An Empty Envelope
 
 

Mary McIntosh
 
 

© 2007 by Mary McIntosh

 

Photo of a father teaching a son how to fish.

This is a story of what happened one Sunday afternoon.

Off in the distance the sound of a bell woke me up, causing the Sunday paper to fall off my lap.  For a moment I thought I was back in London and had been dreaming of hearing Big Ben strike the hour.  I struggled to return to reality to quiet this incessant ring.  But it was not the tolling of Big Ben.  It was the shrill ringing of the telephone.

To be alone in the house, and able to take a Sunday afternoon nap was a rare treat.  With four children I was raising without the help of a husband, these quiet moments seldom arrived in my hectic life.

“Hello,” I said, still not fully awake.

A voice I didn’t recognize asked, “Is this Mrs. McIntosh?”  Forgetting that I was on the phone and he couldn’t see me, I nodded my head.  “This is the West Valley Police. There’s been an accident.  You’re needed at the West Valley Hospital as soon as you can get there.” I hastily scribbled down the directions he gave me.

Wonder what that’s all about.   I’ve never even been in the West Valley section of Los Angeles.  Maybe it was just someone playing a trick on me. But who would do that and why?  It didn’t sound like one of my boys. The only one who might tease me was Greg, but he was off by himself hiking in the mountains this weekend.  Oh my God.  Something must have happened to Greg, I cried.

*****

A few years earlier Mac and I had separated.  I had tried to understand and compensate for his continual drinking, but it had become too much for me to tolerate.  While he was still in the Army, he drank in moderation, but as soon as he retired and discovered it was difficult for him to find any kind of a job, much of the money he received for his retirement, was used for purchasing this necessity of his life.  Our refrigerator was never without a six-pack of beer, though often I had to scrounge and be creative in putting together a meal for the family.  The more he drank, the more abusive he became.  Eventually I obtained a Legal Separation, which included the stipulation that Mac’s  retirement check would come to me for the children, and each month I’d send him a small part of this, c/o General Delivery at the post office in Thousand Oaks, CA.

Though it was much less stressful with him out of the house, I still had the worry and responsibility of paying all the bills, trying to feed three growing, and always hungry, boys, and dressing a teenage daughter to conform with her peers, all on a very limited income.

*****

I put the phone down and ran to my closet. What should I wear?  Should I put on a dress?  How about that pink one I had recently bought – no, that’s much too fancy. What the hell am I doing? I need to get to the hospital as quickly as I can. They won’t care what I’m wearing. Quickly I grabbed my well worn, but comfortable, black slacks and threw on a white sweater that later on I noticed had spots on it.

Clutching my purse and the car keys, and jotting a note for the other kids, I raced out of the house and into the car. Oh, no, it wouldn’t start.  Scrunch, scrunch, the engine sounded.  I turned the motor off and sat for a moment trying to keep calm.  I tried again. This time it jumped into action and I started off toward my destination.

As I drove on the freeway, my thoughts dwelt on Greg. I could see him as the little blonde boy who loved to color pictures; who, as an avid reader, devoured an encyclopedia long before most children were interested in such a voluminous book; and, when still a young man offered to walk with his young sister to school on her first day.  I remembered the child who laughed a lot and loved life. I shook my head.  He was no longer that little boy; he was a young man of 22.  But I now saw him with a broken leg being carried on a stretcher; I saw him writhing in pain; I saw him dead. I sobbed.

As I headed toward the Valley, I tried to keep within the speed limit, even though I was in a hurry to find out what had happened. Cars whizzed by me, their stereos blasting.  Rock and roll music blared from one red convertible filled with young men.  “Shut the damn noise off,” I shouted.  No one was listening to me.  Didn’t they realize my world had just been shattered?  Didn’t anyone care? Why was it taking me so long to get there?

The policeman had told me it would probably only take about fifty minutes to get to the hospital.  Already, it seemed like hours since that shattering phone call. Finally I saw a large white building on the right side and turned off the road into the parking lot, now almost completely filled. Sunday afternoon would be visiting time at the hospital. Grabbing my purse, I jumped out of the car and ran toward the nearest entrance.  I had no idea where to go. The lady at the reception desk was busy, and I knew I couldn’t wait for her.  I had to see Greg.  I ran down the hall where I found a nurse’s station.

“Please, can you help me?  A policeman called and said I had to come here right away. I think something must have happened to my son,” I sobbed.  After asking a few questions, she quietly directed me to the room across the hall.

As I entered, a gargantuan man stood up and came toward me.  Even in my despair, I remember thinking he had to be the largest man I’d ever seen. Dressed in a brown business suit, he was huge, tall, and broad shouldered, but with such a kindly face.

“”Mrs. McIntosh?  I’m Detective McCrae.  There’s been an accident.  We believe the deceased might be your husband.  He was DOA.”

My knees buckled.  His long arm dangling by his side caught me before I fell.  It wasn’t Greg who was dead.  It was that bastard, Mac.

“What happened?” I managed to ask.

The detective led me to a chair.

“Sit here for a few minutes. There’s no hurry,” he said kindly.  “Apparently he fell dead in the street and was brought in here.  As soon as you are up to it we’ll need you to identify the body.  We hope you are the right person to do that. The only identification he had on him was an empty envelope with your return address on it.”

Anger was mixed with sadness – anger that he had put me through the last few hours when I thought it was Greg who might have been dead; and sadness that his life had ended this way – “an empty envelope.”  Those three words said so much about his later life.

“Are you up to identifying the body now?” the detective asked so gently, a little while later.

“Yes.” I replied.

We walked across the hall together into a white sterile-looking room, which contained only a couple of chairs, and in the center, a table on which was a large lump covered with a hospital green sheet. A nurse stood by holding a glass of water.

Detective McCrae moved toward the head of the table and quickly pulled the sheet down off the face. Dirt was on the body’s forehead and the face was caked with dried blood.

“Yes, that’s him. That’s my husband,” I mumbled, trying hard to choke back a sob.

As I turned away from the lump I felt a great sadness. I had once loved this man, and he was the father of my four children.  I sat down for a few minutes.  The nurse offered me the glass of water, which I took.  I was okay, I said.

I knew it was time to leave. Someone else would now take care of things - the hospital, the coroner, the mortuary, the church.

Quietly, driving home, I began to cry – not the racking sobs I’d shed on my way up to the hospital, but rather just sorrowful tears for the many good memories I had.  I recalled the day we’d first met when I saw him standing in the doorway of the NCO Club at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, so lean and tall, and oh so good-looking.  I’d gone there to spend the weekend with my brother.  I met him on a Friday evening, and before I left on Sunday, he’d proposed.  I was in heaven!

A small smile crept onto my mouth and tears fell down to join it, as I remembered the night we celebrated our engagement and danced down Broadway together at midnight.  It’s a wonder we didn’t get hauled in for being a bit “loony.”  I again smiled at the recollection of the Halloween party where we’d won first prize. Mac dressed up in one of my evening gowns, wore a hat with a veil, semi-high-heeled shoes, and gloves to cover his manly hands and I, as a bent-over old man with white beard, was desperately hanging on to my last “fling in life.”  None of his friends knew who we were.

And I thought of the times when, as a family, we’d go fishing off the bank of a river.   How patient Mac was while showing one of the boys how to bait his hook.  Then we’d all have a picnic together.

I will keep the good times close to my heart, I thought, and I will tell the children to try to remember them, too.

As I was enjoying listening to the soft music on my car radio, I felt a great relief for both of us.  Mac’s mind and body had been consumed by alcohol, which eventually had caused his death.

 Much of the hurt and bitterness that had engulfed me for so many years was now wiped away.  When I’d gazed on my husband’s face, now quiet in death, I knew he was finally at peace and so, too, was I.

Mary, now in her late 80s, is busily writing a memoir based on a five-year diary she kept as a teenager, from 1935-1939, and which she still has.  It’s hard work, for even though all the events are listed, though occasionally only “some days nothing much happened” (the title of the book), it is difficult remembering so long ago how she felt and what her reaction was to certain events.  Mary is fully convinced that all this writing is helping keep her mentally alert and active.

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