May 6, 2008

That's for Life


On December 20, 2006, I woke up at around five o’clock in the morning, one hour before I typically arise, and did something I never do that early in the day. I checked my e-mail. My inbox contained a message from a woman whom I only knew casually through my best friend and former partner in the police department. Her name is Denise, and my friend Stephen hired her to work in the shop he owned. I helped out at his store fixing his computers and doing some counter work with the customers. Denise and I often talked and joked when we were there together, but our relationship was strictly professional as we were both married and had families. Besides, she was Stephen’s friend from childhood.

I was curious to see a message from Denise, but not shocked. I did give her the address, not one that I use for personal e-mails, but a Yahoo! e-mail address I give to people I am “iffy” about. The subject line caught my attention, though.

Urgent! Please read!

It wasn’t spam, and I didn’t think she would hit me up with some sort of business scheme; but, for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single issue where I’d need to speak to her in a hurry.

Stephen closed his shop up a few months earlier. Business in the shipping and receiving world was bad, especially since he had to compete with FedEx and UPS. Cutting his losses, he decided to sell collectibles on EBay and enjoy his well deserved pension from the NYPD. Denise started a new business with her husband and by then I got a job with my current employer at the college. With that said, I had no real reason to have any contact with Denise unless Stephen was involved.

I opened the e-mail.

Mike, call me the moment you read this. It is important. Even if it is two o’clock in the morning, please call. I need to speak to you!

She included her home phone, her cell phone, and the number to the business her and her husband owned together. At five a.m. I wasn’t going to call anybody, especially a woman I was only casually acquainted with; and, not with my wife in the shower getting ready for work a few yards away in our master bathroom. I didn’t want to have to withstand the district attorney style grilling she'd give me if I was caught calling a thirty-something woman from the secretive confines of our computer room at the crack of dawn.

I waited until I got to work. My job keeps me in front of a computer all day and I can check my e-mail messages at will. I opened My Yahoo!, navigated to my inbox, found her cell phone number, and then I called her up.

Mike, oh my God Mike. It’s about Stephen.” She was bawling, weeping uncontrollably.

What Denise, what happened?” My stomach tightened.

He died. He died last night. He had a heart attack.” She said something else but I didn’t understand it.

I was reminded of that old joke where the guy was bluntly informed “The cat died;” but, it wasn’t the humor in that gag which struck me, it was the lack of preparation for the sad news he was given which was the punch line.

There was no "wind up" to her delivery. She blurted "he died," just like that.

The relationship you have with somebody and how you are given bad news about them says an awful lot about how people think of your association with that person. Stephen was my friend since 1989. We worked together in a squad car for almost six years, backed each other up each other on the streets, and knew things about each other which our families were not aware of. Still, I found it odd that the only person to reach out to me during that initial period of shock and mourning was a woman I was affiliated with through my part-time employment.

Once, only a few years ago, Stephen helped me out by giving me a job, insisting on paying me to set up his computer network. Times were a bit tough for me and my family as I was recently retired from the police department. I had brand new computer certifications, but no experience. One evening, when we were locking up his store, I thanked him, told him how much he was helping me, and I added that I did not think I could pay him back. With a raised hand, he cut me off and said “Hey, we rode in a sector car together. That’s for life.

He died?” That was all I could muster in response.

She gave me the details stating that he picked up his son Jimmy, his only child, from the airport. Jimmy had come home from college to be with his parents for the holidays. Stephen was divorced, but he bought a home around the block from his ex-wife to be close to his son and to help raise him. To his credit, he maintained an amicable relationship with her for their son's benefit. I only met his former spouse, Terry, once as they had been separated for many years. That night, he took his son home to meet his new girlfriend, a woman whom he had been seeing for about two months. The three of them had plans to go out for dinner. When he was preparing for a shower, he fell to the floor and was unable to be revived.

I hung up with Denise and ran outside my building. It was a crisp, clear day, and I ignored the cold. The folks in my office couldn’t help but overhearing what I said to Denise, but they politely refrained from asking what was going on until I eventually told them about my friend's passing.

For about two hours I was in shock and denial. In order to make some sense of what happened, I called the county coroner’s office. A polite woman who answered the phone knew whom I was referring to off the top of her head.

Yes, sir, he was brought in last night. His ex-wife is coming to claim his body.

He was no longer a person, but a body.

After muttering a few polite words of thanks, I hung up. The Dean offered me the rest of the day off and I refused. The best way to deal with his passing, as unexpected as it was for a forty eight year old man to drop dead, was to simply put my head down and work.

After hanging up with the corner's office and conferring with my supervisor, I called my wife to tell her about Stephen.

What do you mean he died?” She asked with the same incredulity which I had when I spoke with Denise. “Isn’t he supposed to come over tomorrow?

She was right. He was due to come by the next day for an informal visit just before Christmas and I was looking forward to seeing him. Instead, I was going to attend his wake.

The next evening I arrived at the funeral home and was curiously pleased to see marked, New York City police cars among the clogged streets and parking lots nearby. Hundreds showed up to pay their respects. If you knew Stephen you loved him. He was smart, funny, gregarious, and had a bit of a mischievous side to him. But, he was loyal to a fault. As I wended my way through the dozens of officers congregating on the front steps of the funeral home, some I knew well, others only vaguely, it struck me that as good of a friend as I was to him, I was only one of many hundreds whose lives he touched; and, I am ashamed to admit that I was a tad jealous.

Denise arrived with her husband and sought me out. She explained that she did not know my telephone number and found my e-mail address on a scrap of paper at the bottom of her pocketbook. It was a minor miracle considering that I gave it to her a year before. Stephen’s son Jimmy was remarkably poised for a young man who watched his dad die only two nights earlier. And then I saw Terry.

A receiving line formed in front of her as she took up a spot near his casket. Terry arranged the funeral, the wake, and his burial. She even dug through his closets and found all of the items for his dress uniform, including his name plate, shield, tie, collar brass, and other insignia. She’d done well, and I was touched, as she and her son were the only family Stephen had in the world.

Hi Terry, you don’t remember me, but I’m Michael, Stephen’s friend.” I offered my hand and she took it and looked me in the eye.

You’re Michael?” At first, I thought she didn’t hear me. Then she repeated herself.

You’re Michael? Oh my goodness. You’re all Stephen ever spoke about.
She stepped back and looked me up and down. Then, she smiled, but not in a happy way; but as if to confirm a suspicion.

All these years,” she continued “all I ever heard was ‘Mike and I did this, and ‘Mike and I did that.He spoke about you all the time, more than anyone in this room.” Of course, she didn’t include their son in that comparison.

It didn’t occur to me that I was crying until she offered me a tissue. We talked a bit more and then I paid my respects to my buddy resting in a coffin.

Outside, I mingled with the cops, some in uniform and others in dark colored suits, on the front steps. Most of them wore grim expressions while they talked shop and reminisced about the good old days when Stephen was alive. I couldn’t wait to get the hell away from them. I was reminded of how much my life had changed since leaving "The Job" as I was now used to the more comfortable and safe environment the college has to offer. It was also obvious that one of the last connections to my former life in law enforcement, my friend and partner, was erased forever.

In the months following Stephen’s death, I was unable to get a hold of his son in spite of his acknowledgement that we should stay in touch. In addition, Denise has remained aloof. I do not want to interfere with her life; and in fact, we had no relationship at all except for when we worked at our mutual friend’s business. Every once in a while when I hear a joke that he would have laughed at, or when I see a gadget he would have enjoyed, or when I stumble on a difficult memory from my days on patrol, I think of him.

Early in my early career as a rookie, a veteran cop who was about to retire offered me this adage:

On this job, you’ll have secrets which you won’t tell your wife, your parents, your priest, or anyone that you know, except your partner. Those things die with you.

Man, was he right about that. As of today, I have nothing but a few photos to remind me of the time I had with my friend. In many ways, it is as if he never existed. There is no one else who I can turn to and talk about all of the things I did with him, and no one who will understand except other cops; and, still there are things that even they should not be privy to. All of that died with my partner.

A long time ago, we rode in a sector car together. That’s for life.

Author’s note: The original story about Stephen’s death Goodbye to a True Friendcan be read here. It was written the morning after he passed away.

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21 comments:

Paul Burman said...

A powerful piece of writing, Mike. What you've put into making this piece work reflects, I imagine, the significance of the relationship and your memories. A fitting tribute.

Poetikat said...

Now, you know by now that I am usually overly-expressive, but Mike this piece has me tongue-tied. It is a brilliant, reflective passage that clearly states your bond with this man whom you lost far too soon.

Kat

The Supplicant said...

Truly impressive Mike and totally heart wrenching. Well done...truly. This piece is a true representation of your mastery of the writing craft. It's well written, poignant, engaging and keeps you riveted from start to end. You are in a class light years ahead of many here in the blogosphere.

Old friends haunt for life, exist in the forgotten recesses of the soul, only to come out in memories, dreams and story telling.

I couldn't say it better but to echo Paul when he writes A fitting tribute.

Take care my friend.

Swubird said...

Mike:

First of all, I 'm so sorry for your loss. I am no stranger to this kind of pain, so my heart goes out to you.

Second, in my opinion this article was a very good piece of work. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, I think it is one of your best. Maybe it's because it contains so my honest emotion - and you managed to convey that in your words. I don't know. But I enjoyed reading it, and I felt the sorrow that you were trying to convey. I also felt the close relationship you had with your departed friend.

Deepest sympathies.

Bob Johnson said...

Hey Mike, wow powerful, I found myself glued to the screen, so much so that I started reading this standing up as I was going to come back to it after I got some snacks, couldn't break away

The Muse said...

To lose a good friend at such a young age...I'm sorry. I wonder if he had any indication of heart trouble? I think it is wonderful he and his wife were able to maintain a relationship after their divorce, many can't.

Take care!

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

What a poignant, well-told story. I'm sorry for your loss. How beautiful of that woman you hardly knew to notify you. She sounds like a wonderful woman to understand you would need to know of your friend's passing right away.

I love your survival instincts. :D



Hugs, JJ

Peter said...

Hi! It's odd how we can affect other peoples lives. We go about our daily lives as usual, never thinking that the things we say or do could be brought up again years after the event. When it does, we shake our heads and ask, "What did I do or say to deserve that?. Hopefully all that they say are the good things we've done, as in your case.

Take Care,
Peter

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Paul,
Thank you. He was a terrific friend who had a run of bad luck and died way too early. I could write a book about our exploits together. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Poetikat,
Thank you for your kind words. I do not know if this is brilliant; but, it came from the heart. i appeciate your comments here. Thanks again. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,

"Old friends haunt for life, exist in the forgotten recesses of the soul, only to come out in memories, dreams and story telling."

That is true that old friends hang around for life. Steven isn't the first friend I had who died, and I hope he is the last. My buddies are always "around" whenever I am in a difficule time as I ask myself "What would they do?" Thanks JD. You are way too kind in your asessment of my writing, but your words are encouraging and appreciated. Thanks, buddy. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,
Thanks for your condolences and for your flattering words about my story. I appreciate the fact that you enjoyed this piece and it was written from the heart. Thanks again. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
I appreciate the fact that I kept you glued to the screen, and your words here are flattering. However, the next time you get some snacks from the kithcehn, grab me a beer, will ya? lol. Thanks Bob.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Muse,
Thank you for your words of syumpathy. He did have an indication of heart trouble. My frined had Esophogeal Cancer. On his way to chemotherapy at a nearby hospital, his car was struck by a drunken motorist and he was taken to the emergency room of the hospital he was headed to for chemotherapy. There, they discovered that he had several broken ribs and numerous scratches and bruises. He was in a weakened state from his treatments and his body did not withstand the crash well, inspite of the fact that he was wearing his seatbelt and the airbag deployed. An EKG revealed symptoms of cardiac trouble. He was too weak for surgery, and they monitored his cardiac problems and allowed him to finish his cancer treatments until he healed enough for surgery. he had been in remission for about three years, was back to reasonable health, and that's when he died of a heart attck. This was way too detailed to put into this story, so i left it out. But, all if it is in this answer to your kind comment. Thank you again,Muse. I appreciate you reading my work. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JJ,

"How beautiful of that woman you hardly knew to notify you. She sounds like a wonderful woman to understand you would need to know of your friend's passing right away."

You're exactly right. If it wasn't for her, It might have been days before anyone reached me about his passing. I still can't believe the extraordinary set of circumstances which led up to her e-mailing me and having to call her back. That's something I'll be grateful for for the rest of my life. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Peter,
You make a good point. I never thought about his comment that riding a sector car together is for life until the moment I learned that he died. Small things can be big things. Thanks Peter. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Peter,
You make a good point. I never thought about his comment that riding a sector car together is for life until the moment I learned that he died. Small things can be big things. Thanks Peter. -Mike.

Jack Payne said...

Poignant, engaging. It's hard to say more than that. One of the outstanding high points of your writing, Mike, is the ringing sincerity of it. This is but another exaample.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Jack,
Thank you for your kind words. Stephen was a good friend, and I had to write about his passing and what he meant to me. I appreciate you reading this post. -Mike.

Max said...

Hey Mike,

Touching article! I took my hand to my heart as I read the paragraphs...I was able to feel your pain, sadness and shock!

I am sorry for your lost...

Cheers

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Max,
Thank you for your kind words and your condolences. I appreciate your thoughts here. -Mike.