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 Friend” can be read here. It was written the morning after he passed away.
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