The Way I See It….
“Stop bothering me! What do you want!”
He blinked twice, licked his lips, exhaled, unaware he was doing so.
He would let it go, feign not having heard. Any response could hurt his chances. He wanted this, needed this, but he knew she could turn cold blooded in a heartbeat. She would just cut him off, a blade shedding flesh.
Didn’t matter; his love stayed strong, solid, impervious. As much as she wanted to end it, he twice as much sought to salvage. “Maybe I’ll try again later,” he thought, “or maybe tomorrow, after the air has cleared.”
But their connection was fraying, the days dwindling, his window closing.
He pondered his next move, remembering how he used to tell her jokes until she shrieked “I’m gonna wet my pants!” His mind’s eye saw her billowed cheeks aflush with fluster, her green eyes gleam with mirth and affection.
“Stop!” she would say, “Stop!”
But, of course, he wouldn’t; nor did he think she meant it.
“So why does it have to end?” The thought careened through his skull, indifferent to the pain in its wake.“When did it all go south?”
Had he done something, said something, to ignite this wrath? It seemed so sudden, unwarranted, unbidden. “What made her turn like this!”
But, of course, he knew. Not all the detail; that, he’d unlikely ever learn. But at a high level he had sensed it coming: the occasional snub, intermittent indifference, the way she could just turn away and ignore him. She had never acted like this until just a few months earlier, but it was becoming increasingly frequent.
Misfortune is like that, he thought: always there, lurking in ambush mode, patient, coiled to strike. Crack the window at the wrong time and it slithers right in. He didn’t know the catalyst for her assault; but is there ever really just one? He felt people were quirky, oblivious, often reacting to a cause beyond the obvious, perhaps something subconscious, unknown or merely forgotten.
Most problems, he felt, could be resolved through effort and logic, but this was the kind with roots. What started as barely perceptible, the slightest of infractions, eventually split them the way moss eats through rock. He could feel it maul his innards with the same intensity as it muddied her moods.
He often wondered if his attempts at getting her back were in vain, but he wouldn’t quit. That would be surrendering to the loss. He would fight for her with all he had, regardless of the odds. He could only gain by his effort. Losing her without a battle was inconceivable. No, he couldn’t do that.
“I like your sweater.” His brain scrambled for the right angle. “Did you knit it yourself? It looks homemade.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t think I can knit as well as others? Why should I even talk to you? I’m leaving.”
“No, no, your sweater is really nice. That is what I meant. It looks like better quality than the kind you buy in a store. I wasn’t being negative. I was complimenting you.”
“Oh, well you sometimes have some nerve insulting me. I’m not going to put up with it, just so you know. We’ll be done. You understand?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. I’m sorry.”
“What now?” he thought. Head in hands, fingertips pressing along cranial nerves, he remembered how much he had once enjoyed her rubbing his head. Gentle hands with long nails caressing his scalp invoked such tranquility, a peaceful euphoria. There was a delicate intimacy between them back then. He felt wanted and loved, the integrity of which was confirmed by her smiles and caressing whispers.
He would give anything to get those days back. He yearned for her to just be nice.
A disarray of motion suddenly stunned his vision. He heard a remote metallic grumble. He waited.
“I’m sorry, hon,” followed the grumble.
“That’s okay,” he said, realizing his time was up.
A woman’s face filled the screen. He forced a smile.
“I’m sorry she was off again today.”
“I am too.” He sighed through his nose. “It’s becoming the norm.”
“Well, she can still walk and talk. That’s a good thing. We tell families to focus on the good things. It’s easier that way.”
“But it eventually takes those too.”
“Yes,” she said. “It does. It eventually takes everything. It’s a terrible disease.”
He watched the screen as long as the connection held, not wanting to miss a moment the way a drunk nurses the last drink of the night. Then he pressed the X within the red circle at the bottom of his phone’s interface wondering, like so many times before, if he would ever call again, if it was worth the pain, and what did his mother gain?
“Let me guess: You feel guilty about betting against Brady?”
“I never bet against Brady. Only a fool would do that.”
Red nails struck white cardboard in unison. “Then you’re concerned Harley is going to start making electric skateboards with ape handlebars? Or maybe you’re just depressed there’s never going to be a Rocky 7?”
He raised his eyes level with hers, as she smiled, then lifted his brow. “You’re good. You should do standup. Then you could buy your own caffeine.”
A snicker followed by teeth. “Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll remember it when I’m bombing on stage. Until then, how about telling me what’s on your mind?”
“Why? You think I’m losing it?”
“Was that present tense?”
He ignored her while barely nodding, his lips pressed, his expression pensive. He thumbed-rubbed the mermaid upon his black, no sugar, with a floating cube to curb tongue scald.
“What has been the cause for all the rioting, looting and destruction during the past half year or so?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said, “systemic racism. It’s all over the news. “
“Most of the news. But do you believe it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you believe systemic racism is at the root of the riots?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because it doesn’t exist.”
“How can you say that?”
“Obama,” he said.
“Obama? What’s Obama go to do with it?”
“No democracy with 330 million people, 72% of whom are white and systemically racist, would ever vote a black man into the presidency for two consecutive terms. It doesn’t make sense. Think about it. Ignore everything you’ve heard or read over the past year. Just think.”
She sipped her coffee in silence, her ebony eyes percolating.
When the news initially broke about the Wuhan virus (subsequently named SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it spawns (COVID-19), I became suspicious. The illness reported by the press seemed awfully familiar, but something was missing. So, I did some research and, sure enough, my hunch was right.
I understand why the medical community didn’t tell the whole story. They felt that you and I, average consumers of news, would not understand. They felt that the detail would be too complex. “Keep it simple for the masses”, they reasoned.
As I said, I understand WHY they did it and are CONTINUING to do so, but that doesn’t make it right. Not only are they lying by omission, but they are forfeiting a colossal and precious opportunity, for a global awareness campaign, that would be in the best interest of medicine and the people it serves.
The key point here is that people don’t die from SARS-CoV-2 or the disease it produces, COVID-19. When people become infected with the virus, SARS-CoV-2, they die from an overreaction by their immune systems. These overreactions lead to ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome), Septic Shock, then MODS (Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome).
How do I know this? Because I watched ARDS and its consequences nearly kill my wife. Then I wrote a memoir, TWO WEEKS IN WINTER, about what I had learned from the experience.
Please do yourself a favor and watch the first five minutes of the following video from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The entire video is eleven minutes long and informative, but you only need to watch the first five minutes to get the point.
Now that you’ve listened to an expert, I must ask: Is this the first time you’ve heard someone explain the biomechanics by which the Coronavirus kills? My assumption for most, if not all, of you is that the answer is “Yes”. That disturbs me and it should disturb you. Let me explain.
No matter how bad this COVID-19 pandemic becomes, it won’t kill nearly as many people as ARDS and its sinister sister, Sepsis, kill each year. Yet which ailment is getting all the attention? Why is that?
Well, I mentioned complexity. I do believe that the medical community doesn’t want to overwhelm the masses. They need to mitigate panic and that is best accomplished by keeping things simple. If COVID-19 is kept simple, the ability to produce a cure will seem likewise. After all, it’s only a virus. People get infected by viruses all the time. Why worry?
Because ARDS is what kills you, not the virus, and medicine doesn’t understand why—why some people’s immune systems overreact and drown their lungs with liquid protein (aka cytokines). If medicine understood ARDS and its pathological cousin, Sepsis (when the blood becomes toxic due to an overreaction by the immune system), finding a vaccine for every viral mutation that manifests would not be so critical, and far more people would be saved.
I don’t know why ARDS and Sepsis are still so relatively unknown to the public though they are responsible for 20% of deaths worldwide. No, that’s not a typo: 1 in every 5 deaths across the globe is due to an overreaction by the immune system resulting in ARDS/Sepsis.
And this doesn’t apply merely to the elderly, ill, and immunocompromised. Evidence suggests that ARDS/Sepsis caused many of the deaths in the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed a disproportionate number of young people. For this virus, a robust immune system may have been a liability rather than an asset. ARDS/Sepsis is also the culprit for many young deaths in the SARS epidemic of 2003, the bird flu of 2008, and the swine flu of 2009. When ARDS put my wife on life support, she was 52, middle-aged, not elderly; and, she had no underlying co-morbidities.
Could it be that the medical profession does not want the public to know the maladies about which it is ignorant, thus impotent? Perhaps, again, to quell panic?
I don’t know. But I DO know that it makes zero sense to be throwing more research money at illnesses which are far less lethal. Why isn’t ARDS and Sepsis getting the funding it deserves? If it did, further progress would be made towards finding a cure and reducing the panic that the medical community seems so intent on suppressing.
I learned that I was invited to speak on the show at one o’clock this morning. I hadn’t been able to sleep, so I had gotten up and drunk some water while checking the news and email. That’s when I saw the invitation from show host, Rick Tocquigny. The limited time prevented me from preparing as I ordinary would, but I got my message across. Sometimes you just gotta wing it.
I finished reading Across the River and into the Trees this past weekend. It was the last full novel Papa wrote before he swallowed a cartridge of bird shot for breakfast. Had I been his editor the book would not have attained full novel status—the paperback version I read exceeded three hundred pages—but would have served as a strong step into his swan song starring Santiago.
The problem with Across the River is the limited plot. A limited plot could have been a problem for many of Hemingway’s works, but Papa was great for the words he withheld as much as for those he wrote. It was his laconic dialogue, dearth of adverbs and ice berg style of story telling that makes him my favorite author. Had he employed the same formula to Across the River, I believe it would have worked well because the man was writing about his favorite subject, mortality, and his passion is palpable. Unfortunately, Hemingway self indulged, allowing the calf to fatten too much before the kill and his dialogue, rather than drawing us deftly to the execution, becomes flabby and a drag on the story.
Hemingway was at the height of his fame when he wrote this book and my guess is that hubris prevented him from excising the excess to render the prose that had made him a master. It happens to so many of the great ones. I wish I could forget the memory I retain of an aged, overweight Ali slumped in his corner across the ring from a hard, hungry Holmes. The same applies to The Say Hey Kid allowing a center field single through his legs to become extra bases and the last memory many, such as I, have of Willie’s stellar career. Jim Brown, Peyton Manning, Marciano and Mayweather played the retirement game perfectly. I’m hoping Brady follows suit.
Anytime a human being knowingly exceeds his limitations, he succumbs to vanity, the sin of pride. We have all done it; we are all guilty.
But for most of us, thankfully, the demonstration is limited, most likely to family and friends only. The more salient one becomes, the more visible his actions. This equation works across cultures because human behavior is universal. The more publicity a man receives the more likely he is to trespass his limitations, for pride is the culprit and fame contains the highest octane among the fuels of hubris. Only men with a noble focus, which breeds discipline, can perform unaffected by observation.
For guys like Ali and Mays, a chance to redeem their final acts is difficult, if not impossible, due to skills tarnished by time. For physical performers, this is usually the case; less so for cerebral artists such as the writer. It was for this reason that Ernest could strike back, empowered by the vitriol of the reigning literati, and pull off The Old Man and the Sea. It was not a noble response because the achievement was generated as much by pride as the mediocre novel that preceded it. Nonetheless, from an artistic perspective, Papa was able to end his career with a knock out.
However, a career and a life are vastly different pursuits. A successful career does not guarantee a successful life, though access to greater resources via remuneration does increase the odds by mitigating the strain of sustenance; but, this only helps those with discipline and integrity. Without the latter you get Tiger, Cosby, Nixon, the Clintons, Armstrong, Weinstein, Ailes, Simpson….
It is men with this disparity between talent and integrity that leaves us wanting. We yearn for people of talent to be great all around. When they expose a flaw, we express disappointment in them which, due to their fame, hits harder than peer disapproval impacts the average guy. That’s the thing about fame: it’s no one way street. It’ll whack you just as hard and quickly as it will boost you.
So, after Across the River and into the Trees, Papa, bothered by the criticism to which he was subjected, a first in his career, came back swinging for the fences and connected. The Old Man and the Sea was a commercial and critical success, earning Ernest the Pulitzer which, undoubtedly, influenced the panel that awards the Nobel, which Ernest received a year later.
It is with both curiosity and sadness that I ponder how a writer can blow his head off just seven years after being awarded the holy grail of letters. We’re talking about a guy many consider the best author of the twentieth century; others, the best American writer regardless of time; or simply, as John O’Hara asserted, ”the best writer since Shakespeare”. How does a man so accomplished take his life? To many, if not most, the act seems incongruous with the facts, but obviously it isn’t. Many successful people have taken their lives. Obviously success, fame and fortune do not have a commanding impact on a person’s mental health. Other factors matter more.
It was my recent decision to read Hemingway again for the first time in years along with my current participation in the Sepsis Alliance Campaign that drew my attention to mental health. Almost all of the information that is disseminated to raise the public’s awareness of sepsis concerns the body as opposed to the mind.
However, any sepsis survivor will tell you that anxiety, depression, insomnia and cognitive deficiencies, such as a decline in memory and deductive reasoning, haunt them for life. As such, it is not difficult to apprehend that nearly 50% of sepsis survivors suffer from suicidal ideation.
I had reached this intersection of thought last week when I posted a short story titled The Sunniest Days are Sometimes the Coldest. I have presumed that some readers may have wondered why I would have published a piece that seemingly deviates from my other ramblings up to that point; but, no deviation exists.
The post was merely an ice breaker, a way to broach the subject, because mental after effects matter just as much as physical ones, in the awareness campaign about sepsis, and the sentiment doesn’t end there. Mental mobility is at least as important, if not more, in the life and care of every person, sepsis survivor or not. More carnage, liability and decay in our post-modern world can be attributed to poor mental hygiene than to any physical disability. Reading Hemingway merely reminded me of the issue and its urgency.
“Hey John! What are you doin’ here? Where’s Billy?”
As the old guy turned toward me, he moved slower than usual. I wondered if he was sick or injured.
I saw him the Friday before–caught him just as he was closing.
“Hey Billy! Before you go, can I get a Coke?”
He pretended to frown, his furrowed forehead and mischievous eyes gesturing toward the world outside.
“Lotta dames are waitin’, y’know.”
“Yeah, but I gotta work late and I’m gettin’ tired.”
He waved me in.
The store is small, smaller than any other lobby shop I’ve seen in Boston’s financial district; but it is efficient. Two steps in and you’re surrounded by varnished shelves stuffed with Twinkies and Wheat Thins, Cracker Jacks and Tootsie Rolls. A mahogany partition separates the customers from the cashiers. On top sits a huge, steel register with a side lever; each hand cranked transaction rings like the bell on a kid’s bike. Beyond the chinging currency counter, cigarettes and lottery tickets rise, stacked, against one wall; two large thermoses and a heavy duty coffee maker occupy a counter against the other. Between them, through a glass door, a refrigerator tempts you with canned soda, bottled water, and thick sandwiches swathed in Saran Wrap.
“Regular or diet?”
“Why ya workin’ late? It’s Friday.”
“Yeah, I know, but I gotta a project due on Monday.”
He handed me a can. I dangled a dollar.
“The register’s closed. Pay me next week.”
“All right.” I stuffed the bill back into my pants. “Thanks…and have a good weekend.”
“You too.” Then, a second later, as I was heading out the door: “Try to have some fun, will ya? Ya work too much.”
“I will,” I said. But I did not sound convincing.
Billy disturbed me. He had from the beginning. I met him along with John during my first day on the job, a couple of years back, and have been a regular at the store ever since. Writing system documentation can get tedious. A coffee in the morning and another after noon keeps me going.
I met John first. Short and gruff with sharp blue eyes and a gravely voice, he’s so typically Irish Southie that I sometimes wonder if he acts that way on purpose. He follows sports and current events, and each morning we talk a bit. I never have to ask him for a coffee. He automatically fills a cup–black, no sugar–when I walk through the door.
On that first day, I asked John if he owned the store.
“Naw, a guy named Ted owns it. I just work here. Ever since I retired.”
“You work all day?”
“Naw, just mornings. Another guy works in the afternoon.”
That afternoon, I met the other guy. The store was packed with young women, an occurrence I would soon find common. They were laughing and talking, sipping soda, some even smoking, though it was illegal to do so indoors—anything went, I would discover, when Billy was working. I stood in the rear, assuming it was the end of a line.
A cushion of dark hair hovered over their heads.
“How’s it goin’!”
“Uhh…good, thanks.” His exuberance had caught me off guard.
“What can I get for ya?”
“Coffee, please. Black.”
I watched him as he worked. So did all his friends.
He was about my age. A year older actually, as I would later learn. He was also good looking; not handsome, but boyishly so. His face was full and dimpled, his cheeks a fleshy red. Beneath black curls, green eyes seemed amused. Billy affected people, especially women. It was his smile: a radiant, prankish, infectious grin that never vanished.
Unlike John, Billy never learned my name. After a short while, though, he’d also anticipate my order.
“How’s it goin’!” his greetings always ending a few notes higher than they began.
“Yes, please. And how are you doin’?”
“Dannnndy. Gettin’ outta here soon. Gotta redhead t’meet.” He’d look me in the eye and wink. “One–dollar–please.”
I’d hand him the buck.
“Thank you. Have a good one.”
The conversation was usually the same. A few times, though, it extended further. I discovered that he had a college degree and that we lived in the same town.
I started to wonder about Billy: How could he be so carefree and happy? He sells junk food to bankers from a closet in a high rise. Is he satisfied with that? Where’s his ambition?
One day, I hung over the wall that separates my cubicle from Tim’s.
“I bet he’s a drug dealer,” I said, ”or a bookie.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Haven’t you noticed that he leaves a lot? And he takes that gym bag with him?”
“Yeah, I have noticed that. He posts a sign on the door: ‘BACK IN 15 MINUTES’”. Then Tim paused, obviously in thought, before adding: “He does take off a lot, doesn’t he?”
Where does he go? we speculated. To lunch?
Doubtful. The store has plenty of food.
To the bathroom?
Not with a gym bag.
My curiosity surged. Sometimes, I’d go down there and a radio would be blaring and Billy would be singing. Other times, I’d find him in Bermuda shorts, no shoes, puffing a cigar. One time, I found him alone.
“Billy, is this your full time job?”
“Nooooo. I’m just doing Ted a favor. He asked me to help him out for awhile.”
That was a year-and-a-half ago.
John finally spoke.
At first, I thought I had misunderstood him. I wish I had.
“God, John–did you know him well?”
The old guy lowered his head. I noticed, in thinning white, a patch of pink I hadn’t before. Time seemed paralyzed as my eyes absorbed the bright badge of age. I can still see the ruddy flesh shining in my mind.
“I thought I did.”
The walk back to my desk took forever. The walls wavered. The floor felt like sponge. Tim was standing in his cube. He saw the coffee in my hand and the look on my face.
“I guess you’ve heard.”
I nodded, my bobbing slight and robotic, my focus distant, my mind detached.
Silence ruled a long, uneasy moment; then Tim spoke.
“Do you, uhh…know how…he did it?”
C’mon man! I thought, snapping out of my cerebral haze. Is that really import…. But I answered nonetheless.
“A .357–through the mouth.”
The Globe lay open on my desk. Tim had put it there. Billy’s obituary was the only one with a photo. He wore that same sunny smile.