5-4-2007 This sucks

SometimesÖ, sometimes having to be the strong one is almost too much to bare. Sometimes being labeled as the ďsmart oneĒ becomes all too tiresome, if not suffocating when all you really want is a good, prolonged cry. Sometimes I wonder why this weighty patriarch thing fell on my shoulders, but we play the cards weíre dealt.

All three of my phones chirped all day long yesterday. And after I had helped coach my brotherís widow as much as I possibly could, I got good and drunk (real good), played some melancholy tunes, fought with my wife for a spell and passed out. While some might call that totally irresponsible behavior on my part, I think of it as some sort of ersatz therapy. I donít know that it helped, but making yourself even number than you already are is completely legal.

Today, my day started at 3 am, when I woke up, sat up and glanced at the alarm clock. I thought it read 2:13 am, which was the exact time that I received the bad, bad news. After wiping a finger across both of my disbelieving eyes, I realized I had just done one of those optical illusion thingies, or that inconsolable grief does really strange things to distraught people. Either way, not much of anything resonates with me at this moment other than the fact that I have done what I had hoped I would never do again: hold someoneís cold hand in a hospital room while thinking my goodbyes.

When my mom faced her untimely, unfair demise at Mercy Hospital, my sister was in Illinois and Ray was at my home. And I walked away from that experience thinking that what I saw in that ICU unit was not how I wanted to remember her. But, to this very day, when any mention of her is made, that scene flashes right before my eyes. When Jen delivered the bad news last night, she also told me that my sister had requested that the emergency room staff leave Ray right where he was until we could pay him a final visit. And before very long, Sue called and said she was on her way from just south of Pocono Raceway. I knew this was a bad idea, but I did not protest or object in any way. How could I?

We arrived to find my niece seated next to Ray and sobbing uncontrollably. And in an instant, her mom was also sobbing uncontrollably, while uttering the words ďWake upĒ over and over again. Being the strong one, having done this once before, I just stared at what remained of the big, big kid, took a seat opposite my niece and wondered why such a good kid should have such a short run. I held his enormous hand, and wondered why they had tied his head down so tightly, the cloth seemed to have black-and-blued his upper lip. And I also wondered why they didnít remove that enormous tube sticking out of his mouth when they knew his immediate family intended to visit him at the exact spot where he exhausted his final breath. Like I said, I knew this was a bad idea.

I pulled the sheet down only because I wanted to know what he was wearing when he went away. Green wind pants. And as everyone else in attendance was grieving and such, I fixated on the ceiling above him and wondered if the ceiling tiles were the very last thing he ever laid eyes on. I have no idea at this point, but Iím thinking ceiling tiles wonít cut it when your life fades to black. The emergency room nurse told us he died in his sleep, but Iím hearing a different version of events from my wife who was startled by the sudden call in the middle of the night. With his wifeís current, fragile state of mind, I did not bother to press her for too many details as of yet. Iím not sure what happened. It doesnít matter.

Yeah, he was cold, but I leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead bearing the scars I inflicted upon him so many years ago. And since I could feel the long-dormant tear ducts rushing to DEFCON 1, I announced that I needed some air, headed outside and had me a smoke on the sidewalk that Ray had crossed less than an hour before. They knew I needed to cry, but I really donít think they wanted to see the unflappable get flapped real good like. Funny though, as I was exercising those tear ducts of mine, I noticed the termite monitoring stations that I had installed right through those 12-inch thick sidewalks a few years ago. I saved General Hospital, but General Hospital could not save Ray. Thatís what runs through the minds of distraught people not thinking too clearly, I suppose.

As I was standing there in the cold air, but not feeling even remotely cold in my shorts at approximately 3:30 in the morning, some guy wearing a back pack walked up to me from out of the darkness and asked me if I had any spare change. Yeah, Iím almost all grown-up these days, but I have to tell you, this guy is extremely lucky I was spirited out of my bed in the middle of the night and, subsequently, not armed with anything more lethal than two fists. Although, I did offer him some temporary tattoos to the face, so he angrily stomped off firing expletives to anyone that would have them. No one did.

After littering the scene by tamping out my half-smoked cigarette, I headed back into the emergency suite to extricate both my sister and my niece from the place we all probably knew we were headed towards, but didnít want to believe we would arrive at. The plain fact is, Ray has had some major health issues for quite a while now, but I think his overly optimistic demeanor and his boyish nature made some of us think it would never come to this. As for myself, I knew this was entirely possibly, but still, that unwanted call in the middle of the night came as a complete shock to the system.

I grabbed Rayís huge, cold hand once again, muttered some words known only to me and kissed him on the aforementioned forehead, never to do so again. Still, I was shocked by that tightly-stretched cloth, that imposing DMZ across his upper lip, and that distressing tube sticking out of his mouth. This was not how anyone should have to see their little brother for the final time. No matter how itís portrayed, the death of a loved one is not pretty.

And with that, I announced that it was time to go. My sister agreed somewhat reluctantly, but my niece, still sobbing uncontrollably, claimed she was staying put. Immediately, that weighty patriarch thing kicked in and I reiterated, albeit, a bit more firmly, that it was time to go and now. And go we did, but I have to admit that walking out of that room felt like I was abandoning someone who thought I would never do such a thing. It felt like I was turning my back on that little guy who knew throughout the entirety of his short life that he could always count on me. It felt like I was walking away from that ICU unit where my mom passed, only much worse. Even if itís unearned and even if itís unwarranted, itís called guilt. And it hurts.

The thing is, I could protect him from a ton of things as he was growing up, and I taught him how to protect himself, but, somehow, I never managed to teach him how to protect himself from himself. In all honesty, when I returned home from my momís passing and told Ray that she was gone, judging by the horrified look on his face, I kind of knew his life and his health would mirror hers. To say that he loved her unconditionally would be the understatement of the millennium. But, thatís what happens when fathers willingly abandon their children: the children have no support systems in place other than those welfare mothers. And when the mothers go by the wayside, the children are cast adrift. Some handle it well, and some do not.

I took a call from a relative yesterday who reminded me that weíve all been telling Ray to lose weight, lots of it, for years on end. Yeah, we have been, and so have the doctors been over the years. But, thinking back to that most fateful day in 1988, I honestly think that Rayís will to live took a considerable hit that day. Iíve experienced the deaths of family members before, but I have never seen anyone so completely deflated, so completely beside oneself as he was on that horrible day. In my mind, he was overwrought with guilt from the get-go. A guilt that was, given the circumstances, normal, but was for him, ultimately undermining.

After returning home from the hospital, I sat here trying to put a good spin on things for everybody involved, but after they all headed on home, I found myself sitting here staring at the walls. And I have to tell you, staring at the walls is fairly boring. So, I decided to take a walk up to Oh Yes to buy some groceries I didnít even need. True to form, I just needed to move, to walk about. And as I was making my way over there, I got to wondering if Ray was finally reunited with mom. And I truly hoped that that was the case. And even if there isnít a Heaven, I got to hoping that there really was that tunnel with the blinding lights at the end, where upon your passing, all of your dead relatives greet you, brush upon you for a fleeting nanosecond and instantly reassure you that the good times are at finally hand.

As far as Iím concerned, Ray deserves that fleeting brush, that being reunited with those that left him when he was but a good-natured boy for life. And if that brush didnít happen for him, then I have absolutely nothing in that so-called ďafterlifeĒ to get all excited about. When I have envisioned Heaven, my mom was always waiting for me with open arms, and my grandparents were standing nearby telling her how to hug me. As of now, my picture of Heaven is Ray and Mom standing there hand-in-hand, encouraging me to join them.

I do hope to join them, just not anytime soon. Ray has left me, and while I want to reconnect with him and make fun of the Eagles, the Mets and Jeff Gordon, I still have this patriarch thing compelling me not to do so. As I said, Iím the strong one, but there are those times when I wish I wasnít saddled with all of that.

Wifey will be stirring soon enough, and I definitely need to apologize to her for yesterday. But, with that said, Iím hoping there will be plenty of tomorrows yet to come.

Much like Ray did.


The man behind the mask