Carl and Me
It was after midnight when the cell went off and I knew it couldn't be good news. I rolled over and grabbed the phone off the bedside table.
"Butch, it's Matt Collins." His serious voice sounded through the ear piece.
"Matt?" I sat up in the bed with such suddenness that it startled my wife out of her sound sleep.
"I'm afraid I've got some bad news, buddy," Matt sighed quietly.
"He's dead, Butch."
The quiet darkness of the room left me feeling alone in the world even though my wife had rolled over and put her hand on my thigh.
"What happened?" I could barely get the words out.
"Massive stroke, apparently," Carl's kid brother told me.
"You're kidding!" I asked with disbelief. "The guy was in perfect shape."
"You're telling me."
"When did this happen?" I asked, still in a daze.
"Around six this evening," Matt reported. "Patty called me from the hospital. He collapsed at the station. It was all over in a matter of minutes."
"She's a mess," Matt sighed. "I just left there a while ago. Adam's with her. Charlene is with Patty."
"Geez, Matt, this is unbelievable," I said numbly. "I'm really sorry for your loss."
"Well, he was your friend. I thought you'd want to know."
"I appreciate that."
"I guess I'll be seeing you around," Matt sighed before the line went dead.
My wife sat up in the bed and waited for me expectedly.
"Carl Collins is dead," I informed her, the words sounding as foreign to me as I could imagine.
"Oh, Butch, I'm so sorry," Estelle replied, giving me a much needed hug. "Shooting?"
"No, it wasn't duty related," I replied, shaking my head. "He just dropped dead. Stroke, I guess."
"Oh my God," Estelle said. "I don't believe it."
"Why don't you call Patty?" I suggested as I rolled out of bed. "Tell her I'll be over."
"Okay," she agreed, turning on the bedside lamp and scrambling for her cell.
I threw on some clothes and slipped out of the house into the dark of night. It was warm and somehow that made me feel better as I climbed into the car and drove the few blocks to Carl's modern ranch in one of the newer sections in town. Every light in the house was on and I walked up the back walk just as I had done thousands of times before but I knew this time Carl wouldn't be greeting me with a beer and a grin.
I stepped into the kitchen and saw Carl's widow Patty seated at the kitchen table, her head buried in her hands. She looked up and burst into tears when she saw me, stumbling out of the chair and falling into me as I crossed the room. I kissed the top of her head and embraced her in a long hug as she cried against my chest. She was incoherent and I told her not to talk and we stood quietly in the middle of the room.
Patty's sister in law Charlene emerged from the stairs, a cell in her hand.
"Oh, Hi Butch, thanks for coming," she said, sounding official and in charge. "I think I've contacted everybody who needs to know, Patty."
"Good, good," Patty replied, wiping her tears as she fell back into her chair.
I sat in the chair next to Patty and waited for her to speak as Charlene went into the other room to make more calls.
"Where are the boys?" I asked softly.
"Upstairs," she replied. "They want to be alone right now."
"Okay," I said, nodding. "Do you need anything?"
She shook her head. "How the hell do I know?" She sighed with a shrug. "I don't even know where I am right now."
"Okay," I said.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Butch, I just don't know what the hell is going on."
"Who does?" I asked.
"I went out to get some corn on the cob for supper and missed all the calls," she sobbed. "They came and found me. Three cop cars pulling me over out by Stanlenski's. They were great. Drove me to the hospital but he was already gone by the time I got there."
"I'm so sorry, Patty," I said, taking her hand in mine and clutching it tightly.
"He was still warm, though," she said, crying openly. "I held his hand and I said goodbye."
"That's good," I let her know.
"Everybody's been great," Patty said with appreciation. "His cop buddies. Chief Kelley. The ER Staff. The nurses. People have been coming over all evening."
"People care," I told her. "Everybody liked Carl."
She looked at me and tried to smile. "Sorry you lost your friend."
"I didn't think it would happen like this," I confessed, still trying to wrap my arms around the entire event. "Shooting. Chase. Domestic disturbance. Iraq. But not like this. He was a physical specimen."
"Yeah, I used to tell him he was making me look bad," Patty laughed. "He was only a year older than me but he looked ten years younger!"
I squeezed her hand and tried to transfer emotional strength into her. She suddenly looked much older to me but who could blame her. She was an instantaneous widow at fifty-two.
"Okay, I just got off the phone with Becky," Charlene reported as she returned to the room. "They'll be here by Monday."
"I have to call Donnelly-Nolan in the morning," Patty sighed.
"Yes, I know," Charlene replied. "Don't worry about that right now."
"What about the obituary?" Patty asked, looking at me.
"The funeral home takes care of everything," I assured her. "Everything will fall into place, don't worry."
Charlene's phone went off and she disappeared into the other room again.
"Butch?" Patty asked, looking into my eyes.
"Was I a good wife?" She wanted to know.
"Don't do that to yourself," I said, taking her hand in both of mine. "Of course you were."
She burst into tears again and fell into me. "We had a big fight this morning about mowing the damn lawn," she sobbed.
I couldn't help but laugh. "Well, I guess that won't be a problem now."
She tried to collect herself but she continued to weep uncontrollably.
"Listen," I said, squeezing her hands. "I never once heard Carl say a negative thing about you or your marriage," I let her know. "He was happy."
"I hope so," she sighed, wiping the tears away.
"I know so," I assured her.
"Patty, your brother's on the phone again," Charlene announced, coming into the kitchen.
"I'd better talk to him," Patty told me. "They're trying to make arrangements from Kansas."
"Sure, go ahead, of course," I said, standing. "I think I'll go check in on Betty."
"Adam's there now," Charlene reported. "We drove over from Albany as soon as we got the call."
"Great," I replied. "Thanks."
Patty gave me another hug before taking the cell from Charlene and going into the other room.
"Thanks for everything you're doing," I told Charlene. "It helps having someone taking charge."
"Yeah," she sighed, brushing back her bright long red hair. "It's the least I can do."
"I'll see you," I said, heading for the back door but I stopped and glanced around.
The house sure did seem strangely empty, quiet and still and I knew it was never going to be the same again.
All sorts of thoughts, emotions and memories were swirling through my head as I drove to the Hilltop section of Hillsboro were Carl and I had grown up. I recalled how my kindergarten pal Eddie Miller was the first kid who moved out of the neighborhood, departing 10 Hill Street which allowed Carl and his family to move in a few months later.
The Hilltop neighborhood was a great place to grow up, full of century old large Victorian homes with its old style wide plank floors, spacious 10 foot ceilings, coffered master bedroom, eight foot French doors, wrap around first floor porches, balconies with French doors off the second floor master bedrooms, screened in back porches on the third floor, wood burning fireplaces with custom designed mantles, mahogany entryways, spiral front stairwells featuring banister carved from walnut, and secret back stairwells. The houses were different sizes, shapes and colors, but most of them were the same inside.
Somehow, I survived Miss Button's scary kindergarten class after Eddie left. There were still plenty of other familiar families in the neighborhood and kids to play with. Different kids of different ages fell into various peer groups and cliques – some intermixed and others separate depending on ages, personalities, siblings, and interests, but we all knew each other and got along because we were "Hilltoppers".
I tended to have different friend groups at different times, some of which mixed together from time to time. I'd hang out with my older brother and his friends or listen to my older sister's girl talk with her friends. I also helped my brother with his paper route so I pretty much knew the names of every family in every house on the Hilltop.
Most of the kids I hung out with were not in my grade. They were all younger than me and because Jess Gardner went to St. Anne's Catholic School I didn't have any Hilltop kids in my class until the Collins family moved into the neighborhood and Carl joined my grade.
Carl and I started hanging out and he would join in on the group football games in the various yards or at the school. We would roam and comb the neighborhood and the sandbank and along the brush of the hill and the gullies. The sandbank, of course, made for great winter fun, including the old plastic boat Carl commandeered from his garage and we rode down Dead Man's Hill with as many kids as we could stuff into the tub!
Carl was the oldest of his clan while I was the fourth kid in my six sibling family. Mrs. Collins was probably the prettiest of the neighborhood Moms and while the Collins House could be loud with plenty of bickering and confrontations, it was no different than my house. Carl was much smarter than me even in the early days and some of the other kids made fun of him because of his intelligence but I always envied him for it because his intelligence was so beyond the rest of us that I knew he was going places even when we were seven years old.
Carl and I both knew the same kids from our class and those shared experiences gave us a common bond because we had the same teachers and suffered through the same square dancing and gym classes! But because Carl was the oldest and smartest kid in his family and I was the fourth born, we did have different perspectives and roles.
Carl was a leader of his siblings, looked up to and admired, listened to and respected with credibility because of his IQ and his maturity. I was the lost kid in my family, competing against my smart oldest brother and a bully of a second brother, along with my "Little Mother" older sister who took care of us. There was also a younger bratty sister and our "oops" little brother who arrived fourteen years after my oldest brother when the family was already showing signs of stress and trouble.
The Collins house had a neat 'glass tower' on top of the roof and that's where Carl installed his telescope. We spent hours at night looking through it at the stars and Carl knew everything there was to know about the constellations. He was also a big Star Trek fan and he turned me on to that show on a young age - I remember watching the original series as a youngster and then getting addicted to it in reruns. Later on, Carl and I made it a point to see all the movies together whenever they came out.
I was never a confident or particularly popular kid, lost in the shadows of my older siblings and beaten down by the ridicule I routinely faced. Carl was smart and good looking but as smart and well liked and popular as Carl was, he still suffered from the same young heartbreaks as the rest of us and that allowed me to identify with him even though he was a genius.
Carl and I progressed through elementary school together. We knew the same kids, walked to school together every day, and hung out together most days. We aged out of playing Army and other kid games and for a while we played "Coliseum" with Jess Gardner. Other kids participated from time to time but mostly it was Carl, Jess and me in the dark playing giant wrestling games and afterwards the three of us would walk to the Hilltop Store for a coke and some cookies and we would sit in the back of Carl's dad's pickup truck discussing life.
And now here I was back on the hill driving to Carl's childhood home where his mother still lived to offer my sympathies for the loss of her son. I drove around the sleeping neighborhood several times remembering the names and faces of the families that once lived in each house and all the memories I had of my childhood life here.
I reluctantly parked in front of the Collins house at 10 Hill Street, still painted its dark yellow with the green trim. How many times had I ridden my bicycle down the street from my house at 88 Hill Street to hang out with Carl? Too many too count.
I climbed out of my car and stared at the house for a long moment before slowly walking up the driveway and around to the back porch and the door to the kitchen.
Mrs. Collins had been a widow for nearly twenty years although it seemed like yesterday. The Collins had modernized the house after the Millers moved out – a modern and expanded kitchen, a large back deck, a new downstairs bathroom, and an enlarged upstairs bathroom and I barely remembered how the house looked back in Eddie's day.
I let myself into the house and heard the television coming from the other room. Adam stepped out of the shadows to greet me, a younger version of his older brother with the classic Collins look – blonde hair, round face, spearing eyes. I gave him a hug and he tried to put on his game face.
"Come say to my Mom," he said quietly.
I followed him into the living room and saw Mrs. Collins seated on the couch in her bathrobe and slippers and she burst into tears as soon as she saw me, one of the deepest roots to her son's life. She stood and I gave her a hug and she cried for me and for her and for Carl.
"God, I'm so sick of crying," she said once she was able to catch her breath. "I've been crying for seven damn hours now."
"You'll be crying for the next seven months," Adam cautioned as he fell into one of the easy chairs and I took a seat on the coffee table to peer at Carl's mother.
"Who told you?" She asked.
"Matt called," I let her know.
"Good, I asked him too," she replied. "I didn't want you reading it in the paper or hearing it on the radio."
"I appreciate it," I replied.
"How come Patty didn't call you?" Adam wondered.
"She's pretty out of it," I replied, although I had to admit the same thought crossed my mind.
"Matt didn't even call me," Mrs. Collins said. "He called my neighbor Ginny Marshall and had her come over and sit with me until he could get here."
"What was her cover?" I wondered.
"Oh, some bullshit about squirrels in the attic," Mrs. Collins laughed. "But as soon as Matt came through the door I knew the worse was true."
"It feels like a dream," I sighed.
"It's a friggin' nightmare!" Mrs. Collins wailed, bursting into tears again. "I'm not supposed to survive my kid for God sakes!" She buried her face in her hands and Adam moved over to console his mother.
She looked older now too. I remember conversations as kids about who had the prettiest mother (sexist when we got older) and Mrs. Collins usually won. She married young (her husband was older) and she was a beautiful young woman who retained her figure and looks even after six pregnancies. It wasn't until her husband died and she had to go back to work that life began to catch up to her and now she weighed more with wrinkles on her face and her once full and lively hair thinning and faded. She wore ugly thick glasses and had long since stopped dressing up.
"Have you told Spencer yet?" Mrs. Collins asked.
"No, I really haven't thought about him," I admitted.
"Yes, he has been a great disappointment, hasn't he?" Mrs. Collins agreed. "But he should know."
"It's only about ten in California right now," I said, glancing at my watch. "I'll call him when I leave here."
"Do you think he'll come for the funeral?" Mrs. Collins asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "He's pretty important out there."
"No, he thinks he's pretty important out there," Mrs. Collins corrected. "He was supposed to be important around here, especially now."
I wasn't in a position to defend Spencer who had been mostly absent from our lives in recent years although he liked to portray himself as a local hero. He had missed a series of weddings and funerals over the years, always too busy or committed to change his schedule and his frequent lapses had left many of us less important people back home feeling resentful and forgotten.
"I can't imagine him not coming home for this," I said, although a part of me wondered right along with Mrs. Collins.
"Well, I'll believe it when I see it," Mrs. Collins replied.
I glanced around the house at all the family photos and familiar decor and the endless memories of my youth not quite believing it was all gone as was Carl. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.
I sighed sadly and stood. "Well, I should get going," I said. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay and pass along my condolences."
"I'll never be okay again," Mrs. Collins resolved, crying again.
I couldn't argue with her and I glanced at Adam to see how he was holding up. Losing a brother had to be the worse feeling imaginable.
"Thanks for stopping by, Butch," Adam said. "You were a good friend from the beginning."
"Carl would have done the same for me," I replied with a sigh. "Truth is I always assumed I'd be the first to go."
I left the house with the sounds of Mrs. Collins weeping echoing behind me and I sucked in the summer night air as I walked to my car listening to the ghosts from the past whistling through the trees.
I drove to the old junior high that Carl and I attended together (now used as the school department's administrative offices) and parked in the small lot by the entrance we always walked through together every morning. I slipped out of the car and walked around the old grounds, peeking through the cellar windows where the shop classes, home ec room and cafeteria used to be.
Carl and I didn't have any classes together when we got to Junior High – he was with the smart kids while I was becoming more invisible, shrinking into the shadows and fading into myself, but we were still friends, hanging out at lunch and a couple of study halls.
I walked around back to the old high school gym and stared through the door remembering the many gym classes there and, of course, Carl and my first junior high dance. I was surprised that Carl seemed to be just as uncertain, shy and inept as I was that nervous night and we actually left the gym together and hung out in one of the classrooms with a couple of other losers to escape the painful emotions of the stressful dance.
Of course, the difference was that Carl overcame some of those doubts while I never recovered from them. I skipped most dances and Carl and most of my other friends left me behind when it came to social successes. Junior High was a new beginning for Carl and the beginning of the end for me. Carl was finding himself and moving on while I was losing myself and falling apart. My family situation was continuing to worsen – my father was staying away because of my mother's drinking and my mother was drinking more because my father was staying away. Adding to the drama were my older brothers experiencing their fair share of problems and trouble that added to the family stress.
Junior High was also when my obsession with Rhonda Olson magnified and eventually became unmanageable because I was incapable of dealing with her on a normal emotional level. She was a beautiful girl whose well off family moved into the neighborhood around that time and I was smitten by her from the moment I saw her.
Unfortunately, Rhonda didn't want anything to do with me and she blew me off which was the biggest rejection of my life. Desperate for attention and longing for her interest, I became a lost cause and a borderline stalker trying to get the poor girl to like me and Carl tried to talk some sense into me but I continued to make a fool of myself when it came to Rhonda. What made it worse was that Rhonda was good friends with Carl's sister Becky.
Becky was almost as smart as Carl and much prettier! But a shy and insecure kid like me didn't know how to talk to pretty girls like Becky Collins and Rhonda Olson and I certainly didn't meet their level of interest as a goofy kid even if I was Carl's pal.
All of us at that age said things that were mean, insensitive and even cruel – sometimes on purpose (I think Rhonda fell into that category) and sometimes unaware. It's just what we did at that age, partly out of defensiveness but mostly out of survival - they call it bullying today but back then it was just the way we behaved. Becky said some mean things to me in her role as Carl's kid sister and Rhonda's friend, perfectly understandable under the circumstances and at that age but it still hurt and left me feeling even less worthy.
Jess considered Rhonda and Becky to be two little bitches but I would never be that mean in my description and I certainly wasn't going to insult Carl's sister, especially in front of him!
I remember hanging out with Carl one day at his house and seeing a letter addressed to Becky from Rhonda who was vacationing at Summer Beach. I spent most of the visit trying to come up with a way to read the letter but Carl was on to me and he refused to enable me.
"Just give me the letter," I begged.
"It's not yours," he reasoned.
"Well, look away and I'll steal it."
"You're being pathetic," Carl said. "Trust me, there's nothing in there about you."
"I just want to see what she wrote, what she thinks, what she's doing," I sighed.
"Why don't you just try talking to her?" Carl wanted to know.
"She hates me."
"So why bother caring then?"
"Because I can't help myself," I admitted.
"Yeah, I can understand that," Carl replied. "But you're still not reading the letter."
"Because it won't be good for you," Carl said.
So I suffered along through a miserable junior high existence, most of the time feeling lonely and alone while admiring Carl who was easily among the most popular, well liked and smartest kids in the school. In eighth grade, study hall students sat in the back of the classrooms and Becky sat next to me in one of my classes. I felt intimidated by her presence and I desperately wanted to demonstrate to Carl's sister and Rhonda's friend that I was not a total loser but I don't think I was successful!
Carl's advice was simple: forget about both of them! Carl thought Rhonda was stuck up and that Becky too self-centered to be an interesting catch. Of course, he said this at the same time he was pining over some of his own unachievable loves so it was hard to take him too seriously.
The Eighth Grade Social arrived and of course I had no interest in going mostly because I had no one to go with. Rhonda had her hot date and so did Becky, not that I would have gone anyway even if somebody had been foolish enough to ask me. I was too frightened, panicked, and messed up to undertake such an event so I suffered in silence.
Ironically, Carl was experiencing his own rejection and loss. He had asked Shelia Kantor to the dance and we all figured he'd be In Like Flint. Shelia was almost as smart as Carl, a somewhat shy and quiet but very attractive girl and Carl really did like her. We figured she'd jump at the chance to go with a guy like Carl and we were all surprised when she turned him down. Carl, of course, was devastated and he really never got over that disappointment, lamenting about Shelia for years and while I felt bad for poor Carl I was actually comforted knowing that Carl was mourning Shelia Kantor the same night I was mourning Rhonda Olson!
Carl didn't bother asking anybody else to the Social and he and I spent the night hanging around his house looking through the telescope and dissing girls in general. Carl stopped going to church around that time too, convinced that one of the reasons Shelia turned him down was because he was a Catholic boy and she was Jewish. Mrs. Collins never forgave Shelia for that one!
I sat on the outside metal stairs to the old gym wishing we could go back and do it all over again. I would definitely have been more assertive with Rhonda and I would have found better ways to interact with Becky instead of coming across as a goof.
I pulled out my cell, dialing the last number I had for Spencer Henderson.
"Hello, Spencer Henderson's Answering Service," a woman's professional voice answered. "How may I help you?"
"Is Mr. Henderson available?" I asked, staring out at the old football field where he, me, Carl and some of the other neighborhood guys used to play pick up football games.
"I'm sorry, he is not. May I take a message please?"
"Yes," I said with disappointment, knowing I couldn't leave a message that Carl Collins was dead with his answering service. "Could you tell him that Butch McCall called and that he needs to call home?"
"Butch...McCall...call...home..." she repeated, obviously writing it down.
"As soon as possible," I added.
"Yes, Sir," she replied politely.
I closed the cell and looked up at the night sky feeling more alone and lonely than ever. Somehow, however, I felt comforted by the stars knowing Carl was up there somewhere looking down at me.
I drove home and slipped into bed next to my sleeping wife who cuddled into me.
"How'd it go?" She whispered.
"Tough," I sighed. "It's very tough."
I didn't sleep very well that night thinking about Carl, his wife, his two kids, his siblings, his mother, his friends, and all the times we shared together. It hardly seemed possible that I would never see him again.
In the morning, I was up earlier than usual, unable to sleep. I went down to Johnny C's Diner for a coffee and the place was already abuzz with news of Carl's death. Several patrons expressed their condolences to me and Owner Birdy Braft was kind enough to say a few words too. Carl and I had been patronizing the place since we were kids. I remember when Birdy bussed tables there!
I stopped in at Carl's house although I was coming to the realization that it wasn't Carl's house anymore. It was Patty's house now. Flowers had arrived and people were bringing food and some off duty cops were hanging around. Carl's youngest brother Ron had arrived and Matt stopped in for a few minutes with his girlfriend. A few of Patty's college friends were also in town to lend their support and comfort and there wasn't a lot for me to do except offer my sympathy and support and to stay out of the way
Patty didn't look like she had slept at all and she was on the phone most of the time I was there. The medical examiner called to let Patty know that the preliminary results indicated a massive deep brain aneurysm that caused sudden brain death but that an autopsy would be required to pinpoint an actual case and Patty told him to go ahead and do the autopsy.
I was having a hard time accepting Carl's death from natural causes. He was in perfect shape. He jogged five miles a day, he was 5'10' and weighed maybe 160 pounds. He didn't smoke and he watched his drinking and diet. He hiked, rode his bike, and he received a community award for running down two twenty-something crooks he caught breaking and entering.
I was twenty-five pounds overweight and my biggest workout was walking to the mailbox to get the mail. I drank too much coffee, liked the sweets, and smoked for twenty years before finally quitting for my kid. It hardly seemed fair that Carl was gone when he did everything right health wise and here I was standing in his widow's kitchen drinking coffee from Johnny C's and eating a donut.
"I thought we'd be doing this about thirty years from now," I remarked to Carl's brother Ron as we stood chatting in Carl's kitchen.
"Yeah," he agreed. "It's much too soon."
I had to tell my thirteen year old daughter about that Scotty and Winter's Dad was dead when I got home. Sarah had always liked Carl and we did things as a family together many times over the years. Scotty was only a few months older than Sarah and their mothers had frequently joked that they would end up married some day.
Sarah had already experienced several deaths in her young life so Carl's death wasn't as traumatic as it otherwise might have been but she was still upset and troubled by it. I'm sure the unspoken concern for her was 'Are you next, Dad?' but she didn't say anything like that. Instead, she shared her sympathy and concern for Scotty and Winter and wondered how they'd get along without their Dad.
I moped around the house unable to do much besides think about poor Carl and his family. I returned to Patty's house and mowed the lawn for Carl which Patty greatly appreciated and we joked that Carl would have tipped me for my effort if he was still around!
Spencer finally called me that afternoon from somewhere in Hawaii where he was filming some television show. He had already gotten the news from his frail mother and gossip-based sister and I was relieved that I didn't have to be the one to tell him our friend Carl was dead.
'Bummer," he said, sounding surprisingly detached and he was more interested in talking about his new project than he was about Carl's death which I found disappointing but maybe that was just Spencer's way of dealing with the shock.
I didn't dare ask Spencer if he was planning on coming home for the funeral but I did find myself getting even more resentful toward Spencer when I ended our phone call.
"That guy's a complete and total asshole," I told my wife with disgust once I was off the phone.
"Is he coming home?" Estelle asked.
"You know, for a guy who was once one of us and pledged eternal friendship and talks in television interviews and magazine articles all the time about how much he values and remembers his childhood friends, he's full of shit," I determined.
"So, he's not coming home," Estelle deduced.
"Every time he comes home he sings praises about Carl and me, claiming we're still his lifelong best friends but I don't even think he knows what a friend is anymore," I sighed.
"I'm sorry, Butch," Estelle said, giving me a hug as I stood at the kitchen window staring blankly out at the backyard.
"Carl's dead and Spencer's three thousand miles away and offering no indication whether or not he's coming home to say goodbye to our friend," I groaned. "What a clueless bastard."
I decided to go down to Beano Field for a while and catch a few innings of a Serguci League game. Carl and I had spent plenty of time in that place growing up watching amateur league baseball (Spencer played a few summers) and I felt comforted going there to try and forget about everything for a little while but of course there were people in the stands who recognized me and heard about Carl and offered their condolences so there really was no escape.
One of our old junior high pals was actually managing one the Beansboro Beansters now and he trotted over to say sorry and seeing him made me think about our days of youth again.
Somehow I survived Junior High and moved on to Hillsboro High School but without Carl who was off to board at Sun Rise Lake School for Boys and take on tougher challenges and satisfaction. Part of me felt abandoned by him but I knew Carl was much to smart for Hillsboro High School and I had no choice but to go on without him and my other friends who were still in junior high.
My friendship with Jess Gardner also more or less ended as he became a big deal football player and found a new peer group, leaving behind Coliseum and our backyard sleep outs. Spencer Henderson, who lived in a different neighborhood but had become friends with Carl and me starting in seventh grade, was still around but his celebrity status was already beginning to take off even as a Freshman. Spence was dating Sophomore Liz Staltz, playing all three sports, and acting in plays both at school and in the community. I was feeling lonely and alone and with the family situation at home continuing to erode, I was an emotional mess.
High School became my lost years and I spent most of my time hiding out in books and watching television in my room although I managed to join the school newspaper staff. I only saw Carl occasionally – the holidays and when he was home for the summer and I was thrilled when we ended up on the same tobacco farm (Field Farm 96) when we landed that summer job at fourteen.
We caught "Captain" Jimmy O'Hara's green tobacco bus on the steps of the old junior high school auditorium, dragging our sorry asses out of bed at first light to catch it on time. The neighborhood was still asleep and it was nice to begin the day watching the sun rise with Carl.
Tobacco was new to us and Carl and I suffered together learning how to sucker, twist and tie, and we started out as picking partners together but I couldn't keep up with the quicker Carl and he understandably left me for a faster guy – this was piece work and it meant money after all!
Once again I couldn't help but feel abandoned by Carl and I became a hauler instead of a picker but we still caught the bus together on those quiet summer mornings and we stumbled off the bus together at the end of the long day soaked in sweat and covered in dirt and tar.
I was a four year man on Field Farm 96 but Carl only suffered for two summers before washing dishes at Johnny C's Diner and then getting a job at the Sun Rise Lake Inn and I felt more and more left behind by both Carl and Spencer. Carl was the prep school scholar and Spencer was the local celebrity and my only claim to fame was that I was their friend.
Spencer easily became Hillsboro High's ladies man who had moved on from Liz Staltz to a host of others before finally settling on his high school steady, Millie Adams. Meanwhile, I was suffering in silence watching my family fall apart, obsessing over the unattainable Rhonda Olson, and feeling sorry for myself.
Like Carl, I had stopped going to church but it had nothing to do with a pretty Jewish girl dumping me. I had simply given up on God, bitter that my life sucked and nothing was going right. I had come to terms with the reality that my mother was an alcoholic, although I wasn't aware at the time how much it was affecting me. Both of my older brothers were out of the house but my mother's alcoholism continued to progress and my parents' marriage was on the rocks.
Something was amiss at the Collins house too although Carl never spoke about it directly but we stopped hanging around his house with the undercurrent of unspoken stress there too. Mr. Collins operated Collins' Furniture Store with three branches and while Matt, Adam and Ron worked jobs there, Carl wanted nothing to do with it although he kept on participating in some of the family camping trips and vacations. I figured Carl boarded at Sun Rise Lake School for Boys partially to experience the full prep school lifestyle but also to escape tough times at home, something I was unable to do.
Spencer was the first among us to get his driver's license and he had his own car ('66 Red Ford Mustang) so we were able to trek to the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys campus to visit with Carl which was always fun. Carl found his first real true love (at least in the biblical sense) in Addison while at Sun Rise Lake and I sensed that Carl was moving even further away with new and exciting experiences and interests. When Addison greeted Spence and me one day by opening the door to Carl's dorm room wrapped in a sheet, I was thunderstruck to realize that Carl was having sex. I was happy for him, envious and impressed, but a piece of me was also saddened to know that Carl had entered a higher plane while I couldn't even get Rhonda Olson to look at me.
One time Spence and I drove Carl and Addison to her parent's house in New Hampshire. When we arrived, Addison was carefree and happy, wearing a revealing halter top but a few minutes later, after her parents pulled her aside, she went into the house and returned solemn-faced wearing a more conservative blouse. I felt sorry for her but just a bit insulted that her parents assumed that Carl, Spence and I were three perverts hitting on their daughter. As if Spencer and I would ever do that to Carl!
Strangely, even though he was now having sex, Carl still seemed cynical and doubtful about girls, love and romance.
"Addison is just using me," I remember him telling me one day.
"Using you for what?" I naively asked.
He just gave me a deadpanned stare.
I somehow made it through high school still standing, helped senior year by participating with the yearbook staff, writing for the school paper, and finally feeling semi-special as a seventeen year old senior. I made a few new friends, including a friendly relationship with my successful and popular classmate, Molly Lancaster who was really the first girl not to treat me like I had the plague. She wasn't the prettiest girl in the school – she had a football linebacker's body but she was pretty in the face and her outgoing personality made her fun to be around. Of course, Molly really had the hots for Spencer and was using me to get closer to him but Carl coached me to use that to my advantage, especially since Spencer wasn't interested in Molly in that way.
Molly was happy to tag along if I was doing something with Spencer (sort of double dating with him and Millie) but she often came up with an excuse if I asked her out on my own. But beggars couldn't be complainers and I was happy to be in Molly's shadow. I was also grateful that even though Spencer was easily the most popular kid in Hillsboro, he kept hanging around with me. Molly tried out for every play Spencer was in and I ended up working crew on a few of the productions just to be a part of the experience and to be with Molly. I never did get much beyond second base with her though.
As we prepared for our high school graduations, Carl was heading for MIT in Boston and Spencer accepted the University of South Carolina on a full baseball scholarship with the intent on majoring in theatre while I was staying in Blue County and attending nearby Green College, mostly by default thinking I had to stay in the area to help my younger siblings who were stuck in an alcoholic home.
Two weeks before graduation, my mother was pulled over on her way to her secretary job for drunk driving. I had just given Molly my yearbook to sign when I got called out of class and came to the high school lobby to see my father standing with the Vice Principal. My dad needed me to drive my mother's car back from Riverside. It wasn't the first incident involving my mother and alcohol and it wouldn't be the last. This time, my mother was sprung from (unsuccessful) rehab in time to sit in the Hillsboro Gym having the shakes watching me graduate with me hoping she could just stay sober long enough for me to get my diploma!
Carl and I took a graduation road trip with Spencer to check out Spence's college campus. It was our final hurrah and our farewell to our old way of life. We were moving on, looking ahead, and saying goodbye. We talked about our friendship, the past, and the future. Spencer sang songs and read poetry as we headed to Columbia SC on I-95. Carl got struck with a bout of moodiness during the trip. I'm not sure if it was because the always cheerful, bubbly, excited and talkative Spencer got under his skin or if Carl's own private thoughts got him down. Was he grieving Addison who had dumped him earlier that Spring? Was he nervous about MIT? Was he bummed about his family? Was he sad to be moving on? I never asked because I was anchored in my own sea of hurt emotions and pained reality.
Carl snapped out of it and Spencer saw the campus, excited to be meeting new people and getting a peek at his future. We drove over to the coast and hung out at the beach for a few days, Spencer having no problem attracting the girls and I had to sleep in the car one night when Spencer and Carl took two college girls into the room for some all night sex.
We headed home with Spence pining for Millie even though he had just gotten laid with some coed. We sped home and dumped him off at Millie's house where Carl and I assumed Spence would enjoy some welcome home sex. It was a strange end to a stranger road trip!
I worked my fourth summer on tobacco and watched as Carl headed for Boston and Spencer to South Carolina. I started at Green College and watched as my father finally moved out, leaving me and my kid sister and brother alone to fend with our drunken mother. I made a solo trek to Columbia to surprise Spencer later in the fall, recalling our group road trip of four months earlier and I wondered if this was the end of us. Would it ever be the same again?
For the next four years, it was mostly Christmas visits and other vacations for us and it was always fun to re-team with Carl and Spencer but Spence was already emerged in his busy and popular college career of baseball and theatre and we didn't see all that much of him. When we did reteam, we took trips to Sun Rise Lake on Christmas and/or New Year's Eve attempting to re-living the past by talking about old times as we walked along the railroad tracks or the Blue River remembering our adventures of youth.
There were new girlfriends (Paula for Carl, Zooey among others for Spencer) while I was still driving through the old neighborhood and past Rhonda Olson's house hoping for a glimpse of her as I still couldn't let go of the past. There was the occasional trip to Boston to see Carl living in his cool MIT Frat House in Cambridge which was a stone's throw from Fenway Park.
Carl had become the Boston expert and he would direct us through the City in the car and he'd know what T line to catch. Carl had plenty of stories to tell about the city and the cheers from Fenway. One time I borrowed my father's big Lincoln Continental so I could take Spencer, Becky and Carl's other sister Judyann (JA) to see Carl at his Frat House. It was my chance to once again try to prove to the now college student Becky that I was not a loser but she thought I was a rotten driver about to get her killed on winding Route 2 and I was discouraged to realize that I was never going to convince Becky that I was worthy of her interest.
But the younger JA (She was a high school senior) was thrilled to be with older college kids and when she actually carried on conversations with me I realized that maybe I finally had a chance with at least one of the Collins' sisters! Becky was more interested in chatting with the more popular and interesting Spencer anyway.
Our visit was interesting and fun. We toured Boston, ate heartedly, and went through both the Museum of Science and the Museum of Art. Some of the frat guys were chasing Becky and JA all over the place but Spence and I did our best to protect their honor and virtue.
Ironically, it was I who ended up sleeping with JA after a night of too much wine on her part and when I woke up in some frat room bed with her naked next to me the next morning, I panicked wondering what Carl would think of me sleeping with his sister.
JA wasn't all that thrilled when she realized what had happened either.
"You only slept with me because Becky won't sleep with you," she complained as she jumped out of the bed to find her clothes.
"That's not true," I protested, although deep down I had to confess that my fantasy had always been to sleep with Becky – or at least see her naked!
Seeing JA naked wasn't anything to complain about, of course, JA was almost as petty as Becky, though smaller and less endowed in the chest. I felt relieved to finally have a successful sexual conquest but horrified that it was with Carl's kid sister who proceeded to vilify me for "violating' her.
"You weren't even that good," she said as she stood naked at the foot of the bed looking at me accusingly.
"It was my first time," I confessed.
"What?" She asked, dumbstruck. "I'm the one who popped your cherry?"
"Oh, so it wasn't your first time," I realized with disappointment. How could a kid almost four years younger than me get laid first?
"Geez, Butch, I didn't know," she said with a little bit more compassion as she slid back under the covers.
"Maybe we should keep this between ourselves," I suggested which was not the right thing to say.
"What, you're ashamed?" She demanded angrily. "Embarrassed? See, you don't even like me!"
"It's not that, JA," I assured her. "It's just that...well...you're my best friends kid sister. And you're only seventeen. I don't want to get arrested."
"You're pathetic," JA replied, hopping out of bed and getting dressed. "Never talk to me again."
That made for a long ride home to Hillsboro but if the others were aware that JA and I had done the dirty deed they didn't say anything.
I was doing okay at Green College and Matt Collins helped me get a job working for his father, although I got sent to the third rate Miller City store (the Hillsboro and South County stores were considered the best). I didn't see much of Mr. Collins but when I did I was pretty sure he had a couple of belts no matter what time of day it was.
My parents divorced but my mother was still drinking. My father had major heart surgery and my kid sister was living with him while I was still at home keeping an eye on my young teen brother which certainly didn't help my love life much.
Carl graduated from MIT with a degree in Psychics and was back in the area, living in Greenville while attending grad school at Green College. Spencer had enjoyed a successful college baseball career and was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, reporting to its Single A affiliate in Greenwood SC. I graduated from Green College with a journalism degree and landed a job with the Greenville News and Dispatch (spending the next thirty years working just about every position on the staff – court reporter, obituary writer, South County beat reporter, sports reporter, Greenville Political reporter, city editor, and finally Associate Editor and Columnist).
Carl and I hung out a lot that year he was at Green. The guy was a genius but we were happy to take in a game at Beano Field, have a beer at The Bullpen Tavern or a piece of pie at Johnny C's diner and our friendship really didn't change all that much even though he was a brain. There were road trips to see Spencer play minor league ball and still the holiday tradition of Sun Rise Lake when Spencer made it home.
But my life had hit a wall, perhaps the low point of my entire life. My mother was continuing to drink progressively and I realized that I had been foolish to think I could do anything about it. I was a depressed mess and even though I was working at the News and Dispatch, I saw no future for myself.
Carl tried to fix me up with a few college coeds he knew but I was unable to heal the old wounds and nothing seemed to work out in the romance department. Still, with a steady income and a sense of purpose as a journalist I was doing okay even though my mother wasn't and the cruel disease of alcoholism affected all members of the family. I fell in love a times but I was mostly cast in the role of nice guy/good friend instead of romantic lead and the truth was I wasn't emotionally healthy enough to sustain a relationship that involved intensity or intimacy. I was comfortable with one night stands and then moving on.
When Carl finished his graduate work, he took a job as a Psychics Professor at the University of California Berkley and I was on my own again as Spencer worked his way up in the Braves minor league system – Savannah and then Richmond.
I was six years into my journalism career when my father died suddenly and my siblings and I had to face a myriad of challenges and issues in the aftermath. And then, while dealing with that loss, word came that Mr. Collins had dropped dead of a heart attack three days later and it hardly seemed possible that my father and Carl's father could die within days of each other.
I drove to the airport with Matt Collins to pick up Carl. Spencer was in the middle of a pennant drive and couldn't get away for the funeral. Carl didn't have a whole lot to say about his father's death and I didn't ask him too many questions but it was good to see him again.
I went from the reception following my father's funeral directly to Mr. Collins's wake and walking down the receiving line of all of Carl's siblings was tough but the only solace I could offer was I knew how they were feeling because I had just come from burying my own father.
But did I really know how the Collins' felt? No, not really. None of us had spoken much of our own truths, our own secrets, and our own pain. How could I possibly know how any of them felt dealing with the shock, anger, pain that came with the death of a flawed man who drank too much and alienated his children?
I felt sorrow for Mr. Collins when I said a prayer in front of his casket, wondering if he and my mother shared some of the same truths and pains but it wasn't a topic I could broach with his children during such a time of grief, loss and uncertainty. Besides, I could barely speak to Becky and JA under the most normal of circumstances, so what was I going to say now?
I went to Mr. Collins' Funeral Mass with Spencer's mother the next day and at the reception that followed I tried to be positive and supportive as best I could but there were no magic words to offer and Carl and I mostly got drunk and drowned our sorrows.
Becky looked great but she had her boyfriend on her arm and JA didn't seem much interested in talking with me, still having not forgiven me for our little tryst in Carl's frat house years earlier.
I'm not sure if Carl ever recovered from the tragic loss of his father. He never really talked about it to me and when I dropped subtle hints about my mother's drinking and my father's death Carl never took the opportunity to express his feelings in such a direct way but I respected his wishes. There were times when Carl would make a sarcastic or sardonic remark in response to some family issue or circumstance and I sometimes thought that was his way of commenting on something that was much closer to his heart but we never explored those opportunities and I always felt that it profoundly affected Carl in ways that he wasn't even aware of.
I admired Carl's Mom who stood strong in the aftermath of her husband's death, overcoming challenges and obstacles and she was always there for her kids while taking over for her husband and helping Matt run the family business and doing well for herself and her family.
Matt and I drove Carl to the airport at the end of that visit and I didn't see a whole lot of him during the next few years as his career as a Professor in California kept him busy. Spencer was traded from the Braves to the Dodgers and he made it to the bigs a year or two later and that's when he started showing up as a guest in a television show here or as a supporting character in a movie there. We didn't see much of him but he was definitely a big deal around Hillsboro and Blue County and I was able to use my connection to write some interesting articles for the paper on Spence. The newspaper even flew me out to LA a few times to cover Spencer as a big league ball player and Hollywood actor and Carl joined us in LA whenever that happened. Spence introduced us to several major league ball players and famous Hollywood celebrities and it was fun having access to the Dodgers locker room and a couple of television studios.
Carl found himself in a semi-dysfunctional relationship with a woman named Trudy but it eventually failed and for a while she became Carl's Rhonda Olson as he desperately obsessed over Trudy and petitioned friends like me to write to her and plead his case on his behalf. I was surprised that a guy of Carl's intellect, success, prestige and talent could be felled by a woman and that he was sounding much like I did about Rhonda, but I was fourteen in my worst moments and here Carl was at thirty something showing how emotionally handicapped he was on some levels, just like me.
I used some of my father's inheritance to put my mother in rehab (again) and while it failed for her it succeeded for me when I spent a week by the side of a lake with ten other Adult Children of Alcoholics in a long group therapy session working on issues. It was a freeing experience for me as I realized many of my limitations and chains were a direct result of my upbringing in an alcoholic household.
I was able to change my attitudes, behaviors and outlook, break from some of my obsessive traits, and feel better abut myself. I stopped trying to save my mother and rescue/enable my siblings (with money and interventions) and I started to live life for myself.
I started attending 12 Step Adult Children of Alcoholic meetings up to three times a week and I attended group therapy twice a month (ironically, one of the co-facilitators was named Matt Collins (no relation)!) I lost weight, ran two miles most days, and actually had a couple of semi-normal attempts at relationships.
I was finally moving away from my past even while my mother continued to sink with lost jobs, jail time, and time in a half way house but she failed to free her from her disease.
Carl fell into a new relationship with a woman named Lydia and I tried to share my recovery experiences with Carl when I saw how much he and Lydia didn't belong together but Carl really didn't want to talk about his father's alcoholism or how it might be effecting him, including his choice in women.
And then Carl stunned all of us shortly after the Gulf War (Desert Shield/Desert Storm) broke out when he quit his Professor status at the University of California and joined the Army! The guy was willing to leave Academia to go fight for his country and it was one of the noblest, boldest, and courageous things he could have done. We were all caught off guard by his decision but once we heard him talking about love of country and honor and character and doing the right thing we were behind him and supporting him. I was never more proud of the guy as I was when he became a First Lieutenant in the United States Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By that time, I was seeing Estelle, who I met through a friend from work. She was divorced with a six year old daughter, moving to Hillsboro after her marriage failed. I was feeling pretty good about myself and my life and I was ready to finally start living a normal life which Estelle helped me find, getting me back to church and supporting me in my continued challenges with my family.
My older sister and her family had moved into our childhood home to save it from foreclosure after my mother nearly lost it and I was living in a dump apartment until moving in with Estelle and her daughter in a rented house in Hillsboro. I still felt the hole from my childhood, all the missing and loss I suffered and all the never weres. I wish Rhonda Olson had at least treated me as a person and had been kind enough to let me down gently instead of ignoring me and fueling my painful obsession and I wish I hadn't been so painfully shy and broken that I couldn't even carry on a conversation with Carl's sisters during those years.
Carl came home to Blue County after the Gulf War and accepted a job with the Hillsboro Police Department, uninterested in returning to the world of Psychics and Academia. It was an impressive and notable career change to that of service and protection. He also brought Patty home with him, a former Army enlisted soldier he had met in Kuwait and he announced to all of us that the two were actually married which was great news.
Patty was relaxed and care free, spirited and open, something totally new for Carl. One of the first things we all did together was skinny dip in the Blue River under the midnight moon, Patty leading the way naked to the water's edge and I knew she was going to fit right in and accept all of us as we were. Estelle, a relatively shy person herself, stunned me when she was naked a few moments later and who was Carl and I to argue when we joined the two freebirds in the river.
Spencer retired from baseball after a thirteen year career and was concentrating on his acting career which seemed to be taking off. Both Spencer and Carl were there for my wedding day which also happened to be Carl's birthday and when Spencer married some newscaster from LA soon afterward it appeared that all three of us had finally found successful love, happiness and marriage.
I was a step-parent already but Carl and Patty beat Estelle and me to biological parenthood as their first son Scotty was born about six months before our Sarah– by then Carl and I were both 40. Mrs. Collins hosted a wonderful post-birth party in her backyard that summer and I remember feeling as though Carl and I had finally arrived, even though neither of us ever broke free from some of the pain of our pasts but we both learned how to live with them and to move on, grateful for what we had as husbands and fathers.
With Carl back in town, we saw each other frequently. He was my cop source when I needed something for a story at the paper and he came to me when he needed a police favor from the media. We met for breakfast at Johnny C's Diner once a month and got the kids together for family events whenever we could.
Spencer blew into town on occasion, usually to do some fundraiser or some other sort of publicity and we reteamed when we could but Spence seemed less interested in the lives of me and Carl than he did promoting himself and talking about his career. He made it a point to go on the radio whenever he could and he loved to pack the Hillsboro Community Center with audiences whenever he was in the mood to do one of his one man shows or show off some famous actress he was working with and talked into coming to town with him. Still, we managed to make it to Sun Rise Lake on occasion for old times or walk along the banks of the Blue River talking about middle age, marriage and our lives as we now knew it.
JA came home to live with her mother for a while after a relationship went bad but left her pregnant while Becky finally married her long time lover and moved to North Carolina. I tried to be friendly to JA but she seemed to resent me for finally settling down and being happy while her life was rocky and unfilled even with the new baby in her life.
Adam got married a few years later and I was honored to be a part of the Collins Clan wedding party on an island in a Maine Harbor and it was clear to me that Carl the eldest had so aptly taken over the role as family patriarch by leading, mentoring, advising and counseling his family through their various challenges.
Although some of his siblings had endured some personal disappointments and troubles over the years everybody had gotten through them and seemed to be doing well. JA finally seemed to let go of her resentment (she had a guy with her at the wedding which made her happy) and actually had a pleasant and positive conversation with me. To this day, I'm not sure if anybody realizes we slept together once. Carl and Becky never said anything about that Boston trip or inferred that anything happened between us and I was happy to keep it our own personal little secret.
When the second Iraqi war started, Reservist Carl returned to active duty on several occasions and did three separate tours overseas and I didn't see Carl as much as I would have liked with him defending our country but we were living our lives as best we could and every gathering was meaningful and happy. There was happiness (children) and sorrow (Spencer's marriage ended, Estelle's mom died) but we got through those ups and downs and continued to do the best we could with our careers and our families.
Spencer became more distant after his marriage ended, coming home less often and not being very attentive or concerned with important emotional traumas going on here. His brother's wife died after a long struggle with cancer and he didn't make it home for the funeral. A few years later, his brother's daughter was killed in a car accident and Spencer showed up at the last minute in dramatic fashion to upstate the funeral and alienate his brother who never forgave the guy for his callous and insensitive attitude surrounding his family and friends.
Carl and I became surrogate brothers in Spencer's absence to Paul, who was five years older than us but a nice guy and I couldn't imagine how the guy could go on after losing his wife and his daughter. Carl offered great counsel for Paul and we took him out to dinner once a month to get him out of his empty house and to cheer him up. I was struck by the level of Carl's compassion and sympathy. Carl was still his same stoic self in some ways but he also demonstrated much more emotional empathy on other levels. I think his military and war experience made him more compassionate and sensitive to the suffering of others.
Carol often spoke of the Army buddies he met – their mortality, their hope, their fear, and how he had to deal with loss when a few of them were killed in action. I also got to see Carl in action when I covered a few high profiles cases he was working on as a Hillsboro Detective and I was doing stories on them. It was obvious that the Police Department admired and respected Carl and that he was a valued Leader.
Carl seemed much more spiritual in his later years although he said he didn't believe. I was full force back into my Catholicism, teaching high school Catechism and serving as a Eucharistic Minister and I never lost hope that maybe Carl would find his way back to the Church too since he worked with death and perhaps witnessed a miracle or two along the way.
My mother finally (and almost unimaginably) found sobriety after another drunken incident landed her in trouble and this time I told Carl not to intervene. Instead, I petitioned the Court and had her thrown into rehab for the umpteenth time and for some reason this time it took. She was seventy-two years old at the time and we were blessed with her full presence after nearly forty years of alcoholism, rebuilding relationships and trust, enjoying healthy and happy times and having positive family interactions after decades of misery and disease.
We never escape our pasts or the disease. Some of my siblings still struggle with their addictions and demons and even I am never really cured of my own paranoia, hurts, and insecurities caused by growing up in an alcoholic household. I often feel like I'm fourteen again when I'm feeling sad or lonely, the lost kid trying to prove himself, trying to fit in, trying to overcome his past. I never did have a chance to made amends or enjoy reconciliation and forgiveness with Rhonda Olson who moved away after high school and never came home. I see her mother from time to time but there doesn't seem to be much point in saying anything to her although I still have a fantasy that Rhonda will friend request me on Facebook someday!
Carl represented the security and consistency of my past. He was there through it all – the good times and the bad. He knew me and he accepted me at all stages of my life. He knew me as I was and for who I was. It always amazed and comforted me to know that I was Butch and he was Carl no matter how successful he became.
I couldn't concentrate on the baseball game at Beano Field, so I decided to stop in and see Spencer's brother Paul who had also know Carl since we were kids and had spent plenty of time with him in recent years following the death of his wife and daughter.
We sat on Paul's front porch talking about the Red Sox and the weather and the health of Paul's aging mom. Ironically, we barely mentioned Spencer who seemed so far removed from us even in this time of sorrow and need.
Paul was introspective when it came to the subject of Carl and his unexpected death. "I sit here with a sense of loss and the feeling of life's futility that death bestows upon us all," he told me as he nursed a beer and sucked on a stogie in honor of Carl. "Oddly, your first real death is like your first real love - you learn from it and you never forget it. You know what its like to have a piece of you ripped away that's never coming back and is hard to heal."
"But here you are," I said as I watched some dog across the street trying to chase a butterfly. "You're still here after burying your wife and your daughter."
"And you'll still be here after you bury Carl," Paul told me.
I went home and dug out some of Carl's old letters that I had collected and saved over the years. There was one he wrote to me when he was at MIT and I was at Green College: "Don't be bummed out because you have dorky friends like me who don't write. I know you're out there somewhere and I haven't forgotten you. I have learned a lot here and that's what school is all about. Here's some advice for you: keep your eyes on the road and off the street(walkers)!"
There was a letter he wrote to me when we were both struggling in the romance department: "Dear Butch, Thanks for your in-depth analysis of the situation. It's all extremely difficult for me since I've always depended on having another person to count on. Perhaps you've learned to cope. I wonder if you could tell me the secret of how you manage?"
I could only shake my head at that one thinking that Carl was the one who was much more successful and experienced with women, but I guess having sex was them didn't necessarily mean he was emotionally intimate or adapt with them.
A letter from Kuwait during the first Gulf War: "Looks like the real war will start very soon. So far, except for the first few days, it has been very boring. Business as usual. Actually, we haven't lost anybody since the second week. Everyone just wants to get back home, me included. Spencer's mother wrote and said she saw you, Estelle and Mary (my step daughter) at the skating ring. Cassie (sigh) and kids were there too. I'm getting very broody with all these babies around. What do you think if Spence had a kid? It would be interesting to see how he turns out. Like his father? Can you imagine?"
Cassie was Spencer's kid sister and I was always amused that Carl saw her the same way I saw his sister Becky – beautiful and unattainable. Carl often made longing and wanting remarks about and references to Cassie over the years but we took him about as seriously and likely as Carl and Spencer did to me pining about Becky and Rhonda.
Here was another letter from Carl during the first gulf war: "Dear Butch, I've been around the world quite a bit by now and I've met many people of many sorts - generals, professors, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, etc. But of all those, the two most remarkable I have to say are Butch McCall and Spencer Henderson. And you Butch are all the more remarkable because you are sane. I could almost believe that one had to be insane to survive in the world but you seem to do quite well. I admire you greatly for your inestimable wit and charm and want to thank you for calling me 'friend'. See you soon, Carl."
I got a little choked up reading that one. I was honored and moved that a man of Carl's accomplishments, intelligence and skill would still consider me a friend after so many years and after all the people he had met and different friends he had made
Here's a note Carl wrote to me not long before my wedding: "Dear Butch - Congratulations! As it seems you are actually serious about carrying this (wedding) through. As you know, your wedding day is also my birthday and your happiness is as good a present as I could get. It will, as always, be great fun to get Spence back together with us for a lazy Hillsboro Summer. I'm looking forward to it. Take care and best wishes. Your pal, Carl."
And I got another card from him a few days after having breakfast with him at Johnny C's and telling him that Estelle was pregnant with Sarah. "Congratulations on Estelle's pregnancy. I knew you had it in you, Old Man! Patty is pretty far along now and as you know it will be a boy. I am really excited, although it seems unreal still. I do feel satisfied in a way for a number of reasons - I've fulfilled my biological imperative. I've done my duty to carry on the family line and I have learned any number of people who were disappointed that I hadn't done this yet. Mostly though, I'm glad to have the chance to bring a good person into the world and try to teach him to stay good - I don't see too many honest, generous, good natured people around anymore."
I had framed my most prized letter from Carl and hung it on my office wall in our cellar years earlier and I took it off and re-read it again for the thousandth time. The correspondence was undated but I was pretty sure thinking it was when all three of us were still on our own and struggling to find love and romance. Carl had sent a copy to both Spencer and me and he entitled it "Tribute to the Best of Friends"
"This is my sad attempt to put on paper, in a way which you folks (Spencer and Butch) do so well, my sentiments about you guys and your invaluable friendship. I have to confess to being a lousy and irresponsible correspondent in general and deserve what I get - which is no mail lately! So, in one of my fits of inspiration, I am putting pen to paper and paying my respects. The sparking stimulus was a dropped folder of accumulated correspondence thereby spread across the bedroom floor. In rearranging that quite substantial jumble I re-pervused some of the finer pieces you two have sent me and went tumbling down nostalgia highway. I find that the people (most people actually) who do not have friends from their childhood with whom they stayed in touch find it very hard to get close to someone or confide in them. I count myself one f the fortunate few who has not one but several friends whom have seen many stages of my life as I've grown and vice versa. So, not only can I pleasantly reminisce about past episodes which are so numerous, they also understand where I'm coming from and why I might react as I do and even are able to predict how I will behave in a given situation - perhaps even better than I can myself! While it is true that many things in my life have now happened, without their witness, still the old friends understood me better than recent new ones, and the old friends, since they've been around so long already, have time and patience to listen to the bitching or disjointed ramblings. They may even be able to provide a bit of good advice, but at least they listen. I suppose psychiatrists serve the same purpose, but they are a rent-a-friend. They do good business! I get my friends paid in kind with long association and mutual shared experiences. That is real non-inflaticutory currency... I'll still have you guys to cry to and find consolation from. What are friends for, anyway? I've now lost track of where this epistle was leading. Perhaps I never knew in the first place! Except to try and let you guys know how much I appreciate you, the news clips, the letters. They lift up my days like nothing else and help me rest secure in a past life well lived. And I know you will be out there to laugh if I falter in the future, and so I will be able to laugh too. After all, how can anyone take this miserable capricious world seriously? I want you both, Spencer and Butch, to know that you two are a pair of the finest people in the world I could be privileged to call friends. Take care of yourselves, and Thanks! Your Friend, Carl."
I was happy to have that memento of our friendship to cherish forever and I considered it such a great testament to our friendship over the years. What was I supposed to do now that I didn't have it anymore?
I sighed and put the letters away and tried to be present for my wife and daughter as best I could. My step daughter Mary (now married and living in Florida) sent me a nice e-mail expressing her condolences and sharing her memories of Carl and that made me feel better too.
At Mass on Sunday, Sarah lit a few candles for Carl and I said a hundred prayers in my head, praying for Carl's soul and hoping he did enough good works on Earth to get to the pearly gates even if he hadn't been practicing his religion for a while. Estelle and I got a bunch of missionary Masses in Carl's name to help the effort.
Death and grief are the great stressors in life and everybody reacts and responds differently in the aftermath of the news. Old hurts and resentments are either forgotten or magnified and conflicts and issues are either dismissed or renewed depending on the people involved.
When a wife and a mother are involved in the arrangements and other topics there is bound to be problems. Mrs. Collins considered herself Catholic even though she hadn't been practicing for a while and she wanted Religion and Faith involved in the funeral service. Patty was a devout Atheist and insisted Carl was one too, even though I had vivid memories of us sitting in the pew together at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic church either waiting for Mass to begin or to go into the confessional. We also managed to get confirmed together even though we had stopped going to church.
Estelle brought me back to my Faith and I was a believer and I was with Mrs. Collins but I also respected Patty's wishes although I felt sorry for her. I had the hope that Carl was in Heaven happily looking down at us while Patty truly believed that he had been become nothingness which left me feeling sad - both for her and for Carl if it was true.
Patty didn't want any religion to the service and she really didn't want to deal with the death aspect much so Matt and Becky had to negotiate a compromise and consensus agreement between their mother and their sister in law. There were also other issues cropping up, with siblings arguing about who was closest to Carl and re-arguing old fights now that Carl wasn't there to run interference anymore. Becky was the next oldest and inherited the title of Sibling Leader by default. She was also the next favorite in her mother's eyes having lived a happy and successful life with a good career, a strong marriage, and two wonderful grandchildren for Mrs. Collins to adore. JA had always played second fiddle to Becky, constantly in her shadow even as a kid and her life had been a bit more challenging with a child born out of wedlock, a drinking problem dating back to high school, several failed relationships, and many job changes. JA seemed to resent her older sister and there had always been tension between them. Carl had done a good job being a referee but now that he was gone JA was being a little more catty content on renewing the sibling rivalry even though she had been sober for years.
I didn't want to get involved in that family drama so I stayed away and waited for those guys to figure it out. I was feeling my own guilt and sorrow over Carl's death and wasn't emotional tough enough to get caught in the middle. I tried to stay positive with everybody, offering support, encouragement and understanding no matter who I was talking too and avoiding some of the more controversial stuff as best I could.
Paul Henderson informed me that Spencer told him he wouldn't be able to make it home for Carl's funeral which made me feel even more resentment toward the guy. I knew he didn't tell me himself because he really had no excuse not to show up. He was just more interested in his own life than he was being there for the rest of us. It was probably just as well. Who needed him to come in and upstage Carl with his celebrity and fame?
Carl hadn't changed all that much since our days on the hill but Spencer was almost a totally different person, self-serving, self-absorbed, and egotistical to a fault who had forgotten where he had come from and who he was. He was so used to be a fake person (as an actor and celebrity) that he had forgotten how to be a real person and a friend to Carl in death and me in life. With Carl gone, I had nobody left I could really share my true feelings and emotions with. Spencer was too shallow and insensitive to tell how I was feeling and I couldn't dump on any of Carl's family who were going through their own stuff. Estelle was supportive and helpful but I was mostly on my own.
I wrote a tribute column for the paper saluting Carl for his service and honoring him as a friend. It was one of the toughest columns I ever wrote but I tried to capture the word 'hero' in my description and memories of my friend Carl Collins for our readers, letting them know how great of a guy he was and what a difference he made in the lives of so many.
Carl's obituary ran in the morning paper and even after reading it it still didn't seem real that he was gone.
Police Captain. Carl T. Collins, 53, of Hillsboro, died suddenly at Blue County Medical Center on Friday.
In his short life, Carl had three substantial careers: first as a Professor of Physics At the University of California at Berkley, then as a Captain with the United States Army, and finally as a Police Detective with the Hillsboro Police Department. This last career brought him full circle back to Blue County where he grew up.
Following his active duty career, Carl joined the Army Reserve and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a Major in the Army Reserves at the time of his death. Carl was proud to serve and was impressed by the caliber and ethic of the Army soldiers who worked beside him.
He grew up in Hillsboro, lying in the fields at night watching the stars and talking about life. During these years, he cemented his friendship with his lifelong friends, Michael "Butch" McCall of Hillsboro and nationally known celebrity Spencer Henderson of Los Angeles.
Carl's father was Bob Collins of Collin's Furniture, and his mother, Betty, known as "Mother of the Year" among the neighborhood, devoted herself to raising Carl and his five younger siblings Becky, Matt, JudyAnn, Adam and Ron.
Carl attended elementary and middle school in Hillsboro and went on to The Sun Rise Lake School for Boys for high school, MIT for his B.S. degree in physics and finally Green College for his PhD.
Carl leaves behind his wife, Patty, who will desperately miss his perspective on the world, and two sons, Scott and Winter.
He also leaves behind his mother, Betty of Hillsboro; his siblings, Becky of Raleigh North Carolina, Matt of Miller City, JudyAnn of Newark NJ, Adam of Albany NY., and Ron of Falmouth MA; his nephews Ben and Chris, niece Kia; sisters-in-law Charlene of Albany; brother-in-law Dennis of Raleigh, and several aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When Carl's father died, Carl became a father figure for the extended family so for the Collins, his death feels as much like the loss of father as the loss of a son or brother.
Calling hours will be Tuesday at the Donnelly-Nolan Funeral Home in Hillsboro from 3 p.m. until the time of the service at the funeral home. Burial will be at the convenience of the family.
In lieu of flowers the family suggests contributions may be made in Carl's honor to an organization of the donor's choice.
Patty refused to have a Catholic Mass for Carl but compromised and allowed Father Gregory from St. Patrick's to come in and say some prayers during the service. Mrs. Collins gave in and allowed for one wake (calling hours from three to seven) followed by a brief service there at the Donnelly-Nolan Funeral Home where our fathers had been waked years earlier. Carl would be cremated with no burial service planned.
The Service wasn't what Estelle and I were used to as Catholics but it wasn't our ballgame and we tried to be as supportive as we could and offer our prayers for Carl and his family. Having said all that, Carl's service was one of the weirdest wakes I've been to. He was laid out in the front room of the funeral home for those who wished to view him while the family picture boards, flowers and most of the socializing was done in the Chapel at the end of the hall. Most of the nieces and nephews hung out in another room and some people sat around the funeral director's office or in the hallway.
It all worked out okay, but it was confusing because the family was spread out all over the place, although Matt did a good job of standing guard at the casket and being the official reception greeter. Poor Mrs. Collins was running back and forth and all around trying to greet and meet and grieve and mourn.
One of the first persons I saw when I entered the funeral home for the first time was Becky and she came right to me as soon as she was able, embracing me in silent and endless hug and that greatly touched my soul. We just held each other feeling the unimaginable mutual loss of Carl. For me, it was as if I was being cleansed of all the pain, hurt, and disappointment of the past, as if Becky was forgiving me for everything stupid I had ever said, did, or even written. I was no longer that pained kid of the past. I was Carl's friend sharing in his sister's loss and I felt that even in my grief and sadness I was given a chance to heal from the hole in my past thanks to Becky of all people.
"Oh boy," was all I could think to say as I clung to Becky as if I was clinging to the past and the future.
We didn't have to say anything because we both knew we had lost a part of ourselves.
I tried to assist Mrs. Collins and Matt in greeting people and chatting with friends and family and I was stunned when I saw Shelia Kantor enter the funeral home. I hadn't seen her since we graduated from High School. The last I heard she was some big deal publisher in New York City, married with kids.
I wanted to say a few words to her so I asked if we could talk outside for a few minutes. Shelia agreed and we stepped out onto the front porch. She looked great, well dressed and groomed. She had long ago cut off her long hair but it was still colored, and she had it curled above her shoulders.
"Do you remember me?" I teased.
"Of course, Butch," she said. "You and I were probably the shyest kids in the class."
"So, eighth grade social," I sighed. "I don't think Carl ever recovered from that rejection."
"Neither did I," she replied and I was surprised by her comment.
"What do you mean?"
"I know Carl always assumed that my parents prevented their Jewish daughter from seeing him, a Catholic boy but that really wasn't it," she confessed as she took a seat in one of the porch chairs.
"It wasn't?" I asked with intrigue as I sat in the chair next to her.
"I truly regret now that I didn't tell him the truth," she sighed.
"My parents were not the reason I said no," she revealed. "I'm sure they were oblivious...but when my mom happened to plan a trip to New York for that weekend, I took the easy way out."
"Why?" I asked.
She shrugged. "The truth is I was petrified of going with Carl to the Social. I was extremely introverted and it was more than I could handle. I knew he was a nice guy; it wasn't that. I just didn't do relationships easily and it was a scary thing for me. I truly didn't mean to cause Carl trauma...I was selfishly trying to relieve my own. I'm guessing that this is pretty much what makes those middle school/junior high years so painful for all of us."
"Holy Christ," I replied. "You should have told him, Shelia. He quit the church because of you!"
"I also remember seeing Carl at his Sun Rise Lake School for Boys senior prom with his beautiful girlfriend," she revealed.
"Addison," I let her know.
"I remember thinking that I got what I deserved. I was there as the date of the nephew of friends of my parents. I can't remember his name...I'm fairly certain I willed myself to forget. I did not like him and I really did not want to go with him but my parents made me go as a favor to their friends. It was probably my most awkward experience and I wished I was invisible."
"Gee, Shelia, I'm really sorry," I said. "I didn't know any of this."
"Anyway, Carl was wrong to think that what was trauma to him was nothing to me. It wasn't nothing to me but that's little consolation now. You're right. I should have told him a long time ago."
"Well, it really doesn't matter much now," I let her know. "Don't be so hard on yourself."
"I want you to know that I learned from those experiences of not being with Carl," she said. "I tried to encourage my children to take reasonable risks...to push outside their comfort zone. They have all been better at this than I was. As their parent, I have much gray hair to prove it. So many Wonder Years-like lessons learned... So...now I feel bad that you know the truth too late to share it with Carl. I truly apologize if you wish I had kept it to myself."
"No, I'm glad you told me," I said, reaching out and squeezing her hand. "And I know Carl wouldn't have held it against you. In fact, he would have been relieved and pleased to hear what you had to say."
She smiled. "Thanks, Butch. I'm glad you were here so I could tell you."
I watched Shelia walk inside and I knew Carl would have felt great satisfaction and relief to hear her confession but I was feeling good for myself too. Shelia's honesty helped me realize all these years later that all of us were facing our own struggles and secrets during those awkward years of youth.
Old neighborhood pal Jess Gardner also made an appearance. Life had not been all that great for Jess but he was his own worse enemy. He had run his father's tailor business into the ground after taking it over. His marriage fell apart after he fathered a child with another woman. He became a nomad of sorts, drifting from job to job and relationship to relationship, estranged from his children, resented by his siblings, and burning bridges whenever it found himself in situations he couldn't handle.
"It should have been me, Butch," Jess told me as we stood in front of Carl's coffin. "Plenty of people would rather see me dead than him."
"Nobody wants to see you dead, Jess," I assured him. "They just want to see you get your life together. You've hurt and disappointed just about everybody you've ever known but they'd forgive you and trust you again if you could just get your act together."
"Carl did everything right, didn't he?" Jess sighed with admiration. "I did everything wrong."
"Yeah, but you're still here to do something about it," I reminded my old friend.
He nodded and left the funeral home and I hoped that he would be able to find his way.
"So, where's Spencer?" JA Demanded, catching up with me for the first time since I arrived at the funeral home.
"Hawaii," I replied. "I guess that was more important."
"I'll never forgive the bastard," JA vowed. "Some friend."
"Are you okay?" I asked with sympathy.
"My brother's dead, Butch," she stated. "How can I possibly be okay?"
"He was proud of you, you know," I told her.
Her eyes teared up. "I know I disappointed him," she sighed.
"You raised a son on your own. You went back to college and got your degree. You have a good job. You're sober."
"My son is old enough to be on his own now," She sighed. "I'm alone. Even more so with Carl gone now."
"You'll be okay," I told her, giving her a hug.
"Are you going to be my big brother now?" She wanted to know.
"No," I replied honestly. "And I think you know why."
"That was a long time ago, Butch," she reminded me. "You probably don't even remember it."
"I've never forgotten it," I assured her. "You never forget your first time."
She blushed. "Did you ever tell Carl?"
I laughed. "No way!" I studied her for a moment. "Did you?" I asked with worry.
She rolled her eyes. "Of course not. But I think he knew anyway."
"Well, he never said anything."
"He kept everybody's sex life to himself," she said. "I always appreciated him for that."
I gave her a hug and she smiled. "I know you still like Becky better," she whispered.
"I never slept with Becky, JA," I reminded her.
"Yeah, too bad she didn't get drunk that night," JA frowned.
"I don't have any regrets, JA," I let her know.
She went off to greet other mourners and I was overcome by the enormity of the situation. It was a standing only crowd and many of the old neighborhood who were still around showed up to pay their respects, along with at least a hundred cops. It was nice to see some of the old parents too, most of them in their eighties now. When it came time for the service to begin, most of the mourners moved into the chapel and Estelle, Sarah, my mother, Estelle's friend Polly and I were about to do the same but then I realized that poor Carl was laid out in his coffin all by himself so we stayed with him in the front room and listened to the service through the speakers.
Father Gregory did a good job and the Police Chaplin said a few words too, as did Matt who was eloquent and moving in his words of praise, honor and love for his brother, calling him a hero and a genius, but a normal guy at the same time.
I was humbled and honored when Mrs. Collins asked me to say a few words as Carl's long time friend. I had to leave Carl's coffin in the front room and make my way through the standing room crowd to get to the chapel where I was overcome by the emotions I felt as soon as I entered. So many familiar faces from my past, so many wonderful people who had loved Carl like I did and here we were all gathered in one place to say thank you and goodbye.
"We're in high school. Spencer and I drive up to The Sun Rise Lake School for Boys in Spencer's classic Mustang to visit Carl. It's a clear and beautiful autumn night in New England. We walk along the green hilly campus and lay down on the side of a slope to stare at the lake and the wonderful night sky and the bright stars above. They look close enough to reach out and touch. Spencer - the romantic artistic one - sees the stars and recites a sonnet, a poem verse, and sings a refrain from some love song. I look up and wonder if I can see Captain James T. Kirk flying the Starship ENTERPRISE. I tell Spencer and Carl about my favorite Star Trek episodes. Carl - the scientist even then - looks up at the wonderous sky and starts naming off various constellations, points out Venus and Mars, and laments "If only I had my telescope."
But now that I think about it all these years, I realize that Carl just didn't see the stars and constellations and planets when he looked up into the night sky. He also saw US - WE were among his stars. His beloved mother Betty was the Alpha-Omega Glory Star - the brightest one in the sky - the one Carl always looked to FIRST. And the most beautiful stars were his sisters Becky and JA - tap dancing across the horizon and Carl watched those lovely shiny stars with brotherly pride and joy and happiness. The Beacon Star was Matt - the strong star, the unwavering star, the stubborn star. Carl knew he could always count on the Star of Matt to be there - right where it was supposed to be - dependable and anchoring. There were these two baby stars that Carl always admired - the Adam and Ronny stars full of energy and adventure. And then there was that new star that appeared in the sky later, catching Carl's attention and fancy like no other Star could - it was the Star of Love - his wife, Patty. The Star of Love gave birth to two new baby stars - and these two discoveries were the stars that Carl took the most interest and pleasure in. The Stars of Scott and Winter were Carl's crowning achievements - the fulfillment of his Sky of Joy. And those two stars will always carry a piece of Carl within them.
There were other Stars in the sky that were lost - Stars that went Dark or disappeared. The Father Star and several other Family Stars and Friend Stars - but Carl never stopped looking to the heavens - still searching for those Stars long after they were gone. Thankfully, there were other stars to help fill the void - Friendship Stars, in-law Stars, niece and nephew stars, Co-Worker Stars, Police Stars, Army Stars. Carl orbited all of them - or was it we the Stars were orbiting Carl - the Super Nova in our lives - bright and amazing. We were Carl's Universe as much as he was ours.
There was also the HOME Star. As much as Carl accomplished in his amazing life, wasn't it wonderful that he came home to us again, drawn by the star showing him the way back? Anybody know where this comes from? - - -
The second star to the right
Shines in the night for you
To tell you that the dreams you plan
Really can come true
The second star to the right
Shines with a light that's rare
And if it's Never Land you need
It's light will lead you there
Twinkle, twinkle little star
So I'll know where you are
Gleaming in the skies above
Lead me to the one who loves me
And when you bring him my way
Each time we say "Goodnight"
We'll thank the little star that shines
The second from the right
And now we find ourselves looking toward those same Stars that Carl spent so much time admiring and studying, that same sky, the same heavens that Carl searched with interest and intent. Somebody told me that they actually saw a Shooting Star the night Carl died flashing across the sky. Could it be? Was that Carl heading for the Heavens? Soaring out of our lives? Don't worry. Just keep looking at the stars on those bright nights and know that Carl is looking back at us - he's the light that shines in our hearts and memories because the shine of LOVE never fades. I don't know if Carl was a fan of Emily Dickinson - but her words seemed appropriate here:
"Follow Wise Orion
'Till you lose your eye
He is just as high."
If Carl and I were lying on that hill on the Sun Rise Lake Campus right now looking at the stars, I would quote Captain James T. Kirk in the final scene from Star Trek VI (which Carl and I saw together by the way) The UnDiscovered Country when Commander Checkov asks for a course heading. Kirk responds: "Second Star to the right and straight on to morning."
I swallowed hard as I folded my remarks and left the podium, unable to look at the mourners - especially Mrs. Collins, Patty and Becky - knowing I would probably lose it.
A Military Color guard folded the flag and taps were played. As always, it was "taps" that got to most of the mourners - that's when Sarah lost it and when the service was officially over and people began to leave, I had to console her. We waited around and were among the last to leave, consoling with family.
The reception was in Patty's backyard with a professional cater providing the food. The yard was full of table sand chairs borrowed from the VFW and we ate into the dark. We had taken two cars so Estelle and Sarah left at about 9:30 to escape the bugs but I stayed talking with the family and having some closure, but it was definitely tough for all of us. Sitting there with Carl's siblings and their children made me smile. Life would go on and I was comforted knowing that I was not alone as we all dealt with our loss in our own way. It was different for all of us - as mother, as wife, as sibling, and as a friend - but we shared the loss of Carl in our own way together and I hoped that knowledge would give all of us some solace as we continued to grieve, mourn and survive in our own ways as best we could.
We laughed and told stories and recalled old times and I watched as Becky and Patty parented their children and Mrs. Collins enjoyed her grandchildren and I smiled knowing that we were going to be okay. We would carry on for Carl and be there for Scotty and Winter as best we could.
I was one of the last to leave the reception that night mostly because I just couldn't bring myself to leave. I know once I was gone that this magic moment this special time together would be over forever and we would be forced to go on alone in our individual grief and mourning. I wasn't sure if I could do it but I knew I had no choice and as I walked to my car I glanced up at the stars and thought of Carl.
The next few days were mind numbing and unreal. We were supposed to get back to our normal lives but it would never be normal again. I stopped by Patty's house a few times to say so long to the family members as they left one by one - Ron, Adam and Charlene, and of course Becky and her husband.
She gave me another hug and again we didn't say a word, just clinging to one another as sister and her brother's friend saying goodbye. It would never be the same again.
"Well, now the hard part starts," I told Patty when we were alone in the house.
"What do you mean?"
"Once everybody sends their sympathy cards, makes their donations, brings the food over, attends the service and checks in once or twice, they go back to their lives," I warned. "And you're left alone on your own to try to get through your days even though Carl isn't here. You have to experience all the firsts - first birthday, first anniversary, first holiday - and miss him all over again. And while everybody else will seem to have moved on, you will still be missing him."
"That doesn't sound like much fun," Patty admitted with a frown. "I don't know how I'm going to do this."
"One day, one hour, one minute, one second at a time," I advised as I gave her a hug. "Call if you need anything."
I drove JA to the train station the next day and she asked me if I thought Carl was in heaven.
"Yes, I do," I answered without even thinking about it.
"I do too," JA replied with relief. "That makes me feel better."
We were silent for a few miles. "Did you ever tell Estelle that we slept together?" JA asked.
"Of course not," I replied. "Never tell your spouse about your old affairs."
"It wasn't an affair, Butch," she reminded me. "It was a one night stand."
"Only because you wanted it that way," I said.
"Yeah," she admitted, glancing out the window. "I was pretty messed up back then."
"I was too."
"Maybe I should have given you a chance," she said, tossing me a look. "You turned out okay."
I smiled. "It took me a while to find myself," I said. "But your brother never gave up on me."
"I'm glad you're doing okay," she said.
"Well, I'm not doing so well now," I sighed. "I just can't fathom Carl being gone."
"You said at the wake that you have no regrets," JA recalled. "Did you mean about me or about your life?"
"You and that night," I clarified. "I have a hundred regrets about my life but one thing I've learned is that you can't look back," I told her. "You live your life, you learn from your mistakes, you do better when you can, you value what you have, you appreciate your friends, and you love your family."
"I definitely should have given you a chance," she said with a smile.
I helped JA with her luggage when we arrived at the train station.
"Thanks for everything, Butch," she said. "You've been a part of this family for so long that I guess I always took you for granted. Thank you for being such a good friend to my brother."
She leaned up and gave me a meaningful smooch on my lips and disappeared into the station and I smiled at all the memories of her.
I wish I could say that I moved on in the days, weeks, and months that followed, but I didn't. Carl's death was sudden and his absence immediate. Gone was the security and consistency of my past and of Carl always being there. He was my buoy that let me know that it would be okay but now it's not because he is not here and I am no longer whole. There is still a buzz about him around town months after his death because he was admired, respected and loved and there is not a better testament to his impact than that.
Even now, months later, folks at the paper or around town recognize my name and say "Oh, you knew Detective Collins. God we miss him" which makes me smile and feel sad at the same time.
I still search for answers that are not there. I had a drink with Carl's brother Matt and the still AWOL Spencer's brother Paul recently and Matt spoke of the stages of grief and coming to terms with death and loss. He spoke of his father and how he was still trying to come to terms with that loss but he seemed much more reflective and positive about dealing with Carl's death, grateful to have been his brother and forever admiring all that Carl was and did. It was a needed positive lift for me because one of the struggles I've had since Carl's death has been finding an outlet to express and process my emotions and grief. I've tried to be positive and a support for Patty and Mrs. Collins but they are not the ones I can dump my stuff on when they are carrying their own unimaginable burdens.
The one guy I would have turned to has been incapable and unavailable to offer any real emotional support or understanding and that has left me feeling totally alone. Spencer and I were already having issues prior to Carl's death but the void and absence has only been magnified in the aftermath of this loss and I am adrift. Somehow, I think Carl would have been much more supportive of me had it been Spencer who had dropped dead.
Carl's loss is hardly my first death experience. My grandparents, my father, my nephew, good friends and classmates and other family members have gone before but for some reason I am having a difficult time moving on from Carl's death. Becky pointed out that it is unusual for childhood friends to continue their friendship into adulthood and perhaps that is one reason it has been so life changing for me. I knew Carl since the first grade and he was a part of me all these years. He never asked for anything. He never really expected anything. He just accepted things as they were and he was happy with what he had, including his friendship with me. I believe he died happy and that gives me comfort. Whatever regrets I have with Carl – our shared stoicism that prevented us to really talk about dead fathers and lost loves – I can live with because I know Carl accepted me as I was just as I accepted him as he was. And that's okay.
I will remember the strength of Matt and the power of Becky and the pain of Patty and Mrs. Collins and I will try to be a good friend to Carl by honoring him and remembering him for the person he was and what he meant to me. But I'll never stop missing him.