Thursday, April 16, 2020, 8:45 a.m.
Jessica: Bad news first
Shirley and Jake Tyson were just a normal couple. As I listen to their daughter talk about them on the phone, it’s clear their family was the center of their lives. Shirley quit her job as a legal secretary to stay home with their three children. Jake was an EMT who sometimes had crazy hours. When retirement became an option, he checked out of his old life and signed up to usher at the baseball games. Shirley, a bigger fan than Jake, was already seating people on the third base side.
“So when did your dad decide to go back to driving an ambulance?” I wipe unexpected dampness from my eyes, surprised that a story can touch me the way this one does.
“A friend of his asked. And, if you knew my dad, you’d know he couldn’t say no. He’s—He was—68 years old, with high blood pressure and a bum knee. He could have said no but he didn’t.”
I scribble down her quote, hoping she’ll be able to read it later. “A man who loves his community?”
“Both of them spent their lives devoted to their children first and their city second. Everything else came after that.” The voice on the phone fades and I have to wait for her. If I’m getting choked up, the daughter must be falling apart.
She never really does. Instead, she sniffles loudly and says she can’t talk anymore. I promise to be respectful of her parents in my story.
When the call ends, I put my phone down and stare across the kitchen, overwhelmed by her loss and remembering when I was afraid of facing such pain. A little over a year ago, I went with my mother to see the oncologist. I woke up with a pain in the pit of my stomach that took weeks to go away.
The idea I could lose my mother was unthinkable and yet when the doctor said the C-word, the unthinkable became possible, even likely. I can still see the anguish on my mom’s face, the way her eyes closed as if she could block out the bad news, and then the transformation as she looked the young, confident physician in the eye and said, “OK. What do we do now?”
Jake and Shirley’s children didn’t have that shred of hope.
Shaking off the melancholy weighing her down, I pop a cartridge in the coffee pot before checking on Lori’s reading assignment.
“How’s it going, Lori?”
“Fine.” Lori’s face is resting on her left hand while she chews the paint off the pencil in her right.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m just tired.” Not her usual chipper self this morning.
We go over her assignment, a dull little story about how a flower grows. She’s filled in all the blanks and circled all the vocabulary words on the list. Much as she has loved to read from the moment she figured it all out, I know Lori thinks these assignments are drudgery.
A sunbeam crossing the living room floor glows golden and inviting.
“Let’s go take a walk. I think we both need to get some fresh air.”
Before we can shrug on our coats on this raw, cloudy day, my phone jangles.
“Hi, Dan.” I can’t even shake the sadness from my voice.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Just a story.” I motion to Lori to go back to her work for a moment and she scraped her feet across the living room floor to her seat at the dining room table. She’s not happy that she has to wait.
I drop onto the sofa and rub my hands across my eyes, still tingling a little. I know we’re not supposed to touch our faces but the coolness of my fingertips is soothing.
“What are you working on? Not that restaurant worker feature?”
“No, Claire called me last night with one of the covid-19 memorial stories we’ve started running. The daughter of a couple who died called me early this morning, before she had to go to work.”
I told him all about Jake and Shirley, their devotion to one another and to their three girls and their shared love of baseball, about how she supported his decision to help out former colleagues at the fire department and how they died of the virus on the same day, neither knowing the other was gone.
“I’ve been writing all these pieces about how people are getting by despite the lockdown but this…” I’m not usually at a loss for words so I struggle to finish. “This is serious, isn’t it?”
There’s only silence on the other end of the call.
“Dan? Are you there?”
I hear him exhale heavily. “Yeah.” His voice is small, quiet.
“It’s even worse,” he says. “It just got personal.”
I pause to take that in.
“Personal? What do you mean?”
“Are you talking about Jake and Shirley Tyson?”
“Yeah, why? Do you know them?”
“I met them when I started working at the paper. I was covering baseball then, well, sort of. I was the intern so I did what the reporter told me to do. I wrote about the Tysons that summer. Shirley had been ushering for a couple years but it was Jake’s rookie year. He was filling in on his days off.”
“When they found out I didn’t have family around, they invited me to their house for Fourth of July and then Labor Day and Thanksgiving. I had to work on Thanksgiving so having a place to go for dinner was really nice. I got to know their daughter Ellen.”
“That’s who I talked to this morning.”
“She’s their oldest. Looks just like her mother and laughs just like her father. Really nice.”
“Sounds like you had a crush on her.” I hope a little gentle teasing will make him feel better.
“Yeah, I guess I did. But she was already married with a couple of little kids.”
It grows silent again and a couple of agonizing minutes go by as I try to figure out what to say. Finally, Dan beats me to it.
“I haven’t seen them since last Thanksgiving. I was supposed to go over for Easter but they called a few weeks ago to say they were canceling dinner. I didn’t know Jake was back at work.”
The pain returns to the pit of my stomach, such an awful sense of loss. I almost regret mentioning the story to Dan, but he had to know, especially since he seemed so close to them. He might have seen them this past Sunday if it weren’t for the virus.
His grief cuts through me and any ill feelings I ever had for him wash away. All I want to do is find a way to comfort him.
“Lori and I are going for a walk. You and Rex want to meet us at the park?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve got a call in a half hour. And I’m not ready for the meeting.”
“It might make you feel better.”
Lori and I hurry into our coats and rush out the door. She skips along the sidewalk, excited to see Rex.
I’m not sure how I feel. Part of me is as excited as my daughter, although it’s Dan I want to see. Part of me wants all this sadness to go away and never come back. It’s time for our little stay-cation to be over. And another part of me knows we have to stay home so stories like Shirley and Jake’s stop happening.
Thursday, April 16, 9:15 a.m.
Dan: Sweet solace
I don’t want Jessica to see me like this. We’ve only met in person one time and it was awkward at best. I imagined how a second meeting should go down and it wasn’t me having red eyes, shaken from the loss of my favorite two people in my adopted city.
Ellen called me right after Jessica hung up to tell me there wouldn’t be a funeral. But she wanted me to know before I read it in the newspaper.
“We’ll have a memorial service sometime but who knows when,” she said.
“I’ll be there,” I promised.
“And Ellen? If there’s anything I can do…your children must be heartbroken.”
I hear a little sniffle. “Yeah. We all are. My mother told me to stay away after she broke the news that Pop was driving the ambulance. I had a fit with her about that but she said he felt obligated.”
“And he brought the virus home?”
“Exactly. They both had every old person’s disease so he shouldn’t have been out—no, I can’t criticize my father for being a good guy.”
“And he was one of the best.”
“Thanks, Dan. He loved you like the son he never had.”
That’s when I couldn’t stop the tears.
I have a great dad. He’s the one that taught me to be strong and conscientious, loving and loyal. Jake could never take his place and yet I looked forward to our meetings at the stadium, our dinners in their backyard, holiday get togethers when I couldn’t go back to see my own parents.
It felt weird to call Rex, to see him light up and wag his tail as I hooked on his leash. Shirley was crazy for my big ole dog, always insisting he come with me, always taking him for a walk while everybody else finished setting the table and opening cold beers.
I don’t know how I’ve gotten to the park. I don’t remember crossing the street, and that’s a little frightening.
Lori scrambles over to us as I push open the dog park gate. I unhook the leash and Rex nearly knocks her down in his excitement to greet her with his big pink tongue.
I force a smile and shake off the grief that has turned my thoughts into a muddle.
“You okay?” Jessica looks up at me with her expressive brown eyes as she takes my hand. I’m comforted by the gesture, but surprised, too. It’s been a month since I felt another human being’s touch. I can’t crumple the way I want to. I can’t cry again. Not in front of my co-worker.
“Yeah.” It’s all I can say. I gaze into my co-worker’s eyes, trying to remember we are work colleagues, not just some random people. We have to be professional, respectful.
“Come sit on the bench.” She pulls on my hand and looks at her daughter. “Lori, you be nice to the dog.”
“I will, Mommy.”
“They’ll be all right, won’t they?” A look of concern darkens her eyes for a moment.
I nod. “Sure. He’s big but he’s gentle.”
“Come on.” Jessica nudges me toward a rickety bench, covered with green lichen and moss, shaded by a thick-trunked oak, or maybe it’s a maple, that’s beginning to fill out with leaves.
I can’t remember the last time I sat on a park bench with a girl. It’s been a while, college I guess. Yet it feels natural to sit beside Jessica and wrap my arms around her.
She settles in beside me and her warmth seeps into my very soul, soothing me, easing the pain, reminding me that what Jake and Shirley had was something I could have to.
The question is, I think as our breathing begins to slow and harmonize, is this the woman I need in my life? As she leans her head on my shoulder, the answer just may be, yes.
I loved the way the Tysons teased one another, encouraged one another, shared everything. They didn’t bicker the way my parents did. My mom and dad were tough, opinionated people who liked to be right. They loved me. They pushed me to succeed. They kept our family together in some really tough times. My sisters and I grew up independent and confident and we stayed close.
I was missing them when the gentle nature of Jake and Shirley attracted me and drew me into their orbit of sports, family and community. Jake saw me as a kid with a chip on my shoulder, eager to prove how good I was. He sat me down after a dog of a game. We were losing 1-0 when the skies opened and drenched us with rain. They called the game and my assignment, getting player reactions after the ninth inning, was scuttled.
Sitting at a bar across from the stadium, he ordered me a beer and listened while I complained about not getting the job I wanted, the assignments I thought I deserved. I wanted so much more than I had.
Jake listened, nodding with understanding and sympathy, something even my old man wouldn’t do. Dad told me to be grateful. I was in a place where I would get everything I wanted. It was true but I was a twenty-three-year-old ambitious SOB.
Can I tell Jessica about Jake and me? I’m still trying to prove that, I guess, so I decide not to say a word to her.
I sigh as reality occurs to me: I’ll never see him or Shirley again. And without a word Jessica puts her hand in mine.
No, I’ll never see them again but I might, I just might, have found someone who may love as gently, compassionately as they loved.
I squeeze Jessica’s hand as I watch her little girl chase my big ole mutt around the park. Strange how such sweetness can come in a moment so dark.
Next Monday: CHAPTER 15—Jessica: Surrounded by romance
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 13—A zoom wedding.
Dan and Jessica’s story needs your ideas.
Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)
If you have a suggestion for #what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.
Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN