One Hundred Days of Love

I wake to silence for a change. Liz is not yet home from her 24-hour shift at the hospital. My children remain fast asleep and the house is quiet this Saturday morning. I flip my pillow and enjoy the coolness of the underside as I listen to the sing-song of two birds outside my window.

Gee and DJ are early risers, so this sliver of quiet will not last. Enjoying the silence, I make my way downstairs to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. As coffee brews, Rivka rubs against my leg, purring. I scratch the area between her ears before working my way down the bridge of her nose. She arches her neck as we enjoy each other’s company. I wonder if Mom’s awake and, looking to the clock, consider giving her a few more minutes of rest before I call.

Of the many unexpected pleasures surfacing during adulthood, the weekly phone conversations with my parents remain a constant. It is a rare weekend that does not include a good fifteen-to-thirty minute call with Mom or Dad. Sometimes both of them grab an extension as we chat away together in what my mom calls our “party line.”

With coffee made, I call New Jersey. I stretch the long phone cord as I make my way to the rear kitchen window to look out over our small Somerville back yard. I lean my face against the glass and feel the coolness of spring upon my cheek. As the phone rings, I survey scattered toys and check the status of Mr. Bag, a wayward plastic grocery bag that has been stuck high in our neighbor’s tree for who knows how long. Refusing to yield without a fight, he holds tight.

Each morning, Gee and DJ check the status of Mr. Bag as he shows us which way the wind is blowing. At breakfast, we nod thoughtfully as he shares his insight with us. We suggest to each other what he’s thinking and monitor his ongoing reaction to the recently departed Mrs. Bag, whose sudden leap from her branch caused quite a stir during one such breakfast.

I sip my coffee as Dad picks up the phone in New Jersey. “Hello, Kinkade here.”

“Hey Dad, it’s me, Beasley. I called you, ya know, so I already know who you are. I mean, come on. How ‘bout trying ‘Good morning’ when you answer the phone, huh?”

He grunts as I continue, “What’s up with you? How you doing? How’s Mom feeling?”

“Good. I’m just getting ready to head to work. Mom’s good. She’s sleeping now. She had a treatment a couple of days ago, and she says it hits her, you know, a few days afterward. I’m making a fruit salad for when she wakes up. I want her to sleep. She needs the rest.”

I push a frown against the glass. “OK. And did you go with her to chemo?”

“What? No, I was working. She goes first thing in the morning. And she told me she likes to go alone and then come home and have tea before she gets that, what’s she call it, that metallic taste in her mouth.”

I twist the cord around my finger, drawing it tighter as I slowly push my face against the cool glass. I measure my words. “What about today then? Are you doing anything with Mom today?”

“Huh? No, after I make breakfast, I’m heading to the city. We’ve got a training session running with the Fire Department and I want to be there during the debriefing session. Everyone’s coming in on a Saturday.”

By now, the phone cord is pulled taut. I push harder against the glass, tilting my face to look down at a dead bug trapped in the windowsill, keeping my creased forehead on the glass. “Dad, let someone else handle the debrief, or whatever it is. Stay home with Mom and hang out with her. She’s sick. She’d like it if you stayed with her.”

“I can’t, Beasley. This is important. We have to get this down. We’ve got an exercise coming up with the city and I want my team to be up on protocol. We’ve…”

From New Jersey, his words pick up steam. They jump through his phone and wind their way through copper wires before gaining momentum. Hurtling over slivers of glass, they burst through the earpiece of my plastic phone, striking me in the side of the face and shoving me against the window. Reminded of fast and swift childhood slaps across the face for backtalk, I wince and grind my teeth to keep my mouth shut. Words pile up in a logjam, bile mixes with fury and, reeling, my mouth tears open.

“Mom’s important too! Don’t you get that? Jesus H. Christ. Your wife has fucking cancer and you’re going in to work on a Saturday! Just listen to yourself. Come on, she doesn’t deserve this shit.”

He starts to respond but the dam has burst. “Mom has a fucking growth on her spine and it’s getting bigger, Dad. Bigger. You get that, right? My God, how much time do you think you’ve got left with her?”

I feel my heart pounding as a torrent of words belch forward. My pulse throbs against the window pane as I answer my own question. “A year? Maybe three or four?”

He listens in silence. This is not the way I talk to Dad. Ever.

I take a breath and try to slow down. I notice the crack in the window where I pushed my head against it.

“In five years, do you want to look back and wonder if you should have spent more time with Mom before she died? And if you ever do ask yourself that, what do you want your answer to be? ‘Oh, yeah, my wife had cancer, but fortunately, it didn’t impact my work schedule.’ Is that what you want?”

I can hear his breathing quicken before he defends himself, “Goddamn it Beasley, this exercise isn’t some game. This is serious. And if the city gets hit, we need to know exactly what to do. There’s not gonna be time to figure out what to do when it happens.” His voice falters—just a bit—as he continues to push back, “And besides, I’ve asked her. She’s fine with going alone. She is. She told me.”

“You think she’s suffering in silence because she wants to fight alone, huh? I’ll tell you why she fights alone, Dad. It’s because you leave her to fight alone.”

We both remain silent as I wait for additional defense or the click of his receiver. The only times I had ever yelled at him like this were during teenage brawls, brawls which usually ended with me being smacked or choked or thrown out the front door.

His silence bores into me.

“You know, if she were your employee, you’d be at every goddamn chemo session. Every fucking one of them. How about you treat your wife as good as you’d treat an employee, Dad? How about it?”

I stop and, catching my breath, listen to his breathing through the receiver.

The moment stretches from then to now.

With nowhere to go Dad sighs, exposed. “You’re right, Beasley. I know it. You’re right, goddamn it. I just don’t know what to do. She says she’s all right, but she’s not. I don’t know what to do.”

From the far end of the phone I sense him groping blindly through unchartered territory and, as he does, he bumps my seething anger over the edge. I watch as it tumbles into a deep black well.

“Jesus Christ on a crutch, Dad. Give her what’s most precious to you. Give her some of your time. Just spend your time with her.”

“Yeah, time. That’s it, Beasley… That’s it.”

“Dad, look, I’m sorry I yelled. But this is important. This is not some exercise where you get to debrief or whatever you call it when you’re finished. This is the real thing. When it’s over, she’s gone.”

I bite my lip hard and swallow my unspent ammunition. “You can do this. Look, I gotta go. And if you see Mom, tell her I called and said I love her. And good luck with your briefing.”

I pull away from the window to set the phone down.

“Beasley? You still there?”

“Yeah, Dad, what?”

“Thank you.”

Click.

I put some tape over the crack in the window and make a second pot of coffee. I’m gonna have to tell Liz I cracked the kitchen window with my fucking head. Great.

Soon Gee and DJ wake and the morning slips into another Saturday routine.

And as Mr. Bag bellows and birds chirp, the kids and I make our way to the park and then to the subway for our traditional round trip “ride to nowhere.”

Above our simple Saturday, the sun slides across the sky.

We return home and, as afternoon slips toward evening, Mom calls with her weekly check-in. Always too chipper, she jumps into our call. “Beasley, how are you? How are Gee and DJ? Tell me. What did you do today? I want to hear it all. Can I speak with them?”

“Good. Good, mom. We had a great day. I kept ‘em busy at the park and took them on a little subway ride. It’s like a Disney ride to them! So they’re napping now.”

I continue with an explanation of the kids’ fascination with Mr. Bag and the sudden departure of Mrs. Bag.

She interrupts, “Mrs. Bag is like me, then, huh?”

My heart skips, no seizes, as I picture the remorseless winds of chemo and radiation ripping Mom from her perch, throwing her into whirlwind, and dragging her far from Dad.

She dulls the unintended sharpness of her words, “Just drifting in the breeze, me and Mrs. Bag.”

Still startled, I respond, “Jeeze, Mom, I hope not. That means Dad is Mr. Bag, and there is no way he’ll know how the heck to hang on if you bolt!”

She cackles, “You got that one right, Beasley. Go on. I interrupted you.”

I take some time and fill in all the details about this morning’s visit to Paulina Park and our ride on the Red Line, back and forth from Davis Square to Park Street back to Alewife and then to Davis, on a trip to nowhere except the present.

“And you, Mom. What are you up to?”

She beams, “Your dad surprised me and made breakfast for us. He ended up skipping a big event in the city. We’re going to dinner and the movies tonight. On a date!”

Her voice leaps and sings, momentarily released from the burden of cancer. She sounds like a schoolgirl.

“Can you believe it? He agreed to see Moulin Rouge with me. Can you imagine your dad sitting through that?”

Unprepared, I cover the receiver so she can’t hear me struggle.

“Beasley, are you OK? Are you choking or something?”

I wipe my eyes and clear my throat, “Huh, no Mom, my coffee musta gone down the wrong tube.”

I fake a cough and chime back in, “On a date? That’s great. You know my advice on dates: hold out, and don’t be too promiscuous.”

She laughs as I work to keep myself together. “Um, Mom, DJ is fussing, and I better go get him, OK? When they’re up from their nap, I’ll call you and you can chat with them. Sound good? I love you. Have fun with Dad.”

And she did. She did have fun.

For the rest of their lives together, my father and mother dated. They went out to dinner on weeknights. They went on walks together and went away on weekend trips and walked in the sand and on weekends they laid in bed talking. And they held hands when they had nothing to say to each other. They called more frequently, more often than not with both of them on the phone.

They lived in love.

Their renewed love had lasted just under three and a half months when Dad went to work one Tuesday morning in September, responding to an incident, and did not return. He left Mom with 100 days of love.

100 days.

Mom talked about that time as among the happiest, most enjoyable, of her sixty-two years.

And, over a year after Dad followed in the footsteps of Mrs. Bag, Mom explained during one of our calls that, when she is alone in her house with no friends, or children or grandchildren, she simply makes a cup of tea, sits in the den, closes her eyes and releases her warmest memories to fill the silence with the living chapters she shared with Dad, the last of which she liked to call 100 Days of Love.

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4 Responses to One Hundred Days of Love

  1. JMBalaya says:

    Word, homes. When I catch my breath maybe I’ll say some more.

  2. steve lang says:

    It was Christmas Eve and I was in Jersey visiting family and friends. It was your typical winter evening in Jersey, clear, cold and still. Tonight I was visiting old friends at 42 Clarke Road. I had been to this home many times before, on many different occasions for many different parties. Tonight’s visit however was very different. I was seeing Mrs. Kinkad for what might be the last time and everyone knew that.

    Greeted at the door by Mrs Kinkad’s sons we did the obligatory, uncomfortable man hug and back slapping. There was a nervous laugh and a deep sigh of relief. We were old friends and had a lot of history together. Beasley was down from Boston and his brother was at the house regularly caring for their Mom.

    I looked around the house; a lot had changed since we were kids. Mr. and Mrs. Kinkad had renovated and updated their home. It was different, new, but still washed in stories and memories of years gone by. All the updating in the world could not change that space. After some small talk I asked: “How’s Mom?” “She’s upstairs resting I’ll let her know you’re here” said Beasley. He came down stairs and said, “Dude, come on up Mom wants to see you”. You know how many times I walked up those stairs? This time was different.

    The room was dimly lit and warm. Mrs Kinkad was tucked beautifully under her covers, she looked peaceful and serene. She held my hand and we talked. Like a hundred times before she asked about my family, my job, Florida, my health and am I happy? She smiled and I tried not to cry.

    Then she said to me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I was so caught off guard, what could I possibly want or need, everything paled in comparison to what Mrs Kinkad might want or need. I laughed that nervous laugh and said, “Gee Mrs. Kinkad I hadn’t thought about it I don’t know”. She squeezed my hand and looked into my eyes and said, “You know what that tells me? It tells me you need for nothing and all your needs are met”. It was Christmas Eve, and who was I to disagree with Mrs. Kinkad.

    She reached up to hug me, we kissed and said good bye. Me and the brothers made our way downstairs. We sat at the kitchen table and like a hundred times before we told stories and laughed. Christmas Eve had become Christmas morning. There is something special about following Christmas Eve into Christmas morning and this night was very special. We said good bye and stepped out into the night air.

    It was your typical winter evening in Jersey, clear, cold and still. However nothing about this evening was typical. I looked back at 42 Clarke Road for the last time.

    A couple months later Beasley called and said, “Dude can you fly home? Mom has left to see Bruno”. That flight was very different.

  3. Jake says:

    Thanks for sharing this Beez

  4. Dan O says:

    Thanks Beazley, wonderfully written and beautifully said. As you stated it was much more than 100 days of love for Mom, Dad’s love carried her the rest of her days with us and, with your Mother’s love, lives on in you, your beautiful wife and children. Mom and Dad’s love truly is forever.

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