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There is no death like a child's death.
This piece of wisdom occurred to me as I sat in a pew at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, listening to the presiding priest describe the dead seventeen-year-old stretched out in the gleaming white casket before him. My daughter, Jennifer, sniffled quietly beside me.
Any death is a tragedy, of course. The person was, after all, someone's grandfather or aunt or husband or mother or whatever. But one thing we all have in common is that somewhere, sometime, we were all someone's child. The younger the deceased at the time of death, the more acute the pain of the loss.
The reason that it's so painful, I suppose, is the wasted potential. The younger the person is, the more likely that he would have gone on to do great things in his life. Cure cancer. Fly in space. Be a good citizen and parent. But those who are snatched from us prematurely never get the chance. Whenever we hear of a death or read an obituary, the first thing we look for is the deceased's age. If someone dies at age ninety-four, we tend to smile ruefully and think that he had a good run. But the younger someone is the more likely that we'll shake our heads and mutter about what a shame it is. He was so young. She left three kids in school. He hadn't even graduated high school yet.
The potential unfulfilled in this case belonged to seventeen-year-old Victor Madrigas, a classmate and friend of my daughter. What made this death even more painful were the circumstances: a suicide by overdose. Add in the mortal sin of self-murder to the devout family's shock and loss, just in case the situation wasn't tragic enough.
My ex-wife Becky—my first ex-wife—had asked me to chaperone Jennifer and two of her friends to the funeral on that sunny Thursday morning. Becky and her new husband each had week-day commitments and couldn't chauffeur the girls, who were taking a day off from school. None of the girls had her license yet, despite all having reached or being on the cusp of reaching that all-important milestone of the sixteenth birthday. Good thing I was available. Of course, being unemployed, my only real daily commitment was SportsCenter.
I hadn't known young Victor, but the funeral truly depressed me. I thought that my former career as a detective had hardened me against death. You see death as often as I have, even the deaths of young people, you build up emotional calluses. I saw a lot of young kids lying on sidewalks or in crack-house closets, a pool of dark blood drying black beneath them. I delivered the bad news to a lot of parents. I thought I had become immune to any emotional connection with the victims or their families.
But there I was, blinking my eyes and swallowing a hard lump in my throat. Maybe it was my distance from the job. Maybe it was seeing my daughter so upset. Maybe it was a "there but for the grace of God" type of empathy. But, more likely, it was the close, personal relationship I now had with the grim reaper. Over the past nine months, Death and I had become good buddies.
The service ended and I loaded Jennifer and her friends into Becky's Lexus, loaned to me for the occasion with strict instructions "not to scratch anything." My battered pickup was left at home, its cab too small to comfortably accommodate us all. I flipped on the Lexus's headlights and pulled out into the long, slow procession that led to the cemetery. If we were going to have to inch along like this, at least we were inching in style.
If anything, the graveside service was even more depressing. The sight of the coffin being slowly lowered into the dirt eliminated any abstraction. This was a real death. Victor was being buried. For many of Victor's friends, this was their first funeral and it hit them pretty hard. When it was over, I stood off to the side under an old live oak while Jennifer consoled her friend Gwen, who was sobbing uncontrollably.
A man approached me. His black suit was neatly buttoned and his eyes were red. As he stepped up next to me I realized who he was: the deceased's father.
"Excuse me," he said. "Are you Mr. Garrity?"
"Yeah," I said and shook his hand. "I'm really sorry."
He thanked me and introduced himself as Ben Madrigas. "Can I ask you something?" he said, running a hand over his close-cropped graying hair.
"My daughter Carrie, Jennifer's friend, tells me that you're a private investigator."
"Sort of. I don't have my official license yet."
"But you used to be a cop, right? A detective?"
"That's right," I said.
Madrigas paused, took a fortifying breath. "I want to hire you." My eyebrows went up. He continued. "Victor didn't kill himself. I don't care what the police say. He wouldn't. He didn't. I want you to find out what happened."
I waited for a moment before responding. "I understand how you feel," I said, forcing myself to go slowly. "It's perfectly normal to feel that way. But the police are professionals. They know what they're doing. You don't want to waste your money hiring a guy like me."
But he was already shaking his head. "No. No. They're wrong about Victor. I know my son." He produced a business card from his coat pocket and pushed it into my hand. "Come by my office. Monday morning. Okay?"
"Look, Mr. Madrigas—"
"Monday morning. My secretary will set it up. Okay?" He fixed me with his sad, bloodshot eyes, and I knew that there was no way I could argue with the guy just a few minutes after he had buried his son.
"Okay," I said, pocketing the card.
He nodded. "Good. Thank you. I'll see you Monday." Then he turned and rejoined his family at the graveside. I sighed and looked up into the cloudless Florida sky. I'd go see him Monday and politely decline. Nobody wants to believe that his child committed suicide. That kind of thing happens only to other people.
I dropped off my daughter's friends and returned Jennifer to the house she shared with my ex and her husband Wayne, the orthopedic surgeon. I reluctantly switched the Lexus for my dented F-150 and headed out. Looking in the rearview at the Lexus, it occurred to me that not only did Becky drive a Lexus, my other ex-wife, Cam, drove a Porsche. The fact that both of my ex-wives drove luxury cars while I rumbled around town in a battered pickup probably had some sort of poetic significance. I could possibly have figured out exactly what it signified if I had cared enough to dwell on it. But I am far too shallow for that type of introspection, which might partly explain why I have two ex-wives in the first place. Besides, I was hungry, and I don't think well on an empty stomach. Instead, I found a Bob Seger tune on the radio and cranked it up. The music covered the pinging of my truck's engine.
I pulled out onto Orlando's main artery, I-4, and shoved my way into the unrelenting traffic, forcing a spot between two cars that tried their best to refuse me entry. A nice benefit of driving a crappy truck is a complete disregard for dings and scratches. I checked my watch. No time to go home and change out of my one and only suit, but I had a few minutes to grab a sandwich before I needed to be at the meeting.
I couldn't go in there with an empty stomach. Some of those people were in a very delicate state. The last thing they wanted to hear while they bared their souls was my stomach growling like a garbage disposal. So I pulled into a nearby deli, ordered a pastrami on rye, and tried not to drip mustard all over my tie.
For the second time in a day, I found myself sitting in a church contemplating death. Although I was now technically in a Sunday-school classroom and had moved from the Catholic St. Joseph's to the Lutheran St. Luke's, the general environment and subject were the same.
Both Victor Madrigas's funeral and the cancer support group I now sat in were about God and Death, not necessarily in that order. For young Victor it was about the tragic death that had just occurred. For me and the other survivors sitting in the church classroom, it was our mortality on the agenda. Death was the invisible guest in the center of the room. While none of us ever acknowledged him, we all knew that he was there, one leg crossed comfortably over the other, patiently waiting for each of us, a knowing smile on his colorless lips.
"It's just so hard, y'know?" a fortyish woman named Francine said. A dozen of us sat in a general circle in the church's folding chairs. Francine wiped a tear from her cheek. She had dyed blond hair and about fifteen extra pounds. "I mean, I have to be strong for my kids and my husband and pretend that I'm fine, that I'm keeping it all together. If I don't, they don't know how to handle it. They kind of fall apart, y'know? But inside I'm scared to death.... I'm not keeping it all together. Sometimes I just need someone to pretend for me." Another woman, a black woman about the same age—Barbara, I think—leaned over and embraced Francine while she tried unsuccessfully not to cry.
The group facilitator, Jerry, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "I think we can all relate to what Francine is talking about. The need to be strong for everyone around you while, at the same time, needing those around you to be strong for you. It's tough. It really is." I liked Jerry. How could you not? He was professionally trained to be empathic and likable. He was youngish, early thirties, with almost shoulder-length hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. He looked like a narco cop I used to work with. I always liked that guy, which was probably also part of why I now liked Jerry. "You may have noticed that we're one short tonight," Jerry said and then paused. The whole room froze, the air suddenly heavy and still. Nobody fidgeted in his seat. Francine and Barbara disengaged and sat back in their chairs. No one breathed. We had heard these types of announcements before. "Andrew won't be coming back to the group. He's entered hospice care. If you want to send a note or some flowers, just let me know afterwards and I'll give you the address."
Andrew was in his late sixties, a retired army colonel with some service in the military police. He was a quiet, soft-spoken, tough old bugger with a shiny head. Rather than fret about his hair loss, he'd gone on the offensive and shaved it all off himself. Said he felt like he was back in the army. He liked me because, like him, I used to be a cop, before we both got our new gigs as Cancer Patients. I was sorry to hear that he was now in hospice care. That meant his time was short.
On the other side of the circle, a woman named Debbie caught my eye and offered the slightest of sympathetic smiles. This was only her third meeting and she didn't know Andrew as well as I did. I offered an equally slight nod of appreciation.
Jerry looked around the group. "Why don't we take five or ten minutes and then regroup to wrap things up, okay?"
We all stood awkwardly. Some headed for the restrooms, others for the supermarket cookies and Diet Cokes. I chose a cookie.
"Hi, Mike." I turned and saw Debbie. She took in my suit. "You look nice. How are you?"
I nodded while chewing the bite of cookie in my mouth. Debbie was about my age—early forties—and pretty. Dark brown eyes. Smooth, pale complexion. Small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth that gave her face character. She wore a red kerchief around her head, a fairly common sight in the room. The chemotherapy drugs were a lot better now but some people still suffered hair loss. It bothered the women more than the men. They talked about it a lot in the group sessions. In their eyes, the loss of their hair seemed somehow to diminish them and their femininity. It obviously wasn't as bad as a mastectomy, but it was a surprisingly close second. Chemo-induced hair loss wasn't something I thought about very much. Here was a sad twist for the ladies in my support group who, like Debbie, had lost their hair: Despite the chemo, my hair never did fall out (except for my preexisting alopecia, which continued to surrender territory to my forehead with French-like consistency).
However, Debbie hadn't complained. She appeared to take her hair loss in stride and had even selected a bold red scarf. Her eyebrows were drawn in brown, so I presumed that was what her hair color was. I tried to picture it and decided that it would look nice. Maybe shoulder length. This was only her second session, but we had chatted amiably during the previous week's meeting and spent an enjoyable hour or so over coffee afterward. She had leukemia and had not yet shared her prognosis.
I finally swallowed the bite of cookie and smiled at her. "Good. I'm good, all things considered. How about you?"
"Just a little tired. But I feel okay." Her eyes dropped from my eyes to my mouth and she grinned.
"What?" I said.
"You have..." She gestured with her hand and then reached up and rubbed my chin, brushing away a large cookie crumb. Her hand lingered on my face for a second too long, an extended moment that sent an involuntary jolt of excitement through my brain. I didn't know her well and her touch was innocent enough, but, for that one instant, it felt surprisingly intimate. She removed her hand.
"Thanks," I said.
She smiled. "Can I interest you in coffee again this week? My treat."
"Sure. That would be nice." We chatted for a couple of minutes before Jerry called the group back. We wrapped up the session, gave each other the usual encouragements, and headed out into the night.
I got Andrew's hospice information and followed Debbie into the parking lot, refusing to acknowledge the invisible grinning Death who tried to block my way.
Excerpted from Prodigal Son by Thomas B. Cavanagh
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas B. Cavanagh
Published in 2008 by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Minotaur
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher