Friday, September 17, 2010

Dignity's Demands

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was—oh, who the fuck was I kidding? It was just another hot summer day in Connecticut, and Steve and I were out of beer. Not exactly a tragedy—but pretty damn close. Having discarded every meaningful human attribute one can cling to, it was our dignity alone that gave us hope, and even that was slipping away fast.
Our assignment for the day was to pick up Uncle Joe—on the mend from his latest bender—and drive him to his beach house down by the shore. Besides being late summer, Joe’s health was in general decline, so it was time to vacate the old summer home of its remaining personal effects. When we arrived in Niantic, several of Joe’s daughters were already at the house, no doubt to lay claim to the more valuable stuff. It was no skin off our noses. All Steve and I were hoping for was a chance to sneak into Joe’s wallet and swipe one of his $50 bills so we would have some fresh beers to sip on once we got back to 808.
After the family vultures picked Uncle Joe clean, we carried several boxes of his books out to the car, books being all Joe really cared about. There looked to be some fascinating reads among his treasure: true stories about Nazi hunters, war criminals, and prominent political figures from the old days when he was a federal prosecutor after the War. Yes, Joe’s list of accomplishments crawled up one arm and down the other. It was sad to see such a stately figure reduced to the ignominy of binge drinking as he neared old age. Not knowing when to give up the hooch was one lesson many a good Irishman failed to learn.
Aside from an approaching thunderstorm, the drive back toward Hartford began smoothly and without incident. It wasn’t long, however, before things took on an air of tension. Seems Uncle Joe was well aware of Steve’s cohabitating life style of the past few years. And being the upstanding Catholic—and personal lawyer to the Archbishop—that he was, Joe of course felt duty bound to call Stephen out for his sinful ways.
“So, I understand you’ve been shacking up these past few years,” Joe snarked in Steve’s direction. Sensing an approaching diatribe, Steve pondered his options, then decided to give the old man a little leeway—at least for the time being. Joe continued on. “You’re going to hell ya know, straight to goddamn hell.” I took my eyes off the road for a moment and glanced back at Steve. His expression was stern but poised. I knew he was only going to take so much of Joe’s crap. Joe’s voice was now a full and morally condescending growl. “You’re nothing but a whore, ya know, nothing but a goddamn he-whore. And that broad you’re shacking up with is no better.” Something told me Joe had just crossed the line. I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. Wasting no time, Steve decided he’d had enough. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he said. “Pull over.”
As soon as Steve instructed me to pull over to the side of the road, I knew exactly what his intentions were. Steve was not one to stand idly by while someone abused and castigated him just for being himself. But something also told me he was going to spare Joe the crude retort a lesser man would surely have been made to endure. As much as he wanted to give it right back to him, Steve nonetheless decided to defer to Joe’s lofty station and forgo the retaliatory assault he deserved.
By now it was pouring rain and a lightening storm was raging about. But that wasn’t about to prevent Steve, in his own way, from letting Uncle Joe know what he thought of him and his insults. He opened the door, turned up his collar, grabbed Joe’s latest copy of Barron’s Weekly to fend off the rain, and proceeded to hitch hike the remaining thirty miles. And with his silently abrupt, no theatrics exit, Steve said more to Uncle Joe than he would have had he stayed in the car and verbally flogged him the rest of the way home.
“Where the hell is he going?” Joe asked, looking rather stunned. “It’s the middle of the goddamn highway and it’s pouring rain out there.” I looked at Joe with a curious stare, then simply stated, “Steve’s going to keep his dignity, Uncle Joe. Something you seem to have lost for the moment.”
There was a pregnant pause. Then, under his breath—and feeling entitled to the last word—Joe muttered, “Well, he is a goddamn he-whore.” I turned my head and gave Joe the evil-eyed stare. He got the message. Not one peep came out of him the rest of the ride home.
It was nearly dark when we got back to Joe’s apartment on Prospect Avenue. Once inside Joe immediately removed his jacket—yes, the jacket containing his hefty wallet. The means and motive I already possessed; all that was missing was the opportunity. When Joe went down the hall to use the lavatory, the opportunity was suddenly golden. This heist was going to be easy.
As Joe made his way back to the living room, I was perusing some of his books. “Help yourself to a few books if you like,” Joe said. “Just don’t lose any of them.” Having already helped myself to his wallet, I didn’t see the harm in absconding with a few books as well.
“Thanks, Uncle Joe. I think I will. And don’t worry, I’ll be careful with them.”
“Well, what the hell are you waiting for? Take the goddamn books and get the hell out of here. I need some rest, for Christ’s sake!”
No further words were spoken. Joe never liked to end conversations with polite good-byes. He would usually just utter some vague vulgarity and expect it would be taken as a parting gesture—a habit he no doubt picked up from his days as a bare-knuckled County Commissioner.
When I got back to 808 with a case of beer in tow, Steve was there to greet me. “Well, I see you got into his wallet.”
“Of course I did.”
“How’d you make out?”
“There were seven fifties in there.”
“Let’s just say he’s down to four.”
“Not bad.”
“Fuck him. He deserves it—trashing you like that.”
“Do you think he’ll notice?”
“That’s why I took so much—to make damn sure he would notice.”
“Smart thinking.”
“You showed some real class back there today, Steve.”
“All I know is it wouldn’t have been pretty had I stuck around.”
“Here’s to keeping your dignity,” I said, raising my beer and offering a toast.
“To dignity,” Steve replied, raising his beer to meet mine and consummate the celebration. “To dignity.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Remembering Mary

Mary Eileen was special. Despite being dealt a difficult hand, she insisted life could be good. She worked hard not to let her chronic illness stand in the way of a meaningful existence. It was four years ago this month, in September of 2006, that Mary's earthly journey came to an end. She lived to be 57 years old, which was amazing in and of itself. Her zest for life was truly exceptional.
With bad lungs and an acute susceptibility to infection, sickness was Mary's constant companion. She learned—a lot sooner than anyone ever should—how to fight just to stay alive. Year after year, from one malady to the next, she went right on defying the odds, daring to soldier on in the face of adversity. Having to work so hard just to breathe in the air we all took for granted moved Mary to grapple with life all the more eagerly. The ups were triumphant; the downs were debilitating. Her laughter was captivating; her tears were abundant.
Mary also waged a brave battle against lifelong depression and anxiety, two creatures that often impose their iniquitous presence on those afflicted with chronic illness. It was a war of attrition; successes and failures came and went. But she held to her commitment of a better life, a healthier life, by searching tirelessly for the emotional insights she would need to find joy and accept her burdensome station.
As siblings, our relationship was a respectful one. Mary and I made allowances for each other whenever we met with disagreement. Our conflicts were usually modest and manageable. But sadly, such accommodations were difficult to achieve with everyone. Invariably, it was the pain many of us siblings were carrying that so often got in the way of our willingness to forgive and forget, and drawing lines in the sand—for some—became unavoidable. Mary loved those she didn't see eye to eye with, she just had a hard time saying so.
Mary Eileen died the way she lived, with grace and dignity. As the end drew near, she had the wherewithal to sense the inevitable and decided to take in—one last time—the company of those she claimed as her closest friends. They ate, they drank; they laughed, they cried; they loved, they said good-bye. By all accounts, it was the gathering of a lifetime.
Mary deserved that last joyful reunion with her friends. Her life was difficult. She gave us all the gift of herself. And when it was over, it was we who took a lesson from her about the preciousness—and brevity—of life. Thank you for being such a good sister.