Thursday, November 27, 2014
Three a.m. is seldom kind. I should know, I’ve seen a lot of them in the last year and a half. Part of it is old timer’s disease, not the one in all caps, ALZHEIMER’S, but rather its far more insidious cousin, the one that awakens we shuffling semi-zombies in the early hours, grips us by the short hairs and whispers in our ears, “I own you, you are my toy and I shall do with you as I see fit.” I have experienced far too many early morning inspections of blackness; blackness of sky, blackness of soul, blackness of hope. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of celebration, a remembrance of the cornucopia of good that has been heaped upon our table and for 56 of the 58 Thanksgivings that I had been alive to celebrate I’d done a pretty good job of being thankful. Sadly, this was the second year in a row where this was not to be.
I had commemorated my fifty eighth birthday five days prior. Commemorated, not celebrated. It wasn’t so much a disgust with growing old as it was devastation at doing so without my wife and partner, Eileen. April fourth had become a solemn day for many after the insanity that was J.E.R. and this year had marked the forty sixth year I’d held the commemoration of M.L.K.’s assassination in my heart. Prior to 2013 April had always been a special month to me. Spring was usually just starting to pop up with flowers, the Forsythia bushes managed to look good for a few weeks and the end of winter and promise of summer was teasingly tangible.
I had been eleven and a half years old when The Reverend Doctor had been brutally assassinated by savages. I’d been a seventh grader at Cavanaugh Elementary in April of ’68 and thought I had one more blessed year of the relative innocence that is a Kindergarten through eighth grade school before moving onto Everett High in September of 1970. Sadly this was not to be. My math wasn’t at fault, it was just that my innocence was stripped away on that cold, rainy and wind swept day.
It hadn’t been a long walk from my parents’ home, my home, on Cox Boulevard to Cavanaugh Elementary. The school lay four short blocks to the northwest of my home and I remember being grateful that the early morning wind had been to our backs as I shuffled along to school with my little brother Joe and sister Lizzy in tow. Lizzy, at seven years of age, complained about the weather while Joe and I opened our coats so that the wind would catch them and propel us along like sailboats. It was a cold, blustery morning but things heated up quite a bit before the day was through.
I had been looking forward to April 4, 1968 for months. The Apollo program was gaining momentum after it disastrous, deadly, fiery start in January of sixty seven and barely 14 months later here we were sending an unmanned behemoth into orbit in preparation of sending men to the moon and reaching for the stars. The trauma of watching a capsule manned with three certifiable heroes ignite and engulf said men in flaming death had not daunted my youthful optimism and April 4th marked the launch of Apollo six and an unmanned test flight that would get us one step closer to Neil’s “One small step for (a) man…” in July of 1969. I was space happy and April fourth was a day that I had looked forward to since the beginning of the year.
By the time six o’clock rolled around that night and the blasé anchorman were slapped mid broadcast with the terrible reality of the temporary triumph of stupidity, fear and hatred over equality the news footage of the glorious triumph of Man versus Nature that the NASA program represented would be cast aside as the USA and the world acknowledged yet another martyr in a long litany of slain heroes. It was on this day that I learned the difference between great expectations and smashed dreams. April 4, 1968 became a National Day of Mourning when James Earl Ray momentarily replaced a dream with a nightmare but forty five years later tragedy and death were again visited on me when my wife died in an automobile crash. March 15, 2013 made local news as the van that T-Boned Eileen was being chased by Rapida Cedro’s finest, but unlike the death of Doctor King my terrible loss was felt by a few thousand rather than billions.
I have faced just over six hundred three in the mornings since Eileen’s death and they weren’t getting discernably brighter nor lighter. They weighed on me like the G-Force that Grissom, Chaffee and White never got to experience in an Apollo capsule and I feared that the dark, pre-dawn mornings might claim me and that I too would one day become consumed in flames that could only end in agonizing self-immolation. Unable to sleep and unwilling to disturb my daughter who slept in one of the other four bedrooms that the second floor of my McMansion sported, I slipped out of bed, into an old pair of jeans, slippers and my old, patched, blue chambray shirt and tiptoed down the thirty steps to the basement of my house.
The shirt was tattered and Eileen had begged me to throw it away many, many times. I always reminded her that the patch on the left sleeve was placed there after it had torn as a result of my being struck by a car and that I had proposed to her from my hospital bed while recovering from the consequences of the inattentive hit-and-run driver’s actions. It was a link to my past and I planned to be buried, if not in it, then at least with it.
My basement sports a real live woodstove as opposed to the gas “fireplace” that sits in the first floor family room. The gas fire is convenient but seems artificial and inconsequential. Today was a day of black, not of green. I wanted a real fire in a real steel stove and I planned to burn real oak and loose real carbon emissions and particulate into my Mother’s waiting sky. I wanted to make fire, not simply enjoy heat and flicker of flame and so I set about starting a fire utilizing a copious amount of dryer lint and adding ever larger and more substantial scraps of wood until the nascent flame was more than mere promise. Once it became an established and strong beacon of beauty, locked inside its iron prison, I planned to neglect it and allow it to slowly consume itself to oblivion. Happy, happy, thoughts.
I looked at the patched sleeve of my faded and threadbare shirt and first smiled and then grimaced. The smile was in reminiscence of the shirts purchase while the grimace was in response to the pain that had accompanied the tearing of the shirt.
I had known Eileen Haber for years but I’d never thought of her as a woman prior to her entering Michigan State. She had been in the same grade as Lizzy since the fall of sixty six when they’d both started school at Cavanaugh and I’d seen her around school and our house hundreds of times.
Nineteen seventy four was my senior year at Everett and one of her big sisters, Faye, may have caught my eye when she had been a precocious and beguilingly attractive sophomore, but at that point I had A Steady and was restricting myself to enjoying the eye candy that is Other without succumbing to the temptation of tasting the various confections that walked the hallowed halls of my alma mater. It is possible that I had commented to my fellow young rakes about the desirability of drinking deeply of the potentially life changing potion the vivacious and bouncy Faye might have on tap for me, but this was long ago and my memory is occluded. Suffice it to say that my interactions with all things Haber sisters had been superficial and unremarkable until August of ’79 and the start of my final semester at Michigan State. Eileen had been merely one of six Haber children and a neighborhood girl who was friendly with my sister who was to be tolerated or ignored as circumstances dictated. This narrow view came crashing to the ground the weekend before the fall semester commenced.
Lizzy was having a bacchanalia, a soiree, a sending off party in honor of her imminent departure for The U of M down in Ann Arbor where she subsequently planned to study nursing. Little bro Joe and I had elected to live with our parents while attending classes in Lansing but Lizzy was venturing forth a scant seventy miles to the south east to a school that, while close in proximity, represented a huge leap into the vast unknown that was life.
I had failed in my mission to graduate from State in four short years and was now forced to pay an additional $400 tuition for my ninth undergraduate semester as I took the final classes needed to complete my Bachelor of Science Degree. Carl and Jean were generous enough to extend room and board privileges to all five of their franchised children so long as we were enrolled full time at University or trade school. I had elected the former while Joe was dabbling in the latter but Lizzy was packing up and leaving the nest, at least on trial basis.
We were all pretty confident that she held The University of Michigan in such high esteem because her boyfriend, Alex R. Keaton – a young man who bore an amazing resemblance to Michael J. Fox- was a sophomore at said institute of higher learning. Lizzy was to leave for the Big Blue of Ann Arbor two days hence where she would take on the additional expense of a dorm room and meal plan while I had one more semester of free ride and an easy six mile commute by bicycle from our home to the home of the Spartans.
The party was not really my cup of tea, too many ‘children’ for my taste, but I was determined to spend some time with my biggest little sister before she left. Besides, it was fun watching Alex R. squirm a bit under the ever vigilant stare of our Father. At the time I had no idea what types of emotions Carl was feeling sending his first born daughter away to college and a waiting, wholesome, but no doubt horny beau. Having acquired a college age daughter of my own I do now. As Warren Zevon had sung the year before, “She’s all grown up, she’s got a young man waiting.”
None of this was on my mind that hot August day in seventy nine. What was on my mind was the suddenly exciting and grown up Eileen Haber. Hot and heat both have more than one meaning. It was lust at six hundred and sixty sixth sight.
Things progressed pretty quickly between us and I was perplexed that the other Haber daughters had escaped my attention as all of them were eye candy worthy of a mild case of whiplash, including the ultimate Haber, Eileen’s little sister Betsy who accompanied her to Lizzy’s little party. Perhaps because the Haber’s had only daughters each was provided a rather rundown but functional car for her own personal use. Eileen’s parents provided her with an all-expense paid education and a ratty old white Maverick to drive. Like Lizzy, Faye had gone to Ann Arbor and Norm and Donna Haber had told their elder daughter that so long as she maintained her grades they would pay her bills. Precedent being set they had done the same for Eileen, a gesture I thought excessive but certainly one whose rewards I reaped. With five drivers in the Powell household sharing two cars meant reality was that access to one of the family vehicles was limited and prioritized by need. Carl’s needs came first, then Jean’s then whomever might need a car for work; sadly my recreational activities didn’t seem to catch much merit despite my seniority as the eldest child. Eileen’s car gave us wheels and her dorm room a love nest of sorts, though, as she had a roommate, our nest wasn’t padded to my exact specifications.
August progressed to autumn which led to Thanksgiving and then the culmination of my studies and subsequent graduation. We were already talking marriage and I was anxious to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh that accompanied said holy state but was trying not to push my desires on a semi-willing partner. The end of term temporarily cost us our nookie nook and ‘Parking’ is not a good winter sport in Michigan. Valentine’s Day came and our plans included dinner, a movie and I hoped to pet and be petted to a frenzied state. Eileen picked the movie, ‘American Gigilo,’ and the suggestive themes fueled my desire for said petting and seemed to lubricate the reciprocating gears as things turned out if not all that I had hoped for, at least all that I had expected.
Valentine’s had fallen on a Thursday and Friday I was out apartment hunting. My parents had generously extended the free room and board until 01/01/80 and with the coming of the New Year I was now paying my parents thirty five a week. Through subtle hints it became obvious that they were gently nudging me toward the lip of our nest as inducement to me flapping my fledgling wings, making like a bird and getting the flock out of there. Friday the fifteenth I received a phone call for a job interview and when I excitedly called Eileen– who had a private phone in her dorm room, courtesy of Norman and Donna- she said that we simply must go clothes shopping the next day. I was free in the morning and we made a date for an early nine a.m. breakfast to be followed by a decadent day of haberdashery.
We shopped a lot. I had earmarked money toward the purchase of a new car but decided sartorial splendor would be prioritized over transportation treasure. Eileen assured me I could borrow her car if necessary and so we both set about reviving the flagging economy of the U.S. garment business. We bought.
I know I purchased a lovely cowl neck Angora sweater for my love and she reciprocated by buying me a coarse, dark green wool Vee Neck. I picked up a suit for work, half a dozen dress shirts and three or four ties. I also bought the chambray shirt that I am wearing as I daydream in reverie about my lost youth, wife, and the best part of my life. The final thing upon which I splurged that momentous spree was a classic, black wool tuxedo along with a pleated shirt, cummerbund and bow tie; the very ensemble in which I was wed less than sixteen months later on 05/30/1981. Richard Gere had convinced me of the importance of looking dashing and in my mind nothing screamed elegant more forcefully than does a black tux. I had died and gone to the Ritz Carlton.
I have the tuxedo still. It is in decent shape, far better than I. I had the pants let out in 2006 so I could wear it on our twenty fifth wedding anniversary. I slimmed down for the event so that I would be a proper ornament for the beautiful woman that Eileen had grown into. Even as late as the fall of twelve I could squeeze uncomfortably into it; now, in the pit of despair that has become my existence I can no more buckle the pants than I could resurrect Lazarus, Eileen or any of the souls that inhabit my head.
I feel lost. I feel empty. I play with thoughts of self-destruction and reject them for the sake of my son Max and daughter Shawn. They deserve better and I will not intentionally add further torment to their travails. It is early in Iowa and in San Francisco it is barely past two a.m. I could call my brother, Joe as he alone among my siblings has suffered the loss of a spouse and his second marriage had devolved into ceaseless squabble. He would accept my cries and take listen to my burdens in attempt to ameliorate my pain. There was no one else like Joe in my life anymore now that Father, Mother and wife had all been taken.
Finger on the phone I decide against the call and instead send him a text: “Lonely. Best friend gone. You are all I have left to ground me. Let’s meet sometime soon. Love you.”
Eileen taught school for over thirty years and told me many tales of children who felt compelled to hurt themselves. ‘Cutters’ who could only find relief through the letting of their own blood. I think I understand their pain. I open the woodstove with the wondrous cleansing fire within. I hold my hand to the flame for just a searing, agonizing moment and then fail even in my efforts at self-destruction.
Feeling unworthy of love I tear the shirt from my back, threadbare as it is it succumbs to my violence with barely any resistance, emitting only a feeble mew of seam splitting protest. I take my shirt, the shirt that I purchased with Eileen by my side, the shirt I wore when I came close to death and making sure that it has become one with the flame, that it is now a strong beacon of beauty, locked inside its iron prison, a prison that I have embraced and allowed to swallow me whole until it has slowly consumed me to oblivion, I weep as it too turns to ashes before my very eyes. Happy, happy, thoughts.