The long and winding road

I love driving up the Northway. I love the moment I enter the Adirondack Park. Today the tiny leaves on the white birches were emerging in their lime green glory. Mist hung low on the cliff faces. Cold foamy water gushed from crevices. Rain splattered against my windshield while I sang along, badly, to a mix my son had made me.

All the way to Plattsburgh, then onto the Old Military Turnpike, heading to Malone. I’ve been in Malone several times over the last few years, mostly to work on my mother’s estate madness. Usually, I am driving with Brother Bob; he prefers the road through Dannemora and along Chazy Lake, down Lyon Mountain, edging by Chateaugay Lake, into Brainardsville, then down the hill into Malone. Today, I chose my old standard route from Plattsburgh to Ellenburg to Chateaugay. I have not driven it alone in a long time. It is my road of broken dreams.

In 1988, my husband lay paralyzed in the intensive care unit of CVPH in Plattsburgh. My children were in the care of my parents in Malone. I lived on the nursing home floor of CVPH, but I spent 18-20 hours a day in the ICU. The staff gifted me with my own raspberry scrubs, I had become almost a fixture. I cleaned his tracheotomy tube, I did his exercises and one warm July night, I washed his hair while a team of nurses held his head, unattached from the halo that kept his spine in traction.

I tried to slip away from the hospital on good days to visit my children. I hated for them to always see me, tired and worn with worry, in the hospital cafeteria or lobby; they were not allowed into the ICU. I would hop in my suburban mom mini-van and head down the Old Military Turnpike to Malone. There were no cell phones in those days, no laptop computers. I drove in isolation. My thoughts kept me company, but my daydreams were turning to nightmares. Invariably, I would arrive in Malone to find a message from the hospital to return immediately. One day I walked in to a ringing phone, I never even saw my kids before I turned and walked out the door to speed back to CVPH.

I found my old favorite radio station from Montreal, SHOM-FM for musical respite on those lonely trips. That summer, they kept playing “The Legend of Jack and Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp. He sang “Oh, yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” I fiercely sang along because I could not imagine life continuing if my husband’s did not.

He died and I survived. Life went on. John Cougar had it right, though, the thrill of living was gone. Today’s drive brought me back to those desolate times, with the grey skies, the damaged landscape, the broken pavement. But, if the thrill of living has not returned, at least time has given me the ability to find in each day something, some blessing, some gift, some reason to go on. To live, not just to exist; to move forward. No thrills, perhaps, but small joys, like the glimpse of a hawk winging over the pines. It is enough.


What’s In A Name?

Everyone has one. Some have two. Many have the same one. Born in the 50’s, your name is Mary, Sue, Ann or Debbie. No Courtneys, Jordans, Elisas or Apples. Plain Jane American names. Find your individuality in a nickname, pet name, pen name or pseudonym.

Men started as Bob, became Robert; Tommy became Thomas and Jimmy became James. Strong names, plain names, no-frill names for no-frills boys. Solid as the foundations of our two-story houses, our chrome-encrusted cars, our impenetrable borders, Fort Knox.

Six Stevens, eight Eddies, two Tommies and more Jimmys than I could count inhabited my young years. Roll Call in elementary school was a list of first names and last initials to sort us out, sit us in our seats, put us in our places. How could one Bob or Jon or Don stand out amongst all the other brush-cutted, black-shoed, shirt tucked in, freckle faced white boys? None did for me, not in my young years, not really. Well, maybe. Maybe Jimmy the altar boy with the angelic face and impish eyes. Maybe Denny the neighborhood bad boy with the Beatles haircut and the space between his front teeth. Maybe Peter the nice Jewish boy with black hair and the sad brown eyes of the race of survivors.

Not so when my young years became my middle school years became my high school, roll-up my skirt, cut-off my ponytail, change my chap stick for lipstick years. Not so when I traded a bottle of grape Nehi for a bottle of root beer mixed with some strange, dark, foul-smelling, potent potable, that gagged me, burned my throat, watered my eyes, made my knees so weak that they fell open at the touch of a hand. But just one hand, his hand. Jimmy’s hand. Jimmy, sometimes Jim, sometimes James Thomas, sometimes Sully, a nickname not a description of what he would do to my reputation. Poor little girl, poor little innocent girl, poor little smart mouth, smarter than you, smarter than anyone, so smart about books, so dumb about boys. Dumb enough to let him, dumb enough to want him to do whatever he wanted to do, to make me want whatever he wanted, to want to want him the way he wanted me. Wanted me against all the rules, all the Catholic, nun enforced, priestly preached rules, finger-shaking, tsk-tsking rules that we had been taught by rote, rule and example. Bad girls with big bellies broke the rules, trashy Lower Park Street girls broke the rules, girls with no fathers to watch them, warn them, whip them if they stepped out of line broke the rules. WE didn’t break the rules, I didn’t break the rules. He wanted to break the rules, I wouldn’t, couldn’t, should have let him but didn’t and lost him to the red-headed younger girl who looked so good, so nice at Church but let him so I lost him and would never have him back not for years and then it was too late because there was another Jim, another James, not ever Jimmy.

Long hair, long legs, short skirts, short memory, freedom in the 70’s, freedom at college to learn, live, leave the past behind. Not another Jimmy, not ever another Jim for me, too many nights crying for Jimmy, too many regrets, too much pain, so cross that name off the list, don’t dance, flirt with or kiss a Jim, Jimmy or James.

Until there he was, in my room, in my life, in my soul; in a heartbeat, in a breath, in a glance. Brother of my friend, mate of my soul, lover of my body. James Thomas IV. Rich boy, smart boy, sweet boy, Catholic boy who followed the rules. Who got me, wanted me, needed me till there was no Jim and Debbi but only JimandDebbi in one word, one phrase, one life. Three years. Three years, four months, a smattering of days, and an eternity of moments, apart and together, away but near, separate but joined until we were one and then no more. Until I wanted him, needed him, loved him, I did, I did, I did and then I didn’t. Broke my heart, broke his, our lives in ruins, our dreams shattered, tattered like the lace on my unworn wedding dress, tarnished like the metal of my unaccepted engagement ring, done and done because the wanting wasn’t enough, the loving wasn’t enough. Because in three years, four months and a smattering of days I grew, I changed and he didn’t, but I did, I did and then I didn’t want to change back into the future Mrs. James Thomas. I didn’t want to be “Mrs. my husband’s name” and not my name anymore, because what’s in a name but everything.

So no more James, Jimmys or Jims for thirty years, four months and a smattering of days. No more broken hearts because there was no heart to break, no more tears because that well had run dry, bone dry, dry as dead leaves, matted hair and empty vaginas. No more Toms, Dicks or Harry’s, No more Mitch. No more husband, friend, lover, father, beshert, mate, soul mate, no more, no more, no more. Nothing. No name. Not even his name was left to me because I didn’t take his name, so I was and am and continued to be just me. No Mrs. anyone anymore or ever again.

Jamie. Not James Thomas. Not Jim and ohmygod not ever a Jimmy. Not this tall, broad-shouldered big-boned man. Not this elegant, graceful, sophisticated, polished, cosmopolitan, rich, elite, Socially Registered man. Not this soldier of fortune, warrior, gutter-fighting, knife-wielding, hard-drinking, wife-stealing, fast-driving, Scots. Not those tortured eyes, troubled soul, frozen heart that captured me at the first touch, first kiss, first taste of that sad, slender mouth. Not Jim. Not James. Not Sergeant or Captain or Sir.

Jamie. Jamie. Jamie. What’s in a name? His name? Never to be my name. Given too often, too casually, with too much cost to four others to get it back and give it to me. Me who always wanted only my name. Only me. Ms. Esquire. Your Honor. Attached to my name, the one my father gave me, not a husband’s name. Just my name.  Just me. Now when I wanted to be Mrs. James Barry, now at the end of the game, the end of the road, end of my patience. Now, I am just my name again. Not a Mrs. Jim, Jimmy or James.

What’s in a name? What’s in a name if no one ever says it? If no one ever says it with love, with longing. If no one whispers it in your ear, shouts it across the street, writes it on your Valentine’s Day card? If no one ever says your name with passion, with pleasure, with pride, what’s in a name?

You, just you.

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