ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steven Manchester is the published author of Pressed Pennies, The Unexpected Storm: The Gulf War Legacy and Jacob Evans, as well as several books under the pseudonym, Steven Herberts. His work has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Recently, three of his short stories were selected “101 Best” for Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
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SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Don DiMarco has a very good life – a family he loves, a comfortable lifestyle, passions and interests that keep him amused. He also thought he had time, but that turned out not to be the case. Faced with news that might have immediately felled most, Don now wonders if he has time enough. Time enough to show his wife the romance he didn’t always lavish on her. Time enough to live out his most ambitious fantasies. Time enough to close the circle on some of his most aching unresolved relationships. Summoning an inner strength he barely realized he possessed, Don sets off to prove that twelve months is time enough to live a life in full. A glorious celebration of each and every moment that we’re given here on Earth, as well as the eternal bonds that we all share, Twelve Months is a stirring testament to the power of the human spirit.
List Price: $15.95
Paperback: 326 pages
Publisher: Story Plant, The (August 14, 2012)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
They say – whoever they are – that every story has to start at its beginning. I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe the best place to start with any story is the here and now. And that’s exactly where we’ll begin.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Let me paint a picture for you: My name’s Don DiMarco and I live at 55 Summerfield Avenue on the outskirts of Pilgrim Hill. It’s a small, residential neighborhood that sits beside a giant field of white and yellow daisies. And it’s become the perfect place to enjoy my once-dreaded retirement.
In the mornings, even though I swore I’d never own another dog, Foxhound – named after my childhood companion – and I go for our daily walk and take it all in. It’s like living in the middle of a Thomas Kinkade original.
Colonial, Cape Cod, and ranch style homes line both sides of the street, each one betraying the unique character befitting its owner. Brick driveways, laid out in a herringbone design, are guarded by statues of grinning lions or laughing cherubs. Faded cedar shingles are offset with cranberry or forest green shutters. Striped awnings hang above each window, while multi-colored petunias fill each box beneath. Open porches with rocking chairs lead to inviting front doors, their flowered wreaths matching the hanging potted plants that drip with warmth. Red brick and black wrought iron complement the sparkle of glass and richness of mahogany. In the rear, Connecticut stone patios host sturdy picnic benches and swinging hammocks.
Most of the yards are meticulously landscaped. Rhododendrons and azaleas burst with color, while apple and cherry blossom trees weave a carpet of pink and white petals beneath their twisted branches.
While Foxhound pulls at his leash, I prefer to maintain a leisurely pace. It’s amazing the details you can pick up if you just stop long enough to pay attention.
To the harmony of singing birds, a tiny peeper calls out from a moss-covered stonewall. I like to stop for a moment and feel the tingle of a gentle breeze and the sun’s warm hands on my skin. Suddenly, the powerful aroma of fresh-cut grass grabs my senses and I breathe it all in.
As we travel on, red maples and giant sycamores dance with the white birches and mighty oaks. If you follow their branches to the top, you’ll find melted marshmallow clouds traveling a slow and easy pace against a sky of blue that’s indescribable.
Though Foxhound and I enjoy our time alone, I also like the occasional exchange of a warm smile or friendly wave. When we’re lucky, we’ll catch Sarah pushing her newborn in an open antique carriage. When we’re not so lucky, we’ll come across another dog walker and his four-legged friend. Though I’ve tried to teach him better manners, Foxhound suffers terribly from an only child syndrome.
When you put all the pieces together, I guess Summerfield Avenue is my true refuge. For me, everything is at peace here. That, coupled with the fact I’ve finally managed a perfect lawn, how could I ever complain?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As I think I’ve mentioned, I retired early – at fifty-seven years old – which allows me lots of time to spend with those I love and to think about the paths I’ve traveled. Family, of course, comes first.
Isabella – my beautiful Bella – is my true partner and wife. She’s a great cook and from what I can tell, while I’m out cutting the grass or changing the car’s oil, she’s always loved playing the traditional role of homemaker. Through the years, she’s insisted on very few things, but the one thing she’s asked for is that the family eat together at the dinner table each night. Bella and I have been together so long it’s tough to tell the differences between us. I guess you could say we more than complement each other. She laughs when I say it, but I believe we’re two halves that make up a whole. A firm but compassionate soul, Bella has worked with mentally disabled children for the better part of four decades. We’re holiday Catholics and for years, she took care of her ailing mother – her cross to bear – and had a difficult time letting go when the old woman finally passed. Bella can’t sit still. She’s constantly cleaning. And my wife, I’ve learned, has never been wrong – which might honestly be her only true flaw.
At thirty-six, our only child, Riley, is still Daddy’s little girl. On the morning we were blessed with her company, I remember thinking, In my daughter’s face, I have seen my grandmother’s smile. With my brown hair and her mother’s hazel eyes, she turned out as pretty as she is kind – which is most important, if you ask me. To the applause of thunder and torrential downpours, Riley came into the world without wanting to cause anyone any trouble. I sensed she was an old soul and we clicked right away. I suppose she had a normal upbringing; from Tomboy to boy crushes to college, where she eventually followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an advocate for disabled children. Through the years, she became a gifted softball player – which I think was equally considerate of me, as I had no son – and an avid cyclist; a passion that has carried on through her adulthood. Riley and I have also shared an undying love for the Boston Red Sox. However, she did go through a rebellious stage I tried to ignore as much as humanly possible. With a back tattoo, belly button ring and a few nights where she had too much to drink and needed to call me for a ride (I never made a big deal about it at the time, preferring that she call me rather than drive home intoxicated), trust me when I say we’ve had our moments.
I thought I was lucky to have had two loves of my life – that is, until the grandkids came along.
After testing a string of potential suitors, Riley finally settled down with Michael. Even if I’d wanted to dislike him like some of the others, there’s no way I could have. He was respectful to me and Bella, but more importantly he was good to Riley. Before long, our daughter became Riley DiMarco-Resonina, a name I’ve never stopped kidding her about. “Wanna buy a vowel?” I’d ask, but she’s always been a good sport about it. Riley and Michael waited quite a while, but they eventually gave me and Bella two beautiful grandbabies. The first was Madison Ruth, named after Michael’s mother. Then came Michael Donald, which honored me beyond words. And with these children, I’ve been completely blessed. Grandkids are the perfect payoff for any life.
Ms. Madison, the oldest, was tough stuff from the start. With rosebud lips, a potato nose and her grandma’s eyes, the gap between her two front teeth makes her smile contagious. The word determined can’t even begin to describe this child. Of course, she looks like a living doll in her flowered dresses and fancy bows, but in reality she’s all tomboy like her mom. Her relationship with her baby brother is reflective of the tough love my brother Joseph and I shared when we were coming up. “No one’s going to mess with this kid,” I’ve boasted time and again.
Michael Donald, the baby, was the chubbiest newborn I’d ever laid eyes on, so I nicknamed him Pudge and have never called him anything else since. With his dad’s dimpled smile, he’s a mix of Mamma’s boy and the kind of rough and tumble lad that any man would love to have for a son. Before he could walk, this inquisitive little grubber was throwing baseballs and testing out different wrestling moves.
Madison and Pudge have always called me Poppa and I could not be any more grateful to their dad for allowing me to share in their love and adoration. As if it were possible, I’ve spoiled both of them even more than I did Riley. And the truth is – I’ve never once felt guilty for it.
Forgive me for going on like this. Though I always swore I wouldn’t, it seems I’ve become the stereotypical grandfather.
Let’s see, we were talking about the joys of retirement. Well, I still work – or volunteer, I should say. After years spent in a woodworking shop, I now volunteer in a children’s hospital, transporting kids. I love it. I do. There’s no pressure, better hours and I’m not killing myself any more because I’ve learned everything I need to know about money. The way I see it is – when you don’t place so much value on something, it’s not as important as it once was. Believe me, there’s great freedom in that.
Before turning in each night, I like to sit on my deck in my Adirondack chair with my musty-smelling stray lying by my side. Prayer, meditation – whatever you’d like to call it – I now enjoy getting in touch with my spiritual side. At first, going within felt very strange, but the more time I’ve spent in the stillness – not thinking or doing anything, just being – the closer I’ve felt to myself; to the essence of who I truly am. To me, sitting on that deck at the start of a silver-lined dusk is like hosting a family reunion with my soul.
Like some unfinished masterpiece still in the process of creation, on most nights the light is bent to create the most magnificent colors, unnamed and infinite. Midnight blue poured onto black velvet, the ordinary is turned mysterious. Like a snow-covered mountain range, billowy clouds crawl by. The dark silhouetted tree line against a steel gray sky leaves me with the illusion of solitude and I am grateful for the opportunity to appreciate the light. Then, a giant curtain is drawn and the light announces its final surrender. As promising as the dreams of a child though, it will be back. The world closes in all around me, allowing me the time I need to recharge my batteries. By now, the eye can only pick up movement. Sounds and smells become much crisper. The scent of moisture settles in and then burnt hardwood from a distant fireplace. Twinkling specks of light, of pure energy, are gradually scattered across the firmament, and I stare until I can see depth. All sounds are heightened beyond a whisper; the steady beat of a whippoorwill, the rustling of a skunk foraging for a late dinner, the patter of a moth’s wings on glass. Even in the moon’s halo, the clouds are no more than wisps of smoke drifting by. Like tiny magicians, the fireflies disappear and reappear until the cool air ushers them off to some hollowed-out log. Before long, all things are tucked away into their rightful place.
And though I must do so through the innocent eyes of a child, I can witness this most nights. If Foxhound and I are real lucky, on special nights we’ll catch a lightning storm on the deck. Hearing the echo of rolling thunder and seeing the flash of lightning only reminds me that God never sleeps. “The angels are bowling,” my mother used to say. Grandpa, however, preferred to capitalize on fear whenever he could. “God is angry with us!” he’d swear. Either way, it was a childhood fear that I’d never internalized or had to overcome. Like a mosquito to a bug zapper, I was drawn to these dangerous storms. To me, it’s like being stuck in a car wash that comes with a very cool light show.
Stormy or clear, any night is ideal for thinking about those paths I mentioned. I’ll spend hours just sitting there, searching my memory. It’s funny the things you pick up along the way; the things you can share with your grandkids if you’re smart.
I’ve learned that anyone can change the world; you just have to start with one person at a time. I’ve also learned that not caring what other people think of me has allowed me the energy to focus on what I think of myself. For me, life is like looking through a kaleidoscope. With every turn, a different view will be brought to light.
I’ve taught my grandkids that good things come to those who wait, but great things come to those who go after it; that a gift within is meant to be shared or else it wouldn’t be a gift; and no matter how large or small, everybody’s problems are enormous to themselves. Though the list goes on, the most important thing I’ve passed on is that life can be a beautiful dream, or a living nightmare. It’s all about your attitude – your perspective.
But I didn’t always see things this way…
I hadn’t been feeling well for a while; a change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss and terrible cramping in my lower abdomen. When I started to find blood in my stool, I knew I had to see the doctor. “You stupid man!” Bella scolded. I thought she was going to kill me for waiting so long.
Together, we visited one doctor’s office after the next, while I was subjected to a battery of intrusive testing. Most diseases were immediately ruled out – at least all the livable ones.
While Bella sat by my side, Doctor Olivier conducted his line of questioning. “Family history of intestinal polyps?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“History of an inflammatory bowel disease?”
“Any possible genetic factors?”
I cringed. “Yeah, both my parents died from cancer.” I looked over at my wife. Her eyes were filled with worry.
After giving samples of every bodily fluid you can imagine and enduring the most God-awful probing, I was sent to the hospital’s radiology department for a CT scan.
As I recall, it was the final days of a long, harsh winter. The wind banged on the window, while the last remnants of a blackened snow bank stood off in the distance. Though Bella was worried sick, she reluctantly agreed to let me return to Doctor Olivier’s alone because Riley needed someone to watch the kids. “But please come straight home after you’re done,” she requested.
As I sat half-naked on the exam table, I couldn’t help but take note of the meaningless details that surrounded me; a water color painting hanging crooked on the wall, a glass container that needed to be refilled with tongue depressors, an extra chair that didn’t belong, making the room feel cluttered.
The door opened and Doctor Olivier walked in, holding a yellow folder under his arm. It was my entire medical history. His face looked somber.
This can’t be happening, I thought, I never smoked, rarely drank and I’m only in my fifties.
Doctor Olivier was a white-haired gent with a moustache trimmed a half-inch off his top lip, betraying his military background. With a white coat to match, his stethoscope swung freely from his thick neck. He had large hands with perfectly manicured fingernails. It’s strange the things you pick up when somebody’s about to invade your private parts. “Don,” he began in his calm, no-nonsense approach. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but…you have colon cancer.” He opened the folder for more details.
I felt like he’d just punched me in the gut. “I what?” I asked, one octave higher than normal.
“The rectal bleeding, weight loss, abdominal pain and the fact that your stools have become longer and more narrow are all symptoms.”
“But it hasn’t been going on all that long,” I argued. He only shook his head. Now I definitely felt like vomiting.
“Sometimes colon cancer fails to produce any symptoms until the cancer has grown very large and even metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. This is why the identification and removal of polyps through regular screenings play such an important role in prevention.”
“Spread to other parts?” I asked.
The man’s green eyes peered up from behind narrow reading glasses. I knew right then and there that I was in serious trouble. “The cancer’s already spread to your liver,” he said.
A bolt of panic, generating from my core, shot out and filled every cell of my body. My extremities began to tingle and my breathing turned shallow. There was a sudden pain in my chest and I knew intuitively that this was felt for my wife. What’s Bella going to do? I wondered, and a wave of dizziness nearly pushed me off the table. Then, I must have gone into some kind of shock or something. I kept eye contact, but for a while all I heard was a hum; the occasional phrase dancing in and out.
“…trace amounts of blood. Blah. Blah. Blah. …blockages preventing bowel movements. Blah. Blah. Blah. …consumption of red meat, obesity, smoking. Blah. Blah. …stage four. Blah. Blah.” There was a long pause. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Don?” he finally asked.
I don’t know how long we stared at each other before I answered. “Yes, I heard you. I have cancer.”
“That’s right. You have stage four colon cancer which has started to spread to other organs. At your age, I strongly recommend we pursue aggressive surgical treatment to remove the cancerous tissues. We’ll also want to consider chemotherapy and radiation therapy.” From his tone, this wasn’t so much a recommendation as it was an order.
Along with oxygen, my wits were returning to me. I understood the words he was saying, but they were still difficult to register. “But I’ve always been more of a quality guy…not so concerned with quantity,” I blurted.
He folded his arms, awaiting an explanation.
“What kind of life will I live…even if it’s extended?” I asked.
“We won’t know that until we begin, will we?”
“Maybe I should get a second opinion?”
“By all means, please do. It’s important to…”
“I just don’t want to cut myself short by living a few more months hooked to tubes,” I interrupted.
He nodded once. “I understand,” he said. After explaining a few more details I was too overwhelmed to comprehend, he left the room. There was clearly nothing more he could do for me.
Minutes later, I was dressed and walking down the icy sidewalk toward a frightening future that had just shrunk by decades. It was as if adrenaline forced me to move, one foot in front of the next. I felt numb, high on the fear of losing my life. And then I pictured Bella’s face and stopped. I must have dry-heaved for a solid five minutes.
My pretty, light-haired wife met me at the front door, shivering. I looked into her hazel eyes and attempted a smile. Before I said a word, she already knew. “Oh, dear God…” she gasped and pulled me to her.
As we stepped inside, I told her, “Stage four colon cancer.”
“I thought it was…” she began. “But it can’t be…” Her voice began cracking like warm water on ice.
Although we both suspected the same prognosis, there was no real way to prepare for it. We held each other for nearly a half hour and cried. Although I was already worried about having to leave her, I tried to console her. “We’ll be fine,” I whispered.
For a moment, she pushed away and peered into my soul. “We’ll be going for a second opinion,” she confirmed.
While a late-night hailstorm threatened to shatter the living room windows and Bella tossed and turned in bed, I fumbled on the Internet and conducted my own research:
It is estimated that fifty-seven thousand Americans will die from colon cancer this year; the second leading cause of cancer death in the nation and a disease that it is completely preventable. Prevention and early detection can mean the difference between life and death. Colon cancer forms from non-cancerous polyps on the wall of the small or large intestines. Polyps can eventually increase in size and turn cancerous. If polyps are found during a routine test, a biopsy may be done to determine if cancer is present and to which stage it has advanced. Women are usually diagnosed with colon cancer in its latter stages because many believe this disease only affects men. Unfortunately, this disease affects people of all genders and ethnicities. There are five stages, zero through five.
I stopped reading. I’m already nearing the final stage, I thought, and for the first time I felt guilty about not taking better care of myself.
I was preparing for bed when I looked up from the sink and surveyed my face in the mirror. I still had most of my dark hair. My brown eyes were filled with life. Dying can’t be what I’m in the process of, I thought. Besides the pockmarked cheeks from a cruel case of pre-adolescent acne, I looked as healthy and unscathed as the day I was born. I washed down two pills with a gulp of water and shut off the light.
As I headed for bed, it suddenly dawned on me, All the things I was planning to do when I finally had the time…I may not actually have the time to do! I snickered at the thought of it. Shoot, I was gonna go fishing and travel the country with Bella in a motor home, where we could rekindle our romance…which took a backseat to too many other things.
I lay down in bed, placed my hands behind my head and stared up at the ceiling – haunted by my unrealized aspirations. I was hoping to do some writing, maybe even for the newspaper, and beg the boys down at the local race track to let me go for a spin. I even thought about talking Bella into doing some horseback riding…
I turned to my side and watched Bella’s eyelids struggle with another bad dream. Now what? I wondered.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It’s funny how the mind works. Besides making Bella promise not to tell anyone until we were absolutely sure, I honestly cannot tell you what my feelings or thoughts were between doctor’s visits. I remember going to work in the cold and coming home to watch Bella pray each night, but most of that time remains a complete blur to me. I vaguely recall the desperate phone calls and hours of research my frantic wife conducted, and her sudden outbursts of grief. I stayed out of it – all of it. I wasn’t ready to consider death. It wasn’t part of the comfortable routine I’d spent decades perfecting.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For whatever reason, I was surprised to find that Dr. Rice was a woman. She was too thin and pale, but she had kind eyes and a soft tone to her voice. “Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer,” she explained to Bella and me. “And treatment usually depends on the location, size, and spread of your cancer at the time of diagnosis. When colon cancer is detected at an early stage, surgical treatment is very effective. We also use chemotherapy or radiation with surgery to reduce the chance that the cancer will return.”
Seated by my side, Bella couldn’t wait to ask. “And Don’s…do you agree with the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in his case?”
The doctor hesitated. It was slight, but she hesitated, and as plain as day, I could see that she was too kind for this aspect of her profession. Without a word, she confirmed our dreaded suspicions. “It was caught too late, Mr. and Mrs. DiMarco,” she explained. She looked at Bella and then back at me. “Your cancer is inoperable, and although radiation is an option, the diagnosis is still terminal.”
“How long?” Bella asked, her voice cracking.
“Twelve months…at best.”
“Now what?” I asked. It was a stupid question, but I still hoped for an answer.
“Go…and really live the time you have left.”
Like a puppet that had snapped its strings, Bella collapsed into a chair and began to sob. “Oh, dear God,” she cried.
“My father didn’t raise a quitter,” I said, surprised at my last-ditch effort.
“That’s admirable, but you can either spend your remaining time fighting or enjoying it,” Dr. Rice advised.
I felt devastated, but when I found her eyes again I also felt a brief moment of peace. It was unexplainable.
To the beat of Bella’s heavy sobs, the doctor took out her prescription pad. “I’ll give you all the medication you’ll need to manage the pain.”
“Thank you.” I took the two scripts and helped my wife to her feet. It was time to go home and face Bella’s unanswered prayers.
As the days threatened to turn into weeks, I moped around in a silent state of numbness. Life was a fog and I was traveling aimlessly with no light to guide me. I prayed harder and with more frequency: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference – but serenity and courage were nowhere in sight. Instead, as though I was competing in the emotional Tour de France, I cycled through denial, anger, depression and negotiating with God – again and again.
“Talk to me!” my wife pleaded, trying everything to include herself in my secret mourning. But I was too selfish to let her in. For whatever reason, I needed to sit with the misery for a while longer before sharing it – with anyone.
It didn’t take long to run the full gamut of darkness – anger, sorrow, fear – and then run through each of them again. WHY? I screamed in my head. WHY ME? But there was no answer. Eventually, I was only left with the stinging realization that on many levels, it didn’t matter that there were people who loved me and didn’t want to lose me. In many respects, my dying was the perfectly natural thing to do. Still, I wasn’t ready to surrender to it. For the time being, I preferred to stay within my shell and simmer in a bitter rage.
Bella, on the other hand, was more than happy to express herself each day. I never realized my gentle wife could be so angry and sad – all at the same time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
After canceling my next dentist appointment – I figured, What’s the use, right? – I finally called for a family meeting with Riley and Michael. It was time we broke the terrible news. I didn’t want anyone outside the immediate family to know, though. You see, I’ve always believed that positive thoughts and actions bring about positive results, with the same holding true for the opposite. So, with the negative hens in our extended family, I figured if they caught wind of my illness, I’d be dead in a matter of weeks. Besides, the fuss would be too annoying.
We were at the kitchen table for a few terrible moments before Bella began to explain exactly what Doctor Rice had said.
Before she was through, Riley screamed, “No, Daddy…NO!”
I honestly thought I was going to be strong for everyone until she did that. I looked up to find Bella sobbing and Michael looking away to wipe his eyes. I couldn’t help it. I joined the family for a good, long, healthy cry. When I finally composed myself enough to speak, I said, “Okay guys, this is the last time I want to see anyone mourning for me while I’m still alive.”
Everyone reluctantly nodded.
“What are you going to do now that…” Michael stopped himself and looked away again.
“I’m going to run a marathon.”
No one laughed.
“I’m going to live,” I said and meant every word of it. “I promised Pudge a couple years ago at his sister’s Kindergarten graduation that I’d be there at his, and I fully intend to keep my word.”
Riley peered into my eyes. “There’s always a chance for a miracle, right?”
“I’m expecting it!” I told her.
She jumped into my lap and hugged me for a long while. It was the type of medicine that could heal anything.
Bella barely excused herself and hurried out of the room. Even through my own haze, I knew she was furious with God; a rage that lasted longer than I would have ever expected.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Right from the start, everything changed.
After Riley had flown the coop, for years Bella and I would go for a ride in the car every Friday night with the windows rolled down and the music playing. Nine out of ten times, we’d end up at Flo’s on Island Park. Flo’s served the best clam cakes and fried clams anywhere. Bella and I would sit together on the sea wall and share our feast with the seagulls. But Bella had a different idea now. “What about taking me to Venus for that baked stuffed lobster we always talked about?” she asked.
I had to smile, thinking, She is a clever one. For years, I’d wanted to try that lobster but never thought we could afford it. We finally went.
I was stunned. Venus’s baked stuffed lobster wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it would be, nor was it all that hard to shell out the cash for it. After all these years of fantasizing, I thought, and we should have gone to Flo’s for the cakes.
Thanks to a vested retirement plan, I was able to retire early from McKaskie’s. This money was sure to carry me through to the end. For Bella’s well being however, I was thankful for the large life insurance policy I’d complained about paying on for years. From the moment I’d signed the papers, I thought we’d overpaid, but he was a good salesman. “We don’t need it,” I complained again and again to Bella, but once we started making payments it seemed foolish to stop. I’ve never been so happy to stick with something I didn’t want. Now, not only would my wife be able to survive on the money, she’d be able to live quite well – long into her own retirement. On one hand, it was strange to be worth more dead than alive. On the more important hand, I was thrilled that Bella would be able to live better than she ever had.
With no intentions of sharing the truth about my impending doom, I walked into McKaskie’s for the last time to take one final stroll through the grease and wood shavings. It felt so surreal. Here I was, the foreman in charge of quality assurance of this giant woodworking shop, taking one last look around. I didn’t expect it, but it hurt. I’d been at the same job forever. It was the place that had provided purpose for my entire adult life and the reason I’d gotten up every day – five days a week – at five o’clock in the morning. It had offered just enough overtime to put my daughter through college and now I was never going to see it again.
Bobby, Marty – even the Smeaton brothers, who were supposed to be identical twins but looked nothing alike – came over to shake my hand and wish me luck on my early retirement. “We’ll be seeing each other soon,” they all promised
I knew better.
I sat with them on the loading dock for the day’s final break and listened to Adam go on about his ex-girlfriend. “We were together through most of Tractor Trailer School,” the young smartass joked, creating just enough laughter to get him rolling. “God, did I love her. She was so big, though, that you could have put a swing set in her backyard.”
“I think she snacked between meals. For whatever reason, what really turned me on was walking behind her when she climbed stairs. It was like watching two baby pigs fighting under a blanket.”
Even I laughed at that one.
“When we went out dancing, I couldn’t tell whether she was doing the electric slide or having a seizure. And she used to have me shave her back in the shower – that is, until the weed whacker nearly electrocuted us.”
We shared one last laugh and the whistle went off. It was perfect timing. The guys each got up, dusted themselves off and went back to work. I took one last look around, grabbed my timecard and – for old time’s sake – punched out.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
While Bella wrestled with the reality of my early departure and the sharp pains that went with it, I watched in agony as she stumbled through the same dark valley I was traveling in. She snapped at the slightest annoyance and cried at the most random times. Days fit slowly into weeks.
I slept in one morning but it wasn’t easy to break old habits. For decades, I’d gotten up before the sun. Now, all I could think was to take my coffee to the deck where there wasn’t much to do but sit in the Adirondack chair and listen to the birds gossip.
Idle time can be a killer. I started thinking too much about where I might be heading. I wasn’t sure about heaven and hell, but I eventually pictured my Nana. Wherever she ended up is good enough for me, I thought. And if she didn’t make it to heaven, then I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
One night, I got up from bed and went into the living room away from Bella’s sensitive ears. I cried for a long while – not for myself, but for the love I was going to have to leave behind – for Bella, Riley, Michael and the kids. Before long, I heard some rustling around in the kitchen. Bella’s angelic silhouette suddenly appeared in the doorway. Without a word, she joined me on the couch where we cried together. When we’d had our share of grieving, she turned to me and asked, “Are you ready to share this with me now?”
“Yeah. But I…”
“No buts,” she said, “for better or worse, remember?” She rested her head on my chest. “In sickness and in health…you big oaf.”
“Okay,” I said. “In sickness and in health.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The following week, after my bi-weekly visit with Dr. Rice, the blue-collar stiffs from McKaskie’s threw me an impromptu retirement party in Jimmy Smeaton’s frigid backyard. It was half-assed at best, but they did the best they could. It was an off-season cookout, with burgers and dogs, a full keg of beer and a beat-up radio playing country music. From this jaded crew, the thought really was all that mattered. I found out later that Bella funded the majority of the shindig. It didn’t surprise me. I did my best to enjoy the celebration, but my mid-section throbbed in pain the entire afternoon.
Suddenly, I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. Besides my wife, though, there was no one else around to do it with. Everyone was either working or taking part in that thing I used to know as life.
Five weeks to the day I’d received the bad news, Bella and I took in a movie. The smallest details seemed to mean everything; the smell of new carpeting mixed with buttered popcorn; the young, inattentive ushers with their roving flashlights. The entire experience was so different from anything I’d ever known; much different from the days not so long ago when I took everything for granted.
Like a switch that had been turned back on inside of me, as I walked out into the sun it hit me. I had already lost fifteen pounds and was now fitting into my skinny jeans. If my attitude didn’t change, I wasn’t going to last six months. You’d better accept this dying thing before you waste the rest of your life, I told myself. Besides, you’ve been a pain in the ass since you were a kid. What’s more appropriate than going out with colon cancer?
I turned to Bella. “I need to stop pouting, we both do, before we waste the time we have left.”
She grabbed my arm and kept walking. “I know,” she said. “I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
From that very moment on – with the filters turned off, the walls torn down and all the defenses lowered – we stepped back into our life together, or at least what was left of it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Michael popped over on that next weekend to help me carry my worn recliner out to the sidewalk for the junkman.
“But you love that chair,” Bella said.
“But I love you more,” I told her and then turned off the TV. “As far as I’m concerned, you can get rid of this, too. I don’t have time for it anymore.”
She was shocked. She’d always called that TV my soul mate.
It took some searching, but I finally found the jigsaw puzzle on the top shelf of the hallway closet. It was a five thousand-piece mural of angels ascending into heaven, a gift that Riley had gotten me many Father’s Days ago. The picture on the box showed shades of blue and green so close that they were guaranteed to make me pull every remaining hair out of my head. Puzzle making was a simple task of such complexity that I couldn’t help but embrace the torment. This one wasn’t going to be a one-nighter, but if I had to fill my time I wanted it to be with the pastime I loved most. A picture of angels can’t hurt either, I figured. “It’s going to help relax me,” I told Bella when I showed her the box.
“Sure it will,” she snickered, “just make sure you watch your mouth in front of the kids.”
I laughed. “Those days are done,” I promised.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved putting together puzzles. I think I was six years old when I got my first puzzle for Christmas. I don’t remember how long it took me to put together or how many pieces it was, but it looked like a lot. I guess it must have been about a hundred pieces.
As I got older, during the long New England winters my mother would set up a card table where I’d chip away at three hundred-piece Whitman puzzles, or the more expensive Wysocki’s. Back then, the average puzzle was around two hundred fifty pieces and a large one was no more than five hundred. The pieces were at least three or four times thicker than they are today.
I’ve tackled two giant puzzles in my time. One was eight thousand five hundred pieces, cost eighty-nine dollars and took nearly three months to complete. There were three of us doing it on the weekends – Bella, Riley and me. Every time I passed the puzzle, I’d have to stop and put in a piece or two. When adding up the cost of soda pop, beer and snacks, that puzzle ended up costing us around five thousand dollars. The other monster had twelve thousand ninety-six pieces and was four and a half feet wide by nine and a half feet long. I gave them both away after we finished them.
Over the years, I must have put together at least a thousand puzzles, maybe more. Per Bella’s orders, many of them were laminated and framed and now hang everywhere throughout our house. I really enjoyed making all of them. I’ll tell you, though, sometimes I’d get so involved that I’d call McKaskie’s and tell the boss something important had come up and I’d be to work a little late. I did that more than once.
I can remember staying up late some nights, getting only two or three hours of sleep before having to go to work. I’d wait until the last possible moment so I could put in a few more pieces. There were even days when I’d get to work and tell them I wasn’t feeling well and had to go home. Crazy, I know.
For a one thousand-piece puzzle, it would take Bella and me a month or so. There were others, though, that took longer. Though I wouldn’t admit it to my wife, there were definitely moments when I’d get pretty steamed.
I was really looking forward to getting back into one.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We were working on the angel puzzle after dinner one night when Bella blurted, “We need time for us. So, where’s your favorite place in the whole world?”
I didn’t need to think. “Martha’s Vineyard,” I replied. We’d only been there three times in all the years we’d been married. It seemed odd to me now. A rush of memories came flooding back. I could picture the narrow cobblestone streets, the quaint shops, water views from anywhere, elephant grass blowing in the stiff sea winds, the beautiful sunrises and sunsets…
“Then Martha’s Vineyard it is,” she said. “When do you want to leave?”
“How ‘bout in a week or two?”
Her raised eyebrow requested an explanation.
“Before I go anywhere, I’d like to take some time and go back…to remember how I got here.”
The raised eyebrow remained.
“I’ve been thinking about visiting the old neighborhood,” I explained. “I’d like to spend a few moments with my memories…at least the good ones. They seem to deserve at least that much.”
The eyebrow surrendered and was quickly replaced by a smile. “Then that’s where you should go,” she said.
I gave her a kiss, and with a grateful nod, returned to the puzzle.