100 Days of Love
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
art credit Georga Morgan-Fleming
I wake to the silence of a Saturday morning. Sandy has yet to return home from her 24 hour shift at Boston Medical Center. Gee and DJ, our two children, remain fast asleep. Our home is hushed. Flipping the pillow, I enjoy the coolness of the underside, resting peacefully in bed. The sing song of two birds, perhaps in love, slips through glass. A summer breeze presses against windows. The century-old house moans.
Gee and DJ are early risers so this sliver of quiet will not last. I make my way downstairs to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, my last remaining drug of choice. As coffee brews, Rifka the wonder cat, purrs against my leg. Rubbing the area between her ears, I soon work my way down the bridge of her nose. She cranes her neck as we enjoy each other’s company.
I wonder if Mom’s walking about her own kitchen, 200 miles away, in New Jersey. The clock tells me it’s still early. Turning to the cat I whisper, “I’ll give her a few more minutes before calling, OK?”
The cat does not respond.
Of the many unexpected pleasures surfacing during adulthood, the weekly phone conversations with my parents rise to the top. It’s a rare weekend that does not include a good 15-30 minute call with Mom or Dad. Sometimes both of them grab an extension as we chat together in what Mom calls our ‘party line’. Calls featuring both Mom and Dad tend toward a lighthearted banter. One of the three members of our party line becomes the focal point, receiving a healthy dose of teasing or a tag team of persuasion as the majority of two cajole the target into addressing a looming issue.
Calls with Mom offer a free flow of topics as we plumb emotions, financial strategy, and the state of affairs among siblings. We then turn attention to my two children; her first grandchildren. We end each call chatting about Gee and DJ. It’s a guaranteed high point as we share a deep sense of love and commitment toward them.
Calls with Dad are about his work, questions about my work, and the recent activities of the kids. His calls are about tactical things like tasks, events. There is no plumbing of emotions. Briefer than calls with Mom, calls with Dad usually end with a story in which the recipient is invited to sit back in silence and enjoy a good yarn, many of which have been repeated over the years. Still, they’re our stories and they bind us together, spanning the distance between father and son.
With coffee made and a tick of the clock, I call New Jersey. Mom’s an early riser and I suspect she too is enjoying the peace and quiet of early morning. The phone cord is extra-long and I stretch it out as I make my way to the rear kitchen window to survey our small Somerville backyard. Resting my face against the glass, I feel the coolness of early summer upon my cheek. As the phone rings, I spy scattered toys. I check the status of Mr. Bag, a wayward plastic grocery bag stuck high in our neighbor’s tree.
Each morning before school, Gee and DJ munch plates of fruit as they check the status of Mr. Bag. He tells us which way the wind is blowing. During breakfast, we nod thoughtfully as he shares insights. We suggest to each other guesses as to what he was thinking and his reaction to the recently departed Mrs. Bag, whose sudden leap from her branch caused quite a stir during one such breakfast.
I sip my coffee as Dad picks up the phone in New Jersey. Even on a Saturday morning, he’s all business, “Morgan here.”
“Hey Dad, it’s me, Glenn. I called you, so I already know who you are. How ‘bout trying ‘Good morning’ when you answer, huh?”
He grunts as I continue, “Well, anyway, what’s up with you? How you doing? How’s Mom feeling?”
“Good. Good, Glenn. I’m just getting ready to head to work. Mom’s good. She’s sleeping now. She had a treatment Thursday and she said it hits her hard a couple days afterward so I’m downstairs in the kitchen making a fruit salad for when she wakes up. I want her to sleep. She needs her rest.”
200 miles to the north, I frown. “Did you go to chemo with her?”
“What? No, no. I was working. She goes first thing in the morning. And she, ah, she told me she likes to go alone and then come home and have tea before she gets that metallic taste in her mouth. She says after that her tea tastes awful.”
I twist the cord around my finger. Slowly, I push my face against the window. I measure my words, “OK, and what are you up to today? Are you doing anything with Mom? Anything fun?”
“Huh? No, ah, after I make breakfast, I’m heading to the city. We’ve got a training session running with the Fire Department and I want to be there during the debriefing session. Everyone’s coming in on a Saturday and…”
By now the long phone cord is pulled taut. I press harder against the glass, tilting my face to look down at a dead bug trapped in the windowsill. I interrupt, “Dad, let someone else handle the debrief or whatever it is. Stay home with Mom and hang out with her. She’s sick. She’d like it if you stayed with her.”
“No, no, I can’t Glenn, this is important. We have to get this down. We’ve got an attack response exercise coming up with the city and I want my team to be up on protocol. We’ve…”
“Hey, Dad, Mom’s important too! Don’t you get that? Jesus H. Christ. Your goddamn wife has cancer and you’re going in to work on a Saturday! Listen to yourself. Just listen to yourself. Come on, she doesn’t deserve this crap.”
He responds with silence.
“Listen Dad; Mom has a fucking growth on her spine and it’s getting bigger. Fucking bigger! Don’t you get it? My god, how much time do you think you’ve got left with her?”
My heart pounds. I feel my pulse thumping the drums of war against the window pane, “Answer me, Dad! How much time, huh? A year? Maybe two? Five, tops?”
He listens in silence, absorbing the salvo. This is not the way I talk to Dad.
I take a deep breath. During my rant I had pushed my head so hard against the glass I cracked the window.
“Dad, listen. In five years do you want to look back and wonder if you should have spent more time with Mom before she died? Do you? And if you do ever ask yourself that question, what do you want your answer to be? ‘Oh, yeah, my wife had cancer but fortunately it didn’t impact my fucking work schedule.’ Is that what you want, Dad?”
“Well, is it? Dad, she’s suffering in silence not because she wants to fight alone but because you leave her to fight alone. My god, what the fuck are you thinking, Dad?”
I wait for it; a staccato defense or a simple click of his receiver. The only times I had ever yelled at him like this were during teenage brawls which usually ended with me being smacked or choked or thrown out the front door head over tea kettle.
His silence slices across my chest and I respond with nukes, “You know, if she were an employee of yours you’d be at every goddamn chemo session. Every fucking one of them. How about you treat your wife as good as you’d treat an employee, Dad? How 'bout that?”
I stop. His labored breathing pours through the receiver.
He sighs, “You’re right, Glenn. I know it. You’re right, goddamn it. I just don’t know what to do. She says she’s all right but she’s not. I … I don’t know what to do.”
“Jesus Christ on a crutch, Dad, give her what’s most precious to you. Give her some of your time. Just spend your time with her.”
“Yea, you’re right, Glenn... That’s right. Time … I can give her that.”
“Dad, look, I’m sorry I yelled and got all pissed off. But this is important. This is not some exercise where you get to debrief or whatever you call it when you’re finished. This is the real thing. When it’s over she’s gone."
My ammunition depleted, I lower my voice, "Look, I don’t know what else to say. You get it. I gotta go. If you see mom, tell her I called and said I love her. And good luck with your briefing.”
I turn away from cracked glass to return the phone to its cradle.
“Glenn? You still there?”
“Yeah, Dad, what?”
“Thank you, Glenn. Thank you.”
I put some tape over the crack in the window and make a second pot of coffee thinking I’m gonna have to tell Sandy I cracked the window with my fucking head.
Morning slips into another Saturday routine with the kids. With nothing special planned, we once again manage to have fun together on the subway, at the park, and now back home in Somerville before afternoon naps.
High above, the sun slides across the sky.
Mom calls sometime in the afternoon with her weekly check in. Always too chipper, she jumps into our call. “Glenn, how are you? How are Gee and DJ? Tell me. What did you do today? Tell me all about it. I want to hear it all!”
As Gee and DJ nap upstairs, I explain the kids’ fascination with Mr. Bag and the sudden departure of Mrs. Bag.
Mom interrupts, “Mrs. Bag is like me, then, huh? Leaving with no notice!”
I stammer, “Jeeze, Mom, I hope not. That means Dad is Mr. Bag and there is no way he’ll know how to hang on if you bolt!”
She cackles, “You got that right, Glenn. But, anyway; go on. I interrupted you. Please tell me what the kids are thinking about.”
I share this morning’s ride on the Red Line. Back and forth from Davis Square to Park Street back to Alewife and then to Davis on a trip to nowhere except the present.
“And, you Mom, what are you up to?”
She beams, “Your dad surprised me and made breakfast for us. He ended up skipping a big event in the city. We’re going to dinner and the movies tonight. On a date!”
She sounds like a school girl.
“Can you believe it? He agreed to see Moulin Rouge with me. Can you imagine your dad sitting through that?”
Unprepared, I cover the receiver so she can’t hear me.
“Glenn, are you OK? Are you choking or something? Where’d you go on me?”
I wipe my eyes and clear my throat, “Huh, no Mom, my coffee musta gone down the wrong tube.”
I fake a cough and chime back in, “On a date, Mom? That’s great. Well, you know my advice on dates; hold out and don’t be too promiscuous.”
She laughs as I struggle to keep myself together, “Um, Mom, DJ is fussing and I better go check on him, OK? When the kids wake up I’ll call you and you can chat with them. Sound good? I love you, Mom. Have fun with Dad.”
And she did.
She did have fun.
For the rest of their days together my father and mother dated, as she reported during our weekly phone calls.
Over time, Mom filled me in. They went out to dinner on week nights. They went on walks together. They went away on weekend trips and walked in the sand and on weekends they rested in bed talking. And they held hands when they had nothing to say to each other. They called more frequently, more often with both of them on the phone.
They lived in love.
Their renewed love lasted a total of just under three and a half months as Dad went to work one Tuesday morning in September, responded to an incident, and did not return.
He left Mom with 100 days of love.
Mom talked about that time for her remaining five years as among the happiest, most enjoyable of her 62 years.
And, just over a year after Dad followed in the footsteps of Mrs. Bag, Mom explained during one of our calls that when she is alone in her house with no friends, or children or grandchildren, she simply brews a cup of tea, sits in the den, closes her eyes and releases her warmest memories to fill the silence with the living chapters she shared with Dad, the last of which she liked to call 100 Days of Love.