Karen came next in the birth order, and she and I were most close having established an unspoken alliance from our youngest years. I think it was because somehow we’d managed to find the humor in most everything and we typically didn’t take crap from anyone. I think it was that humor though that helped us to turn out to be maybe the strongest two of the eight of us kids although I’d use that description for any of us with at least a little grain of salt. Plus, because we stood up for ourselves, we both had enough natural fight wired into us to not get easily pushed around.
Unlike my other sisters Karen, and to a large degree Judy, seemed to have received some kind of psychological inoculation against succumbing to my mother’s best attempts to lure them into taking a big gulp of the potion from her bubbling cauldron of neurotic tea. The one from which Diane and Loretta in particular would, unfortunately for them, be forced to slurp with abandon thanks to Ma’s efforts.
In terms of helping manage Ma’s chronic neediness, Karen would check in and help from time-to-time, but living up in Maine made it difficult. She’d always dreamt of settling there and finally made the move. For years before she’d have nothing to do with the “nut bag” on Sanford Street, but more as a favor to me, she’d put her animosity aside and step in when she could in a clinical but unemotional way which was many times even more beneficial. Growing up, both of my parents knew that Karen was not easy prey, so Ma would just let her run the streets, especially after she’d kicked her out of the house for the umpteenth time, and Georgie knew better than to include her in any of his incestuous fantasies with which he regaled my mother as they made those muffled noises in the middle of the night.
She had carved out a good life near the beach with her husband and her dogs up in Maine, and I was happy for her. Sure, she had her own level of bitterness over the past, but she did not let it affect her life as much as most of the others had. It was Karen who picked me up at Logan airport in Boston when I came back home after getting the unexpected news in mid-October 1980.
I was just pulling the muddy jeep into the parking bay on Flak Kaserne after a long rainy day in a convoy droning down the autobahn with my mobile squadron, the 6913th, as we returned to home base in Augsburg, Germany. We had just completed a two week deployment and were all grateful to be back from our classified location near a forest just outside of Cologne, and very much looking forward to a real shower and a bed more than six inches off of the ground. I cut the choke on the engine as I eyed the operations officer’s approach. After a quick salute and welcome back, he said the First Sergeant needed to see me right away and was waiting in his office.
“Yes, Mike, please have a seat,” said the First Sergeant. He handed me a telegram-like piece of paper, sent by the Red Cross as indicated by the distinctive logo on the heading. I did a quick scan down the yellow paper with the teletype print and saw “emergency surgery had been performed two days ago,” and “your return to home of record is necessary and urgent.” The next day I was high over the Atlantic crammed in a middle seat at the back of a DC-8 that was shuttling soldiers, airmen, and their families back to “the World,” as we called the States, and trying to sleep as a dozen or more babies cried nonstop, I’m sure their ears popping.
Karen filled me in on what was going on during our drive from the airport to my parent’s apartment, yet another home I’d never seen before. Turned out they now lived in a two-family duplex just off of Cummings Highway in Roslindale, near Fallon Field where I’d gotten my first hit playing Babe Ruth baseball in an itchy woolen uniform with “Roche Brothers Butcher” embroidered across the front. It was on a swinging bunt on a fastball that I never even saw that trickled to the pitcher, the ball spinning so wildly he couldn’t field it in time to throw me out. To me, it was as good as a hard shot up the middle and I stood on first base, beaming.
Wow, that must put the moves over a hundred by now, I mused, as I sat in the passenger seat now listening to Rick Springfield singing about “Jessie’s Girl” on WRKO radio. Through the fog of jet lag and as my sister began to give me the details, I noticed the trees were starting to turn to those amazing brilliant shades of red, orange, and gold. It was my favorite time of the year in New England, and in spite of the reason for being there it was great to be back home in Boston. The air rushing through the vents in the dashboard smelled fresh and familiar.
“Well, you know what a stubborn ass he is,” Karen was saying. “He’d been feeling shitty and losing weight for weeks then woke up last week, skin yellow as baby shit. Ma had to call an ambulance because he wouldn’t go the hospital on his own. They just sent him home day before yesterday.”
Karen said the jaundice had been so bad he could barely move. “So what are the doctors saying?” I asked.
Without emotion she said, “Pancreatic cancer. It’s terminal.”
“Wow, nothing they can do?”
“Nope, it’s inoperable. They sliced him open, sewed him up, and are giving him six months to a year, the bastard.”
Chapter 5 to continue….