(Semper Fi Jordan...Tôi yêu con gái KaSandra...Anh yêu em Tuyet)
a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton
Long Beach, California, November 24, 2004
The rain didn’t bother me. In fact it wasn't even a distraction. Nothing bothered me anymore. There must be words to describe this, but I'm not that smart. The only word that comes to my mind is empty, like I don't exist anymore, does that make sense? I sat cross-legged on the soggy grass in front of the granite stone that marked the grave of my only child, my son Gabriel. It's hard to believe it's been a year since his death. I remember that day like it was yesterday, I suspect I always will, but isn't that the way? I sat stiff and uncomfortable in an odd shaped chair beside a large window, alternating glances between the rain that fell against the windowpane and Monica who had curled up beside Gabby on his deathbed, waiting for him to draw his final breath.
She sang to him softly, pretending he could hear her, and held him close to her like she did whenever he was frightened. She was connected to him body and soul like only a mother can be. Monica didn’t need any of the fancy equipment to tell her that her baby was dying; she could feel his life ebbing away with each small breath he took. When I heard her begin to sob quietly, I knew that Gabriel had lost his battle with the cancer that had invaded his little body. Those twelve months went by so fast, it wasn't fair, but life isn't fair, and for the first time in my life I doubted my God and lost my faith. It's been a year between then and now and I am still lost. It had been a dark and stormy day, not unlike this one, and I remember every stinking minute of it.
The wind gusted suddenly as I stared intently at the cold, hard headstone. Silently I read to the short inscription for the hundredth time today:
“Gabriel Luc Bouchard…too soon an angel.”
I would have cried if I were able, but there weren’t any tears left to shed, just an icy, fallow emptiness that emanated from deep inside of me. I just stared blankly at the stone marker without blinking. The steady rainfall stung my face like tiny needles as it swept sideways in sheets with the howling wind. Municipal Cemetery is the oldest and actually the first cemetery in the city of Long Beach, a registered historical landmark. Because of that fact it hadn’t been easy arranging for Gabriel to be buried here. I recalled me and Papa literally begging and pleading for the privilege of doing so. But it was worth sacrificing a little dignity to provide this beautiful spot for Gabby’s to rest through eternity.
Sandy Lucci and I used to drive by this place every day on the way to work five days a week, sometimes six, and I had always found myself oddly attracted to it? The rolling hills littered with stone markers and shady trees just seemed so peaceful, almost inviting in a sick sense. We'd catch sight of a visitor or two on occasion paying their respects. It was an interesting contrast between life and death, one that I didn't really understand until now.
While the old cemetery had character all its own, a certain morbid 'je ne sais quoi' (I don't know what) if you will. I blinked as a stream of rainwater mixed with perspiration stung my eye. My Yankees baseball cap was no match for the elements and it wilted in the torrential downpour. Ignoring the soaking, and my shivering body, I continued to watch the stone, replaying the events of the last twelve months in my mind. The smooth granite surface was my movie screen of sorts, and my imagination projected onto it the images that had dominion over me.
I had to be being strong for everyone from the beginning. At least that's what I told myself, it was how I'd been raised. Honestly we took turns being strong for one another, my wife, my child, my father, our family, and our friends who had become family on Gabriel's journey. We prayed together, hoped together, and cried together right up to the very end. Then, reluctantly in my case, we accepted God’s will, again, like I'd been raised to do. Monica and I lay our son to rest without tears, there were none left to shed by then. Afterward I recalled the grief counseling sessions at St. Joseph’s, going first with Monica, and then again with Papa, as we attempted to expedite the ‘healing process’ as Fr. Garcia called it. I did these things with love, like a good husband, a devoted father, and a dutiful son should. But my heart wasn't in it, and I felt guilty, as though I'd somehow let everyone down.
My conscience, my inner voice urged me to let go, to move on and be grateful Gabriel suffering was over, but what about mine? Stubborn to a fault I let pain and anger consume me, and anger was turning to rage. I wanted someone or something to blame. I needed to transfer all of this anguish; I needed to lash out, to punish with the fury consuming my soul. It wasn’t right to feel this way, I knew that. It certainly wasn’t a Christian act; I knew that as well. But I'd convinced myself that this bad attitude, this selfish need for vengeance was not only justified but perfectly normal, even expected under the circumstances. I was just being human, right?
As I struggled with my thoughts, the enemy waited in the dark recesses of my hardening heart. As my grief deepened my faith waned, and the enemy’s poisonous whispers began to take root. As I lost my mind my heart turned to stone, the transformation was complete. Finally I was ready for the devil's harvest, for a new resolve, whatever form it might take, so long as it filled the empty hole in my heart. Gabriel will not have suffered in vain; there had to be a purpose for his death, it was up to me to figure that out. I tried debating that with God, but he wasn't listening.
Standing in the center of Gabby’s grave now I leaned forward with both of my hands and grasped his headstone tightly, my knuckles turning white as I squeezed the granite with all of my might. Tears came at last, mixing with the rain and sweat streaming down my face. I had backed myself into an emotional corner, but refused to cower there and came out fighting instead. It had finally come to this, right here right now in this place of peace and eternal rest. This was where I'd part company with God for now. From this moment on, I needed to do things my own way. My faith would be in my own ingenuity, in my own sense of justice. The how, the what, and the where I had yet to figure out. The only thing I knew for certain was why, I definitely knew why. I also knew I’d be on my own. I couldn't as God to lead me on the crooked path ahead of me. This path would take me beyond redemption.
I knew the thoughts running through my mind, emanating from my cold hard heart were better suited to demons than angels. I kept my conscience in check by convincing myself that my need for justice was righteous, even divine in origin. And hoped that God would forgive me for whatever actions I took. It was the ‘ends justifying the means’ argument and I adopted it quickly before the angel on my shoulder could soften my heart and dull the hard edge a years worth of self-pity had honed. I knew instinctively where these thoughts were the work of the enemy. They shouted at me when I was weakest, in my most vulnerable moments. In spite of my awareness I willingly abandoned my faith. I was ready to listen to anyone who told me what I wanted to hear, the enemy knew it, and spoke to me in a soothing tone.
“See what your God has done?”
“Your prayers fell upon deaf ears.”
“See what he’s done to you and yours,” lied the silent whisper.
“What sort of father brings pain like this to his child?”
“No child should suffer as yours did.”
“No mother should cradle her child as he slips away in silence.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to will away the voice. I pushed away from the headstone, standing up to my full height and raised my face to Heaven. I held my clenched fists rigidly against my sides hoping the cold rain might silence the voices in my head, it didn't. My imagination conjured up the foul breath of the enemy as he spoke to me over my shoulder.
“SHUT UP!” I hissed bitterly at the wind. Still the voice whispered to me.
“Who brought you to this lonely place?” asked the enemy, his words dripping sweetly onto my ears like honey from a jar.
“Why were your prayers ignored?”
“Why were you forsaken? Why wasn't he there for Gabriel, for you?” the voice pressed.
"I am here Patrick. Tell me what you want. Tell me how I can help?"
I turned and quickly walked away from the grave site, moving toward the asphalt road that wound lazily through the cemetery. I wanted to escape this torment, but the enemy followed, and tightened his grip around my heart, snuffing out my weakened spirit.
“A true father would not have denied you?” whispered the sickeningly sweet voice. My pace quickened in panic, and I veered sharply to my left, jogging now across the graves of strangers.
“Where is your faith now Patrick?”
“I watched it all you know. I watched you do everything you could to raise whatever funds the money changers demanded. You sacrificed everything, your home, your possessions, and your life. You pawned them all for a hope denied!”
I stopped running and stood motionless in the rain, the enemy’s words mirroring my own thoughts and striking close to home. I stared at the rod iron fence blocking the exit to Willow Street and watched the traffic rush by for a few moments, before returning to Gabby’s grave. The enemy made sense; and it was getting harder to tune him out. I was losing the struggle. Sensing victory, the voice applied the last bit of pressure.
“The money changers kept raising the bar higher as they doled out treatment in small doses while Gabriel’s time ran out. Bastards!”
As I reached the road in front of Gabriel's grave I walked past a car that wasn't parked there only moments ago. I didn’t even give it a second glance as I passed in front of it, the wiper blades swishing back and forth rhythmically. Had I looked inside I'd have seen Sandy and Laura staring at me like I was a crazy man.
“Those bureaucrats never cared how much money you raised, they knew it would never be enough,” the voice persisted, pressing firmly on my last raw nerve.
“Your God abandoned you and your son, do you see that?” the voice asked, setting the hook deep.
“You didn’t run out of options Patrick, your options ran out on you!”
And there it was; a reason to abandon my faith. In a flash of false clarity the tension was lifted, my erratic breathing suddenly normal, I was calm and relaxed, a sense of peace embracing me. The debate was all but over now, all the enemy had left to do was reel in his prey.
“In the final analysis, Gabriel was just a bad investment. The child was too sick, too young, and your piggy bank was too small.”
“Nothing personal, just business,” the voice whispered. The deed was done, another soul lost, and it was mine.
“MOTHER FUCKER!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, slamming my palms as hard as I could against the top of Gabby’s granite marker.
“I can’t believe I let them push us around like that!” I yelled, yanking the navy blue Yankee’s cap off of my head and slapping it repeatedly against my wet jeans.
“What a sucker Patrick, what a fucking wimp!”
“They killed him man! And you stood by and watched them do it. Christ almighty you even paid for it dumb ass!” I ranted, scolding myself relentlessly.
“Where were you?” I asked the dark gray sky.
“WHERE WERE YOU?” I shouted; my voice raspy and harsh now.
I collapsed in front of the stone, exhausted, and fell forward onto my hands and knees. Stretching out on the wet grass that framed Gabriel’s grave, I rested my head in the crook of my folded arm. I pulled at a few blades of grass with my free hand, and let the wet grass fall back to the soggy turf. The sound of two car doors slamming shut interrupted my solitude, but I didn't stir. It was probably just the cops anyway; someone probably reported a vandal loose in the cemetery.
The cold rain felt good on my face and I watched the treetops sway with the wind. I heard the footsteps of at least two people drawing near and mentally prepared myself to be arrested. Whatever was going to happen next was going to happen. I couldn’t keep what I felt all bottled up any longer; I'm not that good a liar. Before I could be Patrick Bouchard again, something had to be done. Before I could call myself a man again, scores needed to be settled. I needed to fight to reclaim my sanity. I rolled onto my back and caressed the grass with my open palms and in a small voice I spoke to my son, “I’ll make it right Gabby, I promise.”
Hudson Towers, Los Angeles, February, 2004
The sun was finally peeking out after an icky morning full of rain and thick black clouds. None too soon if you asked Lizzie Andrews! She needed the sun to kick start each day. She never felt energetic on rainy days; it was just too easy to stay in bed. Why leave the comfort of her warm blankets and jet out into the cold wet rain just to go to work! Besides, since moving into this downtown loft she didn’t need to get up as early as she used to as she was within walking distance of the hospital now. Lizzie curled up like a roly-poly, and scrunched all of her bedding around her making a 350 thread count cocoon. Then suddenly she sprawled out her limbs all akimbo to a big girl stretch, and kicked out from under her blankets. Her shapely legs flexed and her arms rose up as to reach the ceiling fan above her. Yawning she swung her legs over the side of the bed and ran to the thermostat to kick up the heat.
Lizzie loved her new home, she really did, but it was so big compared to her old studio apartment. And it cost a freaking fortune to heat the place! Her parents might be wealthy but she was still an intern, and her Dad had taught her at a tender age that a budget was a budget! Sure, she broke her fierce stance on independence slightly when she let Mom and Dad nag her into accepting this loft home as a graduation gift. But she drew the line at letting them continue to treat her like a baby, taking care of every little thing. She'd always been adamant about taking care of herself. She never wanted to be one of those rich kids that lived off of old family money; she wanted to make it on her own! That’s how her Dad had done it, and it was how she would do it too! Although, there were times when Lizzie regretted her pig headed independence. Like when the bills came all at once. Or, when she had to accept the occasional day before payday dinner date from a certain persistent attending physician because the only thing in the fridge was cold air and ice cubes.
Lizzie sprinted across the freezing hardwood floor and punched in a comfortable 74 degrees on the keypad before sprinting back to her bed in four long strides, a new record! Quite a feat given her vertically challenged frame! She sat in the middle of her queen-sized bed and wrapped the blankets around her Buzz Light Year pajamas, shivering until her bare feet warmed up. Glancing over at the clock on the nightstand, she saw that she'd slept away the morning, again, and her growling stomach let her know it was lunchtime. She scanned the floor for her fuzzy Mr. Potato Head slippers but they could be anywhere, so she crawled forward and leaned over the edge of the bed to look underneath. Her perfectly round little behind pointed straight up at the ceiling as she searched for those pesky slippers, the elastic in her pajamas barely maintaining her modesty. Only the tip of her dragonfly tattoo (a graduation gift to herself) guarded the start of her cute vertical smile.
“There you are,” Lizzie muttered, as she stretched to grab the slippers from under the bed. Just as she was about to get a finger-hold on one fuzzy heel, the telephone rang suddenly, startling her enough to make her shriek and tumble off of the bed onto the cold wood floor.
“DAMN IT!” she hollered scrambling to her feet. She ran across the large room toward the phone in the kitchen, pausing a second to pull up the pajama bottoms that had been pulled down around her thighs in the fall. As soon as she was decent again she raced to the wall-phone, arriving just as the machine picked up the incoming call.
“Lizzie, hey it’s me Jace. Your probably at work, you’re always at work, but I wanted to let you know I’m going to be…”
“HELLO, HELLO,” Lizzie pleaded clumsily, trying to wrestle the call from her answering machine.
“Yeah, yeah, Jace it’s me,” Lizzie said catching her breath.
“Hey, are you OK? Did I catch you at a bad time?” Jace asked.
“No worries, I’m good, really! I just tripped over my munchkin feet running for the phone,” Lizzie replied.
“So how’s my second favorite cousin?” Lizzie asked cheerfully.
“Liz, you do realize that Noah and I are identical twins, right?” Jace asked sarcastically.
“Yeah I know that, but Noah’s cuter, and he didn’t rat on me about Mickey the parakeet!”
“You’re kidding, right? Lizzie, we were six years old when you let that stupid bird get out of the cage!”
“I HAD TO! HE WAS BEGGING ME TO DO IT!” Lizzie shouted into the receiver.
“Mickey was a bird Lizzie, they tweet ALL THE TIME!”
“Maybe, but not like that!”
“Alright, alright, I surrender! Oh man, now I forgot why I called!”
“You see that, this is why you scare away all the guys!” Jace said, playfully scolding her.
“Ummm, was there a reason you called, or do you just miss tormenting me?”
“Peace, let’s try this again, mmmkay?”
“HI LIZZIE! Hey, I’m in LA for a convention and thought that maybe we could hook up for dinner tonight if you’re not busy. There, how's that?”
“Peachy, what more could a girl ask for?”
“Come on Liz; tell me you’re free and let’s plan to meet over at that place you took Tori and me to last summer. You remember, that Fire Station restaurant, the one with the cool booths and the emergency pole and all that.”
“You mean Engine Co. 28 over on Figueroa?”
“Yeah, whatever, the place was good!”
“Well…alright, but no more bickering, you have to be nice to me, OK?”
“Of course I will, but that goes double for you, deal?”
“Deal, what time?”
“How about seven?” Lizzie offered.
“Seven’s good, I’ll see you there," replied her cousin Jace.
“By the way, you’ll need to make reservations,” Lizzie said reminding him.
“I know, I will, don't worry Dr. Andrews.”
“Oh, and you do understand that dinner is on you, right? I mean, you’re the one with the cushy expense account and all.”
“Still hiding from Daddy’s millions I see!” Jace teased.
“No worries, you know I’ve always got you covered babe, I’ll see you at seven, bring your appetite!”
“I will Jace, thanks for calling, you made my day,” Lizzie said sweetly, rubbing her head it had met the hard wooden floor.
“Uh oh, that’s gonna leave a mark,” Lizzie muttered.
“What?” asked Jace.
“Nothing, just talking to myself as usual,” answered Lizzie.
“Ok, I’ll see ya later then lil sis,” replied Jace chuckling.
“Okay, see ya…love you Quicksdraw!"
“Love you too Babalooey.”
Lizzie returned the handset to the wall mount and gave the long twisted cord a swipe, watching it swing erratically back and forth. She liked this old style phone even if it wasn’t as handy as the cordless versions. But it reminded her of her Gram’s house in San Diego, her mother’s mother. Grandma Cardinale sold Real Estate and she was always on the telephone. Of course, being a traditional Italian wife and mother, straight from the old country, she was always cooking as well. So hence the wall phone and long extension cord. Lizzie had fond memories of her Gram stirring sauces and pressing out home made pasta with both hands while she yammered away the hours, the phone resting between her shoulder and her ear. Grandma Cardinale was multitasking long before new age know-it-alls coined the phrase. Lizzie yawned and walked toward the master bath, the sunlight illuminating the loft now as it shined brightly from behind the clouds and through the floor to ceiling windows lining her West Side home.
Passing her dressing bureau she looked over at the small silver framed photo setting next to her hairbrush. It was a picture of a smiling little boy posing in his Halloween costume. His red and blue tee-shirt was covered with black lines that were supposed to be a spider’s web like his favorite superhero Spiderman. The plastic mask was pushed up onto the top of his head while a thin elastic band dug into his little chin. The child’s eyes were bright and cheery, as was his smile; he was the kind of kid that made you want to cuddle. Lizzie paused a second, remembering his wonderful cherub like face and then closed her eyes to listen for his infectious giggle in another time. She half expected him to jump right out of the photograph and hug her again, just like he did every time she walked onto the ward. He looked so happy and carefree; you almost didn’t notice the deep circles under his eyes or the wisps of blond hair falling from underneath the upturned mask. The tear that rolled down Lizzie’s cheek betrayed her resolve to leave the past in the past. She missed him terribly, he was special, someone who had found his way into her heart of hearts. She blew him an air kiss and continued on toward the warm shower that beckoned her. “See ya after work Gabby,” she said softly.