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Monday, February 24, 2014

(”Life's too short not to forgive, you can carry regrets but they won't let you live. I'm here if you want to call, staring at the spot on the wall. ”)…Liam Gallagher

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Chapter Six
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 Michelle 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. Michelle 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…a very good boy.”
             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, just like I'd been raised to do. Michelle and I laid 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 Michelle, 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 ask God to lead me on the crooked path ahead of me. This path would take me beyond redemption.
I knew that 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 that 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 brother.”
“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, or 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 twisted 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 that 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, don’t 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, mine.
“MOTHER FUCKER!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, slamming my palms as hard as I could against the top of Gaby’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 chump!”
“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 that had bounced off of the hard wooden floor when she tumbled out of bed.
“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.
Municipal Cemetery, Long Beach, California, November 24, 2004
            I settled into the back seat of Sandy Lucci’s big Lincoln Navigator and buckled my seatbelt. Reaching out slowly to accept a wool blanket that Sandy’s wife Laura was handing back to me from the front passenger seat, I nodded my head in appreciation.
“Thanks Laura,” I said meekly, wrapping myself snuggly in the blanket, while trying to make as small a mess as possible. Laura looked at me, smiled weakly for a moment, and then swiftly whipped all the way around in her seat, jumping up onto her knees to make eye contact with me. She leaned over the back of the tall seat and then slapped me good and hard on my exposed thigh, the wet denim enhancing the sting.
“HEY!” I shouted, startled by the brazen attack.
“What do you think you’re doing coming out here in the middle of a freaking storm and acting all crazy and stuff? Are you trying to send poor Michelle to the nut house?”
“Well, are ya…huh?” Laura hollered at me. She was so mad that she shivered while she ranted and raved. She waited for me to answer for about a millisecond and then spun 180 degrees in her seat, curtly crossing her arms in a huff, totally frustrated over a situation that had become all too routine. She just sat there for a minute while Sandy started the car and drove from the graveside. Then she turned slightly toward her husband and rolled her eyes toward their passenger in the back.
“YOU talk to him. Maybe he’ll listen to you!” she said almost too calmly, turning back to face front and watch the colors of the stoplight run in the watery windshield.
Sandy sighed and then talked to his friend via the rear view mirror.
“She’s right ya know buddy. This has got to stop man!”
I looked at Sandy in the mirror and apologized with my eyes. I waited for my friend to nod in acknowledgement before turning my attention to Laura, who had resolved to remain silent, the rest of the ride home. For the first time in a long time, I felt a little like my old self. I felt as though my life had a purpose again, a reason for getting from this day to the next. I pulled the blanket up to my face and patted my face dry. Then I leaned forward and stuck my wet head into the space between Sandy and Laura like an old hound dog begging to be petted.
“I did a lot of thinking today, ya know,” I said to the dashboard.
My friends remained silent, listening for signs of the old Patrick, the sane Patrick.
“Look, I’m sorry for all the time I’ve wasted feeling sorry for myself, it was wrong, I know.”
”But I didn’t think I would ever get right, ya know?”
“It felt like I had died with Gabby.”
Sandy and Laura kept quiet, trying to give me the space I needed to get it all out. Truth was, they had talked about how to deal with my grief on the way over to the cemetery, and they agreed to be loving, but firm. Apparently Laura was planning on using more tough love than the psycho babble she was trained in, but there would be a little love in there somewhere as well, Sandy was pretty sure of that. They were prepared for an emotional breakdown and they had a working plan on how to talk me down from the ledge. But the breakdown they were ready for never materialized.
“Really, guys, I think I’m OK now,” I said, hoping for a little feedback now.
“I can’t explain it very well, but I feel it strongly, I really do. Maybe you can explain it better Laura, you’re the shrink.”
Laura quickly reached over and swatted me on the top of my head.
“I meant Doctor…Jeez Louise that hurt!” I yelped, flinching slightly.
 “Anyway, I think it just took me longer to let go than all the rest of you.”
“I mean I was so worried about Michelle and my Dad falling apart that I didn’t notice myself doing just that. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think so Patsy, I think so,” Sandy replied.
Laura reached over and combed through my wet hair with the fingers of her left hand as she gently stroked and consoled her husband’s best friend. The three of us enjoyed a quiet moment, listening to the muted sounds of traffic reverberating through the windows as they drove toward home.
“You know, grief is normal Patrick, mourning is accepted, hell, it’s expected. But the time for those feelings came and went a long time ago. When we fail to let go we risk a fate worse than death, we risk no longer being able to live. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” Laura asked softly.
I nodded slowly then reached up and took her hand, pressing it against my cheek. “Thanks guys,” I said, leaning back into the rear seat.
“Hey, it was nothin, don’t mention it!” Sandy replied cheerfully.
“I was talking to Laura fool! All you did was drive here and back, she did all the shrink…I mean psychologist stuff,” I retorted with a chuckle, covering up like a boxer in case Laura spun in her chair to swat me again.
“Very cool Patrick, we haven’t heard that lilt in your voice in a long time, welcome back stranger!” Laura said cheerfully without turning around. I lowered my arms and sat back comfortably in the thick leather seat.
“Thanks; it’s nice to be home!”
“Hey pull into that Jack-in-the-Box over there, I’m starving!” I exclaimed.
“Oh man! Not Jack-in-the-Crap! Wouldn’t you rather have some steak and eggs over at Curley’s; it’s just down the street dude?” Sandy pleaded.
“No, no man, let’s just drive through and get me about a dozen mystery meat tacos. That’ll hold me until I can get cleaned up, and apologize like crazy to Michelle.”
“Then maybe I can take everyone to a make-up supper at the Macaroni Grill tonight.”
“Come on, what do ya say?” I asked, talking directly into Sandy’s ear.
“OK, OK, just sit back ya homo, and stop slobbering all over my shirt!”
SANDY LUCCI, are we going to have the tolerance discussion again?” Laura said sternly, covering her smile with the back of her hand.
“Goddamn it Patsy, now see what you did!” Sandy complained, turning sharply into the drive-thru burger-joint.
“Alright, tacos it is, but I’m telling you right now, I’m gonna eat my weight in pasta and meatballs tonight, so bring your checkbook Rockefeller.”
     Laura and I couldn’t stifle our laughter any longer and we burst out together in a hail of giggles and chuckles. It felt good to laugh so hard again; to let it ride until your sides hurt so bad you thought that they would burst. Today was my new beginning, starting with my reunion with my life and my loved ones. It would begin with twelve greasy tacos and a root beer from a hamburger stand run by a clown. There was much to do, much to plan, and much to hide. In due time I would know where I must go, what I must do and who I must draft in order to follow through with my promise to Gabby. Beginning today, from this moment on, time was running out for those who were responsible. I have always been a man of my word; I would keep the promise I made this day.

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