- 2 -
Aajonus & Jeff before
I feel as if my muscles, like my thoughts, are stirred up. I can’t sleep. I thank whoever invented flannel sheets. The softness feels comforting. The digital clock reads 1:02 a.m.
I rise and go to the kitchen. I pass by my packed luggage at the door. A tinge of fear rushes up my chest. The lonely luggage makes the unknown so foreboding.
I spread a slice of French bread with a 4 tablespoons of unsalted raw butter to calm me down while thoughts of Jeff keep coming.
It’s been nine years since I’ve thought about Jeff this much. How little I know him. I left Mary for the second and last time a few months after Jeff’s first birthday. For the next year, Jeff and I were together on Sundays, or for weekends.
I graduated from computer-programming trade school, and in September, two months after the divorce, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a degree in architecture. I’ll never forget the day before I left.
Jeff’s second birthday was six days away. I had bought him a swing and slide set. Mary and Jeff were living with her parents in a two-bed room house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. Willy, Mary’s father, and I were building the set in the backyard. Willy, or “Pawpaw” as Jeff called him, was about five-feet-four-inches tall with black hair receding on either side of his widow’s peak. He was very shy, a gentle man. When he smiled with his large mouth, his head tilted shyly, playfully.
Jeff loved to swing and slide. He bounced, danced, laughed, shrieked and giggled around us because he couldn’t wait for Willy and me to finish building the swing. Finally, when it was built, Willy, Margaret and I stood watching Mary swing Jeff. She pushed him too hard once and Jeff swung too high. His eyes opened wide, his arms stiffened, his hands gripped the chains tighter and his mouth made a donut shape. He lost his breath. When he swung back down he giggled, relieved he’d made it okay. He dragged his feet enough to slow himself down and took a deep breath.
“I guess that was too high for you, huh boogie?” Mary said.
Jeff nodded dramatically. He swung forward again and his mouth took on the donut shape fearing that he might sail too high. He didn’t and he laughed. Mary did too. We all laughed. Mary and Jeff had similar mouths and they had the largest smiles, after Willy’s. Once again I wanted to ask Mary to come with me to California but I knew she’d refuse. No one could guess which way I wanted things from one week to the next, especially me.
It came time to say good-byes and I stooped down to Jeff. “You’re the man of the house now. You take care of Mommy, okay?”
“You be back, Daddy. Soon.” He smiled real big.
“No, sweetheart, Daddy’s going to the other side of the world, sort of.
I’ll only be able to see you about every six months or so. I’m going away to school in California.”
He cried. I cried. Even Margaret cried. We all hugged and I left.
I didn’t return for two years.
I rise from the dining table and return to the kitchen. I have a taste for something sweet. I get some unheated honey, fresh strawberries and cream to help my digestion and raise my blood sugar level to a happy balance. I take a drink of the raw cream, dip a strawberry in the honey and take a bite. I remember that Jeff and I had been together on only four separate occasions since the swing set and we rarely spoke on the phone.
I recall that the first of the four occasions was in August. Jeff was four. I had a form of leukemia called multiple myeloma (cancer of bone and blood).
I had already undergone surgery for an ulcer. Three months later I received radiation therapy because the scar was keloidal.
[A keloid is an overgrowth of a scar, that is a fibrous tumor forming hard, irregular excrescence upon the skin.]
Four months after radiation I was diagnosed with leukemia. I was told that I would die by Christmas.
I was supposed to have begun chemotherapy that August. I postponed it until September because my family was having a reunion. I didn’t want them to know about my illness because: back then most people were afraid that somehow cancer was catching like the Black Plague; Mom had a weak heart and had suffered a heart attack when I was ten or eleven (telling her I was dying could have killed her); and men in my family were expected to be strong and tough. Because I had always been sickly, I put on a tough front.
The clan gathered in Cincinnati from all over the continental United States. I thought I was seeing everyone for the last time. I hid the radiation therapy burns under my clothes.
As I was driving to get Jeff to bring him to the reunion, I noticed a tall dark-haired father holding the hand of his golden-haired son. They walked along the sidewalk. Drops of joy filled my eyes because I would soon be holding Jeff’s hand.
The father was a giant compared to his son but gentle. He carefully moved at the pace of the boy’s little steps. I held back more tears. I thought red eyes would look unattractive and immature to Mary.
I arrived at the large apartment complex, parked and walked to Mary’s apartment. She greeted me courteously. We both felt awkward. I was especially uncomfortable because I hadn’t had enough time to adjust to the fact that Mary had remarried over a year ago. Mom wanted to protect me and had told me only a week ago. I blushed, facing Mary and thinking that several months ago I had asked her to move to Los Angeles so we could be together. Mary didn’t tell me then she had remarried. I hid the pain, but, oh, God, I was wounded.
“Jeff’ll be here any minute. He and Ben went for a walk,” Mary said.
The door opened behind me and in walked the gentle giant and the golden-haired boy, Jeff.
“This is Ben,” Mary smiled proudly introducing her husband, and Jeff’s new father.
My heart sunk.
Ben must have been six-foot-four inches, dark, rugged-looking and very handsome. I felt like drab wallpaper.
Ben immediately let his head drop shyly, painfully. He left the room without a word. I could see the fear and hurt he felt with me coming to take Jeff for the day. Jeff called him Dad now. My presence was changing all of that. I felt like a schmuck.
“Do you remember him?” Mary asked Jeff as I crouched down to greet him.
Jeff’s face winced as he tried to remember but didn’t. I was crushed.
“Here is a change of shirt in case he makes a mess,” Mary jested to break the awkward moment.
“No bag with diapers and bottles and all,” I said playfully. I tried to appear unaffected.
“Yes, it’s been a long time,” she said somewhat scolding me. But I could see she was relieved that Jeff didn’t remember me. In my mind I could hear her telling Ben as soon as we walked out the door, “See? Jeff didn’t even remember him.” And knowing that Jeff’s not remembering me was going to mean some solace to Ben, gave me some solace.
At the reunion, I set Jeff free to play with several cousins, aunts and uncles. Then, when I thought I was emotionally detached enough, I played with him. We tossed a ball and frisbee. I tickled him. We giggled. I swung him around and laughed, until we were exhausted. It was time to drive him home but he wanted to stay. That made it a great day.
We parked in the lot outside Mary and Ben’s apartment. Jeff wanted to get out with me on the driver’s side. Just as he was about to put his arms around my neck for me to lift him, he said, “You helped Pawpaw put up my swing!” A wave of joy passed through me. He hugged me very tightly.
“It appears Jeff’s head went partially through the driver’s side of the windshield when his car flew down the ravine and hit a tree. The car spun and jolted him back inside. The car hit another tree and Jeff’s head went through the passenger’s side of the windshield. The car spun and hit the ground at the rear end, jolting him back into the front seat. Finally the car smashed into another tree on the passenger’s side. His head went completely through the passenger’s door window. His body was found draped over the car door,” Mom’s words echo in my head.
I lie down on the still warm flannel sheets. Will I be as unable to help Jeff as I was when he was an infant? Will I become hostile wanting to help but not knowing how? Will I be able to confront the medical professionals who’ll think I’m a fanatic? Jeff is an accident victim! I haven’t dealt with any serious accident victims. Yet, healing is healing, I remind myself. I know what the body needs to heal itself.