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.
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.