Scorched Earth or At Least We Had The Porch

It’s New Year’s Day, 2019 as I begin this post. Of my 25 posts since June of 2015, this one will easily win the award for most depressing. I apologize for that in advance. The fact is, though, I can’t complain at all right now. I’m camped out on one of the comfy couches in our little warm and dry Creek Room, surrounded by contented furry beasts, half-watching the Odd Couple, a show that I first saw sitting on a couch in this house on a Friday night with my mom when I was 9 years old. Unlike many things, it’s still funny, and unlike my mom, I can still see it. My wife, Trisha, who loves me and knows me better than anyone ever has or ever will, knows how much I love shopping malls (like hemorrhoids) or going anywhere on New Year’s Day, and has therefore blessedly volunteered to take Jack, who’s almost 15 (shudder), to the Apple Store to see what the Geniuses can do with his Mac Book battery. I have the first of seven recently-made quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce all ready to go for dinner, one of the many things I’ve recently had time to get around to by virtue of having the last eleven days off from work. I tell you all this so that you may understand that, although I get up disgustingly early and work hard all day for what I have – when I’m not on eleven day vacations – I am above all a stupidly lucky individual, and I have been for a long, long time now. I think that’s important to know.

Because now I’m going to tell you how much everything sucks.

Out our windows on this New Year’s Day, the creek still flows past our little house as it flowed past farms seventy-five years ago and past fisherman from the Rockaway tribe seven hundred and fifty years before that. But last October, the chain-link fences and the Big Machines from the Town of Hempstead finally rolled in on the opposite bank. The $3 Million New York Rising Rehabilitation of Duffy’s Creek – shoreline resiliency to protect against future storms and aesthetic improvements because people like nice things – is underway.

This project was first proposed in 2013, the year after Hurricane Sandy changed everything in this place and the death of my mother and father-in-law changed us. The path and the open space across the creek was a familiar place, the same view out the kitchen window every time you looked, changing only with the seasons and the tides, unaltered since I rode it’s bumps and potholes on my little red Schwinn, looking for bunnies. But it had become a shabby, outdated place, and when we learned about the plan to make it cleaner and more native-friendly, we were optimistic about the change. Then five years went by and nothing happened. And we had a lot of cynical conversations about that.

Then last year, 2018, something happened. Lots. First, at the end of the summer, we discovered a giant crack in the majestic old oak tree that looked over our yard from the yard next door since before they were yards. My neighbor saw the danger immediately and had the tree taken down the following week. And we knew that losing the presence of that tree was going to be as joltingly nasty as someone opening up the blinds in dark, cool room where you’ve been sleeping peacefully for nineteen years, and that it was. Then, in October, in came the Big Machines, and the first thing they did was take down three more majestic old trees that graced our view and took care of our birds.

Then the Big Machines ripped out the Phragmites. They are, of course, an invasive species. More pleasant, well-mannered native plants will be planted to replace them. But my father, who doesn’t remember them now, called them Woozy-Woozies back then, and we picked them and he’d tickle my face with the seed heads and I did the same thing with my own little boy. And two of the first signs of spring on Duffy’s Creek were when the white-throated sparrows, getting ready to fly north, started to peep amongst each other in the phragmites at sunrise, and the rowdy bands of blackbirds gathered there later in the day to chat loudly about the winter vacations.

As the Great Rising progressed, the Big Machines ripped up what was left of the winding blacktop path, removed every last blade of grass and began dumping sandy fill, creating the surface of the moon with moving water that we currently see out our windows. With the trees and the Woozy-Woozies gone, and it being winter and all, it’s a damn depressing site. The birds come around when I fill up the bird feeders, but there are fewer of them. The ducks have all but abandoned us. It’s like the scorched earth left behind after a forest fire. But I’ve read everything that’s been put into words about this project, and seen every artist rendering. I’m optimistic that it will be just wonderful when it’s all finished. In those time-lapse videos of forest regrowth after a fire, everything looks pleasant and green and healthy in seemingly no time at all. You just have to have a little faith and let nature do the rest.

I’m a born optimist and I’ll prove it to you: On November 29th, I turned my left knee the wrong way and it’s pretty much hurt like an open stab wound ever since. X-Rays revealed a sprain in the interior cruciate ligament. I have to see Trisha’s pain management guy, or somebody. It may require some sort of knives or needles or something to put it right, but right now I know nothing except that Mookie’s pissed ‘cause I keep cutting the walks short. However, I am absolutely convinced that I will be loading kayaks on my car and climbing mountains without pain this summer, although I have no physical proof that this will be the case. I just feel like it’s going to work out ok, because it always does. Sometimes, magical thinking works.

Then again, I suppose it’s real easy to be an optimistic when you’ve been as stupidly lucky as I’ve been. But then again again, it’s hard to stay upbeat when you live in America in 2019 and you believe in silly, old-fashioned notions like compassion, accountability, justice and decency.

Out beyond the creek, the systematic destruction of America ordered by Trump’s Russian Master slithers like a snake into its third year. Children in cages, racists empowered, the environment willfully ransacked, the economy a ticking time bomb. Every day brings another tweet or news report with one more nail in the coffin of the physical and moral fabric of this country. Unthinkable shit is gong down before our eyes. Looking at what’s happening right now, I can’t help but conjuring up the metaphor of looking out the kitchen window at our creek in its current state. Everything that had value to us has been attacked, ripped out and smothered with dirt. We can live with the view from our backyard, I suppose, because we know it will evolve into something new and beautiful in its own right, even if it takes a couple of years. But you’d have to be a real touched-in-the-head optimist to believe that any good is coming out of the Russian Occupation of America, now, wouldn’t you?

But for the grace of God, any one of us could be the one trying to get the tear gas out of our eyes, or trying to find out where our child has been taken after seeking asylum and a second chance in what was once a country of promise, the reward for a 2,269 mile journey to escape God knows what. I don’t suppose I’d be particularly optimistic if that were my situation. I don’t suppose I could be much of an optimist right now if my livelihood was put into jeopardy by a fight over a goddamn wall, or if I had to absorb the looks of hate that my hajib or my turban earned me on line at the supermarket, or if I were a scientist studying climate change and told that none of what I do matters.

Pictures of the Year

But last November, people voted. Lots and lots of pissed off people. The only major elections the Republicans won were the ones they blatantly cheated in, and they almost lost those, too. Once the elections were over, those same Republicans, led by the evil bastard himself, doubled-down on the same hate and scare tactics that people had just overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, so we can safely conclude that they didn’t learn a damn thing and will be beaten into near-extinction in elections this year and next. Meanwhile, more and more people are speaking out more and more as they get more and more pissed off. And they’re joining forces against a common enemy. And whether it takes this year or next to get rid of Trump and start cleaning up this damn mess, you can bet both of these things will happen. We’ll get rid of Trump, and we’ll start cleaning up the damn mess, though it will take a long time. My creek view will be back long before we undo the all the damage, but I have full faith that the spirit of America will grow back out of this scorched earth, and be healthier for it. This Age of Darkness will be followed by a true enlightenment, and if we survive the climate upheaval, people will look back on now and say what the fuck.

See? Optimism.

A bodhisattva – as well as being a kick-ass Steely Dan song – is a Buddhist who has delayed his attainment of Nirvana even though he could get there easily enough if he wanted to. He can’t be truly at peace as long as others are suffering. I’m not a Buddhist (and I don’t even play one on TV) but I get it: I can’t be as completely content as the well-fed, pampered furry beasts who surround me in this room, though I am well-fed and pampered beast myself, so long as there is this level of suffering around me and I feel powerless before it. I’m glad Mookie and the cats don’t have to know about demons pouring the water out of jugs left out in the desert to purposely cause the suffering of migrants, or people brazenly stealing elections. They’re in their own little Dog and Cat Nirvana, and I need their bliss.

Because beyond the manufactured (and apparently, ordered) suffering created by Trump and his enablers, too much suffering hit my circle of people last year, although who can say how much is too much. I personally don’t want to know. All I do know is that people died who were as important to the people they left behind as the two people whom I share this little house with are to me, and they left a lot of scorched earth on the surface of a lot of hearts. And this of course, scares me, as it well should. Every day I wake up is the day my luck could run out. The day of the terrorist attack, the school shooting, the killer storm, the accidental fire, the car accident, the fatal illness. It’s why I pray, though mostly not on my knees, ‘cause one of them hurts.

I know two families who lost young people in 2018. The first was a young man in his early 30’s who died suddenly in March from an accidental overdose, the second a young woman in her 20’s who died in September after a long and ferocious fight against cancer.

The young man’s father is one of my oldest friends. He and his wife had already lost a son at 17 seven years before. He grew up Catholic like myself, but has evolved through Buddhism into something of an agnostic. Despite these tragedies, he goes on. He woke up one day and his son was gone – again- and he couldn’t do anything about it – again – but grieve and move ahead. I know he suffers, but he assigns no reasons or higher meaning to what happened. It just happened, and it sucked like nothing else. But the sun keeps coming up, and he still finds reasons to smile.

The young woman’s mother is a Camp Lavigerie buddy, someone I’ve become friends with through our shared love of a magic place in the Adirondacks. She grew up Catholic like myself and has kept her belief and faith alive like a fire in her heart that glows out of her. She’s a sharer, and has documented her struggle to overcome and find meaning in the loss of her daughter and the effect its had on herself and her family, an excruciating process she watched happen before her eyes in slow motion over years. And from what she’s shared and written, I’ve learned two things: One is the thing that we all need to learn a million times over the course of our whole lives, and that is to cherish now. The other is that despite having the worse thing happen to you that can happen to you, she still finds reasons to smile.

Me, I was indoctrinated from birth with the inner faith in a higher being who will somehow protect my family and spare us from this level of tragedy, or at least will comfort me if they are somehow “chosen”. At the same time, I have 55 and a half years of life experience that has fostered a sense of inner doubt and dread, constantly leading me away from faith and towards the unsettling conclusion that it isn’t anything more than dumb luck.

And you can’t compare these tragedies to each other, much as our brains are geared that way. One young person who should still be alive gets sick, stays sick and doesn’t get better, ultimately passes away. Another young person is alive one day, dead the next day and shouldn’t be. It comes down to pick your poison. I can’t be as devotedly religious or as stoically existential as these friends of mine are. I guess I fall somewhere in between. And I can’t fathom how I would go on if I lost someone that close to me. I can’t even fathom losing my dog or my cats. But these friends of mine, they both go on. And they both find reasons to smile.

But the sadness I felt for the suffering these people and their families have gone through -and the pounding in my head when my thoughts circle around to the needless suffering of Trump’s Nazi America – was with me a lot of the time last year, though I couldn’t really say that any of it was my suffering in any way. But being something of a bodhisattva, I found it hard to enjoy my lack of reason to suffer. Between people dying young and babies in the cages, even apple picking and kayaking sort of lost their pure joy. But we kept trying to be happy. ‘Cause what would you be if you didn’t try?

There was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, October 7th, when we went down to Point Lookout to visit Grandma Jane. A couple of the sisters were there, so Trisha was happy and chirpy sitting down on the beach. I was sneaking Mookie onto the beach for one of his annual off-seasons dips in the ocean. Jack was in the living room talking to Grandma.

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There was a rule I learned quickly when I became a McCloskey: You didn’t leave a conversation with Grandma Jane until she was finished with it. And young Jack had learned that rule, too. Mookie and I were heading to the beach, and she and Jack were talking. I asked him if he wanted to join us, and Grandma would’ve accepted that, because going to the beach makes her people happy, But Jack opted to stay in conversation with Grandma. And there they were a half hour later when I came back. Since Jack is not a stay in one place very long kind of guy, I was impressed with his maturity and warmed by the love he had for his Grandma Jane. She brought out the best in him.

Then, on the similarly beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 20th, around the same time the Big Machines started ripping up the path, Grandma Jane died, and it was our turn to suffer. But the two people I love most in the world, I know they’ve suffered more than I have, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that but keep being me, lucky bastard that I am.

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I loved my mother-in-law. She was a garden in the sunshine, a woman literally bursting with hope, faith, love and charity. But when I first became part of Trisha’s family, I drifted towards my father-in-law, Jack, and I found Jane a little over the top. In retrospect, I realize it was hero-worship of Jack on my part. He was a cool guy, and I’ve studied cool guys my whole life to learn their secrets. The over the top lady married him specifically because he was a cool guy, and loved him for a lifetime. He died three months after my mother died in 2012, and in his last weeks he didn’t have the capacity to know that he had just lived through the worst storm that ever hit his home in Point Lookout, the place that he loved. Point Lookout did all right after Hurricane Sandy, but Grandpa Jack was done a month later at 86. My mother had died in August at 82, and for the last week, she had pneumonia, which I learned that year was called “the old person’s friend”, she knew she was dying, and she got to say goodbye to her youngest grandson.

Pick your poison.

After two deaths and a hurricane in that fall and winter of 2012, optimism was in short supply. We were broke and lots of things were broken. We were hurting. The gardens were like the scorched earth of a forest fire, but destroyed by water instead of fire, if that makes any damn sense. What we did have going for us was a humongous monetary gift from Grandma Jane that we knew would help us get back on our feet.

And we did. The new place that emerged over the last six years from the wreckage and mud of the old place has been a perfectly nice place, and Grandma Jane was a big part of what made it so. She was Trisha’s best girlfriend, and she made our son step up his game when he was around her, because you just couldn’t be snotty around Grandma Jane. Her houses in Stewart Manor and Point Lookout were like big comfy blankets, and over 19 years and 9 days, she and I learned to enjoy each other’s company more and more. Of course, all the stupid shit in life prevented us from spending as much time with her as we should have or could have, but seemingly healthy in her 91st year, we had deluded ourselves into believing she would go on forever, until the phone rang on October 20th with the news that she had suffered a fatal heart attack. (In true Grandma Jane fashion, she was in a restaurant in Long Beach with a large group from the Catholic Daughters of America, who sent her on her way to the arms of God by reciting the rosary while the priest who was sitting at the table with her performed Last Rites).

Within an hour of that phone call, we were walking through the doors of the emergency room next to the empty wreck that used to be Long Beach Hospital. We saw Grandma Jane lying there lifeless. It seemed impossible to me. I cried like I don’t think I’ve ever cried in my life. We were dazed, sucker-punched, our hearts out in the cold. Then came the wake, and the funeral and the burial, and the barren landscape that follows. We entered a period of grief and sadness that hasn’t quite ended, but whose has? We had a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we miss her terribly, and of course it’s been a lot harder for Trisha. Apparently, though, I’ve been supportive, which is good to know, ‘cause I really don’t have a clue.

Of our parents, only my father now survives, 89 years old and in an advanced state of dementia. He spends most of his time sleeping in a little room in a nursing facility 50 miles from here. It’s wonderful to be in the same room with him when I can clear all the shit out of the way and go see him, which I do once a month. He enjoys Mookie, and vice versa. I enjoy the fact that I can still look at him and he can still smile at me and we have the same shaped eyes, and I can give him a kiss goodbye on his bald spot like I would have done fifty years ago.

But since my mother’s death, and as my father slips further away, my side of the family has drifted further apart. We don’t see each other much and most of our contact revolves around my father’s health. He will likely slip away at some point, and we’ll drift further. There are a million different reasons for it, none of which I really know, and many of which likely have a lot to do with the way I am, but generally speaking, my siblings have never been as close-knit as siblings I’ve seen in other big families, and I’ve pretty much accepted that as a fact of my life. Not a whole lot of optimism there, I know.

My brother Thom, a thinking fellow, has pointed out that a lot of it has to do with what he called the “bandwidth theory”: We have so many other people in our lives, and so many layers of responsibility and things we want to learn and things that need to get done, that it’s like an AM radio at night in the mountains, where each station is just waves and crackles and some of them you go past because you’re not pulling anything in. We don’t dislike each other. We just have a lot going on, and our respective stations keep fading out.

I know the McCloskey Girls will refuse to let that happen on the other side of the family, and they haven’t so far, which is great for Trisha and Jack. They can’t have Grandma Jane back, but they’re making time for each other.

I suck at making time.

But, to remind you, I am a still a stupidly lucky person. And part of being stupidly lucky, I suppose, was being born with a face that most people seem to trust and a manner that most people are comfortable with, or at least unthreatened by. I’ve made lots and lots and lots of friends, and though I draw into myself a lot, and I wish I were more of a pick up the phone, meet ya for a drink, come on over and drop by kind of guy, there are lots and lots of people whose company I enjoy, and who seem to enjoy my company, when I get to see them.

And no man is failure who has friends. And every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.

I made a new friend last year, and right on time as it turned out. We met because through accidents of birth, I happen to have a friendly face and a pleasant manner, and so does my dog, even more so. And though I knew this friend for a relatively short time, and probably only spent an hour or two of elapsed time of his 99 years with him, I grieved his passing in 2018.

His name was Sal. He lived about a quarter-mile from here with his daughter in the brick cape with the built-in covered front porch that he’d bought after World War II. His house and his porch are in the last quarter-mile of one of power walk routes that Mookie and I take around South Valley Stream. When the weather turned warm, we’d see him out on the porch, a face weathered with sunshine, twinkling eyes and a wizened smile, always wearing his WWII Veteran’s ball cap. Of course you have to be extra nice to those guys, and it started with a “good morning, sir, how are you today?” as we passed him by. He and Mookie would make eyes at each other, and he’d tell Mookie what a handsome boy he is, which Mookie just can’t get enough of. Mookie would’ve moved up to stopping to sit on the porch with him a lot sooner than I did, and he eagerly awaited an invitation.

In time, that’s just what happened. Mookie started going up to the porch to give Sal a good sniff and a kiss (and check for crumbs), and eventually, when summer came and we had all the time in the world, I started up pulling up a chair and spent a few golden mornings sitting and shooting the breeze with Sal.

When I first introduced myself by name, he shook my hand and said, “good to know you, John,” which struck me as a wonderful, lost expression from his era that sounds so much friendlier than “nice to meet you.” I’ve started working that one in.

He was a cool guy, and I’ve spent my whole life studying cool guys to learn their secrets. He had the slight growl of an old man’s voice, and that special quality that the old-school Italian guys had of making you feel like everything he said was in confidence, just for you. He wasn’t just talking at you; he was having a conversation. There’s a difference, and those guys knew what it was.

He was born in Brooklyn. He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. He swabbed the deck on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and he made sure he didn’t get killed. He came back home, had a family and moved them out to Valley Stream. He worked as a carpenter, mostly for a Jewish guy. He went hunting with some guys in the Adirondacks once, got lost in the dark and decided he liked Brooklyn a whole lot better. The house across the street from him once belonged to the mayor of Valley Stream, and he liked having that access to the people in charge. We talked about these things, and we talked about dogs, and weather, and the neighborhood and about growing old. We both enjoyed the company, and Mookie would lie at his feet in the shade under his chair as we talked.

As our conversations continued, he started giving me a better sense of the downside of being 99. Most everybody was gone, he said, and, though he always greeted Mookie and I by name, he felt his mind slipping away. He couldn’t remember things anymore, and it frightened him. And he was frustrated that all he had left was sitting on this porch.

I told him about my own father, lost in a haze of dementia for five-plus years now, institutionalized, and spending most of his time asleep. I said, “I know it’s not a consolation, Sal, but hell, at least you got the porch.” Like me, he understood that he’d been stupidly lucky, but nobody skirts through this world untouched by sadness, and nobody gets out alive. The best we can do is enjoy the better moments, and my morning visits with Sal were among my favorite moments of 2018.

Once summer was over and the grind started grinding again, Mookie and I walked down Sal’s block on Saturday mornings hoping he’d find it warm enough to come out to the porch. I even brought Trisha with me once to see if she could meet him, but he wasn’t out. In the back of my mind, I figured we’d have another summer, his 100th, to enjoy each other’s company again.

Then, one cold gray morning in November or December, I saw a bunch of cars in his driveway and outside his house, and I knew it was over, but I hoped it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw his next-door neighbor, who told me that he fell and he never got recovered. Pick your poison.

We passed by his house on our Christmas Day walk, after a wonderful morning of opening presents with my wife and my son, happy for a time even though there’d be no Grandma Jane to visit later in the day. I told Mookie out loud that I wished we could wish your friend a Merry Christmas. Mookie heard “your friend” and stared forlornly up to the porch waiting for Sal to be there, and I felt bad for messing with his head.

To myself, I wished that I could wish my own mom a Merry Christmas, and though I’d seen him two days before, I wished I could call Dad up and exchange Christmas greetings with him, and wished that he could remember as well as I do all the Christmas’ that we shared. I wished that my wife could give her mother a hug on Christmas Day one more time, ‘cause I know how it’s been since I haven’t.

As I wrap up this post and send it out into the big wide world wide web, it’s Sunday January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, Little Christmas. We sadly take down another Christmas tree and we suck it up for another year, with it’s own fresh hells, but also its fresh heavens if you look for them. I’ve got kayaks coming from Washington State. My knee has been feeling better lately. I think we’re in the endgame with this Trump asshole and I think we’re going to win, and win big. The new path along Duffy’s Creek will look nice from our backyard, and our backyard will look nice from the new path.

But ultimately, five thousand words after I began writing this, I have no epiphanies for you about anything. No wisdom, and no myrrh either. I’m just thinking with a keyboard, but it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want. Sorry to have wasted your time.

When I was young man, I read just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published, and he once told me that things were getting worse and worse and they’d never get better ever again, and sometimes, especially in the story of this country and this world, and even in the stories of our families, that’s exactly how it seems.

But God bless him, the DNA that my dad gave me, that Kurt Vonnegut’s dad apparently didn’t give him, compels me to hope, to be an optimist, to truly believe that everything will be fine. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask Francis J. Duffy right now how he felt, he would say, “fine.”

As far as the malevolent randomness of death and loss, the view of the optimist was best expressed by Dr. Seuss, who said, “don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened.”

I think that if death struck me as closely as it did to friends of mine last year, I’d be inclined to tell Dr. Seuss to go fuck himself. But damn if he isn’t right. Enjoy the time we have and the people we love and the things that make us happy and bring us closer to God when we can, while we can, knowing that nothing is forever, and only God knows why that is. There’s your wisdom, there’s your epiphany, and there’s your myrrh. When my brothers and sisters and I fought as kids, my dad would quote Jesus: “Love one another.” When Dad woke up and came out of his bedroom in the morning on a day off, he’d say, “Thank God for a new day!” Often, I’d wished he’d shut up with that nonsense, and of course I’d love to hear him say that now, but I don’t feel the need to cry because it’s over, because it’s much better to be happy that it happened.

As for Sal and Mookie and me, there will be no 100th birthday visit in 2019. But it was good to know him. And at least we had the porch.

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