’s house one last time to get her gun out of the safe, to write a “goodbye” note and to get the cat. These past six weeks had been like a living hell. It turned out that “Heather Diamond” knew what she was talking about. Sam didn’t just have a porn addiction to what some people call “soft porn”. The stuff he’s into is scary; brutality, incest – mother/son, father/daughter – animals, young girls/old men and live webcams. He also likes to visit local hook-up sites – whether he’d actually hooked up wasn’t something she’d been able to find out. The therapist Katrina had been seeing for her eating disorder told Katrina, in no uncertain terms, not to confront Sam with this information. Given what he was into, and his explosive nature when angry, she felt Katrina may be in danger by doing so, and suggested she find a place to live and just leave, preferably when Sam wasn’t home. Although it was against Katrina’s nature to run away from any problem without confronting it, she knew she was way out of her comfort zone on this one, and followed the therapist’s advice. After getting the cat settled in the back seat, she put the car into drive, and saw Sam’s house in her rearview mirror for the last time.  “Fuck you, Sam”, she whispered. “You will never have it so good again. You and Noreen deserve each other.” Her only regret was that she wasn’t there to see the look on his face when he walked in the door after work and realized she was gone.

The Homecoming

Lisa pulled the stack of mail out of the mailbox and was flipping through one final bill after another. As she walked back down the driveway, the hand-written return address stopped her dead in her tracks. Belfast, Maine isn’t a place where more than a few thousand people reside and, if memory served her right, the only person she knew who lived there in what seemed like another lifetime, had moved to Wyoming at least twenty-five years ago.  But the hand-writing belonged to no other – it was as familiar to her as her own, no matter how many years had come and gone.

Lisa’s fingers were shaking; her heart pounding as she opened the envelope and took out his letter. Without seeing what he’d written, she began to be filled with his presence. His scent enveloped her and his voice spoke to her as she started to read what he wrote. He began by telling her how sorry he was to have heard about the death of her father. He said he knew, probably better than anyone, the paradox of feelings she’d had for the man, and just how devastated she was at losing him. He also apologized for not being able to come and pay his respects when it happened, but explained that losses in his own life had prevented him from being able to do so. He went on to tell her how, after twenty years of marriage, he and his former wife decided to go their separate ways. His way, he said, brought him back to his roots because he’d never once – not one day in all twenty-five years he’d been gone – stopped missing his mountain. He’d only just returned about three months earlier and already, in that short span of time, felt like he’d never left. There’s still, to his knowledge, no other place where he can be so humbled, awed and inspired by the forces of nature – in all her beauty and in all her harshness.  Yet, as natural as it’s been for him to return to his mountain, an awareness that something is out of kilter just won’t be denied. This awareness, he explained, is something he’s been pretty good at suppressing up until now; given the demands of the life he’d chosen when he’d moved west. But now that he’s attuned to the natural rhythm of each day again, and the distractions that kept his awareness at bay have disappeared, he knows there’s one last wrong he needs to right.

Lisa put the letter down on the hood of the car and realized she’d been holding her breath. She leaned back against the driver’s-side door, relaxed her shoulders and forced herself to start taking slow, deliberate breaths, exhaling evenly through her mouth. Her hands weren’t shaking anymore, but the pounding she’d first felt in her heart had turned into flutters deep within her belly because she could actually hear his voice in her heart as she read his words. She’d forgotten about the effect his voice always had on her. In all the years that separated them, she’d never known another person whose voice she’d actually felt, rather than heard. After she spent a few minutes getting her emotions under better control, she leaned over and picked the letter up off the hood of the car, and walked towards the front steps so that she could sit down to finish reading it. She thought about how ironic it was to have received his letter today, of all days. If he’d waited just one more day to mail it, she would never have even known he’d written it. The house was empty, all of her material possessions either sold or in storage, the car packed with everything she was going to need for tomorrow’s journey. The last twenty-five years hadn’t been kind to Lisa, although she was at peace with everything she’d attempted to do. Her ex-husband had finally begun to have a relationship with another woman, so his quest to try to make her life a living hell appeared to be over.

Lisa lowered herself onto the top step, and began reading where she left off. The wrong he needs to right, he says, is all about the words he’s left unspoken for what seems like a hundred years. He tells her he loves her – he’s known from the first moment he laid eyes on her, all those years ago, that she completed him. As she reads what he’s written, she doesn’t even realize that the tears are pouring down her face, until she can’t see the words on the page any more. Grabbing the hem of her shirt, she wipes her face and remembers that last night they were together…

They’d never been more than just very good friends to each other, although she always felt electric whenever she was around him. Lisa was only fifteen when she met Craig. He was nineteen. Something about him brought her out of herself, so that she was always more, whenever he was around; more confident, more assertive; more creative; more definitive; more animated. She always thought her feelings were one-sided; since he’d never once given her any indication that he was romantically attracted to her, until the night he told her he was moving – the last night they were together. They’d gone to a party at a friend’s house. As the night wound down, Craig told her he’d decided the time was right for him to take off for Wyoming – something he’d always dreamed about doing – and would be leaving the following morning. The news hit her hard and she had all she could do to maintain her composure long enough to tell him she had to go. Craig usually insisted on driving her home but, on this particular night, Lisa refused. She said she needed to walk. As she got within about 50 yards of her driveway, he pulled up beside her, parked his truck and got out. Without a word, Craig put his arms on her shoulders, turned her around, and brought her to him. He held her there like that, with the palm of his hand caressing the back of her head as she silently sobbed into his chest, neither of them speaking. After Lisa finished sobbing, Craig brought his hand up under her chin and tilted her head back to look into her eyes. No words were necessary – she could see directly into his soul. He put his hands on each side of her face, softly kissed her forehead and said goodbye. She turned and walked the 50 yards to her house, never once looking back, and never once uttering the words she so desperately wanted to say to him…

As her tears dried and her thoughts turned back to the present, Lisa realized that everything in her life prepared her for this exact moment. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, preventing her from beginning her journey right now, rather than waiting for the morning. She got up off the step and went inside to grab her keys.  Lisa took one final look around at the empty rooms and walked out the door.

Four hours later, as her car maneuvers its way up the gravel driveway, Lisa begins to feel the electricity, and knows Craig is close by. She crests the top of the hill and brings her car to a stop, completely awed by the landscape before her – the mountains, the valley, the ponds and trees, glimpses of the ocean – though none of it’s changed in all this time. She shuts the car off and gets out; there’s a chill in the air. Smoke is coming out of the chimney and she can hear country music coming from the stereo speakers inside, which explains why he didn’t hear the car door slam. She walks up to the door and turns the knob; it opens and she enters. A fire’s burning in the woodstove, beef stew’s simmering in a pot on top of it, and he’s upstairs softly singing along to the music. She silently climbs the stairs and approaches the open doorway of his bedroom. He’s standing with his back to her, wrapped in a towel fresh from the shower, looking through the sliding glass doors at the beauty surrounding him. As she walks over the threshold towards the foot of the bed, a floor board creeks. Craig turns towards her. She stops her approach and waits for his reaction. It’s as if he’d known she would come. He walks over to her, puts his arms on her shoulders and draws her to him. She begins to silently sob into his chest as he caresses the back of her head with the palm of his hand. Once her sobbing subsides, Craig puts his hand under her chin and tilts her head up. He brings his mouth down onto hers with a hunger so fierce, it’s as if he needs to consume her. Her knees buckle and he holds onto her, gently lowering her onto the bed. As their need for each other builds, she removes his towel and he removes every single stitch of clothing she’s got on, until there’s nothing left to act as a barrier between them, anymore. He takes both of her arms and brings them up above her head, resting his arms on hers, palm on palm. With his right knee, he parts her legs only wide enough so that, when he lays his body on top of hers, his thighs and his hips are aligned with hers, and his heart beats directly above her own. Craig looks directly into her soul as he enters her. Lisa whispers softly “Welcome home”.

Cake Batter

Bernadette was out in the driveway, getting more and more frustrated with not being able stay up on her bike, after taking the training wheels off. Just as she was feeling like she should just quit, she heard a tapping on the kitchen window and looked up to see her mother waving her inside. As she dejectedly walked through the back door, she noticed the cake pans, floured and sitting on the kitchen counter. Her mother didn’t even have to tell her to go wash her hands. As soon as she saw them, she ran up the stairs to the bathroom, yelling “I hosie the bowl!” loud enough for her three older sisters to hear her, no matter where they were in the house.

Bernadette quickly washed her hands and raced back down the stairs, jumping from the second-to-last step while holding onto the bannister, then skidding her way into the kitchen. Her three sisters were all standing around their mother, Gina, arguing over how it wasn’t fair that Bernadette got to lick the bowl. But Gina wouldn’t budge. “Bernadette hosied it,” she’d said, “so the three of you will just have to be satisfied with licking the batter off the spatula and the beaters.” As the three of them grundingly accepted that they weren’t going to win this one, Gina turned her back to them and gave Bernadette a wink. The fact that she’d waved Bernadette in from the driveway would be their little secret.

Morning in America

Alexis woke up to the scent of sausage cooking on the stove. Her mother was in the kitchen, humming along to the instrumental Celtic music coming from the speakers on the counter, while she prepared a hearty breakfast for the two of them. It was snowing and blowing like crazy outside, but school still hadn’t been called off.

The music her mother was listening to disturbed Alexis. It made her feel like she was yearning for something she knew she needed, but was just beyond her grasp. As Alexis tried to shake off the feeling, she reached for the green backpack on the floor beside her bed. From the small, zipped compartment in the front, Alex took out the make-up bag that held her rig – all the tools she needed to begin her day – along with the magical rock Harley had given her last night after cheer practice. She reluctantly peeled back the cocoon of blankets she’d slept under, padded into the bathroom and locked the door.

After relieving herself and brushing her hair and her teeth, Alexis put the seat down on the toilet, tied off her arm and prepared for what had become her sacred morning ritual. Just as she injected the heroin into the vein of her left hand, her mother tapped on the bathroom door and announced, “Breakfast is ready!”

“Be right there, Mom” Alexis softly responded, as the rush of chemical tranquility enveloped her.

Going Out to Play

I wish you’d known my brother when he was little. He was one of the happiest, kindest little boys I’ve ever known and I fell madly in love with him the moment I laid eyes on him. The day my mother brought him home from the hospital, I was eight years old with three older sisters. They were ten, twelve and fourteen, respectively.  Over the course of the next decade, while our older sisters graduated from high school and moved on with their lives, he and I grew very close.

One night, when my brother was ten years old, our parents went out to dinner and I stayed home to babysit.  My brother was out playing in the neighborhood – something we’d all done as kids – and was due home by the time the street lights came on.  On this particular night, though, he didn’t come home when he was supposed to.  In the beginning, I wasn’t really concerned, and just figured he’d gotten involved in something with his friends, so I went looking for him.

After checking for him at all of his friends’ houses, I was starting to get a little worried. This really wasn’t like him to stay out past his curfew. He was just that kind of a kid; he never caused anyone any problems. Anyway, that night I walked everywhere, looking for him and calling his name. I even  walked up to the center of town to check the candy and music stores (his usual hang-outs).  By the time I got home, I was pretty frantic.  Just as I was getting ready to call the police, he came slamming through the back door, all out of breath and with a panicked look on his face.  In fact, he looked like he was on the verge of crying.

As this feeling of relief washed over me, I calmly asked him where he’d been, more to try to just relieve his fear than for any other reason, really.  But his answer stopped me in my tracks.  One thing my brother wasn’t was a liar.  He didn’t have to be.  I was his confidant and his protector, and he knew it.  But, that night, he told me he’d been at one of his friend’s houses; a house I’d just checked when I was out looking for him.  They told me they hadn’t seen him.  The lie bothered me more than anything else, and I told him so.  He wouldn’t change his story and insisted that’s where he’d been, before running upstairs to his room.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on and after a few seconds, I ran after him.  The sight that greeted me when I threw open his bedroom door still haunts me, after all these years.  He’d thrown open his window and was about to jump out, screaming that he just wanted to die.

I think it actually took me a second or two to react, but I threw myself across the room and grabbed his arm as he was leaning out.  We both ended up on the floor, sobbing and screaming.  He was crying and telling me to just let him go, while I’d wrapped him in my arms and was pleading with him to tell me what was going on.  He wouldn’t.  He just kept saying he couldn’t tell me and, after calming down a while later, begged me not to say anything to our parents.  I stayed with him until he fell asleep that night, then waited up for my parents to come home.

Sadly, my parents reacted as most parents would have, I think.  I couldn’t seem to communicate the utter despair I’d witnessed that night, a despair that was so grossly out of character for this little boy whom we all loved more than life itself.  Rather, they chalked it up to a little misbehavior on my brother’s part, and a lot of over-reacting on my part.  It didn’t help that my brother acted as if I was making a big deal out of nothing, when my parents asked him about it the next morning. He denied trying to jump out the window, or saying that he wanted to die.  But something changed that night, and life with him was never the same.

The boy who was always so laid back and happy had disappeared.  In his place, an anxious child grew into a troubled teen who became a man battling addictions and demons that threatened to destroy him, until he’d finally had enough.  At the age of forty, my brother checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for what turned out to be the first of many visits.  It was there that he finally felt safe enough to tell me a story.  It was the story of a ten-year old boy who’d gone out to play one day, and ended up being molested by our parish priest; a story that ended two years later, after living through unspeakable horrors he spent the next thirty years trying to erase from his mind.

As I listened to his story, it occurred to me that the little boy we’d lost that day had grown into the bravest man I’d ever known.

Taboo

Introduction: At a recent Writer’s Conference, a writing prompt was given to the attendees, labeled TABOO. From that prompt, a list of subjects considered socially taboo was created and all were instructed to spend some time writing about something considered “taboo.” The following story flowed from that prompt. 

Taboo

“There’s no crying in dispatch,” Sam jokingly reminded Jessica as she pressed the NOT READY button on her console, yanked off her headphones and headed to the supervisor’s station for some tissues while failing miserably at controlling the tears streaming down her face. “Some days,” she said to herself, “this job is just TOO MUCH!” As she rounded the corner and stepped down from the area known as “the loft”, the other dispatchers not taking calls stood and applauded her. All other radio transmissions had been silenced for the past two hours, while every available County, City and Municipal unit responded to a neighborhood held hostage by a man with an AK47. Dispatchers, law enforcement officers, and every other first responder held their collective breaths, as they’d listened to the constant exchange of information and instructions between Incident Command and Jessica, against the backdrop of automatic weapon fire…

It isn’t often that God is spoken of in a 9-1-1 center. In fact, religion is one of the few subjects everyone usually stays away from. Today, though, was a different story. Prayers were sent out to officers over instant messaging screens, letting them know we were with them in spirit and praying they returned safely home to their families tonight. There’s a well-known quote credited to no one in particular from the WWII era that goes something like this: “there are no atheists in fox holes.” Today, that quote came to life for many.

While the neighborhood was being held hostage, the “normal” course of 9-1-1 calls continued to come into the center. Car accidents, kitchen fires, drug overdoses, sexual assaults, stolen property, homes broken into, domestic situations…the never-ending story of man’s inhumanity to man. Not much is considered taboo – or off limits to joke about – in a 9-1-1 center. Sometimes the stress is just so potent that the only way to release it is to find humor from the madness.

But there are a few things dispatchers are strictly prohibited from talking about at work. Political discussions and politics are a no-no. Religion, as I said, is usually a subject no one really wants to get into, but silent prayer happens on a fairly regular basis, and commentary on calls involving children is usually strained, if discussed at all. Those are among the most difficult to hear, along with hearing “officer down”, “shots fired” and “may day” from first responders and fire fighters. There’s no way to minimize situations like these, or to box them up and dissociate from the lasting trauma of the sounds and the voices that replay in your mind, over and over again. On occasion, Critical Incident Stress Debrief sessions are offered, in an attempt to help find some balance for everyone involved.

So, from the list of Taboo topics most normal people refrain from discussing at work, topics and questions you may often hear in dispatch centers, are:

  • Sex: Sex and its many and varying aspects; from gender identity issues, one night stands, gay vs straight vs bi-sexual sex, who’s having sex with whom, who’s not getting any, porn and who thinks it’s right – who thinks it’s all wrong. Sometimes you hear this from the callers, and sometimes you just hear conversations. Anything is fair game.
  • Finances: Income and finances are not only talked about but comparisons are made to make sure things are being distributed right. Credit card information, security codes, numbered passwords, PIN numbers, dates of birth; all are fair game when you’re working on a busy radio console, or are running short-staffed. Online shopping in some 9-1-1 centers is as natural as breathing, but sometimes our co-workers have to help out with the ordering.
  • Weight: From the moment a dispatcher begins their shift, usually the first chat message sent around the room – depending upon the size of the center – is about what to do for lunch. This discussion normally takes about three hours, as people send around suggestions, and votes are tallied. Then decisions have to be made about who will place the order. Restaurants often cringe when they hear who’s calling because they know there’s going to be a separate debit/credit card for each order…and some dispatchers are horrific tippers. As an aside, it usually takes about a half hour after all the food is consumed for the chat message screen to begin to be filled with dispatchers complaining about how much weight they’ve gained since they started this job because the choices of delivery don’t often entail healthy options. But the next shift will be just the same.
  • Age: Age is always an issue. If you’re young (ish) when you start out in this line of work, you resent the “old” people who think the job “was so much better when…” and that “these young people today” just want to come in and change the way things have always been done. If you’re old (er) when you start out, the first day you walk into your new job, most people will roll their eyes behind your back as you walk by and say things like “I wonder how long this one will last”…and then the betting begins.
  • “Are you pregnant?” “Are you infertile?” “Do you have your period?” “Is it hot in here or is it just me?” These are just some of the questions often shouted across the room from one female dispatcher to another, while it’s not uncommon to hear one of the male dispatchers ask why they “can’t just have one tiny estrogen-free corner of the room” to work in.
  • “Who’s your daddy Thursday” is an actual theme in, at least, one district courthouse. No self-respecting, law-abiding citizen would even attempt to do business there on Thursdays, as the business of the day is given over to custody battles and DNA denials and women fighting other women over whose kids’ daddy was her kids’ daddy first.
  • Badge Bunnies: There’s a term used in Law Enforcement that describes people who choose to work as support personnel for first responders because they’re sexually turned on by the uniform: Badge Bunnies. And if you are one, you can be certain everyone else knows it and talks about it. It just goes with the job.
  • Profanity and discrimination: If you walk into a dispatch center unannounced,  you just may notice a dispatcher rolling their eyes and mouthing words at their computer screens. The verbal abuse female dispatchers are required to take from callers is unimaginable. They are called everything thing from “f-ing bitches” to the “c-word” and many have no recourse for making it stop. The male dispatchers don’t seem to have this problem. Bigotry and discrimination are even alive and thriving in the midst of life threatening emergencies.

But the most taboo behavior all good 9-1-1 dispatchers learn never to engage in while working, is allowing their emotions to become entangled with the caller. The voice of calm and reason under all circumstances, they often grow skin so thick that they forget to feel anything at all, even after they go home. This can lead to periods of intense depression and anxiety, as a natural consequence of forcing themselves not to instinctually respond, human-to-human. It’s from those experiences that humor can break the cycle…

So, as Sam reminded Jessica that there’s no crying in dispatch and her co-workers gave her a standing ovation while she blew her nose and dried her tears, she laughed. A big, deep belly laugh. No one died that day. The officers were all going home to their families, and the neighbors were all present and accounted for while one mentally deranged man lived to convince another psychiatrist, a year from now, that he’s no longer a danger to society and will go home to do it all over again.

Dispatchers refer to that as job security.