Authors: Dorothea Benton Frank
Dorothea Benton Frank
For all the brave men and women who serve our country in every branch of the armed forces, especially in Afghanistan
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! Yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! Can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
—Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”
Meet Jackie McMullen
Meet Annie Britt
: Annie’s Parting Words
This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland . . .
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Gold-Bug”
Meet Jackie McMullen
will tell you
one thing that I have learned about life in my thirty-something years that is an absolute truth: nothing and no one in this entire world matters more to a sane woman than her children. I have one child, my son, Charlie. Charlie is barely ten years old, and he is the reason I get up in the morning. I thank God for him every night before I go to sleep. When I was stationed in Afghanistan, I slept with a T-shirt of his wrapped around my arm. I did. Not my husband’s. My son’s. It was the lingering sweet smell of my little boy’s skin that got me through the awful nights while rockets were exploding less than a mile away from my post. I would fall asleep praying for Charlie. And, if I had known what would happen, I would have petitioned harder for my husband, Jimmy’s, safety in those same prayers. I should’ve prayed harder for Jimmy.
Now I’m driving south on I-95 while Charlie sleeps, slumped in the seat next to me, and I wonder: what the hell was the matter with Jimmy and me? Why did we think we had the right to be so cavalier about what we did for a living, pretending to be bulletproof and fireproof and thinking nothing could happen to us? Sure. Me—an army nurse doing three seven-month tours in a war zone—and Jimmy answering the firehouse alarms, rushing out to save what? The world? No, my Jimmy died trying to save a bunch of low-life crackheads in a filthy, rat-infested tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He fell to his death when the floor beneath him collapsed. How do I tell my Charlie to make any sense of that when I can’t make sense of it myself?
Ah, Jimmy McMullen, there will never be another man like you. Nope. Not on Earth and not in Heaven. You were one of a kind. Here’s to ya, blue eyes, wherever you are.
I took a swig from my water bottle.
I was pretty certain that wherever Jimmy was couldn’t be too far away because I could feel him, watching over me, over us. And when the world grew still, deep in the night, I could literally feel enormous regret gushing from his gorgeous big Irish heart, regret about leaving us. But I’d never believe it was his fault for one minute. He’d been stolen from us, ripped out of our lives like a bad tooth. Jimmy’s death was another victory for the Dark Side. Plain and simple. At least that’s how it seemed to me. I mean, I was not some crazy religious fanatic at all, but I believed in God. And the God I believed in would never sanction such a senseless, violent death for such a righteous man.
a righteous man who loved his church and never missed Sunday Mass unless he had a fever of a hundred and three. On his days off, he took Charlie and his toolbox over to the rectory and hammered loose boards back in place or unclogged a slow draining sink or put a coat of paint where it needed to go. Father O’Quinn would ask Jimmy if he could help him out on Saturday at nine in the morning, and Jimmy would be there at eight thirty with a bag of old-fashioned doughnuts and a disposable cardboard tray, two large cups of coffee wedged in the holder. That’s what he did in his free time when he wasn’t taking Charlie to a Yankees game. That was just the kind of guy he was. Faithful to his family, his church, and his word. And generous to a fault. You would’ve loved him. Everyone did. Charlie idolized him, absolutely idolized him. And Charlie’s despair was the cause of the deepest, most wrenching concern and worriation I have ever known. No matter what I said or did, I just couldn’t seem to bring him around.
It was completely understandable that a child of his age would be traumatized by the loss of a parent, even depressed for some period of time. But the changes in Charlie were alarming and unnerving. After two months or so I kept thinking he would somehow make peace with our new reality because life goes on. He did not. Jimmy’s Aunt Maureen was the one who made me see that something had to be done.
“This child is severely depressed,” she said. “He’s not eating right or sleeping well. We’ve got to do something, Jackie. We’ve got to do something.”
“I know,” I said. “You know, in Afghanistan when a child loses his father he’s considered an orphan. They’re sent to orphanages, where the boys outnumber the girls about ten to one.”
Aunt Maureen looked at me, unblinking, while she quickly calculated the whys and wherefores of such a radical policy—without a husband the woman sinks into poverty, without government intervention they would literally starve, little boys are valued more highly than the little girls . . . what happens to all the little girls? Human trafficking? She knew exactly what I wasn’t saying.
“Dear Heavenly Father, there’s so much wrong with the world.”
“You’re telling me?”
“You must have seen terrible things.”
“Yes. Yes, I have.”
“Well, God bless you. And look, Charlie has us, such as we are. At least he doesn’t have to worry about being sent to an orphanage.”
“I thank God for that.”
“Amen,” she said. “Amen.”
Aunt Maureen, unmarried and in her sixties, was Charlie’s secondary caretaker while I was overseas. There’s no question that she was cut from the McMullen cloth in terms of understanding and fulfilling obligations, but unfortunately she didn’t exude the warmth that seemed to flow endlessly from the rest of Jimmy’s clan. Not even a little bit. She wore sensible shoes, no makeup, and was . . . well, in a word, dowdy. And prim. Yes, Aunt Maureen was prim, a throwback from another time when domestic life was governed by a hard-and-fast set of rules. Rules that had consequences when they were not followed to the letter. She’d always been that way, seemingly uninterested in the opposite sex, the same sex, or sex. Or in having her own family. Maybe the idea of a house filled with a gaggle of noisy children frightened her, which even as a parent of only one child was not a concept beyond my grasp. Every woman I knew with a husband and little ones would have said that raising children is as scary as the day is long. But putting aside her appearance, demeanor, and domestic aspirations, she was a good woman. A fine woman, in fact. Each time I was deployed she appeared like clockwork, standing in the hallway of our apartment with her heavy suitcase and a shopping bag of treats for Charlie, comic books and other things, ready to do her duty. And she always brought me a bag of things she knew I’d miss: dried fruit, power bars, Snickers, and two pounds of my favorite kind of coffee, ground for drip.
She gave Charlie her all; it’s just that some pretty shallow waters flowed in the river of her emotions. It didn’t matter because Charlie understood her nature and he was fine with it. They had an arrangement. When Aunt Maureen was in residence, she slept in Charlie’s room and Charlie slept on the pullout sofa in our living room. Jimmy cooked dinner, and Charlie washed and dried the dishes with her. Jimmy made lasagna, meat loaf, and chili like no other, but show me an FDNY fireman who couldn’t cook, right? That’s what they did down at the firehouse when they weren’t fighting fires—they cooked. They cooked and they ate, they watched television and ate snacks, they lifted weights, and then they ate some more. I used to tell him that his ladder company should have had its own show on the Food Network. Or at least a guest spot on
Throwdown! with Bobby Flay
. Can’t you see all these good-looking, ripped guys showing Flay where the bear goes in the buckwheat when it came to meat loaf?
We had a good life, Jimmy, Charlie, and I. We owned a co-op in a stone building in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. It was built in the 1930s, nice but not grand and near where Jimmy’s parents used to live. I mean, the kitchen was reasonably new but there was no room for a dishwasher because we chose to use that space for a washer/dryer stack. I had a germ thing about using washers and dryers that were used by everyone else in the building. Who knew what nasty horrors they put into them? There’s no need to paint a picture. Funny, the laundry service on base in Kandahar was fine, except for my disappearing underwear, but a public washer and dryer stateside made me gag. My mother has this weird idea that living in Brooklyn is like that movie
Fort Apache, the Bronx
. But then she has a lot of weird ideas.
Anyway, our kitchen had a nice big window, and that seemed like fair compensation to us. I could watch the birds in the morning while I scrambled eggs or flipped pancakes, and that always made my heart a little bit lighter. The living room also served as our dining room, and our air-conditioning consisted of window units. We had two bedrooms and two bathrooms and the use of a small backyard, which was a luxury.
The day that the terrible news came, Aunt Maureen was there in a flash. She picked Charlie up from school and stayed with him until my mother arrived. Then they kept vigil until I could get home on bereavement leave. Aunt Maureen had called my mother and asked her to come at once. To her credit, Mom was literally in my living room six hours later—not an easy feat considering she lived nearly a thousand miles away.