Second Death

By William McGrath

t had been a good day for Tommy O’Brien and his mom, Joanie. The pair spent a good part of the day walking in the nearby Knickerbocker Lake State Park. Ever since Tommy was a little boy, the park had been part of his life. He held fond memories of long days hiking and swimming with his parents and sister, Maggie, in the park. Like Tommy, his mother, Joanie, enjoyed nature, and she was a big proponent of going to the park. Tommy inherited his mother’s love of nature, and he studied about Knickerbocker Park and learned that the grounds of the park had been mostly left in their “natural” state. Not everything was natural, as two public pools, two golf courses, and a big picnic area had been added to make sure that people who did not care about rock formations from the last Ice Age had something to do when they entered the park.

Tommy and Joanie had been hiking along the park’s trails for a good part of thirty-five years. Tommy enjoyed hiking more than fishing, and he was particularly happy when they reached a mountain peak and looked down upon the mighty Hudson River. Joanie never rushed him when they hit a point of natural beauty, mainly because she, too, possessed a quiet appreciation of the great outdoors—an appreciation that called for silence when reaching the peak of a mountain or the edge of the majestic Hudson River. Joanie’s love of nature complemented her spirituality, and often she would go alone to the park to sit and watch the ducks as they rested in the open water of the icy lake.

Unfortunately, the amount of time that the pair spent in the park had declined precipitously in the last three years. Their reduced visits coincided with the descent of the black cloud of Alzheimer’s upon Joanie. As the disease progressed, Tommy considered walks in the park too risky. Joanie was unpredictable now, and he feared having an incident, especially if that incident was going to occur in the deep woods. Besides, a mile walk on flat ground now passed as a good day of exercise for Joanie, and the park’s shortest trail was two miles long and traversed up and down a series of hills.

It was late April and the temperature had climbed to the mid-sixties. The sun was shining and Joanie was having a good day, which meant she was walking without a limp, and she was responding when Tommy asked her to do something. Tommy looked outside and thought of the park. He still had his reservations, but he decided to push on anyway. It was the kind of day where it felt great to be outside enjoying the weather, especially if you were enjoying that weather in a park coming into spring.

Tommy and Joanie ended up staying in the park much longer than Tommy had envisioned. The beautiful weather made their stay enjoyable, and the park was still empty, as the peak summer season was still months away. There was not a cloud in the sky and the day stayed warm, but it was never hot. Their walk along the shortest trail took about two times longer than the same walk made just five years before, but Tommy did not mind. The days were getting longer, and mother and son really had nowhere to be on this day. It was after 4 p.m., which was five hours after they entered, when the pair got into their car and went home.

Once they were home, Tommy made his way to the porch, where he sat sipping a cold pint of Budweiser, letting the good feelings of the day rush over him like a warm shower. Joanie sat directly across from him on the porch in her favorite chair. As Tommy stared at his mom, he realized that she had been sitting in the chair for over five minutes. It was welcomed relief for Tommy, because Joanie rarely sat for five minutes anymore but instead shuffled endlessly. When she shuffled, Tommy would have to follow her to make sure she did not fall. She often fell because she had difficulty seeing a set of stairs or a curb that was in her path. Today, Joanie sat with her cup of Lipton tea in her Thermos cup. Tommy didn’t even worry about Joanie spilling. It was late in the day, so if she spilled, he would just take her inside and clean her up. He watched as his mom raised and lowered the tea. There were no spills today, just the slurping sound of a satisfied tea drinker. Soon Joanie’s cup was empty.

Tommy enjoyed the rest of his beer. He was thinking about getting another but then looked at his watch. It was 5:30 p.m. He decided to just sit and admire the day. He needed to start dinner, but there was no rush. Tommy had purchased two fresh slabs of striped bass at the local market. He was not a huge fan of striped bass, but he knew that it was his mom’s favorite. Tommy remembered when Joanie used to scour the local markets to find the freshest fish at the cheapest price. Tommy, too, had checked a few places when buying tonight’s meal, but he had not been as diligent as Joanie. It was spring and the striped bass were plentiful. Tommy bought some really fresh fillets from the market just down the hill. He also picked up asparagus and red potatoes to round out the dinner.

Tommy entered the kitchen and started to prepare dinner. He blackened the fish and roasted the asparagus with garlic and rosemary. Tommy was not a big fan of fish, but he was proud of himself for making such a wonderful dish. He placed the plates on the placemats on the kitchen table and placed a towel over each plate to keep things warm. He next took Joanie to the bathroom.

Tommy started the routine that the pair had crafted over the last few months. Tommy’s job was to undo Joanie’s garments down to her undergarments, after which Joanie would do the rest. Tommy fully expected to find out that Joanie had wet herself, but was pleasantly surprised when he learned that she had not. Tommy waited patiently to help his mom clean herself. It was a new thing for Tommy to clean Joanie. He had been squeamish about the arrangement at first, but as the disease continued to bankrupt Joanie’s mind, he realized he had to help her.

Today continued to be different. When the pair entered the bathroom, Joanie signaled for Tommy to wait outside. Tommy did not know what to do. He did not want to insult Joanie, but he was unsure if she could do everything herself. He decided to wait before barging in on his mom. He waited and waited and then after a few minutes, he heard the toilet paper roll rotating and then a flush. He waited for another minute and then the door flew open and Joanie stood there. She still wore the blank stare of Alzheimer’s, but there was a sense of something which Tommy could not put his finger on. Tommy inspected Joanie and did not see any stains. It was then that he realized she had gone to the bathroom by herself without suffering an accident. He led her back to the table and sat her down to eat.

Tommy and Joanie feasted on the spoils of the Hudson Valley bounty. The striped bass was very fresh and tasted delightful in the light oil and seasoning. But as good as the fish tasted, the potatoes stole the show. The tenderness of the potatoes soaked in butter and salt was irresistible. Joy entered Tommy’s heart when he realized that Joanie had eaten her whole meal. Her appetite had faded as she slowed under the heavy yoke of the disease, but not tonight. Her fish, her potatoes, and even her asparagus were gone when Tommy cleared the plates. There were some potatoes left in the pot, and Tommy considered giving more to Joanie. He decided not to, only because he had something else for her. He placed the leftovers in a bowl and wrapped them with plastic before placing them in the refrigerator.

Tommy grabbed two bowls from the kitchen cabinets and scooped out two big scoops of vanilla ice cream into each bowl. He returned to the table and gave Joanie a bowl with a spoon. Tommy let his bowl sit so that the ice cream could melt a little. While he was waiting for his to melt, he went over to help Joanie with hers. Much to his surprise, Joanie grabbed the spoon out of his hand and began to eat the dessert by herself. He watched to make sure that she did not eat too much too fast. He knew that Joanie was prone to giving herself ice cream headaches. Joanie paced quickly through the ice cream, but not quickly enough to cause problems. Satisfied that Joanie was all right, Tommy returned to his bowl and made quick work of his dessert.

With dessert completed, Tommy cleaned the bowls in the sink and then placed them into the dishwasher. He led Joanie to the front sitting room, which had a great view of the yard. Tommy opened the windows to let some air into the room. It was a clear, crisp night. It was the kind of night that cooled quickly, unlike the summer nights that took their time producing comfortable temperatures. Tommy decided that he, too, would sit with his mom in the front room and watch TV. The Mets were on tonight. They had been doing well, and Tommy was hopeful that it would be a good year.

The TV did not turn on immediately, and Tommy began to troubleshoot the problem in his mind. He recalled that his dad had issues with the sitting room TV. He remembered a loose connection to the cable plate on the wall as the cause. He looked behind the TV and found a gaggle of wires. He could not see very well and decided that he needed a flashlight to continue. He checked on Joanie, who continued to sit in her chair while she looked out the window. Tommy, content that Joanie was fine, began his search for a flashlight.

Tommy remembered that his mom kept the flashlights in a hallway closet close to the kitchen. He went to the closet and began looking for one. The closet was cluttered, and as he looked, he also organized some of the clutter. He found a flashlight in the back of the closet.

Tommy came back downstairs and carried the flashlight to the front sitting room. He popped on the flashlight and inspected the wires. One wire was disconnected from the cable outlet. Tommy popped the wire back in and tried the TV again. The picture filled the screen and Gary Cohen’s voice became the sound. The Mets had just made out, and next inning the heart of the order was coming up. There was just enough time to get Joanie ready for bed before the Mets would bat again. Tommy was sure the combination of exercise and fresh air would bring sleep quickly to Joanie.

Tommy rose from his chair and walked toward his mom. As he walked, Tommy noticed that she was smiling again. It made him so happy to see her smile. Her smile had always been a beacon of hope for him, and it lit up his life. He decided to just let her be. He could not remember Joanie being so happy in some time. Tommy grew emotional thinking how miserable his mother’s life had become while under the spell of Alzheimer’s. He missed her smile; he missed her laugh.

Tommy grabbed another pint of Budweiser. He sat back down in the chair opposite of Joanie and began to watch the game. The Mets were playing the Marlins. It was a pitching duel. Dillon Gee was pitching for the Mets, and Javier Vázquez was pitching for the Marlins. Tommy watched as both pitchers mowed down their opposition. After three innings of scoreless ball, Tommy had finished his second Budweiser. He decided it was as good a time as any to use the bathroom. He looked over at his mom to see if she needed anything and suddenly realized that she had fallen asleep. He debated letting her just sit there asleep, but decided it would not be a smart thing to do. She had settled awkwardly in the chair, and he knew that she would have a stiff neck in the morning if he let her stay in that position.

His mom had become a light sleeper lately, but it took a good shake from Tommy to wake her. He led her back into her room, where he helped her get into her nightgown. He next led her into the bathroom, and this time Joanie let Tommy help her go to the bathroom. She also allowed him to brush her teeth. Tommy next led Joanie to the bed and tucked her in and kissed her lightly on her forehead. He whispered, “Good night, Mom,” in her ear. And then another odd thing happened. Joanie whispered, “Good night, Tommy.” It had been weeks since she had spoken so fluently, but Tommy was happy that she had just said good night. He looked at his mom, hoping that she would talk some more. He really missed her. But she had already fallen asleep.

He was about to lock her door as he left the room but stopped. He knew that for safety, it was better to lock Joanie’s door because of the night walking, but he decided to try with the door unlocked tonight.

Tommy proceeded back to the kitchen, where he grabbed another beer from the refrigerator before returning to the front room. He sat down in his chair and resumed enjoying the baseball and cool air of the late spring day. The Mets had scored one run on a pair of doubles, and were leading the game one to nothing. That was the last thing Tommy remembered about the game.

Tommy awoke to the sound of some movie blasting on the TV. He quickly went over and turned it off. He next noticed that it was so late that it was now early. A dim ray of light was visible in the east. The robins were singing, welcoming the new day. Tommy had a connection to robins. Even while he was in prison, he remembered their songs penetrating the barred windows to welcome spring. He sat for a second, relaxing to the melody of their perfect song.

Tommy guessed by the emergence of light it was around 5:45 a.m. He walked into the kitchen on his way to check on his mother. He looked at the clock on the microwave and smirked when he saw the time was 5:50. Not a bad guess, he thought. Tommy next visited the bathroom before walking down the hall to check on his mom.

He remembered that he had left the door unlocked, and he suddenly became frightened. What if Mom had wandered? He had been out cold, and he was sure he would have missed her. The only thing that reassured him was that the door to his mother’s room looked undisturbed. He knew if Joanie passed through the door, it would be wildly ajar because Joanie rarely closed a door behind her. He turned the knob on the door and went inside.

His mom was in bed under the covers. He went over to kiss her on the forehead. As he placed his lips on her forehead, he noticed that she was cold. It was not very cold in the room and so he lifted her blanket to feel down around her hip. When he placed his hand down around her hip, he realized that Joanie was stiff. He backed away from his mom for a moment and looked at her. The dawn outside grew in intensity, and as it did the light trickled into Joanie’s room. In the light, Tommy saw that she was still smiling, and if he did not know she had passed, he would have sworn she looked as comfortable as he had seen her in months.

He grabbed her hand and squeezed, only able to say, “I love you, Mom, I always will.” Then while holding her hand, he recited an Our Father and a Hail Mary. He next pulled up a chair that sat at the foot of her bed and just sat staring at his mother. Tommy could still see Joanie’s bold, beautiful face through the veil of age. He remembered Joanie’s positive personality. She had been his strength for so many years. He thanked God for making her his mother. He was always proud of her because she stood up for what she believed in, and she always thought independently, never feeling compelled to follow the crowd. But most of all, Tommy remembered how much Joanie loved her family. She had proven her love again and again by going the extra mile for everyone.

Tommy suddenly felt a swirl of emotions. He never realized how sad he would be when this day came. People had warned him that losing Joanie would be hard, even if he thought that she had died already under the weight of Alzheimer’s. He did not believe people when they told him this, until today. He was so sad that he was nearly paralyzed.

At the same time, Tommy felt relief and joy. All the indignities his mom had suffered at the hands of the horrible Alzheimer’s had ended. Her second death had come in a peaceful, dignified way. She was Joanie again, not Joanie with Alzheimer’s.

Tommy remained seated at the foot of Joanie’s bed for a half hour before rising from his chair. He went to the kitchen and made coffee. He poured himself a steaming mug and left it black. He went to the front porch to enjoy the sunrise. A scout crow cawed in the distance as the sun shone down on the budding trees. The crow made Tommy think about his mom and how she believed that crows were guides sent to take us to the next world. He placed his mug down on the porch and listened to the crow, all the time wondering if the spirit of his father or his aunt was contained in the bird.

Tommy next made a mental list of the people he needed to call. He would first call his sister and then the undertaker before calling neighbors and friends. He wanted to make sure to get it right because it was Mom. As he reviewed the list, he realized it had grown shorter. There were fewer relatives alive, and several friends had passed as well.

Sufficiently satisfied that he had the complete list, Tommy dropped his guard and let the bow wave of grief pour over him. As it did, he sobbed. He had always known that the second death was coming. The one person in this world who had loved him unconditionally was now gone. He could not think of another person who had done so much for him. He suddenly felt frightened that he was all alone in the world. But before he could spiral down out of control, he grabbed hold of himself and quietly reassured himself that he would hold it together and make sure that he did things right for his mom.

Tommy took some consolation, but was still very sad. It was approaching 7 a.m. It was 4 a.m. on the West Coast. He knew he had to call his sister first. He just was not ready to face things yet, so he sat peacefully thinking of his mom and her wonderful life.

After a time, Tommy rose from the deck and began the process of notifying friends and family. He called his sister Maggie first. The pair shared a good cry, and Maggie let Tommy know that she would be home tonight. Tommy next called the undertaker. The undertaker told him that he would get dressed and be over shortly. He also told Tommy to call the police and explain to them that his mom had passed in her sleep. The undertaker told Tommy that the police would send a car around to the house. The undertaker needed the police there so they could release Joanie’s body to him.

The two calls were exhausting and afterward Tommy returned to Joanie’s room, where his mom lay smiling. He imagined that she would be smiling forever now, and that made him really happy. But what made Tommy the happiest was that Mom had died in her own bed, under her own covers. Her second death had come with dignity.

 

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William McGrath has spent the last thirty-five years working in Corporate America. Mr. McGrath has always had a desire to write and now that youngest of his four children is heading to college, he and his wife of 32 years, Liz McGrath, have jointly agreed that there is no time like the present to start writing. Mr. McGrath has written three novels and several short stories. Second Death is his first published piece and is an excerpt from his novel “Snapped”. The story is dedicated to his mom who suffers from Alzheimer’s.


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