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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Chapter Twenty Three - Toe to Toe

***

It is Sunday, August 23rd, 2015. The sun is approaching its zenith in the sky. I am sitting on a lawn chair in my back yard, hunched over, on the phone, rubbing my non-phone hand frantically over the quarter-inch of down that passes for my hair at that moment.

I'm on the phone with my boss at the bar. I don't mean someone in management. I'm talking to the owner. He is one of the kindest, most accommodating, most understanding people for whom I've ever punched clock. We've both had a rough summer as far as tragedy is concerned.

I'm telling him that I can't work my scheduled shift, because my sister tried in despair to kill herself the night before, Saturday night. Nobody knew - except her - that she had eaten a cocktail of medications (all of which were prescribed to her for her recovery from gallbladder surgery). But it didn't work.

Her body, probably because it had already been exposed to and developed antibodies against those particular agents, did not lose that fight. She woke up, barely, when I rousted her late in the morning. She had one of Charlie's baby pictures, in a nice frame, on the bed next to her.

(According to an ABC News report, bereaved parents are roughly twice as likely to suffer from an early death. That often translates into suicide, but also into heart attacks or other maladies brought on by the unending stress, and from the obvious health issues related to drinking, drug use, "comfort" food - all common coping mechanisms.)

The boss tells me not to worry about it, that he understands, that everything will be covered, that I need to take care of my family, and to take care of myself as well. I thank him profusely, hang up, throw my head back and openly weep in the sunshine.

It has been four weeks since Charlie died. Three weeks since Joyce deJong and her henchmen lied about the cause of death on his official Certificate. (The Certificate itself is dated July 27; the autopsy wasn't conducted until the 28th.) This would all be so much easier if everybody else in the family hadn't already gone up to Manistee.

***

There is a park, not sure if it's State or National, up in northern Michigan that we Hellers have gone to just about every summer of my existence. If ever there was a magical place, this is it. Set way back in the woods, camp sites are set out in various "loops" (i.e., Orchid Loop, Hemlock Loop, etc), all of them within walking distance to the dunes and shores of Lake Michigan.

I'm not going to tell you exactly where it is, because I'm selfish, and it's already too hard to get a spot there when you want one. It needn't get any worse in that regard, or it will become like that restaurant a reporter once asked Yogi Berra about: "Nobody goes there, it's too crowded."

Charlie LOVED going to Manistee, as we all did as kids. He would roll around the loops on his scooter or bicycle with his cousins, plummet off the cornices of the sand dunes, dive for rocks on the bottom of the Lake (if it wasn't too cold for swimming). When the waves were up, you could body surf until the sunburn sent you trudging back to the cool shelter of the canopy above the cluster of campers.

The annual Manistee trip was just four weeks away when Charlie's tragic accident occurred. He was particularly stoked about it, because we had not allowed him to go the summer before. We didn't go either. This was to exact a lasting and memorable form of punishment on the kid after he had taken part in some petty vandalism, along with a bunch of other naughty neighborhood kids, perpetrated upon an empty, bank-owned house.

It was nothing too serious, and we made him clean some of it up, but I and others told Theresa to do something to quell the sort of behavior that might someday get him into trouble. And neither of our cars were up to par for the road trip that year either, and we didn't have dog-sitting arranged or anything...

So we canceled the trip. To punish Charlie.

How he cried to me over the phone as I sat at my office desk at Decision Research, how he pleaded and begged for some other form of punishment, anything, anything... How I sat there, stone faced, feeling like a concerned uncle and a real asshole at the same time.

What would you change if you could do it over again? I have a lot of regrets. Anybody would. Some are worse than others. But that one's pretty bad.

***

One thing I didn't mention about the Manistee campground - and I hope this will keep you from looking for it - there's no cell phone reception out there. It's just too far away from everything, and is kind of behind a big hill besides. So when my sister tried to kill herself, with everybody but us up there (for the second year in a row), I had no way to reach anyone.

I texted my sister Marian in New York. Told her what had happened, that I didn't know what came next. I asked her not to text anyone. There was nothing anybody could do at that point, so why ruin their vacation, the only peace they'd had in a month? Besides, Renee is a nurse, so I left the decision-making process up to her. She and I did a pill count and tried to figure out what was what while Theresa slept.

After talking to my boss, I moped around the house. Theresa got up around that time. After lunch a couple of her friends came over. They were all sitting around in the lawn chairs when I left the gaggle of them to go over to my parents' house to take care of Stewie.

My Mom and Dad have a cat whose picture is in the dictionary next to the word 'Rotund'. He has been Knighted by the Queen as Sir Cumfrence of Girth. A small moon orbits him everywhere he strolls. There are large brown patches of dead grass where he has laid on the lawn.

As with other members of the bovine species, Stewie requires much feeding and watering. And the folks also keep a bottle of Bushmills in the cupboard, and Lord knows I needed a bite of that, so I headed over there. It is the house I grew up in, the only place I have ever known as home. It is, as my brother likes to say, a safe place.

I'm not sure how long I was there. A couple of hours, maybe, however long it takes that cat to eat. I killed some time, watched some TV, listened to the house settle... Might have even done a load of laundry. Swallowed some golden gravel. Headed back.

As I pulled in the driveway back at the house, the two friends who had come by were both leaving. Theresa and Renee went inside the house. I went to the garage - The Cave. The sun set. The pinks and purples faded to darkness.

Theresa came out to The Cave about an hour after the streetlights came on. She had been swilling wine with her friends, obviously, a grieving person who was no longer all that interested in her own well being. But something else was wrong.

As she sat across the coffee table from me, I observed her speech and motor functions crumble away. Sentences became strings of unattacheable words, at first, and then further devolved into soft consonants: "Zh-th-v-sh-f-wa-ba..." And she began dropping her phone. Again and again. Each time, it would break into three easy pieces. But, like David Hasselhoff with that ungainly cheeseburger, she couldn't get it together.

After a while, she stopped trying, got up from her chair and lurched out of The Cave. I sat there, for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out what in Hell I had just seen. I then went inside to see how (or what) she was doing.

I caught her in the kitchen with a large glass of wine clutched in both hands, a big grin on her face. I protested, "Hey, no. Put that down. We're cuttin' you off." (Words that have seldom, if ever, come from my mouth.) Renee agreed, and we tried to pry the flagon from her fists.

She didn't like that. Suddenly, her mobility and dexterity were restored as she struggled not to let go of her drink - no problem; I tipped her glass over sideways into the sink, emptying its carefully fermented contents down the drain. She liked that even less, and hollered some damning and hurtful things at me, but it was all stuff Renee already knew about, so as Charlie liked to say, "It did not affect."

We muscled Theresa over to a chair and sat her down in it. She stood right back up. We ordered her to sit. To her credit, she tried, but missed the seat entirely. Went right down on the floor. Not good. We hauled her up and plopped her down in the chair amid bawling insults and invective hurled from the depths of her lungs.

Then she went for it. As I stood next to her, trying to talk with Renee over her loudness, she threw the punch. I saw it coming out of the corner of my eye in plenty of time and locked up the abdominal wall. It made an impressive sound on impact. I looked down at my poor sister with sadness in my eyes.

"You hit like a girl," I said.

***

My old buddy Larry and I used to have a mutual acquaintance, a co-worker from Pizza Hut (at about the same time Kai Cronin also worked there) with whom everyone became friends. She hosted summertime parties, cookouts, that kind of thing. Her name was Robin. She was very attractive. Everyone wanted her... I'm pretty sure Larry got her.

Anyway, it was Robin who once told me something that I always believed to be true, something about Larry. She assured me that if I was ever in real trouble, like in a hostage situation or something, I could sit there with no fear. None.

No matter what, just because Larry is your friend, you'd know that Larry would come through the wall, or the window, or the ceiling, or the floor... Somewhere. He'd come in, kill all of your captors, and get you out. When you need him the most, no matter what, he's bound to show up.

At 10:45 that night, after my sister threw the punch, when I needed him the most, Larry showed up. Very suddenly, the front door opened, and Larry stuck his head in. "What's going on?" He said. He really was just dropping by on a hot summer night with a couple of beers, just like Mick had showed up out of the clear blue sky the Monday morning after Charlie's death.

We briefed him on our not-cool situation. Renee felt we should take Theresa outside and plop her in the chair by the fire. Walk her around a little bit.

"Can you guys handle her?" She asked us.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "We've handled much bigger drunks than him." The three of us took a second to laugh.

Then we dragged Theresa outside and watched her carefully. She seemed obsessed with the fire, tried to get very close to it at times. In between intervals of struggling, she would lapse back into her non-speech pattern, then catatonia. We put her in a nice, comfortable chair (the kind that is difficult to get out of) and more or less kept her there until she became loud in her protests, even flinging herself into the pile of firewood at one point.

So we dragged her back inside and watched her drop two straight glasses of water on the floor, and then we threw her on the bed. I really thought we were looking at a psychotic break that night. Renee thought she was just plain drunk and stressed out. Larry wondered what would we would do if she woke up the next morning the same way. We resigned ourselves to the uncertainty of the night.

***

It was three days later, after we had dropped Renee off at the train station at the end of her very long vacation, that Theresa told me it had been an attempted suicide on that Sunday night, as well. She'd switched her pills around so that we confiscated her blood pressure medication, believing it to be the pain killers... That's how nefarious it was.

She said she decided on those nights that she didn't want to live anymore, not without her son, not after she had been told that Charlie had committed suicide. By then, in late August, she had filed a FOIA for the police records from the month before. That takes time.

Anticipating that the reports would surely contain some sort of evidence to support the M.E.'s cause of death, she saw no reason to go on. Would the reports contain a suicide note, or something definitive, something medical?

No, as it turns out, they wouldn't. Had she not survived her second attempt - every bit as lethal as the one the night before - she would have never known that the determination of suicide was based in no way upon anything even remotely resembling reality. She would have gone to her grave, too, content to be with her child in Heaven. Or at least next to him in the cemetery.

And none of this would have ever been discovered. 

She doesn't think that way anymore, now that all has been made clear through the police reports, and from the damn poor lies that comprise the Medical Examiner's shamefully wrong conclusion. The fact that Joyce deJong refuses, like a truculent mule, to fulfill her public obligations and change this obvious farce is explained so well by her unprofessional history.

***

At the train station, Renee told me to put my sister's ass in the psychiatric ward if she gave me any serious trouble, but that stuff like this was to be expected. She wouldn't go so far as to call it normal, because in this thing, there is no normal.

***

The annual trip to Manistee is a couple of months away yet. I'm already looking forward to it. I'm going.

pH 6.16.16

***

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