Each of us have different ways of dealing with pain, grief and sorrow. Some exhibit pain by shedding tears, some by displaying wrath and anger; some seek violence, while some withdraw themselves from society and live in solitude. And then there are those who try hard to rediscover a normal life to control the pain that slowly eats away at their inside, their soul. But how does a mother deal with her pain of the loss of both her sons, her adult sons, one after the other. How does she arrange their funerals? How does she choose the flowers or write their obituaries?
A few days after Hurricane Sandy, my car was being serviced at the local dealership. The engine light had come on some weeks before. The dealership was chaotic with the sheer number of customers that had brought in their storm-damaged vehicles, and a recall was only exacerbating the mayhem. While most customers were patiently waiting their turns to see the service manager, a woman walked in briskly and cut in front of everybody. She demanded to been seen right away.
The service manager, who looked new on the job, was already overwhelmed. “Ma’am, you’ll have to wait just like everyone else,” he pleaded.
“There is a line here,” someone said loudly.
The woman ignored the service manager’s request and threw her keys onto the table. “I just drove twelve hundred and ninety four miles. I can’t wait. I want to see the manager.
“I’m the manager,” the service manager said.
“Then, I want to see your manager,” the woman responded assertively.
Everyone was annoyed with her and she softened her tone realizing her approach was needlessly hostile and impolite. “They told me in Virginia to call in here and said that I’d be seen right away. I’ve a funeral to attend and I need my car.”
I had briefly glanced at her through the window when she pulled into the parking lot in a brand new blue sports car. She looked in her early sixties with brown chestnut hair that had gone gray, dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and a white shirt and knitted sweater that she wore around her shoulders like a shawl. A silver locket of Jesus on a cross hung from her neck.
She came and sat next to me and struck up conversation. “My brand new car suddenly quit on me.”
I smiled politely.
“What brings you here this morning? The storm?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “The engine has been acting weird, making a noise. I’m sure it could have waited, but I don’t want to take a chance. I hear another storm is headed this way.”
“You shouldn’t have to take a chance,” she said. “You never know when you’ll have to drive for nineteen hours straight alone.”
“That’s a long drive.” I said. “You drove all that way alone?”
“No, I drove up with my husband. But he can’t drive anymore. He’s not blind but he’s getting there. So I end up doing all the driving. He hates driving anyway. He’s spent his whole life on the road. But he’s a good man; he kept me company, bought me coffee, talked to me so I wouldn’t fall asleep. Until he started snoring.” She chuckled.
She lightened up and we began to talk about our experiences with Korean cars and transmissions.
“I’d take a standard shift over an automatic any day,” she added.
“I thought most people prefer an automatic.” I said.
“No,” she said, “You can’t push that engine harder, can’t get everything out of it.”
“But times have changed. People nowadays prefer comfort over performance.” I countered.
“You’re right about that. Our children’s generation don’t even know what a standard shift even looks like,” she said. “But God forbid, there comes the day when they need to drive that stick they’d wish they knew how to work the thing then.”
“We’ll soon forget how to use our hands,” I said.
The woman smiled.
Our small talk led us to discuss an incident of the previous winter, when we were hit by a blizzard and the whole Tri-State area was buried under 10 feet of snow. We were on the road, only a couple of miles from home. But because of the icy, wet and slippery roads, cars were skidding and sliding against each other. Buses and cars were turned sideways, some in ditches, and you could hear the tires losing traction and skidding in the grimy puddles. It was a horrific scene, like a prelude to the apocalypse. Had it not been for the standard shift, we would have been stranded in freezing arctic weather that night, I explained.
Shortly afterwards, I was moved inside to a small waiting area next to the plush showroom, filled with brand new cars on display and desks for the salespeople. The TV was loud. A few people were watching a daytime talk show. A middle-aged model was being interviewed by someone who talked like Oprah Winfrey. She smiled like her, and even sat like her.
A few minutes later, the woman from Florida walked in and scanned the room for an empty seat.
“Hi there, again,” she said. I moved my bag and coat from the seat next to mine. She thanked me and sat down.
Then, she walked up to the TV console and grabbed the remote. “Does anyone mind if I turn this junk off?”
“We’re not watching it. Change it if you’d like,” an elderly woman responded from behind the New York Times she was reading with a large magnifying glass.
The woman changed the channel and on came some local news covering the hurricane, showing images of the catastrophic aftermath.
“Look at these buffoons,” she said studying the TV.
Her comment made me look. A group of families in Long Island without power were angrily protesting against the Long Island Power Authority.
“If only they told people what was going on people wouldn’t be so upset,” she said.
“I agree,” I said, reflecting upon how only a couple of days ago I had the same predicament, when we had no idea when the power was going to be restored. We were one of the last households in our neighborhood to have their utilities turned back on that night. “These people have a right to protest. It’s been over a week now.”
With a serious look on her face, eyes squinting, she said, “We are so spoiled and rotten in this country. We want everything yesterday.”
“How do you mean?” I said.
“Don’t you think they are trying? Isn’t in their best interests to turn the power back on?”
People in the room glanced at each other but no one commented.
“Well, coming from Florida it might be easy to say that, but some of us were freezing our tails here with small children, with no heat or hot water in the house. There was no sign of a utility truck within miles of my house,” I said. “Believe me I was angry.”
“I don’t mean to offend anyone,” she said.
“None taken.” I said. “In case you didn’t know, thousands of people are still out of power.”
But over the course of our conversation, I realized her comment was benign and it made lot of sense.
It was already past noon, and everyone in the room had left except for the woman from Florida and I, sitting there, waiting for our cars. Then she suddenly said, “You know my son was in prison?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He died,” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “How old was your son?”
“He was only thirty eight,” she sighed. “He was on crack. He tried to quit several times, but he couldn’t. So, they put him in the correction facility in Newark. They called me at home and said that he was dead. It hit me like a bolt of lightning.”
“What happened exactly?” I asked.
“I asked them the same question,” she said. “But they told me they had no idea. He was under their care. He was a human being. My son.”
“That is terrible,” I said.
“He got very sick,” she said. “This woman, a social worker in her gaudy uniform, said to me, ‘He was not feeling well and in the morning we found him dead.’ My son was coughing up blood and bile and then he was dead.”
The talk of bile, blood and death started to make me feel nauseated.
“He was in your care. And you didn’t do anything?” she said aloud.
In a morose tone, she explained how the facility treated her when she went to collect her son’s belongings. They had thrown her a box of letters and told her she had not kept it touch with him for months.
“I have written him letters, and tried to call him every week. But because of your sick rules and restrictions, I couldn’t speak to my son,” she protested. The allegation clearly mortified her.
But then suddenly the news of his death came. Her voice constricted with grief and her eyes filled with rage as she spoke. “It was unbearable,” she said.
“The security guards, what can I tell you,” she continued, her eyes closed. “They were so casual. They were dancing and prancing to music, rubbing their bodies together. They didn’t even take us to a private room. There was no director, no pastor or clergy. There was no grieving. Like a bunch of whores, niggers.” Then she stopped and said, “I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s alright.”
“They were all shaking their bodies, dancing to loud music like it was a party. This is my son. He is dead. You kept him here for two days when he died. He was puking up blood but no one helped him. He was asking for help.”
I wondered about the strength it took for her to go through this level of pain; not only grief from the death of her son but the humiliation and embarrassment on top of that. How does one endure such pain and manage to stay so calm and mellow on the outside. The torment inside must be immeasurable.
I noticed her jaw tighten and eyes twitch with anger. She looked straight onward as she continued talking: “I wanted to reach over the counter and strangle that bitch, I was so angry. I was so fired up I could have killed her. How dare she talk to me like that. What gave her the god damn right. My son was here in your custody and all you can say is he was sick and in the morning we found him dead.”
In her voice, I could sense a cry for the respect she had been denied, not as a mother but as a human being.
“My son was a person, not an animal,” she added. “How dare you talk to me like that?”
The social workers, guards and cops had all been bouncing around. For them, it was just another day on the job. They had shown no compassion, sympathy or pity. The woman felt dehumanized.
“They were in their high and mighty uniforms, and they didn’t even have the courtesy to say to me, ‘Mrs. Pearson, I am sorry your son is dead.’ What kinds of human beings are they? They throw this box of my son’s belongings and tell me, ‘This is all he had.'”
The woman was devastated.
“What happened to all the letters I wrote?” she wondered aloud.
She told me that the social workers had said that if she didn’t pick up his things right away, they would toss them onto the marshland at the back and then she would never know what had happened to her son.
“How do you think that makes me feel?” she said, ruefully. “My son was a human being.”
I wanted to know what had really happened to her son. Why did he end up in a state correction facility in Newark. But I could not muster enough nerves to ask anything that would cause her more grief.
“Why didn’t they put him in rehab,” I asked instead.
“I asked the same question,” she said. “They kept telling him he was on a waiting list for the rehab clinic.”
She said she had wanted to take him home but that they wouldn’t let her. “He was not ready,” they had said.
“I didn’t care. I just wanted to get him out of there. He was my son.”
Her cell phone rang couple of times. It was her husband, checking on her to see if the dealer had accepted the repair coupon.
A few minutes later, the service manager returned with the coupon in his hand and told her that it had expired two days ago. The woman shook her head in dismay. “Can never catch a break.”
“You guys take expired coupons all the time,” I said to the manager. “Please go and talk to your supervisor. I’m sure you can do something.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but your car is ready, sir. I will be back with the key,” the manager said.
In the meantime, I sat on a chair closer to her and turned off the TV.
“Just when you think the worst is over,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“My older son just passed away, too. That’s why we’re here, to collect his stuff.”
“And how old was he?” I asked.
“How did he pass away?”
“He was bipolar,” she said. “They said he might have overdosed. But I know it’s the medication.”
“Happening all the time,” I said. “If it’s not an overdose, it’s the wrong medication.”
“It will cost seventeen hundred dollars to have a second autopsy. I don’t know where I’m going to get the money.” She closed her fists and held them near her face in the same way people do when they pray. “I don’t want him to be cut anymore, just want him cremated that’s all.”
I asked her where she was staying.
“Down the road with my sister-in-law,” she said. “I tell you that’s been another experience, though I can hardly complain. At least we have a place to stay. But the stairs to the attic are killing me. And I know he can’t take it very much longer.”
“Who?” I asked.
“My husband,” she said. “He was not a great provider but he always went to work. Did his thing, paid the bills, took care of the kids. Every day, he drove his truck all the way from Jersey City to Lake Copatcong and back. But now he is dying. He has liver cancer. I have been taking care of sick men for so long. I know by now when they are dying.”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart sank further into a well of sadness just listening to her heartbreaking story.
People who believe that those who endure to the end shall survive might have asked whether this poor woman had already endured enough. Hadn’t she reached the end of that road to redemption? Was it a test of faith or sheer cruelty, or fate? I had no answer but I wanted to comfort her, offer some words of consolation.
She started talking again: “I grew up in the ironbound district. I didn’t know any better. I thought it was great. It was so beautiful back then. People were rich; they had had big homes and fancy cars. But we were poor, we lived in the junk. And now it cost me my two sons.”
“Is there something I can do?” I said.
She shook her head and smiled. “Please look out for my son’s obituary. The hardest thing is I have to write it but you know I did my best. I have arranged for his funeral the same way I did for my other son. There was never any discrimination. If one had sneakers, so did the other one; if one had dungarees, so did the other one. I always tried to be fair. Look out in the Star Ledger for the obituary would you please.”
I told her I would.
Zak Mir is a Healthcare IT Professional in New York City. He loves to dedicate his spare time to writing short stories and screenplays. Some of his previous works were published in Knot Magazine and one of his recent fiction was also nominated by Knot for the 2014 Push Car Prize. He currently lives in New Jersey with wife and three children.