Copyright © 2015-2020 Michael P. Loucks
First publication date: 2017-02-04
First revision publication date: 2020-01-27
You may contact the author at: email@example.com
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Nearly twenty years is a LONG time to keep the same role, don’t you think?” Al said.
“It is, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept.”
“I’m going home. Chicago has been home for two decades, but I really can’t pass up this position.”
“Dean of UCLA Medical School? No, I don’t suppose you could. When do you start?”
“In January. The current dean is retiring due to health issues. An old friend of mine called me and asked me to apply.”
“And you kept this from me?”
“I honestly didn’t think it would happen. I’m an emergency medicine guy who hates administrative work. But we both know I’m at a point where I shouldn’t be taking ER shifts. I’ve spent far more time teaching than in the ER for the past five years.”
“Have you told Fawn, Georg, and the kids?”
“Not yet. They’re next. And Gerry, Amelia, and their kids. And with Fawn in New York, and Gerry in Florida, there really isn’t anything keeping me here in Chicago. Well, Jessica, and your family, of course. But I’ve lived alone for three years now. A change of scenery will be a good thing. You know I’ll miss you guys!”
“And your replacement?” I asked with a smile.
Al laughed hard, “You know who I think should get the job! She’s the best trauma surgeon in the hospital and probably the best teacher. But it’s not up to me. And believe it or not, that episode sixteen years ago STILL impacts her career.”
“That’s just flat out stupid and you know it! She is a tenured full professor of emergency medicine, has been an Attending since she finished her Fellowship, and should have been both Chief Resident and Chief Attending! Show me one person who doesn’t agree with that!”
“I agree with you. You know that. But the hospital board sees that episode and all they can think of is the liability lawsuit if something were to happen, even if it had nothing to do with her breakdown sixteen years ago. It would be dredged up and laid at the board’s feet.”
“That’s just pure bullshit and ass-covering! She’s given the keynote at a number of important trauma conferences, has published a dozen papers in refereed journals, and pioneered a revised training program under your direction.”
“I know. All she can do is apply. I’ll give my recommendation, and I’m sure she’ll have recommendations from a score of other doctors she’s worked with or who she’s trained over the years. But I just don’t think that will be enough.”
I nodded. He was probably right. But I had a card to play that might just move things in her favor.
“I’m going to call in a favor,” I said.
Al frowned, “That’s a dangerous game to play. Very dangerous.”
“Actually, it isn’t. It’s simply me asking a friend to talk to her husband, the board member, and have him make the case. Forcefully.”
“You’re putting him in a sticky position if you do that. He has a conflict of interest.”
“So do a number of other members of the hospital board for various reasons. All he’s going to do is make a point about the time that’s elapsed and how the board is running very little risk in appointing the best trauma surgeon in the country as Chief of Emergency Medicine.”
Al smiled, “And implying that a major source of funding for the hospital might dry up. And, without saying it directly, reminding them who paid for the complete overhaul of the ER a few years ago.”
I smiled, “You told me to develop good friendships, and how valuable they were. So did Joyce’s grandfather when he was alive. I’ve purposefully avoided involvement in those decisions, except for voting for them when they came before the board.”
Al laughed, “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I first heard you’d accepted a seat on that board!”
“It’s complicated, and you know it goes back nearly seventeen years. As I said then, when she asked, I really didn’t feel like I could say ‘no’ to her.”
“Just be careful, Steve.”
“Trust me,” I said. “I know all about the subtle application of force. I learned a lot about that from my karate Sensei before he retired, as well as from his Sensei in Japan.”
“You never changed the name of the dojo when he retired two years ago.”
“It’s still his in spirit. And you know I usually only teach once a week. Jolene, Therese, and Will are the main instructors. But back to your move. When are you going to tell her?”
“This afternoon. Once you and I finish lunch, I’ll head back and have her come up to my office. And yes, I’ll strongly encourage her to apply for the role.”
“Good. And good luck, Al. I’ll miss seeing you regularly.”
“You travel to LA a couple of times a year to visit your most important client. Just call and we’ll get together. I’ll mostly be pushing paper, and I promise anything on my desk will wait for a few hours while we have lunch!”
“It’ll be quite the change from emergency medicine, that’s for sure,” I said. “You know, I still remember that day I met you like it was yesterday. And we’re all grateful.”
“Nicholas has turned into a fine young man. Has he talked to you about his career plans?”
“He has,” I said. “I’ve encouraged him to talk to his mom, but he doesn’t think she’ll understand or agree.”
“He’ll make a fine officer, and a better doctor,” Al said with a smile.
“Yes, he will. And a fine husband as well.”
Al laughed, “Don’t you think you’re jumping the gun a bit? He’s fifteen and she’s fourteen!”
“True, but my daughters get what they want. Always. Just like Fawn did with you!”
“The main thing I got from Fawn was gray hair!”
“And now?” I grinned.
“First chair violin in the New York Symphony? Married to a Wall Street lawyer? Two wonderful grandchildren? That’s all fantastic! But parenting a teenage girl, especially one as beautiful as Fawn, was no picnic! You have several of your own.”
“I do, but I don’t have the same concern you did. You know my take on that.”
“Yes, and your, shall we say, history. You showed admirable restraint!”
I nodded and smiled. He had no idea.
My head was spinning and I realized that I’d blacked out. I was on my side, on the floor of my office. My temples were pounding and I felt sick to my stomach. And I couldn’t move.
“Let’s get him to the couch,” I heard a soft voice say.
“We need one of the guys,” I heard another soft voice say.
A minute later, two sets of strong hands helped me from the floor to the couch and laid me flat on my back. Someone raised my legs and put throw pillows under my feet.
“Boss? Boss? You OK?” a male voice said.
“Somebody needs to call Al Barton at UofC hospital, Kara, and Jessica!” a female voice said.
“What happened?” the same male voice asked.
“He got shocking news,” a soft voice said.
I groaned and opened my eyes.
“Steve, just stay there,” Elyse said. “Kimmy went to call Doctor Barton and Jessica.”
“You knew?” I asked, coughing slightly.
“Karl talked to me first because he was afraid this would happen. He wanted one of us with you.”
“How long was I out?” I whispered.
“Maybe five minutes,” Elyse said.
“Elyse,” Kimmy said, coming back into the room, “I talked to Doctor Barton. He said that because Steve passed out, I should call 9–1–1. The paramedics are on their way. He’ll be waiting at the hospital with Jessica.”
“Hell no,” I croaked. “No paramedics. I’m fine.”
“Boss, listen to your doctor friend,” Terry said.
“Steve, please,” Kimmy pleaded.
I gave in. It wasn’t as if I was in any shape to fight them, or even stand up. A few minutes later the paramedics arrived and a few minutes after that, I was on a stretcher, with oxygen through a nasal cannula. They loaded me into the ambulance and less than five minutes later pulled up at the ER. The paramedics reversed the process, and rolled me inside.
“Twenty-six-year-old male; syncopal episode; five-minute LOC; BP 80 over 50; tachy at 110; good bilateral breath sounds; no reported medication; no reported or observed trauma.”
“I’ve got this one,” Doctor Barton said. “Doctor Torres, please assist. Doctor Adams, you may observe.”
The two doctors, a pair of nurses, the two paramedics, and my wife took me into ‘Trauma 2’ and everyone but my wife helped move me from the gurney to the treatment bed. They removed the nasal cannula and moved the gurney towards the door.
“Thanks, guys,” I said to the paramedics as they left, then turned my head. “Hi, Babe.”
“Quiet, Tiger,” she said firmly.
Doctor Torres listened to my chest, “Heart and breath sounds are normal.” She moved the stethoscope to my stomach. “Normal bowel sounds.”
“CBC, Chem-20, 12-lead,” Doctor Barton said. “And IV saline.”
“Satting at 99 on room air,” one of the nurses said, after attaching a pulse-oximeter to my finger.
“No oxygen,” Doctor Barton said.
The other nurse deftly inserted an IV needle into my arm and taped it down. She attached an IV bag of saline to the tube and started the drip.
“Pupils equal and reactive,” Doctor Torres said, after shining a light in my eyes.
A nurse unbuttoned my shirt and began attaching EKG leads. She hooked them up to the monitor and turned it on.
“How are you feeling, Steve?” Doctor Barton asked.
“Fine. You know how I react to shocks.”
“And we’re going to get to the bottom of it. I’m going to call Ted Kulczycki and get the results of your stress test.”
“He didn’t do one,” I said. “He didn’t think it was necessary.”
“Well, it’s necessary now. I’ll have the Chief of Cardiology come down, and we’ll do a cardiac echo. Your EKG looks fine at this point, but I want to keep you on a monitor. You’re too old or too young, depending on how you look at it, to have these kinds of episodes without some kind of physiological cause. How much caffeine did you consume today?”
“A cup of tea at breakfast and two cups of coffee at the office.”
“Just carbohydrates and juice, no candy or anything like that. Breakfast was my usual - bacon, eggs, toast, orange juice, and tea.”
“Did you run this morning?”
“Yes. My usual three miles with one of my karate students.”
“Any chest pain or shortness of breath when you run?”
“No, never. Just the usual elevated heart rate and breathing from exercise.”
“Any tinnitus - ringing in your ears?”
“Since I was little, but it’s never bad and I more or less don’t notice it unless I think about it.”
“Rarely. I take Anacin when that happens.”
“Did you take any today?”
“No. It’s probably been six months since the last headache.”
“Do you ever suffer from vertigo? Or motion sickness?”
“I had trouble reading in a car when I was younger. It would make me nauseated, so I quit doing it. It’s like getting dizzy when I stood up too quickly. As I said at Thanksgiving a year ago, I’m just careful if I’m lying down not to stand too quickly. As for vertigo, I do get dizzy when I look over the side of a tall building or a cliff.”
“But you used to skydive,” Jessica said from the corner where she was standing.
“Planes aren’t a problem,” I responded. “And, as I said, my vertigo has to do with looking over the side of a building or cliff or something. Looking out the door of a Cessna isn’t the same.”
“Alcohol and tobacco use?” he asked with a smile.
I smirked, “The ‘Dragon Lady’ over there limits my cigars and pipe smoking more than you do!”
“Dragon Lady?” Jessica laughed. “Really?”
“You heard me!” I said with a weak smile. “And alcohol is limited to a glass of wine with dinner, a couple of glasses of bourbon during Guys' Nights and other social occasions.”
“Are you drinking enough water?”
“I think so. Probably four to six tall glasses a day.”
“OK, then. Doctor Torres, thank you. Let me know when those blood test results are back.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Doctor Torres said.
She left the room, followed by one of the two nurses. Jessica came to the side of the bed and took my hand.
“I assume Kimmy or Elyse told you what happened?”
“I didn’t talk to Kimmy. Doctor Barton did. I was busy when she called.”
“Karl called,” I sighed. “Nick was shot and they don’t think he’s going to make it.”
“Oh no!” she recoiled. “How? Why?”
I sighed, “I have no clue at all. Elyse might know more. I guess Karl talked to her before he talked to me. She and Kimmy came to my office just as the phone rang. If she’s here, I want to see her.”
“Doctor Barton?” Jessica queried.
He nodded, “Steve’s in no apparent danger at this time. But I want to solve the mystery of these severe syncopal episodes if we can. Nurse, there’s probably a large collection of beautiful young women in the waiting room. I suspect Kara and Elyse are both among them. Would you find them and bring them in, please?”
She left. Two minutes later she was back with Kara and Elyse.
“Snuggle Bear, are you OK?!” Kara asked, coming to the side of the bed.
“He’s fine, Kara,” Jessica said, taking her hand. “He passed out when Karl called him.”
“Elyse told me!” she said, a tear forming in her eye. “It’s horrible!”
“What do we know, Elyse?” I asked.
“Probably just what Karl told you. He didn’t know much, other than there had been a shooting incident. Two sailors were shot, but he doesn’t know any details other than that Nick was one of them and that they don’t think he’s going to make it. He called and asked for me, told me what had happened, and asked me to go to your office before the call was put through.”
“What exactly happened when you went to Steve’s office?” Doctor Barton asked.
“He answered the phone, greeted Karl very happily, then gripped the handset until his knuckles turned white. He paled, moaned, and started to fall out of his chair. Kimmy and I grabbed him and helped him to the floor so he wouldn’t hit his head. Terry and Dave came to help us and we moved him to the couch. That’s when Kimmy called you and the paramedics.”
“Next time, call the paramedics first, please. Those two or three minutes can make all the difference in the world. I already told Kimmy that. Did you do anything to help him come to?”
“No. Just laid him on the couch and put two throw pillows under his feet.”
“That actually probably helped. That was a smart move.”
“That was Terry,” Elyse said.
A black doctor with graying hair came into the trauma room.
“Hi, Malik,” Doctor Barton said.
“Hi, Al. What do you have for me?”
“Doctor Adams' husband had a repeat syncopal episode with a reported five-minute LOC. There’s a history of episodes going back to age fifteen. Also a history of vertigo and low blood pressure. Very active; runs several miles a day and practices karate four to six days a week. No known health issues. BP has stabilized, but was 80/50 when he came in, and he was tachy at 110. Nothing abnormal on the monitor.”
“Good morning, Jessica. Anything you can tell me?”
“No, Doctor Washington. It seems to be a response to external stress. Elyse,” she indicated with her head, “has known him since High School.”
“I guess the same answer. It happens when he is severely stressed, usually from shocking news.”
“OK. We’ll get an echo and take it from there.”
“I’d like to admit him to your service for monitoring, and get a stress test done tomorrow.”
“Anything you say, Al!”
He extended his hand, “Doctor Malik Washington. So you’re his star pupil’s husband?”
I smiled, “Yes, Doctor. Steve Adams.”
“I’m going to listen to your heart and lungs. The technician will be in with the echo unit in a moment.”
He did his exam, listening to my chest, front and back, asking me to breathe at various points. He put the stethoscope to my neck and listened as well. He moved his hand to the inside of my right thigh, and then he felt my right ankle. Then did the same thing on the other side.
“Everything sounds good,” he said to Al. “Excellent arterial blood flow in the neck. Strong distal pulses.”
A technician wheeled in a cart that looked very much like the ultrasound unit that I’d seen used on my wives when they were pregnant. The technician spread the gel on my chest and was about to place the transducer when Doctor Washington took it from him.
“I’ll do this one myself, Jerry. Thanks.”
The tech nodded and stepped away. I couldn’t see the monitor clearly, but I could tell that he could see the beating of my heart. He adjusted the controls, pressed several buttons, and moved the trackball, all the while tilting and adjusting the transducer. About five minutes later he removed it.
“Nothing abnormal that I can see. I have the baseline for the stress test. Send him up when you’re ready. I’ll take him on my service.”
“Thanks, Malik. We’ll monitor him here for another hour or so and then send him up.”
“See you upstairs, Mr. Adams,” he said and left.
“Al, are you really going to make me stay here overnight?” I asked.
“Yes. And I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You’re not signing out AMA. Do you hear me?”
I sighed, “Fine. Somebody needs to call Karl and get an update.”
“There’s a phone in the Chief Resident’s office,” Doctor Barton said. “He’s off today. Elyse or Kara may use that. I’ll make sure that the nurses know it’s OK.”
“Do you know his number?” Elyse asked me.
“Call the office. It’s in my Rolodex,” I said. “Keri can get it for you.”
Elyse nodded and left the room.
“Are you OK?” Kara asked. “Really OK?”
“He’s not in any danger, Kara,” Doctor Barton said. “I just want to find out why he’s so prone to these syncopal episodes - fainting spells. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I want to be sure.”
“Psychosomatic?” Kara asked. “So not real?”
“Oh, it’s very real, but if we can’t find a physical cause, then there very likely is a psychological and mental component to it. And, honestly, it could just be his body’s way of dealing with stress. If cardiology doesn’t find anything, we’ll look further - adrenal glands, that kind of thing. I’m tempted to get a CT scan.”
“A brain scan?” Kara asked.
“Yes. To rule out a tumor or some other abnormality.”
Jessica giggled, “A scan of Steve’s head will very possibly turn up negative. For brain matter, that is!”
I smiled, “I guess I deserved that after the ‘Dragon Lady’ comment.”
“Dragon Lady?” Kara asked.
“I asked about tobacco use,” Doctor Barton chuckled. “And it appears that Jessica keeps him on a tight leash.”
“With soda, too,” I said.
“I’ve warned you about that. In fact, until we get to the bottom of this problem, I’d like you to avoid anything with added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, and absolutely stay away from anything with artificial sweeteners. There’s no general problem with those, but perhaps some chemical is responsible for your issues.”
“About the only thing I eat or drink with added sugar is the occasional soda Jess allows me to have. Otherwise, I mostly drink water or black coffee or straight tea. And I don’t eat much candy, really. What about carbohydrates?”
“They’re complex sugars, but given your energy expenditure, general health and fitness, and your weight, I don’t think you’re having any issues. We’ll see what the Chem-20 panel shows in terms of blood sugar.”
“Are you thinking diabetes, Doctor Barton?” Jessica asked.
“I’m thinking I don’t know what’s wrong so I’m checking everything,” he said. “The differential diagnosis at this point is, sadly, pretty much everything.”
The door opened and a nurse stuck her head in, “Doctor Adams? Multiple MVA coming in. The paramedics are five minutes out.”
“Thanks Rose,” Jessica said.
She kissed me on the forehead and went out to get ready.
“I’m going to go check on the trauma that’s coming in,” Doctor Barton said. “The nurse will move you to one of the treatment rooms until you go upstairs. I’ll check on you once the lab results are back.”
He left and it was just Kara and me in the trauma room.
“What about Bethany?” she asked quietly.
“I might sound coldhearted, but the Navy has protocols for things like this. They’ll take care of her one way or the other.”
“He’s going to die?” she asked.
I nodded soberly, “I’d say that’s what Karl was trying to tell me.”
“How can so many terrible things happen to that poor girl?” Kara asked.
“Hell if I know,” I sighed.
“Did you think about going to Guam?”
“I didn’t think about anything, Honey. I passed out. And by the time I was thinking about it, Al Barton had already taken charge. I have to let the Navy handle this just as I did when I let Red take care of Stephie.”
“She’s going to need you and Kathy. You’re still her best friend.”
“When she comes to me,” I said. “I’ll make sure she knows I’m there for her and Nicholas.”
“What will she do?” Kara asked.
“I have no idea, really.”
“I can’t imagine what I’d do if something like that happened to you!” she said, grasping my hand tightly.
“I’m fine, Honey,” I said.
“But you’re in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors!”
Two orderlies and a nurse came into the room with a gurney.
“We need to move you, Mr. Adams,” the nurse said.
They helped me move to the gurney and the nurse unhooked the leads from the monitors. I was wheeled out just seconds before the paramedics burst through the receiving doors of the ER. Jessica and the rest of the staff sprang into action, while I was taken to ‘Treatment 3’. The monitors were hooked up again and the nurse said that she’d be back in a few minutes to check on me. Elyse came back into the room with a grim look.
“No more details,” she said. “He’s in the base hospital in extremely critical condition with two gunshot wounds. That’s all Karl knows.”
“Where was he shot?” I asked.
“Once in the chest,” she paused, “and once in the head. As Karl said before, he’s not expected to live.”
“Son of a mother-fucking bitch,” I swore. “This CAN NOT be happening! Who did it?”
“Wow, Snuggle Bear. I’ve never heard you actually swear like that.”
“If this isn’t a time, when would be? Did Karl find out who did it?”
“No. Just that it was on base.”
“On base? What the fuck?” I growled.
Doctor Torres and a nurse hurried into the room.
“Your blood pressure just spiked,” Doctor Torres said.
“It’s just the conversation,” I said, taking a couple of deep breaths and willing myself to relax.
“Ladies, if you’re going to excite him, we’ll have to send you out,” Doctor Torres said.
“Too late,” I smirked. “That happened YEARS ago. This is my wife Kara, and my girlfriend, Elyse. They can stay.”
“But, you’re married to Jessica!” Doctor Torres protested.
“He’s the one,” the nurse whispered.
“Those rumors are true?” Doctor Torres gasped.
“They aren’t rumors,” Kara said. “And Steve became agitated because of what happened to his good friend in Guam.”
“OK. Please let him relax. I need to talk to Doctor Barton about the blood chemistry results, and then we’ll get you upstairs to cardiology.”
“What did they show?” I asked.
“Doctor Barton will tell you,” Doctor Torres said.
“No, you’ll tell me,” I said firmly. “You have the results. What are they?”
“Everything is good across the board. Your blood sugar is a bit low, but your cholesterol numbers are fantastic.”
“Thanks, Doctor Torres,” I said.
They left the room and I closed my eyes and relaxed. Doctor Barton came in about twenty minutes later.
“Your blood work looks good. And despite your love of soft drinks, your blood sugar is actually a bit low. Nothing to worry about, but something to check at your regular exams. I’ll talk to Doctor Kulczycki so he can do a hemoglobin A1C panel in addition to the normal blood glucose levels we do during physicals. That will give us a 30-day view of your blood sugar levels.”
“Is Jess still busy?” I asked.
“They got the tougher case. Near amputation of an arm, crushed chest, and two broken ankles. She has two trauma surgeons with her and orthopedics. They’re trying to stabilize the patient so they can get him to surgery.”
“Damn,” I said.
“You wear a seatbelt, right?”
“Yes. Always. I won’t drive or ride in a car without one on. I never have.”
“Wonderful,” I sighed.
“An orderly will come to take you upstairs. Doctor Torres will go with you and come back once you’re transferred to cardiology. I’ll come see you when my shift is over.”
“Thanks, Al,” I said.
“How do people sleep with all this crap connected to them,” I groused to Jessica at about 4:00am.
“Drugs,” she said deadpan. “Lots of drugs! It keeps them quiet and cooperative, too!”
“Ha, ha!” I said, equally deadpan.
Jessica got up from the chair and came to stand by the bed. She kissed my forehead as I’d done with my kids many times.
“Did you sleep at all last night?” I asked. “It seemed like every time I woke up you were awake, watching me.”
“Kara and I both slept a bit on the couch. We traded off. She’s in the ladies room right now.”
“I assume you didn’t hear anything more?”
“I’m sure Karl will let you know anything he finds out.”
“Where’s the rest of the family?”
“Veronica offered to work today so she’ll have the kids. Rich took your sister back to the dorms after they visited you. She wanted to stay, but only one person is allowed to be in the room overnight. I’m officially here as a doctor, so Kara is that one person.”
“I want to get out of here,” I said.
“You will, but not until after Doctor Washington does the stress test. Everything else looks good except your low blood pressure, but that’s family history, and is potentially the culprit. The CT they did yesterday afternoon showed nothing,” she said with a smirk.
“Nothing?” I asked.
“Empty! It’s a medical miracle!”
“Very funny. Hah, hah,” I deadpanned.
Kara came back in and stood next to Jessica at the side of the bed.
“How’s he doing?” she asked.
“Cranky about being in the hospital, like most healthy people,” Jessica said with a smile.
“Why don’t you get some more sleep, Snuggle Bear? Then you can have your test and we can get out of here.”
I nodded and closed my eyes and managed to get back to sleep. Later that morning, I had my stress test, which I passed with flying colors, and both Doctors Washington and Barton agreed that I should be released.
“Keep track of any dizzy spells, any light-headedness, anything like that,” Doctor Washington said. “Just write down what you were doing, and where you were. Also, keep a list of everything you eat and drink. I’d like you to stop smoking, even though it doesn’t seem to be a direct cause.”
“You and every other doctor,” I said. “I’ve cut way back.”
“So stop completely,” he said.
“Doc, I hear you. Message received. Loud and clear.”
“But you’re going to ignore it, aren’t you?”
“Malik, Jess is working on him,” Al said. “She’s got him to cut back on the crazy amount of pop he used to drink. And on the cigars and pipe. Let her deal with this issue.”
Doctor Washington and Jessica exchanged a look, and then he signed the discharge order. Everyone except my wives left, and they helped me dress. I tried to refuse the wheelchair ride out, but the 6’3" orderly they sent insisted. When we got outside, I got up, thanked him, and we walked towards Kara’s minivan.
“Let me guess, Doctor Barton requested that orderly?”
Jessica laughed, “Luck of the draw!”
I got into a seat in the middle row of the minivan, and the girls got into the front seats, with Kara driving. Once she pulled out into the street, she reached over and took Jessica’s hand.
“Now that’s just cruel,” I complained.
“Oh shush, Tiger! You’ll get plenty of loving from us. You know we always hold hands in the car!”
“But only for a few seconds, Jess,” Kara said. “I need both hands on the wheel.”
When we arrived home, I was greeted by my housemates, my kids, my dad, and some of our closest friends - the Jaegers, Jorge and Trish, and Kimmy. Stephanie was there with Rich, who seemed to be taking on the ‘boyfriend’ role in her life. I hoped that didn’t cause too much tension with Jorge, but they seemed reasonably comfortable around each other.
“Dada!” Jesse called out when I walked into the great room.
“Dada!” Matthew and Birgit both exclaimed.
I went over to where they were sitting with Veronica and picked up each of them in turn for a kiss, including Albert and Michael who were both lying on blankets on the floor.
“Dada, were you sick?” Jesse asked.
“Just a little. Aunt Jess and Doctor Al thought I needed to be checked out so I stayed at the hospital where Aunt Jess works last night.”
“You’re better now?”
“Yes, Jesse. Dada is fine. He was just very upset yesterday. Did they tell you about Nicholas' dad? That he was hurt really bad?”
“Yes,” Jesse said sounding very sad. “He died. Nicholas doesn’t have a dada now.”
I turned and gave Elyse a hard look. She simply beckoned me to follow her. I nodded grimly and followed her to my study. Jessica, Kara, and Kimmy followed us in as well. I sagged into my chair and sighed deeply.
“How long have you known?” I asked.
“Since early this morning,” Elyse said. “I came to the hospital at 4:00am to tell Kara. Karl called me after a friend of his in Guam called him. I’m sorry you found out that way. I was going to ask you to call Karl.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. By all rights I should have been upset that Elyse had withheld information from me, but then again, I had been in the hospital, on monitors, and getting upset would only have prolonged my stay. Not to mention that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. Finding out ten hours later didn’t really matter.
I blew out one more long breath, “Motherfucker! Not you, sorry. The situation. I understand why you all did that. Do we know anything more about what happened?”
“Another sailor shot him and a second officer. It appears that the other officer was the target. Nick responded to the gunshots according to his yeoman.”
“Bethany…?” I sighed.
“You said that the Navy would care for her,” Kara said.
“They will, in the short term. She’s going to need her friends and family after that. I assume someone told Kathy?”
“Yes. She had the same inclination you did - get on a plane. But that makes no sense. Kurt gently dissuaded her.”
“OK, let me make the call.”
I looked up Karl’s home number and dialed it. He answered almost immediately.
“Good morning, Commander,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Hi Steve. I’m guessing the girls told you?”
“Actually, Jesse did. What do you know?”
“They disconnected life support about 2:00am our time, at Bethany’s request. He died a few minutes later.”
“Shit. How is she?” I asked.
“I haven’t been able to speak to her. I’m only informed because I have a back-channel connection. There’s a guy I know there who’s in charge of personnel for the base. He’s kept me in the loop because he knew Nick worked for me.”
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
“This is purely scuttlebutt at the moment, but it appears a seaman was sleeping on guard duty and was confronted by his lieutenant. He shot the lieutenant; Nick, who was returning to his office, responded to the gunshot. The seaman shot Nick twice. The other officer is expected to live, and the seaman is in custody. NIS will investigate. And JAG will prosecute.”
“I don’t even know what to say,” I sighed.
“Me either. As soon as I hear about transport, I’ll let you know. Nick’s parents will be coming here from Arizona, along with his younger sister. You met them at the wedding. They’ll help make all the arrangements.”
Something dawned on me. Nick and Bethany’s house belonged to the Navy, not to them. And I was sure something would have to change there.
“Karl, Bethany and Nick live in base housing. How does that work?”
He sighed, “I will pull every string I can, but officially, she’ll have to move out within 60 days.”
“Everything you can, Commander,” I said firmly.
“Damn straight,” he agreed. “I’m sorry, Steve. I know how close you and Bethany are.”
“Thanks for telling me everything straight,” I said. “Let me know what I can do and when she’s going to be home.”
“You’ll be the second call I make. Kathy will be the first.”
“She’s here now,” I said. “Call me at any time.”
“I will. I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
We hung up and I leaned back in my chair and took a couple of deep breaths.
“Are you OK?” Jessica asked.
“Physically? Yes. Never better. Mentally? Surprisingly OK. Emotionally? Don’t even ask.”
“Good,” Elyse said.
“Good?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s how you SHOULD respond. You aren’t freaking out. You aren’t doing anything stupid like trying to book a flight to Guam. You’re letting the Navy handle things. ‘Old Steve’ would be running around like a chicken with its head cut off, flailing, lashing out, and otherwise being an idiot.”
“Oh, he’s still an idiot,” my sister said from the door to my office. “I heard the brain scan turned up nothing!”
“Hardy-har-har,” I replied. “Is that going to be the joke for now?”
Stephanie laughed, “No, the better one was that to scan your brain, they’d take you to a proctologist because you can’t seem to get your head out of your ass! That way you get a two-fer-one!”
“Who said THAT?” I asked.
“My ex!” she smirked.
“That man and I are going to have words!” I chuckled, knowing that Jorge actually had a reasonable point.
“So what was that about base housing?” Kimmy asked. “She’ll have to move?”
“Yes. Karl’s going to try to pull strings to let her stay longer, but she’ll need to find a place for herself and Nicholas.”
“Wow. That seems harsh,” she said.
I nodded, “Yes, but it makes sense. But that’s a small problem compared to everything else. Let’s go see our friends. And we’ll need to get some dinner.”
“I already ordered pizza from Connie’s,” Stephanie said. “They promised to deliver at 6:00pm.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Let’s go back to the great room.”
We went back to the great room and I took Kathy aside to talk to her.
“I hear your initial response was the same as mine.”
She nodded, “Kurt talked me out of it. I guess Doctor Barton told you in no uncertain terms that you weren’t going?”
“Yes, I only said it as ‘my first inclination’ and he shut me down hard, telling me I wasn’t going anywhere except to a room in the cardiology ward. Bethany is going to need a lot of help.”
Kathy nodded, “Including a place to live. Your dad pointed that out almost right away.”
“Another first inclination is for her to come here, but I think that would be bad for a host of reasons.”
“She should go home,” Kathy said. “I already called her parents. They talked to her once, but that was before Nick died. I didn’t tell them I knew that. I thought that should be left to Bethany.”
I nodded, “Yes, it should. This is so fucked up. I just can’t make any sense of it.”
“Because it makes no sense. None.”
“I know,” I sighed. “Nothing about the world makes any sense at all.”
“Sure it does, Steve. Your wives love you. Your kids love and adore you. Your friends love you. I love you.”
I smiled, “Does any of that REALLY make sense? Love isn’t logical or rational. It just is.”
“Kind of like the world, don’t you think?” she asked.
I nodded and agreed with her, “Kind of like the world.”
We were watching CNN Headline News late on Wednesday evening. The lead story was the invasion of Panama by US forces.
“Panama? Really?” I sighed. “This is basically the world’s largest drug raid! Who gives a damn about Noriega?”
“George Bush, apparently,” Jessica said.
“The media goaded him into it! Calling him a ‘wimp’? Seriously? And then he used the justification of ‘promoting democracy’ and ‘ending the drug trade’. And this BS of swearing in Guillermo Endara as the ‘presumed winner’ of the election? Pretty thin justification for an invasion.”
“How about the name?” Elyse asked. “‘Operation Just Cause’?”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause’ like in ‘because’,” Katy offered. “So it’s really ‘Operation Just Because We Can’!”
We all laughed, and I said, “Like Grenada.”
“Hey, they rescued all those students in the medical school!” Elyse smirked.
“Hey happenen' hostages, it’s me, Mr. Funkadelic,” I said, trying to sound like Mario Van Peebles, then adding, “Try, US Marines, shithead,” in my best Clint Eastwood impression.
“That was a fun movie,” Elyse said. “Even if it was a bit over the top.”
“I think it’s time for bed,” I said to my wives.
“Yes!” they both agreed.
Jessica, who was holding Albert, Kara, and I headed up to bed.
“Steve, Commander Schumacher is on the line,” Keri said.
“Put him through, please, then ask Elyse to come into my office.”
She put him through and I greeted him as Elyse walked into my office.
“He’s coming home on Saturday,” Karl said. “The funeral is going to be on Wednesday at Great Lakes at the RTC Chapel. The delay is because of Christmas.”
“Where is she going to bury him?” I asked.
“Your hometown; Milford. That will be on Friday. She’s going to move home at least for a time. I’m guessing that she’ll stay there for a while.”
“That’s actually probably the best plan I can think of,” I said. “Her friends are mostly here, but at home she’ll have her parents to help with Nicholas.”
“Kathy agrees with you,” he said.
“Keep me posted, please,” I replied. “Let her know I’m thinking about her.”
“She knows. She asked about you. I told her you were doing fine, all things considered. I didn’t tell her about you being in the hospital, though. I didn’t want her to worry.”
“Good thinking,” I said. “She has enough on her plate. Let me know when she wants to see me.”
“She’d like you to be at the airport. She asked for you and Kathy, specifically. The Navy will have quite a few people there, including an honor guard. I’ll call you tomorrow with the exact details.”
“Thanks, Karl,” I said. “I appreciate everything you’re doing.”
“He was a friend and comrade. It’s the least I can do.”
We said goodbye and I replaced the handset in the cradle.
“You’re handling it exactly right,” Elyse said.
“I have to keep reminding myself to just let the Navy do their thing. I love Bethany so much, but I have to let this happen their way.”
“I’m impressed,” Elyse said with a smile. ‘Old Steve’ would never have done this."
“I’m torn up inside, but what can I do?”
“Exactly what you’re doing. Taking care of your family and your business. You can’t just shut down like you would have in the past.”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “The funeral is Wednesday. Everyone who knew him has the day off. I already cleared that with my dad before I found out when the funeral was going to be. She’s going to bury him in Milford next Friday morning. Obviously, I’m going. Karl said Bethany asked for Kathy and me to meet her at O’Hare this Saturday when she brings him home. His family is on their way, and I’m guessing Harry, Nora, and Ed are going to be here soon as well.”
“Are we sending flowers?” she asked.
“I’d really rather we donated to a women’s shelter or something like that, but I have no idea what she’d want. So yes, go ahead and arrange for flowers to be sent to the RTC chapel for Wednesday. You should probably call the base chaplain and find out how to do it.”
“I’ll have Kimmy make the arrangements. She’s very efficient at things like that.”
“Yes, she is. Thanks for coming in.”
“Playing it safe is good.”
“Elyse, you’ve been a rock of support for going on ten years now. The smartest thing you ever did was refuse to sleep with me for our entire Senior year.”
“Do you know how difficult THAT was?”
“Knowing what I know now, very difficult,” I said with a smile. “But it was the right thing to do.”
“And so was coming to your bed that first night in Chicago,” Elyse said. “And having your children.”
I nodded, “You’ve kicked my butt when it needed kicking, and helped me through a lot of tough times.”
“Let me know when you have the details for Wednesday. And if you need me on Saturday, I’ll be there.”
“We don’t have to go if you don’t feel up to it,” Jessica said.
“It’s fine, Babe. We missed your Christmas party at work last year because of, well, you know. And we didn’t go the previous year because you didn’t feel ready. We need to go this year.”
“I was just worried about your emotional state. You seem pretty down.”
“I promise not to be a ‘Gloomy Gus’ at the party. I’m quite sure there will be plenty of cute nurses, medical students, and Residents to flirt with to keep my spirits up!”
Jessica laughed, “So you ARE actually OK!”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I sighed. “But I can fake it for a few hours.”
I fixed my tie and then waited for a few minutes while Jessica and Kara finished getting ready, and then the three of us headed downstairs. It was brutally cold, with the temperature hovering around 0°F. When I’d gotten up that morning to run with Jacquelyn, it had been -10°F, which was about -23°C, slightly colder than the coldest day I’d encountered in Göteborg when I’d lived there!
We bundled up in our heavy winter coats, hats, scarves, and gloves and made a mad dash for the car. I’d started it and let it run for about ten minutes two times during the day, and then again about ten minutes before we left to let it warm up. Jennifer had watched out her window to make sure nobody tried to drive off with it. We got in and quickly shut the doors.
“Wow,” Kara gasped, “it’s cold!”
“No kidding!” Jessica said. “Steve drove to meet Jacqui and then drove me to work. No sane person tries to walk in this kind of weather. The radio said the wind chill this morning was -30°F!”
“It’s brutal,” I agreed.
The party turned out to be relatively sedate, which didn’t really surprise me. With spouses and boyfriends or girlfriends attending, the usual ‘hanky-panky’ as Jessica called it, had to be muted, or, in most cases, simply didn’t happen. I spent some time talking to Doctor Barton and Doctor Washington, as well as several other doctors that I’d met over the course of the last few years. Marjorie did flirt lightly with me, and Alicia and I bantered a bit. My wives and I left early, because we had to be at O’Hare in the morning for a very important task. A task that I dreaded, but one which was totally necessary.
“How does this work?” I asked.
“She’ll get off the plane, and then those officers and enlisted men will escort her to the tarmac,” Karl said. “Nick’s coffin will come off first, and they’ll load him into a hearse and he’ll have a military escort to Great Lakes. Bethany will ride in a car behind them with Nicholas and the chaplain. I’ll be with them as well. Depending on what Bethany wants, you can drive to the base. I have a pass for you that gets you, your wives, and your car past the guard post. And one for Kathy and Kurt as well.”
“What happens then?”
“An honor guard will stand with his coffin until the funeral service, and then I’ll accompany Nick to Cincinnati. A detachment of sailors will be there, along with a bugler, as well as a number of people from the JAG office at RTC. A representative of the JAG will come from DC, though not the JAG himself. Pete got the days off to attend. Nick will get a gun salute, as well as a full flag ceremony.”
“That hardly makes up for it,” I sighed.
“It’s not meant to, Steve. It’s meant to give everyone closure and a way to honor his life and sacrifice for his country.”
“Sacrifice?” I objected. “Seriously?”
“Yes. He gave his life in service to his country. How it happened is of little importance from that perspective.”
“What do we know about the asshole who shot him?” I asked.
“He’s been charged with first degree murder and attempted first degree murder, as well as dereliction of duty and several other things the local JAG tacked on. He’s going to be in custody for a long time, if not his entire life.”
“Good,” I said.
The American Airlines flight from San Francisco taxied onto the ramp and the pilots shut down the engines.
“She’ll be first off, with her military escort,” Karl said.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“My friend, Captain John Yates, who’s in charge of base personnel. I requested he accompany Nick because there really wasn’t anyone there who was close to Nick, and it would have been tough for me or Howard to get there to bring him home.”
The Jetway was extended, and about three minutes later my Sweetheart came off the plane on the arm of a Naval officer in dress blues.
“Good morning, Captain,” Karl said, coming briefly to attention.
“It’s good to see you Commander; I just wish the circumstances were different.”
“Hi, Bethany,” Karl said.
“Hi, Karl. Thanks for everything.”
She handed baby Nicholas to Captain Yates, then gave Karl a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. As we’d all discussed, Kathy moved next to greet her. They hugged and whispered in each other’s ears for a moment. Kathy released her and took the baby from Captain Yates. Kurt stepped up to hug Bethany, and when he released her, she took two steps towards me.
“Thanks for coming,” she said.
“I’m here for you, however and whenever you need me,” I said quietly.
I took her in my arms and hugged her tightly to me, and whispered in her ear, “I love you very much.”
“I know,” she whispered back.
Both my wives greeted her, and then she moved to greet her parents, Ed, and Nick’s family. Nora had objected to the order, but Harry had quietly admonished his wife saying that she should defer to Karl’s plan. The Navy had every step in the process orchestrated and down to a science, and I certainly wasn’t going to interfere, and Harry seemed to agree with me.
A man in an American Airlines captain’s uniform came over to the group.
“Mrs. Evans? Captain John Mitchell. I’m sorry for your loss. It was my honor to fly you on this last leg of the journey. I extend the condolences from Captains Bernhard, Allen, and Franks who flew the other legs. I’m here to escort you to the tarmac. All in your party have been cleared to join us.”
Bethany took his arm and he led us back down the Jetway, out a door, and down the steps to the tarmac. As the last of us was through the door, I saw the assembled passengers begin to deplane.
Captain Yates touched my arm, “When the captain announced that we had Nick on board, and that there would be a ten to fifteen minute delay in deplaning, nobody complained. Many people came to Bethany to offer their sympathy and their thanks for Nick’s service.”
I nodded, “There are plenty of good people in the world.”
We all walked to a baggage conveyor that had been rolled up to the cargo door of the plane. A red carpet was laid from the end of the conveyor to where the hearse and a car were parked. After the honor guard lined up, baggage workers carefully loaded Nick’s flag-draped coffin on the belt and it began slowly moving down. When it reached the bottom, the honor guard hoisted it, and carried it to the hearse. When it was safely inside, Karl, Bethany, Nicholas, and the RTC chaplain got into the car. Captain Yates got into the hearse, because he was Nick’s official escort.
Once they’d departed, an American Airlines ground worker led us back up the steps to the Jetway. I thanked the American Airlines captain and the ground worker, and then my wives and I, the Jaegers, the Krajicks, and the Evans family all headed to the short-term parking lot to retrieve our cars, while the Navy men headed to the restricted parking area where their transport van was parked.
“She’s holding together pretty well,” Jessica observed.
“She’s had some time to process it,” I said. “I’m worried about what happens once the Navy’s procedures end and she’s on her own.”
“You and Kathy help her as best you can, and get her situated in Ohio with her parents, then let her have her space. Bethany will tell you what she needs, Tiger.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I really hope so.”
Once Nick’s coffin was under the watchful eyes of an honor guard, we went to Bethany’s house. Ginny was there with her kids and several of the wives who had food ready for everyone. I went to talk to a grim-faced Howard and the other officers who were standing in the dining room talking quietly, leaving the living room to the women.
“Hi guys,” I said somberly.
“Steve,” Howard said, nodding.
“Shitty day,” I sighed.
“That’s an understatement,” Pete said.
“How the fuck does something like this happen?” I asked.
“NIS will find out, you can count on it,” Pete said firmly. “And JAG will put him away.”
“Small consolation,” I sighed.
“I agree. But that’s where we find ourselves,” Pete said.
“I assume all of you are making the trip to Ohio?” I asked.
“Yes,” Howard said. “We all have orders to attend the interment in our official capacities.”
“She’s staying in Milford afterwards,” Karl said. “I’ll make all the arrangements to have their things stored so she can retrieve them when she needs to. Ginny and Kathy are staying with her until she goes to Ohio.”
“Good,” I said. “The fact that she’s burying him in Milford tells me that she’s staying there for the long haul. I suppose that makes sense.”
“She didn’t tell me the details, but there’s something there for her besides her family.”
Just then, Ed walked into the room to join us, as did Harry Krajick and Nick’s father, who introduced himself as Tom.
“How’s your sister?” Ed asked after everyone had exchanged greetings.
“She’s doing OK. She moved into the dorms while she’s working on her Master’s degree. There’s something about having five small kids in the house that just seems to cramp the style of college girls!”
“I heard your two renters moved out. Too bad!” he said.
“I have some new ones,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” Pete chuckled. “This is Steve we’re talking about!”
“Ed, if you want to come by the house, you’re welcome.”
“I think we’re going to be with Bethany. It’s going to be a tough Christmas.”
“That I’m sure of,” I said. “Stephanie’s coming to Milford with us, so you’ll see her then.”
“She still seeing that Puerto Rican guy?”
“No, they broke up. She’s been dating a bit since then.”
He smiled, “Interesting information.”
I had a chance to talk briefly to Nick’s father before the ladies let us know that the food was ready. We all helped ourselves from the buffet-style layout and went back to the dining room. Karl produced a bottle of rum, and filled a dozen shot glasses. Each of the men took one. Karl spoke the toast.
“To Nick Evans, husband, father, friend, and comrade - fair winds and following seas.”
“Hear, hear!” everyone replied and drank down their shot.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My heart just wasn’t in it.”
“I agree with you; it just didn’t feel right,” Kara said. “Knowing what’s happening on Wednesday just kind of takes the joy out of today and tomorrow.”
“We can’t let this affect the kids,” Jessica said.
“No, we can’t,” I agreed.
Kara and I got up from the blanket by our private Christmas tree and went to the shower. Jessica joined us and the three of us had a nice shower together. Kara and I had followed our tradition of making love in front of the tree, but neither of us really felt celebratory. On the drive home from RTC on Wednesday evening, we’d had a long talk about what had happened and how it was affecting all of us. We weren’t despondent, but the pall of death hung over us, dampening our moods. I knew that the funeral was going to be difficult, and the interment might be just as bad.
“Where are we staying in Ohio?” Jessica asked.
“At Don Joseph’s house. I spoke to Donna Grossi this morning. It’s just tough because we can’t all be in the same car, though there’s enough room for all of us to stay there.”
“It’s OK,” Kara said. “Jess and I will have four of the kids in the minivan, along with Elyse. You, your dad, and sister will be in your car, and Jennifer, Josie, and Jesse will come in Jennifer’s car. Did you talk to Larry?”
I nodded, “Yes. We’ll have lunch with him, Drew, Joyce, and Jake on Saturday. My plan was to drive back to Chicago on Sunday morning after breakfast. I already talked to Sensei Jim about missing all the classes. He’s sympathetic because Nick was a military man, and also because of what happened with Stephie.”
We finished our shower and dressed, then Kara went to retrieve Birgit and Albert from Elyse who had been watching them, and we had our family Christmas celebration. I’d have another one with Elyse in the morning, after Jessica and I made love under the tree, and then we’d have the joint, extended-family Christmas late on Christmas morning. Birgit was just old enough to appreciate her gifts, but Albert was more interested in the wrapping paper, ribbon, and bows.
“Kids are funny,” Jessica observed. “But they figure it out pretty quickly.”
“Jesse is already counting his loot,” I chuckled. “Jennifer and Josie had to store it all in Elyse’s walk-in closet to keep that little turkey from finding it. That’s the one room in the house he’s never in.”
“Having two moms, a dad, and a host of aunts and uncles and three sets of grandparents does tend to pile up the loot!” Kara laughed. “Look at what Birgit and Albert received!”
“And Matthew and Michael have quite a bit of stuff, too. Elyse’s parents go all out for their grandkids.”
“Most grandparents do!” Kara said. “Is your sister going to be here tomorrow?”
“Yes. I just hope she and my mom don’t get into it. And that my mom just keeps her mouth shut.”
“I’m going to have a word with her when she arrives,” Jessica said. “Quietly and privately. We’re not having a repeat of the last time!”
“Thanks, Babe,” I said.
“You seem to be holding up OK,” Elyse said when we finished our Christmas celebration with Matthew and Michael.
“Thanks to all of you. Kara and I are kind of bummed, as you can imagine. Jess doesn’t have the same problem because she wasn’t nearly as close to Bethany as we were.”
“You weren’t all morose during your celebrations with them, were you?”
“No, just a bit subdued. And Jessica understands. Wednesday and Friday are going to suck, that’s for sure. I positively hate funerals.”
“I don’t know anyone who likes them,” Elyse said. “Well, maybe funeral directors.”
“Missy Noakes' dad didn’t seem to like them. It was his job to run them, and to provide services. Somebody has to do those shitty jobs.”
“Did you find out where they’re burying him?” Elyse asked.
“Greenlawn. The same place your uncle and Alan Blanchard were buried. It’s pretty much where anyone from Milford would be buried. To me that seems like a guarantee that Bethany plans to stay in the area. And as much as it pains me that she’ll be that far away, I think it’s a good thing.”
“What about work?” Elyse asked.
“I can’t imagine she’ll have trouble finding a position. She worked with a professor at UC when she was recovering from her accident, so she has some contacts, and I’m sure she can get a positive referral from Doctor Mercer, the psychologist that Bethany and I both saw back in the day.”
“Didn’t Kara see her as well?”
“Yes, she did,” I answered. “Come on, I think it’s time to join the rest of the gang.”
“It certainly is. Let me grab Michael and you take Matthew, please.”
“Let’s go, Foo,” I said, using Birgit’s name for Matthew that had stuck as his occasional nickname.
He came to me and I took his hand and we walked out of the room with Elyse, carrying Michael, right behind us. We joined the others in the great room and a few minutes later, Jennifer and Josie came in with Jesse in tow.
“Merry Christmas!” Jennifer said.
Everyone responded with the same greeting and the large contingent gathered around the tree. I saw my mom looking decidedly unhappy, and assumed that Jessica had laid down the law to her. Katy joined us, because Lauren had to be at home with her parents and couldn’t invite Katy without drawing questions that might be difficult to answer. Abbie also joined us, despite objecting to the whole idea of Christmas. I’d pointed out that for us, it was about shared time with our extended family, without any particular religious connotations and she’d relented. Stephanie joined us as well, because she wasn’t serious enough with Rich to drive to Michigan where his family lived.
Our Christmas celebration was raucous, with the older kids gleefully opening presents and thanking the giver profusely. Michael and Albert needed some help, and, as both of them had at our private celebrations, seemed more interested in the ribbon and bows than the actual toys. There were gifts for everyone, including Abbie, who was surprised that several of us had bought her something. Katy had been around us long enough to know that we’d think of her, and she’d bought things for everyone in the house as well. My parents exchanged gifts with each other, too.
After the celebration, my dad, Elyse, Jesse, and I went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, which was served at 2:00pm. When we finished eating, we had apple pie, ice cream, and coffee, and then spent the afternoon and evening talking and enjoying each other’s company. My mom was on her best behavior, and that ensured that my sister would not be provoked into a response.
That evening, we watched a CNN Headline News report about the revolution in Romania. Shockingly, deposed Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were summarily executed by military troops. This occurred after they were found guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ by what was, from all appearances, a kangaroo court. That really wasn’t surprising, because after a week of bloody demonstrations, Ion Iliescu took over as president of Romania, ousting Ceaușescu, and putting an end to the Communist dictatorship. The coup, or revolution, had succeeded when the military suddenly switched sides to oppose Ceaușescu, which had led directly to his execution.
“There isn’t much left now,” I said. “Except for the breakup of the Soviet Union. And that’s going to happen. The Baltics are going to go first, but then I bet the other republics leave as well. Certainly Georgia and Ukraine will.”
“Crazy,” Elyse said. “Who would have believed this a year ago?”
“Communism is finally being relegated to the ash heap of history. Where it belongs.”
Late in the day, Jorge stopped by to drop off some gifts for the kids, as well as a few others. I’d purchased something for him, and so had Jennifer and Josie. After we exchanged the gifts and opened them, he and I stepped into my study to talk.
“You doing OK?” he asked.
“You mean about Nick or being in the hospital?”
“Both, really, but for Nick, we’ll all miss him, and you have good people to help you with it,” he said. “So, the hospital?”
"There’s nothing wrong with me except that I have this history of fainting when I hear shocking news. All that fuss over nothing! "
“Oh, da poor baby!” he whined in an exaggerated way. “All these women fawning over you, and it’s too much to handle! Anyway, you do realize it’s purely self-interest on their part, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can’t snuggle or be a tiger if you’re laid up!”
“Nice,” I chuckled.
He was saved by Jessica coming in and laughing at the exchange she’d overheard.
“Hi Jessica,” Jorge said brightly. “I brought the sledgehammer you asked for!”
“Sledgehammer? What for?” I asked, instantly regretting the words as I saw the hint of a smirk on him.
“To pound some sense into you,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
I laughed, thankful for the moment of levity given the overall mood, then reached into my pocket and slid a nickel across the desk, “Thanks, Lucy!”
“I’m sorry this messed up all of our plans with the grandparents,” I said to Elyse, Jessica, and Kara as we gathered in the foyer.
“If they can’t understand this, I’m not sure they can understand anything,” Jessica replied. “My parents postponed their trip until next month. My dad said he didn’t think it was a good time to come, all things considered.”
“And my mom and Paul said they’d see us in Ohio,” Kara said. “Thanks for agreeing to stay a few extra days.”
“It makes sense, because that lets my parents have time with the grandkids,” Elyse said. “Are you still planning on coming to dinner on Monday night?”
“That’s the plan. We’re having dinner with Paul and Nancy on Tuesday. We’ll come back to Chicago on Wednesday. There was one change - my dad will drive down to Cincinnati with my mom, and we’ll bring him back.”
“So it’s just your sister and you driving down?” Elyse asked.
“No, Abbie asked to come along and I said it was OK. I did discuss it with Jessica and Kara first. There’s plenty of room at the Grossis' for all of us, plus Jennifer, Josie, and Jesse, as well as my sister. Elyse is staying with her parents, and the Jaegers are staying with Kathy’s mom. The Navy made arrangements for all their men.”
We walked out to the cars. I was driving the minivan, with Jessica, Kara, Birgit, Albert, Abbie, and my sister. Elyse was taking her car, with Matthew, Michael, and Katy. Jennifer, Josie and Jesse were in Jennifer’s car. My parents would be in my mom’s car. Once I was sure everyone was set, and reconfirmed the directions and ensured each car had their gate pass, we headed out in a convoy to Great Lakes.
The funeral was exactly what I’d expected it to be - non-denominational and full of military honors. It seemed as if half the base was attending, though I knew it really was mostly JAG Corps and the command staff. The officers seriously outnumbered the enlisted men, which was also something I’d expected because Nick had been an officer. There were several very moving eulogies from men and women who had served with Nick, with Howard and Karl delivering the two most poignant messages.
Afterwards, there was a reception in a side room at the chapel. I just got a cup of coffee since I didn’t really feel like eating. I stood in a corner of the room, sipping my coffee with my wives and Abbie standing with me.
“How are you doing?” Kara asked.
“OK, I guess.”
“Have you written anything in your journal since Nick was shot?”
I shook my head, “No. I was using it to try to make sense of the world, and I’ve officially decided that it’s an impossible task.”
“You should write, Steve. Don’t try to hold it in.”
“I just can’t,” I said. “Not now. Maybe not ever.”
“You’ve held it all in, Tiger. Kara’s right.”
I shook my head again, “No. I’m not going to lose control. Period.”
“You will if you don’t let it out.”
“Let it go,” I said firmly. “I’m fine.”
“Steve,” Abbie said. “This isn’t you.”
“It’s the new me,” I said.
It was Abbie’s turn to shake her head, “It shouldn’t be. It’s not you.”
“Can we drop this discussion, please? Let’s get through Friday and then we can worry about it. I need to pay my respects to Bethany.”
I walked away and moved to where Bethany was standing with Karl and Kathy.
“Hi,” I said.
I gave her a hug and she kissed my cheek.
“Hi, Steve,” Bethany said. “Thanks for coming.”
“How could I not after everything we’ve been through together? We’ll be in Milford on Friday.”
Bethany nodded and smiled, though it seemed forced, “Thanks.”
“You let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
She nodded, “I will. Thanks.”
“Where’s Nicholas?” I asked.
“With my mom. He’s obviously too little to know what happened.”
“Let me know how I can help,” I said again. “And we’ll see you in Milford.”
She nodded and I went back towards my wives and Abbie, stopping to exchange a few words with Pam who had come down from Madison. We promised to keep in better touch, and I continued on my way back to my wives.
“She’s still holding it together,” I said.
“She will until Friday because she has to,” Jessica said. “Then she’ll need help.”
“Doctor Mercer is still practicing in Milford,” I said. “I’m sure Bethany will talk to her.”
“I hope so,” Kara said.
It was Friday morning. We’d arrived at Donna Grossi’s house the previous afternoon, and once I had Jessica, Kara, and the kids settled, Elyse and I put Matthew and Michael in my BMW and headed for her parents' house in Glen Este. Because of a minor change to our plans, my dad had driven down with my mom, so that only Abbie and my sister were with me in my car. Because of space considerations, Abbie and Stephanie were staying in two rooms in the main house, while my family, including Jennifer, Josie, and Jesse, had the run of the guest house. After dropping off Elyse and the kids, I’d gone back to Donna Grossi’s.
After breakfast, we relaxed with coffee. The interment was at 1:00pm, so we’d have an early lunch before we left. Around 9:30am, I excused myself to call the office.
“Hi, Keri, any messages?”
“No messages, but Dave and Julia had their baby last night. Nicholas George Kallas was born at 10:02pm. Julia and the baby are just fine.”
“Send flowers, please,” I said.
“Kimmy already took care of it. Dave called her at home last night to let her know the news because he was sure you or Elyse would call in at some point.”
“Thank Kimmy for me, and thank you both for running things while we’re all away.”
“I’ll do that! We’ll see you on Monday.”
I hung up the phone and went back to where everyone was sitting and told them the good news.
“A boy?” Jesse said. “Nicholas? Like Aunt Befany’s baby?”
That was another ‘Jesse-ism’. ‘Befany’ was like ‘Chess’ and would probably never change.
“Yes, Jesse. A boy.”
“Good! Another boy! Yes!” he said, sounding triumphant.
“It won’t help,” Josie said with a smirk. “His sister has him well in hand.”
“Yes she does,” Kara giggled. “Just like we do Steve!”
Jennifer laughed, “But it’s taken five of us almost full-time with help from Kathy and Bethany and some other girls along the way! Birgit is doing it by herself! With four brothers and Peter!”
“She’s like her mom in many ways,” I said.
“And her dad,” Kara said with a smile.
“Look out world!” Jennifer said, causing everyone to laugh.
We had our early lunch, and then got everyone into the cars to head to Greenlawn Cemetery in Milford. As we pulled up to the site, I saw a team of sailors with rifles, one with a bugle, and a large contingent of Naval officers. I parked behind my parents' car and the girls parked the minivan behind me, and Jennifer parked behind them. We gathered together and then walked towards the gravesite. I saw Larry and Drew, Kathy and Kurt, and Elyse standing in a small group, so we went to stand near them.
After exchanging subdued greetings with Larry and Drew, we stood quietly waiting for the service to start. Fortunately, the weather was much warmer than in Chicago. It was nearly 40°F, and there was no wind. Everyone was bundled up, but nobody looked cold, and as most of us had come from Chicago, we’d seen a 50°F increase in temperature which made it feel like a heat wave. Bethany arrived, escorted by Howard, was wearing a black dress and carrying Nicholas. Howard walked her to the grave site and she sat on a blanket-covered chair with Nick’s parents next to her and Howard standing behind her.
At precisely 1:00pm, a Navy chaplain gave a short benediction, and then asked Howard to say a few words. He reprised his eulogy, though it was somewhat shorter than the one he’d given at Great Lakes, and then nodded to Karl who did the same. When they finished, the chaplain led everyone in the Lord’s Prayer, and then stepped aside. With a nod from a Captain, the lieutenant in charge of the rifle detail gave the commands and three volleys of rifle shots rang out, each one punctuating the silence, and jarring me to my core.
It only got worse when, at a distance of about 100 feet from where we were standing, a bugler, standing alone, began playing Taps. If the rifle shots had been jarring, Taps was a karate strike to the chest, causing my heart to flutter, my stomach to turn, and my head to spin. My friend Nick was dead. And worse, my best friend was a widow at age twenty-six. I felt someone take my arm to steady me, and through glassy eyes I saw it was Elyse.
“You OK?” she whispered.
“No,” I croaked. “I’m not.”
“Hang in there, Steve,” Jessica said from the other side of me, as she took hold of my other arm, and the words associated with Taps came to mind.
While the light fades from sight,
And the stars gleaming rays softly send,
To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.
By the time the last note rang out, tears were streaming down my face. I watched as a team of sailors removed the flag from Nick’s coffin, and quickly and expertly folded it. The senior man on the team handed the flag to Karl who was Nick’s superior, who then brought the flag to Bethany and handed it to her.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for Nick’s honorable and faithful service.”
Bethany accepted the flag, and put it on her lap. And at that point, I saw the first tear drip down her face. She’d held it together, at least in public, until the very last moment. People began filtering away, most stopping to touch the coffin. The military men were the last to leave, with Karl escorting Bethany towards the waiting car. She stopped, whispered something to him, handed Nicholas to Ginny, and then walked back to me.
“Come with me,” she said softly.
I held out my arm and she looped hers around mine. She directed me away from where everyone was standing and we began walking.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”
“I suppose so, but I’m worried about you. I know you well enough that I’m afraid of what’s going on inside that thick skull of yours.”
“Bethany, you need to worry about yourself and Nicholas right now,” I said.
“I have lots of people to help me, including you. But you can’t help if you shut down or lose control. I need you, Steve. Now more than ever. But differently. Do you understand?”
Did I understand? I thought I did. Trying to return to a relationship such as we’d had before she was with Nick, or before I’d proposed to my wives, was fraught with danger. The question was, could I handle that kind of relationship? ‘Old Steve’ certainly wouldn’t have been able to. At the slightest hint, he’d have made love with Bethany, and in the process wrecked everything. ‘New Steve’ couldn’t do that. Not now. Maybe not ever.
“I think so,” I said slowly.
“Do you? Really?”
“You need my friendship, companionship, and love. But not like it used to be. Not like before.”
“No, it can never be like it used to be. If we did that, we’d ruin everything for everyone and neither of us wants that result.”
“No, we don’t…Sweetheart,” I said.
Bethany looked over and smiled, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear right now, meant the way you meant it.”
“Good. What will you do?”
“Finish getting settled at my parents' house. It’s a bit strange moving back into my old room. Nicholas is going to take the spare bedroom.”
“And then?” I asked.
“Practice. I need to get licensed in Ohio, but it’s not too difficult based on my education and my Illinois license. I already talked to Fran about working with her until I get licensed. I might actually work with her longer. We’ll see.”
“Fran? As in Doctor Mercer?” I asked.
Bethany nodded, “Yes. It’s a bit tricky because I was a patient of hers, but we’ll work it out.”
“When did you arrange this?” I asked.
“I went to see her yesterday after we arrived. I called her from Guam a couple of times to talk. Are you really OK, Steve?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The salute and Taps were just overwhelming. It was as if a switch was about to flip and turn off the power.”
Bethany nodded, “That’s why I called Doctor Mercer. When they came to tell me Nick had been shot, I was upset, obviously. And when they told me he wasn’t going to make it, I broke down for a bit. When it came time to disconnect the machines, I called Fran, and then I basically shut down. I turned off all my emotions, everything. All I cared about was Nicholas. The Navy did everything else for me, for which I’m grateful. Don’t shut down, Steve.”
“I haven’t been writing,” I confessed. “I wrote to try to make sense of the world and this just blows that all to smithereens.”
“Don’t give up on that. Finding meaning is important. I have Nicholas now, and I have to be there for him. He’s the meaning of my life at the moment. You have your wives, Elyse, Jennifer, and all the kids, not to mention your business and your friends. Find your meaning there and let the world worry about itself. You can’t shoulder the entire burden. Way smarter people than you have tried and failed.”
“Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?” I asked.
“Morons,” she said, completing the line from The Princess Bride. “But you know what I mean.”
“Yes, philosophers have struggled with the question for several millennia now.”
“So why do YOU have to be the one to solve it? Why do you think you can solve it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t shut down,” she said sharply. “Don’t. Go back to writing.”
“I just can’t, Sweetheart. Not now.”
We slowly made our way back to where Karl and Ginny were waiting with Nicholas. Bethany and I hugged, and she kissed me on the cheek, then took her son back from Ginny and they made their way to the car.
“How is she?” Kathy asked.
“Better than I am,” I said. “For the moment. I think it’ll all hit her now that the ceremonies are over and she has to get on with her life.”
“Any idea what she’ll do?” Kara asked.
I smiled, “She’s already talked to Doctor Mercer about working with her until she can get licensed in Ohio.”
“Already?” Kurt asked, surprised. “Wow.”
“That’s Bethany,” Jennifer said. “She always had her plans and didn’t let adversity get in her way.”
“So what now?” Jessica asked.
“Now we go back to Donna Grossi’s house and relax. Donna Grossi is making us dinner. Tomorrow we have lunch with Larry, Drew, Jake, and Joyce. Afterwards, we’re going to see Paul and Nancy with the kids, and then going out to dinner with them. Elyse will be with her parents. I’m not sure what Jennifer and Josie are doing.”
“We’re going out with Larry and Drew,” Jennifer said. “Jesse is going with you, if that’s OK.”
“It’s always OK! Where are you guys headed?”
“No idea yet,” Larry said. “We’ll figure something out.”
We made our way to the cars, and before I got in, I went to talk to my dad.
“The plan is still to leave Sunday morning,” I said. “We’ll come by Mason to get you so that Mom doesn’t have to drive over to Colerain Township.”
“Nonsense! That adds nearly two hours in the car for the kids. Your mother will drive me over to Colerain Township.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“You’re still having the New Year’s Eve party?” my sister asked.
“Yes, it’s a tradition, and quite a few people would be disappointed if we didn’t. I don’t feel like having a party, but my friends need it, so we’re doing it.”
“They’d understand, Son,” my dad said.
“Yes, they would. But I have to do this. We talked this morning in the car on the way home about how I’m feeling.”
“Maybe you need to see someone,” Stephanie said. “Maybe that guy you saw here when you were having some issues.”
“Doctor Alborg? He was OK, but there was something that just didn’t click. Our marriage counselor, Doctor Green, is a great guy and I like him, but he’s a relationship counselor. I guess I’d have to find someone else.”
“What about that woman you saw back in Milford?” my dad asked. “She helped you quite a bit when you were younger.”
I nodded, “Yes, she did. But I can’t think about this right now. Elyse and I have so much to do for tonight. Are you still going to do the shopping, Squirt?”
“Yes. Abbie and Katy are going with me. We’ll leave in a bit. Katy took stock of the liquor cabinets and I have the list you gave me for food. OK to take the minivan?”
“Yes. And, thanks,” I said.
Elyse, Kara, Jessica, and I got to work preparing the house for the party. Sofia and Stavros arrived late in the afternoon to help with food preparation. I also confirmed with her that she was going to read «Nyårsklockan». Around 8:00pm our guests began to arrive, and it hit me that Bethany and Nick wouldn’t be at the party. All the emotional feelings came roaring back so I went to my study and shut the door. I sat at my desk, taking deep breaths, trying to keep it together.
I thought about why I was feeling the way I was, and while the loss of a friend hurt, Bethany’s loss made me hurt for her. The senselessness of the entire situation weighed heavily on me. I stared at my Mac, wondering if I should try to write in my journal, but I couldn’t. There was nothing to write. Sure, I could pour out my angst, but that wouldn’t help me answer the myriad of questions swirling in my mind, most of which began with ‘Why?’ and appeared to have no answers.
“Tiger?” I heard Jessica say as she and Kara came into my study.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking about Bethany and Nick not being here and I needed some time alone. I’ll come out now.”
“We’re worried about you,” she said.
“I know,” I sighed. “I just can’t wrap my head around this and that’s just making things worse. And I can’t write.”
“That’s not good, Snuggle Bear,” Kara said. “Maybe you should see Doctor Alborg to get some help.”
I shook my head, “No. He’s not the right person. I talked to my dad about this earlier. He suggested Doctor Mercer. But that’s tough because she’s in Milford. Let’s forget this now and attend to our guests.”
The party came off well, despite my mood, and we had something to actually celebrate - two things, actually. Poland had officially ended ‘state socialism’ in favor of a capitalist system, and had withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War was effectively over. And, more importantly, close to home, Sofia announced that she was pregnant.
“Do you have some time to talk?” I asked Abbie after lunch on New Year’s Day.
“Sure. Always. The ‘Indian’ room? Your study?”
“Your room, if that’s OK,” I said.
She smiled, “Always. You don’t come see me very often.”
We walked upstairs to her room, and I pointed to the loveseat, not the bed.
“I thought…” she said.
I smiled, “Yes, but I need to explain first.”
“Explain what? That you’re hurting? That you’re confused? That you talk better after sex? Those things are pretty obvious. I have known you for nearly a year now.”
“Yes, you have,” I said with a smile.
“Then come make love to me and we can talk afterwards.”
I got up and took her in my arms. We exchanged a very soft, French kiss, and carefully undressed each other. There was no rush, just a slow progression towards a very fulfilling act of intimacy. Usually, Abbie and I had very athletic encounters, but not this time. This time she was as soft and loving as any girl I’d ever met, because she understood that’s what I needed.
The previous night, Kimmy had taken me aside around 10:30pm. We couldn’t make love, given her relationship status, but we could have a very intimate talk. She’d let Gary know that she needed to talk to me, and he’d agreed. We talked for about ten minutes and she did her best to help me cheer up. She’d also encouraged me to talk to someone just as my dad and wives had done earlier in the day.
When Abbie and I finished, I pulled her into my usual cuddling position, though the metal in her nipple created a strange sensation in my side.
“You’re struggling with all the death that seems to surround you,” Abbie said without prompting.
“Yes,” I sighed. “In the last twelve years or so, Birgit, Don Joseph, Stephie, and now Nick. And before that, even though I didn’t know him, Jim McGrath.”
“Who was that?”
“A soldier who was killed in Vietnam. I was an altar boy at his funeral. He’s actually buried in that same cemetery. Years later, his widow was my first.”
“And they all affected you this way?”
“Each one was different,” I said. “Except for the fact that the person is gone.”
“This is what we talked about back in Albany,” she said. “Your worldview against mine. And you’re still not ready to accept mine. I’m not sure you ever will be, or that you should be. It’s not you. Despite all your external negativity, you’re an optimist at heart. You always expect the good. And when it doesn’t happen, your spirit is crushed.”