The last story I told my mother was about how Mookie the Dog rescued a kitten. It happened three years ago this week. Today, I’d like to tell it to you, just as she would’ve, with enough painfully intricate detail to make you want to run screaming.
Somewhere, probably within ten miles of here, this scrawny little black and white kitten has grown into a fat, healthy three-year old house cat, all because he had the good sense to follow a dog that should have been named Jesus. It’s a good little story, and you not only get to hear it, you get to know The Dude’s Grandma Duffy a little bit along the way. Anyone who ever met her would tell you it’s your lucky day.
If she had one glaring weakness, or one great strength, it would have to be the incredible twists, turns, detours, asides and complete non-sequiturs that my mom would take you on when she told a story. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, so I guess it was a strength. People enjoyed listening to her, she enjoyed listening to other people, and she remembered every single thing anyone ever told her. Therefore, if she were telling you a story about running into someone at a store, you would come away from the experience learning not only the person’s life story, but more than likely the history of the store as well, plus an overview of the inventory, some background on the owner and his employees, and the parking situation outside. But if you were, on any given weekday, trying to get work done, or take care of a child and his animals, make dinner and clean the house all at the same time, and the phone rang, and Mom had a story, and you didn’t want to be rude, because you were rude last time, you would be sucked down into the abyss, and the hands of the clock would start spinning around like they do in cartoons and old movies.
So we had our fights in her last couple of years before she died because it drove me crazy to get stuck on the phone when I had pressing matters to see to. I’m really not a phone guy in the best of circumstances. But the problem was that Mom had nothing to see to, nothing to do really except be in pain from Parkinson’s Disease. And though her body was shot, her mind remained sharp as a needle until her last days. She became a prisoner of a body that didn’t work anymore. Yet she had spent her whole life busy at something, and had always had an innate need to connect to other people, to be part of the action. She raged like hell against the dying of the light. Her mind was a housefly trying to get through a plate glass window.
In 2001, after 46 years in Valley Stream, she and my father moved from Duffy’s Creek to a “life care community” in Suffolk County, about 50 miles from here, and sold the house to us. If you go to live in a life care community, you start in a cottage, then you go to an assisted living facility, then you go to the skilled nursing floor, then you slide into the back of a Caddy. Mom went through the four steps of life care in the space of 11 years, the last three in two years. And through those years, most of our catching up was done over the phone. The problem was that a lot of the time I had nothing to share except the stress of the daily grind, which was not the slightest bit interesting to me, so I really didn’t want to be on the phone. More than once I was unnecessarily nasty about it. But she got even. She died.
Oh, and I should mention that no one was allowed to call HER between 7:00 and 7:30 weeknights because she’d be watching Jeopardy, which I got her hooked on. My entire goal in life some weekdays in the winter is to get to the point where I can sit down on the comfy couch and watch Jeopardy on the DVR. Some days that doesn’t happen until 9:30 or so. Mom never learned how to work a DVR. It wasn’t her style. But God forbid you went a week without calling, or not calling back in due time if you let the answering machine pick it up because you were tossing chicken cutlets. She’d attack with all the Irish Mother guilt in her arsenal.
So I made it a point to call her on Thursday August 16, 2012 and tell her what happened that day. I knew she would appreciate it, and I had time to talk, and to listen if necessary. It was a story about Mookie, and she loved Mookie. She would introduce him to people when he came out to see her at the life care community as “the youngest member of my family.” And Mookie fell in love with Grandma Duffy instantly because she was the first person to sneak him human food under the table, specifically McDonald’s french fries. Mookie loves everybody, but after those french fries he always had a special place in his heart, and under the table, for Grandma Duffy.
On the morning of Thursday August 16th, 2012, Mookie and The Dude and I were walking on the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek. On our side, most of the backyards have a little buffer zone between the property line and the creek (we encroached on it and built a wetland garden). On the Left Bank, there’s a path that starts at a four-lane road and winds along the creek, with short streets dead-ending along it. It used to connect to a bridge that connected to another path that connects to Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good. They took the bridge down about ten years ago because (they said) it was getting old and unsafe. The high school kids had trouble behaving themselves on the path leading to the bridge. Thirty years worth of Valley Stream kids had found fun and trouble hanging out by that bridge, I among them. Lots of people got real nostalgic when they took it down.
So there we were, down by where the bridge isn’t, and Mookie was sticking his nose under the gigantic holly bushes at the end of Elderberry Road. Under one of the bushes I heard a tiny little, “mew!” And my very first reaction was, “oh, crap.” This whole area is rife with stray cats (You can’t swing a cat without hitting one). My parents actually fed a small colony of them at one point, until it became a large colony. They kept one cat that moved out east with them and ended up living 15 years or so.
We have three cats. They live inside. The last thing I needed was for The Dude to find a litter of kittens under a bush.
Mookie heard the “mew!. He knew exactly what he had found and was very excited about it, as you could imagine. But The Dude didn’t hear it at first. (Sometimes he’s in a different stratosphere, even when he’s five feet away). I gave Mookie a quick pull and a “leave it!” He looked at me and expressed his disappointment and reluctant acceptance, as only he can. We started walking onward where the path veers away from the Creek and goes behind some houses.
And the kitten came out of the bushes and started following Mookie along the path. I immediately thought of the “Are You My Mother?” story. The little bird is left alone in the nest and flies around asking people, and things, if they are his mother. That story had a happy ending. I wasn’t feeling too good about this one.
We turned around and walked back towards the kitten, who at that point turned chicken and ran back under the bushes. There were no other cats to be seen. Although I didn’t express my thought process to The Dude, if figured the kitten had been either separated from or abandoned by it’s mother, and he would probably just lay under that bush and starve and roast until he was food for whatever eats dead kittens around here. Unless we rescued him.
And we couldn’t rescue him. In theory, sure, but in reality, well, we have three cats. Sunny, the oldest, is a very mellow zen master. She’s even trained Mookie to stop chasing her and sit his fat behind down when she comes in the room. They keep each other company. Then there’s Allie. Allie is a sweet, fat little ball of fur who is scared of her own shadow, and only leaves the attic at night when Mookie is asleep on The Dude’s bed behind a closed door.
And then there’s Lyle. Lyle is gangsta His back legs are too long, so he even walks gansta. Or really, more like a gunslinger that just got off his horse. He spends a lot of time catting around at night, until he gets bored and harasses me out of a dead sleep to get up and feed him. He does this every single night. And once he wakes me up, usually by batting at my eyelids or dropping his ass directly on my face, I have to pee anyway, ’cause I’m a guy in his 50’s. So I get up and I feed the cats. It’s gotten to the point where I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m on work nights, even though I don’t have to get up until 5, just so I know I can avoid being attacked and get back to sleep for a few hours. It’s a sad state of affairs, but Lyle decided from the beginning that I was his mother, and he’s very attached to me, although I regularly call him abusive names. Therefore, of course, Lyle is highly jealous of Mookie, who will follow me, follow me wherever I may go. Lyle will be happy to try and rip Mookie a new snout if he gets too close. And Mookie can’t understand how anyone could possibly not like him, ’cause everybody loves Mookie, so he keeps coming back for more abuse. Lyle and Mookie have a classic dysfunctional co-dependence.
So right away I knew that I was not going to be able to adopt this kitten, because Lyle would more than likely kill him the first chance he got. He’s a stone-cold killa gansta gunslinger. Ask the mouse that got into the house once. Actually, you can’t. He’s dead. Lyle snuffed his ass.
But I called Trisha at work and asked her anyway. Honey, Mookie found a kitten and it followed us, can we keep him?
Now, mind you, Trisha will be the first to tell you that she had planned to become a crazy cat lady but married me instead, AND she had three cats when we met, whom I loved as my own for the rest of their seven years. So we’re talking about a woman who has a soft spot for cats. And this is what she said (verbatim) when I told her what we found and asked if she wanted a fourth cat: “NOOOOOOOO!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! NO WAY!!!”
So I called my pals at Broadway Vet in Hewlett. I knew that they often had kittens for adoption sitting in a cage in the waiting room. And I knew that Dr. Glenda Wexler had a soft spot for Mookie, and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. They reluctantly agreed to take the kitten if I could catch him. No problem. I had a pet carrier, plenty of cat food and a dog named Jesus. The thought occurred to me, though, that the mother might come back for the kitten, and that I was sticking my nose into cat business that shouldn’t concern me. But I also knew that being a feral cat is nothing but a one-way ticket to Palookaville, so it was in the kitten’s best interest to leave the wilds of the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek behind.
We drove over with the cat carrier, the cat food and Jesus the Dog, who of course found the kitten right away. I had The Dude hold Mookie while I got the kitten to eat some cat food off a plate, then put the plate inside the crate. And just like that, the kitten was in the back seat of a minivan on the way to his new life in the Five Towns, no longer a feral animal. The entire process took about an hour. The kitten was adopted within a week. He has no doubt grown into a beautiful cat, and I wish we could’ve kept him. But I like Lyle well enough, even if he is an asshole.
The first person I wanted to tell my Dog Rescues Cat story to was my mother. I called her that night and we had a nice long chat, and she listened to every word of the story and asked the right follow-up questions and pressed for the right details. I knew that this would give her a story to tell my father, who takes lots of naps and doesn’t like staying on the phone very long. Then she could tell her neighbors, and the people who took care of her, and her dinner companions at the community center (which we called “The Big House”) where she and my father ate every night. Then she could tell the waitress and the busboy. It was a good story. A yellow lab rescues a kitten. You can’t beat that. I knew that she would see that it was conversational gold. And now it was hers.
Less than 24 hours later, on Friday August 17th, my sister called. Mom had been taken to the hospital. They had found her “non-responsive.” I immediately knew it was the beginning of the end from just those words. In 82 years, no one had ever described Joan Duffy as non-responsive.
And I had a decision to make. The next day, Saturday August 18th, was or annual one-day trip upstate for Copake Falls Day. What is Copake Falls Day? I’ll let Mookie explain in his words: “We go for a long ride in the car, we say hi to a lot of people, we go swimming, we walk around, we sit in the shade, then finally we walk up a hill where there’s music playing and people hand you big slabs of barbecued meat, which turns out to be what Mookies like best. Then you sleep in the car all the way home.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We haven’t missed it since they started doing it seven years ago.
I knew Mom was going to die, but nobody had officially told me that yet. I figured the worst that could happen is she would slip away during the 16 hours we’d be unavailable, and if she did, I could rationalize to myself that because Mookie rescued a kitten, and we had a nice, long phone conversation about it, and there was nothing she loved more than a nice long phone conversation, not to mention Mookie, so I could always say that we went out on a high note. I just didn’t feel the need to rush to her bedside. I thought of Albert Camus’ character in “The Stranger” – which of course Mom turned me on to – who is found to be a menace to society because he didn’t show emotion when his mother died.
But she wasn’t dead yet. And I have two older brothers and two older sisters. Mom would be covered for Saturday, and I’d be out there as soon as I could on Sunday.
So how did I know she was going to die? Well, In the true spirit of long-winded storytelling, it’s important to interject two details before we go on here. One is about her mother, my Grandma Scully. Julia Scully was a widow from 1958 until she died in 1989. She decided shortly before my grandfather died to drag him out of Astoria, Queens and follow my parents to the Creek in Valley Stream when the house next door to them was up for sale. William Scully died of complications from diabetes within a year and Julia Scully stayed next door and systematically drove my parents nuts for the better part of three decades. When the paramedics carried Grandma Scully out of her house in 1983 after suffering a stroke, she lingered in a nursing home for six years until she died at the age of 98. And my mother told me, and hundreds of other people more than likely, that Julia “thought she was going to write her own script. She thought she’d die in that house and never have to leave it.” And the point was, of course, that, as my English Teacher, Devout Catholic mother would say, quoting the gospel of Matthew, “we know not the day nor the hour.”
The other detail takes us to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. And buckle yourself in, ’cause this a big detour. Mohonk is a stunningly beautiful place. It has no equal. It’s also stunningly expensive to stay there. But Mom didn’t care. She heard about it from a friend and decided in 1982 that she and my father would stay there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Then in 1992, she dipped into the cash that Grandma Scully had piled in her house by collecting rent from the buildings she owned in Astoria (my father called it “The Scully Fortune”) to bring the entire family, fifteen of us at the time, up to stay for a weekend. Like a bunch of friggin’ Kennedys we were. A big Irish Catholic family all gathered up in suits and dresses for dinner, playing tennis and going to the spa or out on canoes on the lake during the day. I got to see how really wealthy people relaxed and had fun on vacation. I have to say, they have it down. Mom obviously had the time of her life because we did it again ten years later for their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002. There were 18 of us by that time. We had a wonderful time. I don’t want to know what it cost.
But that was Mom. She loved a good party, and she thought it was worth it. My father, bless his soul, was madly in love with her from the day she helped him out in 10th grade math class at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. If she wanted it, he did what he could to make it happen. When they left the city to come to the suburbs, Mom said she wouldn’t buy a house unless she could see water from it. That’s why you’re reading duffyscreek.com. It was the best water they could afford at the time. Us too.
So when 2012 rolled around, and Mom was already separated by a floor in the skilled nursing building from Dad because he couldn’t take care of her anymore, and against the advice of just about everybody, she said fuck it, we’re all going back to Mohonk for a 60th Anniversary Reunion. Matching tee shirts and everything. She tortured my brother who handles the finances and my sister who handles the health care for the better part of the year over making the arrangements. She was going to get back there if it killed her. My father’s opinion? Whatever your mother wants.
They were transported from Long Island to New Paltz in the back of an ambulette. They were accompanied by two home health care aids, who stayed with my parents the entire weekend. They were delightful women. Mom had a list of everything she wanted to do while she was up there from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, including having somebody push her around the grounds and going to the outdoor picnic on Sunday afternoon.
And it rained more that weekend that it rained all summer. It rained buckets, for hours at a time. And Mom was pissed, as only Mom could get pissed, until I told her to look around. We were on the porch of the Mountain House, with the rain dancing off the lake below and off the roof above us. And everybody was there, because it was raining, and there was nowhere else to go. At the 40th and 50th Anniversary Weekends, my brothers and sisters and their families went their own way during the day and met up at meals. Now we were all stuck together, just talking, enjoying each others’ company. But I told her, If the sun was shining you’d be sitting here by yourself. You paid for all these people. Now you get to see them. And more importantly, you get to talk to them. Enjoy it.
She thanked me for changing her attitude. And though the pain she was in wouldn’t quit, and it was tough for her to keep up, she knew she had lived her dream. She had pulled it off. She got the band together to rock Mohonk Mountain House one last time.
Mookie and The Dude and I went out to see them about a week and a half before she died, a few days before I got to tell her the incredible saga of how her favorite dog rescued a kitten. We took her and my fahter outside to the patio of the nursing home – it drove her crazy that she couldn’t go outside any time she damn well pleased – and we sat and we talked.
And we did go to Copake Falls Day and did everything we always do and nobody died that day. The next day, Sunday August 19th, I brought my father to the hospital to see my mother. It was not the first time I had done that. The other times, she got a little better and they released her. This time, as my father sat with my mother, the doctor consulted me with the results of all the tests they had done. The short version was that she had pneumonia, and when combined with all the things that were already wrong with her, she would probably be gone within a week. And then I got to walk back into the hospital room where my mother slept and my father watched, and I, the forty-nine year old baby of the family, got tell him that the woman he had loved for nearly 70 years was dying.
I tried for a good five minutes. He wasn’t getting it. He didn’t want to get it. I went to get the doctor. He tried for another five minutes. Dad finally acknowledged what we were telling him. The doctor left the room and we sat in silence for as minute. He didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried. We’re not really criers. He just said something that will stay with me forever, something I say every time I try to acknowledge someone’s grief and express my sympathies. You know what my father said when he found out my mother was dying? He said: “No matter how much time you have, you always want a little more.”
Mom woke up long enough to talk to me a little bit. She was back to being responsive, at least for about ten minutes of every hour. I told her that I we had gone to Copake Falls Day the day before and she understood, and she was happy to hear it. She’d never been to Copake Falls, but she knew I loved it, so she loved it. After I gave them some time alone, I brought Dad back home. On the way out of the hospital, we stopped for a little snack and a coffee to go for the driver at the cafeteria. My dad wandered away for a minute and came back with the biggest black and white cookie I’ve ever seen in all my life. I thought that was a very intelligent response to situation. A yin-yang full of sugar. I drove home to tell Joanie Duffy’s youngest daughter-in-law and youngest grandson that they had to come back with me tomorrow and say goodbye.
We wanted to do something special, and since The Dude was seven years old and was really impressed with his own reading ability, we prepped him to read one of Mom’s favorite poems to her, W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree.” Once he started reading, she started reciting it from memory right along with him, right through to the end. It was an amazing thing to witness. Mom was an high school English teacher – “a goddamn good English teacher”- as she told me in confidence on her deathbed. She loved literature, but she also loved all kinds of music and all kinds of art, and she kept everything she had ever experienced in her head right until the last day. I could’ve played “Name That Tune” with her as she was dying of pneumonia and she would’ve batted 1.000.
Trisha took The Dude for a little walk around the hospital so Mom and I could have some one on one time. That fifteen minutes or so was great theater. There were certain people in her inner circle that Mom would feel comfortable enough with that she would curse like a sailor when she got together with them. I was fortunate to be one of those people. We regularly laced our conversations with f-bombs and characterized people as assholes and pieces of shit, usually Republicans. So I should have been ready for her last little bit of passive-aggressive snarkiness, as it was one of the great gifts she passed on to her youngest boy.
I told her I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I got annoyed at her, that I should have been more patient, no matter what I was up against. because the pain she had suffered in the last ten years of her life was a monster, all the more monstrous because her mind had stayed so sharp. I was especially sorry for not taking the time to call more often, or for chasing her off the phone. “Or lettin’ that goddamn answering machine pick up.” she added. Yeah, that too.
I told her I was sorry and I hoped she could forgive me. She looked straight at me through all the pain and the fog and hung the wiseass smirk that I learned so well from her. “Naaaaah,” she said, “Fuck you. I’m takin’ that one to my grave.”
I believe I replied with something along the lines of, “well played, old lady.” It didn’t matter. She had a heart as big as an Adirondack mountain, and she loved me with all of it, every day from May of 1963 on. We shared music and poetry and baseball and art and gardening and animals and food and all the things that make your life your life. She taught me what living is. But she also took no shit. She’d hit you with the verbal frying pan to the head with no mercy if you had it coming. And I had it coming.
Later, she told my sister, “I think this is really hard on John. He’s still my baby you know.” She knew.
By the time I got out on Wednesday, she wasn’t talking anymore. They had moved her from the hospital back to hospice care at the nursing home so my father could be with her. They talked Wednesday morning, somebody took Dad to lunch, and when they got back, she wasn’t talking anymore. and she died late Thursday night. I didn’t bring Mookie to see her before she died, because of all the people who would’ve said what the hell are you bringing a dog in here for, but I brought him to see Grandpa as we all gathered Friday morning to start the send off.
She had a great turnout for an 82-year-old woman who had moved 50 miles from her home. Well over a hundred people. One of her oldest friends, a nun, said to me, “we have a new saint.”
I can’t help it. She made me what I am. I smiled and chuckled and said, “well…I don’t know about that.” Not quite sure how the nun actually took that, but she smiled back.
It was tough on The Dude. I could see it in his eyes when he saw her at the wake. I lost my own Grandma Duffy – Molly Gerahty Duffy of County Longford, Ireland- in 1971, at the same age he was in 2012. They wouldn’t let me see her at the wake. I had to sit outside. But I snuck a look at her lying in the coffin, and the image stays with me to this day. We decided that there was no point to shielding The Dude from anything. And it was actually gratifying to see him show raw, unguarded, profound human emotion, and gratifying to know that he loved his Grandma Duffy deeply and would never forget her. She had worried that he would never get to know her. She worried about a lot of stuff that never happened. She passed that one on to me as well.
I sang and played one of her favorite songs at her funeral: “Morning Has Broken”. I also wanted to perform “Four Strong Winds”, which she loved: “‘Cause our good times are all gone / and I’m bound for movin’ on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” (How many people do you know whose mothers asked them to mix them CD’s?). The nice people at the Catholic church would not accept “Four Strong Winds” at a funeral mass, but “Morning Has Broken” is on the acceptable list – “in the canon” as they put it to me. I thought it was kind of funny that it was written by a guy named Yusef Islam.
And when it was all over, when she was buried in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery, I was able to let my mind wander across the whole course of events of her final month, and back over her whole life. I don’t know where I was when a magical thought occurred to me. I was probably in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek that she loved so much. I thought about her incredibly stubborn insistence that she get to The Mohonk Mountain House that summer. I thought about how she rolled her eyes when she talked about how her own mother believed she could dictate the terms of her own death.
“But you did.” I said to her memory. “You went out like a rock star. You knew your body could never handle that trip, and you were in awful pain the whole time, but you did it anyway, ’cause nobody was going to tell you you couldn’t live while you were still alive. You wrote your own script.”
Well played, old lady.