Right To Die - Jeremiah Healy

Right To Die

Jeremiah Healy
1991

In memory
of
Dennis Schuetz

=1=

PART OF IT STARTED AS A DARE, S0RT 0F. I was thinking
how Massachusetts is crazy about giving its citizens days off for
events it's not really observing. For example, the third Monday in
April is known as Patriots' Day. Supposedly, the Commonwealth closes
down to honor those who served in war. Actually, it just excuses us
from work for the Boston Marathon. I once warned a friend who'd
called me from Texas, a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, that he'd have a
tough time arriving here on Patriots' Day. Awed, he said, "Y'all
have a holiday for your football team?" In fact, Suffolk County
alone sets aside March 17 for the Wearing of the Green. The Irish
pols neutrally dubbed that one "Evacuation Day,"
commemorating the momentous afternoon the colonists kicked the
British troops out of Boston harbor. I've never mentioned Evacuation
Day to the Texan; I'm afraid of what he'd think we were celebrating.

Nancy Meagher said, "God, it's freezing!"

She was standing in front of me, my arms joined
around her. Or, more accurately, around the tan L. L. Bean parka over
bulky ski sweater over long johns that she was wearing. On a brutal
Saturday evening in early December we were waiting with forty
thousand other hardy souls on Boylston Street, across from the
elevated patio of the Prudential Center, for the lighting of the
Christmas tree. A fifty-foot spruce is given to the city of Boston
each year by the province of Nova Scotia. The gift commemorates
something else, but without a masking holiday, I can never remember
what it is. A man on an accordion platform was adjusting a camera and
klieg lights. Several hundred smarter folks watched from inside the
windows of the Pru Tower or the new Hynes Convention Center. The
smell of sausage and peppers wafted from somewhere near the Paris
Cinema.

Nancy said, "Unconscionable."

"Sorry?"

"It is unconscionable not to start on time when
it's this cold."

Hugging Nancy a little tighter, I looked around at
our immediate neighbors. High school and college kids, not dressed
sufficiently for the temperature, stamping their feet and stringing
together ridiculous curses in the camaraderie of youth. Parents more
my age, rubbing the mittened hands of their kids or wiping tiny red
noses with wads of tissues pulled from pocket or handbag. A couple of
cops in earmuffs, standing stoic but watchful. The crowd was well
behaved so far, but occasionally you could hear coordinated shouting.
If the Japanese restaurant behind and below us could have put up sake
to go, they'd have made a fortune.

The weather really afflicted Nancy, but I was wearing
just a rugby shirt under my coat and over my corduroy pants. Some
Vikings must have come over the wall in my ancestors' part of County
Kerry, because I rarely feel the winter.

To take Nancy's mind off it, I said, "You know,
this is where the finish line used to be."

"The finish line?"

"Of the marathon."

No response.

I said, "The Boston Marathon?"

She cricked her neck to frown at me. Black hair, worn
a little longer since autumn, wide blue eyes, a sprinkling of
freckles across the nose and onto both cheeks. "Not all of us
are day-labor private investigators, John Cuddy."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I've lived in this city all my life,
and I've never once seen the marathon in person."

"You're kidding?"

"It's too cold to kid."

"But the marathon's a holiday."

Nancy shrugged off my arms. "When I was little,
traffic was too snarled to come over here from South Boston. When I
was in law school, I thanked God for the extra day and studied."

"Nance, even the courthouse closes for the
marathon. What's your excuse now?"

"I never knew anybody stupid enough to run that
far."

"It's not stupid."

"It is."

"Is not."

She almost smiled. " 'Tis."

" 'Tain't."

"I suppose you think you could run it."

"I suppose I could."

"John, you're too big."

"Six two and a little isn't too big."

"I meant you're too heavy. The guys they show on
TV are string beans."

"One ninety and a little isn't that heavy.
Besides, I'd train down for it."

"John, anyway you're too . . ."

Nancy tried to swallow that last word, but I'd
already heard it.

I said, "Too what?"

"Never mind."

"Too old, is what you said. You think I'm too
old to run the marathon."

There was a feedback noise from an amplifier. Some
"older" men were fiddling with a tall microphone on the
patio under the tree. Then a male voice came over the public address
system. "On behalf of the Prudential Center, I would like to
welcome you to — "

The rest of his comments were drowned out by the
swelling cheer of the crowd.

Over the roar I said into Nancy's ear, "Now it's
down the street a couple of blocks."

"What?"

"I said, now it's down — "

"What is?"

"The finish line of the marathon. It used to be
just about where we're standing. But when Prudential decided to scale
back its operations here, the John Hancock agreed to sponsor the race
and moved the finish line down almost to the Tower." I pointed
to the Hancock, a Boston landmark of aquamarine glass now known more
for its sky deck than for the four-by-ten windows that kept
sproinging out and hurtling earthward just after it was built.

Nancy didn't turn her head. "Fascinating. And
still stupid."

At the mike a priest delivered a longish invocation.
I let my eyes drift over to the Empire Insurance building. My former
employer. I don't think Empire ever sponsored so much as a Little
League team.

The priest was followed by our Mayor Flynn, who was
blessedly brief in his remarks. Then the premier of Nova Scotia began
an interminable speech that I couldn't follow. Nancy huddled back
against me.

About ten feet from us, four guys wearing Boston
College varsity jackets started a chant. "Light the fuckin'
tree, light the fuckin' tree."

I laughed. Nancy muttered, "You're
contemptible."

Finally, Harry Ellis Dickson, the conductor emeritus
of the Boston Pops Orchestra, had his turn. He introduced Santa to
much squealing and wriggling among the kids, many of whom were
hoisted by dads and moms onto shoulders. Then Harry led the crowd
through several carols. "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Joy
to the World," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."
Everybody knew the first few lines, most of us dah-dah-ing the rest.

Between carols Nancy sighed. "We've become a
one-stanza society."

Two slim figures in oddly modified Santa outfits
danced up the steps of the patio.

Nancy said, "Who are they supposed to be'?"

"Santa's eunuchs."

Again she shrugged off my arms. "I take it back.
You're beneath contempt."

After a few more carols the star on top of the tree
was lit, setting off a reaction in the crowd like the first
firecracker on the Fourth of July. The long vertical strips of lights
came on next. Then, beginning at the top, sequential clumps mixing
red, blue, green, and yellow flashed to life, more a shimmer than
individual bulbs, until the magic had hopped down the entire tree.

We finished with a
universal "Silent Night," the crowd breaking up while the
last notes echoed off the buildings.

* * *

"Maybe a half each left?"

Nancy shook her head as I held the bottle of Petite
Sirah poised over her glass. She had traded the sweater and long
johns for a puffy print blouse that brought out the color of her
eyes. We were sitting at the dining table of the condo I rented from
a doctor doing a program in Chicago. Only a couple of blocks north of
the Pru, it was a short but cold walk from the tree-lighting
ceremony.

Cold in more ways than one.

Nancy said, "I cooked, so you clean."

I corked the wine and cleared the table of the
remains of a pretty good meal of lamb chops with mushroom-and-sausage
rice. My praising the food, even its color and arrangement on the
plate, hadn't done much to warm Nancy up.

From the kitchen I said, "We can talk about it,
or we can brood about it."

No reply.

I loaded the dishwasher and sponged down the sink and
counter. Back in the living room, Nancy was sitting stiffly on the
burlappy sofa, using her index finger to swipe tears angrily from the
sides of her eyes.

"Nancy — "

"Just shut up, okay?"

I stopped dead.

She said, "I hate to cry."

I believed that. As an assistant district attorney,
Nancy had seen an awful lot. A person who cried easily wouldn't get
through one of her typical days, much less the couple of years she'd
put in.

I said, "Is it one of your cases?"

Shake of the head.

"Medical? Physical?"

"No, dammit, it's you."

"Me?"

"Yes."

"My face? My breath? My — "

"Goddammit, John. It's . . ."

I walked toward her. Not told to stop, I sat next to
her.

Nancy turned sideways to me, took a breath. "Look,
it's not easy for me to talk about my emotions. It never has been."

"Hasn't affected--"

"Don't interrupt, okay?"

"Okay."

She took another breath. "My dad died when I was
little, John. Three years old. They didn't have a tree-lighting
ceremony in Southie, but even if they had, I didn't have him to swing
me up onto his shoulders to watch it. I really don't remember him,
not from real life. Just his face in photos, the pictures Mom kept.
Holidays, especially Christmas, were hard on her because she did
remember him from real life."

I thought back to my holidays with Beth, then to the
period after I'd lost her to cancer.

"Once Mom died, my last year of law school, I
didn't like the holidays anymore. All I'd had of the early ones was
Mom, trying her best to be both parents at once. The later ones, I
was always kind of propping her up, keeping her in the spirit of the
season. When I rented the Lynches' top floor, they tried to include
me in their stuff, but it was awkward, you know? I wasn't anybody's
niece or girlfriend or anything. I was just the poor tenant with no
place else to go."

"And then?"

"I met you. And for the first time, I thought I
had somebody to share the holidays with. Really enjoy them, equal to
equal, nobody making up for anything. I've been looking forward to
the tree-lighting for weeks, then you behave like a freshman on his
first trip to the big city."

I thought she was overreacting, but I said, "I'm
sorry, Nance."

"No. No, you're not. You don't even understand
what I mean, do you'?"

"I understand. I guess what happened in my life
just turned me a different direction as far as the holidays go."

She sniffled.

I said, "Maybe you just got under my skin a
little over the marathon."

A sour face. "You big turd."

"Finally, a term of endearment."

She punched me on the arm. A little hard, but now
playfully. "That rugby shirt doesn't even fit anymore."

Standing, I pulled it over my head, whirling it by a
sleeve and letting it fly across the room.

Nancy looked at my pants. "Never cared much for
those corduroys, either."

Leaning forward, I braced my hands on the back of the
sofa to either side of her head. "Lady, are you trying to get me
into bed?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On how much harder I
have to try."

* * *

Afterward, we lay in the dark under just a sheet. The
window was open a crack, the wind whistling through. I was on my
back, Nancy on her side, cuddled up against me.

"John, you ever think it's odd, the way we talk
about it?"

"Can't be helped. Catholic upbringing."

"No. I don't mean us us. I mean people in
general. We call it 'making love'."

"As opposed to . . . ?"

"I mean, it just sounds so mechanical, almost
like a label for some manufacturing process."

"It's worse than that, Nance."

"Why?"

"We tend to say, 'I want to make love to you.' "

"Yes?"

"Using 'to you' makes it sound like a one-way
street. Provider to customer."

"How does 'I want to make love with you'
sound'?"