Monday, November 8, 1965, was a gray, cold and damp day in Manhattan. It was school day, reason enough to want to turn over and seek the refuge of more sleep, an impossibility, but a lovely thought . Even the greenness of Central Park was dulled by occasional sprinkles and a blanket of thick mist in the chill of late fall in the City. Cold and uncomfortable, windy enough to penetrate the layers of clothing I wore; like a skilled lock-picker, that wind blew in strong, seemingly purposeful gusts through the cross streets and managed to make its way around and through those layers and into my bones.
Standing at my locker, I changed into dry clothes and thought about food. As was the case most days, I was looking forward to going home and getting something to eat. I tried to recall if Ellen O’Hara would be there when I arrived. Ellen was a model of all that is to be loved in the Irish people. The kindest woman ever to grace God’s Earth, probably in her mid-sixties, she lived to serve us and with her ever present smile and warm alacrity, would spare no effort in preparing whatever I came up with as an after school snack request. Her tuna salad was legendary, utilizing sweet onions, chopped into tiny perfect pieces, lots of mayonnaise and the secret, magic ingredient: chopped sweet baby gherkins pickles – with a bit of the pickle juice added for flavor. My mouth, as I stood to empty the last of my clothes from my locker, watered just thinking about it.
I had returned with my classmates from athletics, still wet and filthy from the soccer game we’d played on the Great Lawn in Central Park. I loved soccer and was good at it, always used on the front line and because I was a left-footed kicker, either as center forward, left inside, or left wing. I enjoyed the athleticism that the game required, I was very coordinated and used this to my advantage. I loved the occasional contact, the intensity of a long drive downfield, the race with the opposing team to reach the ball, the trickery and deception that one could employ to one’s benefit.
It was pouring by the end of the scrimmage and I’d been covered in mud and soaked through and through. As I tied my shoes, Mr. Dryzga’s voice called from across the locker room, with what I sensed was an almost sing-song tone that masked urgency. He addressed me with brows furled, a serious look on his usually friendly face.
“Kerry, Mr. Hume would like to see you in his office.” That tone concerned me, as did the look on his face, which, although giving nothing specific away, alerted me. That tone hid something significant, something not rooted in a discipline issue, Dryzga spoke with an agenda couched in words spoken just a bit too softly, his eyes giving away a hint of something nearly sad, but something he couldn’t betray and that I had no way of knowing. But I sensed there was more.
“Yes sir.” I managed; mentally reviewing the normally sizeable list of recent transgressions, searching my memory for what it might be that would cause me to be summoned to a personal audience with the chief.
The hierarchy consisted of the principal, David Hume, a large, generally likeable square-jawed administrator who had three sons in attendance at the school. Chris, his eldest was a classmate and casual friend of mine; the two of us would later be expelled together for using teacher’s editions to math books that Chris, good friend that he was and living in the school building as he did, had gained access to.
Peter Clifton, the Assistant Principal and Hume’s preferred henchman was in charge of any and all heavy-handed discipline, think of him as the Herman Goering of St. David’s with a little Dirty Harry cool thrown in. It was he who I was most regularly called upon to visit and who, more than any other administrative figure, I feared.
Dick Dryzga, the bottom man of the top three, was the head of the upper school.
In the dim interior of Clifton’s office, across from his desk, strategically placed just to the left of the well-worn spot on the oriental rug in front of his desk where students stood while hearing the charges against them and awaiting their fate, Clifton had what appeared to be a porcelain golf bag. Inside this vessel of terror was an assortment of long sticks and switches used for nothing but disciplining wayward boys who were brought to him. These intimidating implements of pain were used to punish students who had committed infractions that warranted an order of severity that fell outside the purview of the ordinary classroom teacher. Transgressions for which a “time-out” fell far short of the disciplinary mark (and, it seemed, all too often that mine did).
Clifton’s preferred modus operandi was to bring the guilty student, by now usually worried, perhaps even shaking or possibly wetting himself - before Clifton’s desk. Once inside the office, door shut firmly to discourage any attempt at escape, Clifton would begin the agonizing process of reviewing the facts of the case. As if in some Kafka-esque nightmare, all aspects of the infraction were reviewed in slow, painstaking detail.
Then, if the crime was so suitably punishable, he would take a deep breath, letting it out with an almost sad form of sigh, as if to imply: “Well, son, as you can plainly see - you leave me no choice…” and then send the boy over to the golf bag to choose the dreaded implement that was to be used in his own thrashing. This sadistic added touch served to both intimidate and thoroughly degrade the offender with a delicious combination of Dickensian discipline and mental cruelty, coupled with giving Clifton the personal satisfaction of whipping the daylights out of a delinquent (and in my case – a repeat offender).
But it was rare to be invited to Mr. Hume’s office. This had to be big. But what?
As I slipped on my blazer with its embroidered StD on the breast pocket, and closed my locker, Dryzga said: “I’ll wait for you, Kerry. We’ll take the elevator”. Once again - that seemingly sad flavor in his voice, he turned and walked from the locker room.
St. David’s, located 89th Street, between Madison and 5th Avenues, just around the corner from the brand new Guggenheim Museum. The school, almost exactly one mile north of our house, was likely originally built as a private residence for a wealthy family, probably in the late 1800’s. It was replete with all of the requisite amenities of the wealthy, including marble staircases with burnished bronze fixtures spiraling up to the higher floors, high ceilings under crown molding, chandeliers and crystal lighting fixtures, polished mahogany furniture and of course, as in my own house, a small, excruciatingly slow Otis elevator.
Oh, God help me, I thought. The elevator ride. This is really bad. What did I do? “Okay sir.”
To ride in the elevator – strictly off limits unless your name was Hume (and even then, absolutely verboten during a school day) – you either had to have sustained a significant injury that left you unable to traverse the stairs, or you were walking the St. David’s equivalent of your final stroll to the gas chamber.
I finished my shoe lacing, collected my school bag and belongings and joined Dryzga in the tiny, mahogany paneled elevator. My fear grew as the elevator slowly lifted us towards the fourth floor where the administrative offices of the big brass were. I had to ask.
“Sir, did I do something?” I asked timidly. I would be surprised only if I hadn’t done something. It was with great regularity that I visited the principals office. The weirdness here was that I was being called to Hume’s.
“I think Mr. Hume just needs to have a word with you about something.” was his reply, frustratingly inadequate and inconclusive. Panicking now, my heart rate rising with the elevator, I tried hard to breathe evenly.
Okay, I thought. we’ll see.
Dryzga slid the brass accordion gate open and held the outer door for me and we exited the elevator on the fourth floor. We walked down to the principal’s office, where Mr. Dryzga said. “Just sit in the waiting room. He’ll come out and see you in a minute.”
I went in and sat on the wooden bench in the familiar waiting room, outside Hume’s office. Leaning against the wall, clasping my hands, I noted that the secretary that was usually here, a stand-offish and matronly, highly efficient woman named Mrs. Neighbor was absent. I realized that the school day, and therefore probably her day, too, was over. The bench where I’d sat before, was hard under my ass, looking back now, it must have been a strategy intended to incite the feeling of waiting in uncertainty, being sidelined during the game, warming the bench. On a few previous occasions, I’d committed acts of sufficient egregiousness to land me on this bench. I associated it with nothing but impending punishment.
The door to Mr. Hume’s office slowly opened and his face, wearing a small, forced smile, peaked around the jam.
“Come on in, Kerry”. He extended a welcoming arm.
“Have a seat, son.” Hume said in a pleasant, almost fatherly tone. I chose a hard, ladder back chair across from his desk in favor of the large, maroon pillowed one next to it. Why get comfortable now?, I thought.
“How’s life treating you, Kerry”, he asked casually, throwing me off.
How’s life treating me?, I thought. Strange way to start a scolding, if that’s what this was. I couldn’t grasp where he was going with this.
“Okay, sir. Pretty good, I guess.”
He paused. Then looked deeply into my eyes, and said:
“Kerry, your mother died this morning.”
I looked at him. He looked back, saying nothing more.
“No.” I said. I attempted a smile, as if maybe I could bait one from him, exposingthe truth – that this was a joke. Or a test. This could not be something that could really happen.
“I’m sorry, son” he added.
“No.” I repeated. The smile had pulled itself back, the elastic of my facial muscles knowing better, wanting nothing to do with it.
Hume stood and, holding out his huge arms, invited me over into his embrace. Hume was a large man. Football huge. Probably six-three with broad shoulders, a giant block of a man. His arms seemed to reach across the entire width of the room. Numbing now, I stood and walked toward him, not knowing what else to do. As I reached him, his arms enveloped me, leaning down, me reaching up.
An unfamiliar slip from reality began in the midst of those huge arms. I was lost, knowing neither what to do, nor even how to feel. Are there things to do at this moment? What are they, please, someone help me with this.
I felt as though I should cry, but there was some unseen resistance to this thought. It was not a conscious thought that I should buck-up and take this thing like a man. It was, rather, an inability, a loss of some primal connection that I felt I should be able to tap into, but could not. I could feel the absence of something inside me that was palpably missing, it. I needed to know how to cry at that moment but there wasn’t enough room in my head to somehow accept that my mother was dead and to figure out how to cry simultaneously.
Hume’s’ big arms squeezed me lightly. I stood there silent, stunned, wondering what to think.
Hume finally let his arms slip away. He stepped back and looked down at me pityingly. I looked up at him, searching his eyes for answers, seeing nothing useful there and tried to imagine what to do next.
“Someone’s coming to pick you up” he said sadly.
We took the elevator down to the lobby and there was a chauffer already waiting. He took my book bag and I followed him out into the rain.
When I arrived at the house, Ellen met me with a wounded look and a heartfelt hug. She offered me anything she could do and together we went upstairs. In the elevator, on the way to the third floor, she said:
“Your father’s in bad shape, Kerry. Just give him a little time.” This, as it turned out, was a sage warning, a wise predictor of what was to follow. This day would mark the beginning of the end of my respect for my father.
Ellen and I rode the elevator in silence, her right hand resting gently on my shoulder. I loved this woman as I loved my blood relatives, yet I could not yet find words, no questions, no statements, nothing.
As I entered the black room on the third floor, I sensed, even from behind him, my father’s misery. He sat as he always did, perched on the right side of one of the pair of black, silk-covered loveseats, his shoulders stooped and rounded, elbows leaning on his knees, the fly of his pajama bottoms pinched open enough to make us all avert our gazes, hovering over a beer. He sipped one after the other; Ellen was sure to be working hard today, keeping plenty cold and at the ready during this mourning period, glasses of Heineken one after the next, two empty bottles on the table next to the coaster that held his half-full glass.
“Hi Dad” I said.
“Dad?” I watched as he continued to stare ahead, seeing and saying nothing, feeling his pain somewhere else far from here. I walked slowly around the table and touched his shoulder with my hand, squeezing gently, hoping for some, any response.
“I’ll be upstairs, dad.”
I backed away from the table, turned and walked from the room. Again, I felt the swirl of feeling, thoughts, emotions and confusion filling my head. I went into my room and shut the door, dropping my book bag on the floor near the foot of my bed. I sat on the edge of the bed and thought.
I went upstairs and sat on the edge of my bed, thinking.
I wondered what my father was thinking about. I wondered why he wouldn’t talk to me, particularly in this time of death and sadness. Didn’t one comfort their child when times were hard? Did he not care about me? Or was it, perhaps, that he hurt so deeply, that he couldn’t find the words or even some gratuitous gesture. Could he not come out of himself long enough to offer a hug to his eleven year old son who had, after all, just lost his mother?
I didn’t feel angry at my father about this, but, rather, wholly confused and saddened. I didn’t attempt to rationalize his lack of empathy for very long. I simply took it as a sign that our family was going to crumble without my mother and that I would have to be strong. I couldn’t allow myself to whine about this, maybe I couldn’t even speak about it. Maybe that’s what happens when your mother dies. Everything falls silently to pieces. But you don’t get emotional. You don’t rage or cry or emote, at least in any outward way. You suffer silently and get through it. And so I did.
I remember thinking I’ve got to be strong here. Dad is really messed up. I have to just be really strong and I can do this. Then I thought about crying again. Should I cry? Yes, I thought, I should. So I tried to cry, but it was too late. No tears would come. I had apparently shut that door very tightly.
Of course I later saw that my father was simply a very weak man, now wounded and made weaker and more vulnerable by the loss of his wife, a woman who had given him so much. Who had given him virtually everything he had.
At the moment his eleven year old son came home from school, having just learned from a near stranger that his mother was gone forever, my father was immersed in the self-absorbed world of his personal tragedy, so self-absorbed, in fact, that he had no room in his heart to offer so much as an embrace to his also-grieving child.
Sadly, looking back over the years from the viewpoint of being a father myself, that my Dad also missed the potential value that lived in sharing this anguish with and comforting his son, that this experience, shared with each other, could be a of the deepest and most profoundly healing nature, a tool for rebuilding our already sadly deteriorated relationship before it was too late. The opportunity for a new beginning, even as we faced the most painful of endings, might have given us a new chance at a healthy life. But there was no eye contact, no hug, no words at all.
I think of my daughter, Molly and what I would do, how I might respond if a similar event occurred and Maureen was lost to us. Although at the time of this writing, Maureen and I have been separated for several years, my love and respect for her as a woman, a mother and one of the strongest human spirits I have ever encountered remains firmly rooted. Her loss would be heartbreaking, for me as well as for Molly and her three siblings. My grief would undoubtedly be difficult to bear, of that I feel certain. But the thought of leaving Molly, who thankfully is as yet unacquainted with the loss of a family member, to cope on her own, seems wholly unimaginable. Any child, innocent of the emotional armor that adults find with time, age, and multiple experiences of the loss of a close friend or relative, deserves the depth of support that that they can only find, if at all, with those who they love and who love them the most. To experience the intimacy that comes on the wings of death, through the pooling of tears a shared grief, has the broader benefit of character strengthening, spiritual deepening and the opening of hearts to other hearts.
I don’t feel unforgiving toward my father for ignoring me or the opportunity that was missed when my mother died, just somewhat sad, even still. Sad that he missed so much love with his children. So much love, so many great experiences that he could have shared with us all. Perhaps.
And for the rest of my childhood and well into my adult years, but for a couple of times that I was in excruciating physical pain, I never cried again.
I spent years, decades, silly as it may sound, grieving for the grief that I never let myself grieve. Sucking it up, as it turns out is not the way to go. Holding back the tears will, as Simply Red put it: “get to me sooner or later”.
Surely, sooner or later – and in my case, both.
Our education seems as invested in avoidance as we ourselves are by nature, offering no mechanisms, through any educational curriculum, in how to simply cope when the world hurts us. As a result of having no education in this regard, we never seem to realize that when we’re toughing it out, pushing away the pain and believing that it’s a permanent solution, it’s just the illusion of avoidance. But there is no free lunch. Somehow our past, not dealt with, always finds a way back in and returns to haunt us. Call it karma or what you will – the piper gets paid every time.
Remarkably, my tears never went too far. They stayed, tucked away in their little ducts behind my falsely smiling eyes, for decades, and, when I’d manage to break my life into pieces, damaging my relationships with many of those around me irreparably and fleeing no further from the source of my pain than before I’d wreaked the havoc, the cost of their forbearance having wrought its toll on my life, those tears were more than glad to fall from my eyes in abundance. It was if I’d never forgotten.
Now I cry with regularity. When I’m on the phone with a close friend, freaked out by what I think of as the depressing mess that I’ve made of my life. Sometimes, when teaching a class and discussing the grim realities of violence against women and children – I have to stop and compose myself. Watching Sara McGloughlin-soundtracked “Adopt a pathetic abandoned puppy” commercials. Movies like Saving Private Ryan”. The time I lost with Molly for having screwed up my marriage and the pain it caused her. I cry about these things.
And it finally feels good.
Certain events in one’s life hold more weight than others. The events of a particular day can bend the course of a life significantly, severely, and permanently. For example, as in the case of blunt force trauma that shows no visible abrasion or bruising on the outer skin but may cause serious, even life-threatening internal hemorrhaging, the effects of some emotional wounding can take time to fully surface. Unlike physical injuries, the response that we choose and the repercussions we feel around an emotional assault can be postponed, pushed away, and often, at least for the time being, cleverly avoided.
With all of our amazing complexities of personality and ego, our defenses seem poised at every moment to come running to our aid. We have evolved, or maybe better put – devolved – into a species that is able to disengage from unwanted realities at will, using tricks and aids, sometimes temporarily pushing them back from our attention, often burying them so deeply and completely that we never come back around to find and explore, let alone heal them. For some, this may seem to be for the best. But perhaps it is to our detriment; in as far as we skillfully rip ourselves off of the experience of that very personal, meaningful and important experience. Consumed by the intense pain that accompanies traumatic experience, we frantically swim up and away from the depth of our suffering. Yet we are also fleeing the potential growth that it may lead us to, and in so doing may be rejecting a substantial component of the fullness of our own human experience. Lessons are everywhere. In the larger picture of our lives, were we to open ourselves fully to the process of living, we might find that it may not be for us to choose which lessons we should learn from.