Joey and Willie were the best of best friends. Whatever Joey did, Willie did. Usually they played hide-and-seek, but Joey wanted to use his new Whiffle ball and bat. Joey ran outside wearing his plastic Roman soldier’s helmet – he didn’t have a baseball helmet – and two thick lines of his mom’s black Halloween lipstick under his eyes.
“Willie, let’s play.” Joey raised his arms displaying his bat and ball. He took off his helmet and tossed it and the bat by the bush – which was home – and walked to the “mound.”
“You may want to put that on in case I come high and hard.” Joey winked. He held the ball at his waist before a high kick wind-up like Steve Carlton, only right-handed. He hurled the ball over the plate. Joey jerked his head up toward the sky and turned looking over his neighbor’s house. He then hung his head.
“There’s no way you took Steve Carlton deep! Let’s see how you handle Mike Schmidt.” Joey marched to home plate, picked up the bat and threw the ball stuck in the bush toward the mound. It rolled just a few feet in front of where he stood. “Give me your best stuff, Willie.”
Joey whirled bat and stared back at the mound. He waved the bat once at the mound. Twice. And a third time. Right before he stepped into the swing, a voice came from the back door of Joey’s house.
“Joey! Time to come in.”
Joey whipped his head around and dropped the bat. “DAD!”
“Sorry, Willie. My dad’s home. I’ll come get you later.” He knocked his helmet off as he bolted up the hill. He ran up every other step of the deck and leaped into his dad’s arms. He squeezed the breath out of him. Joey’s head buried into his father’s chest. His dad coughed and laughed. Joey beamed.
“We going to Montreal, Dad?” Joey looked up with wide and excited eyes.
“No, Bub. I didn’t qualify.”
Joey’s eyes relaxed. “Ah, man.” Joey’s voice displayed disappointment. “I really wanted to go to another country.”
“I know, son. World traveler. Unfortunately I had a pole break. But we’ll try again in four years.” Joey’s dad, though, knew it was unlikely he’d qualify. Thirty-eight would be too old for the 1980 Olympics. “What were you doing outside?
Joey’s eyes beamed with new excitement. “Willie and me were playin’ ball. Can you believe he took Steve Carlton deep?”
“What? No!” Joey and his dad hardly ever missed a Philadelphia Phillies game. They were among the many that cheered on the beloved Phillies in 1975 when they had their first winning season in nearly a decade. They were hopeful they would win the Eastern Conference and possibly make it to the World Series with the likes of Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Jim Kaat and Tug McGraw. He mussed Joey’s hair. “Carlton’ll get him next time. But now it’s time for dinner, champ.”
Joey’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She braced her head on a hand. She just hung up the phone that lay on the table. She called for her husband.
“So, Nancy, what did the doc say about Joey still ‘playing’ with Willie?” he asked.
Nancy traced the rotary dial with a finger. “They want to either give him more medicine or take him to a specialist.” She exhaled deeply. “I’m so worried, Dan.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyes turned a brighter shade of red.
“Why can’t we just handle this? Just take him to Willie’s grave and tell him he’s dead. Then just hold him tight.”
“You know why, Dan. The doctor said it may scar him even deeper.”
“It’s been a year and nothing has helped. I’m just…”
“Frustrated,” Nancy said finishing his thought.
Dan massaged his temples. “Yeah.”
“I’m frustrated, too,” Nancy said softly. She stood up and wrapped her arms around him.
The smell of fried chicken with a hint of green beans filled the house.
“Hmmm. That smells good, honey.” Dan hugged Nancy from behind and kissed her neck as she stirred the green beans. Whenever Dan returned from a meet, Nancy always fixed his favorite meal.
It was also Joey’s favorite, too. And she felt Joey needed it since he had another episode of playing with Willie.
“I swear, if Joey doesn’t show any signs of improvement I’m taking him to see Willie’s grave.”
Nancy could only muster a “but honey.” She was almost to the point of agreeing with that treatment.
They remained silent for only a few moments until the stomping of socked feet broke it. The 9-year-old slid on the hardwood dining room floor toward the dinner table. He nearly toppled his chair.
He inhaled as he sat down.
“Mmmm. My favorite, mom.”
“Mine too, buddy,” Dan said. Carefully holding the bowl of mashed potatoes away, he cradled Joey’s head and kissed it. He walked behind him to his seat next to him at the circular table. He placed the potatoes near the center of the table. Nancy, with chicken and green beans on a giant tray,
sat the food down and took her seat opposite Dan. They each held one of Joey’s hands and said grace.
Joey’s eyes were still excited as he held up his plate. Dan served him a heaping pile of potatoes, two spoonsful of green beans and two chicken legs. He rubbed his hands together after placing his plate down. But soon, the excitement on Joey’s face faded into a somber stare at his plate. “Mom, Dad,” he looked up, “can I tell you something?”
They hastily looked at Joey, then at each other. Their mouths slightly gaped. Then they fixed their sights back on Joey.
“Yeah,” Dan said hesitantly, reaching for Joey’s hand. “Anything, champ. Anything at all.”
“I really…” Joey paused. His eyes moistened, a tear dripped onto his right cheek. “I really miss Willie.”
Emma scoured the bank of the Ohio River to find the flattest, roundest
rock. She grabbed a dark gray half-dollar-sized one, right where the water
met the shore.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! I found a perfect one.”
Emma grabbed the rock and ran over to me. I was about ten feet away looking
for my own.
“Watch out for the wood.” I pointed to a pile of dry-rotted planks near the
Emma held her trophy up close tomy face. All the rocks were flat and large,
but this one looked like it had tiger stripes. Emma loved the baby tigers at the
zoo. In fact, she loved all animals, as long as they were “cute.” She tried a few
times to call the fluttering ducks over from across the river.
“Great.” I smiled. “You ready to try?”
“I’m ready for my rite of pathum.” Emma bounced up and down.
“Passage, honey. Rite of passage.”
Still bouncing, Emma said, “Passage. I’m ready for my rite of passage, Daddy.”
Her head nodded with each word.
It would be Emma’s first attempt to skip a rock. She beamed.
“Hold it like this.” I fixed the stone between her thumb and finger. I gently
squeezed her hand.
“Okay, okay, Daddy,” she blurted and whined. “I got it. I got it.”
“Now throw it like this, but faster.” I took Emma’s arm back to the side and
moved it forward along the same path. “And be careful not to hit anything.”
Emma thought for a moment. “What if I hit a fish?” She furrowed her brow
then her eyes grew wide. “Imay kill it!” She dropped the rock and backed away.
Her hands covered her gasping mouth.
“Emma, you’re not going to kill a fish.” I stepped toward her as I slid an arm around her. “The rock slows down once it hits the water.” I picked up Emma’s tiger-striped rock and placed it back into her hand. “I just don’t want you to hit anything before it hits the water.”
Emma gripped the rock a few times before the tips of her fingers turned a pinkish-red as she squeezed it. She threw it just how I showed her. Sort of. The rock plopped into the Ohio River. Emma growled. She was definitely her father’s daughter.
“Good form, honey. But you gotta do it a little bit faster.”
Emma let out a deep sigh as she rocked her head back.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get it soon.” I often took advantage of Emma’s competitive spirit, especially when she was about to give up at something, so I made a confession. “You know, I didn’t skip my first rock till I was at least seven.”
My brother, who was twelve years older, taught me to skip rocks.He talked about how skipping rocks was something every kid needs to learn–a rite of passage.
Emma widened her eyes, and a smile grew on her face. She tried a few more times before she skipped one twice. The next one skipped three times.
“Way to go, Emma!”
She sang: “I’m better than you were! I’m better than you were!”
“Yes, you are, honey. Two years better.” I smiled.
Emma gripped another flat rock and held it out. “Your turn.”
Emma laid the rock into my hand. I flipped it a couple times before I clutched it tight. I looked back over my left shoulder.
I unloaded the flat projectile.
The rock didn’t skip. It didn’t even touch the water as it slipped out of my hand and whipped into the air. I didn’t notice the duck fluttering down to the water when I took aim. The rock struck its head as it went to land, killing it apparently instantly. Emma gasped, then screamed.
She cried as feathers floated down.My hands framed my face as I stared in disbelief. The duck’s lifeless body bobbed on the water. I looked at my horrified daughter as she looked back at me.
I took two steps and enveloped Emma.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Tears streamed down her face.
“I didn’t see it, honey.”
I thought about the odds of this happening–the rock slipping out of my hand, the duck fluttering down near people, the rock striking the duck just as I unloaded it. It seemed unlikely, but still it happened.
“You...killed...it,” Emma screamed as she sobbed between each word.
I stroked Emma’s hair as I held my arms tight around her. “Oh, Emma. It was an accident.” I tried to be soothing, but it seemed forced, and thus fake. “I didn’t see it. I’m so sorry.” I held her tighter, rocking her back and forth. “Shhhhh.
It’s okay. Shhhh.”
Emma pulled her head back and looked at me. “What are we going to do?” she quickly asked. “We need to bury it.” She pushed me away looking around at everything.
“The ground’s too hard to dig, honey.” I searched around the bank of the river. “But I have an idea.”
I walked to the tree line and grabbed an old dry-rotted broken wooden plank lying on the bank. As I paddled the water with the plank, the duck floated to shore. I slid the plank under the duck. “You know, some Native American tribes used to send off those who died along the river—after all, Ohio is a
Native American word for ‘good river.’ I think we should send the duck off like they did.”
Emma nodded. She gazed at me carefully take care of the duck.
“Do you want me to say a prayer?”
“Yes, Daddy. I think Elizabeth would like that.”
“Elizabeth?” I tried not to smile. Emma often named things she loved and she loved all animals–even the “hibernating” lady bugs that she kept in a small wooden jewelry box in her room. She nodded, eyes red and wet. “Yes. Elizabeth.
That’s her name.”
“That’s a great name.”
Though it was painful because of the rocks, I knelt next to Emma and placed an arm around her shoulders. We bowed our heads as I prayed. “God, look with love on this dead – um, duck –and make this duck–”
“Elizabeth,” Emma interrupted.
“Oh, yeah. And make–Elizabeth–one with You and Your Son as–Elizabeth–comes before You. Amen.”
“Amen,” Emma repeated.
We each placed a hand on either corner of the plank and gave it a gentle push into the river. I picked up Emma, resting her on my hip, and we watched the funeral bed float under the glow of twilight.
Death was just an idea to Emma. Emma knew things lived and died, but she had never been this close to it. There’s an irony to the twists and turns life lays out as Emma experienced two rites of passage this day.
Johnny couldn’t sleep after the first time Mary woke him up with a hand to the face.
He watched her flip from one side to the other, muttering mostly nonsensical words, but he could make out the occasional, “No” and “Mom and Dad.” Then the scream happened right before she opened her eyes. He knew the nightmare. He knew she dreamt of the night were her parents, and his parents, died a year ago on a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Or the two double funerals they had to plan and
Johnny stroked Mary’s sweat-soaked hair, unsuccessfully smoothing out the wild strands. “You need to talk to someone, babe.”
Mary rolled her back to Johnny, who started to stroke her arm. “I can’t. It’s—it’s too—” She trailed off, but Johnny knew the next word.
“Painful, I know. But my nightmares aren’t as bad once I started to talk with Father Tim. It’s really helped. I can actually sleep at night.”
“But I’m not you, Johnny. I just, just—” Mary flipped to face him. “Can’t.”
“What if there was a way where you don’t have to talk about it?”
Mary crinkled her nose, flashing a puzzled face. “Huh?”
“What if there was some way you could talk about their deaths without talking about it?”
Mary raised on an elbow, her frizzed hair covering part of her face. “If it will make you stop talking about it, then fine. I’ll see Father Tim as long as I don’t have to talk about it.”
Mary rolled back over as Johnny stared at the darkened ceiling. His mind wandered, thinking about the funerals for his and Mary’s parents last spring, then the difficult birth where Mary and their daughter, Brianna, almost died. For months Johnny only heard the hospital room’s bells and buzzers replay in his dreams during the bustle as Mary gave birth to Brianna last summer. The stress of their parents’ springtime deaths forced her to be on bed rest, which complicated her pregnancy, since she developed an iron deficiency. Her only respite was her schoolwork, the haven she could always escape to when life became too much.
The both would have collapsed if it wasn’t for Father Tim, Mary’s godfather, doing most of the heavy lifting with the funeral arrangements.
Johnny and Mary were barely eighteen years old, dealing with issues couples more than twice their age likely haven’t handled—and on top of all of it, they were expecting a child. Johnny could only pray as the doctors and nurses bustled in and out of the hospital room.
Pray was all he could do now.
Johnny wanted to tell Father Tim, but it was three in the morning. Father Tim did say to call or text any time, so Johnny put that to the test and picked up his cellphone from the nightstand.
He pushed a few times on the phone’s screen until the priest’s name was on the display. He tapped the Message icon and composed a text message. Mary said she would see you as long as she doesn’t have to talk about our parents.
He tapped the green Send button and stared at the screen, hoping Father Tim might be looking at his phone. After a few moments, Johnny was about to set it back on the nightstand when three dancing dots appeared. He tilted his head, his eyes fixed on the screen. Then a few words appeared.
I think I have an idea. I’ll call tomorrow. Another set of dancing dots appeared, then more text. And I’ll call about helping put up the lights with you and Ian.
* * *
“Watch out, dumbass,” said Johnny, scolding his best friend as they hung Christmas lights outside of Johnny’s house. “You’re shaking the ladder.”
It was the first day of December, and to Johnny’s parents, and the first real day you should begin to celebrate Christmas. It was also the last major holiday Johnny and Mary would celebrate in this first year without either of their parents, who died while on a weekend getaway vacation last spring in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“Sorry, man.” Ian stepped off the bottom rung of the ladder Johnny was on top of, stringing lights along the gutters of the house. “I figured my weight would help secure it.”
“Your weight is fine,” Johnny said as he finished the end of the light string, “it’s just your jitteriness that’s the problem. You’re going to tip me over.” Johnny lied, somewhat, because heights always made him nervous, but the lights could not wait until December second. He started to descend the ladder. “I’m done anyway. That should be the last of it.”
Ian clasped a hand across Johnny’s shoulder as they looked at the fruits of their daylong labor “Pretty darn good, Johnathan.”
Johnny’s dad always called him Johnathan on a job well done, and since the accident, Ian had always looked for opportunities to invoke Lenny Kingsley’s often wise words and common phrases of praise.
“Yep, my dad would be proud. It’s almost as good as when he did it.”
“I’d say better.” Ian laughed.
Johnny smirked. “I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s close.”
Johnny patted his pants as he heard a familiar tone. He reached into his back pocket and slid out his cell phone as it rang a digitized version of “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Mary’s dad loved the Beastie Boys.
Father Tim’s name appeared on his phone’s screen.
“Hey, Father T. No need to come over. Ian and I got the lights taken care of—or I should say, I got them taken care of in spite of Ian.”
Father Tim laughed. “That’s good, Johnny. But I was calling because of something else.”
Johnny’s eyes widened. “Did you figure something out already?”
“I think so, or at least hope so. I want you and Mary to come over to the children’s hospital with me tomorrow in Clifton. There’s someone I’d like you to meet. I think she can help.”
“Sure, but Mary doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Remember?”
“She won’t have to talk at all.”
Johnny could feel Father Tim’s smile over the phone. “What time? We are planning to put the tree up tomorrow, but that can wait until after.”
“I’m glad to see you guys are getting into the Christmas spirit. Bri is going to love it.”
“Well, you know how Mary’s parents loved Christmastime, and mine too. I think it’s really helping Mary, though, and seeing her happy helps me.”
“I’m glad,” Father Tim said. “Can you guys be here around nine thirty tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll text Mary and let her know.” Johnny hung up with the priest, then tapped a few times until Mary’s name appeared on his phone. He pressed the Message icon, then started to type. Father Tim wants us to meet him at the children’s hospital tomorrow morning. 9:30 am.
Moments after he hit Send, three dancing dots within a bubble appeared. The dots disappeared, replaced by a small block of text. Ok. What’s it about?
Johnny replied: What we talked about last night. Wants us to meet someone. Then we’ll put the Xmas tree after that?
The dancing dots reappeared seconds later, and then Mary’s reply appeared: No such thing as “Xmas.”
Johnny answered with an Ugh emoji face—straight lines for its mouth and eyes.
* * *
Johnny and Mary walked hand-in-hand into the lobby of the hospital. Mary held a cuddling Brianna, who was still trying to sleep. Father Tim sat in a chair facing the front doors. He smiled and popped up when he noticed them. “Johnny, Mary. Thanks for meeting me.”
Johnny extended his right arm, and Father Tim gripped his hand. After a quick squeeze, he released it and hugged Mary.
Mary asked, “So, who do you want us to meet, Father?”
“Like I told Johnny, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Father Tim motioned them toward the elevators.
“Can you tell us about this person?” Johnny asked. “It’s a patient here?”
Father Tim pressed the Up elevator button. “Yes, but I’ll let her tell you why you’re here.”
Father Tim, Johnny, and Mary walked silently off the elevator and toward a sign that read Cancer Center.
Johnny looked at Mary as he shrugged with a slight head tilt. He mouthed, “I have no idea.”
They walked past a couple of rooms until they reached one with a little girl in bed. A pair of metal crutches wrapped in pink and purple ribbons leaned against a chair next to the bed. Her long curly blonde hair bounced as she laughed at what Johnny believed was a joke by a giggling nurse tapping a few keys at a bedside hospital computer.
The girl’s eyes widened, and her smile grew wide when she recognized Father Tim walking in the room. “Father Tim,” she exclaimed. She spread her arms out wide and wiggling her fingers in unison several times. “Hugs. Hugs.”
Father Tim bent over and wrapped his arms around her. She squeezed a bit too tight as the priest strained to talk. “Addison, you’re getting stronger, I do believe.”
The priest straightened up, and the girl flexed her muscles. “As an ox.”
“Addison, I’d like you to meet two very special people I’ve mentioned once or twice. Johnny and Mary.”
“Once or twice, Father?” Addison narrowed her eyes, thinned her lips, and flashed a sideways look. “Try a hundred times.” Addison’s eyes and mouth widened, and just as with Father Tim, spread her arms out wide and wiggled all her fingers. “C’mon. I feel like I know you well enough for a hug. And you brought Brianna, who is just absolutely adorbs.”
Mary and Brianna hugged her first. Addison offered baby talk to Brianna, still cuddling with Mary. “Aren’t you just the cutest,” she whispered as she caressed her cheek. Brianna smiled, looking at Addison.
Then Johnny hugged the girl and noticed something strange about her legs—or rather, leg.
Addison caught Johnny staring. “Yes, my leg,” she said. “Had it amputated a few months ago. Docs have me come in to make sure I’m clean and clear.”
Mary covered her mouth.
“It’s okay, Mary. I’ve been dealing with this for quite some time. Childhood cancer sucks, but I’m kicking its butt—well, I’ll kick so long as I have my crutches to brace me.”
Father Tim and Addison laughed while Johnny and Mary stood there open-mouthed.
“It’s a joke, guys,” Addison said, still smiling.
“Addison,” Father Tim said, “why don’t you tell Johnny and Mary about what happened?”
Mary, holding Brianna, and Johnny sat on the couch in front of a large window.
“Well, I had bone cancer. The actual name is something I still have trouble pronouncing. I mean, I am only twelve.”
Mary whispered a gasp when she heard Addison’s age.
“Well, the cancer was too fast-moving, so—” Addison motioned a line across her thigh, just above where her left leg used to be. “They didn’t want it to move into my lungs, because if it did, then my chances of surviving go way down. Knock on wood, so far, so good on being without cancer. I just can’t wait till my own hair starts to grow back.”
Mary opened and closed her mouth a few times, then said, “How, I mean, why—”
“I think what Mary is trying to ask, Addison, is how can you be so at ease and why are you so comfortable talking about this when you could be facing death?” Father Tim said, looking at the girl. Then he turned to Mary. “Something like that?”
“Easy,” Addison said. “Well, it’s easy now. Father Tim let me vent. At the beginning, I was an uber hot mess. I mean, I was about to die, and I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet—and I just now started liking them.”
“And that helped?” asked Johnny. The answer was obvious, but he wanted Mary to hear it.
“Eventually. I didn’t want to talk about it, which led to arguments with my parents, and between my parents.” Addison paused and covered her mouth with a hand. “Oh, I didn’t mean—I mean you lost yours, and I’m here talking about mine.” Addison cringed, now both hands covered her mouth and nose. “I’m just making it worse.”
Mary stood and took two strides to Addison’s bedside. She held out a hand, and Addison took it. “It’s okay. Look at you.” A tear streaked down a cheek. “You almost died, having to start your life with, with cancer and all its complications,” Mary said, motioning to her missing leg, “and you’re worried about us. Why?”
“Why worry?” Addison said.
Mary looked at the red-eyed twelve-year-old girl wiping tears from her face, tears she had cried for Johnny and Mary. “You have so much to worry about yourself, but you’re crying because you didn’t want to offend us.”
Addison reached for a tissue out of the box that lay beside her on her bed. “I can’t control any of this,” Addison said as she wiped her runny nose. “It took me a while to realize this, maybe a few months after I started talking with Mr. Wonderful over there.”
Father Tim smiled as he looked down at his feet. “You know I don’t like that, Addison.”
“Yeah, but I like it when I make you blush,” she said. “Take a compliment, Father.”
Mary and Johnny and Father Tim talked with Addison for about an hour. Addison was holding Brianna when the nurse came into the room. “Time for your MRI, honey.”
“Aw, man,” Addison said. She looked at the young couple. “Will you guys come back? With Brianna?”
Mary smiled. “Of course, Addison.” Mary reached for Brianna who didn’t want to leave Addison.
Addison squeaked when the baby leaned into her. “She’s just so adorbs.”
Mary grabbed for Brianna, who then nestled into her mother. Mary leaned to kiss Addison on the top of her wig. The little girl squeezed her eyes and smiled. Johnny and Father Tim gave her hugs before the four of them left the room.
Back at the elevator, Mary turned to Father Tim. “Okay, I get it. Let’s talk.”
Father Tim smiled. “Okay, honey. When do you want to talk?”
The elevator doors opened, and they walked inside. “Come over and help us put up the tree. We can talk then,” she said.