The call from the upper Midwest came in around 4:00 pm. “Does anyone there know a gentleman named John?” Oh, did we ever!
“John” grew up in Charlestown. I don’t have to add “Mass,” do I? Charlestown doesn’t need a publicist, although Dennis Lehane has helped its notoriety with novels like Mystic River. John carried with him the Irish Mafia law of omerta (it even starts with an “o”!). In his little case, it was sad bordering on pathetic.
For at least his early adulthood, John had evidently had what most of us would consider “a life.” Granted, there wasn’t much money, there were no children, and he and Mary lived in an apartment, not a house. But John had a janitorial job for the MBTA, decent pay and great benefits, and despite all the shortcomings he was aware of (including being short), the girl he had fallen in love with when they were going to St. Marks Catholic School had become his wife—and she acted like she adored him! Oh, John’s life was full, and rich, and happy!
Then the doctor told them the diagnosis. And seven weeks later Mary was gone. And beginning with the cab ride home from the funeral, John fell to pieces.
A little man with the remnants of a childhood speech impediment doesn’t get a lot of sympathetic attention while drunkenly bouncing off walls in Charlestown. The more John thought of having lost Mary, the hotter were his tears, the more he drank, and the more he hated himself. He didn’t care that he created a public spectacle of himself– in a perverse way he actually enjoyed the sneers and the laughter and the derision. If his heart was being ripped out of his scrawny chest, then let the searing pain increase! Then there was a blinding moment of concussion when he fell from the curb into the path of a bus—and then all went quiet for a while.
When John came to, he slowly realized that parts of his little body were rigid, that the odors of the room were antiseptic, and that he had an oxygen clip under his nose and two different tubes in his arm. He detoxed during his stay at Mass General, but without the steady dosing of Old Boston, Thunderbird and Carling’s Black Label, the pain in his soul far outweighed that of his broken hip, fractured femur and dislocated shoulder. He didn’t know how to say the words that would tell his care givers that he was broken in two on the inside, and that molten lead pain only increased as they weaned him off his medications and he got clear. And they wouldn’t even let him smoke!
Mass General discharged John to a publicly supported rehabilitation center. After a couple of months of physical therapy it was decided that he could walk out through the doors under his own power. So on a sunny September afternoon he left the facility and took the T to a second floor apartment in public housing that The Church had managed to secure for him. Then, on a sunny morning a few weeks later, John made a bad choice that would make sure he got to experience pain and ache and loneliness for the rest of his life.
While bearing the constant, internal tearing apart, John became a master of deceit. He adopted the costume of Sneering Little Tough Guy. As he had concluded that he deserved his fate, he soon became expert not only denying to himself that he was in any discomfort, but also not displaying to anyone else that he was suffering. He found that covering that pain with a nasty, bantam rooster attitude left him in peace to continue the suffering he wanted. And the perfect end piece to this puzzle was when his addled brain tricked him into seeing his beloved Mary in the face and spirit of a renowned neighborhood tyrant nicknamed Mad Jane.
“MJ” soon moved into John’s apartment and into a golden opportunity to inflict pain in privacy– an apartment provided by the very man upon whom she got to wield her special and demeaning violence. MJ was mean, controlling, cunning and opportunistic. When some of the neighbors began showing signs of interest in what might possibly be happening to John, she hauled him off to a homeless facility in Boston. Eventually, several months and shelters later, they made their way to Bangor, Maine. Having secured power of attorney over John, she now had the means to drop him at the shelter while she herself took a cab to a small apartment several blocks away.
It took us awhile, much longer than maybe it should have as I look back, to realize what was really going on with John and Mad Jane When we did find out, John went to M J’s and the two of them got on a bus heading south then west. Several months later we got the phone call. Mad Jane had beaten him with the firewood he’d been trying to split, beat him seriously into unconsciousness and buried him under the woodpile. An anonymous call had tipped the local cops, who in turn had involved human services.
I think death wishes can be real. I think John had taken Mad Jane and hallucinated his dear Mary. And I know that we will never fully understand the behavior of some human beings, but we should appreciate that people behave for reasons, sometimes beyond anything we could imagine ourselves.